How to photograph fireworks

We have all seen our fair share of blurry smartphone photos that vaguely look like fireworks. Smartphone cameras are getting better, but they are still no match for an actual camera and a bit of knowledge. If you are looking to add some great firework shots to your archives then you have landed on the right page.

The aim of this article is to help you take technically better and more interesting photos of fireworks. It is broken into the following sections:

  • Recommended Gear
  • Technical Settings
  • Shooting Process
  • Creative Ideas

Recommended Gear to photograph fireworks

  • Tripod – A tripod is an essential part of any night photography set up. Some of the exposures will be around 10-20 seconds depending on the ambient light. Unless you have three legs and a ball head I recommend getting yourself a tripod. This is the best one I have ever used.
  • A spare battery – Always. If you don’t have extras then pick up a couple here. Just make sure they work with your camera.
  • A spare memory card – Always. I recommend using Lexar cards they are cheap and fast.
  • A piece of black cardboard – This helps you to control the exposure. You can only allow the camera to expose certain parts of the explosions.
  • A headlamp – Whenever you do any sort of night photography I recommend getting yourself a headlamp. It allows you to get your footing and settings sorted. But more importantly it allows you to do the final check just before you leave to ensure you haven’t dropped anything. LED Lenser make the best ones.
  • A cable release – I always put this down as an optional part of the night photography kit providing that your camera has a 2-10s delay mode. That said a cable release will really help you to get better photos by allowing you to take the photos when you want instead of 2s later. I recommend a nice cheap one such as this. But, make sure to get one that will work with your camera.

Technical Settings

  • Mode – Manual mode for sure. Night photography is a little confusing for the computers inside our cameras. The best way to overcome this is to take control yourself. It might sound intimidating but trust me it is far from it.
  • ISO – Because we are on a tripod we can keep this pretty low which allows long exposures with many explosions in it. Plus the light emitted by the fireworks will add a lot to help exposing the image. Set it at a low value like 100-200 and raise it to 400-800 only if you need shorter exposure times.
  • Aperture – The tripod allows a lot of flexibility with aperture. I recommend having a decent depth of field to ensure sharper images. Start with around f8 to ensure sharp images. Try moving it up to f16 to get starbursts on the lights. When doing this you will often need to raise the ISO too.
  • Shutter Speed – This is what you will change the most as the night goes on. The shutter speed will depend on how dark it is and whether you have items in the foreground. If you are at ISO100 and f8 and it is dark then I would suggest starting with an exposure time of 10-15 seconds then you can increase or decrease it from there.
  • Flash – Off for sure.
  • Image Stabilisation – Off. When on a tripod the IS will fight against the stabilisation of the tripod often making the images soft.
  • White Balance – Most cameras the auto white balance should be fine. If you are taking RAW photos then you do not need to worry here because this can be edited at a later date.
  • Focus – As with any night photography your ability to autofocus will depend on the quality of your camera. I tend to always stick to manual focus when doing night photography as it reduces the chance of missing the moment.

Follow these steps to make manual focus at night easy for yourself:

  1. Roughly frame your shot.
  2. Flick your camera (or lens) to manual focus.
  3. If it is already dark then raise up the ISO to 6400 or higher so you can see easier.
  4. Put live view mode on and move the “focus” point an area that you would like to be in focus. i.e. base of firework station or something in the distance.
  5. Zoom in as far as possible (not with the lens) by pushing the magnifying glass on in live view.
  6. Rotate the focus ring until the area desired is in focus.
  7. Reset the ISO back to where you started and take a test shot.
  8. Reframe the shot as necessary (no more zooming in and out) and prepare for the show.

For more of an explanation of how the Aperture, ISO and Shutter speed interact with each other check out the article on exposure here

Shooting Process

Get to the show slightly earlier to ensure that you have time to set up and get focus etc. Frame up the shot you want. Try to get something else in the shot other than fireworks. We all know what fireworks look like…

Put your camera on a tripod pointing in the direction of the fireworks show :). Set your camera to Manual mode. Dial in f8 at 10 seconds with an ISO of 200. The drive mode should be on a 2s timer delay so that you push the button and let go before taking the picture. Or you can connect a remote shutter release.

Take a test shot before the fireworks begin in order to see how the exposure looks. If it is too overexposed then bring the shutter speed down to 5s and see how that looks. remember that the fireworks will add light so you want to be slightly underexposed before you start. Again, read this if you are at all confused about exposure.

This is especially important for any elements other than the fireworks that you have included into the composition. If they are close to the fireworks then you want to slightly underexpose them. The light from the fireworks will help them “cook” into the image. Cook them too much and it becomes burnt (no good).

Note: The best shots often occur at the beginning of the show. As smoke builds up around the explosions you will find that the shots collect more and more light which can lead to overexposure. So keep this in mind.

It is very easy to overexpose a fireworks photo, so, 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 or use a faster shutter speed. Slightly underexposed images can be corrected in post but overexposures cannot. Like an undercooked meal, you can cook it more (in post), but it’s hard to recover a burned steak.

The black card that was mentioned in the recommended equipment section is used to further control the exposures. Here you can put the camera on 20-30 second exposures. Place the black card in front of the lens to stop any light going into the lens. Then as the fireworks explode you can remove the card to capture that moment of light then replace the card until the next shell explodes.

This way you can stack multiple explosions together. Remember as each explosion adds more light you are liable to overexpose a few photos during the show. Keep checking the LCD screen and adjust the exposure accordingly as you go.

Creative Ideas to Photograph Fireworks

I will start by saying don’t be dumb! A funny creative idea can quickly end up in a trip to a hospital or a long soak in a cold bath. Don’t come back to me with a melted arm and say it was Ben’s fault. Please. I would hate to see any of you hurt!

Try writing with sparklers to create patterns. Finally freezing those shapes that we always thought we were making. Use a burst of flash if you want to illuminate and freeze the person holding the fireworks.

Experiment with depth of field by taking a photo of a friend close up with the fireworks out of focus in the background. Put your camera on Aperture priority. Open your lens to the lowest f-number (f1.4, f2 or f2.8) and set your ISO to around 3200 or 6400. You should be able to hand hold these shots!

Try zooming in on the photo while the camera is on the tripod and exposing. This will create amazing zoom bursts on the images.

Final Thoughts

Fireworks photography can be tricky. If you are persistent you will get a good photograph. Make sure to capture a few explosions once exposure settings dialled. This ensures a greater chance of getting a decent shot.

Once you have a “classic” shot in your camera then get creative. I have hundreds of fireworks photos in my archive from a single location with only the explosions changing in each shot. Boring! Re-frame, shoot the fireworks out of focus, pull zoom and go nuts. Photography is all about light. This is a very unique and expensive type of light that only happens a couple of times a year. Make the most of it.

Lastly, don’t forget that you are there to enjoy the show. So make sure to remember to look up from time to time and soak in the entire experience. Do it during 20-second exposures and you are killing two birds with one stone!