Fireworks are synonymous with the Fourth of July holiday. From rural towns to metropolises, Independence Day creates endless opportunities to watch sparks fly. Thanks to their complex patterns and varied color combinations (created through a special mixture of metals and compounds), fireworks make great photographic subjects — yet they can also be challenging. Any moving subject shot in the dark is tricky to capture on camera — but with the proper equipment and a willingness to fiddle with your camera’s exposure settings, you can capture great fireworks shots. Here’s how to get the best fireworks photos this 4th of July — or any other holiday.
Set up ahead of time
It’s always a good idea to find out where in the sky the fireworks show will be before you head out to photograph it. If you can set up well before the event starts with a clear idea of where to aim your camera and how you’ll frame your shot, this will take away a lot of the guesswork.
Sometimes it’s better to include some context in your photos.
If possible, try to position yourself upwind of the action. That way, all the smoke from the fireworks will blow away from you, keeping an open view of the sky in front of your camera so each successive round of explosions remains clearly visible.
Also, look for unique perspectives. A parking garage might have an open roof you can access to get higher, or if the show takes place over water, there might be a tour boat that can get you closer to the action.
While the contrast of bright colors against a solid black background makes for a dramatic image, sometimes it’s better to include some context in your photos. Frame your shots a bit wider to include the skyline, landscape, or the gathering crowd. Try a reflection shot for fireworks over the water. This will make your images more interesting and provide a sense of scale for the fireworks show.
While we recommend using a DSLR or mirrorless camera for the best results, any camera — including a smartphone — will work. Advanced superzoom cameras, like the Sony RX10 series or Nikon Coolpix P1000, are also good choices as their long lenses offer a broad range of framing options without the hassle of swapping lenses (note: the Sony offers stronger performance). We also recommend shooting in manual exposure mode so you can get consistent and predictable results, but this isn’t expressly necessary.
How to photograph fireworks with a DSLR or mirrorless camera
If you do go out with an interchangeable lens camera, whether DSLR or mirrorless, think about what lens you’ll use to photograph fireworks before they start exploding. Depending on how far away you are, the altitude of the fireworks, and whether you want to include some of the surrounding environment in your photos, you may want to use a wide-angle, normal, or even a telephoto lens.
Using a tripod is all but necessary to capture clear and sharp photos of fireworks.
Adding some context into your fireworks photos is never a bad idea, and wide-angle lenses are good for this. Telephoto lenses will let you zero in on details or focus on a specific background element (like a single building, rather than a full cityscape) to frame the fireworks.
If possible, bring a couple different choices so you can try out various different shots, but keep in mind that swapping lenses during the show might not be the easiest thing to do without missing good moments.
Use a tripod
Using a tripod is all but necessary to capture clear and sharp photos of fireworks, especially when using a longer lens. A tripod will also let you use a slower shutter speed so you can get creative, capturing long streaks of light as the glowing particles spread out into the night sky.
If you don’t own a tripod or can’t buy one in time, there are other ways to stabilize your camera. Many cameras and lenses offer sophisticated image stabilization that allows you to shoot at shutter speeds down to 1/10th of a second or so — provided you have steady hands.
Another option is to steady your camera on a pole, a railing, a wall, a table, or anything with an even surface. Something like a Gorillapod comes in handy for this. You can also just stick to faster shutter speeds as fireworks provide plenty of light, but you’ll sacrifice the creative options of long exposures if you do.
Ditch the flash
We can’t say how many times we’ve seen people trying to photograph fireworks with their camera’s flash turned on. This usually results from leaving the camera in fully automatic mode, but if your flash is firing for any reason, find the option to disable it in your camera’s menu system. A flash won’t help you here. (Note: In advanced exposure modes like manual or shutter priority, the flash should not automatically fire. Likewise, if your camera has a night or fireworks mode, the flash should be disabled by default.)
