Between mid October, the start of the festival of Diwali, and the New Year celebrations on 1st of January there are ample opportunities to photograph firework displays here in the U.K. Bonfire night (Guy Fawkes Night) on the 5th of November arguably gives you the greatest choice of locations as literally thousands of events, both large and small will be staged on the 5th, or on a weekend close to that date. Traditionally as the name implies, a huge bonfire was lit and an effigy of Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up the state opening of parliament in 1605 is burnt, however the event has also now become a night of revelry with firework displays overshadowing the traditional bonfire itself.
Although large well-organised shows can be spectacular, the introduction of much stricter health and safety rules has meant that the public is kept quite a distance from the action, coupled with the huge crowds present. Neither is conducive to photography, especially if you wish to use a tripod which is virtually essential due to the long exposure times involved. Due to this, over the years I have tended to seek out the smaller, more intimate displays which allow you far greater freedom of movement as well as much smaller crowds, so setting up a tripod is far less of an issue.
These smaller displays are often in urban areas, invariably close to buildings so to discover any photographic potential, I will visit several different locations in one year and just watch the display, but taking note of the photographic possibilities, returning the following year with camera and tripod. Even these smaller locations can be fraught with problems not least due to small area you are working in, as tripod and peoples legs don’t mix well, especially in the dark when everyone is getting excited watching the fireworks. One wrong move on anyone’s part and your tripod with expensive camera could come crashing to the ground, so to avoid this I get there very early and set up in a spot close to a tree, bush or wall to give me some protection, and stay there most of the evening, with perhaps one positional move should the crowds allow it.
I keep my equipment to a minimum, but do bring a solid and heavy tripod to help withstand any bumps or knocks, and a camera such as my Canon 5D Mk II with 17-40mm lens or Nikon D810 with 24-70mm, and most importantly an electronic cable release to minimise any camera movement. Setting the camera on ‘bulb’ mode and ISO 100, I frame the scene where I expect most of the action to take place, pre focus on one spot then switch off the auto focus, setting the lens aperture to f8 and the zoom to about 24mm generally gives me a reasonably depth of field. When the actions starts I may tweak the zoom a little and vary the exposure time anything between 2 and 8 seconds, often to record the surrounding area not just the fireworks, but refrain from moving the camera to re-frame the overall scene, after all if its not exactly right, there is always next year!
I still find it fascinating to see the vast range of colours and effects that can be generated from such small fireworks at a local display, providing you time the exposure to be long enough to capture all the action.