Every Fourth of July, you bust out your digital camera to capture those patriotic explosions in the sky. And every Fifth of July, your photos turn up about as hazy as your Sam Adams-addled memories of the previous night. But that can change thanks to Kate Philbrick, a top documentary photographer based in Maine. Here are her best tips for beginners and hot shots (also known as “people who know what f-stop means”).
1. Use a tripod
Capturing fireworks requires a slow shutter speed, and a tripod is essential to keeping your camera steady. “It eliminates camera shake,” explains Philbrick. “Those exposures will be long, so you don’t want to take that chance.” If you don’t own a tripod, rest the camera on a ledge or other flat surface, like a beer cooler.
2. Frame your shot
Scope out a location beforehand. Make sure no trees or power lines will ruin your shot, and that the horizon is straight. And get there “at dusk so you can get everything set up and be in a good place to know the fireworks will be overhead.”
With point-and-shoots, switch to the “fireworks” setting if there is one. It’s the one that looks like, you know, fireworks. Feeling smarter than that? Read on.
3. Sort your settings
If you’re unsure how to manually adjust shutter speed and aperture, leave your camera in automatic. With point-and-shoots, switch to the “fireworks” setting if there is one. It’s the one that looks like, you know, fireworks. Feeling smarter than that? Read on.
4. Drop your ISO
The ISO determines how sensitive your camera’s image sensor is to light, and you want to shoot with the lowest ISO possible. “A high ISO will give you a quicker shutter speed, but you get a lot of pixilation and see a lot of color, what they call artifacts, in the darkest part of the image,” Philbrick says. “It looks crappy.” Keep your ISO at 100 if you can, 200 at the most.
5. Find your focus
Ideally, in dark situations you’d want to “focus on infinity,” but a lot of newer digital cameras don’t offer that option. Try autofocus first to see how quickly your camera captures the bursts, but don’t be surprised if it’s not quick enough. “Typically, autofocus is a pain in the butt and can be hard with dark situations,” notes Philbrick. “If that’s not working, try the next couple with manual focus. Most fireworks shows build up to a crescendo, so it’s okay to take test shots with the first ten fireworks or so.”
6. Choose your lens
You don’t want a lens so wide the fireworks look teeny in the frame, but you don’t want a telephoto lens that will isolate the fireworks too much, either. Philbrick recommends a lens between 50mm and 80mm.
7. Select your shutter speed
You’ll want to keep your shutter open long enough to capture the fire burst and its comet-like tails. A trick to get multiple bursts in one exposure is to set your camera to bulb mode, which will leave your shutter open as long as you keep the shutter pressed down. (A remote shutter release is handy here.) Hold a black card—or your lens cap in a pinch—tight against your lens when you begin the exposure. Every time a firework bursts, remove the card for a second or two, then replace it. Do that for three or four bursts; any more and you risk overexposing your image. “That’s the best way to get the overall feel of fireworks with all those different colors seemingly one after another,” advises Philbrick.
8. Curb your aperture
Since the fireworks themselves provide a lot of light, you don’t need the aperture wide open. An f-stop between 2.8 and 8 should work, but it will depend on how long you keep the shutter open. Take some test shots and adjust as needed.
9. Stand out
After a holiday like the Fourth of July, photo-sharing sites like Flickr are flooded with fireworks photos. To avoid looking like just another amateur, post sparingly. “The best thing you can do is choose three or four of your best images and don’t upload anything else,” suggest Philbrick. And embrace image-enhancing software. “Increase the contrast and bump up the saturation, and it should look great.” And by “great,” she means, “way better than your Sam Adams-addled eyes the morning after.”
Editor’s note: Always have your camera ready, because you never know when these types of things will happen…