15 Tips for Successful Fireworks Photography - Digital Photography School

15 Tips for Successful Fireworks Photography

fireworks-tips-dps-08With the summer coming up and different celebrations you may have the opportunity to photograph some fireworks.  If you’re in the USA you have the 4th of July, in Canada July 1st.  In many other places you can find fireworks festivals or competitions even, or special occasions when fireworks may be set off including weddings, New Years Day or course and of course at Disneyland!

So here’s a few tips to help you photograph fireworks. The biggest thing to remember is that it’s all about practice, experimentation, and the following mantra (say it with me!)

SHOOT – REVIEW – ADJUST – REPEAT

Please remember that if you’ve never tried fireworks before it’s all trial and error and I’ve made a lot of mistakes myself before I got any images that I was happy to show anyone.  Each time I photograph fireworks there’s always some element that’s unpredictable so you have to learn to adapt and learn from your own mistakes, correct for next time and do it again. So take these tips to help you get started.

15 tips for fireworks photography

#1 Use the right equipment: use a sturdy tripod and remote to fire the camera  and bring an extra battery as long exposures tend to use them up quickly.  I say STURDY tripod because it needs to hold your camera steady for several seconds without sinking, tipping, or wobbling. I wrote an article on my site on Tips for buying a tripod of you need more info on what to get.

This image was actually purchased by the company that put on the fireworks show in Portland.

This image was actually purchased by the company that put on the fireworks show in Portland.

#2 Set your ISO low like 100 or 200, for a couple reasons. First the higher the ISO you use the more noise you’ll introduce into your images, so keep it low to prevent that. Noise also lives in blue areas of images and nighttime has a lot of blue so that compounds the issue.  Long exposures also tend to increase noise so if you add it all up you get a lot of noise so keep the ISO low to eliminate that variable.

#3 Turn OFF long exposure noise reduction.  This setting, while it does a really good job of noise reduction, adds an extra complication you don’t need when doing photography of fireworks.  The way it works is that if you take say a 10 second exposure, it takes a second one of equal length but just black (the shutter doesn’t open). Then it merges the two together and blends the blank one into the shadow areas of the first one which is where noise typically shows the most. The problem is that fireworks happen so fast you don’t want to have to wait 10 seconds to be able to see your image, make any adjustments and shoot again. I did this once my accident and it was very frustrating and I missed most of the show and did not get the results I wanted because I couldn’t review and correct.

#4 Do NOT use live view if your camera has it. This will eat up your battery really fast. Live view is really for shooting video and using the display screen so much uses a lot of power, as does making long exposures.  Save your battery for actually shooting and set up your shot using the eyecup viewfinder.
fireworks-tips-dps-09

#5 set your camera on Manual mode for exposure and set your aperture to f5.6 or f8.  Those apertures are pretty optimal for fireworks as the light streaks are controlled by the size of the aperture.  Closing down more will make the light trails thinner, opening up more will make them wider and possible too over exposed.  Do some tests but all the times I’ve done fireworks I keep coming back to f8 as my preference.

#6 Set your shutter speed to between two and ten seconds.  Do a test shot before the show starts and see if the sky is too dark or too bright and adjust the exposure time accordingly. As long as you’re under 30 seconds you can let the camera time the shots for you.  Or you can switch to Bulb and just open and close manually when you feel you’ve captured enough bursts in one image.

#7 Focus your lens ahead of time, and then turn off AF otherwise the camera will keep trying to refocus every shot and you may end up with missed images or blurry fireworks if the camera misses. Assuming you’re a fair distance away from the fireworks you shouldn’t have to refocus at all unless you change your angle of view or want to focus somewhere else, like the people in front of you.

#8 Use a neutral density filter to get a longer exposure if need be.   If it’s not 100% dark out yet it (the sky still has some light) this will allow you to get a longer exposure and make sure the fireworks bursts have a nice arch.  If your exposure is too short you’ll end up with short stubby looking bursts, not the nice umbrella shaped ones. If yours are too short, just make the exposure time longer. If you are getting too many bursts in one shot and it’s coming out over exposed, shorten the exposure time.  Using the ND filter if it IS dark will also allow you to shoot longer exposures and capture more bursts per image.  Play with that and try it with and without the filter if you have one.  A polarizing filter will work to a lesser degree also.

ISO 100, f/10, 1 second

ISO 100, f/10, 1 second – notice the bursts don’t really make a nice arch? A longer exposure will make your trails longer. You choose how you want them to appear and adjust accordingly.

#9 Shoot most of your shots at the start of the show to avoid the smoke/haze that appears a bit later. Eventually the sky will be filled with smoke and it’s not as pretty looking.  That’s when I’ll try some close ups or abstracts (keep reading for more on that later)

#10 Scout your location ahead of time and get there early to get a good spot, think about background (what’s behind the show) and if you want the people around and in front of you as part of the shot. In general the good viewing areas fill up sometimes 1-2 hours prior to the fireworks show. If you want a good spot with enough room for you and your tripod, go early and take a good book or something to entertain you while you wait.

