How to Shoot Fireworks

Photographing fireworks can be a challenge. It’s often frustrating to witness a spectacular display, take pictures, and come home to be disappointed with the results. A few people have recently asked me how to capture fireworks due to the upcoming U.S. Independence Day. Last year I briefly wrote about capturing them, but I thought I’d go into more detail this year. There is a way to capture these awesome bursts of color to look like how you remembered them live. My method requires two things that I will share.

First, there’s a “formula” I use, and have never deviated from. I use a DSLR, but you can use a compact camera if you have manual settings. I always bring a tripod and a cable or wireless remote (you can carefully press the shutter button, preferably with mirror lock if you don’t have a remote). I set my camera to manual focus at infinity ∞. If you have a focus ring, this is easy. Just dial it to the line, not symbol for infinity ∞. Also, I use manual exposure at f/8 and bulb, or if you have a bulb setting you just have to adjust your aperture. You can use aperture settings from f/8 – f/16. Bulb is crucial to get good firework photos by slowly capturing the intense colors. For those unfamiliar with “bulb”, it allows you to hold the shutter open for as long as you’d like. The longer the shutter is open, the more light from the image is obtained onto your camera’s sensor or film. I use a wide angle lens at 17 mm, which can always be cropped, and camera settings are at auto WB, ISO 100, and no flash is used. I use an APS-C camera, and might even consider using my 11-16 MM lens next time. One thing to consider if you have a camera with more than 8 MP, you might want to consider shooting in JPEG only and/or reducing your image quality to M to reduce the file size. Since this is a long exposure, it’ll take more time to process larger files onto your sensor if your using a digital camera; therefore, you get fewer opportunities to shoot, and will miss some fireworks.

Second, you need to develop a feel for where to shoot and for how long to expose the burst. To find a good location, simply mount your camera to a tripod allowing it to pan, and while holding it, wait for the first firing. Track it with your camera and once it “explodes”, make sure you have it centered with plenty of empty space around the fireworks, since each firing while be in a slightly different location. Now tighten your tripod in place. From this point on, you should be able to use the remote to shoot the fireworks without looking through the viewfinder or at the LCD display. You may have to occasionally adjust your camera to capture a burst. When you take the shot, continue holding the shutter button or remote until the trails (lines of light) come to an end, and then release.

Here’s where you can become creative. You can capture multiple bursts on one photo (a multiple exposure). This technique requires a black card/sheet of paper large enough to cover the entire front of the lens, good timing and some practice. After you’ve captured the first burst, quickly cover the lens with the black card while still holding the shutter open. When the next burst begins, remove the black card, and once the trails end, release the shutter/remote to complete the shot. If you’re adventurous, you can repeat the procedure and go for a third or fourth exposure.

This year I’m considering going to a location across from NYC to get fireworks over the skyline instead of individual shots. This will be MY challenge this year, and if all goes well, I’ll have a link to the photos to share and/or a post about it. If you’re near a city (large or small), consider doing the same.

Good luck with your challenge. After you’ve capture your fireworks, please share your link here. Post it even if you weren’t successful and I will give you tips on how to improve your skills, so you’ll be ready the next time!

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20 Responses to “How to Shoot Fireworks”

  1. My Nikon D40 can shoot at a minimum of ISO 200. I have an tripod and a remote release (I can also tether the camera to my MacBook and use my iPhone as a remote).

    I have a choice of a Nikkor 18-200mm f/5.6 or Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Which lens should I use and why? Also, why do you use an aperture of f/5.6?

    Thanks for writing this.

    • shutterbuggeek Says:

      Bring both lenses if you can, but have the 18-200 mounted. I personally like to have some space around the burst, and crop if I feel the need to, and it’s better for multi-exposures. I have used a 50mm which wasn’t wide enough, but gave a nice full image. 35mm could be just right for a single burst.

      I probably should use f/8 since that’s the sweet spot on my 17-40/4, and I might just try it this year. I’m sure f/11 is also fine. The first year I stopped it down a bit from wide open and it looked fine. This year I might experiment with aperture settings.

      BTW, since you’ll be using ISO 200, I would start with at least f/8.

  2. Great tips. Thanks!

  3. […] How to Shoot Fireworks – With the 4th of July coming up in the US, these are superb tips to get some of those beautiful explosions caught on film (or SD card, whatever). […]

  4. […] go see some of the colorful explosions famous throughout the land. I got a little bit of help from @ShutterBugGeek’s blog post and got my camera set up to take these wonderful photos for all you readers out there, and I […]

  5. Wow! Really nice pics, keep up the good work 😀

  6. Great tips. Here are a few from my last experience with the subject.
    http://martinsoler.com/2010/07/15/fireworks-and-the-eiffel-tower-paris-hdr/

    1. Fireworks are not as large as they seem. So get spot that isn’t too far away – I would estimate 1km is good (4km is too much).

    2. Put the camera in Bulb mode, and when you see the rocket fire, press the trigger (remote is imperative for this) as soon as the explosion is done release the trigger. You need to be quick as the next explosion is coming up and if you don’t watch out it will become one large blur of light.

    3. Smaller fireworks in villages are probably better to shoot since the rockets will be fired off with a few seconds between each. Large fireworks like this one in Paris are almost continuous so trying to get some single explosions is nearly impossible – and you end up with a large ball of light.

    4. Shoot an HDR image just before the night is totally dark so you get a nice dark blue sky. Once the fireworks start you’ll have smoke everywhere and a pretty messy looking sky which is quite ugly. Then mask in the fireworks into your HDR.

    5. Avoid shooting from a wooden bridge (like me) where anybody walking by shakes the entire bridge.

    • shutterbuggeek Says:

      Thanks Martin for the great tips, especially taking a photo of the sky before the fireworks begin, and masking in post-production.

  7. Very useful tips! I tried your instruction and I think I did well. I will be posting them soon on my site. Thank you!

    • shutterbuggeek Says:

      Excellent Prasanna! I’m glad they helped. I always like to give tips, since so many have given some to me. I love that photographers usually help each other with technique. Add your link here so we all can find your photos!

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