How to Photograph Fireworks

Prosy Introduction

(you can skip this section if you only want the shooting instructions)

I love fireworks.  I love watching huge shows with crowds of people.  I love lighting off small and large stuff at home or on the beach.  I love shopping for fireworks; I love looking at all the flashy and slightly frightening packaging.  I even love the smell of the hot plywood used to build the temporary sheds that house the stores in the summer.  And, of course, I love to take pictures of fireworks.

Getting good pictures of fireworks isn’t easy, at least not for me.  There’s some technique involved and a little art that comes with experience.  Mostly, though, it’s because there aren’t many opportunities to practice.  For the most part, I only get the 4th of July each year.  i get that one night to knock the dust off my skills and hopefully make some new images of fireworks.  If I mess things up, or the weather doesn’t cooperate, or I (gasp) have some other commitment that keeps me from shooting, I have to wait until the next year.

Since I only get one shot at getting it right per year, I want to, you know, get it right.  Every year I forget my settings and some other details and have to review my pictures from the previous year.  One time I wrote down (on a napkin) what my camera settings usually are and then tucked that piece of paper away in some photography book somewhere.  I have no idea where that piece of paper is now.  So this page is mainly for myself – this is meant to be a place where I can go to remember how I did things in the past.  If you find some use for it, all the better.

Fortunately for me, I get an amazing show every year almost literally in my backyard.  My tiny Vashon Island puts on a real, professional display every year.  Not only is it a great fireworks show, but it’s also a lot of small-town fun.  Families gather on the shores of Quartermaster Harbor, or groups get together at the shore-front houses with good views for a party.  It’s a party everywhere, up and down the beaches.  Kids run around with their friends, BBQ grills are going, and everyone is generally relaxed.

It’s a fairly safe environment, except there are a LOT of huge aerial bombs being set off by total amateurs.  It’s kind of exciting even though you have shells almost as big as the professionals being lit off just feet from where you’re standing.  One year someone’s whole stash went off on the ground, about 20 yards from us.  That was a little more exciting than I typically like.  Normally, though, it really is a great time.  People set off Chinese lanterns, and there’s usually a raft with a bonfire on it that they float out into the harbor.  It’s a good thing there’s entertainment, too, because it doesn’t get dark until really late in the Pacific Northwest in the summer.  Like, it’s still not full-dark at 10:00 pm.

Preparation

You need to use a tripod.  There’s no getting around this.  As you can probably tell, exposures for fireworks are somewhat slow (meaning the shutter stays open longer).  You don’t want to freeze the action here.  Instead, you want the cool streaks of colored light as the shells go up, burst and then drift back down.  However, you want to capture motion, not create it.

There is no way to hand-hold your camera absolutely still during the long exposures needed for capturing the streaking light of fireworks.  Because each exposure will be several seconds long (an eternity in photography), any camera movement will be emphasized, and the images will turn out blurry and shaky-looking.  You have to have your camera firmly mounted on a tripod.

What you need

  • A view of a fireworks display
  • A camera with a Manual mode for setting exposure (I use a Nikon DSLR)
  • A sturdy tripod (I use a Really Right Stuff model)
  • A cable shutter release

I used a wireless shutter release remote once but didn’t care for it.  I felt like there was a slight delay between when I pressed the button and when the shutter opened.  Real or imagined, I didn’t like it and have always used a cable shutter release since then.

Position Yourself

You want some wind, and you want to position yourself anywhere except downwind of the fireworks.

Smoke from the show can ruin the whole thing, photographically speaking.  If there’s no wind, the smoke from the first few bursts will build up.  Each successive burst makes this worse until the display is completely occluded by the smoke.  Instead of fireworks, you get glowing clouds of smoke.  This actually looks kind of cool but doesn’t photograph well.  If you find that the smoke is building up, you might as well turn your camera off (and put the lens cap on) and just enjoy the show without taking any pictures.

Camera Settings

Exposure Mode:  Manual

Your camera will have no idea what you’re trying to do with exposure.  We’ll be aiming at an almost all black scene and then shooting super bright objects.  There’s no way a light meter would get this right.

Aperture:  f/16 – f/8

It depends on how dark it is outside.  Since it gets dark so late where I shoot, the show usually starts before full dark.  So my shutter is too slow, I normally start with my shutter closed down to something like f/16 and then open it up gradually to f/8 as it gets darker.  My goal is to get a proper exposure such that the shutter speed is 4-7 seconds.

Shutter Speed:  Bulb Mode

This is the setting on many cameras that comes after the slowest (longest) one.  On my camera it comes after 30 seconds.  Bulb is the shutter speed mode that allows us to manually hold open the shutter for as long as we hold down the shutter release.  This is really the key to success.

If your camera has an automatic ISO setting, make sure to turn that off.  Set your ISO to as low as it will go.

Focusing:  Manual

We need to pre-focus on a particular spot and then leave focus there.  If you are able to see the platform off of which the fireworks will be launched, then by all means pre-focus on that.  However, it’s just as easy to pre-focus on almost-infinity.  Manually focus all the way to infinity and then back it off just a little.  Here’s what my lens barrel looks like when I do that:

The key is to not let your camera ever try to auto-focus.  Turn off anything that might make the camera try to automatically focus on something.  The last thing you want is to try and take a picture and have your camera hunting for focus.

