Fireworks Photography

Many people have asked me “How do I take good fireworks photographs”. I usually tell them “You get lucky”.

Ken Sasso of Meriden has been photographing fireworks for over 40 years, and he does it "Old School" by using a 4x5 view camera, with real film.

Ken Sasso of Meriden has been photographing fireworks for over 40 years, and he does it “Old School” by using a 4×5 view camera, with real film.

Ken Sasso of Meriden is framed by exploding fireworks while capturing the image on his 4×5 view camera at the Middletown Fireworks Festival. To find out more on how to succeed in taking photos of fireworks…

I spotted Sasso while I was scouting a location to take photos at the Middletown Fireworks Festival Wednesday night along the Connecticut River at Harbor Park. What immediately drew me over to him was his choice of camera, a 4x5 view camera.

I spotted Sasso while I was scouting a location to take photos at the Middletown Fireworks Festival Wednesday night along the Connecticut River at Harbor Park. What immediately drew me over to him was his choice of camera, a 4×5 view camera.

One of the key factors in any good photo is to find the right location, that is subjective to what you want the end result to look like. Sasso has been using this same spot at Harbor Park for years and arrives about 3-4 hours before hand to setup his camera and tripod. A tripod is essential in getting a sharp image since your exposures will be for more than one second and hand holding a camera, even a camera phone, will likely have too much motion in it to be useful.

Once I found an area that I felt would give me the kind of photo I was looking for I set up my tripod and starting taking a few exposure and composition test shots.

Once I found an area that I felt would give me the kind of photo I was looking for I set up my tripod and starting taking a few exposure and composition test shots.

At Harbor Park there is a boat launch that has some docks that extend out into the river for the Wesleyan College crew team. As spectators began to arrive and sit along the edge I positioned my camera so that the Arrigoni bridge in the background to give the reader a sense of place. I also raised the camera up high enough using the river to separate the people sitting on the dock from the trees on the other side of the river. Someone was setting off some fireworks in Portland which gave me an opportunity to test my exposures. This shot was taken about 15 minutes before the fireworks display began.

A young girls and her family wait for the fireworks display at Harbor Park to begin.

A young girls and her family wait for the fireworks display at Harbor Park to begin.

I couldn’t resist taking this illuminating photo while waiting for the show to begin. A young girl had this little blinking LED ball and her dog had a glowing collar and with the Arrigoni bridge in the background it made for a cool shot. The Police boats in the water behind her provided the red and blue highlights helping to separate the subjects from the background.

As the fireworks display began I starting firing away hoping that one of my exposures would work.

As the fireworks display began I starting firing away hoping that one of my exposures would work.

All the prep work that goes into taking a good fireworks photo goes out the window once the display begins. I used an ISO setting of 200 and started with a shutter speed of about 4 seconds and my aperture set at f/4 but found it to be too dark. This was taken at f/2.8 for 2 seconds and gave me the balance I was looking for. Just enough ambient light to bring out the bridge and skyline in the background, reflections off the river to separate the spectators and not too long a shutter which keeps the fireworks in an acceptable range. This is the photo we used on our front page this morning with a little cropping to fit the shape need for the layout.

Experiment with your composition moving from horizontal to vertical to get interesting results.

Experiment with your composition moving from horizontal to vertical to get interesting results.

We had already determined that our A1 photo would be a “horizontal-ish” shape because with the event happening so late, 9:30 start and 10 o’clock finish, it is difficult for our graphic designers to make a late night switch on layout because of a “really nice vertical” photo came in late. They have 4 story starts, multiple photos, a quick-take box and ad to work around so knowing ahead of time what shape photo to expect helps getting the paper off the presses and onto your breakfast table that much easier.

Once the fireworks start going I will take a few shots of just the display zooming my camera in to about 55 mm. Exposure times are still about 2 seconds and I just keep hitting the shutter button and checking the LCD screen on the back of my camera to see things look ok.

Once the fireworks start going I will take a few shots of just the display zooming my camera in to about 55 mm. Exposure times are still about 2 seconds and I just keep hitting the shutter button and checking the LCD screen on the back of my camera to see things look OK.

I like to use my 17-55 mm, f2.8 lens for fireworks. It gives me the most range of focal lengths to get the images I’m hoping for. Wide to take in the scene and tight to focus on the display. My exposures run from 2 to 4 seconds and aperture from 2.8 to 4.

The "Grand Finale" was taken from the top of a hill along RT 9.

The “Grand Finale” was taken from the top of a hill along RT 9.

I worked my way from the Trinity boathouse on the southern side of the park to the northern side during the half hour display looking for different vantage points. As the “Grand Finale” was going off I climb up the embankment along RT 9 to get this shot with spectators in the foreground and the fireworks reflecting off the river.

I find that I get about 50% useable photos depending upon the intensity of the fireworks. The more going off at one time the more you will need to stop down your lens, f4-5.6, to get good results. I find the best thing to do is experiment using a variety of exposures and shutter speeds, somewhere in the mix you will get that “really nice” photo you were hoping for.

 

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