Notice I've included the crowd to show perspective.

Notice I’ve included the crowd to show perspective.

#11 Make sure you leave enough room in your frame to anticipate the height of the opened bursts. Adjust as necessary if you miss on the first shot – it’s a lot of trial and error and correcting. It’s often hard to tell where the highest fireworks will end up in the sky, you may want to try both horizontal and vertical compositions.

Try a vertical composition for an added sense of power, especially if you can get a reflection like this one.

Try a vertical composition for an added sense of power, especially if you can get a reflection like this.

#12 It takes a bit of practice to time your shots when you hear the fireworks being released, so ideally you capture a few bursts.  Do some testing to see how many bursts is just right for your taste.  Try some with more, and some with less. Having too many may overexpose the overall image, so keep that in mind.

#13 Shoot into the eastern sky not facing west, if you want a darker sky. Here in Edmonton we are quite far north and even by 10:30pm in the summer the sky is not fully dark yet.  I’ve found that when I shoot into the sunset my sky gets too blown out and the lights of the fireworks don’t show up as well as they do against a darker sky.  So try and find a vantage point that has you facing east when possible if that’s an issue for you as well.

Western facing, notice the sky isn't dark enough and the fireworks seem lost against it.

#14 Try some telephoto shots as well as the usual wide, try some close ups zoomed in tighter for something a bit more abstract. For this you will need to aim basically into thin air and try to anticipate where the bursts will open

Abstracted using a longer lens, I think they look like palm trees.

Abstracted using a longer lens, I think they look like palm trees.

#15 if you have a zoom lens try zooming during the exposure and see what you get!  If you’re going to try this make sure you have focused at the most zoomed in point of the lens.  Try different technique including counting 1/2 the exposure before you zoom, or zooming right away and the last 1/2 is zoomed out. Try zooming fast, then slow. Try more bursts, or less. Get some city lights in the shot too.

ISO 100, f/6.3, 6 seconds - zoomed during exposure.

ISO 100, f/6.3, 6 seconds – lens zoomed during the exposure.

Summary

The biggest tip I can give you overal is experiment with your settings to get the look you want. Use my settings above as a starting point, adapt to your situation and your camera equipment until you’re happy with the results.

Have a great time this summer trying these out and don’t forget to share your images of fireworks, and any additional tips you’d like to add.

Also Read: check out our previous post on How to Photograph Fireworks Displays.

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Darlene Hildebrandt is the Managing Editor of dPS. She is also a photographer and educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their photography skills through photography classes, and photography travel tours (join her in Nicaragua in November). Darlene has a FREE ebook (grab a copy here), and an online course 4 Weeks to Better Photography, use the code "dps10off" to get $10 off.

  • Guest

    It’s that time of year again! This is my first of the year. I was dismayed by how long the bulb shots took to save. I think noise suppression might be the problem. They didn’t shoot off where I expected so I’m going to merge some exposures for foreground interest.

  • Ramona Boston

    Interesting. The photos when attached were tiny so I deleted the post and tried to reenter. Said I couldn’t repost the same post then the system posted it under guest so I can’t edit. I’m wondering if I need to use IE rather than Firefox for this site?

  • Somak Ray

    Very well thought and practical tips thanks a lot for sharing
    #3 Switching off long exposure noise reduction is very important.LENR comes as default in some Nikon Cameras like my D700. It might be tricky to find it in the field, so shut it off beforehand.

    It may be useful to have an wide angle auxiliary viewfinder, like those used in rangefinder cameras of the yester years mounted on the flash hot-shoe. For in SLR when the viewfinder goes black for the 2-3 seconds during the exposure you can see where the next bursts are going to happen and frame the camera for the next shot.
    The following pic is taken with a Nikon F5 film camera on Fuji Reala 100 ISO film.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/somakray/4877255181/

  • http://jason.bennee.com/blog/ Jason Bennee

    I find a four second exposure gets results like this.
    http://jason.bennee.com/blog/tag/firework/

  • Diana Smith

    Just a beginner myself, I thank you for “giving” me this info. to read for “FREE” & not charging me for everything, but to help me better myself in learning more on how to better my camera shooting :)

  • GustavoMoranChacon
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnthiel/ John Thiel

    What I haven’t seen anyone mention is, try to get more in the photo than just fireworks bursts. It’s a cool achievement the first time you get that perfect burst, and that’s why we shoot fireworks because we want to see them that way, but if you can get the whole scene in the frame then you have a great photo.

  • RickDowns
  • Courtney Long

    Thank you very much for sharing these excellent tips. The photos I took before reading the article didn’t please me at all, but the ones taken using these tips made me quite happy!

