How to Photograph Fireworks

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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!

201 Comments

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. 

Thanks, Luke!

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.

Thanks, i will try these settings out when photographing, any tips on video settings? im using a Sony a6400.

Thanks again

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.

FINALLY:

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.

Keep shooting!

Hey William!

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.

Hi Ken,

Thanks for those pointers! That is crazy that the ash damaged your filter! Who knew?

We appreciate you stopping by and sharing your story!

Great article! The one thing about photographing fireworks that I find the most problematic is the &**^ mosquitoes, remember to take some bug spray but be CAUTIOUS OF YOUR GEAR some sprays will HARM PLASTICS!

Thanks, Norm!

Good point about the bug spray. I got pinged on my night photo gear article on that as well. New York City, despite its drawbacks, is relatively free of mosquitoes. We do make up for it with an exploding rat and cockroach population, however! :)

Enjoy the 4th!

I will be trying these settings, on the display at met police club Watford in 2 weeks time, I have my place sorted, and I'll let you know the results 

Good luck, Paul!

Hello, Again!!! James Mitchell is my name, and I did some greatest Photographic Imagings of Fireworks in where I took one as a Class at/for City Arts in also where it is taught by my Instructor named Douglas Robertson in which I have just passed the course after submitting some unique images Color Digital Photography of 3 or mabye 4 Different Images at a time. I still got it on Maunal and set it to Bulb to be ready to go, indeed!!! I Love Photographing some Fireworks as a part for my own class in that I took really makes me very, very, Happy, indeed and from now on!!!

Congratulations, James!

Thanks 4 the Compliment, Todd!!!

Welcome! :)

Good article, spot on. I do 3 fireworks shows each year with about 200 "keepers" per show. My settings are Manual mode, Manual focus (set to near infinity), ISO 200, f13, 6 sec, AWB, noise and vibration stuff off. I use a Vello Shutterboss to trigger the shutter release every 8 sec which leaves 2 sec to observe in the LCD the results so the aim/zoom can be readjusted (note this causes some shots to miss as there are periods where nothing is going on during the 6 sec exposure). If going to a new show plan on talking two different lenses because if you are too close or far away the evening is lost, I always return to the same spot so I know in advance what lens to bring.

Hey Ed!

Thanks for the tips! 200 keepers? Do you have lots of wall space? :)

Happy 4th!

Thanks for the tip.  Worked out great

I hope my tips worked out for you as well!

Great article! A bit about post processing. If you're using LightRoom, moving the "Blacks" slider to the left can take down whatever light may be in the sky, and also darken up some of the residual smoke. Don't forget to pump up the vibrance or saturation while you're at it. Add some contrast and sharpening , and whammo, you've got yourself some great fireworks shots!

Great tips for post, Paul! Thanks for stopping by!

Happy 4th!

don't forget the bug spray!! I love the article, thank you!

Great tip! I often forget that as I am usually doing these shots near the strangely-bug-less Manhattan.

It's easy to get a good exposure of just the fireworks in a dark sky at ISO 200, f11 for 10 seconds.  What makes a better and more difficult photo is adding a foreground like a building, crowd, or bridge. Try to get your shooting done ealy and before the grand finale.  The skies often accumulate 'smog' and dirty air from previous fireworks going off.  Also the grand finale usually has way to many fireworks going off at once.

2) The black card to accumulate multiple fireworks is a good idea.

3)  If you like Photoshop, make some exposures without and fireworks and before the fireworks begin. Then add fireworks when and where your like later. Pretty easy.

4) Unfortunately, not all public events allow tripods.  Don't be afraid to crank your ISO / sensitivity to 2000, shoot a wide angle lens, wide open (f 4) and see what you get.

The best is your iPhone. Fun and send the photos out Immediately.

Hey John,

Thanks for the tips! All good ones! I hope you got some great shots.

Happy 4th!

