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Five Simple Tips for Better Fireworks Photos

There's all sorts of complicated advice for taking pictures of fireworks, but here's everything you need to know.

This time of year, photographers dust off their cameras while dogs hide under the bed: It's fireworks season. Trance and Topher (my dogs) notwithstanding, I love fireworks displays--especially on the Fourth of July--and I'm always eager to capture some of the magic on film. In years past, I've given you detailed advice for shooting fireworks, but this year I've decided to distill it all down to five simple tips. Follow these, and you should have some nifty fireworks photos this year.

1. Use a Tripod, Of Course

If you've read Digital Focus, you have probably come across my frequent advice about using tripods. I think they're essential--especially at night. And since fireworks need to be exposed for at least a second, and more likely several seconds, it's just not practical to get good photos without locking your camera onto the top of a tripod.

2. Use the Right Exposure Setting

If you have a point-and-shoot camera, you might want to dial in the Fireworks mode. This setting gives you a somewhat slow shutter speed (probably about a half of a second, though it'll vary depending upon your particular camera) to capture the distinctive light trails formed by fireworks. I should point out that when using this setting, a tripod isn't essential, especially if you can brace the camera against something solid--like a car, chair, wall, or doorway.

Even better than Fireworks mode, though, is your camera's manual exposure mode. In manual mode, you can experiment with your own shutter speeds and aperture settings. And you can try longer shutter speeds for more dramatic photos. The great thing about using manual mode for fireworks is that there are few settings that are just plain "wrong," so you can experiment with a variety of settings to learn what works well, and what doesn't.

3. Control the Exposure With the Aperture

If you're new to manual mode, you might feel overwhelmed by all the various settings--ISO, shutter speed, and aperture--and not know where to start. Here's what you should do: set the ISO at 100 (or its lowest value) and the shutter speed at about 1 or 2 seconds. Then take some pictures, varying the aperture setting. The smaller the f/number you dial in, the brighter your fireworks will be. If your photos are getting overexposed, increase the f/number. If the photos are too dark, shoot a smaller f/number.

4. Control the Light Trails with the Shutter

Likewise, you can make the light trails longer by increasing the shutter speed. You might want to start small (around a second), but you can shoot really long exposures (like 8 seconds or more) to fill the sky with multiple fireworks.

5. Focus at Infinity (and Leave It There)

Finally, don't forget about the focus. If your camera is in Fireworks mode, it'll automatically set the lens to focus on infinity. But if you're handling the exposure details manually, set the focus at infinity and leave it there. The fireworks will all be far enough away that infinity is the right setting. If you leave the camera in auto-focus, you'll no doubt find that you'll miss shots while the camera "searches" for the right focus.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Yellow Flowers #1" by Jondaar, New Zealand

Jondaar says that he stumbled across this group of flowers as he was experimenting with changing the depth of field using aperture priority mode, and this was the result. He used a Camera Fujifilm Finepix S9600.

This week's runner-up: "Snowblowing in Maine" by Viki Quinn, Roanoke, Virginia

Viki says: "I used a Canon Power Shot SD1400 IS (its small size makes it so handy to carry!). This was originally a color photo, but I thought it was stronger in black and white."

To see last month's winners, visit our May Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week

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