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 no technique is 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.
You enjoyed the fireworks show!
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, don’t 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 are up to you.
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 interchangeable-lens and other cameras with full manual controls.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Pocketful of memory cards: Just like with batteries, it's best to always have a spare whenever you are out doing photos.
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.
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.
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.
In addition, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Flash: Leave this off as well, unless you want to illuminate a foreground object.
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.
Mode: Manual. Yep, I am the guy who wrote an article entitled The Benefits for Using Auto Modes on Your Digital Camera, 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.
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.
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.)
Vibration Reduction: Off. These systems generally do not play well with tripods, so shut them off.
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.
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!
Do you have questions about photographing fireworks? Let us know in the Comments section, below!
My wife has a Canon Rebel 7 and loves taking night time photos including fireworks. If I wanted to get her a better night lens what would you suggest?
Not knowing what lenses she already has, you cannot go wrong with a 50mm f/1.8 optic!
Thanks for reading and let us know if you have more questions!
Went to Niagara Falls recently and got some nice shots. Several things worth mentioning:
1. Arrive early. Even on a weekday have to arrive early to avoid shooting over people's heads.
2. A lot of newer cameras (DSLR / Mirrorless) no longer use cable release. You'd release your shutter via a phone app.
3. When it comes to alignment, the camera needs to be aligned nicely against vertical objects like trees & buildings. The horizon is not always straight across the photo if you're shooting a coastline at a angle for instance. The coastline may be slanted but objects like buildings & street lights should be straight.
4. There is no perfect composition. You're using long exposures so while the shutter is open, you miss some bursts in between unless you're recording video. Shoot many shots and you'll find a few good ones. You don't know the outcome 100%
Hi, S H.! Thanks so much for taking the time to post your own tips for photographing fireworks. We know our readers will find them quite useful--we surely do.
I want to thank you for your excellent advices. They allowed me to get some unexspected shots that made me very happy. Your explanations are very clear and it was a real pleasure to follow your lead. I will search for other articles you wrote.
Thank you so much for the kind words on the article!
I am glad you got some great shots and please let me know if you have questions about this article or my others!
Thanks for reading!
Todd, I found your article just before a local fireworks show (that fortunately I was able to watch from my front yard). Just wanted to thank you for your "starting points and tips". I was able to set the camera up in very little time and shoot a short (15 min) fireworks display with some resulting beautiful images. Composition was less of an issue (as the fireworks were off in the distance, but a lake is in front of me, so there was a water reflection). This was my first time taking photos of FWs, so thanks for the help. The knowledge gained today will make the next shoot all that much better (one hopes). Thanks again.
Awesome to hear the article was helpful and you got some good shots!
Sounds like you already have a great and accessible location for the next event. :)
Happy 4th and thanks for reading and taking the time to give your feedback!
I found that shooting with auto ISO and 1/500 with -1Ev exposure compensation has done the trick with the Washington DC fireworks, where there is little space with the insane crowds and people move in and out of the way all the time. ISO usually sets itself to around 4000, but I don't have to worry about it that much since newer sensors are brilliant in low light!
Great guide for getting clean fireworks photos, though! I prefer stopping the motion for some reason, but I know lots of people who prefer the fire trails.
Great tips! Thank you!
What range did you have your Auto ISO set to? And, what camera are you using? And, did you get a bit of noise at ISO 4000?
Thanks for reading and sharing your experience!
Do you recommend to shoot the background earlier in the evening and then stack/merge it with the firework shoots? I really enjoyed your tips.
Great question and thank you for the kind words!
The answer to your query kind of depends on what look you are going for. Personally, I think a cityscape (or landscape)—with composited fireworks—might look best right after sunset during "blue hour." But, depending on where you are shooting...the scenery might lend itself to photos in darker darkness. Shoot both to cover all bases?
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have more questions!
Thanks, Todd. I will try that on Monday!
Good luck! Let us know how it goes!
And, Happy 4th!
Brief and to the point. Lots of golden nuggets in the article.
Thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading...always going for the gold here!
Very thoughtful tone and solid information Todd. Forgive me if you've already answered tis in the comment, or if it's too painfully obvious, but are all the accompanying photos your work. Sensational is the word that comes to mind. -RD @radphotos
I wish I could take credit for the photos, but I cannot! They are gorgeous photos...from a stock agency.
