Photographing Fireworks that Sparkle and Shimmer


Photographing fireworks captures bright, sparkly lights that last oh-so-briefly. In the next few days, evening sounds will include popping and booms from fireworks from holiday weekend events. The sky? The dark sky serves as a velvety backdrop for the big lights dancing in the night.

When photographing fireworks, all you need is a few tips and the right tools. Then, you'll be getting images that “oooh and ahh” long after the celebration ends.

photographing fireworks
Ooooh the Colors! by Sheen Watkins, ISO 100, 14mm f/9, 27 sec. (the bright white fireworks were the last in the group)

Photographing Fireworks: Bring on the Sparkle!

We'll highlight planning, tools needed, camera settings and close with shooting techniques.

The Big Event: Planning for the Sparkle

If you've been to these fireworks before, great! You're ahead of the game and already have a good idea of viewing locations.

Before the festivities begin, look for or revisit areas where your view of the sky and your frame is clear and free from up close distractions. If you can visit the location earlier in the day or prior, even better. Also, depending on the size of the event, you may need to reserve your optimal space.

While you're scoping the scene, look for framing and scene opportunities. Are the fireworks over water? Will they appear above the skyline, or between buildings?

photographing fireworks
Light up the Night by Sheen Watkins, ISO 100, 14mm, f/9, 12 sec.

Fireworks in a photograph against the sky looks nice. When framed or supported by elements, your image is stronger. During the day, capture a few test shots of your planned scenes to review before you go.

You know the fireworks are going to shine, the mental planning for the scene and landscape adds to your artistry in the evening.

Tip: If your background or frame includes tall structures, particularly with wide angle lenses, watch for converging lines. Positioning your camera using the Virtual Horizon gage minimizes distortion. However, it is night photography and fun photography, so take creative liberties and enjoy!

photographing fireworks
Lost in a Purple Haze by Sheen Watkins, ISO 100, 14mm, f/9, 6.2 sec.

Tools for Photographing Fireworks

  1. What lenses are optimal for photographing fireworks? More than likely, one of the lenses in your camera bag. To capture the full night sky and expansive explosions, use the widest angle available. For fireworks, I prefer a zoom lens for flexibility in capturing the whole sky or zooming in to isolate an area (see below).
    • Focal lengths recommended: 14mm focal lengths all the way up to 50mm. I start with the widest possible for the sky shots. Then, I zoom in for the lower, close to ground level displays.
  2. Tripod – For optimal image quality, setting up your shot along with camera stability, a tripod rules.
    • Reminder: As there may be crowds nearby, tripods trip others, or vice versa. Watch to ensure you have safety space for others, you and your gear.
  3. Remote Shutter Release We're working with longer exposures. To further minimize shutter shake, a remote cable release will snap the shutter without touching the camera.
  4. Exposure Delay Mode – Instead of using #3, another option is your camera's Exposure Delay Mode (check your camera manual). Using this mode, our camera delays the start of each exposure until after the mirror has been raised and vibration has reduced. Then the shutter activates. You select the shutter delay time from the menu.
    • This takes some timing practice with fireworks. I'm usually setting my delay time at 2 seconds. Note: you'll still need to set your shutter speed time based on the lighting conditions using this method.
  5. Memory Card that's ready to roll – You'll shoot hundreds of firework images in one evening, an empty memory card and even a spare will ensure your shooting keeps going and going!
photographing fireworks
Isolating the Glitter by Sheen Watkins, ISO 100, 24mm, f/9, 6.8 sec.

Camera Settings

  • Focusing on the Fireworks or Infinity – When photographing fireworks, bright lights illuminate the area. If you prefer to set your camera to infinity, using your camera's autofocus system, focus on a light in the distance or on an early fireworks shot. Then switch your lens to manual mode. The following images use that focal distance. Note: you'll want to recheck your focusing throughout the shoot in the event your lens gets bumped.
  • Depth of Field – A depth of field using aperture settings of f/9, f/11 captures both light and sharpness of the surrounding area.
  • ISO – As we have a significant amount of light, set your camera to a lower ISO setting. I've had the most success at 100 ISO.
  • Shooting Mode – Manual Mode optimizes your shooting time. You're able to adjust shutter speed and aperture quickly. Check exposure periodically.
  • Shutter Speed & Bulb Mode – Determining shutter speed in photographing fireworks is another ‘art' from as well. I set my camera to bulb mode. Then using the cable release I press the button and hold it, then count in my head (yes, the technical part) the seconds before releasing. If it's a bright white or bright collection, I may use 8, 10 or 12 seconds. For the single bursts or darker colors, I've used up to 25 seconds. It's trial and error.
  • Other: Since I'm using a tripod, Vibration Reduction switched to off. I also use Matrix/Pattern/Evaluative metering (based on camera manufacturer). My White Balance is set on Auto.
photographing fireworks
The Moon is Part of the Show by Sheen Watkins

Artistry & Checking Your Technique

Fireworks quickly become the center of attention in our images. Here's a few artistic considerations for elevating our artistry:

  • Reflections – Water and fireworks offer a double vision of the diamonds in the sky.
  • Misty, smoky – As the evening continues, smoke from the fireworks moves through the atmosphere. We can de-haze it in post processing or we can use it to convey ambience and even mystery. Tip: If you're in close proximity, bring wipe cloths. Smoke and ash move throughout the atmosphere and onto our lenses and cameras. Wipe down your camera and lenses well afterwards!
  • Frames and framing – Architecture, tree lines, silhouettes of people, bridges and other elements in the scene serve as frames for our glittering displays.
  • Creative use of light, angles – These tips serve as guideposts to get started. However, the moment is yours. Go for the as-is imagery. Don't hesitate to play with angles, distortions, blurs to add another dimension.
  • Your creativity doesn't stop at the event – When you shift from photography fireworks to post processing, it's a new day. Process you images as they appeared. Then, take creative liberties with your techniques. From pushing the sliders in Lightroom, using stylistic filters in Photoshop or a Plug-in, your fireworks take a on a new life.
swnaturephotojul dsc edit
Post Processing Artistry with a plug-in by Sheen Watkins, ISO 100, f/11, 30mm, 2.2 sec.

Reminder When Photographing Fireworks

While we're offering tips and techniques that work, each photographer has their own eye and preferences. As our fireworks bright lights hit the sky, an image is easily over or under exposed.

As you're getting started, taking a minute to check your work prevents regrets later. Are you over-exposing? Increase your shutter speed, take a few snaps and check. If your images are too dark, slow down the shutter and review your results.

As locations and lighting for shooting fireworks vary, adjust your settings to what works for the scene, you and your artistry. It's better to miss a couple of great shots than to return home with a collection of unhappiness.

About Author

Sheen Watkins is a conservationist, wildlife photographer, instructor, author and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *