How to Photograph Fireworks

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Was it not snowing in the Northeast just a few weeks ago? It seems like it. But, whoa! The Fourth of July is now just a couple days away and that means cookouts, friends, summer fun, and... fireworks!

Do you want to preserve the memory of that awesome neighborhood fireworks show? Let's discuss the best ways to try to make a memorable photograph commemorating the event.

Before we get started, let me say that there are many ways to accomplish fireworks photography and none are usually worse or better than others. The only thing that really matters as you head home after the show is:

  • You enjoyed the photographic process.
  • You are left with a photograph or photographs that you personally enjoy. Everything else is noise.

Also, know that night photography, on its own, is sometimes a very challenging genre of the art; add the dynamics of pyrotechnics and you have an even more demanding photographic adventure in front of you. Therefore, approach the mission with an open mind, bring inherent flexibility to your creative process, do not let the technological demands overwhelm you, have fun, and, most importantly, enjoy the fireworks!

My mission with this article is to get you set up for success. After that, the creativity and fun is up to you.

Your Kit

First, an SLR, DSLR, or mirrorless camera is likely to be the best tool for photographing fireworks. But don't rule out point-and-shoot cameras; they often have a "Fireworks" mode, and other cameras are capable of capturing great fireworks shots, too. So, don't be discouraged if you do not have the latest multi-million-pixel DSLR camera in your bag—just get out there and give it a try.

Much of what I'm about to discuss is going to apply to any camera, but some will be specific to SLRs.

Nighttime fireworks photography is night photography. Just like all night and low-light photography, there are some essential tools that are needed to ensure you get the results you want.

  1. A tripod. Unless you are a proponent of the artistic merits of camera shake with long exposures, you will need a tripod to hold your camera steady.
  2. A cable release. We will discuss exposure later, but a manual, electronic, or wireless cable release will also help you get the best results as, even with the heaviest, steadiest tripod and lightest touch, you will move your camera when you depress the shutter release.
  3. A spare battery. With modern cameras, a fully charged battery should get you through the night, but long exposures drain batteries faster, so why risk being taken out of the game before the grand finale with a dead battery?
  4. A pocketful of memory cards. Just like with batteries, it's best to always have a spare whenever you are out doing photos.
  5. A piece of matte-black cardboard or plastic. This will come in handy if you want to capture multiple bursts of colorful fun. More on this later, as well.
  6. A stool. If you have a tripod that extends to great heights, a stool might allow you to stand above the crowd to get a better vantage point. However, please be courteous to those behind you. Everyone wants to see the show.
  7. A flashlight. Be ready to illuminate the dials and controls on your camera. Also, when you need to dig through your camera bag in the dark, a flashlight will help you find what you need. I have also used a flashlight beam to illuminate the legs of my tripod for those walking by, so that they do not punt my gear down a hill.

Before the Show

One key to a successful experience with your camera and fireworks is setup. Of course, you can use these tips and techniques to shoot from your tripod, but some planning should go a good ways to helping you get the image you want.

Research your vantage point and get there early. Look at photos online for different shows and find out where people were standing when they got a photo that you like. Pay attention to framing and the size of the fireworks burst. Got a favorite cityscape or landscape? Find out when and if the fireworks will fill the foreground or background. Of course, you can just follow the crowd to the show, but sometimes it pays to stay further away and incorporate some geographic or architectural elements into your images.

Also, before dark, figure out your framing. Did you see the same show the year before? Do you remember how expansive the bursts were? We will discuss lenses later, but, if your mind's eye recalls the show from years past, tailor your setup to those memories.

Also, if you are incorporating urban landscape features or other elements in the frame, remember that you need to expose properly for those elements while capturing the fireworks. Also, buildings are vertical and the horizon is horizontal. Depending on your shot, be mindful of leveling the horizon before it gets too dark, unless you are looking for an artistic angle (no pun intended).

This location scouting is going to play into your lens selection. Sometimes a wide-angle zoom and a telephoto zoom lens will be more than enough to capture the show. If you know exactly what you want to capture, a prime lens might be the choice, but a zoom will give you the flexibility to pull back to capture the entire burst, or zoom in to let the streaks leave the frame. It all depends on what kind of image you are looking to get.

Keep an eye on the weather and dress accordingly. When I lived on Whidbey Island, Washington, we used to joke that the Fourth of July was the coldest day of the year, since we would all be bundled up at the marina watching the fireworks. Speaking of marinas, floating docks and night photography do not go well together.

Tech Talk

Let's talk about how to get your camera set up. Remember, this is a guide. So, remain flexible, change settings, and experiment as much as you want. Have fun during the show. It is unlikely you will set up your camera, capture the first firework burst, check your LCD, scream, "Success!" and then pack up to go home.

