How to photograph fireworks

walt disney world - magic kingdom castle fireworks by Dan Anderson

Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom castle fireworks by Dan Anderson. Taken with a Sony A700, 1/10 sec exposure, F3.5 @18mm ISO 400

Have you ever wondered how to photograph fireworks? Do you need to have a manual SLR (Single Reflective Lens) to achieve nice shots? Here are some tips, guides, and recommendations on how you can achieve some creative photography with reasonably priced cameras whether you are shooting with an analog or digital camera.

Step 1: Disable your flash

This might sound silly if you’re a seasoned photographer. However, for someone who has never shot in the dark before, their first instinct is to use their flash. You might also have your camera set on Auto. This is definitely a no-no. In order to achieve the effects you want, you will need to set your camera to Manual. This way you have total control over everything the camera does. This is extremely important. You can not get a proper firework image using a camera on its Auto settings.

Make:Canon Model:Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XSi Shutter Speed:10/1 second Aperture:F/13.0 Focal Length:18 mm ISO Speed:200 Copyright 2012 Anthony Feinman

Step 2: Use a tripod

If you are shooting at night, this is a guaranteed must. All your shots will be taking place at night (fireworks are always prettier if you can see them) and you will be shooting at longer shutter speeds (longer exposure). For those of you who are not too familiar or are just starting out in photography, this means your cameras’ lens will be open for times of 3 to15 seconds verses 1/60 to 1/250 of a second as is the standard for day shots. If your camera moves at these longer speeds, your image will not be as clear resulting in streaking or blurred images. Generally this is not a photographers’ intent as they wish for their shots to be clean and clear. This is not to say that you can’t get some rather creative images by shaking your camera resulting in more conceptual photography. If you don’t own a tripod, you can always try to stand or sit against a wall to prevent shaking. Be warned that with this suggestion, there is no guarantee that you will get the shots you desire. No matter how steady you may think your hands are, your camera is going to move and your images will show this. A lot can happen in three seconds time.

Fireworks on the Mississippi by DecorandtheDog

Fireworks on the Mississippi by DecorandtheDog. Nikon D5000, 14 sec exposure, F16 @18mm

Step 3: Setting your exposure time, shutter speed, and ISO

Exposure time is key to capturing fireworks. The longer you have your camera lens open, the more light you are exposing to your film or camera. How much or little you set your shutter speed is also a factor to how much light you expose your camera to. So what is the right exposure and shutter speed? To tell you the truth, there really is no right or wrong answer. But if you set your camera right, you can achieve whatever image you desire.  You may need to break some traditional rules for night photography though.

First, set your ISO to 100 or 200. ISO is a standard for film speed and how sensitive it is to the exposure of light. At this low film speed, it will allow the fireworks to appear bright and vibrant against a black sky.  It will also make your photos clean and crisp without background noise associated with high ISO levels. Most books and people will tell you to open up your shutter as wide as it can go i.e. f/4 or lower. I’m going to suggest setting your shutter speed, or F-Stop, between f/8-f/16. You are going to be shooting an event that is in the distance so you want everything to be in focus, right? The higher you set your shutter, the more everything in the distance will be in focus. This means you are increasing your depth of field. However, by doing this, this also means that you are limiting the amount of light through your camera lens (Higher shutter, means smaller aperture and less light). So to allow more light for your camera to capture, you will have to increase the amount of time your camera exposes the film. Hence setting the exposure time for spans of 3 to 15 seconds.

Fireworks 04 By sunsurfr

Fireworks 04 By sunsurfr. Taken with a Nikon D200

A lot of times, these ranges are experimental. Do you want a single burst from one firework explosion or multiple bursts in one image? For a single burst, limit the amount of time your camera is open (3-5 seconds). For multiple bursts or overlapping events, increase the time your camera is open (6-15 seconds). You might have to take a few test shots at different exposures until you achieve what you want. Playing around is the best way to learn what you like and what your camera can do. So don’t get frustrated if your shots don’t turn out right the first time! It can be a delicate balance.

