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This is the time of year when I’m asked for tips on shooting fireworks displays with digital cameras. While fireworks make colorful and dramatic photographs, they don’t require thousand-dollar cameras to produce. By following a just few simple steps, you can make great fireworks photos from any camera with manual focus and exposure capability.  So, follow these steps and create your own digital masterpieces.  

fireworks display

First, you’ll need a camera that has manual exposure settings. Most important, you’ll need a camera that has a “B” or “bulb” setting. This little-used option opens your shutter and keeps it open until you press the shutter again to close it. The time the shutter is open will determine how long light trails will appear in your final fireworks photo. The longer the shutter is open, the longer the streak.  

Next, set your camera’s ISO to 100 or 200 (not 400 or higher) for the best quality. The lower ISO will more closely reproduce the vibrant colors of the fireworks and give the best quality image. 

Go to the fireworks location early and scout out the best location for photography. Look for a vantage point that doesn’t include street lights or people walking back and forth in front of your lens. While you’re sizing things up, try to find the spot where the crew will be launching the fireworks. Where I live, the fireworks have been launched from a barge river for the last several years. 

Knowing this will come in handy later as you try to time your shots. Fireworks leave a trail as they rocket skyward — making it easy to track their path. This is definitely something you’ll want to know once the barrage begins.  I also try to compose my shots with interesting trees, structures or even the crowd in the lower portion of the photo. Remember that these objects will become foreground silhouettes in the finished photos — providing extra depth and interest

Once you’ve found your spot, mount your camera on a sturdy tripod for the time exposures to come. When you have your shot lined up and your camera firmly mounted to a tripod,  set your focus to infinity (or the “mountain” setting if you can’t adjust your focus manually), the shutter set to “B” or “bulb” and your aperture at f/8 or f/11 (as a starting point). With everything ready,  you’re ready to capture that first burst. 

Use the first few fireworks to aim your camera to where most of the bursts occur.  Try to center that spot in the middle of your viewfinder, tighten things down and start shooting in earnest.

Press the shutter when the trail of the rocket is about 100 feet in the air and cover your lens after the fireworks trails start to drift toward the ground. Again, experiment till you get the results you’re looking for. 

You probably noticed I said “cover your lens” instead of close your shutter earlier. When I shoot fireworks, I carry along a piece of black cardboard large enough to cover the lens. I place the cardboard in front of the lens between bursts to keep out stray light and to allow more control over the number of rockets captured per shot. 

With an f/stop of f/8,  I suggest starting with three or four bursts, covering the lens when the fireworks reaches its peak. Close the shutter, check your results on the LCD screen on the camera after each exposure to gauge how you’re doing and make your next exposure. Remember to change your f/stop to vary your exposures (also called “bracketing”) if you don’t like what you see on your LCD. Shoot at a wider aperture (i.e. f/5.6)  if the photo is too dark or f/11 if its too light.  

A couple more things to keep in the back of your mind whilst shooting: your exposures will be cumulative, meaning the more bursts you capture, the more chances you have of overlapping fireworks on top of each other — much like a multiple exposure. Watch out for the “boomer” fireworks. They don’t spread out much, if any, and are to be avoided if you can. Keep the lens covered when they are in the air.

That’s all there is to it. Get out there and try these tips!

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