Lesson from the Shot: Photographing Fireworks by Stanley Leary


 by Stanley Leary

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Good fireworks photos have one thing in common – good foregrounds.
The fireworks are way up in the sky, of course, but what you put between you and the fireworks can make the difference between an okay photograph and a great shot.
During the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration at New York harbor some photographers used the Statue of Liberty in the foreground of their fireworks pictures. In Philadelphia some photographed the fireworks in the sky over Independence Hall. These pictures truly captured the mood and meaning of the celebrations because of the foregrounds chosen.
The most difficult part of using a foreground is balancing the exposure between it and the fireworks themselves. Since it is impossible to know the correct or preferred exposure for the fireworks it is impossible to know in advance how to balance the exposure for the foreground. While this may be done “on the spot” an assistant or two would be necessary because of shortness of time of the fireworks show. To solve this problem use a foreground object that will work as a silhouette.
Prior to the event, try to find out where the fireworks will be launched. Then visit the site before the show and look around. Sometimes the best location could be really far away and shot with a telephoto lens. Pick your spot carefully because there will not be time to move once the excitement begins.
It’s hard to know how high the fireworks will go before they explode or how big they will be when they do. So after the first couple of shots check the composition. Make sure it’s not too loose and the fireworks are too small or too tight that they are going outside the frame.
Equipment & Exposure 
A sturdy tripod and a cable or remote release are needed for successful fireworks photographs.
Start with the camera on the lowest ISO (100 or less). Set the aperture at ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 and the shutter speed on bulb (this keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is held down; hence the need or a cable or remote release to avoid camera shake).
A small flashlight is a nice addition to you equipment for the shoot. 
Take a shot or two then check the exposure. It should be close, but tweaking it a little should make the colors pop.
As soon as you hear the sound of the firework being launched open the shutter and hold it open for two or three bursts before releasing it. Blues don’t photograph as well as reds or greens, so hold the shutter open longer for a blue burst. For different effects change the length of time the shutter is open.
Out of around one hundred shots of a typical show twenty or so should be excellent photos.
The really cool thing about this - an expensive camera isn’t needed. Any camera that accepts a shutter or remote release that can be set to “bulb”, and has a tripod socket should work. Many point and shoot cameras will work nicely. So check it out before show. Find a spot with a workable foreground. And take a plethora of pictures. Isn’t digital great – no film cost!