Have you always wanted to take photos of fireworks like the pros but aren’t sure how to pull it off? Here’s what you need to know to get crisp, beautiful photos that capture the magic of those colorful explosions in the sky.
1. Get to the location early
Scout out where you want to photograph so that you have a compelling composition. This will depend entirely on two things: what kind of a scene you want to set and where the fireworks are being launched. If the fireworks are in an urban setting, perhaps you want to capture them with an iconic building in the foreground. If the fireworks are at a fairgrounds, maybe you’ll want to get the silhouette of the crowd in the shot. If they’re over water, maybe there’s a way to get the entire skyline in the photo, or to get reflections in the water.
Think about where the fireworks will be in the sky, and make sure you don’t have any obstructions such as trees. You also don’t want to be so close to the fireworks site that they’re exploding above you — you want them in front of you, which necessitates a nice clear view of the sky.
Researching photos of fireworks taken at the same location is helpful. You can get inspiration from other photographers who have shot the location before and check out the views of the location they selected. Or conversely, you can see what’s been done already and get creative about new vantage points from the same site. This is particularly helpful if you’re shooting at a well-known location, so your photographs can have a little something special.
Getting to your location early will give you the chance to walk around, consider your composition, and importantly, to claim your spot so other firework admirers don’t get in the way of your shot.
Placing other sources of colorful light in the composition, such as these carnival rides, is a creative way to add more interest to your fireworks photos. A long exposure captures multiple bursts of fireworks as well as blurred movement from the rides as they spin. (Photo: Umkehrer/Shutterstock)
2. Gather your gear
For great fireworks photos, you’ll want a few things besides your DSLR. A tripod is an absolute necessity. A cable release is also helpful. Combined, these two items will take the shake out of your photos, helping to make them as crisp and sharp as possible. This is important whether you’re using a DSLR or a compact camera.
Select your lens or lenses. A wide-angle lens like a 24-70mm is necessary if you’re going to be fairly close to the fireworks or want to get a lot of the scenery in the shot. A telephoto lens such as a 70-200 is helpful if you’re going to be fairly far away from the fireworks and want them to fill the frame.
It’s important to also pack a couple of fully charged batteries, several empty and formatted memory cards, a microfiber cloth for cleaning your lens, and a flashlight.
You may decide you want to include spectators in your fireworks photos. Have a clear view of the sky, use a wide-angle lens, and place your camera low to the ground to get silhouettes of people in your shot. (Photo: dwph/Shutterstock)
3. Select your settings
Your settings will make all the difference in the quality of your shots. There are a few basic settings you’ll want to use starting out, and then you can get creative and experiment from there.
- Turn your camera to manual.
- Set your ISO to 100 or 200. You don’t need a high ISO since your subject is, well, fire. And fire is very bright.
- Set your aperture to somewhere between f/8 and f/16. Keep in mind that fireworks are huge and you want to have enough depth of field to have sparks from the front and back in focus.
- You’ll be using your shutter speed to get the right effect for how much trailing light you want from your fireworks, so if your exposure is too bright or too dark but the trails are the right length, then you’ll adjust your aperture to get the right exposure or brightness. You’ll be doing a lot of experimenting to get your exposure right, so keep this in mind as a tool for making adjustments.
- Set your lens to manual focus and turn the focus ring to infinity. You’ll see this as the infinity symbol on the lens itself. Then back it up just a little bit. Your shot will be sharpest if you are focusing just shy of infinity.
- Turn off Noise Reduction. Even though you're shooting long exposures, they are only a few seconds long and you won't need this feature. It may take the camera several seconds to a minute to be ready for the next shot which means you could miss some action while the camera is processing your last image.
- Turn off Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization. Because your camera is on a tripod, you don't need this feature turned on. Generally when left on while the camera is doing long exposures on a tripod, it actually causes a little bit of image shake. So turn off this feature entirely.
- For shutter speed, you’ll have the most flexibility if you shoot on Bulb. This setting keeps the shutter open for as long as you are pressing the button. This means you can start the exposure when you see the firework rocketing into the air, and end the exposure just after it hits its peak (or whenever you feel like it!). The longer the shutter is open, the more of the firework you’ll see. You can set your shutter to a particular speed, like 3 seconds or 5 seconds or whatever you want. But different sets of fireworks will have different ideal lengths for exposure and Bulb gives you the instant flexibility to decide exactly when and how much firework to have in your shot.
Triggering your shutter in Bulb mode is where your cable release or wireless remote trigger comes in handy. Rather than pushing the shutter button on your camera and causing it to shake on the tripod each time, you can use a cable release to trigger the shutter without touching your camera at all. This way you’ll have zero shake from touching your camera and the best chance at a sharp exposure.
Take a few images and see how they are coming out. You may need to adjust your aperture to let in more or less light, or change the angle of your tripod a bit to fit the most action in the frame. You may need to adjust your focal length or focus point. Once you have your basic settings where you want them, it's time to play with light.
Try different exposure lengths. Shorter shutter speeds will shorten the length of the fireworks, while longer shutter speeds will capture more of the light trail. It is important to capture the beauty of the fireworks without overexposing them, which can be easy to do. Check your LCD screen and see what seems to be the ideal amount of time to leave your shutter open — and remember that this changes depending on what's happening in the fireworks show. You might have a few dim fireworks that need a longer speed, and then a burst of intensely bright fireworks that need a shorter speed. Again, that's the beauty of using Bulb — you can change your shutter speed on the fly using your intuition.
You can also leave your shutter open to capture multiple bursts of fireworks, creating several layers of color and light. If you want to show a sky thick with bursting fireworks, a long shutter speed is a must — but you can decide if you want to leave it open for five seconds or 20 seconds. Try both and everything in between! You can also capture just the peak of each set of fireworks in the sky and blend them together into one image in post-processing. But we'll get to that in a moment.
Check to make sure other elements you're including in your composition, such as buildings in a skyline, are properly exposed. You may need to adjust settings to ensure they are getting the exposure they need to have the effect you want. (Photo: NH/Shutterstock)
Experiment with your composition as well. There’s no need to stay in one place during the entire show. If you have a set of images you like from one location, try moving around to capture different aspects of the crowd. Change the angle of you camera to capture more people, or change the aperture to have a shallower depth of field so you isolate the audience or buildings against the light show or vice versa. Here is a great example of using selective focus to capture the mood of a neighborhood enjoying fireworks:
Sometimes the story isn't the fireworks themselves, but who is watching them. Selective focus allows the viewer to focus on the kids watching the fireworks and the photograph captures the mood of the people at the festivities. (Photo: Renphoto /iStock)
Have fun with photographing fire works and try different things to get the effects you want.
5. Edit your images
Editing your images is just as important as taking them. Your photos most likely won't be perfect in camera and there's a lot you can do in post-processing to improve them, such as adjusting exposure, color balance, sharpness and clarity and other aspects. The best way to process your photos is a whole separate tutorial, but for now, here is a great video showing tricks and tips for editing images in Lightroom. You'll learn a lot about what you can do to polish up your photos no matter what program you use for editing.
You can also create composite images by blending together several exposures and layering more fireworks into the sky. This will give the effect of the sky being filled with perfectly timed firework explosions. It's a matter of personal taste if you'd like to stick with what you captured in camera, or expand on it in Photoshop.