The Technique

I should call this section “My Technique” instead of implying that it’s “the” only technique.  But, it’s too late to change that now.  I’m sure there are other ways to capture great images of fireworks, but I can only describe what I do.  So that’s what this is – a description of what I’ve always done when shooting fireworks.

Composition

The majority of composition for fireworks pictures is simply having the best focal length to capture the entire burst.

  • You don’t want to be zoomed in so tight that you miss most of the burst of light
  • You don’t want to be zoomed in so tight that, when the wind blows the burst over to the side, you miss the whole thing entirely
  • You don’t want to be zoomed out so far that you end up having to crop out all of your resolution to fill the frame with fireworks
  • Sometimes you have to just take a chance.  Zoom in a little bit more to fill the whole frame with light.  You may miss some, but you’ll probably get some.

There’s no one setting for this, and you’ll probably have to make adjustments as the show goes on.  Just keep checking your LCD after every few bursts to make sure you’re close.  You want to error on the side of having too wide an angle of view because you can always crop, but you can’t go back and recapture light that was outside your frame.

Feel free to incorporate a foreground element.  I’m lucky that my Island show takes place over water and that I can position myself right in front of it.  In fact, several of the images on this page (the very first one, the one right above) were shot while I was actually in the Puget Sound.  It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be, and it gave me a great perspective with the boats in the harbor.  I love being able to capture the reflection of the light as much as the display itself.

Here’s a frame of just the fireworks.  There’s no foreground or, well, ground at all.  I think it looks okay in this shot, but I normally try to give the viewer some sort of land to identify with.

If you have trees or other objects between you and the show, it would be best to purposefully incorporate them into your scene.  Personally I’d rather not have anything between me and the lights, but that might not always be possible.

The Shoot

  1. You’re already pre-focused on infinity-minus-a-bit, and this won’t change because your camera is set to manual focus
  2. You’ve already composed your shot in an effort to maximize the frame while still getting all the bursts
  3. The cable shutter release is in your hand, with your thumb poised over the button
  4. You hear the first cannonade go off and can see a streak of light going up into the sky
  5. Press the shutter release button a half second before the shell explodes and hold it down until the descending light streaks start to fade away
  6. Quickly review your LCD and make adjustments for the next burst
  7. Repeat until the show is over

The main key is to hold the shutter open for the correct amount of time.  You want a bright, vibrant burst that is not overexposed and washed out.  Unfortunately there are several vagaries that preclude knowing exactly how long to expose for.

If they only launched one shell at a time and waited until it had gone off and then completely faded before launching the next shell, two things would happen:

  1. It would be much easier to make good images
  2. The show would be really boring and, after awhile, so would your images

Multiple bursts are going to be much brighter than a single one.  If the smoke isn’t blowing away very fast, that’s going to make the scene brighter as well.  The more smoke there is, the more the light will reflect off of it.  You want to hold the shutter open long enough to capture streaking lines of light but not so long that you get one big blob of whiteness (which was my nickname in high school).

You have to pick your battles and realize that only a fraction of your shots will turn out awesome.  That’s the way it is with all forms of photography, so it’s good we’re not using and developing film.  When they start sending up 5, 6, 7, or 8 shells at a time I just forget about it.  There’s no way it’s going to be exposed well with nicely defined lines.

My rule of thumb is this – I hold the shutter open for between 4 and 8 seconds, depending on those aforementioned vagaries.  I watch the trails as the shells go up and try to time the opening of the shutter to just before the explosion.  Usually my timing gets better as the show goes on and I settle into a rhythm with the bursts.

Bursting the Bubble

Aficionados of fireworks photos say that the best images capture the moment of the burst in the center of the streams.  You can scroll back up through the images on this page and count how many bursts you see.  Some pictures have them, and some don’t.  The all-green one has no center bursts, but the pictures immediately before and after it do.

Did you notice whether they were there or not before I mentioned it?  If not, then don’t worry about it.  I try not to worry about it, but every time to get them I feel like I nailed something that will impress people I’ve never met or will ever hear from.

Post Processing

This isn’t rocket science (or, is it?).  I even have a Fireworks preset in Lightroom that I usually start with because I tend to do the same things to each image.  Here are the things I normally do in post:

  • Increase contrast
  • Decrease blacks (make the darks darker)
  • Maybe decrease whites a bit if I don’t already have nice color
  • Increase vibrance
  • Increase sharpness and mask out the solid bits of dark sky
  • Add 25 units or less of noise reduction

After doing those things, I play with the White Balance and Tint sliders until I get something I like.  I’ll start by trying to replicate what I think it really looked like and then move things around until I like it the best.

Have Fun

Don’t forget that these shooting techniques can be used for land-based fireworks as well.  This isn’t reserved for the huge aerial shows.

And if you want to get crazy and incorporate flash, you can really get some creative images.  Here’s my super-cool, extra rad, smarty-pants step-daughter (who edited this whole thing and inserted these descriptions and actually used the phrase “extra rad”) from some years back showing you the number of fireworks shows that I have NOT enjoyed in my lifetime.

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