Camera settings: The magic numbers

Published April 25th, 2011. Filed in: Fireworks Photography Guides

I’m often asked what camera settings I use for UKFR’s firework photography. Whilst it’s true that I often change settings depending on conditions and even for individual firework sequences, one particular group of settings has stood me in good stead for a number of years. I call these settings the magic numbers:

 

Use F13, 8s and ISO100 for firework photography

Using these settings as your starting point should get you churning out excellent photos from the offset.

Camera settings for fireworks

8 seconds of fireworks at 100 ISO and F13.

Always give these settings – set in manual mode – priority over your camera’s “Fireworks” mode if it has one. That mode simply tells the camera not to worry about shooting a dark sky and on most cameras I have seen it’s more aimed at handheld shots. It certainly doesn’t hold the shutter open long enough for good quality images.

Let me run through each of these settings in a little more detail.

 

Aperture: F13

It’s critical not to over expose your shots, since that cannot be corrected later. Under exposure on the other hand is easy to rectify afterwards in Photoshop or your image editor. F13 has always given me good results often edging slightly into under exposure.

I quite often venture to a slightly more open apperture – F11 – if the first few shots are looking a little too dark. Some fireworks or settings work well at F11.

Where the sky is not completely dark, or where I want to expose a very long shot (eg. 30 seconds) I use a narrower aperture to compensate for this, such as F18.

Very wide apertures such as F2 or F4 are not really suitable for fireworks unless you are shooting with very short shutter times. The only time I use such apertures is when I want a crowd shot. I open it right up to F2 (or the widest on my current lens) during a bright firework. The wide aperture helps to capture people and faces with a shorter shutter time thus reducing blur.

 

Shutter speed: 8 seconds

I frequently see people suggesting 2 or 3 second shutter speeds for aerial fireworks. This is far too short! To produce good images you need the fireworks to “paint” a picture with their trails and this needs time. Short shutter speeds such as 2 seconds will only show a tiny snippet of the action and in most cases will also cut fireworks off mid-flight. You’ll see this as trails which suddenly start or stop on the photo. You won’t notice that as much with longer shutter speeds.

The perfect shutter speed on SLRs is bulb which means you manually control it with a remote release cable, however that is edging towards the more advanced areas and I will cover it in another article. 8 seconds has always given me a good starting point with fireworks. It is also a common setting on compact cameras too which have a manual mode.

During a display I often change the shutter speed. For intense action try 4 seconds or so, this will avoid whiting out the shot. For very slow or lazy sequences, such as shell launches, try 10 or 12 seconds. I do occasionally go up to 30 seconds if the fireworks warrant it.

If your aerial shots are badly over exposing (giving you a near white shot) with a setting of 8 seconds then it is likely to be because it’s still a little too light. In this case you should change your aperture first (make it much smaller) rather than reduce your shutter speed.

Some fireworks are special cases and you will learn from experience here. A good example is a ground firework such as lancework – comprising of a series of fountains used to create words – where the firework itself is static. Here you do not need time to let the firework “paint” the frame but rather less time so it does not over expose as shown here:

Shutter speed for fireworks

An exception to the 8 second rule is a static, ground based firework. Here 8 seconds (top) is wildly over exposed and the correct exposure was just 1/160th of a second (bottom).

 

ISO 100

ISO is the digital equivalent of “film speed” and determines how sensitive to light your camera sensor is. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive. So ISO 100 is less sensitive to light than ISO 800.

It might seem odd then to recommend a less sensitive setting but remember although you are shooting at night, the fireworks themselves can be incredibly bright! Another good reason is noise. When you use more sensitive ISO settings you will get more noise (the digital equivalent of film grain) in your shots. This can be a problem if the fireworks occupy a small portion of the shot and you are cropping in afterwards. As you zoom into the shot you will see this noise. Noise can be a major problem with long duration shots so keep your ISO as low as you can.

Do make sure you set your ISO to 100 rather than leave it on auto. If you leave it on automatic then the ISO between each shot can vary, producing vastly different light levels in your shots. This will make it very hard to judge whether you need to adjust shutter speed or aperture from one shot to the next.

 

Other critical things for firework photography

The settings above will make a good starting point and should be varied as required. But the following two things are critical and cannot be ignored:

  • Focus MUST be on manual
  • Camera MUST be on a tripod

Manual focus is usually set at infinity but do check beforehand that a setting of infinity on your camera does ensure distant objects are in focus, on many lenses it produces a slightly soft result. The best way to be sure is to use autofocus on the night and focus on something roughly the right distance away such as a street light or even the moon. Then once the lens has focused, switch it to manual to lock it there. This is a whole subject in itself which I will cover in another article.

Your camera must be on a tripod, no exceptions for shooting fireworks!

I hope these settings get you off to a good start and I will be covering more advanced areas soon.

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