Every Fourth of July, people across the country get out their cameras, and shoot photos of fireworks. And that includes me. Thing is, 99% of every fireworks photo ever taken looks very much like every other fireworks photo. Sure, some have great foregrounds -- the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building (for those living in NYC), or the even just a crowd of people silhouetted against the night sky, with the fireworks in the near distance, bursting overhead. In my case, I caught the American Flag blowing in the breeze in front of some trees (left).
Of course, anyone who has owned a camera for more than a couple of days has heard or read the standard list of things to do when shooting fireworks --
Put the camera on a sturdy tripod (cheap, flimsy tripods are as bad as none at all).
Shoot at f/8 at a fairly low ISO (i.e., 100 or lower), set the shutter to B (which means it'll stay open as long as you hold down on the shutter release), and leave it open for several bursts.
Use a cable release -- don't trip the shutter with your finger -- it'll introduce camera shake, even on that sturdy tripod.
Use a black piece of cardboard to cover the lens between bursts, so it can stay open longer, and catch more overlapping bursts.
And so on. The list hasn't changed much from when we shot fireworks on film. It still all applies. But I would challenge you to try something different this year. You certainly don't have to do this on every shot, but be careful -- you might get hooked and end up shooting everything this way.
What I'm talking about is the technique I used here -- change the focus -- as you shoot. I certainly wasn't the first photographer to use this technique, and frankly, it's been so long that I don't remember the first time I saw it, or who the photographer was, but I thought it produced some spectacular images, and I've shot a lot this way every year since. Here's how --
I start with steps 1 and 2 above, except that I simply set my Nikon D810's shutter speed to something fairly long, like 15-20 seconds. I usually use my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 or my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, depending on how far I am from the bursts.
I also turn the AF completely OFF. Depending on the lens you're using, you may be able to do that on the lens, or you may have to do it on the camera body. It means you're changing to manual focus.
Then I aim the camera in the general direction where the fireworks will be producing their air bursts, and manually turn the lens' focus ring to the closest focus.
That's right -- it'll be completely out of focus. That's what we want. Now watch. It's not necessary to look through the viewfinder or even use live view. If you've aimed the camera in the right direction, and you're using a wider angle lens, you'll get it. So just watch. When you see that a burst is about to happen, trip the shutter.
Just a heartbeat after the burst goes off, turn the focus ring to infinity. Don't turn it too fast. You want to try to time it so that you reach infinity just as the burst starts to fade. It will take some practice to find the exact right speed. Even so, don't stick to just one speed -- turn some slower, turn some faster. The slower you turn the focus ring, the longer the wide trails will be, the faster you turn it, the longer the sharp points will be. I try to time mine to last as long as the burst lasts -- I want to reach the infinity mark before the burst peters out. With luck, what you'll get are broad splashes of color, trailing in to ever narrowing bands, until they end in tack sharp pinpoints. Like this:
If you can manage to catch the rocket's fiery tail as it lofts its payload skyward, you might end up with something that looks more like a multi-colored flower:
Multiple bursts produce a myriad of different effects. Sometimes, you'll have a secondary burst go off after you reach infinity with the focus ring. That's okay -- it's just a different look.
Then experiment some more. If your camera has a built-in multiple-exposure feature, try that. See if you can get the focus ring turned back to totally out of focus before the next shot. Or go in the opposite direction -- instead of starting OOF and turning to infinity, start at infinity, and turn the ring until it's completely OOF.
Or . . . Try zooming during the burst. Or better still -- try combining the two. Start OOF, and turn the focus ring AND the zoom ring at the same time. Zoom in, or zoom out. Either way. Mix it up.
Most important of all -- have fun!!