In this quick tutorial we explain everything you need to know to set up your camera and learn how to photograph fireworks with confidence.
Whether it’s the Fourth of July in America, Bonfire Night in the UK or New Year’s celebrations anywhere in the world, fireworks displays bring out the inner child in every photographer and get us reaching for our cameras to capture those awesome displays of colour.
No matter what the scale of the display, fireworks are a fantastic opportunity to get creative with your night photography and capture bright, colourful images with an otherworldly feel.
However, fireworks are a tricky subject to photograph and you must be well prepared if you want to capture them at their best.
As you probably expected by shooting at night, the key technique for taking photos of fireworks is to shoot a long exposure. Even though the larger displays can be quite bright, the light from fireworks is counter-balanced by the pitch darkness all around.
And though it may look quite bright to you, it’s worth remembering that the human eye can adjust to the darkness and perceive fireworks to be much brighter than they will appear to a camera’s image sensor.
What’s more, fireworks take several seconds to ascend and display, and then dissipate again. So we’re really looking at exposures of around 2-30secs to photograph fireworks.
And to do it effectively you’ll need a camera that offers both manual exposure control and a Bulb mode setting.
But mode is a setting that allows you to hold the shutter open for indefinite periods of time to achieve a very precise look.
Essential gear to photograph fireworks
Apart from a camera with a Bulb mode option, a sturdy tripod is probably next on the list of must-have equipment. With camera resolutions what they are these days, even the slightest movement will spoil an image due to camera shake.
We recommend a pan-and-tilt tripod head if possible. Failing that, see if there are any walls or flat surfaces you can use to set your camera on.
Don’t forget a remote release, too. Think about it, if you press your finger down on the shutter button on your camera for 10 seconds, you’re going to inevitably move the camera. A remote release will let you trip your shutter without having to touch – and shake – the camera. Either a wireless or cabled option will suffice.
You’re also going to want a zoom lens. A 17-35mm is probably the ideal focal length in order to frame both the fireworks and any foreground interest. But a 28-80mm will also give you a bit of flexibility too.
For closeup photos of fireworks as they burst, you’ll probably want to shoot with a 70-200mm or 70-300mm telephoto zoom.
Shooting at night with a telephoto lens can be tricky. Your framing has to be precise, and it’s always a challenge to keep the subject steady when it’s magnified in the frame.
When it comes to lenses, it’s best to think about the type of shots you want to get beforehand, as you won’t have much time to change lenses during the fast-paced display of fireworks.
Other items that can be useful are a torch / flashlight for painting in any elements in the foreground, and a timer to precisely record your exposures. There are plenty of free stopwatch apps for iOS and Android that will do this.
Explore your location during the day
You can have all the gear and all the technical skills and practice in the world, but if you arrive at your location without knowing the basics like which direction the fireworks will be coming from, you’re not going to get the images you were hoping for.
Try to visit the location a few hours before the fireworks begin, and if possible, chat to the pyrotechnics crew as they’re setting up. They may be able to give you even more information on pacing and what colours and types of displays to expect, even what might be in the grand finale.
With this information in hand you can then walk around and think about where to set up your tripod. If you arrive a few minutes before the show starts you might find that these prime locations are going to be filled with crowds, so get there early. Scout out the best locations and think about how you’ll frame your fireworks.
It’s also worth considering as you scout the area what you can add to your fireworks images to make them more interesting. For instance, are there local landmarks, interesting buildings you could include in the frame? Is there a pond nearby where you could set up to capture the fireworks reflected in the water?
You’ll also want someplace secluded, free from ambient light from nearby buildings and street lights, which will ruin the look and feel of your fireworks images.
And, finally, you want to think about how to protect yourself and your camera from the crowds. Is there a wall or shrubbery you can set up in front of to keep people from tripping over your tripod? Can you bring any friends or family along to stand on either side of you? These are things to think about.
In fact, having a friend along is also extra insurance against theft. It can happen. In the dark. Crowds of people. Distracted by fireworks. It would be very easy for someone to grab your camera bag and run. With a friend along with you, a thief might think twice.
Setting up your camera to photograph fireworks
First and foremost when setting up your camera to shot fireworks – or any night photography subject – you will want to set your camera to record raw files or the highest quality JPEGs.
With dark subjects and long exposures, noise interference will be one of your biggest obstacles, so ensuring you shoot the highest-quality image files will help avoid even further deterioration from artefacts.
When you set up your camera to photograph fireworks you’ll obviously want to point your lens at the area in the sky where you fireworks will burst. But don’t tighten your tripod legs so tightly that you can’t quickly loosen them and readjust your composition once the fireworks display begins.
Most fireworks displays shoot directly overhead of the crowd and then arc down in a tight pattern. With this in mind, try framing first in portrait format to capture the burst in all its glory.
Because you want to avoid using your flash you’ll need to dial in the lowest ISO setting possible to help keep noise at bay and enable you to capture as much detail and colour as possible. A low ISO setting will also help you achieve a longer shutter speed, which you want in this instance.
You’ll also want to set your camera’s aperture to one of its smaller settings – generally anywhere from f/11 up to f/22. Remember: the higher the f number, the smaller the aperture.
As a rough guide, you can try dialling in these aperture and ISO combinations:
f/11 – ISO 50
f/11 or f/16 – ISO 100
f/16 or f/22 – ISO 200
Using these combinations should give you a long enough shutter speed to capture vibrant colours and beautiful displays of fireworks.
How to focus your lens on fireworks
The best way to get pin-sharp fireworks images is to wait until the first burst explodes, then focus on that display and lock your focus for the rest of the shoot.
Autofocus systems have gotten better over the years at locking on to targets in low light photography, and there should be enough contrast between the fireworks and the night sky for your AF system to find it and lock on.
Timing your exposure for fireworks
The final camera setting you want to think about carefully is shutter speed. Let’s be honest: there will be a lot of trial and error here, as light levels will change, as will the brightness of fireworks.
Also, fireworks can take several seconds to fully burst and descend. Also, your shutter speed will depend on if you are shooting single or multiple explosions. So for this reason it’s best to start with a ‘best guess’ and see how the image looks on your LCD screen, then adjust accordingly.
For example, a good starting point for a single explosion might be 6secs at f/16, ISO 200. This should get you in the ballpark, and you can fine-tune from there.
Timing is also crucial when photographing fireworks. So be alert. Listen to the sound of the firework being launched, and then trip your shutter.
If you plan to shoot multiple fireworks bursts, it’s a good idea to hold a piece of black card over your lens in-between the explosions. But make sure you limit yourself to about four or five bursts. Any more and you will risk both overexposure and a messy composition.
When shooting multiple bursts of fireworks, look to increase that exposure time from 6secs to sometimes up to 30secs.
Do you have any great advice on how to photograph fireworks that we may have missed? Let us know in the comments!
Final tips for taking photos of fireworks
Cold weather and long exposures will drain your camera’s battery faster than usual. So it’s a good idea to bring a back-up fully charged battery to use just in case.
Depending on the age of your camera, a long exposure can take some time to process before you can take your next shot. So it’s a good idea to test the buffer on your camera at home before you go out and miss that killer grand finale.