How to Photograph Fireworks

Use these tips to make your fireworks photos stand out

A little boy on daddies shoulders enjoying a fireworks show.

 @beachbumledford via Twenty20

If you’re interested, you can probably catch a great fireworks show on the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve, and several other times each year. Bringing along a DSLR camera doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get great photos of the fireworks. It takes some preparation to capture fireworks pics that are sure to make your friends and family ooh and ahh over the images.

The settings and tips included in this article will also work with smartphone firework photography, especially in camera apps that allow for manual adjustment of settings. If that's not a native part of your camera app, there are many third-party apps that allow for manual controls.

Before You Start Shooting Fireworks

Before you even get to the event to take fireworks pictures, you should be thinking about the images you want to capture and how you’ll get them. For starters, that means finding the perfect spot. If you have the time in the days leading up to the event, stake out one or more places that give you a great vantage point for taking pictures. 

Ideally, you’ll want to choose a place that’s unobstructed — no trees or tall buildings to block your view of the show. Also look for a place that’s close enough to the action to get great pictures, but not so close that you’re aiming your camera straight up into the sky. Most professional photographers advise that shooting at roughly a 45 degree angle (or slightly less) to the ground makes for the best shots.

Fireworks in a crowded city, obstructed by a tree.
 @esspeshal via Twenty20

You should also get your gear together. You’ll need your camera, lenses if you plan to use more than one, a sturdy tripod, a remote shutter release, at least one extra SD card, and a flashlight because it’s going to be dark, and you may need to see your camera during the show. You might also consider adding a chair, blanket, water, and bug spray to the supplies for your own comfort while you’re preparing for and watching the show.

Finally, plan to arrive well-before the show so you can stake claim to the spot you’d like to shoot from. You might even consider having a backup location in mind, in case your first preference is more crowded than you expect it to be.

Fireworks Photos Need Stability

When you’re looking for the right place to shoot from, keep the terrain in mind. You’ll need to setup a tripod to keep your camera steady while you shoot and that area needs to be relatively flat. 

Stability will make the difference between fantastic shots and pictures that are just ‘eh.’ That means you also need to pay attention to how you use your tripod. Start by choosing one that’s adjustable.

A camera on a tripod with a sunset in the background.
 @ashleyhallphotography via Twenty20

For fireworks photos, it’s especially important that the tripod legs have plenty of adjustment, because you’re going to want to get your camera up to eye level without using the center post adjustment. That center post can be useful in some situations, but when taking pictures of fireworks, it can cause the camera to be less stable, which means there’s a greater chance for camera shake that can cause your pictures to be blurry.

Consider the Composition of Your Fireworks Photos

Fireworks are beautiful, especially if you can catch the light trails that make them really stand out. But if you’re shooting straight into a black sky, there isn’t much else of interest in the image. When scouting your location, consider elements that might make your fireworks pics really pop. For example, capturing the fireworks over a city skyline can add a lot of interest to the photograph. 

Fireworks over Prague.
 @davidcharouz via Twenty20

While you’re considering composition, think too of whether you want to take your pictures horizontally or vertically. Horizontal pictures will allow you to capture more of the action, while vertical will allow you to capture light trails from the moment the mortar is launched until it explodes in the sky. You can adjust at any time, of course, but the orientation of your image does affect composition.

The Best Lenses for Fireworks Pics

The lens you choose to shoot with can dramatically change the fireworks photos you capture. Many people believe the wider the lens, the better the shot. But when shooting fireworks, that’s not always true. You also don’t want to focus too tightly on the fireworks either. Using a zoom lens will give you a great shot of single burst, but it won’t allow you to capture several fireworks exploding over the city skyline. 

Professional photographers recommend focal lengths between 10-50 mm, with the best shots usually being captured by 24-70mm lenses, 17-50 mm lenses, or 35 or 50 mm prime lenses. You may choose to use something different, but if you have a standard 35 mm lens in your kit, you have everything you need to capture great fireworks pics. 

Don’t use super wide angle or fish-eye lenses for fireworks photography. The results will be distorted and unattractive. 

