Fourth of July photo tips: How to shoot fireworks

Photographing fireworksWhether you’ll be at the Statue of Liberty or in your driveway, July 4 is a momentous occasion and one that deserves to commemorated. Unfortunately, a night sky and fast bursts of light aren’t the easiest things in the world to photograph. But there are a few tricks and tools you can add to your arsenal to best capture Fourth of July fireworks.

Tripod or other stable surface

Possibly the most obvious tip is that you absolutely need some sort of stabilizer when shooting fireworks. Depending on your interest level, that could mean anything from a professional tripod to whatever cooler you’re nearest, but it’s important that you don’t attempt to rely on steady hands. And that’s not because we think you’re inept or nervous, it’s because of our next tip: Using a long shutter speed.

Remote shutter trigger for long exposure

You want to use a remote shutter trigger in general for night or low light shots. You also want to set your camera to a lengthy shutter speed–depending on what effect you’re seeking–for up to a minute. The amount of color and action in a firework is a lot for your camera to take in, and if you want to accurately capture that image you need to give the device some time. We’d advise testing it anywhere between three to 10 seconds, then hit playback to see what you think. Of course you’re welcome to go onward and upward to get an idea of what type of results you’re looking for.

DSLRs and many high-end handhelds give you complete manual control, but you aren’t completely out of luck if you’re working with something simpler. Most cameras have an option that gives you a high amount of shutter control, so look for this and make sure your flash is off. But back to full manual: Most of these devices are compatible with remote shutters, and if you’ve got one or are willing to spring for one, do so. Even the simple act of pressing your shutter button can cause too much vibration, and being able to keep your eyes on the sky and not glued to your screen or viewfinder is helpful as well. And if you’re working with a pared down point-and-shoot, try using vibration reduction (which sometimes needs to be turned on) coupled with self-timer.

You will want to mess around with shutter speeds. The finale is going to mean a lot more fireworks coming a lot faster and a longer shutter speed could leave you with some overexposed photos, so prepare to decrease it around the end.

Low ISO, low aperture

Sorry, we’re about to elude those who can’t shoot in manual. But for those who can, use the lowest ISO setting you’ve got, and experiment between 50-200. Your subject, the night sky, should be full of light for these purposes, and a longer exposure means your photos shouldn’t be terribly susceptible to noise. You’ll also want to set your aperture low, somewhere around f/8 or f/11 – but push it to f/16 just to see what happens.

No flash

This is an obvious one: Turn off your flash. Even if you work with a manual flash, make sure all your settings have it turned off. And if you’re working with a handheld and are struggling to get enough light in your images, resist the urge. It will leave you with little more than a picture of what’s directly in front of you adequately lit, and just barely capture the fireworks. It’d be better to take photos against an early evening sky without flash than to try to use it against a black sky.

Fireworks autoDon’t be afraid of settings

Purists aren’t likely to want the aid of built-in filters or scene selectors, but give them a shot anyway. Night or low light, and sometimes even “Firework” settings can be found in a variety of cameras, from expensive DSLRs all the way to some of the flimsiest pocket cams. You might end up hating the effect, but it’s worth a go in case it slightly improves your image. And even if you’re a post-process photo editor, give the creative filters a whirl, if only for a little variety during your shoot. At the very least and if you have the option, try out your Panorama or 3D modes.


There are also a few so-obvious-it’s-dumb things you’ll want to bring:

  • A flashlight: Try readjusting your settings without one and you’ll never forget it again.
  • An extra SD card: If you plan on bringing one, bring two; if you planning to bring seven, bring eight. Running out of storage halfway through a show and missing the finale is almost too terrible to consider.
  • A chair: If you are using a tripod and it’s on the tall side and not adjustable, be prepared to either get yelled at for blocking someone’s view or sit down within easy reach.
  • Lens cleaner: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and that applies to fireworks as well. Keep your lens clean for optimal shots.
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