  1. Focus. Your camera's autofocus system should be able to focus on a fireworks burst. However, if you want to avoid the focus "hunting" when the action is happening, you can do a few things. You can use the autofocus to set the focus during the first few bursts and then select manual focus so that the camera's focus remains constant. Or, you can use manual focus from the outset and get your image in focus before it gets too dark to see. Make sure you verify your focus, especially if you bump the camera, zoom your lens, or if the fireworks appear closer or farther away than expected. Also, some photographers have intentionally blurred their fireworks images to get some interesting artistic results. Feel free to try it, but do not use "art" as an excuse for poor focusing.
  2. White Balance. "Auto" should be fine. Use your LCD to gauge your results and try other settings for different effects if you want. Again, be flexible.
  3. Noise Reduction. I suggest leaving it off. Firework photos are low-light photographs, but, in general, they will not be long enough to worry about a build-up of noise. Also, some NR systems take a second "dark" photo using the same shutter speed as your initial photo—taking you out of the action for however long your exposure was.
  4. Flash. Leave this off as well, unless you want to illuminate a foreground object.
  5. ISO. Set it low. Feel free to leave it at your camera's native ISO setting. You should be using a tripod, and the nature of firework explosions does not demand high shutter speeds and ISOs. Use 100 or 200.
  6. Mode. Manual. Yep, I am the guy who wrote an article entitled Using Auto Modes is OK, but I am telling you now that, for fireworks, you want to select Manual so that you have control of your aperture and shutter speed to make needed exposure adjustments.
  7. Aperture. Mid-range. Again, you aren't worried about super-shallow depth of field here, or opening the camera to capture a lot of light in an instant. Start at f/8 and work toward f/11 or f/16 if you need to. Or, go the other way. Stay flexible. Also, the mid-range apertures are going to give you the sharpest results.
  8. Shutter Speed. You will want to use the Bulb setting, if your camera has it. If not, you will have to use some guesswork for the shutter-speed portion of your exposures. (For those unfamiliar with the Bulb setting—the photographer depresses and holds the shutter release or cable release until they wish to close the shutter and end the exposure by releasing the release. The term comes from when pneumatic shutter releases were used in days of yesteryear. On some cameras, the "T" mode is similar, but necessitates a second push of the release to end the exposure.)
  9. Vibration Reduction. Off. These systems generally do not play well with tripods, so shut them off.

Show Time

Now that you are all set up with your tripod and camera ready to go and cable release in hand, the rockets are launching and the shells bursting. It's time to take photos.

What exposure should you use? Well, like I said above, Bulb is the preferred choice, so you can open the shutter when the shell bursts and then close it when the streaks have tapered off. With fireworks photos, there may be a fine line between premature closing of the shutter and leaving it open too long.

It is very easy to overexpose a fireworks photo, so, if shooting digital, keep checking your LCD to make sure the shutter isn't open for too long. If the scene is too bright, you may stop down your aperture and use a similar shutter opening period, or let the shutter close sooner. Not bright enough? Open your lens or take a longer exposure. Remember, stay flexible and adjust as needed. Each fireworks show and burst is different, so there is no magic exposure to dial in and use.

If you have incorporated elements into your composition, such as buildings, bridges, people, trees, etc., you need to keep in mind that properly exposing those elements may limit your flexibility. For example, if you have a city skyline in the image that is properly exposed at f/8 and 15 seconds, you will find that capturing 5 seconds of firework bursts may underexpose the skyline to unacceptable levels. The opposite will be true for exposures that are too long. If you need to keep that skyline exposed just right, you will have to adjust your aperture, ISO, and/or shutter speed to get the results you want, while managing the exposure for your compositional elements.

Fireworks leave smoke in the sky. Unfortunately for the experimenting photographer, the earliest starbursts are going to be the "cleanest" unless a nice breeze is keeping the smoke moving out of the fireworks zone. This is another thing to keep in mind while shooting, since smoke/haze will reduce sharpness and alter the exposure as well.

I mentioned a black card earlier. Use this to capture multiple, non-simultaneous bursts on the same exposure. Open the shutter with the black card in front of your lens. Drop the card to expose the lens to capture a burst and then cover the lens back up. Repeat for the next burst. Again, if you want. This technique adds more light to your image than the single-burst shots, so review the image and make adjustments if needed—close down your aperture a bit to keep from overexposing. And don't try to capture every burst of the entire evening. You won't.

Final Thoughts

A word of caution: Fireworks photographs can be fairly tricky for many photographers. Please, please do not let the photographic process, or a struggle with your gear, get in the way of enjoying the fireworks show. This article should help you get on the road to success, but, if you aren't getting the results you want, feel free to take a deep breath, step back from the camera, and enjoy the event. Or, if you are determined to get an epic photograph, change your settings, experiment, and keep trying—you will only improve your technique, and, post-game image review might help set you up for success for the next fireworks show.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I have struggled with fireworks photography myself. Also, I have watched entire fireworks shows through a camera viewfinder while worrying about how the photos were going to come out instead of enjoying the spectacle with my friends and family. Don't lose your balance here. Enjoy the process, but also the fireworks!

