Take Great Fourth of July Fireworks Photos
It's that time of year — when the skies will be lit up with boisterous blasts of patriotic pride. That's right: It's fireworks season.
Fireworks are tricky.
Why? Well, with any photo, you've got to let enough light in — and there's not usually a lot of light to go around at night. You've either got to leave the shutter open for longer (which can make things blurry), open up the lens's aperture (not always an option on low-end cameras) or tell the camera's sensor to jack up it's sensitivity (ever notice how grainy some photos get? This is why).
And that big burst of light — the fireworks explosion itself? That's the sort of thing that can confuse the heck out of a camera left on automatic mode. Auto modes are great at figuring out what to do in typically lit environments. They've usually got no clue how to handle weird ones — like a fireworks shot, where most of the frame probably should look dark, but the fireworks themselves are so vibrant. They don't know what you're looking for. The camera can't read your mind (well, not until next year's model).
Get a tripod
A tripod isn't always convenient to lug around — but it makes a big difference when taking photos in the dark or in tricky light. Why? No matter how steady you think your grip is — it's not. And when you're taking a photo in the dark, unwanted motion is your enemy.
Your tripod doesn't have to be huge. I'm a fan of Gorillapods — small, bendable tripods you can wrap around tree branches or poles, or just stand up on the floor or a flat surface like any usual tripod. There's an assortment for cameras of different sizes — some are under $20, though the beefier ones for bigger cameras can go to $100 or more. The more expensive ones come with heads you can use for more flexibility, but they're not strictly necessary.
Even most point-and-shoots should have a place along the base to screw the camera into a tripod — and for a few bucks, you can pick up a holder that lets you do the same with a mobile phone. I've seen them at plenty of convenience stores, and any camera store should have one.
If you absolutely can't get a tripod, it doesn't mean you can't get a good shot — but it sure will make it easier.
Shoot in landscape (wider than tall)
This is a matter of preference — maybe you've got a particular look in mind, and a tall, portrait shot will do it. But for more fireworks shots, you want to show a sky full of pops, and maybe a little context for what's around them. A wide, landscape's usually going to do the trick.
Got a special fireworks mode?
If so, cool! Modern cell phones and consumer cameras often have built-in presets for special sorts of shots. They're not perfect — but they're usually way smarter than the default auto modes about these things.
So give it a try! Cut if you want to take a little more control over your shot, keep reading.
Turn off the flash
Unless you're trying to light up the people or other close objects seen in your photo, don't use the flash (and besides, on-camera flashes make people look ugly). You can't light up a ball of light with more light, so don't even bother.
Get out of full auto
I know, it's a scary idea. Especially if you were thrown off when I started talking about shutter speed, aperture (aper-who?) and sensitivity (couldn't we all stand to be a little more sensitive?). It's OK. We're going to do this bit-by-bit.
Even most point-and-shoot cameras will give you some control over all of those settings, if you switch over to manual mode or what's known as a "priority" mode. In "aperture priority," for instance, you set the aperture yourself and the camera decides whatever other settings you've left for it to figure out — which is helpful ... if you know what the aperture is.
What if you're on a cell phone?
Not all cell phones give you the kind of control you'll want (some do!) out of the box. So try one of the more advanced apps — Shot Control ($2.99 in Google Play) for Android phones or Camera+ ($2.99 in iTunes) are both good options.
I'll suggest that "aperture priority" mode (marked as "Av" on Canon cameras, "A" on Nikon and Sony cameras) for now.
We'll talk more about what to do with those settings below.
Set your aperture
The aperture is the hole in the lens that lets light through to the sensor in your camera. On most cameras, you control it with a dial or setting on the camera itself; on some lenses for interchangeable-lens cameras (like DSLRS), you might control it with a ring on the lens.
It's measured as an "F number," like f/16. The bigger that number, the smaller the hole — and the less light that gets in. But for reasons more complicated than we'll go into here, a bigger number (generally) also means more of the photo will be in focus.
What range you'll have depends on the particular lens you're using. Aim for about f/8 to f/11 on an interchangeable-lens camera. On a cell phone, chances are the widest (smallest number) aperture you can set or just a little above it will be fine.
Set your focus
Again, the mechanics of how to do this will vary a little from camera to camera. But you're aiming to set your focus to "infinity."
No, that doesn't mean everything will be in focus. But everything far away should be.
If you're got an interchangeable-lens camera, you may have an infinity marker on the lens — switch over to manual focus and try that. It's not always perfect, but it should be close.
Alternately, if your camera lets you lock focus on a point, pick something really far away (far-off buildings, mountains, the moon) and focus on one of those.
Those cell phone apps also both give you the option to pick infinity focus.
Your choice: Long exposures and cool fireworks trails
OK, now we're going to start making some decisions. Want a really cool photo with long trails on your fireworks? Those are my favorites — but we're going to need that tripod.
Set your camera's ISO — this is the sensitivity — to 100, or the lowest it will normally go. For some cameras, that might be 200 or even 400. Why do this? The lower this number, the less noise (like film grain) in your photo. You're not straining the camera sensor to try as hard to register the light coming in.
If you're in aperture priority mode, the camera's going to try and pick a shutter speed for you. Chances are, it's going to be something slow — a long fraction of a second, or maybe even multiple seconds. Normally, that's slow enough that moving things get blurry (or, if you're not on a tripod, that everything gets blurry). But here, we want that.
Because you're on a tripod, things that stay still — like buildings should still be nice and sharp, even with your slow shutter. And your fireworks? You're going to get cool trails as they streak through the sky.
Take a look at your first shot or two. Is the night sky too bright overall? Are the fireworks blown out, without a lot of detail and bright-as-bright-can-be lights? Switch over to full manual mode and go for a shorter shutter speed (though you won't get as long fireworks trails)
If they're all too dim, pick a longer shutter speed (yay! more cool trails!).
Or: Stay in aperture priority mode and look for an option with a name like "exposure compensation" — notch it up and down to make the shot brighter or darker.
Your choice: Short exposures and super-sharp photos
Frankly, this isn't the way I'd go. I think these shots are a little boring, and you may have to introduce some of that dreaded noise (grain). But if you want to capture the view of a split second, you'll need a slightly different approach.
For this, you're going to want a short shutter speed — let's say a 1/100th of a second, or maybe even shorter — If you're still in aperture priority mode, start jacking up the ISO — the more you do, the shorter a shutter speed the camera will select.
Or: Switch over to manual mode and just set your shutter speed to yourself. You might want to do this to fine-tune anyway, just like with our long-exposure option. Notch the ISO up or down to make the photo brighter or shorter.