How to Photograph Fireworks

The 4th of July is right around the corner and that means barbecue, beer, and of course, fireworks.  There's no better way to celebrate the birth of the good ol' US of A then getting drunk with friends and blowing up a small piece of it.  If you live in a city, the odds are you'll have access to a pretty fantastic fireworks show.  Fireworks are a lot of fun to photograph in part because most of us only have two chances per year to shoot them - NYE and the 4th of July.  In this entry, I'm going to tell you what you need to get some great images.  What I'm going to describe is my workflow, which is by no means the only way to do it.   If you have a different method, that's awesome!  Feel free to post your approach in the comments.  Also, every shooting environment is different, so the following is being offered up as general guidelines.  Feel free to tweak things as needed.

Here's the equipment you'll need:

What you'll need

What you'll need

  • DSLR Camera with the ability to shoot in Manual Mode (M) or Bulb Mode (B) 
  • Lens - wide angle if you're close to the action, zoom if you're further away
  • A sturdy tripod
  • a cable or radio shutter remote (some cameras like the Canon 6D have a cell phone remote shutter app)

You're going to be doing some fairly long exposures, so hand-holding your camera is not an option here; every single little movement and tremor in your hands will blur the image.  If you're using a zoom lens, this will be exaggerated.  This is where your tripod comes in.  Avoid those cheap "travel" tripods as they tend to be pretty flimsy.  You want something solid to support your camera.  If you don't have a tripod available, you can set your camera on a solid surface, but you'll lose the ability to reframe a shot.  Do yourself a favor - buy a decent tripod.  Look at models around $75-$100.  For most hobbyists, this will give you great mix of stability, portability, and durability under normal conditions.

The long shutter speed is also the reason you're using a shutter remote.  To ensure a tack-sharp image, we need to eliminate all vibration, which includes the vibration from your finger pressing the shutter button.  Yeah, it's that sensitive.  Crazy, right?  The shutter remote will allow us to take the image while ensuring the camera is completely undisturbed.  You can pick one up on Amazon for $10 - $15.

When it comes to selecting your lens, your choice will largely depend on your particular situation . In an ideal context, you'd have access close to the action and a wide angle lens.  Wide angles are great for capturing big open skies and the lens distortion gives a cool surreal effect.  They also have a very large depth of field, so its easy to ensure that everything in frame is in focus.  If you don't have the luxury of close proximity, you'll need a zoom lens.  The important thing is to ensure that you have a field of view that allows you to broad depth of field.

Set up your gear

Get your camera and put it on your tripod.  Plant your tripod someplace where your camera won't get bumped or knocked over.  Remember, we're celebrating the birthday of 'Merica, dammit!  People have been drinking all day, and by sundown most of your stupid friends are bound to be a little clumsy.  When choosing your spot, stability is key here. Don't put it on soft dirt  or loose pebbles that are going to depress and shift as people walk around.  Connect your shutter cable or remote.  Don't forget to take off your lens cap.

Find your Settings

NOTE:  I've written the following assuming that you can balance Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO to get a desired exposure.  If this isn't the case, you can skip down to the "Quick and Dirty Method" under this same heading.

Your in-camera light meter should be visible through your viewfinder as well as on your LCD screen

Your in-camera light meter should be visible through your viewfinder as well as on your LCD screen

Once you have your camera on your tripod and everything set up, you'll need to get baseline exposure for the ambient light without the fireworks.  This can vary drastically based on city lights, a full moon, etc.  To do this, utilize your in-camera light meter set to Evaluative or Matrix mode (different names for the same thing - Canon and Nikon respectively).  This little guy lives inside your viewfinder and on your LCD screen.  When you depress your shutter button half way, it will tell you how close your are to what the camera thinks is a perfect exposure.  When the indicator is dead center, the exposure is correct.  When it's left of center, the image is underexposed.  When it's right of center, the image is overexposed.  For this shot, underexposing this base reading by about two stops will make all the points of light from the pyrotechnics really pop.  Balance the following elements so that the indicator is at -2. 


