For those of us in the good ol' USA, 4th of July celebrations are about to get underway.
That means fireworks!
As beautiful as fireworks can be, I think we can all agree that we've all taken some clunker photos of them.
That's partially due to timing the shot. It's partially due to simply using the wrong camera settings or equipment, too.
In this quick guide, I offer up some solutions to common fireworks photography mistakes so you can enjoy Independence Day and take some great fireworks photos at the same time.
You'll Need an Interchangeable Lens Camera
Though I'm sure you can photograph fireworks with your phone, if you want the best results, a DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses will be the best choice.
These cameras have manual controls that allow you to change things like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, which you'll definitely need to do.
What's more, since they have interchangeable lenses, these cameras give you different options regarding focal length and how you frame the shot.
Use a Zoom Lens
I'm usually more of a prime lens kind of guy, but in this case, a zoom lens just makes more sense.
If you have something like a 70-200mm lens, shoot most of your shots on the wide end, that way there's less pressure to frame a tight shot and get the timing of the shot just right.
Then, try a few zoomed in shots for some tight frames on the fireworks as they explode.
The latter type of image is more difficult to pull off, but at least with a zoom you can quickly change focal lengths to attempt a wider variety of photos.
Use a Tripod and Remote
One of the biggest enemies to quality fireworks photos is blurriness.
Two of the best solutions to blurriness are to use a tripod and a remote.
By giving your camera a solid, stable base, you ensure that it doesn't move as the shutter is open.
And since you're shooting at night, that shutter will be open awhile (more on that in a bit).
Likewise, you don't want to inadvertently cause the camera to vibrate by touching it to trigger the shutter.
That's where a remote comes in...
Whether you use a simple infrared remote, a wired shutter release, or something fancier with more capabilities, the point is that you need to be able to trigger the shutter (and do so quickly).
Earlier, I mentioned the need for an interchangeable lens camera with manual controls.
With the ability to change the exposure settings - among other things - you greatly increase your chances of getting high-quality shots of fireworks.
Though there's no hard and fast rule regarding settings, use the following as a general guideline and then work to perfect the settings for your situation from there.
Shoot in Manual Mode
Manual mode - two words that strike fear into many photographers.
But there's no need to be fearful of manual mode. All it means is that you have to work a little harder to get the best shots.
It also means that you're in total control of your camera, which, with a little practice, means that better shots will become easier to get with time.
Shooting in manual is important because you need to be able to adjust exposure settings on the fly (more on that in a moment).
You'll also want to manually focus your lens as the autofocus system will have trouble identifying a subject in dark shooting conditions.
When you manually focus a lens, you need to do so ahead of time when there's enough light to do so.
Essentially, you'll focus on a spot far away and lock that focus for later, that way your fireworks photos are nice and sharp.
Learn more about how to manually focus your lens in the video above by AdoramaTV and Mark Wallace.
The key with aperture is to keep it in the midrange, say, f/5.6-f/11.
That will give you enough depth of field to keep things sharp, and you'll also avoid the largest and smallest apertures which tend to have more aberration and vignetting than mid-range apertures.
Don't worry about using a smallish aperture, either - the light from the fireworks will be more than enough to get a well-exposed image, even if you're shooting at f/16 at night.
To get the cleanest shots, minimize the ISO.
On many cameras, that means shooting at ISO 100 or 200, though some cameras go down to ISO 50.
By minimizing ISO, you also minimize digital noise, thus the "cleaner" photos I referenced above. Notice how a low ISO rendered the shot above clean and crisp.
The trickiest setting of them all for fireworks photography is the shutter speed.
On the one hand, you want to be able to capture the full explosion of the fireworks, which means a long exposure.
On the other hand, because they're so bright, fireworks can easily cause your images to be overexposed.
A good place to start is by putting your camera in Bulb Mode and using your camera remote to hold the shutter open for 2-3 seconds, or just long enough to capture the initial explosion of fireworks and the aftermath as they fade in the sky.
If you find that the image is too bright, you can use negative exposure compensation to darken it, or you can try a smaller aperture to reduce the amount of light entering the lens.
For a couple of different methods of getting well-exposed images of fireworks, check out the video above by Tony and Chelsea Northrup.
Composing the Shot
The final element of getting good photos of fireworks is to frame and compose the shot in a way that enhances the look and feel of the fireworks.
Naturally, a lot of this has to do with getting the timing just right, too.
I can't really help you with timing as that's a skill you'll need to hone by practicing.
But there are a few composition tips I can give you to make a better shot of fireworks more likely.
Think About the Context of the Scene
As beautiful as fireworks can be, photos of them on their own can be a bit boring.
As a result, it's usually a better option to give some context to the scene.
By that, I mean you should strive to incorporate some foreground and background elements into the shot.
Looking at the image above, the inclusion of the Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground and the city lights in the background adds a lot of interest to the shot.
To get shots like this, you need to plan where you'll set up your camera, ensure you have an unobstructed view, and make note of where the fireworks will be exploding in the sky.
Once you do that, you can work on framing the shot.
Framing is Everything
You can get the general framing done in the previous step, assuming that you know where the fireworks will be going off in the sky.
But once the action starts, you'll need to quickly adjust your framing to compensate for any misjudgments on your part.
For example, if you find that you're using a focal length that's too long and is cutting off part of the fireworks as they explode, you'll need to adjust the focal length to frame a wider shot.
Likewise, if you set up your camera and aim it at a spot in the sky, and then the fireworks are further to the left or right, you'll need to make quick adjustments to get the full view of the show in your viewfinder.
Keep Those Horizons Straight
Even if you have a perfectly framed shot of fireworks with interesting foreground and background elements, the shot can still be ruined by one little thing...
Keep your horizons straight by using a bubble level on your tripod, a hot-shoe mounted level or aligning the rule of thirds grid with the horizon.
Whatever method you use, having straight horizons will help amplify the impact of your shots and prevent you from having to straighten things up in post-processing, too.
Try Horizontal and Vertical Shots
I think the inclination for most photographers is to use vertical format shots for fireworks, simply because of the height they reach in the sky.
And in most cases, this works great.
But don't discount horizontal shots, either, as they can be advantageous when there's a vast display of fireworks all at the same time.
The basic tips above should put you in a good position to get some quality fireworks photos on the 4th of July.
You'll need to work on the settings, framing, and composition a little bit, but the adjustments shouldn't be anything too major.
As one last bonus tip, I'll offer this advice...
Try to get most of your shots out of the way at the beginning of the fireworks show.
There will be less smoke from exploded fireworks, and you'll get clearer shots with less haze as a result.