Photography / Tips and Solutions

How to Photograph 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!

Discussion 135

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel

For those of you interested in shooting fireworks using Fuji Instax film and cameras, I typed up my experiences with that!

Great stuff, Johnny! Thanks so much for sharing! Happy 4th!

Thanks Todd, you as well, and nice article too!  Forgot to mention that!

Thanks, Johnny! I am glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading!

Hy, Very nice tips. I made several time firework photography from my apartment, and I am lucky, because I see from the apartment the City Timisoara :) .

Here you can view all colection, from past 3 year of new year fireworks, and also some other celbrate day :

Hey Kiss!

Thanks for the email and thanks for sharing the awesome shots! Good stuff!

I am glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading!

I like to get streaks of light as the fireworks are shot off and before they explode. Another trick is to time how long it takes a dvice to travel and explode. Count 1/1000, 1/1000 etc. Chances are the devices will have similar launchand exploding times. You can't react fast enough to catch the shell as it explodes and then push the shutter release. DOn't worry about getting close and don't if you can find something interesting inthe foregorund it can help as well, particularly in a rural setting.

Hey Gary,

Great tips. Thank you for sharing and thanks for reading! 

Unfortally my shutter release remoute for BULB mode has broke, should I just advise with a 2 second timer and a 10 second shutter speed with F 22 and ISO sitting around 100? 

Hey Leo-Indi,

My advice: Get a new shutter release! 

Otherwise, you have two options: 1) the self timer as you described, or 2) just being really gentle when you press the shutter release on the tripod-mounted camera. If you camera has WiFi capabilities, you may be able to control the shutter with a smartphone or other mobile device.

Good luck and thanks for reading and thanks for your question!

No problem! Just use the camera bulb setting, hold a black card in front of the lens, open the shutter, remove the card for your desired exposure time, after replacing the black card in front of the lens close the shutter. No remote required.

Hey Robert,

Yep, that works, too...unless his BULB is broken at the camera, and not just the shutter release.

Thanks for helping!

I enjoyed the article and learned from it too!  I however, cannot setup as recommended but I do have a distinct advantage on many people.  I'm practicing on my fireworks photos at a place that has a show every night of the year.  Disney World offers me a wonderful opportunity to practice and improve these techniques but, due to the massive numbers of people, I cannot use a tripod (best I can hope for is a monopod), I therefor must shoot hand held.  I've discovered autofocus is a bad thing!  Manual focus on the castle or just behind it works best.  Being hand held, I must use a faster shutter speed which forces me to raise ISO or buy a much faster lens.  My best shots with my Sony a6000 have come at ISO 6400.  Still, the shutter speed is dangerously slow.  I plan shortly to go out again and see what I can do with ISO 8000.  I can do this a lot so, I have time and opportunity.  And my holy grail would be that fabulous lightning storm.  Thanks for the lessons.

Hey Steve,

Thanks for the tips and comments! Great stuff! What aperture are you using at those ISOs? What lenses?

Thanks for reading!

I've used the sony 18-55 f3.5 at around f4.5 at anywhere between 1/40 to 1/60.  And I've used the 35mm f1.8 at ~f4.5.  I've played with higher ISOs and am not real enthused with the results although they are still good.  I'm still practicing a lot and shooting a lot of pictures.  I figure that's the way to improve but, I find myself shooting and not thinking about each and every shot.  And that's like not concentrating on a golf shot.  I'm still trying to find the optimum setup for the perfect hand held fireworks photos!  My facebook friends seem to like them!


Hey Stevew_222,

With fireworks, practice definitely makes a lot of luck with the weather and the show!

Thanks for your tips and thanks for reading!

Todd, thank you for this very informative article. I am a hobbiest with photography and tonight they were shooting off fireworks in town so I googled "How to photograph fireworks" and your article came up. Thank you so much for all your knowledge. I was able to get a lot of cool shots and as you said, I had a great time doing it. I enjoyed the fireworks as much as I did photographing them. Thank you for taking the time to go over in depth how to photograph fireworks!!

Hey Darrell,

Awesome! I am glad the tips in the articles worked well for you AND you enjoyed the show too! Mission accomplished!

Thanks for reading!

Best written article on photography I have come across it not only applies to fireworks but to all phases of going out and getting that first good shot.First and foremost enjoy the art of learning and appreciate your surroundings.Don't let a bad shot spoil your outing.Have fun.I enjoyed reading your article!

Hey Robert,

Thank you so much for the kind words! I am glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for reading!

