Fireworks, oh how they light up the night sky with their vibrant colors and explosive beauty! There’s something truly magical about witnessing a fireworks display, and as a photography enthusiast, you can’t help but feel the burning desire to capture those fleeting moments forever.
However, shooting fireworks can be incredibly challenging and require some real technical finesse. That’s where this article comes in handy; I explore a handful of effective approaches to help you master the art of fireworks photography and capture awe-inspiring shots.
Specifically, I share:
- The best settings for fireworks images
- Essential fireworks photo gear
- A simple way to prevent image blur
- Much more!
Just a quick note before we get started: Please remember that if you’ve never tried fireworks before, it does depend heavily on trial and error. 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 an element of unpredictability, so you have to learn to adapt, learn from your own mistakes, and do it again.
Ready to learn how to photograph fireworks? Then let’s dive right in!
1. Bring the right equipment
What will you need to make good fireworks photos? Let’s break down the basic equipment needs:
Use a DSLR or mirrorless model for more flexibility
You can take fireworks photos with a smartphone camera if that’s all you have. However, the results won’t be quite as impressive, and I’d therefore recommend you invest in (at least) an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Also, be sure to have a good-sized storage card, as well as a spare battery or two, as you’ll usually take lots of shots at a fireworks show.
Use a zoom lens for compositional variety
Lens choice largely depends on how close you will be to the fireworks launch location. If you are close, you may need a wide-angle lens to keep the larger bursts in the frame. If, however, you are a long distance from the show or want to compress the apparent distance between your foreground object and the sky bursts, a telephoto lens might be in order.
My go-to lens for firework photography is a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS, which covers a good range. Note that you don’t need a particularly fast (i.e., wide-aperture) lens as you will be working with mid to small apertures and longer shutter speeds. Of course, it’s worth using a lens that offers consistently crisp results, so don’t skimp on this piece of equipment!
Use a tripod to keep your camera still
To capture sharp fireworks shots, it is crucial to keep your camera perfectly still, and this generally requires the use of a sturdy tripod.
Why is a tripod so important? Fireworks displays occur at night, when lighting conditions are challenging, and long shutter speeds are necessary (more on this later!). When you’re capturing a lengthy exposure, even the slightest camera shake can result in blurry images – unless your camera is set up on a rock-solid tripod, that is.
Ensure that you set up your tripod on a stable surface and shield it from any potential wind. If you don’t already own a tripod, there are affordable options available, including some portable travel tripods. If you don’t have the time or money to purchase a tripod, you can always improvise by placing your camera on the ground or a table.
Note that shooting with a tripod offers additional benefits: It enables you to try HDR bracketing, and it encourages you to compose more deliberately and thoughtfully by slowing down the process.
Use a remote release to further reduce camera shake
Even with your camera securely mounted on a sturdy tripod, there’s a risk of camera shake when you press the shutter button, resulting in blurry shots. This is why a remote release is an essential firework photography accessory.
A remote release is a wireless device that connects to your camera, allowing you to trigger the shutter from a distance. By using the remote, you eliminate the need to physically touch the camera, ensuring maximum stability and sharpness in your images.
Happily, investing in a remote release won’t break the bank (they’re quite affordable)! However, if you don’t have one or prefer not to purchase it, you can get a similar result by activating your camera’s two-second self-timer. While this method isn’t ideal – you’ll need to anticipate the firework bursts and fire the shutter two seconds in advance – it can still get the job done.
2. Scout the location in advance
When it comes to capturing stunning fireworks photographs, preparation is key. Firework displays take place after sunset, and if you’ve ever tried to compose in the dark, you’ll know that it is hard. To ensure you make the most of the limited time you have to photograph the spectacle, it is crucial to scout the location in advance.
Visiting the location earlier in the day allows you to familiarize yourself with the surroundings and identify potential vantage points that will offer breathtaking perspectives. Seek out locations that allow for expansive and sweeping shots, where you can capture the full grandeur of the display. Consider the angles, sightlines, and potential obstacles that may hinder your view or introduce unwanted distractions. By doing so, you can position yourself to capture the magic as it unfolds.
