Digital photo tips: Catching the rocket's red glare

Published on Wed, Jun 26, 2013 by Mark Turner

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Most folks love spectacular fireworks displays, unless they’re dog owners or curmudgeons. The main fireworks show of the year is usually in honor of Independence Day – the Fourth of July. Here are some tips to get great photos of the fireworks display in your town.

Find a good vantage point. You’ll want to have a clear view of the aerial bursts, but with something interesting in the 

foreground. Since watching fireworks is a shared experience, placing part of the crowd at the bottom of your frame provides a little context.

Use a wide-angle lens. Most of the time the bursts will be big enough and close enough that you’ll need a focal length around 28mm (full frame 35mm) to capture them and still include a bit of horizon below. If you’re a long ways away you’ll want a longer lens.

Use a tripod. You’ll be leaving your shutter open for several seconds at a time to capture complete bursts and there’s no way to hold your camera still without a tripod.

Use a remote release. That way you won’t shake your camera when you operate the shutter release.

Use manual focus. Set your focus to infinity. You don’t want your camera’s autofocus to be hunting for focus on every shot and all the bursts will be far enough away that they’ll be tack-sharp at infinity.

Use manual exposure. Set your camera to ISO 100 and f/8. Set the shutter to “B” (for bulb). Press the remote release and hold the button down while one or more aerial shells explode in the sky above you.

Consider shooting a few frames of your foreground before the sky gets completely dark. That way you’ll have some foreground detail for the composite you’re going to assemble later.

Make sure your battery is fully charged. When using the bulb setting the camera is sucking juice to keep the shutter open.

Start with an empty memory card. The show may not last all that long and you don’t want to miss the best part of the display because you’re changing cards.

Keep your shutter open for just one to three aerial bursts. Plan to assemble the best shots into a composite in Photoshop or another photo editing program later. Back in the film days we had to get all the pieces together on one frame in the camera, which was a lot harder.

Assembling your composite fireworks photo in Photoshop is pretty easy. Load your dusk shot first as the background layer. Then drag individual frames with your favorite fireworks bursts onto your master file, creating a new layer for each one. Here’s the critical tip to make it easy: set the layer blend mode to Lighten. Since the fireworks are brighter than the sky in your background, only the fireworks themselves will show. You may want to add a layer mask and hide any extraneous bright spots from your fireworks layers.

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Mark Turner is a Bellingham professional photographer who creates heirloom portraits of families, high school seniors and pets. He is the photographer and co-author of Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, Bellingham Impressions and the smart-phone app Washington Wildflowers. His photography has been published in national garden books and magazines for more than 18 years. Visit his website at