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How to Photograph Fireworks Like a Pro

How to Photograph Fireworks Like a Pro


Fourth Of July

You may be planning to attend a firework show and want to take amazing pictures.  Most professionals would agree that photographing fireworks can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be.  With a little knowledge about your camera, your camera’s settings, and potential adjustments you may need to make, you will be prepared and confident to execute your photoshoot and accomplish the professional shots you desire.

Before we begin, I want to mention that even pros may only get a few of their shots exactly as envisioned.  Fireworks are unpredictable.  You never know which direction they will go or the timing of the burst.  There are exploding flashes of light that will require you to get your exposure just right.  And, fireworks don’t last long, so your time is limited to achieving that perfect shot.  Hence, why fireworks photography is tricky.  Not difficult, just tricky.

Have no fear, the information here will help you be prepared so you know how to photograph fireworks with amazing results.  The most important thing is that you enjoy the show and leave with photos that bring you joy.

Arriving Early & Composition

One of the most important things you can do is arrive early and scout a spot before they’re all taken.  You should be looking at the landscape to decide what kind of composition you envision for your photos.  Do you want a wider angle shot of fireworks exploding over a skyline, or a more focused image of the actual fireworks streaking off the frame?  These are things you need to decide.  Getting there early will allow you to test different vantage points, choose the best setting to take pictures of fireworks, and set up your camera accordingly.

Type of Camera

The more control you have, the better.  Camera types such as DSLR or mirrorless, which have manual functionality, will be your best options.  This is important because fireworks don’t have a constant light pattern.  You’re shooting at night with exploding fireworks and flashing lights which can confuse your cameras automated metering system.  Manual functionality will give you full control so you can get constant exposure for your shots while maximizing the number of photos you can take.

Types of Lenses

Here’s where your composition planning comes to play.  I personally enjoy a wider-angle lens for fireworks because I prefer to shoot fireworks erupting over a skyline or background.  For this, I would use a wide-angle lens with the lowest focal length.  For example, the last time I photographed fireworks, I used a wide-angle 18-55mm lens, and shot in 18mm.  These lens settings are ideal for shooting a large distant background while keeping it in focus, such as a city skyline or mountain range.  This option fits my composition profile of a wide landscape while allowing for some zoom in case I did want to get a different type of shot.

Fourth Of July

Generally, lower mm = lower focal length and wider angle.  If you did want to get a specific type of shot, explore your zoom lenses during your scouting so you’re prepared.  You may want a broader range of zoom, telephoto or a specific prime lens (fixed mm lens) for your desired shot.  If you arrive there while it is still daylight (recommended), you can experiment with different focal lengths and may even get lucky with a bird flying by or the organizers shooting off a couple sample rockets early.  In other words, look out for stuff to focus your camera on and test your lenses and settings.

Tripod & Supplies

For this photoshoot we will be shooting long exposure fireworks.  This means you are going to need a tripod.  Shooting long exposure while handheld will result in very blurry photos.  A good tripod is an investment towards your photography and is not something you want to cheap out on, get a good one.  Tripods are perfect for keeping the camera steady while the shutter is open and capturing low light photography.  Catching movement in a photo opens a world of possibilities for artistic photographs that you can only accomplish with a tripod. 

I recommend bringing spare batteries and memory cards (better safe than sorry).  You may find bringing a folding chair or stool will help keep you relaxed and steady.  And, it will get dark, so stash a flashlight as well.

Camera Settings

In this section, we will discuss some technical setups for your camera.  For those that lean on auto modes, this part of my article may help you understand your camera a bit better so you can take that plunge and gain full control over your photos in a manual camera setting for fireworks.  Although you can get good photos with some auto modes, firework shows don’t last long so if your auto doesn’t work out, you may not have enough time to take more photos. 

Turn off image stabilization and vibration reduction.  Some cameras have amazing stabilization features such as IBIS.  These are great when shooting handheld, but with a tripod, you have more control and often this will confuse the stabilizing system causing softer photos.

Turn off long exposure noise reduction.  Fireworks are considered low light photography.  This can lead to digital noise.  However, the standard noise reduction feature on cameras will cause a delay in between shots.  Since firework shows are generally quick, the buildup of noise shouldn’t be an issue and you want to be able to maximize how many photos you can take.  I recommend leaving this feature off, so you don’t get left out of a potential great shot.

Auto Focus features are amazing, especially with modern technology.  Even though AF features are awesome, I still recommend you switch to a Manual Focus mode.  You’re in a low light environment with flashing explosions and a lot of movement from the fireworks.  This can cause your camera’s AF to keep chasing an undesired focal area.  Most lenses will have a physical toggle that you can shift into MF.  Use the focus ring (not the zoom ring) on your lens to adjust focus while shooting.  It is a good practice to find your settings while experimenting with your lenses during preparation.

Exposure Settings

I separated this section as it is vital information that will help you achieve a successful fireworks photoshoot while providing great info to take with you along your photography journey.  There are 3 ways to control your cameras exposure.  ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

Shutter Speed – This is the measured speed between the shutters opening and closing.  Another way to understand this is the measured time of the actual photo.  A fast shutter speed will freeze a frame even within fractions of a second.  A slow shutter speed permits more exposure, emphasizing the motion captured from the amount of time the shutters were open.  This is what allows you to capture those amazing streaks in the fireworks.  For fireworks, use a long exposure shutter speed.  Many cameras have settings which allow you to manually control the opening and closing of the shutters while shooting.  If that’s not for you, a good alternative is setting your shutter speed to about 5 seconds.

ISO – This is the chosen light sensitivity of your camera’s sensors.  At higher settings, ISO increases sensitivity allowing for more light to hit your camera’s sensors, and ideal for low lit settings.  Vice versa, a lower ISO is less sensitive to light making this the choice for well lit environments.  However, for fireworks, since you are using a tripod with low shutter speeds, I recommend a lower ISO setting of 200 or even lower for nice clean images. 

Aperture – The size of the hole in the lens that allows light into your camera. The smaller the number, the larger the aperture.  The larger the number, the smaller the aperture.  This effects the depth of field.  A large aperture (small #) will focus across the entire images foreground and background while a smaller aperture (large #) will provide more isolated focuses.   For fireworks, a mid-range aperture is a good starting point and can be adjusted to match your exposure.

Final Adjustments

Test your shots prior to the show.  Ensure you have your preferred focus, sharpness, and exposure set.  Check your frame arrangement.  Be flexible.   As soon as the fireworks begin, look for any over or under exposure and match your exposure settings appropriately.  This should only take a few seconds and usually a tweak to your aperture will fix any slight exposure issues.

The only thing left to do now, is take photos and enjoy the fireworks.

Getting to know your camera will help you understand how to take pictures of fireworks.  The best way to do that is to have fun taking pictures and enjoy yourself.  As I mentioned earlier, fireworks can be tricky for photographers.  The first time I photographed fireworks, I got 1 good photo out of 7.  The tricks I shared helped me become a better photographer and I hope it will help you on your journey as well.

Enjoy life! Capture the moment! Seize the Day!

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