How to Photograph Fireworks

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It’s that time of year to gather together and set explosives on fire for our enjoyment. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside doesn’t it? Let’s learn 12 tips for how to photograph fireworks!

Scout Your Location

Before the fireworks begin you want to be able to picture what the photograph is going to look like. Either scope out a location a few days before the fireworks, or arrive a few hours before the show to get a great seat. If you do not look for a location prior to the fireworks, you risk arriving in the dark and losing interesting framing elements you could have included if you had seen the location during daylight.

Manual Mode

Firework photographs MUST be taken in manual mode. I’ve been around countless of people with DSLR cameras at firework shows who try to photograph the fireworks in auto and it simply does not work. You must know how to tell your DSLR what you want it to do in manual mode because the lighting conditions of fireworks are some of the most difficult scenarios there are. I have constructed a quick, 4 step tutorial for you that will show you how to use your DSLR in manual mode in under 20 minutes here.

Watch the Wind

Before you set up your DSLR and get ready for the fireworks, pause a moment to see which way the wind is blowing. If the wind is blowing toward you, abandon ship and scramble to find a different location where the wind is blowing away from you or to the side. If you try to photograph fireworks while the wind is blowing toward you, you’re going to have a bad time. Obviously, after the firework explodes, smoke forms and gets carried away in the wind. If the wind is carrying smoke towards you, your photographs will be of large blobs of illuminated smoke. So, take note of the wind direction.

This is what your photo will look like if you don't use a tripod
This is what your photo will look like if you don’t use a tripod

Use a Tripod

When you are taking photos of fireworks, you want to reduce camera shake as much as possible. The best way to reduce camera shake is by using a tripod. The tripod will keep the camera perfectly still as long as you want. If you don’t have a tripod, firmly secure your DSLR on top of a bag or other objects. If you try to hold your camera in your hands while you take a photo, you are going to end up with something similar to the example on the right because your hands naturally move. If that happens I’ll wag my finger in your direction, say tisk tisk, and ban you from the website… Ok, maybe not. But why risk it? Use your tripod.

Pre-Focus

Before the fireworks start you need to pre-focus. To pre-focus, simply frame your photo how you want it to look, use the auto focus to get a sharp focal distance, then switch your lens to manual focus. By leaving your lens on manual focus you are ensuring that your lens will keep that focal distance throughout the firework show. If you leave your lens on auto focus, the camera will try to refocus in the dark while fast bursts of fireworks are going off. You will probably end up with blurry fireworks if that happens.

No Flash

This is simple. Don’t use the built-in flash.

2Long Shutters

At their simplest form, fireworks are moving light. For eye-popping firework photographs, track the light’s movement using long shutter speeds. The length of time your shutter is open determines the amount of streaking that will show up in the firework’s movement. If you want the full movement of the firework from take off through explosion, use a shutter speed of 10-15 seconds. To capture multiple fireworks in one photograph, set your shutter speed for 30 seconds. Your shutter can go past 30 seconds with the BULB speed. To use the BULB properly, you need to use a cable release (perfect lead into the next tip).

Cable Release

BULB shutter means that the camera will continue to take a photo as long as the shutter is being pressed down. You could take a photo for 2 seconds or you could take a photo for 45 minutes. Obviously, you don’t want to hold the shutter button down for that long or you might shake the camera. Using a cable release eliminates the risk of camera shake, and makes it very easy to take extremely long exposures. Most cable releases are able to lock so you don’t have to hold the button down for long periods of time. Here’s a good cable release that locks on amazon: Adorama 20″ Standard Cable Release with Screw Lock

Aperture

One of the questions I get most about firework photography is, “What should the aperture be?” It is definitely tricky given the lighting situation. You want the aperture to be wide enough to let more light in, however, you don’t want it to be too wide and risk a large depth of field. I’d say keeping the aperture around f/8 – f/16 would work just fine.

3Framing

Photos of fireworks can be great, but adding unique elements into the frame will create more interesting photographs. In the photo I added above (next to Long Shutters) the building next to the exploding firework adds a sense of location to the photograph. It also balances the overall weight of the photograph. If that had been a photo of the firework without the building, it would be a lot less interesting. As for the example to the right, the photographer decided to use heads in the crowd to create a sense to depth to the photo. Using people’s heads in the crowd almost makes me feel like I’m actually there watching the fireworks. So, when you scope out your location, look for objects that you can incorporate into the photo for added interest.

First Fireworks

Be ready when the show starts because the first fireworks are the best. The first fireworks are usually very large because they want to start the show off with a bang (pun intended…) and they don’t have any smoke around the explosions since there have not been any previous fireworks. So, have your DSLR set up and ready to shoot when they light the first fuse!

Details

Detail shots of fireworks can be very interesting photographs as well. People are used to seeing the grand explosions, but when you focus in on the smaller, intricate explosions within a firework you will see beautiful light details. So, once you get a winning shot of firework grandeur, focus in on the smaller world of fireworks for detail shots.

***BONUS TRICK***

I’m going to throw in a bonus trick for firework photography. It is from David Johnson (so weird that his name is so close to mine), a photographer in Ottowa, Canada. To see his long exposures of fireworks, check out his gallery. I’ll let David do the explaining… The technique I used was a simple refocus during the long exposure. Each shot was about a second long, sometimes two. I’d start out of focus, and when I heard the explosion I would quickly refocus, so the little stems on these deep sea creature lookalikes would grow into a fine point. The shapes are quite bizarre, some of them I was pleasantly surprised with.” I hope all of these tricks lead to better firework photos for you. If you want more tips and tricks (and even occasional deals on gear) follow me on Facebook!