If you’ve been to a great aerial fireworks display, I’m sure you’ve heard the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the crowd, captivated by the colorful spectacle. Here in the United States, the Independence Day holiday is when many of us try our hand at fireworks photography. I’m sure if you live in other places in the world, you also have holidays celebrated with fireworks. So how can you capture those moments in a photo and elicit those same “oohs” and “ahhs” from your viewers and achieve better fireworks photos?
Great fireworks photos aren’t difficult, but you will not get them in Auto mode. You will need to put a little thought into this and learn to take charge of your camera controls. Try these simple tips, however, and I’ll bet you’ll come back with images that elicit “oohs,” “ahhs,” some likes, and maybe even “wows” from your viewers.
Here are the things we’ll cover for better fireworks photos:
- Camera settings
- Shutter speed choices
- Using Bulb mode
- Shooting technique
- Boom Zoom Bloom FX
- The “Black Hat trick”
After you’ve read this article, and made your fireworks photos, be sure to read Part Two – Creatively Editing your Fireworks Photos.
You can make good fireworks photos with just an image of the colorful bursts in the sky. But great fireworks photos need something more – an interesting setting or foreground.
Think of displays you have seen taken with fireworks over the Statue of Liberty, the Sydney Harbour, the Chicago city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, or Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. What makes those shots over the top? A couple of things; iconic city skylines and landmarks, and most often, water.
Not only are there interesting things in the shot besides the fireworks themselves, but often with water in the shot, there’s the benefit of colorful reflections.
If you are lucky, the spot where you plan to photograph your fireworks display will also have interesting foreground features and perhaps a body of water. If so, scout the area ahead of time so you can find a location to best capture those things.
You can count on a crowd when you go to a fireworks show. Plan on getting to your spot early so you can “stake your turf.” Perhaps put out a blanket to ensure an unobstructed view of the show. Then, if you have no other foreground elements, consider the possibility of making the crowd your foreground, their heads silhouetted against the sky and fireworks.
Another possibility might be to find a less obvious location, not right where the fireworks will be launched. Perhaps there is a landmark, a tree-line, a high vantage point, or some other spot that will create an interesting foreground that while still including the fireworks, will give context, place, and “story” to your photos. Doing some scouting long before the night of the show is a good idea.
What will you need to make good fireworks photos? Let’s break down the basic equipment needs:
You can make fireworks photos with a cellphone camera if that’s all you have. However, the techniques will be different and the results likely not as impressive.
We won’t get into that here, so let’s assume you have a better DSLR or mirrorless camera with the option for manual control. 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.
Fireworks photography will require a steady camera as you’ll be shooting in low light and taking longer exposures. Consider a tripod pretty much mandatory for this kind of work. An L-bracket on your camera or at least a tripod that will easily allow going from landscape to portrait mode easily is a good thing too. Often you will shoot in both aspects.
Lens choice largely depends on how close you will be to the fireworks launch location. If you are really close, you may need a wide-angle 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 might be in order.
I typically use my go-to lens; a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS as it covers a good range. You don’t need a particularly fast lens as you will be working with mid to small apertures and longer shutter speeds. Still, a sharp lens is always a good thing.
Cable Release/Remote trigger
The technique for photographing fireworks will be discussed in a minute, but trust that having a way to remotely trigger your camera will be a real help. One reason is you are presumably going to a fireworks show to enjoy the show. Having your eye to the viewfinder and your finger on the shutter button the entire time will lessen the enjoyment of “being there.” It will also introduce camera shake, something you don’t want.
A very basic remote release can be had for under $10.00 US. This is a great item to always have in your bag for many purposes.
3. Camera settings
If you’ve always worked in Program or one of the Auto modes with your camera, or even if you use Aperture (Av/A) or Shutter (Tv/S) mode, this will be the time to be brave and go to full Manual mode.
Here’s how you want to set up your camera for fireworks photography:
Real photographers shoot in Raw mode. There are many articles why. If you never have done so before, here’s your chance to try it. You can work in Raw + Jpg if that makes you feel more secure. However, I’m betting you won’t use the .jpg versions.
As described. Be brave. You can do this.
As you’re using Raw mode, (you are, yes?), white balance can be tweaked later so it doesn’t matter much what you set for shooting. I tend to leave my white balance in Faithful mode almost all the time.
Working in low light with dark or black backgrounds and long exposures will tend to introduce noise in your shots. Fortunately, the fireworks are bright, so higher ISO settings won’t be needed. Instead, use the minimum (ISO 100 on many cameras), and you’ll be fine.
Noise Reduction Off
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, but…
The second exposure takes as long as the first, and if you’re making multi-second exposures (for example, that 6-second exposure now takes 12 seconds to finish), your camera will be busy working, and you’ll be missing subsequent fireworks.
Turn it off. You’ll be using a low ISO with minimal noise anyway, and the delay in being able to make more shots isn’t worth it.
There are two things to consider here:
- How much depth-of-field do you need?
- What is the “sweet-spot” of your lens?
First, because the fireworks will be a good distance from your camera, you will be focusing on something further away and likely have a pretty good depth of field. Working at wider focal lengths helps too. Plan on being at your location well before the show starts and have an idea where you’ll need to focus and how much depth of field you need.
Secondly, most lenses are at their sharpest between f/8 and f/16. Learn where your lens performs best, the so-called “sweet spot,” and use that aperture if you can.
