1) Use a tripod if at all possible. I know some who handhold but the problem is the exposure has to be so long, you tend to move. How good a tripod depends upon how serious you want to be in your photography. For an excellent read on "how to buy a $2700 tripod, read this by Thom Hogan) http://bythom.com/support.htm You don't need to spend the $100 either but do get a good tripod. I bought a Bogen 3021 Pro model used and it works great.
Bottom Line - Tripod is greatly preferred. a cheap one is better than none at all.
2) Use a Wide Angle lens but consider a telephoto. It all depends upon where you are at. In the photos shown in this post, I used my 17-55 as I was close. If you are shooting along distance, then naturally you want the zoom lens.
Bottom Line - Wide angle is usually best.
3) If you have a remote release, use it. The less you touch the camera, the less camera motion you will incur.
4) You want to use a small aperture. Start with f/8 and if parts of the image are blown out (over exposed) then change your aperture to something smaller like f/11 or f/16.
Wait you say, 16 is bigger than 8! No. Notice the slash between the f and the number. This is a ratio of the focal length to the lens opening (aperture). Remember way back when in math that 1/2 is bigger than 1/ 4 and 1/8 is bigger than 1/16. Now you have it. The bigger the opening of the lens, the small the denominator. Thus a 2.8 lens really opens up (and really costs a lot). a lens opened to 22 has a small opening.
So if the exposure is too bright, change the aperture setting, that is your main tool in this situation.
Back to fireworks. The light will be really bright so how do you tell if the image is overexposed? Well one say if your camera has the option is to set the information screen to blink the parts that are overexposed, thus they are called blinkies. If your camera doesn't have this option, look for lots of white in the image when the actual firework burst had reds and blues and greens. The mixture of red and blue and green produces white. Now if the burst was white and the image is white, you are ok, don't worry.
Bottom Line - Start with small aperture ( 8 or 11) and work up. Near the end of the show, you may want to change the aperture to 22 as shows typically launch a bunch of fireworks at the end and it gets MUCH brighter.
5) "What about the shutter speed? Can't I use that to lower the exposure?" No! normally in photography you could but in this case, if you shorten the shutter speed (i.e. make it quicker like from 1/60 sec to 1/100 sec) then you will make the time the burst is exposed while it is opening smaller and you will get a smaller burst. Typically you want to start with a 2 second exposure. If you can change it to "bulb" (a holdover term from the old days when the photographer squeezed a bulb to open the shutter and released it to close the shutter), then use the bulb feature. This is where you NEED the remote shutter release as you don't want to be bumping the camera in the dark trying to find the shutter release.
Bottom Line - Slow shutter speed. 2 seconds or bulb.
5) About this time would be a good time to state the obvious. KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT! Its one thing to know it in the daylight and you have all the time in the world but quite another when its dark and the firework bursts are going off one behind the other. You won't have time to "figure it out" you have to shoot now!
Bottom Line - Practice before hand. Don't think you remember it.
6) "But you forgot about the ISO is its too bright!" No I didn't. The matter is that you should be shooting at the lowest ISO you have that is "native" to the camera. Some cameras have a native ISO they can go down to and can go lower but it lowers the image quality. My Nikon D300's have a native ISO of 200 but can go down to LO 1.0 which is the equivalent of ISO 100. I shoot at ISO 200.
Bottom Line - Low ISO.
7) Focus - Set it to manual focus and set it to "infinity" (that funny looking sideways 8 on the range finder). Infinity sometimes isn't all the way to the end but just back form that point a smidge. Why, that just the way some cameras are. This goes back to know your camera (#5).
The problem with auto focus is its hard to lock onto the picture and the distance will be such that infinity is what you want. If you leave auto focus "On", then every time you press the shutter button half way, it starts to search for focus and that takes time you don't have and it may not lock onto the fireworks burst but the trees under them. (If you use the back button focus method, then you are ok. Set the focus to infinity and don't touch the back button focus button).
Bottom Line - Manual Focus.
Let's see, anything else?
8) Bring a penlight or a small LED light. You will need it to (a) read the settings on the camera, (b) find that do-dad in the camera bag, (c) find that do-dad you dropped in the grass, (d) you get the picture. Why not bring that mag-light 3000? Well, the people around you won't appreciate it and beat you to death with that tripod and you will be night blind for a while and miss most of the show.
9) Bring a cover for your camera in case it starts to rain.It's that time of year when thunderstorms pop up suddenly sos best be prepared. You don't need a fancy (read expensive) rain cover (unless you will be in a potential rainy environment a lot, then its worth it to get a good rain cover for the equipment) but a simple shower cap from the las hotel you stayed at will do in a pinch. ( You mean you din't grab one when you got the shampoo and lotion?) My backpack camera bag is water resistant and the bigger shoulder bag is an all-weather model that has a water-proof cover for the entire bag. But just in case I get caught short, I have the shower cap handy.
10) Get some shots of the things happening at the site rather than just the fireworks. It is all part of the story of the fireworks show. Photography is about bringing back emotions and smell is a strong emotion. Get some shots of the food. Get some shots of funny things (like police with blue tongues).
11) One more important thing. CHANGE THE CAMERA BACK to its normal settings when you get home! Many camera today have custom settings and if you changed anything, it will stay that way until you change it back. (Normally while shooting some big event and you wonder why your pictures won't come out.) Some of the settings may include the one that controls whether the shutter activates when you release the shutter or if it waits until focus is achieved. I accidentally missed several shots as the show started later than we thought and I turned to grab a few shots of the people I was with. I had changed my camera to (a) release when shutter pressed instead of when focused and (b) to manual focus. Net result, several photos of folks were out of focus until I realized the problem. Then I had to remember to change it back again for the fireworks.
(OK, some bright scholar has noticed by now that I went ver 10. I kept remembering ideas)
12) "But I missed a bunch of shots and know better what to do next time!" WELCOM TO PHOTOGRAPHY!! That is a large part of photography. How do I fix them. Probably you can't. Enjoy what you have and wait till next year. That's why there is next year. (Unless you are a sports or wedding photographer and then your goose is cooked!)
13) Remember where the car is parked. We had had several storm cells come close by with warning form the event organizers to be prepared to leave as strong winds, lightening, and hail were possible. We were ok until the show started when they announced 5 minutes into the show, "5 Minute Warning, there is a storm in the vicinity!" The fireworks kept being shot so the photography group kept shooting. Then about four minutes later, they announced a "3 Minute Warning". At that time, I looked at a friend and they looked at me and we all decided it was time to pack up. Had fun finding the car in the dark even though I pretty much knew where I left it (a lot of people arrived after me). The remote unlock that flashes the lights helped. By the time I left the parking lot 25 minute slater, it had yet to rain but I enjoyed the end of the show without looking thorough the camera.
14) Have fun. Don't get so glued to the camera that you forget the family. When the kids are grown and gown, there will be time for sticking to the camera eyepiece.
See my website at www.HLDPhotos.com
Photos form the 2012 Garner Fireworks show.
A kid playing in the dark. Hand held, 1 sec exposure, f/2.8 Iso 320, 28mm.
2 sec f/11, ISO 200 35mm
Camera aimed a little too low. MAybe should have had a wider lens opening so I could crop it later rather than try to get it to fill the frame.
Weird burst, Don't know why it did that. It was the only one like that.