How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

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I love experimenting with different techniques and ideas. So when our editor here at dPS, Darlene, asked if someone was willing to try out a technique and experiment with fireworks. I jumped at the chance. I love being creative and pushing the limits of new ideas. Her idea for an article about creating artistic images of fireworks came from this article – Bloom or boom? Photographer captures the moment fireworks erupt into life – creating amazing images that look like flowers.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

Here’s a fairly typical image of fireworks.

Successful recreation

I loved the look of the images and this type of artistic experimentation is right up my alley. I try this type of stuff all the time. Sometimes it works. Other times it’s not such a success, but the point is to learn and grow as an artist and photographer.

These first set of shots were taken using the technique described by the photographer in the article. Yes, it is copying someone else’s technique, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Imitation can lead to ingenuity. I used a long exposure and then tried to time my movements of the focus ring with the explosion of the fireworks. Timing is everything with this technique, and it’s hard to master. It took me almost the entire fireworks display to get some images that copied his technique.

Note: you don’t need to crank the focus ring. A small movement out of focus will create the desired effect.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I like the look of these fireworks. The explosions remind me of flower petals.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

These blurred images of the firework create a more artistic and impressionistic image.

It’s okay to fail!

I’m quite satisfied with the look of these images. I used a 70-200mm lens and set the exposure at 0.6 seconds, with an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 250. It worked fairly well. The timing was by far the hardest part of this whole endeavor.

I had an awful lot of failed images. There were times when the shot was too far out of focus. The result was some really nice bokeh lights that I’ve since used as image overlays. Usually, black and white art shots and blended them in to create light and interest. Every shot can have a use, so don’t always delete your “failures”.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

In this case, I turned to focus ring too far and created some pretty bokeh.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

While the colors are pretty, this one is a fail too.

The images that were never planned

Other images didn’t turn out exactly as the other photographer’s work but I think the results are still successful. The images are pretty and have turned out to be successful images for birthday cards.

I still used the same technique he did, but I didn’t get the timing correct so these images don’t have the same look as the first ones. They are still appealing though and there is nothing wrong with these unexpected surprises.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I accidentally moved the camera while turning the focus ring. It’s a mistake but I still like the effect.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I love this shot. The lights remind me of popcorn for some reason.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

These lights remind me of rain or comets.

Using fireworks was tough. The timing was very difficult to master. I was only able to capture a handful of shots during the 30-minute firework display. This fact led to another experiment. This time sparklers were used. The night was fairly windy so I used my garage as a studio.

Pushing the experiment further

NOTE: Lesson learned – wait for a night when there is no wind to shoot with sparklers. The fumes from the sparklers filled the garage, and I had a headache after shooting. Of course, I should have thought of this before attempting, but when in the moment…

For the following shots, I used the same premise as I did shooting the fireworks. The one difference was my f-stop. This was my mistake. I set my camera to f/16. This was a huge mistake on my part. I couldn’t replicate the out of focus look for my photos. You need to use a wide open aperture for the experiment to be successful. As a result, the images I created are considerably different from the impressionistic flowers created at the fireworks. There are still a lot of interesting images in this collection, but it wasn’t the look I was hoping to capture.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I used a longer lens for this shot but didn’t use the focus ring.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I love how this seems to look like exploding rain.

Making mistakes

The settings for these shots used a range in aperture from f/16 to f/32. They are still pretty I think, and I will find a use for them for sure.

The next step in the experiment involved getting closer to the sparklers and capturing something different. I attached an extension tube to my lens and got very close to the sparkler. Perhaps a little too close, it is possible to damage your sensor by shooting something too bright. The aperture was small however so this may have saved my camera.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

This quick phone shot my son took shows the distance between the camera and sparkler with the extension tube in place.

Using an extension tube

Here are the results of the experiment. The images allow us to see how the base of the sparkler ignites. These are also interesting images and worth the time it took to create them.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I used my 12mm extension tube on my 50mm prime lens for this shot.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

Here’s a shot where I captured the sparks as they fell from the sparkler.

Being creative in post-processing

It was also fun to play with color during the post-processing stage. An adjustment to the color temperature slider changed the sparkler lights from a warm yellow to an intense orange.

Again this is all experimentation. The process may not result in a finished image, but it’s all about playing with settings and trying to create different effects in your photography.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I simply moved the slider to adjust the color of the light.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I adjusted this shot using the split-tone sliders in Lightroom.

Trying one more time

Naturally, the experiment continued with a second try at the sparkler images. This time I set a much wider aperture. Here are the results using the same method as I used to create the firework images.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

I like the effect of the wide open aperture. Only a few of the sparks remained in focus.

