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.
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.
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.
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.
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.