I’ve long wanted to do some serious fireworks photography so I set out this year to finally do it. My research showed that planning and technique are crucial to successful fireworks images – and indeed I found those two elements to be the key ingredients.
First planning decision: When? Except for the one-off shows scattered throughout the year, two dates frequently feature fireworks shows: New Year’s Eve and the 4th of July. Since I got the bug to do this in the Spring I opted for the sooner date of Independence Day. Of course, a swing in temperatures of 50-70 degrees may have nudged the needle, too.
Second planning decision: Where? A number of communities in Colorado sponsor fireworks displays and I thought a small-town show might be more charming. But our seemingly annual summer wildfires came early this year and with a vengeance causing some communities to cancel their shows. I figured Denver would be one of the least likely to cancel and it’s in my backyard so I opted for its show at the Civic Center Plaza downtown. Civic Center is a park flanked on one side by Denver City Hall and the other side by the State Capitol, both rather stately backdrops to the plaza.
Third planning decision: Specifically where? In other words, where would the best vantage point on the whole park be that would give me an unobstructed view while not blocking anyone else’s view with my tripod and camera? I had never been to this fireworks show so I didn’t know how the setup was configured or even where the fireworks would be set up. Fortunately, that problem was solved when Jim from our Lone Tree Photography Club announced on Meetup that he was planning on going again this year (key word “again” so I figured he knew a good spot) and if anyone would like to join him he’d be on the steps of the State Capitol directly across from City Hall. Here is what our vantage point looked like in the evening hours before the show.
Fourth planning decision: Specifically when? I should point out Denver does its show on July 3rd rather than the 4th which was actually more convenient for me. But they don’t announce the time of the actual fireworks just that the “festivities” start as early as 5:00. Jim said to get there by 6:00 so I made sure I was there at 5:30. The fireworks went off at 9:30 so as you can see that was a rather long wait but a necessary one to stake out that vantage point. Indeed, we got the “stink-eye” from others who were probably counting on that spot but, hey, you know that saying about early birds, right?
Fortunately those four hours passed quickly. I had good company with four of us there and even though we were about 1,000 feet away from the stage, the speakers were aimed right at us and we could hear the live music all night. And to make matters better, the band was Chris Daniels and the Kings, a legendary Denver horn band. There were speeches, though, too (of course). Our governor told us this would be a fireworks display we’d “never forget”. Well, someone either forgot to clue the good gov in or he did a typical political exaggeration thing because the fireworks themselves were “meh”. And they went only 14 minutes. Yes, that’s a lot of waiting around for a short period of time and even though I’ve seen better fireworks displays, I was richly rewarded as you’ll see.
When 9:30 rolled around and the fireworks began I used three different techniques to shoot them. The simplest and easiest is a simple “long exposure” of 3-5 seconds that captures the trailing lights. Here’s an example.
The second is called the “black card” method where you hold a simple piece of black cardboard over the lens while holding the shutter button down (“bulb” mode) and then remove it when another round of fireworks goes off. You can do this 3 or 4 times and get basically an in-camera multiple exposure for interesting effects. Here’s an example of that.
The third technique I used is the most artistic and produces some really interesting abstract patterns. It’s a “zoom” technique where a zoom lens is used and pulled in or out while doing an exposure. Here is an example.
I also did some post-process work but every image I’ve posted was taken by me that night with no added compositing. If I have what I consider a “grand finale” shot that combined some of these techniques, this is it below. And as a bonus I didn’t even realize until later that the trees that appear on either side of City Hall as black space made City Hall look like a star shape.
All in all, it was a great night and I couldn’t be happier with the shots I got. I’ll definitely do this again next year and try a new location for another unique experience, hopefully one with a display a bit longer than 14 minutes.