The Fourth of July is great for all sorts of things — family time, baseball, sunburns — but it’s not always the easiest to capture within a single frame. These days, fireworks are as synonymous with the American holiday as over-the-top parades featuring your actual uncle as Uncle Sam. Thanks to their complex patterns and varied color combinations (created through a mixture of metals and compounds), fireworks also make great photographic subjects — yet they remain one of the most elusive and challenging tasks for any photographer to capture. To photograph fireworks the right way, you’ll need the proper equipment and a willingness to fiddle with your camera’s exposure settings. Check out a few of our tips below to go from amateur to ace when it comes to shooting fireworks this Independence Day (or any other event that calls for fireworks, naturally).
Set up your camera 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 your camera 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 guess work. When you’re in the city or have a good view of the surrounding landscape, you may want to include some foreground elements — such as a skyline or the gathering crowd — to make your images more interesting.
We recommend using an interchangeable lens camera — either a DSLR or mirrorless model — for best results. Any camera with a manual exposure mode will do, including a smartphone with an advanced camera app. You’ll get better results with better equipment, but don’t be afraid to try with what you have.
Also, if you do go out with an interchangeable lens camera, think about what lens you’ll use to photograph fireworks before they start exploding. Depending on how far away you are, the altitude the fireworks will be at, and whether you want to include some of the environment in your photos, you may want to use a wide-angle lens, a normal focal length, or maybe even a telephoto lens. 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.
Additionally, 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.
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 cannot buy one in time, there are other means to stabilizing your camera. For one, 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. Shooting with a wide-angle lens will also make handholding easier, and you can also stick to faster shutter speeds — 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.
Your best bet is to turn off autofocus completely, if possible. If you leave it on, your camera’s autofocus system will likely just “hunt” back and forth because it won’t have any object to lock focus on. 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.