Bonfire Night is an absolute treat for photographers – hours of brilliant, visual displays that make for fantastic content, interspersed with touching images of families and friends enjoying the spectacle. As with all great photography, there’s a knack to getting your shots right. We’ve composed a quick and easy guide that’ll help you capture those epic moments and boost your night photography skills.
The Bare Necessities
As with any well-executed shoot, put a bit of time in to visualise the event and assess the kit you’ll need. Night time shots require long exposure and slow shutter speeds, so the fewer movements, the better. We recommend using a tripod and electronic cable release to provide better stability whilst shooting photos or videos; for added strength, make sure the centre column of the tripod is as low as possible. You won’t need a flash either, so switch to manual mode and experiment with different ISO and shutter settings until you’ve found your sweet spot.
Location is Everything
Location, location, location. Planning is important so get in early to find a position that is stable and clear of obstructions. For example; if you’re photographing fireworks in an urban setting, you’ll have to factor in light pollution and crowds of people – both are equally as capable of ruining a great shot. Consider the depth of the shot – will you just be focusing on the explosions, or are you trying to capture the scene in its entirety? It doesn’t hurt to sneak a peek at where the fireworks are being set up; you could even ask some of the organisers for tips on where the best vantage point would be (not to mention, finding out what places the public aren’t allowed into).
Framing the Shot
Now that you’ve found a great spot, the next step is finding the right framing. This is pretty tricky to do before the show starts, particularly if this is your first attempt at photographing fireworks. We recommend vertical framing for close-up shots as these follow (and complement) the trajectory of the fireworks. Horizontal framing is great for wider shots or when trying to capture large portions of the event in one go. Just don’t get too distracted by the colourful display; remember to focus on the areas you’re shooting through the viewfinder!
Know your Bangs from your Booms
Fireworks are tricky things – some cut through the air like a missile, only to fizzle out in a small, smoky ‘poof’, whereas some are totally unspectacular until they suddenly light up the sky like a second sun. As with our point on finding the right spot, knowing your fireworks is highly advantageous. The biggest and best are usually reserved until the end, but don’t be afraid to ask the organisers for rough timings if you want to make your shots count (e.g. those shooting on film).
Find your Focal Length
Figuring out what you want to shoot beforehand will save you a lot of time and energy. Different shots require different focal lengths - a fancy way of saying “the farther it is away, the more we need to zoom in”. A high and tight close-up shot will require a far greater focal length than a general shot of the same scene; which means you’ll be continually switching lenses and adjusting the camera’s position throughout the shoot. We recommend sticking with a good quality zoom lens so that you can get the best of both worlds without disrupting the shoot.
Shutter, Aperture, and ISO
Automatic settings are the bane of professional nighttime shots. We always recommend switching to manual as it provides greater control and allows for better experimentation with your shots. Make sure your ISO settings are lowered (around 100 is optimal) and that the shutter speed is slow to draw in as much light as possible. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could try switching to ‘bulb’ mode, which keeps the shutter open as long as your finger is on the button – this technique also works with remote shutter release and produces fantastic results. As for lighting; don’t be tempted into using your flash, as all it will do is highlight any smoke or distracting objects.
Oddly enough, editing shots of fireworks is relatively easy – provided you’ve followed our advice thus far; low ISO settings will make for deeper contrasts between the night’s sky and the vibrant explosions, making it easier to tweak contrast and saturation. You could even try a bit of photo magic by layering and blending multiple shots to create an even greater spectacle.
For those who don’t have the luxury of time to read our articles, we’ve included some bite-sized essentials below:
- Optimal kit – zoom lens, sturdy tripod, electronic wire release (the less movement, the better)
- Location is everything – find a good spot, preferably up-wind of any smoke
- Framing – vertical framing is great for close-up shots, with horizontal framing for wider shots
- Know your fireworks – wait for the big bangs before taking your shots to make them count
- Focal length – we recommend a zoom lens so that close-up shots can be cropped at leisure
- Shutter, ISO and Aperture – you want to keep these low to capture as much light as possible
- Post-Production – use editing to accentuate vibrancy or make your images more dramatic