Lastly, if you have your technique down, feel free to push yourself artistically. There are a lot of great fireworks photos out there—try something to make yours stand out—incorporate different landscape elements, change your perspective, zoom in and out while exposing, think abstract, gain access to an inaccessible location, vary your capture technique, etc. "See" the fireworks differently, make art out of the fireworks, and have fun doing it!

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Great shot of the guy blowing his nose by all of the tripods!

He's actually crying because he left his 10mm at the house...

I wish I could take credit for this classic candid, but I cannot. :)  Thanks, though! :)

Hi,

I learned a lot from the above tips. 

Thanks, 

Kelly

Thanks, Kelly!  I am glad you enjoyed it!

You overexposed your shot a little. Best exposures of bursts are at ISO 200 at f 16-22.

So What Would Be Wrong With ISO 100 At F8?

Thanks for your comments! Unfortunately, I cannot take credit for the photos (good or bad)...I believe they came from a stock site.

Thanks for reading!  :)

Thank you Todd for the tips for I was just about to do some searching when I came across your article and you have answer my question that I needed to know, also nice shots., Thanks again.

Alfred

Thank you, Alfred! I am glad you found the article informative! Thanks also for the compliment on the photos, but unfortunately, they are not mine.

Good luck getting the fireworks shots you want! Happy 4th!

Informative article thanks!

Thank you, Dennis! I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Wow! Really a wonderful and an exhaustive article I have ever read on this topic. This gives me lots of hope and confidence to go in for this Friday fireworks shoot.

Thanks Vijay! Good luck with the shoot on Friday! Enjoy the show and Happy 4th!

OBTW, umbrellas work well to keep the burned up fireworks particles from getting on/in your camera bag(s). Even if you think you are up wind of the show, the wind can change and bring suet your way.

Ted, great point...if you are lucky enough to get that close to the show! :)  Happy 4th!

You can get awesome effects by also taking a few exposures freehand and moving the camera during the exposure it is nice to see something different than the usual perfect single starburst shot.

Out of focus shots are also a diffrent look i like to use sometimes at firework shows.

I agree! Fireworks are awesome by themselves, but some creative photography of any subject can make your work stand out from the rest. Happy 4th!

Very interesting

Thank you, Joseph! Happy 4th!

All in all a good article, but I disagree with the first two points in the 'tech talk'. As I have photographed fireworks shows for a commercial pyrotechnics company, I've got over 10 years of personal experience in photographic the fireworks themselves.

Focus: Never, but NEVER use autofocus if you can avoid it. There are several reasons for this but the most important is that your camera will hunt for focusing points before the capture begins and continue hunting pretty much throughout the shot. Secondly, autofocus will be an additional draw on the battery AND can even cause camera motion on time exposures. Instead, manually focus all the way out to infinity with your camera and then bring it back just a tiny amount. Believe it or not, with most lenses the 'infinity' point itself blurs the image but by bringing it back just that small fraction--as little as 2° on a focusing ring--the image will come in sharp and clear. Use this as your starting point for any adjustments during the shoot.

White Balance: Auto-White Balance will invariably attempt to turn any light point to white if it has no other reference to work from. This will make the colors of the fireworks go pale. Instead, lock in the Daylight setting (shining sun icon), or if you're feeling adventurous, go to Tungsten (the light bulb icon if your menu doesn't give the source names.) Under the tungsten setting, all the colors will really pop with intensity.

Noise Reduction: I agree with the author here; leave it turned off. But then, this item would have been last in my order of settings as other settings make NR irrelevant.

Flash: Again off. This should be common sense, but I see many people trying to take fireworks shots with the flash active simply because they don't know how to turn it off.

ISO: Again agreed; leave it low. When I want a longer time exposure--15 seconds or so--I've gone as low as ISO 50, but ISO 100 is perfectly acceptable for most photographers. By keeping this ISO low, your camera isn't tempted to introduce artifiacts--noise. This is one of the reasons NR is unnecessary.

Aperture: Here I disagree again; changing the aperture can help adjust your exposure time and quality of the bursts. With 15-second exposures and longer I typically use the smallest aperture I can obtain--usually f-22. Most of the time I use f-16 or f-18 at about 10 seconds. The smaller aperture size makes the streaks a little narrower and improves the intensity of the colors.

Shutter Speed: If you can set a time exposure for 5 to 10 seconds, feel free to use it; some cameras can even reach 15 seconds or longer under automatic control. This seriously helps avoid forgetting whether your shutter is open or closed. However, if you don't have that capability, keep track of your shots so that you know you're capturing the bursts you mean to shoot. This is where the remote trigger comes in and if your camera uses an infrared remote you can easily get confused during the course of the display.

