Feature photo by Jessie Nelson
It’s no wonder that we, as photographers, feel drawn to photograph fireworks. Not only are they beautiful with a touch of magic, but they give us that nostalgic feeling of childhood wonder and remind us of weekends spent with family. To capture a fireworks show in action is to document the festive end of so many great holidays, like 4th of July, New Year’s Eve, Memorial Day, or even a wedding.
But as we all know, photographing fireworks is easier said than done. You’ve got fast moving balls of fire flying at unpredictable intervals over crowds of people that may be blocking your view. And oh yeah, it’s also dark out. But not to worry! We’ve got your back. These 16 tips for photographing fireworks like a pro will help you up your fireworks game and leave you looking forward to the next holiday.
1. Use a tripod to keep things in focus.
A tripod is absolutely necessary for photographing fireworks. As we’ll discuss later on, you’ll need a slow shutter speed when capturing fireworks and you must have a tripod to reduce the motion blur.
When choosing a tripod, sturdiness is key. You want something that’s light enough to carry but heavy-duty enough to manage the weight of your camera and lens. Start by looking up the weight of your camera and the lenses you plan to use. Tripod listings usually have the weight limit in the descriptions, so keep this number in mind while shopping.
If you’re on location and find that you still experience some unsteadiness, use something heavy, like a sandbag, to weigh down the legs of your tripod. If the wind pops up unexpectedly, use what you have along, like a bag of wet swimsuits, for weight.
Photo by Shilpa Harolikar
2. Bring a remote to avoid motion blur.
Pressing the shutter button with your finger moves the camera ever so slightly and this small movement is exaggerated when using a slow shutter speed. No one wants motion blur due to camera movement in their photos. Sure, you could use the self-timer on your camera but that also triggers a subtle movement of the camera.
A remote is the best option to eliminate motion. When buying a remote, consider how often you’ll use it and what your needs are. You can buy them for as little as $10 to simply activate the shutter or can spend around $100 if you want the use of features like an interval timer. One option that has caught our eye is the Pulse from Alpine Labs which will allow you to control your camera wirelessly from your smartphone. Plug it right into your DSLR or mirrorless camera’s USB port and give yourself the creative freedom to shoot photos, time lapse, or video in real time using an iOS or Android app.
Photo by Meg Nesom
3. Choose a lens based on focal length.
Fireworks tend to follow a long, often hot, and exhausting day. Because of that, you won’t want to bring every lens you own and worry about carrying and keeping track of them. Consider your distance from the fireworks show and then choose to bring either a wide angle or telephoto lens. If you’re unsure of where you’ll set up camp, bring one of each. It never hurts to have a back up just in case and one extra lens won’t weigh down your bag too much.
4. Try a drone for a unique perspective.
For a truly unique point of view, try photographing fireworks with a drone. This will allow you to get a vantage point unattainable to many and the images will leave viewers mesmerized. Remember to follow FAA guidelines when flying your drone. We’re eyeballing the DJI Phantom 3, but you can find other models for well under $100.
Photo by Bonnie Cornelius
5. Use a narrow aperture to keeps fireworks sharp.
A good starting point for aperture is between f/8 and f/16. In this range your lens will likely be sharpest and you’ll have plenty of depth of field to capture the fireworks. This is where a tripod comes in handy. You’ll be shooting in the dark, so in order to keep a narrow aperture you’ll need a slow shutter speed.
6. Try a slow shutter speed for capturing light trails.
You’ll want a longer shutter speed so you can capture those beautiful trails of color falling through the night sky. The longer your shutter speed, the longer the trails will appear and the more bursts you will capture in a single frame.
Start with a two-second exposure, see if you like the results, and adjust accordingly. The best exposures are often between 1 and 10 seconds, and some photographers may opt for even slower shutter speeds.
Remember, the longer the exposure time the more bursts you will capture, so if your frame is starting to look too cluttered or messy, speed up your shutter speed. There’s a sweet spot when you’ll get the nice arcs or trails of the fireworks but your frame won’t have too many bursts.
Photo by Jennifer Brake
7. Keep your ISO low to avoid noise.
Noisy firework photos just don’t look as striking or colorful. To reduce digital noise, keep your ISO at less than 200. If your photos are showing up underexposed, lengthen your shutter speed. Remember, you’ll be using a tripod and remote to allow these camera settings in the dark.
