A skyrocket takes time from the moment it’s launched until the last burst of its color fades. As the rocket sails skyward, the crowd has time to exclaim “Ooh!” Then as it explodes in a burst of trails of color, the crowd has time to exclaim, “Ahh!” From launch to fadeout takes a few seconds perhaps ending with a stirring “bang.” Your exposure, therefore, should be long enough to capture part, or all, of this time-consuming progression.
Shooting with a digital camera is somewhat like shooting slide film. If you’re not careful, you can overexpose and lose detail and color in the highlights. Since fireworks are, by definition, highlights, using a digital camera to capture them can be tricky.
How long should your exposures for fireworks photos be? At least one second, sometimes two seconds, and some even longer. Shorter exposures don’t always capture the full burst and longer exposures tend to produce washed-out results. For example, if you were to set your exposure for, say, 1/500th, not only will the lens be open for only a fraction of the rocket’s progression, but the exposure may also be too brief to record any image at all! If you have a B (Bulb) shutter speed setting you can use it to control exactly how long your shutter is open. This is a great option. The trick is to open the shutter right at the beginning of the burst and close it when it reaches its peak. Anticipating the explosion can be difficult, but not impossible. If you don’t have a B setting you can choose a fixed setting, such as 1 second.
The best way to tackle a long exposure will depend primarily on what kind of camera you’re using. Let’s examine how this works with different types of cameras.
It’s easy for you to select a long exposure time using a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. If you’re using a manual mode, you can select a long exposure time by setting the shutter for one-to-thirty seconds or by using the B (or bulb) setting. You can also use the shutter priority mode to control the shutter speed. For the bulb setting you will need a cable release.
Digital Point-and-Shoot Models
You’ve got to hand it to camera designers — they’ve dreamed up a number of exotic modes that appear on some camera models. What exactly is “party mode?” That’s outside the scope of this article, but there are a few cameras which feature a “fireworks mode” that will give a long exposure. Don’t worry if your camera doesn’t feature a whole host of “modes.” Most of them are baby steps for inexperienced photographers. If your camera has manual settings — which most digital point-and-shoot models have, just figure it out using the manual or trial-and-error going through the menus.