  • SteveR

    Unfortunately, all my images are over 2 meg in size. I didn’t read the article until after the fireworks, but still got some good images. It will be better next year thanks to the article and comments.

  • Vali

    Not perfect first try at fireworks so much to learn but enjoying the process.

  • Guest

    Independence Day in San Diego, CA. I would love your comments. :)

  • style in the pocket
  • Guest

    Sarasota July 4th 2014

  • Guest

    Down town Sarasota July 4th 2014

  • Philip Podskalan

    Downtown waterfront Sarasota July 4th 2014

Some older comments

  • nick mares

    July 1, 2013 03:40 pm

    Hi Darlene and contributors to this thread.
    Nice timing for this article.
    After reading all the above and the links, I got the bug to shut fire works.
    Thank you for sharing with us.

    Here is one sample from June 30th 2013

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/33385365@N08/9181901438/in/photostream/

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    July 1, 2013 12:55 pm

    @David - That same article was linked to earlier on the original site here:
    http://www.diyphotography.net/long-exposure-fireworks-tutorial

    I see you are the writer of the original which is great, very cool and I may try it myself. Why are there so many versions of your article out there on the net? Wouldn't you want it on your site or did you write it for another site?

  • David Johnson

    July 1, 2013 06:12 am

    Nice article! Very helpful.

    I wrote a little tidbit on how to get more creative with fireworks photography, might be of help!

    www.daveyj.ca/fireworks

    Cheers,
    David

  • sean

    June 29, 2013 04:16 pm

    Really psyched to get out and take some fireworks photos this summer. Thanks for the tips Darlene.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    June 25, 2013 06:43 am

    @Tara great, if you liked this one watch for my next article coming soon with tips for parade photography!

    @Ashiq glad to hear it, good job!

  • Tara

    June 23, 2013 09:17 am

    This is very informative (without being boring) and as a new photographer I appreciate that, Darlene. Great photos! Thanks so much! :)

  • Ashiq

    June 20, 2013 03:35 pm

    @Darlene: Thank you for the comments. For a photography enthusiast like me, it's really encouraging.
    Those photos were taken using a Canon S3 IS point-and-shoot camera. Placed camera on a wall and click on time; I haven't done anything to alter the colors. And those photos gave me enough courage to buy an SLR :-)

  • Kiran

    June 18, 2013 02:28 pm

    @Darlene- yes I leaned over the railing to steady the shots. Visited you webpage... pretty neat

  • Darlene

    June 18, 2013 06:27 am

    @Ashley - great shots of the Australia day fireworks! Yes good tip on the blacks, I totally agree.

    @tom m - yes all true, but what if people aren't using Photoshop or something to merge two images together? Unless I'm doing a software article I try and give tips for in camera.

    @Corey cool shots of the carnival ride also, same principals at work

    @javier - not sure what you mean? if you're using a wide angle you need to be closer otherwise they will be very small in the frame. Many of my examples above are done with a wide lens. The same principals apply to any lens you choose it will just give you a different perspective.

    @richard - good point! Yes I usually set mine to tungsten also as that balances most of the city lights quite well. I also shoot raw so I can tweak them all a bit later if need be in LR.

    @Nick that's a great tip but not always possible if the fireworks are set off in the middle of a city with no large body of water nearby.

    @Kiran - pretty good job without a tripod! I'm guessing you leaned on the railing or something to steady the camera. I really like some at the end of your album like this one https://plus.google.com/photos/110935179623208429347/albums/5777933321673700673/5777933550089993346?authkey=CNeMoqOlhOfNMQ&pid=5777933550089993346&oid=110935179623208429347

    @Ashiq - nice job on the reflection in the water. They look really bright red, where they they intense or did you alter the colors alter in computer?

  • Ashiq

    June 16, 2013 05:42 pm

    Thanks for the tips.
    Some photos taken during the firework championship help at Muscat, Oman.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashiqpm/5268878373/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashiqpm/5257095805/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ashiqpm/5269472106/

  • matooz

    June 15, 2013 11:52 am

    I remember shooting film on independence day and keeping my fingers crossed when getting the prints back. Digital makes life so much easier to make adjustments and capture the moment.

