This article was first published in the HDR one magazine, but here you have a version with few more photos :)

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Fireworks make a quite special category in photography. Most of us  have very few opportunities to take photos of them and they tend to be over so quickly, that you can’t really change much once they start. Knowing what you are doing, knowing exactly how to control your camera, and arriving early on the spot are the most important thing you can do, to get a good photo of them. But let’s take a little closer look at taking photos of fireworks.

You will also notice that photos in this article are only from few occasions. I personally can take photos of fireworks maybe 2-3 times a year and I always try to take that opportunity, but I haven’t been shooting so long, that I had them that many :)

What do you need

For taking good fireworks photos you need:

  • a camera that can run in manual or bulb mode
  • a stable tripod
  • cable or wireless camera trigger

I would not suggest trying to take these kinds of photos handheld, as you will need a long exposure. Also working without a remote is possible, but your final photos will be not as sharp and you will introduce camera shake.

Finding the right spot

Another thing you need is the right spot from where to take the photos. Really try to include something more than just the fireworks in your photo. If you have just the explosion with nothing else, you will still get a nice photo, but it stops representing a certain event an will be quite impersonal.

So try to look for a nice foreground object or an interesting background. Look for buildings, bridges, reflective areas (especially water), or you can even use the crowd of people watching the fireworks as a composition element.

Prepare your camera

So once you have your spot, set up your camera there. Try to place your camera and tripod so you can block anyone from touching it and so ruining your shot (people tend to gather when there are fireworks :)) Set up your composition, so you have nice additional elements to your photo. If you know where the fireworks will be, you can try also to place them mentally in your shot.

Focus your camera onto an object in the distance, something close to the place where they will fire the fireworks. I do this manually using the live view function of my camera, where I can zoom in into the view. Don’t forget to turn off auto-focus before you start manually focusing your camera.

Now you need to find the aperture you will use. Set your ISO to 100, aperture to 6.7 and time to 4s. Half-press the shutter button so the camera takes an exposure reading. Now you will see on you camera if the shot is over or under exposed. Correct this by changing the aperture. If it’s under exposed open it more (aperture of 5.6 or bigger), when it’s overexposed close it (aperture of 8 or less). Take a test shot and continue tweaking the aperture until yo get a nice photo of the scenery.

Once you have that, underexpose your shot by one stop (use a smaller aperture). This is because the fireworks will lighten up your scene and you have to compensate for it.

Shoot in RAW

I think everyone should know this already, but in case somebody forgot. Shoot in raw, always shoot in RAW. The ability to recover overexposed spots in fireworks and brighten the surrounding area is really important here.

Take your photos

Once the fireworks start, I tend to take as many photos as possible. It is quite random how they will look, so a lot of photos will be unusable, but there be few good ones. I use one of two approaches to taking the photos:

  • use the settings I already set, and just use the remote to take the shots. When I hear there were being fired, I press the shutter button and let the camera take the picture. If I see the results are to bright or dark I quickly tweak the settings and take another shot. If the results are good, I sometimes even turn on the intervalometer  with no delay between shots (I use Magic lantern firmware for this), so the camera takes the photos automatically one after another
  • switch to bulb mode, but keep the ISO and aperture settings. Now use your remote and press the button when you hear the explosion. Now wait few seconds (around 4) and let go. Check your result briefly and take another shot, varying the time to get a brighter or darker exposure. It a little about luck and you ability to judge when the fireworks were too bright or too dark and you changed the time accordingly. So if you see a lot of bright explosion, use slower time. If there is one big, but darker, explosion use longer time.

Change the composition

It’s not that easy to change the composition on the fly, as you have only a limited time to do this. The fireworks will end sooner than you think. You should try to do this few times, as having 20 good shots, all looking the same is worse than having 5 good shots, each one different. Look for different composition even before the fireworks start.

When you change the composition, try not to zoom in or out of the scene. If you do, you will have to refocus your camera and that takes time. If you get better and faster at this, you can do it, but you should know the controls of you camera without even looking at them. Also knowing exactly on what to focus is really helpful. Just very quickly recompose your shot, go into live mode, zoom in into the shot on the right place, refocus manually and quickly continue taking more photos. After some time, you should be able to do this in a mater of few second, and you should practice this before.

Sometimes just rotating the camera will give you a different photo.

There is one more “blind” approach to recomposing. I use it when I shoot in intervalometer mode and see that the setting are OK. I just let the camera take photos, and change the composition during that, blindly. One of two photos in the sequence are ruined, but this is much faster than stopping the camera series and starting it again. If you know what you can get into a photo with the lens you have on your camera, you should be able to get a nice composition without ever needing to look through the viewfinder. This is really much easier with a wide-angle lens, as you can still crop your photo afterwards :)

Choose the best ones

So once you are done, choose which photos you would like to edit. Don’t just look on the fireworks, but on the whole photo. If the scenery is too dark or overexposed, try looking for a better one. You can use any way to edit this shots, but in my experience, the most common things you have to correct are:

  • brighten the scene – as the fireworks are really bright, the surrounding scene can look really dark and dull, brighten it a little to make it a part of a photo
  • add more contrast – either directly as a contrast or using a plugin like the Nic Color Efex and the Pro contrast preset
  • remove noise – usually the sky around the fireworks tends to be quite noisy when you brighten it, a little noise reduction will help here
  • add sharpness – a little bit of sharpness in the fireworks will add more pop to them, use the high pass sharpening or unsharp mask, but don’t sharpen the surrounding sky
  • brighten the whites – usually parts of the fireworks are overexposed a little, if you add even more brightness to those parts, they will look even better and attract the viewers attention

Here is an example of before and after edits. You can see, that the biggest change was adding more contrast.

Try HDR processing

This does not work always, but trying to edit a fireworks photo like a single RAW hdr (check my HDR tutorial for more info on this) , can give you some great results. Programs like Oloneo HDR engine are really great at recovering details in such photos, without making the photo looks artificial.

Use more than one photo

If you don’t move you camera between different exposures, you will have many similar photos, with just the fireworks different. And as the fireworks are differently bright, you will have differently exposed surrounding area. So why not blend fireworks from one shot and the area from a different one. Just choose the photos which look the best.

Have better chances

Taking photos of fireworks is a lot about luck. You never know how exactly they will look and where they will be.  So to have better chance for nice photos, take a lot of them. I usually get one good photo, for every 30 I take (there are more, but I discount similar ones).

Try to enjoy the fireworks

One thing at the end. If you try to automate the process of taking fireworks (intervalometer helps a lot), and set up your camera correctly you still can enjoy the show. Fireworks don’t happen so often, and if you spend the whole time looking at your camera, you will miss all of the beauty in front of you. Try to stay a little in the moment. It’s hard the first time, but over time you can get the hang of it :)