The only certainty about shooting pictures of fireworks is that nothing is certain. Fireworks are unpredictable — and you will learn something new every time you photograph them. On the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, in recent years I have found myself the designated fireworks photographer. Here are my tips and experiences, as well as my mistakes and successes.
The first tips relate to shooting with an actual SLR camera. Later is some advice for shooting with your smartphone. Make no mistake about it, your phone won’t produce nearly the quality of a real camera, but if it’s your only option, you might as well know how to work it best.
1. Location, location, location: These holidays seem to creep up on our department every year, and every year we try to think of a different location to shoot from. Plan ahead and find out where the fireworks will originate, and what their approximate location in the sky will be. Think of what you’d want within the frame of the photo, whether it’s in the foreground or background. Think of how high you would want to be when you’re shooting. If you’re low, you’ll get more sky. If you’re high, you’ll get more landscape.
One photo I took was shot from a balcony on Beacon Street. It was a nice view of the river, but there were no visible landmarks. Think about where you would want to set up and what you want in your frame.
2. Equipment: You ideally will want a single lens reflex camera, so that you can interchange lenses; a tripod; and a shutter release cable. A telephoto lens will give you more compression (objects from near to far will appear closer together) and larger fireworks. A wide angle lens will give you depth of field and more scenery. If landscape is important to you, try to be farther away from the fireworks if you’re using a long lens, to compress the scenery with the fireworks. Try to be as close as possible (within the limits of your lens) if you’re using a wide lens. The tripod will prevent blurry imagery (since your shutter speeds will be slow), and the release cable will prevent camera movement from having to manually press the shutter. If you don’t use a cable, just be sure to press the shutter very gently to avoid moving the camera.
Another photo of mine was a nice view of Boston Common, but shot with a wide angle lens (20mm). The fireworks seemed small and minimized.
Then there was the photo taken with a telephoto lens (70mm) from the MIT Media Lab. It had a good view of the skyline and with the help of the lens length, it brought the elements of the skyline and the fireworks closer together. It could have been improved with a higher angle or more distance, to get more of the fireworks within the frame.
3. Exposure: Don’t be a hero — shoot in the “RAW” setting if you can. Fireworks can have varying exposures and it would be a shame to lose a picture if you’re a couple stops over or under. I tend to shoot exposures in the 8- to 10-second range. One year, I thought I would give longer exposures a try, getting multiple waves within one picture.
A photo of Memorial Drive was shot with a 20-second exposure.
Finally, I’ve never tried the cardboard method, but if you want to experiment, you can set your camera on bulb with a set aperture and hold a piece of cardboard in front of your lens, only exposing for peak fireworks explosions.
Now, on to the smartphone option:
The website Gizmodo — The Gadget Guide has a good explanation and some valuable tips. Just as with a regular camera, Gizmodo recommends finding a good spot first, then making sure you can steady yourself to take the picture to avoid any blurriness.
A few other Gizmodo suggestions:
Use the AE/AF lock: Don’t click right away. On most smartphones, simply tapping the screen locks in the exposure and focus. Do that first, then take the photo of the next boom.
Embrace portrait mode: This is not an ordinary snapshot. Turn the phone, change the mode, experiment with angles.
Forget zoom: Zooming on the phone is an illusion that will result in blurry, faraway pictures. Snap, then crop later.