11 Tips for Sparkling Fireworks Photos

June 30th, 2006

fireworks.jpgHere in the States, we celebrate our independence every 4th of July by blowing up things in the sky.

In fact, ever since Taoist monks created fireworks, cultures around the globe have used them to ward off evil spirits, pray for happiness, celebrate birth, death, weddings, the new year… just about anything.

Consider it a basic truth of the human condition: we like things that go boom.

And for almost as long as fireworks have been around, photographers have been taking dark and blurry photos of them.

But listen up: Firecracker photography may seem difficult, but follow some simple rules and you’re virtually guaranteed good results.

Fireworks are a tricky subject to photograph–you’re shooting in the dark, your subject keeps moving and disappearing, and it’s hard to get a good location. Here’s how to get great photos despite it all.

1. Bring a tripod, bring a tripod, bring a tripod.

Good fireworks photos require long exposures, and the best way to get them is to use a sturdy tripod. If you absolutely can’t bring a tripod to the scene, do your best to brace your camera against railings, walls, or cars to keep it steady. (Or try a mini tripod!)

2. Bring a flashlight, charged batteries, and plenty of empty memory cards

You’re gonna need to change your camera settings while you’re out there, and it’s gonna be dark. Bring a small flashlight. And since you’ll likely be taking lots of pictures as you experiment, don’t forget to empty out your memory cards and bring a fully charged battery, too.

3. Find a great location early

Once the show gets going, you’re not going to have the time (and if you’re in a crowd, the ability) to move around much. Here’s how to stake out something good from the start:

  • Start scouting for a location early
  • Look for a place with an unobstructed view of the sky. Remember, you want to see fireworks in front of you, not above you.
  • Watch out for trees and buildings which could block your view, and street lamps and other lighting which might make your exposures tricky.
  • Try to find landmarks or other interesting things you can use to make your compositions more interesting.
  • Try to find a unique vantage point: near a body of water that will reflect the fireworks, high up where the fireworks are at eye-level (on a rooftop, balcony, or bridge), etc. Get creative and go where other people aren’t.
  • Remember that tripods work best on stable, level footing, and cameras work best when people aren’t likely to walk in front of them during long exposures.
  • Fireworks give off a fair amount of smoke. Make sure the wind isn’t headed in your direction or the smoke will obscure your view.

4. Turn your flash off

Whether it’s an on-camera flash or an add-on, it’s not nearly powerful enough to reach the fireworks. Even if it was, you wouldn’t want to light them that way. Go flash-less.

5. Drop your ISO to 50 or 100

Your digital camera has several user-selectable light-sensitivity settings. The higher your ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to light. Normally this means you want to use a higher ISO in dark settings, but when you’re shooting longer exposures (long shutter speeds) high ISO can introduce a lot of digital noise to your photograph. An ISO setting of 100 is a good bet.

6. Turn on noise reduction

If your camera has it, this setting will help get rid of any digital noise created by your long exposures, even with a low ISO. Note: some cameras will take several seconds to eliminate noise after a shot is taken, preventing you from taking another photograph immediately.

7. Use the self-timer to reduce vibration

Even with your camera on a tripod, you cause small vibrations just by clicking the shutter, resulting in a less-than-perfectly sharp capture. Set your self-timer to the shortest duration possible and use it to give the your camera a chance to settle before the shot’s actually taken. Sharper shots, guaranteed.

8. Use your camera’s fireworks setting

Many recent cameras have a scene mode specifically for fireworks. Try some photos with and without it and see what you prefer.

9. Focus on infinity

We strongly recommend shooting in full manual mode if you have the ability. Set your focus to just less than infinity (or choose a landscape setting if you can’t manually adjust focus) and use an aperture of f/8 to f/16.

10. Use long shutter speeds: 2-3 seconds or longer

This is the most important camera setting you’ll need to worry about. At any given moment, fireworks are just a bunch of bright points of light. What makes them interesting is how their quick motion across the night sky illuminates a path and creates beautiful streaks and patterns. Your eye sees it, but with a fast shutter speed, your camera doesn’t.

So to give your camera a chance to record those streaks and patterns, you need to make sure your shutter is open long enough to get them in. That means at minimum a full second, and possibly up to 15 seconds or more. You’ll want to experiment with different durations to see what works best.

How to do it: If your camera allows full manual control, it’s easy. Just set your shutter speed to whatever you want. If your camera doesn’t give you full control, put it in the mode that gives you the most control and turn off the flash. If you click the shutter to snap the photo while a rocket’s still rising and before it’s exploded, your camera should automatically meter for a long exposure and set the shutter speed appropriately.

11. Take lots of pictures, be creative, and have fun!

Have fun, experiment, and take tons of photos. Remember, you can always delete the duds later.

Creative Ideas

Here are a few more ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Portrait-oriented shots will typically work best to capture a single rocket’s rise and explosion. If multiple shells are going up at once, try shooting in landscape.
  • Don’t forget that the best is often saved for last. Don’t run out of space on your memory card before the finale!
  • Water, buildings, and landmarks make excellent backdrops for photos and help create more interesting compositions. Try to frame some shots with landmarks in the foreground and fireworks in the background.
  • Similarly, try silhouetting people against the fireworks glow for a neat effect.
  • Use longer shutter speeds to capture multiple explosions.
  • Use really long exposures (20-30 seconds or more) and a black piece of cardboard or a black hat to capture lots of explosions in one frame. Simply cover your lens with your cardboard or black hat in between explosions to prevent light from entering your camera. If you’ve got a “bulb” setting, you can use it to keep your shutter open continuously until you close it.
  • If your fireworks start before it gets dark, use the sunset setting on your camera to get some great shots at dusk.
  • Use flash to get some audience and people shots. They make great diptychs with fireworks.

Additional Resources

Tips from Smithsonian photographers on getting great fireworks shots.

The New York Institute of Photography has some great tips for shooting fireworks in your backyard.

The history of fireworks at Wikipedia.

Phenomenal fireworks photos on Flickr.

What happens when a fireworks factory explodes?

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