The Best Camera Settings for Fireworks

Camera settings are one of the trickiest parts of fireworks photography. Underexpose the image and you’re left with something that’s not quite as vivid as you’d like it to be. Overexpose it, and the center of the fireworks are blown out and not at all attractive. So, what are the best fireworks photography settings? Try these:

  • Mode: Manual. You could use Shutter Priority, but you probably won’t get the results you want, so stick with Manual mode.
  • Format: RAW. Make sure your format is set to the highest quality and RAW. This captures the most image data, so you’ll have more to work with during post-processing. On some cameras, RAW is also a required format to access Bulb Mode.
  • ISO: 100-200. Some photographers recommend an ISO of 400, but that’s probably going to be too high. You’ll be shooting at night, but remember, fireworks are bright. If you don’t want to over expose your shots, stick with the lower ISO levels.
  • Shutter Speed: Depending on who you listen to, you’ll see recommendations from 2.5 seconds to about 8 seconds. Nearly everyone agrees that the sweet spot for shutter speed is going to be around 5-6 seconds though. And if you can use Bulb Mode on your shutter, that’s even better. (More about that below.)
  • Aperture: F/11-F/16. Start with the larger F/11 aperture setting, and adjust down if your shots are overexposed. Remember F/11 allows more light and F/16 allows less light into the image sensor.  
  • White Balance: If you’re shooting in RAW format, leave Auto White Balance selected. If you’re shooting in another format, try a few pictures using the Daylight setting. That’s usually going to give you the best possible white balance for the conditions you’re shooting under.
  • Autofocus: Turn it off. Instead, manually focus your camera at infinity. If you’re hoping to get images of fireworks exploding over a city skyline, try taking a few shots of the cityscape before the show begins. This ensures that you have a sharp, clear skyline that you can always add in post-processing if necessary.
  • Image Stabilization/Anti-Shake: Turn it off. This feature isn’t necessary when you’re using a tripod, and will only consume battery life without providing any benefit or improvement to your shots.

While it is advisable to leave Autofocus off while you take pictures of fireworks, you can try to use it during the first couple of fireworks explosions to set the appropriate focus for the show. Once it’s set though, be sure to switch the AF switch on your lens to Manual so the focus stays locked in. 

Taking Fireworks Pictures

You’ve got your gear, you’re settled into your spot, the camera is mounted and ready to focus, and you understand the camera settings you’ll need; now it’s time to take those fireworks pics. Get ready, because the first few fireworks explosions are usually your best opportunity to get truly stellar fireworks pics. It’s during these shots that there is the least amount of smoke fogging the scene around the fireworks, so the light trails and colors will be the brightest.

Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks in New York City.
 @javan via Twenty20

The first few fireworks explosions are also when you have the best opportunity to focus your lens to ensure you’re capturing clear photos of the show. If you’re using autofocus, try to focus on the center of the firework explosion (by holding the shutter button halfway down). If you’re using manual focus, make sure you’re dialed into infinity but check the first few shots to ensure that focus is actually capturing sharp, clear images.

This is where your remote shutter release (either wireless or a cable release) will come in handy. Remember that stability is the key to great fireworks photos. If you’re pressing the shutter button on the camera, even when it’s mounted on a tripod, you’re going to create a small amount of shake, which could blur your pictures. Instead, use a remote shutter release to trigger the photo. 

If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can reduce the likelihood of shake in your images by using the self-timer on the camera. Set it for two seconds, press the on-board shutter release, and then move away from the camera. After two seconds the shutter will fire without further intervention from you. It’s a little tricky to get the timing right, but it works in a pinch.

If the Bulb Mode setting is available on your camera (you’ll find it when the camera is set to Manual, in the Shutter Control menu, usually after the 30 Seconds setting. Once you’ve selected Bulb Mode, then you control how long the shutter stays open using a press-and-hold on the shutter release button. When you combine Bulb Mode with a remote shutter release, then you can customize the length of exposure for each shot. This allows you to capture a single burst of fireworks or multiple bursts.

Use a matte, black card or piece of poster board to time your shots. Place the card in front of your camera lens, not touching it. Then press the shutter release. Allow a second for the camera to ‘settle’ then pull the card away from the lens to expose the shot. When you’re finished, slide the card back into place, and release the shutter button. You can also use the card with one long, continue shutter press to capture multiple fireworks explosions.

Experiment with timing on when to press and release the shutter. If you want fireworks photos that include the light trail from the ground up, open the shutter as soon as the mortar is fired into the air. If you prefer to capture only the bloom of the explosion, wait a second or two after the report from the mortar to open the shutter. In both cases, close it as soon as the light begins to fade from the fireworks explosion.

There’s More to Fireworks Images Than Explosions

One last tip to help you get the best possible fireworks pictures: remember there’s more to the show than just the fireworks. If you have the opportunity, try taking some pictures of the people in the crowd, watching the show.

A girl with a sparkler.
 @wdnesday via Twenty20

Snap a shot of a the wonder on a child’s face with the reflection of the fireworks in their eyes. Take pictures of adult expressions as they watch the fireworks and their children. Look for details, like sparklers, spinners, and other subjects that invoke emotions and memories. These shots can turn out just as beautiful as the fireworks pics.