This is a situation that throws a lot of people (one of my best friends, who didn’t get a single crisp fireworks shot on the Fourth of July, made me include this tip in my book just for him and the thousands of other digital shooters that share his pain).
For starters, you’ll need to shoot fireworks with your camera on a tripod, because you’re going to need a slow enough shutter speed to capture the falling light trails, which is what you’re really after. Also, this is where using a remote shutter release really pays off, because you’ll need to see the rocket’s trajectory to know when to push the shutter button—if you’re looking in the viewfinder instead, it will be more of a hit or miss proposition. Next, use a zoom lens (ideally a 200mm or more) so you can get in tight and capture just the fireworks themselves.
If you want fireworks and the background (like fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World), then use a wider lens.
Now, I recommend shooting in full manual mode, because you just set two settings and you’re good to go: (1) set the shutter speed to 4 seconds, and (2) set the aperture to f/11. Fire a test shot and look in the LCD monitor to see if you like the results. If it overexposes, lower the shutter speed to 3 seconds, then check the results again.
TIP: If your camera has bulb mode (where the shutter stays open as long as you hold the shutter release button down), this works great—hold the shutter button down when the rocket bursts, then release when the light trails start to fade. (By the way, most Canon and Nikon digital SLRs have bulb mode.) The rest is timing—because now you’ve got the exposure and sharpness covered.
This tip is an excerpt from The Best of The Digital Photography Book Series by Scott Kelby.