Ring in the new year with great fireworks images

by Ned Levi on December 30, 2013

Fireworks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by NSL Photography

In the United States, there’s a long tradition of shooting fireworks to welcome the new year. US new years’ parades and shooting off fireworks come from traditions from the mid-17th century, blending European and African heritages.

Traditional new year’s celebrations brought to America by its immigrants include the Swedish and Finnish traditions of firing guns into the air. The oldest new year’s parade in America, Philadelphia’s “Mummer’s Parade,” was started by the “New Year’s Shooters and Mummers Association.”

Wherever you’re located this New Year’s eve, here are my updated tips for photographing the fireworks celebrating the start of 2014 with your digital camera:

Scout for a location to photograph the fireworks and choose wisely — If you’ll be among many viewing the fireworks, like me, find a position which won’t have people wandering in front of you. Stay away from street lamps to avoid unwanted light. Consider topography, lenses, framing, the setting, background, and look out for tree branches and other objects which might sneak into the photos when capturing those towering blasts into the sky.

Arrive early — While you’ve scouted a great unobstructed view for your fireworks photography, you better arrive early so you can claim the spot before others use the space.

Tip: Take non-fireworks test photos before the fireworks’ show begins to see if there is something unexpected in the photo, such as a light or branch, so you can recompose before the fireworks begin.

Always use a tripod — Good fireworks photography requires exposures lasting several seconds to capture both light trails and full bursts together in photos. Multiple second exposure times require camera support to ensure sharp images. Regardless of your camera, use a tripod appropriate for your equipment. If you don’t have a tripod, place your camera on a makeshift solid platform, such as a fence post or railing.

Use a remote shutter release — Even a minute movement of your camera can cause blurred images. If you can, use a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake when you press the shutter release.

Fully charge your camera’s battery — Especially if it’s winter where you’re located, battery power will drop quickly in cold weather. It’s always best to be prepared so you’re battery will last for the entire show.

Use a newly formatted empty memory card — I try to take photos of almost every fireworks’ burst in the show. I use an empty memory card with a capacity large enough to save an image about every 4 seconds or so during the entire show.

Use manual focus — The fireworks, presumably several hundred yards/meters away, will be difficult to focus on due to the darkness, so if you can, use manual focus and set your lens for infinity.

Use the highest quality setting for your photos — I shoot fireworks exclusively in RAW format. If you take your photos in JPG, choose the best quality and the largest size (least compression).

Choose a low ISO setting for your photos — Long exposures and high ISO settings can cause noise in digital photographs. Noise (colored pixel artifacts) will be most visible in the dark areas of your fireworks photos. Choose a low ISO for your camera (50–200).

It’s night and it’s dark, so you might think you need very long exposures — As fireworks are very bright lights, they don’t need particularly long exposures. I use manual exposure mode. My exposures last from 3 to 6 seconds to capture the trail and full burst. Longer exposures may produce washed-out images, according to your distance from the show. Use your DSLR’s B (Bulb) shutter setting to control your exposure. Try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter. Anticipating the explosion is difficult, not impossible.

If your Point and Shoot camera doesn’t have a “B” setting, choose a fixed setting, such as 2 seconds. Shorter times may require you to open your aperture more.

The aperture you use will be based on the ISO setting — A good starting point would be ISO 100 – f/8 to f/16 or ISO 200 – f/11 to f/22. Check your photos as you go along and adjust the aperture as necessary.

Extra Tip: Bring a flashlight — You’re going to be shooting in the dark. A small flashlight will enable you to see your camera’s controls and settings.

Set your White Balance — Set your white balance to daylight.

Frame your photo well — Often a vertical format is better, as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide, but not always. Consider the crowd, your position, the background, and how the fireworks are deployed.

Use a normal to wide angle lens — Your position relative to the fireworks’ bursts will determine the exact focal length to use. Frame your image so you have a reasonably sized foreground and “head-room” above the topmost fireworks’ bursts.

Generally turn off your flash — Your flash is useless for photographing the fireworks themselves, but it can be helpful if you’re trying to light something in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.

Consider adding foreground subjects to your fireworks photos — Consider including a statue in the foreground, or silhouettes of the crowd, a tree or bridge or building. Note how I used the museum in my photo. Watch your horizons to keep them straight, especially if you have foreground subjects in your photos.

Happy new year everyone. Thanks for your readership. I’ll see you at Consumer Traveler next year.

Ned Levi is a professional travel photographer. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography, or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.

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