Are you ready to shoot some fireworks (with your camera) this Fourth of July?
You might be thinking that’s it’s far too difficult, and attempts in past years have only led to blurry, under-exposed and un-inspiring images, but it doesn’t have to be this way!
Though there are a lot of things to consider when photographing fireworks, it’s not out of reach for anyone with a digital camera, and a little bit of patience. Below are a few tips to get you on track this holiday weekend…
1. Use a sturdy tripod: If you’ve tried photographing fireworks in the past, and ended up with a bunch of blurry photos, chances are, you weren’t using a tripod. And, if you were, perhaps you weren’t using it to its fullest advantage. Since the purpose of a tripod is to stabilize the camera and prevent blur due to “camera shake”, then it is essential that you use a tripod that is sturdy. If you skimp on your tripod investment, and purchase something that is going to wobble or vibrate even in the slightest wind, then you’ve defeated the purpose of using a tripod!  It must be sturdy!!! 
This is important when shooting fireworks, or in any circumstance that calls for a tripod. To maximize stability, when using your tripod, keep the legs as short as possible when setting up your composition (though many quality tripods are very sturdy with legs fully extended), and do not raise the center post unless you absolutely must (the center post is usually the most unstable part of any tripod).
2.  Use a cable release or remote: Just because you are using a tripod doesn’t mean you’ve done all you can do to minimize shake. The mere action of pressing your shutter release button with your finger can be enough to shake a tripod. Best bet is to use a “cable release” mechanism, or a remote that allows you to use the “bulb” function on your shutter speed (see "Exposure - Shutter Speed" below). These devices will allow you to open and close your camera’s shutter without physically touching your camera, adding another level of shake prevention.
3.  Turn off your “vibration reduction” or “image stabilization”: If you’re using a tripod, most if not all manufacturers suggest that you turn off any lens (or camera body) stabilization technology. For Nikon users, this would be the “vibration reduction” (VR) switch on your lens (if your lens has VR); for Canon shooters, this is termed “image stabilization” (IS). So, once you’re on a tripod, turn this off, but remember to turn it back on again when you are done with the tripod shooting!
4.  Scout your location: As the fireworks will certainly be set off in darkness, you would be wise to scout out the area where you are going to shoot during daylight hours (assuming you know where the fireworks will be launched from). You should also get to your desired spot before the crowds arrive, since you will need space (and time) to get your tripod and camera set up.
5.  Set your focal length and composition: Should you shoot in horizontal / landscape or vertical / portrait format?  Well, it all depends on your creative choice! But, you may find yourself shooting more “vertical” compositions than “horizontal”, given the trajectory of the fireworks. It’ll probably take the first two or three fireworks for you to get your lens focal length and general composition fine-tuned. Of course, each firework will provide a different spread across the sky, so you may have to tweak things from one firework to the next. Though most of your shooting will likely be with a wide-angle lens (e.g., 50mm or less), don’t hesitate to try zooming in with a telephoto lens to fill the entire frame with a burst. Also, when shooting wide, see if you can include a landmark on the horizon to add an extra element to the image.
6.  Exposure: Set this to “manual” (“M”) on your camera, and follow the next three steps to set up your aperture, ISO and shutter speed.
7.  Exposure – Aperture: Your lens aperture will control how much light passes through the lens, and it also controls the depth of field of an image. A narrow aperture (e.g., f/16) will allow you to keep the shutter open longer (which will help give a streaking effect of the burst — see “shutter speed” below). It will also make your focus point more forgiving due to the deep depth-of-field at such a narrow aperture. Since it will be difficult to get the exact focus point, this becomes very important!
8.  Exposure – ISO: Set your ISO to a low number, either 100 or 200. Yes, this lowered sensitivity will result in a long shutter speed, but that is exactly what you are trying to achieve with fireworks, and since you are using a tripod, you don’t need to worry about blur due to camera shake!
If you do not want a long shutter speed, then try shooting at higher ISO settings, which will increase the light sensitivity of your camera's digital sensor, requiring a shorter shutter duration.
9.  Exposure – Shutter Speed: As mentioned above, a narrow aperture and low ISO will result in a long-ish shutter speed to get a correct exposure. But, how long is long enough? Well, this is where things get a bit challenging with fireworks. Since every burst will have a different amount of light, and for a varying amount of time, how long you leave your shutter open will vary from one firework to another. Set your shutter speed on “bulb”, which means that the shutter will remain open so long as you keep your shutter release depressed (preferably, using a cable release as describe above). You may find you get your best results from a two-second hold on the shutter or, perhaps, something much longer (or, even, a little shorter).  With the ability to review your images after each shot on your camera’s LCD, you can fine-tune your shutter speed until you are getting consistent, desirable results.
10.  Focal Point: Setting your focal point can be a little tricky, since it is dark during fireworks, and each shot may be in a different part of the sky. Put your camera and/or lens on “manual focus”, and set it to “infinity” if you are fairly far away from the fireworks. Alternatively, you can see where the first two or three fireworks appear in the sky, then set your focus on them, and leave it there. Since you will be shooting at a very deep depth-of-field (f-stop of f/16), your focus will be very forgiving. So, as long as you are close to the correct focal point, your images should be sharp.
11.  White Balance: Your white balance (WB) setting will affect how you record the colors of the fireworks.  Usually, Auto WB works well, but you can experiment to see what some of the presets do to the fireworks’ colors (and to the sky). Think of your WB setting as using colored filters on your lens. In any case, if you don’t like the results you get in real time, you can always adjust this in your post-processing (very easy to do when shooting RAW files, but may be limiting if you are shooting JPEG file format).
12.  Turn off your flash: Unless you are trying to illuminate the area directly in front of your camera, you should turn your flash OFF when photographing fireworks. You want to record the light of the fireworks themselves, and popping off a flash will not work to your benefit.  (Same goes for photographing a sporting event from your seat in a stadium -- the light from the flash will never come close to reaching the playing field.)
13.  Experiment: By reviewing each shot on your camera’s LCD, you can tweak things as you go. If you’re having trouble with exposure, don’t be afraid to nudge your aperture out to f/11 or down to f/22 or, simply, leave your aperture and ISO where they are and try varying shutter speeds.  Try different focal lengths and compositions. Have fun! But, don’t forget, many firework displays are very short, so before you get carried away with experimenting too much, be sure that you’ve secured a couple of choice shots on your memory card.
If you really want to push your creativity, try zooming your lens while the shutter is open (yes, this will cause some shake, but you're already venturing into an abstract composition, so it may not matter). Another fun option is to intentionally de-focus your lens either before you click your shutter or slowly defocus while the shutter is open, resulting in a soft dreamy image (see examples in the gallery below). You can even try employing both of these techniques at the same time (simultaneously zooming and de-focusing while the shutter is open).
14.  Bring a flashlight: It’s going to be dark. If you need to find something in your camera bag, or change a lens, or alter a setting on your camera, a small pen light will come in handy.
15.  Respect others around you: Finally… You do not want to be the obnoxious photographer blocking a family’s view of their Fourth of July fireworks — perhaps the only time each year they get to see fireworks. Get to the grounds early, and get set up low to the ground such that you are not blocking anybody. The other spectators will really appreciate your courtesy, and you’ll likely find a few people wanting to see your results.
Back to Top