If your camera gives you the option, simply turn autofocus off. If you leave it on, your camera’s autofocus system will likely “hunt” back and forth because it won’t have a clear object to lock onto. This could cause you to miss the shot completely. Instead, set your focus to some point in the distance. If there are other distant objects in your shot (such as a building or skyline), you can focus on those.
Most DSLR lenses and some lenses for mirrorless cameras have a distance scale on the focus ring or in a separate window (as seen above in the Sigma 135mm F1.8). Chances are, the fireworks will be far enough away that you set your lens to the infinity (∞) position and adjust from there if necessary. The important thing is to not accidentally change the focus after you get everything set, so try not to bump the lens.
Use a remote shutter release
A cable release is handy to reduce vibrations caused by pressing the shutter button on the camera. It’s not really necessary, but it can be helpful. If you don’t have one, the motion of your hand on the camera could introduce blur if you’re trying to photograph fireworks using a long shutter speed. At faster shutter speeds, it won’t be an issue.
Many new cameras today come with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, which you can use to remotely activate the shutter from a smartphone app. This is the same idea as a cable release, so use it if it’s available — just remember that your phone’s battery will drain pretty quickly when used this way, so be aware of that.
The other nice thing about using an app, rather than a standard cable release, is that it allows you to completely control exposure settings from your phone, which is especially nice at night when it might be too dark to see your camera’s controls.
Exposure settings (ISO and aperture)
For best image quality, set your camera’s ISO to the lowest setting (probably 100 or 200). While most modern higher-end cameras today produce low noise even at higher ISO settings, sticking to the lowest possible setting will yield the cleanest results. Again, the fireworks themselves are plenty bright enough to get a proper exposure at base ISO. This is especially true if you plan on using a slow shutter speed, which increases the amount of light recorded by your camera.
We can’t say how many times we’ve seen people photographing fireworks with their camera’s flash turned on
For an extra dose of creative fun, set your shutter to B (for “bulb”) mode. This mode keeps the shutter open for as long as you depress the button. Be careful, though: Even the slightest shake will be visible in the resulting image, so this is definitely not recommended when handholding the camera — unless you’re going for a really abstract look. If you don’t have a remote release, you can also use your camera’s self-timer and set the exposure manually to a fixed value, such as two seconds. Using bulb mode to photograph fireworks can be especially beneficial as it allows you to capture just as much movement as you want to, rather than trying to guess at how long an explosion will remain visible. Keep in mind that the longer you leave the shutter open in bulb mode, the brighter the photos will be. The more fireworks that are in the sky — such as during the finale of the show — the shorter you’ll want to make those bulb shots.
Alternately, you can use a fixed shutter speed instead of bulb mode. While this won’t allow you to control the length of the shot based on the length of the explosion, the results — and exposure — are more predictable. With a tripod, try starting with a fixed shutter speed of 15 seconds, then adjust up or down to get more or less movement in the fireworks. If you don’t have a tripod, start with a 1/10th of a second setting and adjust faster or slower from there. When shooting with a faster shutter speed like this, you may have to open up your aperture and/or boost your ISO setting in order to get a proper exposure.
As a general rule, experimenting with settings helps in order to find out how to get the best results. Sometimes, exposure times shorter than a second could give you some nice results.
As far as aperture is concerned, try starting off at f/8 and adjust from there. Depending on how bright the fireworks display is, you’ll need to adjust up and down. This can be especially tricky if you’re in bulb mode, since you’ll have no set shutter speed to base your aperture off of. If your exposures are too bright, close down to f/11 or f/13. If they’re too dark, open up to f/5.6 or f/4.
In general, the smaller your aperture — that is, the larger the f-stop number — the greater your chances of getting the fireworks in focus. At the same time, however, that may necessitate that you make a longer exposure to get a bright image.
