5 Simple Techniques for Photographing Fireworks

Just in time for the 4th of July fireworks! Sorry, Canadians!! I should have posted this a few days ago for it to be useful for you guys too! Gotta wait for the next ones.

If you have your camera on auto mode, chances are it won't "know" how to photograph fireworks, and you'll end up with bad images. But, using manual mode and the few tips mentioned here, they are actually very simple to shoot!

1. Be Ready To Shoot Before The Fireworks Start

Shoot the first bursts, as there is less smoke and the sky is likely to be lighter. Fireworks often start at dusk and by the time they end the sky is totally dark and filled with smoke. Your best chance of getting great shots is at the very beginning of the show because the sky is clearer. So, go early and scout out your location ahead of time.

The photo above was taken as the first fireworks started. The sky still has some light.

2. Use Manual Mode, No Flash

Unless you intend to light up something in the foreground, the flash will not do any good reaching the fireworks, so keep it off. Here are the manual settings to start with: ISO 200 (or 100 if you have it), f8, 4 seconds. Set the focus point to infinity and leave the auto focus off. Test a few shots, and then adjust the shutter speed up or down accordingly if needed. (Add more time for more fireworks in the shot and vice versa.)

If you have the option, set the shutter to Bulb or "B" which allows you to press and hold the shutter open as long as you want. (In which case, leave it open for as long as it takes for about 3 to 5 bursts and then let go. This allows you to take each picture for exactly the length of time you want, rather than just "4 seconds" or whatever your shutter speed is set to. Too many fireworks in the shot and they will overexpose the shot and overlap, looking messy.) If you don't have this option, don't worry, just choose a slow shutter speed, like a few seconds or more. 

If you don't have manual mode, use shutter priority (usually marked by S, T or Tv) and set the shutter for at least one second if you can, or longer if you have the option.

3. Take The Photo As You See a Firework Shooting Up, Just Before It Bursts

Generally, they come in groups so you will probably get at least 2 or 3 bursts in one shot this way. If you miss the beginning of the burst, the firework will not start from the center. It will look like there's a hole in the middle.

The photo above was taken immediately after the blue firework bursts. The other bursts started while the shutter was open. Also notice the smoke in the background... you can tell this photo was shot later in the night.

4. Use a Tripod!

Make sure your camera is sturdy and your tripod is tightened well so it does not shake when you press the button. Another way to avoid camera shake is to use a remote release if you have one. (I never use one personally... I find my tripod is sturdy enough and it doesn't move when I press the button.)

5. Include Something Else in The Photo

Include something in the background and/or foreground, especially if the sky is already completely black. The tops of peoples heads in the crowd is often the only thing (accidentally) included in amateur fireworks photos. Almost anything OTHER than that is going to add interest to the shot and/or a sense of place. Just plain fireworks can be boring. One easy way to add something else in the photo is just zoom out to your widest setting on your lens and see what you can fit in the frame. Then adjust in accordingly.

The photo above is BORING!!! If you could see the sky and water then it would be ok. But, it needs something else to add interest.

If the fireworks are small and far away, then consider not only adding something else to the photo, but making it the focus point and have the fireworks as an additional point of interest. Below are a few shots I took at the Noche de San Juan (San Juan night) in Spain a couple of weeks ago. The fireworks were in the town several kilometers away. The interesting part of the photos are the people and the bonfires on the beach, and the fireworks just add to the whole ambiance.

Nothing else to add? Break the rules and go for artistic! Zoom in all the way and go for a more abstract look. This can be a fun thing to try when you have nothing else of interest to include in the photo.

The photos above go for a more abstract look. I like the one on the left because it reminds me of the water fountains at the Bellagio! The one on the right reminds me of rain.

Another "artistic" rendition of fireworks.

Ok, now go have some fun with the Fireworks show tonight!!!