  • Kiran Gurunath

    June 14, 2013 03:15 pm

    Nice article. I learnt some of lessons during my first fireworks photo-shoot @ CHIBA, JAPAN. I was on 24th Floor and the fireworks was happening overlooking the apartment.
    These photos were without tripod and it was a cold night and i was shivering.... !!
    Lesson1 : tripod a must ...
    Lesson2: always have a jacket / sweater with you for night photography...

    https://plus.google.com/photos/110935179623208429347/albums/5777933321673700673?authkey=CNeMoqOlhOfNMQ

  • nick mares

    June 14, 2013 12:08 pm

    nice article for this time of the year. to me the best picture for fireworks are along the lake or other body of water to get reflection.
    some sample of fireworks shots
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/33385365@N08/8719624238/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/33385365@N08/4788532476/in/set-72157620691518725/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/33385365@N08/6610880515/

  • Richard

    June 14, 2013 10:04 am

    Darlene, Great article. One topic I think is missing, and it does seem to not be mentioned in most fireworks articles. What do you set your white balance to? I've done both daylight and tungsten (yellow vs. blue) and personally like tungsten. Interested in your settings. Thanks

  • Javier

    June 14, 2013 09:47 am

    Great article Darlene. I wonder if you have any more tips regarding usage of a wide angle or fisheye lens for shooting fireworks?

  • Corey

    June 14, 2013 07:30 am

    It's been a while since I shot fireworks but it's really fun. I think part of the problem is that we see firworks so rarely here in Melbourne. Here are some from Moomba a few years ago...
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/inlina/sets/72157626251881108/

  • Tom M

    June 14, 2013 01:03 am

    #3 Turn OFF long exposure noise reduction
    Generally would agree, but those dark frames comes in handy for later use in imaging software. If your camera doesn't normally save them after internal processing, you might try making them before hand so you'll have them. Take a number of black frames before the show starts at various exposure lengths. Use 5 second increments up to the longest exposure you think you'll use that night.

  • Ashley

    June 13, 2013 10:47 pm

    Nice article. I found the best way to get some POP and wow factor was to boost the blacks in lightroom. and then to tone back the highlights. That seems to give a nice balance to the image without hurting your eyes on the overexposed trails.

    Good reflections definitely help to add interest and symmetry to the shot

    check out two shots from this years fireworks here in Perth on Aussie day.

    http://www.chillishots.net/travel/the-australia-day-fireworks/

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    June 12, 2013 07:30 am

    @Brian the vibrant colors come from NOT overexposing the bursts. I also shoot raw files so that I can pull back the highlight area details using LR and that keeps the light trails more colorful that just blown out white.

    @Cramer yes good tip, no one likes eating smoke!

    @satesh awesome I hope you do try it

    @sameer see above re: getting more colors and wow thanks for sharing that other article. I've never tried that technique now I'm going to give that a go next fireworks I photograph. Thanks for that, very cool.

    @steve nice job!

    @jaclyn yes bulb works well too. My only hesitation in recommending it is not all cameras have bulb settings. Most SLRs do but these tips can be done with any camera that has manual mode even a small point and shot. If you do have bulb you can try this, I find that you have to really watch your exposures because it's easy to leave it opened too long and get an overexposed sky or too many bursts. Just remember to shoot, review and adjust and that works great.

  • Jaclyn

    June 11, 2013 11:13 pm

    I have found that shooting in bulb mode works really well because each shot can be a different shutter speed, yet you don't have to constantly change the shutter speed. This way you have full control of shutter speed the whole time.

  • Paul Singh

    June 11, 2013 09:59 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing :)

  • Steve

    June 11, 2013 05:51 pm

    Fireworks are a fun challenge to shoot

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Italy-And-The-Alps/G0000EEa8wwQ_26I/I0000pUbwn06SqY8

  • Sameer

    June 11, 2013 02:42 pm

    Nice article.
    I too, rarely get such nice colors :(
    Another article i found interesting, How To Photograph Spiky Fireworks With Long Exposure (http://www.diyphotography.net/long-exposure-fireworks-tutorial)

  • Satesh R

    June 11, 2013 11:01 am

    Those are some fantastic photos Darlene. I've never shot fireworks before but you have inspired me to try. Thanks for all the helpful tips:)

  • Cramer Imaging

    June 11, 2013 08:12 am

    Hey, nice fireworks there. Around here, the best firework show vantage points are scouted out and taken up hours ahead of time by spectators and picnickers. There are so many fireworks lit off, often at once, that smoke often causes problems later in the show if you don't situate yourself upwind. That's my tip for health's sake. Missing a beautiful burst opportunity because you're coughing and hacking on the smoke of previous fireworks is a terrible waste.

  • Brian Fuller

    June 11, 2013 06:25 am

    Fireworks are hard. I usually don't get the vibrant colors seen here.
    Hopefully this year I can improve.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Darlene

    June 11, 2013 05:15 am

    @Thomas good job, too bad they didn't give the location so you could find a good spot ahead of time. That does indeed make it difficult. Your exposures look good though, sharp, good arches and color. Good job.

  • Thomas Schmidt

    June 11, 2013 05:10 am

    Thanks for this interesting article and useful tips. Your photos look great.
    There was some fireworks in my city 3 weeks ago and this is what I got out of it:
    http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.de/2013/05/skyscrapers-fireworks.html

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