Photographing fireworks displays

“And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…”

People all over the world love fireworks.  From the Sydney harbor New Year’s extravaganza to the infamous Beijing Olympics display fireworks draw crowds and we just love to look up in the sky in awe!  So while you’re out this Independence Day, why not take out the camera and bring home some of those oooooh’s and aaaawww’s?  Here’s some quick tips to help you capture all the fun and excitement.


  • Small tripod for a smaller camera, it’s hard to beat the Gorilla, by Joby
  • Flashlight (a red or green lens cover will help save your night vision while you’re waiting for the show to start)
  • Extra batteries
  • Extra memory cards
  • Bug spray (During the summer months this is ALWAYS in the bag for us).
  • A remote shutter release if your camera has the capability.  This will help to avoid your finger introducing camera shake while you’re pushing the shutter release.

Scouting the location

  • The earlier you can arrive the better.  It will give you a chance to see what the area looks like before the sun goes down or they turn out the lights.
  • Back up.  Some of the best compositions are with the fireworks in front of you instead of exploding over your head.
  • Composition.  This is where you get to put on your artistic hat and have some fun.  If there’s a tall building that you can’t get away from, great just purposely build your composition to include the building.

Fourth_of_July_fireworks_behind_the_Washington_Monument,_1986This Image was released by the United States Air Force with the ID DF-ST-87-03719

  • Check for obstructions.  This is where getting there early comes in.  You’ll be able to see the power lines, light poles, obnoxiously tall people that you can’t see but will definitely show up in your image.
  • Check the wind direction.  Fireworks explode…it’s what they do.  Explosions usually mean smoke and lots of fireworks mean lots of smoke.  After a few minutes the fireworks display is going to generate a pretty hefty cloud of smoke.  If you’re positioned so the wind is blowing across your shot, they smoke will hopefully be blown away from your composition instead of you having to shoot through it.

Smoke Cloud and FireworksPhoto credit: RJ Photo

Camera Settings

  • Focus –  This is another area where coming early is really going to help.  You’ll be able to set your focus on a landmark approximately the same distance as the fireworks display is going to be while you still have enough available light for the autofocus.  If not, you can try setting your focus to “infinity”, an option on most point and shoots.  If you choose to autofocus on the first shell, just remember to switch to manual focus so you’re camera isn’t trying to refocus on every shot (what a drag).
  • Point and shoot scene mode – If you camera has the option, choose “fireworks” on the point and shoots.  “Night Landscape” and “Mountain” will also work here.
  • ISO –  Noise is found in the dark areas of an image and you’re going to be shooting at night, so there’s lots of room for noise to creep in.  Shoot with the lowest ISO possible to help reduce the noise.
  • Shutter speed – More on this below…but slow is the way to go.
  • Aperture – Fireworks are bright…really bright.  So no need to break out the super fast lens, you can get away with a nice and small aperture and go with f/8 – f/16
  • Flash – If you’re using a point and shoot you’re probably going to have to switch to manual on this one because the camera will want to throw out flash.  Unfortunately, all you’re going to do is catch the dust in the air immediately in front of your camera.
  • .JPG or RAW – If you have the option, always use the highest level .JPG option.  Even better, shoot in .RAW if possible.  You’ll have far more options available to you when you bring the image over for editing.

Taking the picture

  • Single burst.  There’s a couple of different approaches to this one, what type of camera you’re using, and the ability of that camera.  Remember, fireworks move.  That’s part of the reason we love them.
  1. Listen for the sound of the shell being dropped or fired from the tube.  You’ll know it when you hear it, just listen for the distinctive “whump” as the fuse and initial charge fires it from the tube.
  2. If you have the ability to use a long shutter speed (say 30 seconds), or even better “bulb” mode, use it.  One trick is while in “bulb” mode, compose your shot (remember you already set your focus earlier because you scouted the area) and press the shutter button.  This requires a bit of guess work to find the right balance of having the shutter open long enough to capture the entire travel and explosion bot not so long as to blow out your exposure.  Fireworks move, that’s part of what we love about it.
  • To capture multiple bursts while using “bulb” mode, try dropping a black cardboard panel in front of your lens until you hear the next “whump”.  Be careful about overexposing using this method.  Fireworks are bright and it won’t take much to blow out your image, even with a small aperture.

Now it’s your turn!  Go out there and capture some awesome summer time memories.  Just don’t get so caught up in photographing the show that you miss something that makes it a night to remember.  And don’t forget to share your best fireworks photo below in the comment section.  We’ll feature the top three shots next week on the website and our Facebook page.

Purcell-79Hey, don’t just stop here , let’s get social 🙂  Come visit me on Facebook or Twitter and join in on the fun.  Or if you’re looking for something on the light side lets share our odd little worlds on “Instagram” at Sean_spphotography.   See you next time everybody 🙂


twitter button Facebook image