Shutter Speed

99% of the time, I recommend shooting in Manual Mode (M).  Doing so in this case will allow you to take full control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO so that you can manipulate the image in-camera to your heart's content.  As I've already mentioned, you'll be using a slow shutter speed.  A long shutter speed will allow you to capture long light trails, rather than spots of light in the sky.  Also, the slower the shutter speed, the more fireworks you'll be able to capture in a single frame.  If you want fewer bursts, something around 10 seconds would be appropriate.  If you want a lot of bursts, set your shutter speed at something longer like 30 seconds. Now, if you're feeling adventurous and you really want to jam pack the frame with a metric butt-ton of fireworks, switch your camera to Bulb Mode (B).  This will allow you to hold the shutter curtain open as long as the remote button is depressed.

Set your camera to Manual Mode (M) or Bulb Mode (B)

Set your camera to Manual Mode (M) or Bulb Mode (B)


 For landscape-style shots like this, you generally want as much of the frame in focus as possible.  I recommend starting around f/11 and bumping up the number until the whole image is in focus.  Adjust in small increments until the whole image is tack-sharp on the LCD when zoomed in at 100%.


I always shoot at the lowest ISO possible because higher settings introduce noise to the photo.  This is especially evident in entry-level crop-sensor cameras, like the Canon Rebel series.  Noise can be cleaned up a bit in post editing, but noise reduction always takes away from overall sharpness.  Start at ISO 100 and increase it until your light meter indicator is at "-2".  If the image is too bright, lower your ISO to underexpose a bit more.  If your minimum ISO places the light meter indicator at something higher than "-2", you'll need to  close your aperture or speed up your shutter speed to allow less light to hit the sensor.

Quick and Dirty Method

If you aren't yet at the level to balance out Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO, to get a desired exposure level, fear not!  You can put your camera on Shutter Priority Mode (TV on the shooting mode dial) and set a long shutter speed, and set the overall exposure compensation to "-2".  The way to do this will be different depending on your camera brand and model.  Please consult your camera's manual - if you lost it, check out the manufacturers website, and you can usually download a free copy of it.

Compose your shot

You're essentially taking a landscape shot here.  When taking landscape shots it's important to have three sections of your image: a foreground, a mid ground, and a background.  Having all three elements will give a sense of depth and place the viewer in the scene.  If you only shoot the sky, without a foreground and mid ground, the image lacks a reference for scope.  Now fireworks are generally cool enough that if you only shoot the sky, you'll still get decent pictures.  That said, if you can incorporate the near, the mid, and the far, you'll be a lot more likely to create a very compelling image.  

We're going to apply the rule of thirds here as well.  Draw an imaginary tic-tac-toe board on your frame and place points of interest along those lines with emphasis on the intersections.  If you want to emphasize the sky, put the horizon line on the bottom third.  If you want to put emphasis on the ground, to point out an iconic building or landmark, put the horizon on the bottom two thirds of the frame.


Now, just wait for the fireworks and shoot, stupid!  If you find that your exposure is too bright adjust your settings as necessary to tone it down.  If the exposure is too dark, adjust to lighten the exposure.  Take a lot of images - most of the pictures are going to be mediocre, but you'll come across a handful that are truly stunning.  Those are the keepers.  


A few parting tips...

Scout out your location early.  To get a good spot, you may need to secure a spot before crowds arrive.  Placing a reasonably sized blanket (5'x5' - anything larger is obnoxious and asshole-ish) is a good way of letting people know that's your space.

Fireworks love Clarity. If you're using a program like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to edit your images, the clarity slider increases mid-tone contrast and will help those fireworks really pop.

Bring a spare Battery.  Long exposures and constant fiddling to find the right exposure can drain your battery.  

If your foreground is moving use a flash.  Long shutter speeds will blur out moving objects in the foreground.  If you want to maintain a long shutter speed while freezing foreground objects, use a second curtain flash.

Don't be anti-social!  Like I said, most people only get 2 chances per year to photograph fireworks.  It can be tempting to go heads-down into your LCD screen and  focus on that all night.  Remember, holidays are meant to be spent with family and friends - not your camera.  Use the camera to capture memories.  Do not let the camera prevent you from making memories.