By Jeff Tamagini, Photographer
As we head into the July 4th holiday weekend I thought I would share some tips for capturing great fireworks photos.
I am writing these based on my experiences in Boston, but the tips can be applied to virtually any scenario. You may not live in a city, or on the water, but – at least when it comes to this national celebration – your experiences are likely to have a lot in common with my own.
Part I: The Lead Up
1. Location, Location, Location
I cannot stress enough the importance of finding a good location. Not only a location that is going to give you the best vantage point, but also one that is going to provide you with ample space in crowds of people. If you can, do a little recon on some places you might like to set up. Don’t just recon during the day. Fireworks shows are at night, so it’s important to see what your environment’s ambient conditions will be like. Annoying things like street lights are not on during the day, so while some locations you scout might have a perfect view and seem like a great places to set up, what will you do when you get there and a bunch of ambient light is spilling into your lens and screwing up your exposure?
Have a back up location – or better yet, several backup locations.
In Boston, we have not only the fireworks display but also the Boston Pops performing live from the Hatch Shell. It’s a nationally televised event that draws a crowd numbering in the millions to the banks of the Charles River every year. There are typically five or six of us that hang out, watch the fireworks and take photos. Our arrival time depends on the location we have chosen for the year. My recon usually starts in June, hunting for a new spot, with the previous year’s location in mind as a back up plan just in case. For this year’s event we plan on arriving at noon. Yes, you read that right, noon. That's ten and a half hours of sitting around!
If you are going to your local fireworks display with a group of people, send someone to each location that you have scouted out. That way, if another group of people got the drop on you and staked out your primary location before you could get there, you won’t spend loads of time getting the whole group to location B which, by the time you get there, may also already have people in it. Even if there aren’t people there, what happens if on the day of the 4th they put up a TV viewing stand, speaker tower, or broadcast camera position? You will already have someone at your backup spot that can start to unpack, spread out and wait for the rest of you to get there.
3. Be prepared for the long haul
Once you get to your desired location, set your tripods up right away. Leave a couple of feet between them so you have room to adjust things.
Bring collapsible chairs and set them up in a semi circle behind your tripods. Think of it like being around a campfire, except instead of a fire you now have a place to put all your gear where everyone can keep an eye on it. And, as a bonus, the arrangement will increase your real estate for the day. Some people may give you dirty looks because of the amount of room you’ve taken up, but if you have thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment with you, the security this arrangement affords will be worth it.
Pass the day together with a pot-luck or barbecue. Bring a cooler with ice, water, soda and snacks. If your fireworks spot allows grilling, bring a small propane grill, hot dogs and hamburgers. If not, pick up some subs. Don’t forget the napkins!
Be aware of the bathroom situation. If you are in the city, it's most likely going to be porta potties! A bit more rural? You may have to find a spot in the woods, so bring some T.P.! Don’t all go at once; someone has to watch the gear.
Remember the small stuff. Watch the weather. What’s the temperature going to be, the high and the low? Are you going to be inland, or on the water where there is an ocean breeze? Depending on where you live, you may want to pack a jacket or a sweatshirt and some long pants. I have hiking pants with zip off legs, which are perfect. The lower legs can be folded up and put into the cargo pockets. Got your sunscreen? Bug spray? Sunglasses? A book to read? iPod? You get the idea. Most important, have fun with your friends. The top of a flat cooler makes a good place to play poker, set up a chess board, or play dominos. The point is to enjoy the day, forget about work, relax and revel in the celebration.
Part II: Showtime!
1. Stabilize that bad boy
Unless you want to shoot at ISO 6400, a tripod or some other means of stabilization is a must. A cool option is a Magic Arm. Super clamps work great too. A Gorilla Pod is an inexpensive option (although a top of the line Gorilla Pod that can support a big DSLR costs about the same as a low end tripod).
Now that you have your camera on your tripod, another must have is a remote shutter release cable. These can range from $30-40 into the hundreds of dollars. If you don’t have one, you could set the self-timer on the camera. If you use your self-timer, lower the risk of missing your shot by choosing the shortest delay (usually 2 seconds). Whatever you do, you don’t want any camera shake.
For additional stabilization, use the mirror lock feature. When this feature is turned on, pressing the button on your cable release will make the mirror go up. Pressing the cable release button a second time will open the shutter and take the picture. This method reduces internal camera shake, as a moving mirror is enough to shake the sensor.
2. The basics
Camera, check. Charged batteries, check. Camera on tripod with shutter release and mirror lock up, triple check! Time to zero out your camera. Make sure you have your ISO set to its native setting. (That would be ISO 100 on a Canon, and ISO 200 on a Nikon.) Make sure your camera is NOT set to P for “professional” and set it to manual. (I know, scary right? We are going to shoot on manual!) There are probably dozens of setting combinations that you could use, but fireworks shows are only about 30 minutes long. If you spend too much time experimenting you will miss shots.
With your ISO set to 100 (or 200), its time to set your shutter speed and aperture. I have found that a shutter speed of 4 seconds and an f-stop of either f/11 or f/14 work best. Turn on your auto focus on for the first burst and as soon as your camera locks focus, turn auto focus off, That way your camera isn’t stuck searching for focus. Using these setting should all but guarantee you will get some killer photos.
3. Get creative
With a few shots under your belt that you love, consider mixing it up a bit. If you are shooting wide angle, switch it up and try some telephoto, or slap on that fisheye lens and go REALLY wide.
You could also put a ND (neutral density) filter on your lens for really long exposure work and try to capture lots of fireworks in the air. This, however, is a delicate balancing act. Too long of an exposure and you are going to have a lot of blown out highlights.
Got multiple cameras? Put a wide angle lens on one of them and a telephoto on the other so you don’t have to waste time changing lenses. Cool, but how do you support two cameras if you don’t have two tripods? Remember about 15 chapters ago when I mentioned magic arms, super clamps and Gorilla Pods? Put the second camera on one of those. When I shoot with two cameras, I usually put my 24-70 on one and I put my fisheye on the other. That way I can be shooting ultra wide all night, and experiment with zooming and ND filters on my other camera. The camera with my 24-70 goes on my tripod and the camera with the fisheye goes on the magic arm. The magic arm is an awesome accessory. It is a multi-jointed arm that can articulate in any direction and be locked into place. I usually super clamp it to a tripod leg. Doing this lets me hang my camera over a railing so that I don’t get it in the shot when the fisheye is on.
I hope your Fourth is festive and that these tips lead you to you capture some spectacular fireworks photos! You can print out my essential equipment checklist.
Editors Note: Fireworks photos look great on your computer – but are even more impressive when displayed as canvas prints. Inset: Artistic Photo Canvas customer Justin Sperry shows off his fireworks photography transferred to canvas as an APC gallery wrap.