Note, however, that while scouting the location in advance provides you with valuable insights, it doesn’t mean you have to rigidly stick to predetermined compositions. Embrace the spontaneity of the moment and be open to improvisation. Fireworks are dynamic, and each explosion brings unique patterns and colors to the sky. Use your scouting knowledge as a foundation, but allow yourself to experiment and adapt on the spot!
3. Use a low ISO for the cleanest shots
High ISOs create brighter exposures, but they also create noise, which reduces image quality and looks plain bad.
So whenever possible, use your camera’s lowest native ISO setting. And only raise the ISO if your exposures are turning out too dark.
I recommend using ISO 100 or 200, and this is for a couple of reasons. First, the higher the ISO you use, the more noise you’ll introduce in your images. Noise also tends to live in blue areas of images, and nighttime has a lot of blue, so that compounds the issue. Plus, long exposures tend to increase noise.
Bottom line: You should work especially hard to minimize noise in your fireworks photos, and that involves using a low ISO. Fortunately, fireworks tend to be very bright, so as long as you use a tripod, you probably won’t need to raise your ISO. Therefore, I’d recommend setting it to ISO 100 and only raising it if you absolutely need a boost.
4. Shoot in RAW
For fireworks photographers, photographing in RAW is a game-changer. While beginners may opt for JPEG files due to their simplicity and immediate usability, you won’t be able to realize the true potential of your fireworks photographs without working in RAW.
JPEG files may seem appealing at first, with their smaller size and lack of post-processing requirements. However, they limit your creative freedom when it comes to refining your images. On the other hand, RAW files offer an abundance of possibilities during post-processing. These versatile files allow you to recover details hidden in shadows and highlights, ensuring that every element is faithfully preserved. With RAW, you also have the ability to fine-tune colors and tones, enhancing the overall impact of your firework photographs.
While it’s true that RAW files require post-processing before sharing them on websites or social media platforms, the editing process can be remarkably quick. Software programs like Adobe Lightroom offer intuitive interfaces that allow you to quickly convert RAW shots into shareable files.
So don’t let the additional workflow step deter you from shooting in RAW; it’s an investment that really pays off.
5. Switch off your flash
It’s simple, really:
An on-camera flash (or even an off-camera flash) can only illuminate the area a handful of meters in front of you. Therefore, a flash cannot affect a firework, and turning on your camera’s flash will only serve to waste battery.
Plus, if your camera uses a flash metering system, an active flash will cause the fireworks to come out dark. And constant flashing may even frustrate other folks trying to watch the fireworks.
So switch your flash off. And use the long-exposure technique I discuss below!
6. Turn off long exposure noise reduction
Many modern cameras have a noise reduction feature, which after the first exposure, takes a second “black frame” exposure, detecting the noise and then subtracting that from the initial exposure. It can work well in some situations, but here’s the thing:
The second exposure takes as long as the first, and if you’re making multi-second exposures, your camera will be busy working, and you’ll be missing subsequent firework bursts.
So turn it off. You’ll generally be using a low ISO with minimal noise anyway, and the delay in being able to make more shots isn’t worth the benefit.
7. Do not use Live View
Live View lets you preview your exposures on the camera LCD before you actually press the shutter button. It comes in handy in a lot of situations, but it’ll eat up your battery fast.
My recommendation: Save your battery for actually shooting and set up your shot using the eyecup viewfinder.
(That said, if you use a mirrorless camera, Live View is actually less energy-intensive than work via the electronic viewfinder. Therefore, if you shoot mirrorless, using Live View is a good idea!)
8. Use smaller apertures for the best fireworks photography
The lens aperture controls the image depth of field – that is, whether the scene features a small sliver of sharpness (shallow depth of field) or whether the scene is sharp throughout (deep depth of field). But what aperture is right for photographing fireworks?