Thanks for reading...and complimenting those hard working stock photographers!
Great info and advice on the techniques on Fire works!
Thank you for the kind words, Michael!
And, thank you for reading Explora!
Awesome article. Here’s my question though…..at the end of the fireworks show, when they fire off multiple fireworks, how do you shoot that without completely blowing out the fireworks?
Thanks for the kind words on the article. I am glad you enjoyed it!
To answer your question, I might have to punt a bit. It is probably impossible for you to capture every burst of the grand finale in a single frame as there are so many bursts and a multitude of bright flashes—you can only try to fight the physics of light and cameras so much.
You could use the "black card" trick to try to mask the flashes and let the camera capture the bursts, but that will be tricky, if not a fun exercise in reflexes! You could also try to capture individual bursts and then create a montage later in post processing.
I hope this helps and sorry if my reply is too late to help this 4th!
"Next in the lineup: how to stop droughts so 4th of July shows can reintroduce fireworks into their displays."
That is a subject for a larger piece that may not fit so well on Explora.
However, there are some great photographers visually documenting climate change and it's human causal factors. Check out this B&H Podcast on the subject: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/podcasts/photography/podcast-from-photojournalism-to-fine-art-three-photographers-document-climate
As a B&H customer and photographer, there are some small steps you can take like shopping our Used Department (a form of recycling) and training your lens on subjects that help educate fellow citizens of the planet on how they can help out as well.
As we all try to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint, here's to hoping that governments and big businesses do their part as well.
Thanks for reading Explora!
You forgot to mention the best lens to use for shooting fireworks. Would it be a wide angle lens or something else?
Thanks for your question. I intentionally didn't mention a "best lens" because there are a lot of factors that play into selecting what focal length you want to use.
-How close to the show are you?
-Are you wanting to capture the entire width of the show or just close-ups of bursts?
So, the short answer is, a wide-angle lens will work best for capturing a wide view of the action, but a telephoto might be needed if you are far from the show or want to isolate some of the bursts.
I hope this helps! Let me know if you have more questions!
Thank you for the great tips. One additional tip to help with managing equipment in the dark, in a crowd, is to wrap a small neon glow stick around each tripod leg. These can be purchased at a dollar store and the bracelet style works well for tripods. People passing by can see where the legs are and avoid tripping over them. The light from the glow sticks is on the ground so it is not distracting to the camera mounted on the tripod.
Great idea! Thanks for that and thanks for reading!
Great guide - thank you. I am a bit surprised that you recommend Auto WB though. I don't know how cameras decide what WB to select, but if you open the shutter when the sky is back and a burst has just been launched, it would seem that the camera has very little information to use to make its decision. And over the length of the show the camera might make many different decisions and the resulting set of photos might have a very inconsistent look.
Great point there. Here is my $0.02 on the WB subject, getting a bit more specific...
If you shoot raw images, you will have the option of changing/"correcting" the WB in post-processing, so AWB is a "safe" setting to use. If you want to dial in a specific WB while still shooting raw, you are still safe.
For JPEG shooters, your flexibility is a bit more limited in post processing as far as WB is concerned, so, if you want to dial in a particular WB, then go for it, but know you might be stuck with some wonky colors.
Raw is the best bet and match them in post, or find the best setting in post for each shot!
Thanks for reading!
I have found that the shows tend to build over the course of the fireworks event. The grand finale is usually quite a bit more intense than the fireworks that are setoff earlier in the show. So if you are not paying attention, the grand finale may get over exposed. And those are usually the best fireworks of the event. You may have to adjust the F-Stop or shutter speed to keep from blowing out the finale.
Great points here!
The unfortunate thing, photographically, is that, unless there is a bunch of wind, there is a build-up of smoke in the air from all of the previous bursts...sometimes enough to muck up your photos of the finale!
Thanks for reading!
Just in time. I was looking at capturing some shots of the fireworks down south with my drone. It does pretty good night photos but I wanted to make sure it would do well with Fireworks. I will see how it goes. Hopefully something excellent can be captured!
Despite drone gimbals are very good you will not have it mounted in a tripod. Speed value more than 2 secs is highly probable that fixed elements like buildings and parked cars are going to be blurred. Also fire curves could be distorted.