I have had success with shots at f8 and f11 and exposures of 5 seconds or more, ISO 100. This allows for the fireworks to track longer and have a shower effect.  That being said, if a particular firework is a bright white burst it will probably wash out the shot.  Zoom in on them. Don't just shoot the entire fireworks top to bottom. Have fun and don't forget to enjoy them too

Thanks for the tips, Scott! Good stuff!

Happy 4th!

Really helpful.   Thanks.

Thanks for reading, Jon!

Todd,

A great article and just in time for our local fireworks event. 

One additional suggestion on the technical front: I've found it best to set up my tripod with one leg to my right, one to the left, and one in front of the camera. This provides a clear operating space behind the camera... especially at night. I can't tell you how many times I kicked that stupid third leg of the tripod before I figured out there's a better way. 

Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Hi JT,

Thanks for the kind words!

Great tip! That is a good one. However, if you are up against a fence or a wall, you usually get to share real estate with that 3rd leg. Trust me, my tripod is very familar with the feel of my shoes and feet!

Happy 4th!

Thank you for the wonderful suggestions you offer us in this wonderful article. Fireworks photography is tricky. It takes a lot of patience.

Thanks, Walmir!

Todd,

An excellent article, well worth the time to reread. I would like to add one point, which I think is worthy of consideration: instead of, or in addition to a flashlight, I find my Petzl lamp to be very useful. Since it is strapped to my head, both hands are free. In addition, I can change the color of the lamp to red, which helps with night vision. The lamp is small and takes up very little room in my bag.

As I said, the article is well worth a reread, which I intend to do now.

Hi Richard,

Great tip with the head lamp!

However, I will add this to that tip:

When using a head lamp (or flashlight) be conscious of where you shine it and when you use it. Night photography workshop instructors universally despise head lamps because students have the propensity to leave them on at all times and shine them in the face of others (unintentionally, of course). I am a fan of the head lamp when out doing night photos in rough terrain or abandoned industrial areas, but try not to use them when others are near.

I hope the article was just as good the 2nd time around!

Happy 4th!

Todd,

I should have added those points; keeping the lamp set to red goes a long way to reducing the problems you described. Regardless of location, I also use the lamp only as necessary. One should be able to operate a camera in near darkness, using light only when it is otherwise difficult to read settings. Cameras with a Quick Control button and dial, such as the Canon 5D, allow you to see settings on the LCD monitor, greatly reducing the need for flash lights or head lamps.

As with your other articles, a second read was well worth the time. A lot of great information.

Thanks,

Richard

Hey Richard!

Thanks for clarifying. I do agree that a red or green light is less intrusive than white, but today's LED lights can be pretty intense when viewed directly, regardless of their power. I am sure you are not the guy, but I do know some workshop instructors who are considering carrying firearms to disable head lamps at a distance! :)

Thanks for reading, again! Cheers!

Thank you very much for publishing this fine article about photographing fireworks.  I just purchased an eBook on the same subject for $9.00 US (marked down).  Your article covers all the same topics just as well as the one that I bought.  With the 4th of July in full swing I know I will be ready to go out and get some fantastic pictures equipped with the knowledge I need to accomplish it.  However, you also remind us to have fun!  Enjoy the display and be one with the crowd  The pictures we take of such events as this are great reminders for reinforcing our memories of these wonderful times.

Hi JOHN,

Sorry about that $9 purchase! Next time, stop by B&H first and put that hard-earned money towards a new lens or camera! :)

Thanks for reading and Happy 4th!

I have gotten some great shots with my point and shoot Panasonic Lumix. It is, however, a game of chance but that can make it fun. I use a tripod, the fireworks setting and the self timer and just keep firing away. No real control over what I will get, but I have had spectacular results along with lots of deletes.

Hey Judith,

It is the hits that count...not the misses! 

Happy 4th!

Shooting thr foreground before dusk can lend some post processing opportunities with layering... ?!

Yes !

Just watch out for that super-HDR look!

Thanks, Jeff!

I have photographed many fireworks... all of the above is spot on. I would only add is that I have had the best luck with 1-2 second exposure time. Great fun!

Hey Douglas,

Thanks for the kind words and the tip!

Cheers! Happy 4th!

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