If you’re capturing fireworks that are far off in the distance and you have no foreground subjects, then you can get away with pretty much any aperture, from wide options like f/2.8 to narrow options like f/16.
However, if your composition features foreground elements or the fireworks are relatively close to your position, then you’ll want to use a narrow aperture (anywhere between f/8 and f/16 is good).
Plus, 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.
The narrower aperture will widen the depth of field, ensuring that the fireworks and the rest of the scene turn out sharp.
9. Use a longer shutter speed (but don’t let it go too long!)
Fireworks are a moving subject, and shutter speed deals with subject motion. So if you want to get great fireworks shots, you must choose the perfect shutter speed.
Now, fireworks leave beautiful light trails, and you can capture this with a longer shutter speed. However, you don’t want to let the shutter go for too long. Fireworks are bright, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with lots of clipped highlights in your frames.
An easy method to handle this is by switching your camera over to Bulb mode. Once in Bulb mode, the shutter will remain open for as long as you hold down the shutter button (or the shutter release).
When a firework is about to explode, you can hit the shutter button. And you can hold down the button until the explosion is finished.
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 (the longest shutter speed on most cameras), 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.
10. Use manual focusing for sharp shots
Mirrorless autofocus systems are better than ever before – yet focusing in low light still causes cameras to struggle. Plus, refocusing on each new burst of fireworks takes time, which may ultimately cause you to miss the shot.
Therefore, instead of trying to autofocus, switch your lens over to manual focus.
Then, when you see the first burst of fireworks, manually adjust the focus ring until the scene appears sharp. Take a test shot, and be sure to zoom in on your LCD screen to make sure it looks good.
Once you’ve acquired perfect focus, simply leave it alone for the rest of the fireworks show, and the results will turn out great (especially if you’re using a narrow aperture!).
One note: Changing focal lengths will change the plane of focus on most lenses, so if you zoom in or out, you should check your point of focus (and re-focus if necessary).
11. Anticipate the best compositions
Even if you’ve done plenty of scouting, one of the most difficult parts of photographing fireworks is working out where to aim your camera. The challenge is that you generally need to compose before the fireworks actually burst, so anticipation is key. Here are a few quick tips to help you select compositions in advance:
- Watch a few bursts before you shoot. In general, each new firework will come from (roughly) the same spot, so by observing the skies, you can get a sense of where to train your camera. You can also get a sense of how long you have between bursts; that way, you can be ready to fire the shutter before each new explosion.
- Decide whether to shoot vertically or horizontally. You can capture fireworks vertically (portrait orientation) or horizontally (landscape orientation). Both can work for fireworks photography, but I personally prefer a vertical perspective – after all, there’s a lot of vertical firework movement! Horizontal shots are nice if you’re after an expansive shot using a wide-angle lens, however.
- Refine your framing. Once you’ve found a nice composition, don’t take a single shot and then move on to the next frame. Instead, see if you can improve the result by moving to one side, getting down low, getting up high, etc. You might be surprised by what you can create when you really dedicate yourself to working the scene.
12. Enhance your firework compositions with foreground interest
Beginner firework photographers often just point their camera at the sky and shoot away – but while this can produce nice results, if your goal is to create captivating images that leave a lasting impact, incorporating an interesting foreground is a great idea.
You see, by seamlessly blending a magnificent sky explosion with a compelling foreground, you offer viewers a visual journey. They can start by appreciating the foreground’s charm before engaging with the mesmerizing backdrop.
Note that you can include all sorts of elements as your foreground interest: buildings, mountains, hills stretching into the distance, or even amusement park rides. The choice is yours, but I encourage you to think carefully about which foreground elements will complement the fireworks display.
By the way, if you can include foreground elements that offer leading lines, the results will be especially spectacular. These lines can create a visual pathway that not only connects the foreground and the fireworks but also enhances the overall composition!
13. Include reflections in your firework compositions
Looking to elevate your firework shots from ordinary to extraordinary? Incorporating reflections into your compositions can provide that extra touch of brilliance.
