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Taking Photos of Fireworks | What You Should Know

Posted by Theodore Stark on

Taking Photos of Fireworks Made Easy

Fourth of July is here again. With it, many (if not all) of you have aspirations of taking photos of fireworks this year. Here are some tricks I use to capture fireworks photos. Hope you find them helpful…

Ready? Here we go…

No doubt, you have read several articles on how different photographers shoot fireworks. Keep in mind this is more art than it is science and all of these articles (mine included) are starting points. Beginner or seasoned pro. use what information makes sense to you, and then adapt it to make it your own.

For most, the style of fireworks shots you are aiming for will require a long exposure. In doing so, you capture the trails of light emitted from the fireworks. When taking photos of fireworks using this style, here is the essential gear you will need: A good tripod, a cable release or remote trigger, a working knowledge of how to operate your camera, and (because it is dark out) a headlamp (headlamps with red lights are the best, as they don’t affect your night vision).

Now for the good news/bad news (depending on your point of view)… to get the best results you are going to need to shoot in manual. I know… I know… some of you are freaking out. But trust me, fireworks is one of those times where you want to turn your camera’s “ Hal “ off. For those of you who are not 2001 A Space Odyssey fans, you want to sincerely thank your camera for tying its best to keep you from making a bad photo, and just let you take the manual controls.

As a reminder, any photograph is built on three legs: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. As a starting point (and nothing more), here is what I recommend when taking photos of fireworks… Aperture between 8 and 12 (I typically like f10) and shutter speed around 4 seconds. Depending on your location and light conditions, you will need to adjust your ISO appropriately. ISO 200 is a good starting point, but keep in mind you may have to made adjustments on the fly.

If Manual mode really freaks you out, you can shoot on Shutter Priority and set your ISO to Auto. I do not recommend this but it is an option.

If you have the ability to shoot on Bulb mode, do it. This will allow you to better sync your shutter release more closely with the firing of the shells in the mortars. You may have to tweak your aperture and ISO setting based on this. Timing can make or break your fireworks photography experience.

Because of the general nature of a long shutter speed, you do not want to be touching your camera (even depressing the shutter) when taking photos of fireworks. If you have a cable release, use it. If you do not, try using the built in timer function on your camera. It’s not ideal but better than introducing camera shake into your shots.

In terms of lenses, your mileage will vary based on your location. The closer you are, (typically) the wider you will need to be. I avoid using anything over 200mm. My go to lens for fireworks is my 20-105mm lens that I zoom into about 35-45mm. I like this approach because it accounts for all firework shell sizes. I then crop, in post.

Also, shoot on manual focus. There is not enough light for your camera to know what you want it to focus on. Additionally, it will take precious seconds during the show. Get set up during the day and aim your camera toward the area where the fireworks will be fired from and then lock the focus (probably at or close to infinity).

With the basics lined up, here are a couple more suggestions for taking photos of fireworks…

  • Safety: It’s going to be dark and your adrenaline will be rushing. Keep in mind that safety comes before anything else. Remember your headlamp!
  • Location, location, location: This item cannot be stressed enough. Good fireworks photos have foreground subjects in them. My favorite place in Colorado is a truck rest stop that overlooks a lake. It’s a wonderful spot, which means it's also very popular. I typically arrive 6 hours in advance to get the ideal spot.
  • Bring LOTS of memory cards: Make sure they are formatted and ready to go.
  • A Word About The Finale: Some people love to photograph the finale. I do not. Typically, the finale has way too much smoke for anything to be useful. I have found that when you are taking photos of fireworks, the best shots come toward the beginning.
  • Landscape AND Portrait Orientation: Change your orientation. You’d be amazed at how many people forget this.
  • Charge Your Batteries And Bring Backups: The last thing you want is for your battery to die before the end of the show. Come prepared.
  • Use A Level or in-camera horizon: Photographs that do not have a level horizon annoy me. I put a bubble level in my hot shoe and when I change orientations, I always look to make sure things are level.
  • Leave your flash at home: it won’t help you.
  • Consider underexposing: Your colors will pop a little more with less noise in dark areas.
  • Remember to enjoy yourself: It’s a lot of fun to get some great fireworks shots. But also enjoy the show too.

So there you have it. I hope you enjoy the Fourth this year. Now get out there and go chase the light (and keep the camera on Manual this 4th…).

Extra Credit:

Ok 2 extra credit ideas…

If you are a seasoned pro at taking photos of fireworks, try to shoot them in HDR. That should spice things up!

If you want less light trails and more explosion, cover the lens with a black sheet, cardboard, etc. while the fireworks climb and then remove the sheet to just get the explosion. Bulb mode is highly recommended for this!

OK that’s all. Have a wonderful and safe Fourth of July. Pet the nice dog. Throw the Frisbee. Go make some photographs!

I'm looking forward to seeing your images on the Outdoor Photo Gear Flickr Group.

Check out Ted's work on his website, and follow him on Twitter.