July 3, 2014 / Tips + Tricks

4th of July: Tips for Shooting Fireworks Displays

I'm sure many of you are going to be taking snapshots in continuous mode of the glorious display of fireworks. It's one of my favorite holidays and I'll be hanging with the beautiful Petra Cross on a ...

I’m sure many of you are going to be taking snapshots in continuous mode of the glorious display of fireworks. It’s one of my favorite holidays and I’ll be hanging with the beautiful Petra Cross on a nice hike in North Berkeley!  I wish to leave you with a wonderful article on 10 tips for shooting fireworks displays by Michael Zhang. Michael runs the wildly popular PetaPixel blog, geared toward tech-savvy digital photogs of the Web 2.0 generation. As a professional photographer, I’m so edified by the growing number of photography enthusiasts and we probably have great photography resources, such as PetaPixel, to thank for the explosion of interest. Happy Fourth of July, everyone!   

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Post + Photo By Michael Zhang of Petapixel

Monday is the 4th of July, which means there’s going to be FIREWORKS! Huzzah! It also means a lot of photography blogs will be posting tips and advice on shooting these firework shows. Instead of posting some ordinary article with things I’ve learned, I decided to ask for tips from my Twitter friends. Let’s get started!

Stabilize Your Shot

@leeweiner says:
tripod, cable release and a bit of trial and error…

@jhoetzl says:
Use mirror lock up, use a remote shutter release, and, most important, bring a flashlight!

Since you’ll be photographing at relatively slow shutter speeds, a tripod is definitely important. You’ll be pointing the camera up at the sky, so you probably won’t be able to find anything to set the camera down on that will suffice if you don’t bring a tripod.

A cable release will allow you to avoid any blur caused by your finger pressing the shutter. The longer the exposure, the less this initial shake of the camera will matter, but having a cable release is still very helpful. You can get one for as little as $5 (shipping included) on eBay for either Canon or Nikon.

Finally, you can further reduce blur by using the mirror lock up feature of your camera if it has one (Perhaps Google it to find out?). What this does is cause the first press of your shutter to lock up the mirror of your DSLR, and allows the second press to take the photograph with only the shutter curtains opening and closing. This avoids the swing of the mirror that occurs when you normally take photos, reducing any blur that would have been caused by it.

Instead of having your photo turn out like this,

you can end up with clearer, sharper shots like this:

Show Context

@jhoetzl says:
Fireworks look better in a context – just air as the background is boring – Get foreground; Try to be upwind of the launch site

@dallasnagata says:
My favorite fireworks-shots I’ve taken have all had people in them, holding very still. I like working with the silhouettes.

I’ve definitely found these things to be true as well. You can take really nice looking photographs of fireworks against the dark backdrop of the sky, or you can include things in the foreground, especially silhouettes of the people watching, to make the photograph a lot more unique and interesting.

Shoot a Lot

@quixoticgeek says:
Persistance. Accept that to get 1 decent shot, you are gonna shoot 100 crap ones.

Definitely true. Out of the hundreds of photographs I’ve taken at firework displays, only a handful of them turned out well. The others were either poorly framed, poorly exposed, poorly timed, or all of the above. Thus, shoot as much as you can to increase the chances that you’ll end up with a good shot. To do this, it would be wise to bring as many memory cards as you possibly can.

Set and Forget

@PhotoEscapist says:
bring a tripod, find steady ground, shoot shutter and use a remote release. Shoot a pic or two before the start to check settings

@fifthoctober says:
shoot without looking through the viewfinder after you have made all the necessary settings on the camera

If you’re intent on leaving the show with a good photograph, then go ahead and shoot the show like you would shoot any night shot. On the other hand, if you’d like to enjoy the show as well, figure out the settings you need to use, take some test shots, and from there on out just enjoy the show and snap shots using the remote shutter release. Here’s a photograph that I took with a 10 second exposure and a remote release while watching the show at the Butchart Gardens in Canada:

If you DO end up shooting through the viewfinder, you’ll probably want to shoot with both eyes open in order to see when the fireworks are launched and the path they’re following.

Optional Gear

@PhotoEscapist says:
ohhh yeah bring a monopod too to prod people outta the shot..

Haha. I’ve never had to do this one before. Maybe it might come in handy for some of you though.

Unconventional Focus Trick

@dhavatar says:
For unconventional advice, change the focus while shooting to get focus-to-blur effects.

Now this is interesting, and not something I’ve done before. During the exposure of the shot, manually throw the shot out of focus to end up with an creative and interesting effect. Here’s the example that @dhavatar provided:

Utilize BULB

@thukai says:
tripod and remote trigger. Use bulb to time the shots. Leave shutter open until the series of fw is over. Repeat process :)

@felixkunze says:
fireworks, you hv 2 learn how to predict when firewrk will explode. I use bulb mode and expose for duration of burst, no longer.

The “bulb” setting on your camera allows you to determine how long the shutter stays open rather than having it expose based on a fixed amount of time. You can press and hold the shutter when a series of fireworks are launched, and then release to close the shutter after the series ends.

Cover the Lens in Between Fireworks

@uncommon_depth says:
If it hasn’t already been said, put the camera on bulb setting so the shutter remains open and use a hat or something dark to cover the lens between bursts.

