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How to Photograph Fireworks Like a Pro with These 7 Easy Tips
You are not alone if photographing fireworks is a mystery. The great news is that I finally figured it all out, and I’ve done the work for you! All you need to do is follow these seven tips for how to photograph fireworks, and you’ll be amazed at how incredible your photos can be!
From the earliest days of carrying my camera with me for the Fourth of July Fireworks to when I got my first DSLR camera, I tried photographing fireworks and couldn’t figure out the best way to capture these beautiful bursts in the night sky.
Since I only had an opportunity once or twice per year to see a fireworks show and use my camera to take pictures, chances to practice were few and far between. Independence Day and New Years’ Eve celebrations are the only times I am naturally near fireworks.
I was very frustrated. My fireworks images were always blurry and out of focus, or because I was using my DSLR on auto, the flash would go off every single time! That drove me nuts! I couldn’t seem to catch a firework that looked like what I saw with my naked eye.
How to take pictures of Fireworks
Before you start photographing fireworks, you’ll need to get your camera off auto mode! If you want to rock some solid fireworks photos, you’re going to have to take control of your camera and not let it control you!
If you’ve never shot in manual mode before, click HERE for all the information you’ll need to get started. Once you understand the basics of getting your camera off manual exposure mode, the rest is a piece of cake. Now let’s walk through my five tips:
Tip 1 – Find the Best Vantage Point
Before you can even begin mastering firework photography, you’ll want to do your research. A good starting point is to find out exactly where the fireworks will show in the night sky. Arrive at your location early enough to get a good spot before the crowds of people arrive and early enough to catch the last bit of daylight before the show begins.
You will find it much easier to set up while you can still see. Don’t worry about getting too close. Be sure your vantage point has an unobstructed view of the fireworks. Look for power lines or random tree branches that will take away from your composition.
It’s especially cool to find a location that allows you to see the fireworks from the launching spot. This tip helps give you an overall view of the fireworks from their base to their explosion. Many fireworks make light trails on their way up, which will convey motion.
If you cannot find a completely unobstructed view, make the foreground subject work for you! Try to envision what you’ll see in the foreground that will help tell the event’s story. Perhaps a building or a tree or a softly lit flag. Maybe you will see a child playing with a sparkler.
Here is where you get to use your imagination! It is a good idea to take a few test shots in the daylight to get an idea of how everything will line up. You can quickly delete those images after getting the great shots you wanted!
Pack a comfy chair, a blanket, and some bug spray and snacks. Many fireworks displays take place in the summer. When there’s a warm summer night, there are usually bugs. If you spend your evening fighting off bugs and hunger, the whole experience becomes less enjoyable.
Tip 2 – Avoid Camera Shake with a Sturdy Tripod
You will need to stabilize your camera to reduce camera movement when photographing fireworks because you will be using a long exposure (more about that in a minute). There are a couple of ways you can do this. The first, and most obvious way, is using a tripod for long-exposure fireworks. I share my thoughts on what to look for in a tripod HERE, so check it out! A sturdy tripod is an essential tool for all kinds of photography, and you’ll want to be sure and invest in a solid model. I highly recommend the Peak Design Travel Tripod. It is my go-to tripod for just about everything. You can pick one up HERE.
The Best Way to Take Photos of Fireworks Without a Tripod
If you cannot take a tripod along, another option is to use a solid surface upon which your camera can rest. Think picnic table or the hood of your car. Anything you know your camera can rest on and not move or vibrate. Even the tiniest vibration can make an otherwise perfect shot a dud when using a slow shutter speed.
Sometimes a tripod isn’t an option, and there is no solid, stable surface on which to place your camera. Here’s where this following tool comes in super handy. Sometimes it just pays to think outside of the box! I was so excited to add a Platypod to my camera bag.
This handy tool, used with a ball head, makes it simple to have perfect control of your view and angle from any surface. It also works with no flat surface when using the included straps. These straps allow you to mount your camera to just about anything! The Platypod is reasonably priced, and believe me when I tell you it’s worth every penny.
Last year, I snapped this beauty from the very edge of the water, where I strapped my camera onto the railing there to get a clear view of the fireworks over the water. Pardon the low-quality cell phone image of me with my setup. It’s hard to see, but believe me when I tell you I had that baby strapped on tight – and I had a wrist strap like this one attached, so just in case there was an oopsie, that camera wasn’t going anywhere!
Now that you’ve landed your location, determined where the view will be best and have your camera all set up, it’s time to think about operating that camera and getting your photo—getting excited? I sure am!
Tip 3 – Timer or Remote Shutter Button?
Before we get to settings, let’s first talk about the shutter button and then how to focus.
Before we get to exposure time and other settings, let’s first talk about the shutter button.
If you’ve had experience with night photography or taken long-exposure photos, you know the importance of adequately planning for triggering your shutter. Trust me when I tell you that how you press the shutter can make or break your photos if you’re a beginner.
You do not want any camera shake, as you read in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Nighttime Photography. You have two options to avoid shutter release shake: Use a simple remote shutter release button (also known as a cable release) or use the timer feature on your camera. Here is a very basic remote trigger with a cord.
Tip 4 – Manual Focus or Auto?
