7 practical tips to help you capture spectacular photographs of fireworks

David Kindervater
David Kindervater

Fireworks can be dazzling to watch and even more spectacular to shoot. The right amount of preparation is necessary to do justice to these multi-colored pyrotechnics.

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Photo by Andrew James

Here are 7 practical tips to help get you going.

01. Find out what you can about the show

If you’re attending a big, annual event, do your research. Head to Google and read about previous years' displays. Look for photos and videos that other photographers (both professional and amateur) have taken. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where are the best places to view the fireworks?
  • What challenges will you face with crowds?
  • Is there room to set up a tripod?
  • What time do they start?
  • How long do they last?
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Photo by Joseph Chan

Also, keep an eye on the weather forecast. If it’s going to rain or storm, the show might get cancelled. If it’s windy, you’ll want to stay upwind from the smoke to avoid hazy images.

If it’s a new show, contact the provider and find out as much as you can about it. Ask the aforementioned questions and see if they can give you an idea of what to expect.

02. Scout the location

Once you’ve established which location you want to shoot at, it’s time to check it out in person.

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Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton

Considering that you’re not the only one photographing the event, try to find more than just one location. In fact, find a couple of locations and check each one out to see which view you like better. Don’t try to shoot from multiple locations, however, as this can be time-consuming during the show. Focus on one spot and put all your effort into making the most of that area.

03. Look for foreground and background material

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Photo by Kimson Doan

A fireworks display, in and of itself, is an impressive sight to behold. But you won’t get the same wow factor out of those peonies, willows, and spiders against the dark night sky without any foreground or background material to enhance your image.

Pay special attention to how you’re going to frame the fireworks. What foreground and background imagery will really make the picture explode with the personality of your surroundings?

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Photo by Nitish Meena

One of the most popular and beautiful backdrop settings is a city skyline. Look for any kind of reference points, whether it's a lighted building, bridge, city monument or the surrounding hillside.

Whether you’re shooting with a cityscape or mountain in the background, make sure the horizon is level, and be sure your camera is also level on your tripod.

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Photo by Tyler Whitehead

04. Prep your gear

In order to properly shoot fireworks, you’ll need the right equipment:

Tripod and Shutter Release

Your camera needs to be perfectly still, so a tripod will be essential. A wired or wireless shutter release is also important because merely touching the camera can cause enough motion blur to ruin an image.

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Photo by Mike Enerio

Lenses

The type of lens you choose should depend on how far from the festivities you will be. A standard kit lens is fine, but a wide angle would be a good choice to make sure you completely capture the fireworks and your surroundings. If you find yourself a long ways away from the action, you might want to consider a telephoto lens. This may also be useful if you want to capture more of the details of the fireworks.

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Photo by Jim Strasma

Accessories

As with any photography outing, make sure your camera battery is fully charged, and bring an extra battery with you. Also, clear your memory card before shooting, and bring an extra card with you just in case.

05. Set your camera

OK, now let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this thing. What’s the best way to shoot fireworks?

Some cameras offer a “Fireworks Mode,” but you’ll need to be in complete control of the proceedings if you want the best results. Don’t trust auto modes or scene-specific settings. That’s not to say they won’t work for you, but for the sake of learning how to shoot fireworks, let’s dig into the manual options:

Aperture

Set your aperture somewhere between f/8 and f/11. This will give you a long depth of field while also making sure the fireworks are in focus.

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Photo by Noah Carter at f/10

Shutter Speed

You could select whatever you want here (typically a few seconds), but the recommendation is to use Bulb mode, so you can time your exposures based on the conditions. With the aforementioned remote shutter, hit the release as the firework launches, and hold it down until the burst has faded. It may take a bit of practice, but it beats being restricted to a specific amount of time.

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Photo by Neenu Vimalkumar at f/80

A word of caution here: don’t leave your shutter open too long because the brightness of the fireworks can quickly overexpose your image.

ISO

Keep your ISO level around 100 because it helps to reduce noise, thus providing a nice, clean image.

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Photo by Jordan Steranka at ISO100

Focus

If your camera has manual focus, by all means, use it. Autofocusing in low light is difficult for many cameras, and it will oftentimes produce blurry results. Once your focusing is set, you probably won’t need to change it during the fireworks shoot.

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Photo by Hermes Rivera

This is not a recipe for perfect-every-time fireworks photography. The best advice is to look at your first few images and see how they turned out, then make adjustments as necessary. For example, if your images look too dark, try changing your aperture to f/4 or f/5. Or maybe change the ISO to 200. Don’t waste an entire session by assuming that you have your settings correct for any given situation.

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Photo by Colton Duke with 24mm lens at f/10 aperture, 25s shutter speed, and ISO50

06. Capture multiple bursts in a single exposure

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Photo by Adam Whitlock at 9.8s shutter speed

Use longer exposure and a piece of dark paper—preferably black cardstock, black construction paper, or black foam core—to capture multiple fireworks bursts in a single exposure.

Nothing will be exposed as long as you keep the black paper over your lens, so all you have to do is move it away from the lens whenever you want to capture a burst, and simply close the shutter when the exposure is complete.

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Photo by Le Kiet at 9.3s shutter speed

07. Use a smartphone

What if you unexpectedly find yourself at a fireworks show without a camera? The good news is, if you’re toting a smartphone, then you can still get some quality images.

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Photo by Alvaro Reyes

When using a smartphone, make sure your flash is turned off (And just leave it off. It rarely does you any good anyway.) to avoid under- and overexposed photos.

Also, consider downloading an app where you can manually control shutter speed and ISO. ProCam, Moment, or SlowShutter Cam are a few outstanding options.

As an example, if you’re using SlowShutter Cam, use the Light Trail capture mode with Bulb as your Shutter Speed, so you can manually start and stop each capture. For sensitivity, it’s condition specific, so start with something like 1/16 and experiment with it.

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Photo by Gary Heaton taken with SlowShutterCam and iPhone

If you have an iPhone, another option is to set your camera to Live mode. This will, in essence, create a three-second video, recording 1.5 seconds before and after you hit the shutter-release button. You’ll have to practice your timing with the bursts of the fireworks, but you can always edit your pictures later by applying the Long Exposure effect. Just swipe up the Live photo to see the effects.

If you have your EarPods, you can plug them in and release the shutter with the volume up or down button.

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Photo by Jason Weingardt taken with iPhone X

There isn’t a “one size fits all” formula for shooting fireworks, but by following these relatively simple tips, you’ll be well on your way to capturing some beautiful images. Practice with a variety of settings and see what works best for you.