Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

Jun 12

How to use your digital camera’s Fireworks setting

You, too, can get great shots like this. Image by bayasaa, used under Creative Commons

One of my favorite aspects of fireworks is that they are always so celebratory. They mark an occasion, they set the mood, and they define the size of the party. And if you’re a camera bug, they offer some of the best chances to take a truly spectacular picture. And best of all,  almost all of today’s best digital cameras have a fireworks mode, designed to help you capture that magic moment.

Using the Fireworks setting on your camera is as easy as it sounds. Just use your menu and set it to Fireworks. Press the button. That was easy.

Making it work correctly . . . now that’s a leeetle bit more complicated.

What is the Fireworks Mode?

The fireworks mode is a setting with pre-defined parameters. It keeps the shutter open for 2-4 seconds (spending on camera), uses a very low ISO setting, uses a small aperture to increase depth of field, and, on many cameras, an infinite focus. All this used to be done manually, but is now pre-set with the Fireworks Mode. But there are some concepts and techniques to keep in mind if you are going to be a serious, successful Fireworks Mode user.

How it works


Fun, but not steady enough for greatness. Image by ymmat, used under Creative Common

These cool “trails” in the sky are the result of the Fireworks Mode keeping the shutter open for, in camera circles, a very long time. The longer the shutter is open, the longer those cool looking tracks will be. But when you keep the shutter open that long, you can’t hold the camera in your hands. You just can’t hold it still enough to capture a clean photograph. The perfect tool for this task is a tripod. I will take the time here for a little sales pitch. If you don’t have a tripod, get one. They are more useful than you can imagine, and once you have one, you’ll find many, many uses for it. Enough. If you don’t have access to a tripod, you will need to create a place to sit your best digital camera so it is motionless during the shutter release, like the edge of a wall, or a fence post, etc..

The right spot provides a great shot. Image by John_Brennan, used under Creative Commons

Which brings up a quick point. The best Firework photographs are thought out in advance, to make sure you’re in the best area for a clear, interesting shot. So if you don’t have a tripod, you’ll need to scout around for a fencepost or wall. You may have to get to the display early, or search out the perfect spot on the side of a hill, but you’ll need to identify the optimum area. And crafty fireworks photographers know you want to be upwind from the launch site, so the smoke from the fireworks doesn’t blow back over you, creating hazy shots. And you don’t want to get too close to the actual launch site, because you don’t want to spend 20 minutes with your neck at a 90 degree angle. Not very comfortable.

But let’s go back to the tripod, and the steadiness issue. Another way to minimize “jiggle” in your best digital camera is use the timer to capture your photo. Because the shutter action is delayed, movement caused by pressing the shutter release is eliminated. If you are using a DSLR camera, a remote shutter release is perfect for eliminating camera shake, provide pinpoint timing and eliminate the timer. But if you are not taking a lot of fireworks shots, or getting extreme close-ups, a remote shutter release may be an un-necessary expense (though they have certainly come down in price since I bought mine, and went wireless to boot!)

Let’s make this easier

So if you’re using a timer, try and get the cadence of the fireworks. Set the timer for a short duration, listen for the “Whoosh” that signifies the launch, and hit the shutter release. Then immediately reshoot, the moment the shutter closes. Remember, the whole thing is digital! There are no processing expenses. So get a lot of shots. What’s the worst that can happen? Lots of delete. But you up your chances for the hero shot, so empty your SD card and get ready to take a lot of photos.

Another hint is to try to monitor your progress early on in the show. Make sure your best digital camera is pointed at the fireworks, make sure the auto focus is working,  make sure you’re not spending your time taking pictures you won’t enjoy later. So check out the images you’re getting early on in the display, to make sure you’re getting what you want.

And there is no way to put this delicately. Do all of this prep work IN THE LIGHT! Do not wait until the show has started to begin setting your camera up, finding the correct mode, etc. Get to the viewing area early, get a good feel for your camera before heading out, and review the section in your manual on Fireworks mode BEFORE the fireworks, not during! Set the camera to the correct mode, find a steady place, set your timer all while the sun is shining, so, hopefully, the only thing you may have to change is the camera’s aim. Everything else should be thought out in advance.

Fun for the whole family! Image by m.gifford, used under Creative Commons

And I don’t know about where you live, but here, we only get one big fireworks display a year. July 4, so it’s be there or be square, and all that jazz. Which doesn’t leave a lot of time to practice all these techniques. But there are a few things you can do to get used to your Fireworks Mode on the camera. The classic streaking of car headlights can be achieved with the Fireworks Mode. Or you can get your kids (or if you need to, hire some kid in the neighborhood) to stand in the backyard and wave a sparkler. Both these activities will allow to you familiarize yourself with the Fireworks Mode, without gambling everything on the big show.

So take your time, find the perfect spot, get prepared in the sunlight, and snap that perfect photo. If you get a good one, send it to us and we’ll put it on our web site. Good luck!

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