Now we’ll talk focus. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to turn off autofocus on your lens when you’ve paid a bunch for it, but this is a great time to work with manual focus. A camera on auto-focus will have a tough time when there’s nothing in the sky on which to focus.
A great place to start is by setting your focus on “Infinity” and adjusting if necessary from there. The infinity sign on your lens looks like a sideways figure 8, and you want to line up the center of the 8 on the little dash line. I shoot almost all of my fireworks photos with this setting.
You will likely want a closer focal point than infinity if you shoot up-close, such as home fireworks (eeek! Those scare me! Because I care about you, HERE is a link to the latest safety info for fireworks). An easy way to do that would be to shine a flashlight on the area where the firework will discharge and let your camera autofocus.
Once you have a focus, carefully, without bumping the focal ring on your lens, click from auto to manual focus using the AF/MF switch on your lens. As long as you are shooting in the same area, you should not need to adjust. If the distance between you and the firework changes, very quickly repeat that process: Autofocus on, shine a light, catch focus, autofocus off, discharge firework, etc.
Tip 5 – Choosing a Lens for the Best Results When You Photograph Fireworks?
The best lens is often the one you have. In other words, taking fireworks pictures can be fun no matter what lens you use. Consider it a challenge to make the lens work best for you. I recommend a wide lens if you’re shooting fireworks up close and personal. If you are taking photos from a distance, you may find a long lens works best. Click HERE for a refresher on some basic photography terms.
Tip 6 – Best Manual Mode Camera Settings for Fireworks Photography
Finally – we’re up to the good stuff! It’s time to talk about fireworks camera settings! First and foremost, you’ll want to shoot in RAW, so you have the best options for editing later… But we’ll talk about that later, too. Once you’ve told your camera to shoot in RAW, here is a basic setup for DSLR settings for fireworks to get you started:
ISO for Photographing Fireworks
ISO – Start with ISO 100. You want to keep a low ISO setting to reduce any chance of grain in your photos. Also, you want the fireworks nice and bright on a dark background, so this will do the trick. You can adjust it just a smidge up to ISO 200 if the photos are too dark, but be careful not to go too high, or you will be introducing grain, which is even more noticeable on a dark background!
Aperture for Photographing Fireworks
Aperture/F-Stop – Start with your aperture around 11. A middle range helps ensure that you have an excellent depth of field to capture the entire show at peak focus from front to back. You can adjust the aperture slightly as you shoot, but this is a great starting point. A wide-open aperture (smaller #) will give you the smallest slice of focus, and a narrow aperture (big #) will allow a larger depth of field. Click HERE for a refresher on depth of field.
Shutter Speed for Photographing Fireworks
Shutter Speed for fireworks – Begin with a long shutter speed of around 2-6 seconds. In fireworks photography, shutter speed is the number with the most adjustment range. I have taken images with an exposure time as short as 1-2 seconds and as long as 30 seconds. There is much room for play here, depending on the look you are after. If you want a long trailing, sparkling photo, then you’ll want your shutter to stay open a bit longer.
If you want to freeze some action quickly, a shorter speed will do it. Side note – If you need to leave your shutter open longer than your camera body will allow for shutter speed, you can always use bulb mode, which will enable you to click once to open the shutter and again to close it. Click HERE for a refresher on how to calculate the correct exposure.
Putting Manual Settings All Together
Here are a few final thoughts on photographing fireworks settings. Remember that as the first fireworks begin, there may still be some blue in the sky. As the sky becomes darker and darker, you will need to make tweaks in your settings.
Also – most fireworks displays will ramp up toward the end and become much brighter. Be prepared to adjust settings again when you approach the show’s end to accommodate the brighter light of a grand finale! Now is a great time to use that little flashlight you’ve packed in your bag.
Tip 7 – Editing Your Fireworks Photos
Hooray! You’ve captured some great photos! Now it’s time to bring them into your editor and make some tweaks and adjustments to take them from AVERAGE to ASTOUNDING. Now is the time you will be thankful that we talked about shooting in RAW earlier. RAW files are larger than JPG files, but they also give you a lot more room for tweaking in the editing process.
Here’s an example of a photo SOOC (You can catch up on 10 Need to Know Photography Terms HERE) next to the same image after processing.
You can see that with just a few tweaks in the basic settings, this photo went from meh to pretty cool! You can also see that I pumped up the exposure. I could have done that in-camera while I was taking the initial shot. However, remember that you won’t get everything 100% correct, especially when you’re still learning (by the way, I don’t think I’ll ever finish learning). So go easy on yourself and recognize that you can sure fix a lot in processing!
After bumping up exposure, I pulled the highlights down to bring back some colors in the burst. That’s pretty much all I did in this photo, and you can see what a difference it makes. This level of adjustment can be attributed to that RAW file. Had I captured that shot in JPG, I would not have been able to recover so much color and pizazz. There are just too few pixels in a JPG file.
You Have Learned How to Photograph Fireworks!
Now that you have the basics down and are ready to master firework photography with these photography tips, find some incredible firework displays and have some fun capturing them beautifully! Pack this handy cheat sheet in your camera bag, so you’re ready for your best results on the run! Be sure and share your shots on my Facebook group HERE.
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