If your drone camera have variable aperture like the Mavic 2 Pro you can try recommended aperture values.
If it is fixed it would be 2.8 or something similar. In this case you can attach neutral density filters like x3: f2.8 -> f8
Thanks for helping a fellow B&H customer, Daniel!
Please check for local temporary flying restrictions (TFRs) around the fireworks show. There are often restrictions for flying drones and other aircraft around fireworks shows.
Thanks for reading!
Great article! On New Year's Eve, I set up two cameras on two tripods with different focal lengths. Before the show, set up focus and exposure for 5 - 10 seconds. Put both cameras on high-speed burst. When the show starts, hit the shutter and lock it down. Adjust the position of the camera, if necessary. Then just sit back and enjoy the show. You will have everything, except maybe the first 30 seconds.
Luke, Thanks for sharing.
I have a panoramic view of the city's fireworks about a mile away and everything I need to take great photos. The confound: a bright street light about 500' away. Can you recommend settings for my Canon Rebel T6?
Honestly, the exposure recommendations would still remain the same. You cannot adjust the exposure for the street light without affecting the exposure of the fireworks. The best I can state is to try the settings already listed above, using ISO 100 or 200 on your camera, setting your aperture to f/8 or f/11, and vary your exposure using your shutter speed. The longer you hold the shutter open, the more the light will affect the image. As there is not much light outside, shooting at f/8 or f/11 at ISO 100 at night already would restrict all but the brightest lights from affecting the image. If you need a longer shutter speed to view more light trails from the fireworks, use a smaller aperture such as f/16 or f/22 if your lens has it, and/or use ISO LO or ISO LO1 if your camera has it, which would further reduce the amount of light entering the camera. As today is July 3, 2020, if you have the ability, you can set up at the location tonight and take test shots before the fireworks show and judge your exposure and shutter speed time and view the effect of the street light to see how much it may affect the outcome. That being said, the first image on the top of this post shows building lights and boats/barges with bright lights in the scene. As stated in the article, some foreground elements may be beneficial in setting the scene of your image. If none of the above work, you may try adjusting the framing, or if all else fails, some post-processing work in your chosen photo-editing software may be necessary to enhance your image and reduce distractions.
For this year how about using a graduated neutral density filter to lower the exposure of the street?
Thanks, i will try these settings out when photographing, any tips on video settings? im using a Sony a6400.
Hey jamal...Great question and not one I can answer! I will forward this to one of our video experts!
With video you'll have a bit of a challenge depending on your setup and what you want to capture. You could try time-lapse, in which case just use all the advice above. Or, for true video you should use a tripod and very similar exposure settings (absolutely stick to manual). Using a mid-range aperture will help and for shutter speed you may benefit slightly from breaking the 180-degree shutter rule and going down to 1/40 or 1/30 second to get a little more of the fireworks trailing in the sky. It's going to be a bit of guesswork if you can test beforehand unfortunately.
Great article (& comments too) - encapsulate the best of other articles and experience.
I use one of those finger lights (small - use a couple of hearing aid batteries) to keep my pollution under control.
Smoke can add to a shot - review and think unique cropping.
I like the idea of reviewing meta-data for exposure etc. I use wired remote on Bulb - composing as I enjoy the show.
Another photog is a great asset if you want to establish and maintain a desirable shooting position.
I put my tripod up to tippy-toe height or above and tilt the camera around to see settings - I shoot for exposure up to the start then for composition via review screen afterwards.
I like a wide angle lens - especially now that sensors are over 20 MPix.
I came across this article years after B&H published it as I was cleaning out old emails (I was over my 15GB limit) LOL.
Thanks for the kind words and for your tips as well! Great stuff! Sorry you missed the email, but glad you found this now!
Have a great weekend!
Be aware that smoke from fireworks is hazardous to breathe and fallen ash can damage your equipment. I woke up with sniffles the morning after a fireworks show and discovered that the Hoya HMC UV(C) filter protecting my Nikon 18-35mm lens was etched. Better to sacrifice a $30 filter than a $800 lens! I now know to clean my glass and wipe down my gear immediately after a show. Also, a dust mask and fire blanket would be prudent protection for your person.
Thanks for those pointers! That is crazy that the ash damaged your filter! Who knew?
We appreciate you stopping by and sharing your story!