Put some pop in your fireworks photos

I recently photographed Omaha’s New Year’s Eve fireworks for the second year in a row. I also did the Fourth of July fireworks for the past few years. I love shooting the shows, and I thought I could pass along a few tips to help you get more out of your own fireworks photos.

Fireworks erupt over the Gene Leahy Mall during the annual celebration of New Year’s Eve as viewed from the W. Dale Clark Library roof in downtown Omaha on Monday Dec. 31, 2012.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is to bring a tripod. Fireworks photos work best as long exposures, and there is no way you can hold a camera still that long. I always look at my old fireworks photos to see how I shot them the year before. Generally, I take a 10-second exposure. That allows for the you to capture the light trail of the firework going into the air, plus the following explosion. This time frame will have two to three volleys of fireworks that provide a nice mix of color and size. This works most of the time for me, until the grand finale, when the number and rate of fireworks increase rapidly and it becomes too much for a 10-second exposure.

The Omaha World-Herald fireworks show after the College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park on July 3, 2012.

As for my other settings, generally F-stop is around F8-F11 and my ISO around 50. How do I decide on these numbers? I assure you it isn’t random.

Fireworks over the Gene Leahy Mall for the annual celebration of New Year’s Eve in downtown Omaha on Dec. 31, 2011.

Let me explain how by tying it in with my final piece of advice. Don’t just photograph the fireworks in the sky. Frame it with some context.

For the Fourth of July, I pick an angle that shows part of the downtown Omaha skyline. During this last New Year’s Eve, I wanted to show the beautifully decorated Gene Leahy Mall in conjunction with the fireworks. My goal was to create a postcard of what the mall looked like during holidays while also displaying the fireworks.

How does this all tie into exposure? I take a photo before the fireworks start to check the exposure on the foreground (downtown skyline or Gene Leahy Mall lights, for example). I pick how long I want the shutter open for the fireworks (as I said before, 10 seconds has always worked for me). I then find an F-stop and ISO combination that work with the 10-second exposure so my foreground is exposed properly.

Fireworks at the Omaha World-Herald annual fireworks show at TD Ameritrade Park on July 2, 2011.

I sometimes I try to show the people enjoying the fireworks, too. A 10-second exposure doesn’t always work, as the person you are photographing would have to hold still for that long.

One fan watches fireworks while another appears to be texting as fans exit TD Ameritrade Park during the postgame fireworks after Creighton defeated Nebraska 8-1 on May 8, 2012.

Fireworks slideshows:
2012 Independence Day celebration 
2011 Independence Day celebration
2011 New Year’s Eve 
2012 New Year’s Eve

Chris Machian

About Chris Machian

I was born in Omaha, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a journalism degree in 2004 and have spent most of my life here. I was a photo intern with the Omaha World-Herald in 2003 and had various roles with the company before becoming a staff photographer. I love to shoot UNO hockey and last year placed video and still cameras inside the goal to provide our readers with another unique perspective. My goal is to use available technology in ways that help our readers understand the stories we cover. For instance, in 2011 I used Gigapan technology to provide a wide view of flooded areas while allowing users to zoom in on the smaller details. My love of this job extends beyond disasters and sporting events; I also enjoy covering the events that help define Omaha's cultural landscape.
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