Vibration Reduction: Personally, I've not noticed the issue the author describes. I use VR lenses and almost never turn the capability off. Since the camera is on a tripod it's unlikely to even trigger anyway, but it won't hurt to turn it off, either.

Here's an example of my own work.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10202185364335156&l=88a7c1bada

Yea! someone finally gets it,  Thanks Dave I was on my way to do some correction on this article but you beat me to it. Please Read Dave's comments there spot on for Firework photography.

Thank you for your tips.

Sincerely,

H. Tran

Hi Dave! Thank you for your comments and tips - especially from someone with your experiences photographing fireworks. As I tried to express in the article, I do not believe there is one magic formula for successful fireworks photography. The dynamic nature of the show (and light) requires the photographer to be flexible and responsive to changes in conditions and location. You make some excellent points and share some great tips as well, I will definitely keep them in mind on my next fireworks photo mission and I thank you for sharing your knowledge in the comments here. This is definitely a topic where more info from experienced shooters is always a plus. Happy 4th!

What about white balance K? Have you tried that and if so what did you use?

Hi Cameron,

I generally use auto white balance when I do photography as my nightime photography subjects usually contain artificial light sources of different color temperatures and I do not want to go chasing something that cannot be caught. I will adjust the images in post-processing by using a pre-set WB or by clicking the Lightroom WB eye dropper on a "neutral" part of the scene.

For fireworks, feel free to experiment with different WB settings if you want, but, for most photographers, especially ones who are not as familiar with the concepts of white balance, I would encourage AWB and forget it...concentrate on adjusting aperture and shutter speed to get the exposures you want instead of WB and ISO. Firework shows are generally short, and I think most photographers would want to maximize your exposures versus tinkering with settings all night.

Thanks for writing and happy 4th!

nice..very handy...wsh you had a link to the best places on the east river from a photographers point of view :)

Deepu, feel free to share any locational info you might have! I would be interested in knowing where to go too! :)

Thanks.

Thank you, Dave! Happy 4th!

Thanks for the tips.

You are welcome, Deanna! Thank you!  Happy 4th!

You are welcome, Deanna! Thank you!  Happy 4th!

GREAT article. You might note this advice also works very well for photographing lightning. The conditions are very similar when it comes to light although the fireworks will be a bit brighter because of so many going off at once. But try this with lightning too. Just be sure to stay safe. Lightning is dangerous.

Thanks, Lynn! That gives me an idea for a future article. Definitely stay safe around lightning AND fireworks!  Happy 4th!

A tripod is essential; however, using a tripod on a pontoon boat on a lake is not as steady as being on land.
I didn't have a cable release, so I used the self timer.

This photo was one of a series of photos that I shot on Lake Murray, South Carolina on a pontoon boat. I used ISO 400 speed film, so I didn't have any of the worries of DSLRs: battery life, memory cards, autofocus, white balance, etc. I had the shutter speed on 30 seconds, aperture at f/11 or 16, zoom lens at 205mm focused at infinity. I covered the lens between bursts and when I decided the photo had enough, I cancelled the 30 second exposure.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphhightower/6927249397/in/set-72157629083111744/lightbox/

Thanks for sharing your shots, Ralph!  You are correct, long exposure photography from any moving platform, tripod or not, is very problematic!  One nifty trick is to use a tripod on a boat, keep the boat sharp and in focus, and enjoy photos while the rest of the world gets blurry!  Happy 4th!

Good article.  I got some great shots last year by setting Shutter on 4 seconds. Trip the shutter when you hear the ground explosion sending up the projectile.  You can use this only when close to fireworks...not across the Hudson River!

Thanks for the compliment and the tip, Ivey!  Happy 4th!

The advice to scout your best location is top shelf. In my town I can't get NEAR the big annual fireworks show because the single best location is reserved for the sponsors, politicians and vips, and the second best viewing area is consumed by die-hard sardines who camp out that whole day. His advice about not ruining the show for the people behind you is good also. Written by an artist, not just a technician, imo.

Hi Jim! Thank you very much for the comments...especially your last. My MFA professors spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince me that I was an artist - not just a photographer. It looks like they may have succeded! :)  Happy 4th!

Thank you very much!  Just the info I needed.

Steve, thanks and good luck with the photos! Happy 4th!

I love the knowledge you have shared.
Thank you very much.
 

Thank you for your comments! You are very welcome. I am glad you enjoyed the article!

good article, learned a lot I didnt know.  Like the entire newsletter

Charlie, thanks for your compliment! I am glad you are enjoying Explora!

Happy 4th of July

Happy 4th to you, Barbara! Thanks for writing!

great article.concise and very informative and instructive.i am going add this  to my bookmarks,joseph

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