Make:Canon Model:Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XSi Shutter Speed:8/1 second Aperture:F/13.0 Focal Length:18 mm ISO Speed:200 Copyright 2012 Anthony Feinman

Step 4 : Using a Plunger, Bulb, or Remote Control

A lot of the newer cameras have a Manual setting which can be set for 3-30 seconds. What if your camera does not have settings that allow it to be open for these lengths? Most cameras have an exposure called Bulb. The letter “B” on your camera’s exposure settings symbolizes Bulb. Bulb means that you can hold down the Shutter release button for as long or as little as you like. If this seems too daunting a task, you can always invest in a Plunger or Remote Control for your camera. A Plunger or Remote Control allows you to set up your camera on a tripod without having to worry about accidentally bumping or jerking your camera by physically touching it. These items are optional but can be extremely helpful!

Step 5: Framing your shot

Do you want just the night sky or are you at an extreme distance i.e. several blocks or miles away? These are factors that you need to be mindful when shooting because these, too, can have an effect on your settings. The further you are from your subject matter factors in on how long you set your exposure time. Also, do you have your camera trained on the right part of the sky? Best way to avoid this problem is to set your lens’ focusing ring to its infinity setting or as wide as possible. I wouldn’t worry about trying to focus on locating a specific event but more on getting a result the first few times around. Once you have the setting and results you like, then you can become bolder and take more risks on different effects.

Make:Canon Model:Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XSi Shutter Speed:8/1 second Aperture:F/13.0 Focal Length:18 mm ISO Speed:200

Step 6: Plan ahead

Always know ahead of time where the fireworks will be shot from and attempt to claim prime real estate to set up your camera. This way you can get the best shots possible.

Happy Shooting!

Majulah Singapura by Filan

Majulah Singapura - Photo of Singapore taken by Filan. Nikon D70s, 1.7sec exposure, F5.6 @ 20mm ISO 250

 

This entry was posted in Photography techniques and tagged , , , , by Anthony. Bookmark the permalink.

About Anthony

Anthony Feinman is the Graphics/Media Specialist for Blue Volcano Media. As well as working for Blue Volcano Media, Anthony is also a cartoonist and graphic designer for the comic company, Ink and Feathers Comics based in Streator, IL. Please visit: http://www.ifcomics.com His photo work has been published in: Herscher Press/Reddick-Essex Courier, The Times-Press, The Paper, and The HeartBeat. He also currently does freelance photography work for GradTrak, To view samples of his personal photo work, please visit: http://afeinman.daportfolio.com/ He is author/illustrator for graphic novels and various short stories. He has also edited several books. Anthony is finishing a new comic strip entitled Blitz Howser: The Lost Strips (publication 2012) as well as new comic stories featuring his comic characters, The Critters. To view ongoing strips visit: http://comicfury.com/profile.php?username=nerwonduh He also does a short strip for Wuf Pet Resort and Spa based in Irving, Texas.

20 thoughts on “How to photograph fireworks

    • Tungsten is a way to go if you like. It can make this a bit more blue. I would definitely experiment to see what your results are. It may turn out pretty cool! A lot of experts say to start with daylight settings. The shoots that I have posted, I had the white balance set on Auto. I did a little tweaking in Photoshop to bring out some of the colors and made them a bit richer. Overall, the original shots looked just as they looked when shot. It all depends on how long you plan setting you exposure and how close or far away you are from the event. I say definitely experiment to find what you like. Thanks for the questions! I hadn’t really given it much thought until now. Of course, if any one is shooting with a point and click camera, this option may not be possible to try. To get the best results, try to get access to a SLR or DSLR so you have control over your cameras’ settings.

  1. Great tips, Anthony.

    I recently heard another: with the camera in BULB, open the shutter and manually cover the lens. Then after you hear each “pop” from the cannons, remove the cover to capture the burst. This way you can get several bursts to overlap while at the same time not overexposing the rest of the photograph. I haven’t tried it yet but am looking forward to the 4th.

  2. This is really interesting, I guess fireworks are one of the few things that auto shutter and auto flash are still not able to cope with!

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