Mike Martin is a gifted photographer from Chicago. He excels in several genres of photography, including portraits and yes, fireworks. I caught up with him to ask how he creates such beautiful fireworks images.
Location, location, location
I asked him how he chooses the best locations for shooting fireworks for the 4th of July and other times.
“I’ve been fortunate that there are many opportunities for great fireworks displays in the Chicago suburbs,” he said. But of course there was more than that.
Mike manages to strike a balance between family and also taking great pictures. “Since Independence Day fireworks displays are often a family affair, it’s often a compromise between the ideal location and being around friends and family during the show. We found a place that is further away from where most people gather and where I also have a slightly higher perspective.”
Do you need the latest and greatest fireworks camera?
Mike discussed what kind of camera he uses. What he says is important for many to take to heart, as we’re constantly inundated with ads begging us to upgrade to the slickest new camera.
“Any relatively modern DSLR or mirrorless camera is fine. When I got back into photography I started with what I could afford which was a Canon T2i and while I’ve upgraded my cameras several times since then the truth is that almost every digital camera made in the last decade with a kit lens, can capture beautiful fireworks.”
Mike also discussed what kind of lens he chooses. Note again that what he mentions is modest. “An 18-55mm kit lens will probably give you the reach you need on a crop sensor camera. The exact focal length depends on your location, but in general, the wider the angle, the better. I’ve also found that using telephoto lenses and zooming in on part of the action can provide a unique perspective.”
Avoiding the shakes
I asked Mike about other equipment he uses. “A high-quality tripod is essential. As these are longer exposures, you need to make sure the camera is completely stable.”
You also want to prevent camera shake. Mike says: “Ideally you want some kind of wireless shutter release so you touch the camera as soon as you’re done. However, the built-in 2-second timer on your camera can also work in a pinch. Another option if your camera supports it is time lapse. Just let the camera shoot continuously from the beginning of the show to the end.”
This last method can be done in a number of ways, such as using an intervalometer, or simply putting the camera in Continuous Burst mode and then locking your shutter button so that it fires continuously. This is also how many people shoot star trails or time-lapse videos.
How to focus to get sharp fireworks images
Mike says: “Unlike typical night photography, there’s often enough light to focus once the fireworks start. While you may be able to rely on autofocus at first, once you’ve got focus, you’ll want to switch your lens to manual focus, so it stays locked in. In the darker conditions I use the Live mode, which is on the rear LCD screen, and zoom in using the screen and focus manually.”
Many photographers like to arrive early, get ready and adjust camera settings. Many fireworks photographers also prefer to photograph the first part of the display, when there is less smoke.
Mike continues: “The real trick in photographing fireworks is capturing the event from launch, through the first burst and all the way through the trail of light and colors afterward. By looking at the fireworks and counting, you can see that the event of just a single firework can easily last 5 to 12 seconds.
“To get these longer exposures you need to keep a low ISO, somewhere around ISO 100-250, and stop the lens down to f/8-f/11. These settings will help you get the slower shutter speeds you need. About eight seconds is a good place to start. During a finale or a particularly busy part of the show, slightly shorter exposures may be required.”
And the fascinating thing about long exposures is that you’re often not sure what you’re going to get when you open that shutter. No problem. Mike says: “[My]best advice is to just keep shooting. There’s a lot of randomness in a fireworks show. Even if you open the shutter when shooting fireworks, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get.”
As usual, you can click on any photo to enlarge it and view the camera settings.
Mike Martin is not only known for his portraits. He is also gifted with landscapes, wildlife, event photography, weddings, fireworks, city skylines, product photography and more. He has an excellent eye for lighting and detail. Learn more about him by visiting his website.