4. Making shutter speed choices
Your choice of shutter speed will be important in capturing good fireworks photos. You know when you hear the boom of the launched fireworks from its mortar that it trails up into the sky, explodes, and a beautiful shower of colorful sparks radiates out and trails down.
Often multiple fireworks are launched close together, each doing the same thing. What you’re after is to capture the entire event which can sometimes take several seconds.
You could pick a fixed shutter speed of, say, four seconds, but would that be too short? Too long? Of course, it depends on the individual firework duration or sequence you want to capture, and that will vary during the show.
So how do you choose?
The answer is, you don’t have to because there’s a better way.
5. Use Bulb mode
If you’ve seen pictures of early photographers with their view cameras, you might have noticed them holding a rubber “bulb” which when they squeezed, forced air through a rubber tube and tripped the shutter. As long as the photographer kept the bulb squeezed, the shutter stayed open, ending when they released it.
These were the first shutter remotes, and it was that rubber bulb that gave the mode its name.
Today we have wired, and sometimes wireless triggers that can do the same thing. Putting the camera in Bulb mode allows a variable shutter speed. As long as we press and hold the button, the shutter stays open. Let it go, and the shutter closes, ending the exposure.
This is just the ticket for fireworks photography, a variable shutter speed.
So, let’s review our basic camera settings:
- Camera on tripod
- Raw Capture
- Manual Mode
- Noise Reduction Off
- Auto Focus Off – Focus on the anticipated fireworks spot and lock focus there
- Lens Vibration Reduction (VR/IS) Off
- ISO 100
- Approx. f/8 – f/16 (Use aperture and ISO to adjust if images are too bright or dark).
- Bulb mode
- No flash – I forgot to mention this one. Rarely, (unless perhaps to light a foreground object), will you ever need to use flash when making fireworks photos. Also, consider whether others are nearby watching the show. Using flash is guaranteed to make you less-than-popular with other fireworks spectators. Unless you are alone and have a good reason to use flash, (in which case I will assume you know what you’re doing), just don’t use it.
Set up like this, you’re good to go. Remember, once the show starts, you will be busy. If you are fooling with camera settings, you’ll be missing shots. You will want to try some variations, but you don’t want to have to struggle and miss the show.
Be ready, think it through beforehand, and when the show starts, start clicking.
6. Shooting Technique
You’ve set your camera up on a tripod, figured out where to point it, made sure to pre-focus on a distant spot and locked the focus by putting it in Manual Focus (MF) mode.
If you leave your camera’s Autofocus on it’s almost guaranteed to give you images that are a bust rather than a boom. Against the dark sky and the moving fireworks the focus will hunt, fail, and… it’ll just be bad. Don’t do it.
Often the best images can be made right when the show starts as later, smoke from the previous fireworks becomes thicker, and the fireworks more obscured. So, when you hear that boom of the first firework going up, click and hold the button on the remote. You’ll be in bulb mode so hold it open while the firework goes up, explodes, and radiates out. Then release the trigger.
Now, quickly check your shot. Is it in focus and framed properly? Is it exposed correctly? If it’s too dark, increase the ISO a click or perhaps open the aperture a stop. Too light? Do the opposite.
Try not to spend too much time doing this as, of course, the show will continue without you.
If you’re in the ballpark, the ability to edit in raw gives you the tweaking room you need. The two unrecoverable mistakes you might make would be to have things out of focus or have the highlights so blown out as to be unrecoverable. Editing won’t save you if you do those things, so be sure the focus is good and if you’re not sure with exposure, underexpose a bit. Some fireworks will be much brighter than others – especially a multi-burst or the finale. So quickly check your histogram and be sure you’ve not clipped the right (highlights) side.
Make any tweaks you need and then keep clicking. Vary the zoom if you need to, but if anything, frame a little “loose.” You can always crop in tighter later. However, if that really big and spectacular burst is so big it goes out of the frame, you’ll have missed it. Try both some portrait and landscape orientation shots. Perhaps reframe to get different things in the shot, especially if you are including foreground elements.
If things are going well, it’s going to be a fairly long show.
And if you’re feeling frisky, you might be ready for some more advanced techniques.
7. “Boom Zoom Bloom” FX
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.
- With your hand on the focus ring, remember your hand position there. Then turn the ring so things are out of focus.
- Just as the firework explodes, click the shutter and smoothly turn the focus right back to the focus point you memorized. You have the time of the preset shutter speed to accomplish this. If you finish early, that’s okay.
Now, 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, the duration of the show is limited, so try some experiments but also be sure you have some solid “keepers.”
8. The Black Hat Trick
I have to confess, I’ve not personally tried this but the concept is sound and could be fun. (I’ve always wanted to do a “hat trick.”)
Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
- Have a hat, a black one or preferably of something dark enough to be opaque. You will also need to be working in an area that is quite dark.
- 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 locking it open with the remote.
- 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. This should work. Of course, there’s also a way to do it in post-processing. For that, and some other tips on how best to process you fireworks photo, come back for Part Two – Creatively Editing your Fireworks Photos.
Light the fuse
I hope you’ve decided that good fireworks photography is easy and go and have fun with it. It’s one more way to enhance your camera skills and make some exciting images.
If there’s anything that’s a problem it’s that good aerial fireworks displays are seasonal in most places and if you really catch the bug, you may find there are not enough opportunities to practice.
So, find out when and where the shows will be near you, mark your calendar, do some scouting for the best locations, “light the fuse” and have fun!
Post your best shots as images in the comments – we’d love to see them.