@roybarnesphoto says:
a longish exposure f8 for 1/4 sec will show nice trails – needs good timing. Use a tripod. or set cam to bulb on tripod, cover lens w black card press shutter.Remove & replace card to get multi-fworks trail. Press to end

If you’re not including things in the foreground, you might want to cover up your lens between firework bursts to prevent ambient light from adversely affecting your shot.

Using Light Creatively

@puffmagic says:
Sparklers + long exposure = great portrait opportunity. Also light painting.

An interesting thing to do during firework shows is to turn your back on the fireworks and capture the expressions of the people watching, using the brief flash of the firework to expose the image.

This sparkler and light painting idea is pretty great. Imagine a photograph of a firework exploding in the background while your friend holds a sparkler or writes a message with lightin the foreground. That would be pretty epic. Be sure to let me know if you end up with a photo like this!

Use Optimal Camera Settings

@ceseco says:
bulb mode with external shutter release. just make sure your aperture and focus are set correctly before shooting.

So what ARE the settings you should be using for this kind of photography?

ISO: You’ll probably want to use the lowest you can, which is most likely 100. Going with a high ISO will introduce a lot of noise in your photo, which is something you definitely want to avoid when taking long-exposure night shots.

Aperture: If you’re shooting just the fireworks, it will probably help to go mid to high (f/8-f/22). You don’t want any depth of field or the lack of sharpness that comes from lower apertures. If you’re taking portraits with fireworks in the background, then you might want to go lower to throw the fireworks out of focus.

Shutter Speed: This really depends on the type of look you’re trying to achieve. If you use a relatively fast shutter speed, your firework might look like this (this is 1/400 of a second):

Use a slower shutter speed, and you might end up with something more like this:

Focus: Since the fireworks are exploding pretty far away from you, set your focus on infinity and change it to manual. You don’t need the camera attempting to focus on the fireworks, since you know what it should be focusing on already.

Focal Length: This really depends on many factors, such as where you’re sitting and how much of the sky the fireworks take up. Generally I’ve found that it’s safer to go wide, since you can always crop afterwards if you capture too much sky. If the lens you bring isn’t wide enough, you might be fiddling around with the framing all night.

Modes: In general, try to stay away from automatic modes. This means setting both your exposure and focus to manual. This allows you to determine the correct settings for your photographs and have your camera come up with consistent shots. You don’t want the camera to try and figure out the proper exposure for each shot, since it’s not a situation where a camera excels at determining the proper way to expose.

Good luck shooting on Monday!


Hi Catherine,

Thanks for all the great advice. I know of one alternative to digging through any camera’s menus and looking for “mirror lock-up”, and that’s to set the camera to “live view”. The only caveat is that it will switch off automatically based on your power savings time-out setting (mine is normally set at one minute). This could easily be changed for the show.

My technique for capturing firework incendiary displays is a bit more freestyle. I slouch in a comfortable portable canvas camping chair, the type with arms upon which to rest my elbows and a high enough back on which to rest the head. All shots are handheld allowing the camera to be quickly moved using the viewfinder to track the fireworks shell when fired from the mortar. Granted this takes a little practice and use of the Starwars “force”. The sound the mortar makes is a good indication of the height at which the incendiary will burst. Typically incendiary displays are grouped, so sighting in on the first burst and starting the exposure when that burst is occurring usually means that additional bursts will be captured in the field of view. Stop any camera motion when you start the exposure, unless you want to intentionally have streaks in the image.

Cameras used for many of my fireworks photographs – Canon Rebel XT and later a Canon 5 Mark II with these approximate exposure settings in manual mode and lens pre-focused to infinity (focus ring taped) with manual focus selected: ISO 200, f 6.3, 28mm (Rebel) or 45-50mm (5D MII) (28-135mm 3.5/5.6 Canon zoom). The only variable is shutter speed which, for the sake of variation and experimentation, is from 0.5 to 3.2 seconds with the 1 to 2.5 second range appearing to be optimal. The ISO of 200 and a lens aperture of f 6.3 unfortunately allows the highlights to burnout on some of the incendiary images, but does help capture the lower intensity light as the incendiaries decay, smoke and silhouettes which add impact to many of the images. A quick chimping of the first few images will usually determine if the camera exposure settings need to be modified. For the sake of experimentation, vary the shutter speed through the range suggested during the course of capturing images. Usually any camera movement and wind make the captured images more interesting.

The firework venues that I like to photograph allow the crowd to be quite close to the display, hence the 28mm wide angle lens selection, or about 45/50 mm for full frame Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. Note that the mm lens selections used are relative to the type of camera. Equivalent mm lens selections for other cameras can differ for the same field of view. Capturing a lot of images will help assure success. If the camera has a slower burst mode like the Rebel and 5D Mark II, shooting 5 or 6 successive frames can yield interesting results too.

The key to this technique is the 1 to 2.5 shutter speed setting allowing just a short span of the incendiary display life to be captured, resulting in many varied and visually compelling images.

I know it was mentioned, but some of the most intriguing photos of fireworks are those that capture the audience as well.
For example: http://flic.kr/p/5VHQVb

Or this shot by Whitehouse photographer Pete Souza: http://flic.kr/p/8j7LDz

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