Every year about this time, photographers across the country start thinking about their yearly foray into shooting fireworks, and one of the things many of them ask themselves is, "How can I make my fireworks images stand out from everyone else's? Some photographers look for interesting angles. Some look for intriguing foreground elements, or background elements. Some seek different vantage points. Some have had great success using drones (although I'd be afraid of having my drone shot down my a wayward rocket or mortar shell). But I don't have a drone (and, frankly, no desire to), and everything else has been done to death. I wanted something really different. I first saw this technique several years ago, and unfortunately, I just don't remember the name of the photographer who did it. I wish I did, as I'd love to credit him. Unfortunately, all I can do is say, the idea isn't original to me. I wish I'd thought of it, but all I can do is pass on how I do it, and tell you to go have some fun. By the way, the shot at the top of this page is a photo of fireworks. This is how I do it.
These particular images were made from a couple of miles away from the launch site using a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 86mm, mounted on a Nikon D810 body. One of my goals this year is to try this technique with a wider angle lens.
Of course, a good tripod is a necessity. While a little camera shake is not necessarily a bad thing when shooting fireworks (and there is some pretty obvious camera shake in many of these photos), too much won't make for good photos, either. It is possible to open the shutter without a remote release -- the sky will be mostly dark when you do. But if you are unsure, use a remote release. Exposure was pretty simple -- I set my Nikon D810 to ISO 64, 2 seconds @ f/8, EV -0.3. I left it at that for all of the shots. Remember -- shutter speed has no effect on the exposure of the fireworks bursts themselves. Depending on the amount of light pollution and the other ambient light in the area of the fireworks, it might be possible to leave the shutter open for quite some time, which would allow for the capture of numerous bursts. But here's the key setting -- turn Autofocus OFF. Completely. However you do that for your camera, turn it completely off. On the D810, there is a switch toward the bottom of the lens mount on the left side that allows switching between AF and MF modes. That could be turned to MF for these shots. Additionally, the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 has a switch on the side that allows the AF to be turned off. Whatever is easiest for you, turn your Autofocus off.
You'll have to aim the camera in the general direction of where the bursts will happen. Let a couple bursts happen to refine this composition. You don't want to be zoomed in too tight, but you don't want to be too wide, either. Find a good middle ground. Many fireworks displays will have most of their bursts going off in the same general area of the sky, so once you get zeroed in on a couple of bursts, the rest should be very close to the same area. I like to watch for the trail the rockets leave to time when I'm going to open my shutter. More often than not, I can see the rocket's "red glare" as it ascends into the sky, but that trail will usually fade just prior to the actual burst. For that reason, you need to be aimed just above where the trail ends. Now, manually turn the lens' focus ring so the lens is completely out of focus. Wait until the sky is dark, between bursts, and grab the focus ring with your left hand. Your right hand will activate the shutter release, either with the remote or just by pressing the camera's release. Just before the burst, open the shutter. The exact timing for this will probably take a little practice. If you are consistently late, lengthen the time your shutter is open, and open it a little earlier.
Almost as soon as you open the shutter, smoothly rotate the focus ring from the near-focus out of focus position to the infinity position, which will cause the burst to come into sharp focus. Be gentle. As I said, a little shake is okay, but you don't want to move the camera all over the place. You can vary the speed that you turn the focus ring, but make sure you do it as smoothly as possible. With a little practice, you'll get the beginning of the burst way, way out of focus, and then end of the trails from that burst in sharp focus, giving you some really nice flower-effects.
Once the shutter closes, remember to turn the focus ring back to the out of focus position. For each shot, try changing the speed with which you turn the focus ring. Turning faster makes for longer, more tapered trails, and sometimes it is possible to get the focus ring turned to the in-focus position far enough before the shutter closes to catch secondary bursts in sharp focus.
On the other hand, turning it slowly causes the trails to stay soft and spread longer. Varying the time between the initiation of the burst and beginning to rotate the ring can sometimes allow secondary bursts to begin exploding while the lens is still out of focus, thereby allowing you to capture several "flowers" in one shot. The key is experimenting. Don't allow yourself to get in a rut. Play with it. Experiment. Don't do two exposures exactly the same way. And most importantly -- Have fun!!
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