The Fourth of July is a perfect time--indeed, about the only time of year--to try your hand at shooting nighttime exposures of fireworks.
It's not as hard as most people seem to think, if you follow some simple guidelines.
The cornerstone of your setup should be a single-lens reflex camera that includes a B (bulb) setting that allows the shutter to remain open as long as the shutter button is depressed.
You also need a sturdy tripod, a cable release and a slow-to-medium ISO (ASA) film such as Kodachrome 64, Ektachrome or Fujichrome 100 for transparencies (slides) or a print film such as Kodacolor 100 or Fujicolor 100.
Print film will give you the most flexibility and allow you to handle the erratic exposures that fireworks usually produce. Your local developing and printing lab will be able to burn down distracting bright areas on your reprints.
Figuring an exact exposure may be difficult considering the multiple exposures needed and the many bursts of multicolored lights from the fireworks. Bracketing (varying your setting) is the only way to get a perfectly exposed negative.
Start by setting the camera in the manual mode. With a film that has an IS0 of 100, the proper aperture starting point for your lens will be f/8. For 400 ISO film use f/16. Also, set your focus on infinity (the setting on the focus ring for the farthest distance). Most fireworks displays are far enough away that this will be the only setting you'll need.
Set your camera on the tripod and look through the camera to make sure the horizon is straight. Just a simple check will make your photos look much more professional. Pick a foreground that is almost silhouetted or at the very least subdued. Anything brightly lit will burn out your foreground.
Because they're going straight up, fireworks are best shot on a vertical format, but that's a judgment call. Just make sure you frame your shot to leave plenty of room for the bursts.
Use a cable release to fire the shutter and hold it open through several fireworks explosions. A single burst makes for a very boring picture. Prepare yourself for the grand finale, when you should be able to get many bursts in one exposure.
Another method of capturing several bursts of fireworks is to place a cardboard cover, lens cap or even your baseball cap over your lens. Depress the shutter and keep it open with the cable release and remove the cap or flap during the bursts. This will keep your film exposed only during the fireworks burst and prevent overexposure. A third way to achieve the same result is by using the multiple exposure feature if your camera has one.
If you only have an automatic-focus, compact 35-millimeter camera and no tripod, not to worry. There is a way: a film with an ISO of 400.
The fast film speed should give you a shutter speed that will allow you to hand-hold your camera. You'll have to stay steady, though. Use the option on your camera that will allow you take pictures without the electronic flash. Using a flash on this type of picture is pointless--it only illuminates an area up to about 30 feet.
Also, keep a small flashlight handy to help check the settings on your camera. Most fireworks displays only last for 10 to 15 minutes, so be prepared. Plan your attack before the festivities begin.