The Fourth of July is great for all sorts of things — family time, baseball, sunburns — but it’s not always the easiest to capture within a single frame. These days, fireworks are as synonymous with the American holiday as over-the-top parades featuring your actual uncle as Uncle Sam, yet they remain one of the most elusive and challenging tasks for any photographer to capture given their rapid movement and quick color changes. Fortunately, there are ways to take better photos of fireworks if you opt for the right equipment and don’t mind fiddling with your camera’s manual settings. Check out a few of our tips below (naturally, these tips work for any fireworks occasion), so you can go from amateur to ace.
Set up your camera ahead of time
Depending on your location, find out where in the sky the fireworks will be, so you can already set up your camera well before the event starts. When you’re in the city or have a good view of the surround landscape, you may want to include some foreground — such as a skyline or the gathering crowd – to make your images more interesting.
Also, think about what lens to use ahead of the fireworks. Depending on how far away you are, at which altitude the fireworks will be, and whether you want to include some of the environment in your photos, you may want to use a wide-angle lens, a normal focal length, or maybe even a telephoto lens. While you’re at it, consider bringing along a lens cleaner along for the ride.
Use a tripod
Using a tripod is absolutely necessary to capture clear and sharp photos of fireworks, especially when using a longer lens such as a telephoto. Since you’re essentially capturing streaks of light over a long exposure, you need the camera to be as steady as possible.
If you don’t own a tripod or don’t have the time to buy one before the fireworks, there are other means to stabilizing your camera. For one, many cameras and lenses offer sophisticated image stabilization that allows you to shoot at shutter speeds down to 1/10th of a second — provided you have steady hands. Another option is to steady your camera on a pole, a railing, a wall, a table, or anything with an even surface.
Ditch the flash
We can’t say how many times we’ve seen people photographing fireworks with their camera’s flash turned on. Flash won’t help you here. Conserve your batteries and set your flash to “off.”
Your best bet is to turn off autofocus completely, if possible. If you leave it on, your camera’s autofocus system will likely just “hunt” back and forth because it won’t have any object to lock focus on. Instead, set your focus to some point in the distance. If there are other distant objects in your shot (such as a building or skyline), focus on those.
Most DSLR lenses and some lenses for mirrorless cameras (such as the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 or the Fujifilm 24mm f/1.4) have a distance scale on the focus ring. Try starting off with your lens at the infinity (∞) symbol and adjust from there as necessary.