How to get proper images of a firework
- Use a good tripod
- Use a remote control (a simple cable trigger is best)
- 100 ISO and aperture 11 or 200 ISO and f/16 respectively (starting point)
- M + bulb or B
- Focus manually to infinite
- Release the shutter before the firework display (individual figure) begins, close it when it is finished.
Don't do new year/hogmanay
About 99.9% of all well done firework snaps are from professional altitude fireworks. Private fireworks play in a different league. You hardly know where exactly is is fired, how high it gets and the air is full of smoke. (And you are probably not sober yourself and will make mistakes :-) )
There are of course some professional fireworks on year and celebs. Such as Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Harbour Bridge in Sydney, London Eye, Duabai, Edinbrugh and others.
Thay may well work. However, for getting some good firework shots from these prominent locations you will be happy to be there well in advance and secure your spot, carry our gear around all day and basically miss the party.
I would rather concentrate on a number of nice professional fireworks during the summer period. If you happen do be in Germany, you may find the Firework Calendar useful.
Find your Spot
First of all from your spot you need some free field of view towards the firework. Therefore is is helpful if you know the event from earlier years and know where about it is going to happen.
Important as well is the wind. The wind is your friend. It blows the smoke away.
Therefore best is wind from the side. You will still have some of the smoke left or right of the scene but that is easily removed in the editing. On the contrary it is nearly impossible to remove any smoke when the wind blows from the firework place towards you and it is even difficult when it comes from your back towards the firework.
The focal length
The focal length depends on your spot. When you are there where the audience typically is, close to the firework, then use 20mm for APS and 35mm for full frame or even shorter.
I like to be farer away to get a bit more of the scenery in the image. Then I start with 25mm for MFT, 35mm for APS or 50mm for full frame bodies.
In general use some shorter focal length than you might think is ok from the beginning. Leave some room above the scenery. Cutting the image in the editing is easy but loosing nice displays because they are very high and the top of ist is cut off is a pity.
(Private hoghmany stuff does not go that high. You may use some longer focal length there.)
Use a good one. A good one is seriously stable. Stable tripods are heavy. That is basic physics. Heavy tripods are rather expensive. That is basic economy. :-)
(Some reasons are mentioned below, such as post processing, exposure time, mirror lockup)
As usual. Use one that fits well your focal length.
Set the body to M and bulb or B respectively (Depends on the body. Some have bulb beyond 30s in M and others have a B program doing the same.)
Use some (cheap) cable remote trigger. When you press the trigger then the exposure begins. Do this when a display is about to start. (When you hear the explosion then it is too late) Release the button to release the shutter and finish the exposure. Do so when the display comes to an end.
If you observe long lasting displays with cascades of fireworks, then I suggest to interrupt the exposure in between and start a new one every now and then. Otherwise you will just get some bright white mess instead of nice colours and structures.
In social media and forums and - unfortunately - some tutorials the use of the self timer is suggested and some fix exposure time, such as 15s, is suggested. THAT IS NO GOOD IDEA! By doning so you don't have any control about the status of the firework during the exposure time frame. Your results will be rather random than anyhow controlled. You will mostly create waiste to be discarded afterwards.
Aperture and eposure optimization
Use some low ISO value. If you have any favourite ISO value that creates a minimum of noise, then use that and align the aperture value accordingly. Otherwise use 100 or whatever is the minimum ISO value that your body supports. (No need to use any LOW setting, if your camera supports that.)
Good starting points are 100 ISO and f/11 or 200 ISO and f/16.
Make sure that Auto-ISO is off.
Check the first images. If the colours appear to fade then they are to bright. If so then close the aperture (towards 11 or 16 or even beyond). If the colours are fine but not bright enough then open the aperture slightly (towards 8, 11)
In this case it is easier in the editing to brighten nice but low colours than it is to add colour to merely white fireworks.
That is easy. Just focus manually to infinite or use the autofocus and focus to something far away and then turn the auto focus of.
Well, if you have to zoom your zoom lens, then better focus again. Most zoom lenses move the focal pane while zooming.
Add some environment to the image.
If you want to have some of the environment in the image then the exposure is a bit more complex. You will have to align the aperture with the brightness of the fierwork as discussed above and align the time with the brightness of the environment.
That does work. However, doing so brings you back into the situation that you cannot exactly control the very moment when a display is finished and stop the exposure then.
That is why I suggest to separate them. Do the environment upfront. Then do the firework. If you have to change the zoom or the orientation of the camera (if you happen to hit the tripod) then repeat the environment pictures when the firework is over. Later just combine both photographs in the editing. (see below for details.)
This trick works especially nice when the surroundings are mainly party ships or some fun fair, big wheel or so. Those are likely to dim their lights during the firework
Most cameras provide some noise reduction for long exposures. Turn that off!
That will cause your body to take some dark frame after each exposure that is 1s or longer. And this dark frame will take as long as the previous exposure was. Most consumer and prosumer bodies will be "busy" during that time and do not allow for new photographs.
You may miss the best scenes just because of that while the quality gain is questionable for fireworks.
You can safely use any other noise reduction functions that your body may offer.
You can do that. You just risk to get lost wether you are currently exposing or in the lockup phase. And you may miss the start of the greatest display at all.
However, if you follow the first suggestion and use some really good tripod than you do not need the lockup at all.
Composing, Post Processing
If you want to combine the environment picture with a display or just a number of displays then you find this is an easy task with fireworks. Just use any editing software that allows for levels. Add a level for each additional photograph that you want to combine. Use the level mode "lighten only" and you are done.