|It is largely accepted that the Chinese invented fireworks.
During the Sung Dynasty (969-1279), a cook discovered that
mixing sulphur, saltpetre, and charcoal was a highly explosive
cocktail if packed into a confined space. At first the discovery
was used as a means of entertainment but was soon adapted for
warfare, firing rocket-powered arrows. Over the ensuing
centuries, this technology spread across the globe, eventually
reaching Europe in the 13th century and with the subsequent
invention of the gun in the 14th century. But it wasn’t until
the 19th century that fireworks took on their more colourful
side. Various colours were achieved by mixing potassium chlorate
and various metallic salts: strontium burns red; copper makes
blue; barium glows green; and sodium produces yellow. Magnesium,
aluminium and titanium give off white sparkles or a flash. Next
time you watch a firework display, spare a thought for the
pyrotechnical skill involved in the relationships between
vectors, velocities, projectiles and their trajectories together
with the explosive forces behind those pretty burst patterns.
Photographing fireworks also needs skill. Firework displays only
take place occasionally and so practice is limited.
Nevertheless, you can keep your eyes open for events involving
displays and also request information on them. A firework
display is usually watched by a crowd of people, which means
that either your tripod gets in the way of others or gets
jogged, thus spoiling your shot. However, as the action takes
place high in the air, you can usually find a suitable shooting
place at the back of the crowd. Get there early and choose a
good vantage point. One problem with photographing fireworks is
not knowing where to point the camera on the tripod. You don’t
know how high the rockets will fly, so it’s difficult to know
how to frame your shot. Handheld is of course easier but you
won’t get a sharply focused image because of the slow shutter
speed. The finale is usually quite wide and high, adding to the
So how do you go about getting good shots?
Firstly you need a tripod and a cable release. Use a wide-angle
lens or at least a standard lens to cover as much sky as
possible. You can use a telephoto lens, but this means you have
to be more accurate when shooting off a tripod. Also, the longer
the lens length, the faster the shutter speed required (e.g. a
lens length of 200mm requires a shutter speed of 1/200 sec.).
Use a low ISO; using a high ISO may make shooting easier because
you have a faster shutter speed, but the quality of the image
will suffer. Turn off the auto-flash – it won’t help for distant
shots. Set the focus to infinity (via manual mode). Set the
aperture to about f/8. Wait until you see a rocket climbing or
feel that a burst is imminent and open the shutter on bulb mode.
Leave it open for anything between 4 to 20 seconds, until that
particular display ends. It’s impossible to predict things to
perfection, so be prepared to shoot plenty of images.
If you have some good shots you can also copy these onto another
Here’s how in Photoshop: open a firework shot with a black sky.
Select it approximately with the lasso tool and include some
sky. Choose edit – copy. Click on the night-time shot and choose
edit – paste. You should now have your firework shot(s) added to
your night-time shot. Go to the layers palette and click normal
in the submenu and choose lighten. Your firework shot should now
blend in perfectly and can be moved (move tool) and the size
changed (Ctrl and T holding down shift to retain the