While Fourth of July celebrations provide great opportunities for image capture, a night sky and fast bursts of light are not the easiest things to photograph. While it can be a challenge to capture fireworks, there are some things you can do to dramatically improve your results.
A longer shutter speed is required to capture the delayed color bursts in a way that gives a true representation, I recommend three to five seconds. This allows you to capture the moment of the bursts as well as the resulting color trails, including secondary bursts that are often captured as a back drop to the primary burst. Shorter than three seconds and you end up with dark partial bursts, longer than five seconds and you often end up with an overexposed image without much focal interest. Experiment with shutter speeds to obtain the effect you favor.
Remember that the finale is going to mean a lot more fireworks coming a lot faster and a longer shutter speed could leave you with some overexposed photos, so prepare to decrease it as the finale begins.
To avoid blur caused by hand-shake at the shutter speeds mentioned above a tripod or some sort of stabilizer is needed. That could mean anything from a professional tripod to the nearest cooler, but it is important that you don’t rely on steady hands. To capture images with impact, you will need to use long shutter speeds and that will require something for stabilization.
Low ISO, low aperture
Manually set the ISO setting as low as you can. If left on auto your camera may shoot the fireworks at 400 or higher based on the metering before the burst of light resulting in overexposed images. Lower ISO also means less noise.
You’ll want to set your aperture somewhere around f/8 or f/11 – but push it to f/16 just to see what happens.
Turn off your flash. Even if you work with a manual flash, make sure all your settings have it turned off. If you’re working with a handheld and are struggling to get enough light in your images, resist the urge. It will leave you with little more than a picture of what’s directly in front of you adequately lit, and just barely capture the fireworks. It is better to take photos against an early evening sky without flash than to try to use it against a black sky.
Firework displays draw large crowds, so it isn't always possible to secure a perfect location to shoot from. Arriving early and scoping out the scene is well worth your time. You want to have as clean and unobstructed a view of the skyline as possible. Make sure to reference the skyline through the viewfinder of the camera to make sure you and the camera are seeing things the same way. Shooting from much higher or lower than the rest of the people watching the show can produce unique results. If possible select a location that is upwind of the fireworks display.
Pre-focus the camera
Don't let an overzealous auto-focusing system ruin good shots. The brightness of the fireworks and the haze of the smoke can confuse many auto focus systems. Set the focus manually on the infinity setting to guarantee that the fireworks bursts on the skyline will be in focus.
Determine within the first couple of minutes where the primary location in the sky is for the initial bursts and focus your lens there. A tripod is great for this because you can tilt the head and lock it in position while still zooming to guarantee you cover the full field of view without moving the camera.
Odds and ends
Have a small light handy for checking and altering settings on the camera and tripod without having to fumble in the dark. A small red LED key chain flashlight is perfect for this task. Red light is less disruptive to your night vision than white light.
An extra memory card is always a good idea, no matter what you are shooting.
There is lots of smoke at fireworks shows and lens cleaner will help keep your lens ready for the optimal shots.
Remember not to get too carried away early in the event; the grand finale of every fireworks show always produces large and colorful displays.
Remember the suggestions above this Fourth of July and you will be sure to capture some frame worthy fireworks images.