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  Digital Fireworks Photography
by Barry Baker

Step One: Set the ISO setting at either 100 or 200 do not use a higher setting than this. If you do use a higher ISO such as 400 or 800 it will not benefit the image, the fireworks are very bright and do not need a higher ISO setting. The use of a higher ISO will degrade the darker areas of the image, due to the increase in noise, and a general hazing over (often called night fogging) of the image.

Step Two: Set your White Balance manually to the Daylight Setting. If you leave it on auto white balance it will be trying to white balance from whatever light source is visible through the lens before the firework is set off. This will probably throw off the color accuracy a lot since there is little chance that the camera could accurately measure the white balance from these other sources.

Step Three: Set your aperture from F/8 to F/11. Do not use a larger aperture than F/8 this will cause the image to burn out (see image 1). Using an aperture smaller than F/11 will thin out the lines of the firework burst and could diminish the brightness of the image.

Step Four: You must use a tripod to photograph fireworks. You should also have a cable release or a wireless remote to keep your hands from shaking the camera when you trip the shutter.

Step Five: Shutter speed you should use a shutter speed of at least 4 seconds, but you could use up to 30 seconds if your camera does not generate too much noise on long exposures.

Step Six: Excluding the rocket trail from the image (see image 2). This is done by using a black card (black side of 8 x 10 matte board) as your shutter. With this technique you set your cameras shutter speed to bulb (the bulb setting keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter button is depressed). The shutter is then locked open with cable release and the black card held up in front of the lens to block the light. This is the same as the shutter being closed as no light can reach the imaging chip. After the rocket launches wait until the rocket flame goes out then take down the card allowing the burst to record in the camera (See image 3). Then return the card up in front of the camera and repeat the process with the next firework. Using this method will allow you to stack several bursts on to the same image. However pay attention and watch the sky to make sure you are not getting to many bursts in one spot, causing a burnout spot on your image (see image 4). This method does not work at larger shows that fire of many overlapping burst at once. With these larger shows you have to resort to the 4 to 8 second shutter speed method, going longer will usually burn out many different spots on the image. I have found that I usually get the best images at the smaller municipal shows where they set them off one at a time.

Step Seven: Lens selection: Use a lens wide enough to capture the entire burst, without having parts of it cut off by the edge of the frame. Start out with a fairly wide lens setting then zoom in when you are sure about the coverage required (see image 1).

Step Eight: Keep your foregrounds clear of things like tree limbs and power lines. They will make a heavy silhouette when the firework goes off (see image 4).

Click here to download a printable version of Digital Fireworks Photography.


Barry Baker has been a photography instructor at the University of Texas at Arlington in the Continuing Education Department since 1998. He has also been an employee and lab technician at Arlington Camera for the last 14 years.

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