8. Avoid flash for a better quality photo.
You’ll be using a long shutter speed, so you won’t need to use a flash. Leave your speedlite at home and make sure your on camera flash doesn’t pop up automatically. Your flash is unnecessary and will actually hinder your ability to capture the kind of fireworks photos that you’ll want.
Photo by Jennifer Carr
9. Choose manual focus for better accuracy.
When photographing fireworks, manual focus is your friend. If there is a building, tree, or other landmark near where the fireworks will explode, you can focus on the building and then fine tune once the first firework lights up the sky. If there is no building, just focus on infinity and you should be set.
Remember, since you’ll be using an aperture of approximately f/8 to f/16 and the fireworks will be quite a ways in the distance, you’ll have ample depth of field. No need to overthink it.
10. Nail your earliest shots for the clearest skies.
With fireworks comes smoke, and as the show progresses the sky will become increasingly more hazy. Your earliest shots will be the cleanest and most striking. Have your camera ready to go with settings dialed in before the show starts.
Your first shots may end up being your favorites. Having said that, if by chance you realize your settings are off during those first bursts, take a few seconds to make adjustments to your settings, lens choice, or composition so you can capture stronger photos during the middle and end of the show.
Photo by Annmarie Kopey
11. Experiment for creative effects in your photos.
For some really fun effects, try a creative lens like a fisheye or a creative effect like zooming out during a long exposure. Shoot intentionally out of focus, move your camera thoughtfully, or spin your manual focus ring during the exposure. You are only limited by your imagination!
Photo by Monica Carlson
12. Do your research to find the best vantage point.
Fireworks shows are over before you know it. You won’t have time to change our location during the show, so it’s best to do some research in advance. Read about the best viewing spots or reach out to local photographer friends to give you the scoop on promising locations for shooting fireworks.
Photo by Megan Arndt
13. Set up early to get a great spot.
Depending on where you’re headed to watch the shows, you may need to arrive super early. In small towns, you can get away with arriving about an hour or so before the show (earlier if you want to take advantage of the live music and free hot dogs!).
However, when watching a show from a large city, you’ll need to pick your spot much earlier. There will be many more people wanting to capture the fireworks in the perfect spot with an unobstructed view so you’ll need to consider arriving hours in advance. Don’t forget to pack snacks, water, bug spray, and a coat.
Photo by Alicia Bruce
14. Pay attention to the wind when choosing your seat.
Fireworks produce smoke, so take note of the direction of the wind. The wind will blow that smoke wherever it pleases, including right in front of you. Choose a spot opposite the wind so that you can truly enjoy the show instead of ending up with a dry, coughing throat and burning eyes.
15. Stay safe! Don’t get too close to the action.
Sure, it sounds magical to lay on a blanket and watch the pyrotechnics explode in brilliant color almost directly above you but it comes at a risk.
A firework is fire in the sky so just like driving by a fire on the side of the road, there are embers. The dangers there are pretty self-explanatory but nobody wants to end their celebration with a trip to the ER. Make sure you’re far enough back and opposite the wind to stay out of danger.
16. Consider backing up farther to capture foreground.
As beautiful as it is to capture just the fireworks in the sky, you can add more visual interest by including foreground elements within the frame, too. Often the most compelling fireworks photos include other elements in the frame to provide context, scope, and meaning. If there’s a popular landmark, include it. If there’s a beautiful house that breaks up the horizon line, include it. If there are city lights in the distance, include them at the bottom of the frame. Even including the kids as they watch in awe can make for an intriguing image. Shoot more than just fireworks in a dark sky to take your photos to the next level.
Photo by Julie Peveto
Share your fireworks photos with us!
OK, you’ve read our tips for photographing fireworks but we know you have your own secrets that you’re just dying to share! Tell us your best firework photography tip and share a photo. We’d love to hear from you in the comments of over on our Facebook page. Oh, and we’ll be sure to pin some firework faves over on Pinterest too.
Note: The feature photo by Jessie Nelson is a composite of two images.
This story was originally posted on June 27, 2017 and was last updated on June 18, 2019.