Fireworks displays are a sign of celebrations of important events all over the world and knowing how to photograph fireworks well means you will always have those great memories immortalised. For brief moments in time, we are fascinated and enamoured with their brilliance before they fade away forever. With a handful of basic starting points, equipment, and essentials, one can capture these moments using a digital camera giving life and longevity to these uplifting moments. Even if you’ve never tried photographing fireworks displays, it’s relatively easy to do using the information presented below.
Equipment & Essentials for Photographing Fireworks
As photographers, when learning how to photograph fireworks there are some really important things you should know – you’ll need a tripod and a cable release for your camera.
These can be fairly inexpensive pieces of gear (if you don’t already have one or both). The stability of a tripod while standing off to the side as throngs of spectators move about is of paramount importance to the final image quality.
The cable release is as equally important for image quality as it is for timing.
The cable release also lets you watch the show while the camera and your thumb do the work – neat!
When Learning How to Photograph Fireworks, Be Ready!
Look at online maps; call the committee responsible for hosting the fireworks; and talk to people like traffic control officers when you arrive [early] to the site.
You’ll have a better guess at which lens and starting focal length you’ll need to capture as much fireworks action as possible. It goes without saying that you want to factor in setup time into your shoot.
When possible, try to place something static in the frame for a point of reference to Earth. For example, trees, architecture, a background landscape feature, anything to add to the composition of the shot.
Important Elements to Consider:
- Timing the launch of the firework
- The firework's ascent
- The break in the sky
- Finally, the downward-curving trails under gravity will become crucial through the evolution of the fireworks show
Set up at late dusk so your eyes can actually see the landscape features.
Auto Focus or Manual Focus?
I recommend going Full Manual Mode but starting with Auto Focus [AF] on the lens. For the first one or two fireworks, use the camera to set your focus using AF – especially when you're just starting out in learning how to photograph fireworks.
Chimp the display and check the sharpness and focus. If good, quickly but carefully set the lens to Manual Focus [MF] so it doesn’t keep attempting to re-focus throughout the show.
Note: Every 6 or 7 minutes of fireworks, repeat the AF to MF procedure. Why? As the night air cools down and the battery and digital sensor heat up after sunset, your focus may change due to thermal expansion and contraction.
The wind direction may change enough to push the display ahead of or behind your Depth-of-Field range. Keep your targets in focus!
To Begin, Try the Following Setup
- Auto White Balance [AWB] – shoot in AWB Mode to make things easier on yourself. Fireworks displays are so variable in the intensity, color, and density of light against a relatively black background.I’m not sure there’s a good one-size-fits-all approach outside of AWB Mode, even trying to shoot one fireworks sequence in Custom and using that for the rest of the show. My advice, resign yourself to some software post-processing work and just go with the AWB.I don’t want to use software to add Sharpness in post-processing. I don’t like the fringe created where burning trails cross one another in the final.
- Noise Reduction [NR] – turn it off. It won’t play a key role as these exposures are relatively short, and once the fireworks break in the sky there will be plenty of light in the scene contrasting with the black background of night.Your sequential firing of the shutter will be much faster too, preventing you from missing too much of the show while the NR cycle runs its course.
- Aperture F/11 – this aperture setting provides a good balance with between Depth of Field and Exposure Value – it’s a good starting point.Firstly, fireworks are 3-D objects with a volume. So, you want to use an f-number adequate enough to keep the entire shell of exploding, burning chemicals in sharp focus from front to back, or inside the Depth of Field.It’s also worth noting, F/11 is a good aperture to allow bright light in fast enough to register on the sensor but rapidly fall-off to the black background of the night sky.
- ISO 100 – this is a general purpose ISO Value. It’ll keep the burning trails of the fireworks bright and sharp enough, and it’ll reduce the noise generally associated with longer exposures at night.
- Shutter Speed – 4.0 seconds – again a general purpose setting that may need adjusting based on field conditions and ambient light.
- Lens – If starting with a kit lens [18-55mm] set somewhere between 18-35mm. The lens and focal length will be highly dependent on how close or far your photographic location is from the fireworks launch site.If you’re too close, you may need a smaller lower focal range. The converse is true. The important part is that your focal length will be the controlling parameter for how much or how little of the fireworks display fills your framed shot at your relatively fixed location.
Photographing Fireworks – Setup Review
- Use a Tripod
- Always use a Cable Release
- Aperture = F11 – Work wider from this point
- ISO = 100
- Shutter Speed = 4.0 Seconds (use Bulb mode)
- Focal Length 35mm (Crop Sensor) as a starting point
- Do some homework and planning. Enjoy the show!
Trying to master how to photograph fireworks inside of urban centers and cities requires a little more patience and tweaking of the technical settings because of the background light of the surrounding environment.
Good luck and have fun!
- Photographing Fireworks is Easy With These 6 Steps (Along With 10 Brilliant Examples) by Jason D. Little
- Fireworks Photography Book
- Other Low Light Photography Scenarios
A solid blog post like this one will get you started in learning how to photograph fireworks and you will get some great results. It does have its limitations though. If you want dive really deep into the art of fireworks photography (and it is a pretty deep rabbit hole), then you might want to get a more in depth guide. The best around at the moment is Richard Schneider's ebook on the topic (and there's usually a July 4 discount) so take a look at it here.