While the sparklers did not recreate the blooming flower impressionistic type effect, I still like the look of these shots. The sparkler allowed me to focus more easily on the task at hand. While I still had to move quickly it wasn’t as rushed as shooting the fireworks. Both activities were enjoyable and challenging in their own way.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

The focus here is more exact.

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

There are some unique lines created by the flares in this image.

Give it a shot!

It’s almost New Years and time for fireworks once again. Share with us some of your experiments and results. It doesn’t have to be fireworks. You could use lights or flashlights. Be creative! Show us what you’ve created!

My next experiment will involve spinning the sparkler while I shoot. What kind of effect will that create?

How to Photograph Fireworks to Create Impressionistic Images

Just one more shot.

If you want some tips on shooting fireworks with a more traditional approach try these articles: 

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Erin Fitzgibbon is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

  • Delilah RIpley

    Seriously, Digital Photography School? Wasting my time with ridiculously bad shots that are worth only the press of the delete button, but pretentiously presented here as “creative” is not appreciated. As it appears to me this is your regular standard of late, my interest is at the brink of extinguishing, and my tolerance towards such BS is very limited. Waste my time with another similar article garnished with terrible images, and you’ll be blocked from my stream!

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Lol… My first ever truly negative comment here on DPS.. Thank you for your thoughts… And the challenge in responding. So here goes.

    Its too bad that experimentation must lead to perfection…. The point of the article was to try something out and share what I had learned from the adventure. I dont pretend to be a god of photography instead I wish to share my learning with others… This was an experiment to see what could be created. I personally believe in being genuine … What type of a person would I be if i pretended every photograph I take is perfect. I feel some of these photographs are a success. While some of them did not turn out right. In my mind thats ok and why would I mislead the public by only showing perfect results. These techniques are difficult. Really difficult. I need to work on them some more. Thats ok I will not ashamed of that.

    We all have our own tastes and art is subjective. I am confident in my creations. I have sold my art to the government of Canada. Someone loves it. While at times others were not drawn to it. That is just how things go.

    This coming week I am experimenting with light painting. We are attaching Christmas lights to a ceiling fan. I have no idea how it will turn out and I dont mind sharing the results with the public if it means people are thinking and taking risks. If they turn out to be perfect great. If they do not I am ok with that because I will have learned from the experience and will be able to move forward adapting lessons learned to new experiments. Growing and evolving as a creative only happens when one tries something new.

    So cheers Delilah thanks for reading and I wish you the best in your photographic efforts.

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  • Daniel Angulo

    Try some longer lenses, and experiment with shutter speeds, the results can be amazing. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/aca14cfa855a9c657d5beec38c04b3592b85b61b24ab97495be67ea3d0200b7b.jpg

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    That’s a beautiful photo. Very nicely done. I have many shots of fireworks like this. What we were trying to do however was to create something more artsy and impressionistic. The idea was to blur the fireworks and create a different effect not the standard shot.

    The link to the other photographers work gives some details. It’s a very difficult task to master. All about timing to pull the lens out of focus at the exact moment that the fireworks explode. The top shots were done with a longer 100 to 400 lens.

    Why they appear so grainy on the site I don’t know. They are much sharper… less banding in the regular shot. The point was to try something different. To see what could be created.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/89cfd880107cb6df59450167745864ada0944f18c97686951f0e96f8bee64917.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cf052944be9c596a5f5285785131c4617d6ffaec217bc75599e217e04cef904e.jpg

  • Aaron Gould

    Thanks for sharing this idea! It was great to have something new to try out. Here in Honolulu, the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel puts on a fireworks show every Friday night, so I’m lucky enough to have weekly opportunities to practice shooting them! I went out last night to play with this technique and got a couple shots I liked. I have to admit, I was pretty lost as to where my focus ring was set after turning it this way and that throughout and I ended up with a lot of way out of focus shots, but it was definitely fun to try! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a48d5507def9ebad037fea28d74bb7638a94131c845fdcd694e948f78647c164.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b99d30a1bdff4b866c45b237a5a578c3080ac35b48b9062442367733c3ac29c0.jpg

  • Aaron Gould

    Thanks for sharing this technique! Here in Honolulu, the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki puts on a fireworks show every Friday, so I get lots of opportunities to practice fireworks shots. I’ve done the standard shot and love it, but this was really fun to try something new. I got pretty lost as to where my focus ring was set after turning it back and forth and ended up with lots of way-out-of-focus bokeh balls, but I got a couple I really liked. Definitely something to keep in my toolkit when I’m looking to mix things up! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8f5874d259e2b528b22a8842f9a5a3fbf924a4273b7acba799aa7355f8642ed5.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ef218f35bcca273abf52ec129bb9570463f09a3638646f2fd22e3be283fa8cba.jpg

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Oh very nice Aaron. Love it. Yeah it is a very tricky technique. Definitely one that needs practice.

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