Add a little fairytale magic by shooting long exposure firework shots. Timing is everything.
Thanks to your camera’s ability to catch the passing of time through long-exposure photography, fireworks can produce eye-catching images, each one different from the last.
The long exposure enables you to catch the light trails from fireworks going off one after another, all merging to form a single spectacular image. You can even shoot a multiple exposure shot, effectively merging two or more frames from different stages of the display to give a single image that fills the sky. Even if you have a compact, you’ll likely have a special mode for shooting fireworks. If you’re shooting on a smartphone, look for an app that’ll enable you to shoot long-exposure, such as Slow Shutter Cam.
As these are long exposure shots, a decent tripod and a cable release or wireless remote are essential. The lens you choose depends on the type of shot you’re after, how far away you are and the area you want to cover.
When it comes to settings, start by turning autofocus off. If you’re shooting fireworks in the sky, manually focus on infinity – if closer, then use a torch to find your focal point, or wait for the first few fireworks to go off and focus on those.
Your aim is to darken the scene the camera sees so the shutter can stay open for longer, absorbing more light. Start off at ISO 200 but for longer exposure times, reduce it further. Narrowing the aperture has the same effect, so moving from f/11 to f/16 will mean you can keep the shutter open a little longer without over-exposing the shot.
If you can, set your camera to ‘bulb’ mode. This keeps the shutter open until you release the trigger so you can capture a whole sequence of explosions. While it means you won’t miss anything, be careful not to over-expose or under-expose in ‘bulb’ mode. Under-exposed shots aren’t a problem – any software package can fix that; but largely over-exposed areas will ruin the shot.
Finding an exposure time that works best will depend on factors such as how bright the fireworks are, how many go off at once and how close to them you’re standing – but that’s what test shots are for. Use your first one to make sure you’ve got your focusing spot on and you’re happy with the framing.
If you’re shooting a big display in the sky, the best angle is from far away, looking across at the event. London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks are often photographed from Primrose Hill, far north of the actual fireworks, to give some context to the shot. For more low-key events, or when you’re closer, it can pay to zoom out and include more of the sky.
Once you’ve perfected the technique, you’ll want to start thinking about how you can make your shots look different. Here are a few ideas.
For more impact, shooting fireworks over water not only brings light and colour into the bottom of your composition, it also illuminates details in the foreground, giving some context to the display.
Add some intimacy by focusing in on a small detail and using a wide aperture to make the background blur. Known as bokeh, you need a lens capable of at least f/2.8.
Show the display as seen through the eyes of someone else. The brightly-lit sky makes a perfect backlight for the person in the foreground. Just make sure your subject can stay completely still through the entire length of your exposure time.