With most getting a three-day weekend for the 4th, it’s no wonder it has become one of the most travelled weekends in America. It is also the time for sparklers, peonies, roman candles, chrysanthemums, fountains, weeping willows, and snakes. Fortunately, you don’t generally need to go far for a decent fireworks show, but if you do, you can usually find them wherever you go. And these provide a great opportunity for photography – if you know how to shoot these exploding spectacles.
I’ve learned a lot about photographing fireworks over the years; they take a bit of finesse, but they aren’t all that complicated once you’ve had a bit of practice.
Photographing Fireworks Rule 1: use a tripod
Before I was very experienced with photography, I would bring my handy dandy point-and-shoot to the local 4th display and come home with only disappointment in my camera. Fireworks are bright, but if you shoot them freehand, you’ll need to shoot them so fast you’ll freeze the fireworks mid-sparkle. Chances are you want the beautiful trails and the overlapping bursts only a longer exposure can grant.
A few years ago, we went to San Francisco for the 4th. Between biking the Golden Gate and locking ourselves in Alcatraz, we took a beautiful evening bay cruise, complete with unlimited Baileys and a dual fireworks show. I knew by then to take a tripod if I hoped to capture the fireworks. But this was only marginally better than handheld on the boat out in the rocking waves of the bay. In the end, they were better captured by my memories.
Photographing Fireworks Rule 2: long exposures give you pretty trails
Last year, we rented a beach house in Pacific City for the long weekend with our Meetup buddies. I was finally on stable ground with my quality tripod, and we had a great vantage of the beach from our lofty residence. I used to think I needed a fast shutter speed to capture the fleeting bursts, but I quickly learned the opposite is true; by leaving the shutter open for a few seconds, you capture the full launch-explosion-fade. You can even get multiple fireworks to fill your scene.
Photographing Fireworks Rule 3: get close, or have a foreground
Unfortunately, while we had a good view, we were too far away. My current telephoto lens is beginning to wear down (it was my first non-kit purchase and is going on 13 years), so the quality was less than ideal, and I still wasn’t able to fill my frames (update: I have since replaced this lens with my beautiful bazooka!). Secondly – and more importantly – I found I lacked an interesting foreground from that distance. The fireworks are beautiful to look at by themselves, but a foreground gives context and interest – an anchor. The photos some of our group brought back from the beach far surpassed my own, and I wound up enjoying the next day’s photography of our own private celebration better.
Putting them all together
Later that summer, I had another opportunity to put all these lessons to good use. I believe I have finally grasped all of the elements necessary to produce a pleasing fireworks photo. These were from the grand opening of the newest Portland bridge, the Tilikum Crossing. My tripod was firmly on solid ground, I was close enough to the action to permit me the use of one of my better lenses, and I had an interesting foreground. It also helped that I was able to frame my shots consistently, so I could better anticipate the bursts.
This year, we’ll be making our way up to Vancouver, BC for the long weekend. It’s an American holiday, but I wonder if they’ll still find a reason to shoot a few fireworks off (update: this was written before we had any concept of Canada Day!). If not, we’ll see some when we get back, I’m sure. I’ll be ready, either way. Now I just need to gain the same confidence with stars…
Where do you like to spend your 4th? What is your favorite kind of fireworks? (I love chrysanthemums and willows.) Do you have any fun fireworks pictures? I’d love to see them! Feel free to link to a Flickr image or Instagram post in the comments below.