You’ll need to strategically position yourself to include a reflective surface with the frame, but finding a suitable reflective object is easier than you might think. While lakes and ponds can always work, you can also unleash your creativity by utilizing puddles, glossy car surfaces, or even sunglass lenses.
I’d also encourage you to experiment with different compositions. For instance, try placing the horizon line in different areas of the frame and see what you think of the results. A dead-center horizon will yield a symmetrical shot infused with tension, while a horizon positioned in the upper or lower third of the frame will infuse your image with a dynamic and captivating feel.
14. Include people in your images
While the magnificent bursts of fireworks alone can create awe-inspiring images, incorporating people into your compositions can elevate your fireworks photos to new heights.
For one, including human figures in your frames will introduce a sense of scale that emphasizes the grandeur of the dazzling light show unfolding in the night sky. Additionally, people can act as foreground interest, adding depth and narrative to your photographs.
Plus, you can use people to tell stories; a solitary figure gazing in awe at the fireworks can evoke a sense of wonder, while a group of friends or a couple holding hands can portray a shared moment of joy and celebration.
One fascinating element to explore when including people in firework photography is the interplay between focus points. Experiment with different approaches to create varied effects. You can choose to focus on the fireworks, allowing the people in the foreground to become slightly blurred – or you can focus on the people in the foreground, intentionally blurring the fireworks in the background, creating an ethereal and dreamlike atmosphere. Both techniques can yield compelling results, so don’t hesitate to try different focal points and see which resonates with your artistic vision!
15. Experiment with different focal lengths
Firework photography comes with a major dilemma:
On the one hand, you can use a telephoto lens (such as a 70-200mm), which will get you detailed shots of the fireworks but is difficult to use. With a long lens, you’ll need to keep your camera trained on the right part of the sky at the right time, and it can be easy to miss.
On the other hand, you can use a wide-angle lens (such as a 24-70mm), which will capture the entire skyline but won’t offer lots of detail. Wide-angle lenses feature great “safety” focal lengths because you can generally trust that they’ll include the fireworks in the scene, even if the results aren’t quite as impactful as you might like.
So which lens should you use? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’d recommend working primarily with a wide-angle zoom. But once you’ve grabbed a few wide-angle shots that you like, feel free to switch over to your telephoto lens and see if you can nail some close-ups.
Of course, if your camera offers enough resolution, you do have the option to crop afterward – just bear that in mind!
16. Use a neutral density filter to get a longer exposure if need be.
If it’s not 100% dark out yet (i.e., the sky still has some light), an ND filter will allow you to get a longer exposure and make sure the fireworks bursts have a nice arch. You see, if your exposure is too short, you’ll end up with short, stubby-looking bursts rather than nice umbrella-shaped ones.
Now, if your bursts are too short, you can start by simply extending the shutter speed. But if the files turn out overexposed, slap on that neutral density filter! Plus, using the ND filter if it is dark will also allow you to shoot lengthy exposures that capture more bursts per image.
Experiment, have fun, and try shooting with and without the filter. (A polarizing filter will work, too, but to a lesser degree.)
As far as which filter to get, the ND 0.9 filter has become the filter of choice for fireworks photographers due to its price and because it typically achieves optimal exposure lengths. Another option to consider is the ND 1.8 filter. Far fewer brands make ND 1.8 filters, and the brands that do are usually more expensive, but the filter is very versatile and offers a couple of advantages over the ND 0.9 filter.
First, since it reduces the exposure by six stops of light as opposed to the three stops of light, you’ll be able to get decent shutter speeds even with a slightly wider aperture. And a wider aperture – in the f/5.6-f/8 range – minimizes diffraction and maximizes sharpness. Plus, an ND 1.8 filter can come in handy when shooting other subjects in the daytime or at twilight, whereas an ND 0.9 filter won’t have a huge effect.