When to start the exposure
Timing matters in fireworks photography — and it’s easy to start the shot too late, after the firework has already burst.If you want to capture the streaks that fireworks cause in the sky, try to open your shutter a second or two before the first burst explodes. Listen for the whistle as the firework climbs into the air as a clue. If you’re working in bulb mode, keep your shutter open until it’s finished. If you want to capture “multiple” bursts, keep your shutter open for as long as they’re exploding. If you want to be in front of the camera (fireworks selfies!), just make sure you stay very still while the shutter is open.
If your camera doesn’t support manual settings, see if it has a “Fireworks” scene mode built-in.
You’ll want to frequently check your exposures to see if they’re too light or dark — but don’t take too long, as fireworks shows don’t last forever. This will generally depend on how many bursts are exploding at once. Refer to the exposure settings section above to determine what to do if your exposures are too light or dark
Finally, if your camera doesn’t support manual settings, or if you’re insecure about fiddling with them, see if it has a “Fireworks” scene mode built-in. As the name implies, this mode will help you photograph fireworks with decent results, but without all the fuss. You’ll still want a tripod, but you won’t have to worry about exposure times, ISO value, and aperture. The downside is that you also won’t have full control over the look of your photos.
How to photograph fireworks with a smartphone
Don’t have access to a dedicated camera? Chances are you have a completely decent camera in your pocket, one that can be modified with apps and add-on lenses to make it even more useful. A phone camera wouldn’t be our first choice, but in a pinch, it can give you great results if you follow some basic steps. Like with a DSLR or mirrorless, a tripod is a big help — and smartphone tripods like the Joby Gorillapod are inexpensive and easy to bring along.
Use exposure and focus lock
When a firework explodes, the last thing you want is to have to wait for your phone’s camera to find focus before you can take the picture. Most camera apps will let you lock-in the focus (and exposure) by holding your finger on the screen. Different apps handle this slightly differently, but generally, this will lock the focus and exposure to whatever object you tap on, and then allow you to adjust exposure compensation — make the image brighter or darker — from there. It will take some experimenting to get things sorted, but this should give you some decent control over how your images look while ensuring the camera is as responsive as possible.
Use an app for long exposures
Just like using a slow shutter speed on an interchangeable lens camera, your smartphone can produce long-exposure photographs if you use the right app. Some camera apps, like Adobe Lightroom CC (free, iOS and Android), offer professional modes that let you dial in a specific shutter speed. This may only let you get as slow as 1/4 second — for even longer exposures, you’ll need an app that performs multi-exposure trickery to mimic even slower shutter speeds. Slow Shutter Cam ($2) is a popular choice for iPhone users and offers built-in light painting and low light modes. Android users might want to check out Long Exposure Camera 2 (free, offers in-app purchases).
Use burst mode and high-speed video
Most phone cameras can shoot a very rapid succession of images if you hold the shutter button down. This is a great way to make sure you get best moment without having to time it perfectly. But also don’t be afraid to just switch over to video mode, particularly if your phone shoots 4K, which will give you plenty of resolution for extracting a still image later. Additionally, the slow-motion capabilities of modern smartphones grant you yet another option for capturing the fireworks show. Combine all of these techniques to really give your friends something to comment about in your Instagram feed.
Drones and fireworks: a real buzzkill
While all of this may sound great, perhaps what you really want to know is how to photograph fireworks with a drone. You may have seen some amazing fireworks footage shot from drones in the past, like the video below. Flying a drone into a fireworks show can yield some amazing shots from a perspective that’s truly unique. But before you set your quadcopter into the sky this holiday, you should probably think twice — in fact, just don’t do it.
Guidelines from the Federal Aviation Administration prohibit flying small unmanned aircraft at night. Since fireworks generally happen after twilight, you’re completely barred from flying one during the light show. You could get a few shots of the crowd waiting for the show to begin, although even this may be prohibited. We’re sure there will be those willing to risk it, but common sense advises against it. So let’s not ruin the show for everyone else. If you’re going to photograph fireworks this year, just stick with a camera firmly planted on the ground.
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