Fireworks can be a very difficult subject to photograph, the main problem being exposure, but with a little knowledge, care and planning, and the expectation of an above average failure rate some very satisfying results can be achieved. In fact it is the very nature of the element of chance which makes the good shots so pleasing to the photographer.
Choice of Camera
The first consideration is the choice of camera and I have to say here and now that my experience of this subject is limited to old-fashioned still photography with a mechanical camera. If any reader can add their knowledge of digital, video and film work this would be most welcome. In many respects a simple camera is more successful because the constantly changing exposure time, colour balance and light intensity through the frame simply fools an automatic camera. The main requirement is that all the settings are in your control. After that, the more experience you have the luckier you will be.
A Simple Rule
I learnt a very simple rule of thumb which has served me well: choose an aperture which is nearest to the square root of the speed of the film you are using. This is not as complex as it first sounds. Put simply, if your film speed is ISO 100, the square root is 10 and therefore the nearest aperture is f11. This an excellent starting point because a slow, ISO 100 is a good choice, or as an alternative use ISO 64 at f8. This brings us onto the exposure.
A good firework photograph inevitably takes a number of seconds to expose otherwise it would have very little content. A camera with automatic exposure up to 30 seconds can give good results but sometimes you will hear the shutter click shut just as a seriously exciting shell explodes in the sky. The best bet in the long run is to use the B setting on the shutter speed, which keeps the shutter open under your control, and a locking cable release is very useful. The judgment you have to develop is to imagine the light from the fireworks painting itself onto the film surface. When you have built up enough of an image close the shutter and wind on for the next frame. A bright sequence or a sky full of fireworks may only take a few seconds while on the other hand you might keep open the shutter for many seconds when little is happening and build up the photograph over several salvos. Some photographers have even used the lens cap while the shutter is open, waiting for the next ‘good bit’. Don’t worry about reciprocity failure. It goes without saying here that a tripod is essential.
Normally a critical aspect of photography, focusing takes a back seat with fireworks. Just set the focus ring on infinity and forget about it!
Much of the success of fireworks photography is in anticipation and forward knowledge and planning. Knowledge of displays will help you to choose the right vantage point to get ground, mid-sky and aerial bursts all in the frame without too much, if any repositioning of the tripod. If you have planned displays you will also know of the importance of wind speed and direction when it comes to smoke.
Remember the basic rules of composition and try to have something in the foreground and background to give perspective and context. If there is water around, the right angle to pick up reflections is also useful. Most of this is of course planned in broad daylight and without the pressure and problems of crowds.
Choice of Film
The appeal of the final photograph is always a matter of taste and as a consequence so is the choice of film. Some photographers prefer tungsten film because they regard fireworks as an artificial light source. This film will also render buildings or monuments which are floodlit more naturally, but it is probably a minority choice. Of more importance is the difference between films for transparencies or prints but here the main differences are those which are true of most photographs: transparencies are usually cheaper, look good and be viewed large when projected; print films generally have greater exposure latitude and contrast control. One final note….
Although you will be concentrating on the fireworks, look around for other subjects. If have a second camera use it hand held for candid and quick opportunities. A child’s face, for instance, thrilled by the action and illuminated by a spectacular shell burst can make a wonderful photograph.