17. Shoot most of your shots at the start of the show
This tip is quick but handy:
Whenever possible, capture your most interesting, surefire compositions at the beginning of the show, not the end.
This will avoid the smoke and haze that appears a bit later. Eventually, the sky will be filled with smoke, which doesn’t look as pretty. (Later on in the show is when I like to try some close-ups or abstracts.)
18. Make sure you leave enough room in your frame to anticipate the height of the opened bursts
If you fail on the first shot, simply make adjustments as needed. In my experience, 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, so you may want to try both horizontal and vertical compositions.
19. Practice timing your shots
Consider starting your exposures when you hear the fireworks being released; that way, you’re more likely to capture a few bursts.
Also, do some testing to see how many bursts are just right for your taste. Try some shots with more and some with less. Having too many may overexpose the overall image, so keep that in mind, as well.
20. Shoot facing east
If you want a darker sky in your fireworks shots, you should definitely photograph eastward rather than westward.
I’ve found that when I shoot into the sunset, the 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!
21. Try zooming during the exposure
You may have seen those photos where the bursting fireworks look more like a flower, fat blurry trails with sharp points. How is that done?
Here’s the technique, which you can vary for different results.
Know this takes practice, and luck plays a big part. So decide if you have already got enough necessary shots before you try it and whether the show will last long enough for some experimentation.
If you’re game, here’s how you do it:
- You will need your hands free for this, and you’ll want to look through the viewfinder or perhaps use Live View, so using the remote release probably isn’t going to work. Instead, set your shutter speed for about 8-10 seconds, leaving all the other camera settings where they were.
- Set your lens to manual focus, then focus on the spot where the fireworks will burst. Turn the ring so things are out of focus.
- Just as a firework explodes, fire the shutter and smoothly turn the focus right back to the focus point. You must get the fireworks in focus before the exposure is complete, but if you finish early, that’s okay.
And try different things with subsequent shots. Go from focused to unfocused, zoom in or out during the exposure, or maybe take the camera off the tripod and move it during the exposure to make light trails. Play and see what you like.
Just remember that the duration of the show is limited, so try some experiments but also be sure you have some solid keepers.
22. Use the black hat trick
Here’s a handy trick that can produce very artistic results:
- Have a hat, preferably one that’s dark and opaque.
- Put the hat over the front of the lens.
- Have the camera in Bulb mode, and just before the firework launches, click open the shutter.
- Quickly but gently – so as not to bump the camera – remove the hat while the firework explodes.
- Leave the shutter open and carefully replace the hat. Repeat, removing and replacing the hat for multiple fireworks bursts. (You may need to have a smaller aperture or lower ISO to do this as you will be building up exposure brightness with each additional firework added).
- Unlock the remote and close the shutter when you’ve done all you want.
What you’re doing is making a multiple-exposure image in-camera. Of course, you can always capture several images and blend them during post-processing instead!
23. Experiment and evaluate your results
As you shoot, don’t be afraid to experiment with different compositions and ideas! For instance, you might zoom in for a tighter perspective, zoom out for a wider perspective, change your angle, include people or buildings in the frame, and much more.
Also, periodically check your results for perfect sharpness, composition, and exposure.
I recommend taking a few photos at the start of the photoshoot. Review them on your LCD. If they look good, then keep going (and if they look bad, make the necessary adjustments!). Be sure to view your shots throughout the shoot to make sure you haven’t messed up in some significant way.
How to photograph fireworks: final words
And there you have it! Armed with these tips and techniques, you’re ready to capture the dazzling magic of fireworks like a seasoned pro.
Remember, it’s not just about pointing your camera to the sky and hoping for the best. Incorporating a captivating foreground adds depth and engages your viewer from the get-go. You can also prepare yourself by exploring the location in advance, seeking out prime vantage points, and envisioning different compositions. Finally, remember that flexibility is key. Be ready to adapt on the spot and let your creativity soar.
So grab your camera, head to the next firework extravaganza, and have plenty of fun!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? What fireworks will you photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!