July 4th is fast approaching and many people in the US are starting to think about how to photograph fireworks. Of the blogs I follow, Joe McNally was the first to post on this subject this year with his Shooting Fireworks post.
The classic approach, and the one you find in pretty much all the resources, including the reference Joe points to, LIFE Guide to Digital Photography, all refer to the use of a tripod to steady the camera and long shutter speeds at low ISO to capture the trails of the fireworks and balance with the ambient light. But what if you don’t have a tripod with you or are not allowed to use them? What then? Can you get good fireworks pictures if you don’t use a tripod?
I’ve been faced with this situation every time I’ve visited the house-of-mouse with my family and I’ve been pleased with my results, so my answer to my own question is an emphatic, ‘Yes!’
Now these pictures of fireworks will be different from the trail-laden images presented by Joe and other references. This is because the shutter speed will obviously be shorter if you’re hand-holding you camera. For my tripod shots, I’m typically at ISO 100 – 400, aperture f/8, shutter speed 2 – 16 seconds. Clearly you’re not going to hold DSLR, let alone a point-and-shoot, steady for 2 – 16 seconds. So how do I set my camera for taking photos of fireworks handheld?
For the shots in the gallery I used an ISO of 1600. All of the fireworks pictures in the gallery were taken on my Canon EOS 5D (now my backup camera having switched to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II (B&H))using the Canon 24-105mm f4 L IS USM Lens. The aperture setting in the images varies from f/4 through f/8 and the shutter speeds vary from 1/2000 to 1 second with most in the range from 1/25 to 1/50 of a second. In essence, what I did was set the ISO, place the camera on Aperture Priority mode, selected the aperture, set my metering mode to matrix and then let the camera choose the shutter speed. Also, set your lens to manual focus, most usually at infinity, and if you have image stabilization (Canon) or vibration reduction (Nikon) set that to ‘on’.
Now you might think that this would just result in over-exposed, grey, skies but I didn’t find this to be the case. In post on most of these images I’ve increased the exposure by a half stop and raised the blacks to 5 or 6 using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3which has the new noise-busting algorithms that make shooting at 1600 ISO as reliable as 100 ISO used to be.
Another advantage of this technique is you get to capture fireworks as you see them – the intricate designs, smiley faces, etc. Unlike the traditional tripod and long exposure technique that reveals the color trails you don’t actually see, the handheld approach can, in the right circumstances, be a closer record of the event.
So, unlike the Magic Kingdom, there’s no magic to taking hand-held shots of fireworks – you just need a steady stance, and ISO of around 1600, and aperture priority shooting mode, manual focus at infitnity. As for this July 4th, I don’t think I’ll get any local shots – my county in Texas has just declared a ban on flying fireworks – a misdemeanor with a $500 fine – owing to the severe drought conditions and elevated fire risk!