That was a very nice article but a day late for me to be of use. I went to the lake 3 hours early and found my spot to get a little forground and the water in the bottom of the frame. Set up my tripod and camera, made sure the settings were correct, the camera level and remote connected and sat down to wait. 1 minute into the display there came a downpour and then I realized I had forgot the most important item, my umbella! Grabbed my camera and blanket and ran under the nearest tree, but now it was too dark to find the horizon. Covered me and the camera with my blanket but I already had water drops on the lens. The f5.6 I chose was to large but I managed to salvage a few good shots in photoshop and Topaz Adjust.

Sorry, MERLIN08! I guess I should add a piece about inclement weather to the article! Thanks for reading and writing in!

This is really helpful information! It isn't full of jargon so is just right for the amateur photographer who wants to get some decent fireworks shots. Thanks! 

Thanks, Peggy! I hope you got some great shots!

Todd, thank you. Your tutorial is very informative.

For me, as an advanced amateur who has nevertheless not done much with fireworks, the most salient point was about getting it early in the display to avoid residual smoke that I may not want - despite the other helpful suggestion from another reader about setting WB to attenuate the reflected sodium vapor orange. (This may also help with post show traffic, since I will be going solo - my wife staying home to comfort the dog.)

You were brave to make this offering, since you may have known someone might hijack your initiative to promote their personal views (literally) and to pick apart your intentionally wide range of suggested settings. Your restraint and diplomacy are noted.

The piece is also great marketing for B&H, which I plan to reward it appropriately.

Thanks, David!

I am glad you enjoyed the article and hope you had some great success over the holiday weekend!

Not too brave here, David...just willing to defend my position as needed! Thanks for reading!

I tap the tripod during exposure to make the streams squiggle.

Cool tip, bob! Thanks for sharing!

White Balance vs haze over the city and city lights - how to get rid of the background orange wash from the city lights.

You had nice firework pictures, but you ended up with a heavy orange wash behind the scene. That is usualy caused by all the city lights (orange) reflecting on the natural haze, pollution, smog, or even the smoke from the fireworks.

Set your white balance to Tungsten - that will remove the orange glow from the city lights, with very little color losses to the firework itself. Give it a try.

Hey Regg,

Thanks for your comments. The photos are actually stock images, and not my own.

Great tips for white balance! Thanks for sharing!

Another comment on the ''focus'' aspect. The image on your camera screen looks sharp, but once you transfer everything on your PC, you end up with slight out of focus. That can happen as the focus can be easily touch inadvertently and you then scrap douzens of pictures.

To prevent that, after the very first picture - review the photo on your screen, and zoom in to maximum your picture. Any default (and out of focus) will then be very visible, while it was not apparent when looking all zoomed out. Then you can make small adjustments to get the crispy focus you want.

During the show, every 5 or 10 pictures - review the focus again and again by zooming max in to the picture. Remember, if you play with the lense's zoom, focus might need to be adjusted - specialy if you are close to the show. You better loose 15 seconds in a firework show, then an entire session ending with slightly out of focus pictures.

More great tips. Thanks, Regg!

Definitely check and re-check your focus...especially if in manual focus mode with today's nearly frictionless focus ring lenses!

I've found that setting the White Balance to Incandescent gives the truest colors. I also use f/8 or f/11 for ISO 100.

Thanks for the tips, Don! And, thanks for reading!

I remember those cold nights in Oak Harbor, down at the lagoon or out on the tied together boats in the harbor.  Good times, regardless.  Thanks for the article, Todd.  Happy shooting.

Hey Chuck,

Yep, some cold 4ths up in Oak Harbor! Thanks for reading!

Again a very profitable article, beutifully illustrated . Very good hints.

Thank you. 

Thanks, Walmir! I cannot take credit for the images, but thank you for reading!

From France, Merci Beaucoup ! Here in Paris, fireworks are on the 14th of july ! Don't miss it if you may come once... The Eiffel Tower, the Seine river and huge fireworks... It's wonderful!!! Happy 4th and true best greetings to all U.S. peoples. William.

Mon ami William,

Merci beaucoup for your greetings and best wishes. Happy Bastille Day to you and our French cousins!

I will second that!

Thank you, William! Enjoy your July the 14th celebrations!

Excellent article... clearly written and easy to comprehend.  Good stuff, thanks....

Thanks for the compliments, Bob. And, thanks for reading!

Very informative. Thanks will try it out.

Thanks for reading, Roshan! I hope you had some success!

Thank you for the tips. While taking night shots I have found that just a tiny bit of light behind me works best with my Nikon D3100 which I experimented with last year during a fireworks show. My shots were a lot clearer for some reason. The light was very low and as the night went on the phots were a lot better. I was also able to watch the show with friends because of the use of my remote shutter release. Thands again for the tips and reminders. I'm sure to have great success from the start this year.


Hi Pat,

Thanks for the tips! I hope you got some great shots this year!

Nice description of methods, techniques and what to expect when doing low light photography.


Terry Barber

Thank you, Terry! Happy shooting!

Show older comments