I have to be honest, until Canada Day 2017 I had never photographed fireworks. So, before I hauled all my gear out to the Legislative Grounds here in Edmonton for the big Canada 150 celebration, I scoured the internet for advice on how to best photograph them. I found a lot of conflicting information. About the only thing I could gather for sure is that I'd need to use a tripod - which was a no brainer. As far as exposure settings, I'd just have to make educated judgments and make adjustments on the fly. After the smoke had cleared that hot summer night, I actually came away with several shots I'm happy with. Firework shows are generally short and dramatic, so a photographer doesn't have much time to fiddle around. Pre-show preparation is key. Here's what I learned about firework photography:
Tip 1: Scout the Location
I can't stress this enough. Scouting is often used by landscape photographers. By showing up on location well before the fireworks show, you'll be able to figure out where you should stand for the best composition. I showed up at the Legislative Grounds the day before the celebration and spent about an hour walking around and picking out three possible spots to set up. I knew that this would be much more difficult to do the following day when the crowds arrived.
Tip 2: Choose a Foreground and/or Subject
Zooming in on the fireworks is fine, but I prefer to have a subject in the foreground. I wanted the historic legislature building in the shot because it provides context, scale, and visual interest. I also chose to include a little of the crowd at the bottom of the image.
Tip 3: Get There EARLY!
My lovely wife and I arrived about an hour and forty-five minutes early for the Canada Day fireworks. The bridge overlooking the Legislature building already had several selfie-takers swarming about and two other serious photographers all set up. To my relief, the other photographers were not in the spot I wanted; they both chose to be dead center across from the dome of the building. Based on my internet research and images from previous firework shows in Edmonton, I knew that a perfectly symmetrical shot wasn't what I wanted. Because the fireworks were being shot from the south-west of the building, I knew that the fireworks were only going to pop up over the right side from that view (see pictures). So, I chose to position myself to the left of center and place the dome on the left side of the frame to create less negative space and more room for fireworks. As time ticked closer to the fireworks show, we found ourselves completely blocked in by hundreds of spectators. Had we shown up only 30 minutes later, I would have never been able to get the location I wanted.
Tip 4: Use a Tripod
You want a slow shutter speed of around 3 to 6 seconds to capture the spread of the arching streams of light from the fireworks. In order to accomplish this without motion blur, you need to use a tripod. This is another good reason to arrive early, as setting up a tripod in a tight crowd is a nightmare. You should also use an external shutter release (or cable release) to prevent camera shake from pressing the shutter button. The built-in two second timer will work fine, but you risk missing peak action before the shutter opens.
Tip 5: Choose the Proper Settings
The benefit of using a tripod and a slow shutter speed for firework photography is you don't have to fret too much about other exposure settings. I exposed for the building, which was lit by ugly yellow street lights, because that was the brightest element in the scene. I took a test shot just before showtime to make sure everything looked good on my histogram - no blown out highlights or muddy dark shadows. I treated it as a landscape and shot most of my photos at f11 for sharpness and depth of field. Using f11 also allowed me to narrow the streams of light making them more defined than if I had used a wider aperture. I chose ISO 200 for no particular reason other than lower ISOs will generate less noise in the image and preserve detail and dynamic range.
Find out what's in my camera bag here!