RickJ Photography | 15 Tips for Better Fireworks Photos

15 Tips for Better Fireworks Photos

July 06, 2015  •  1 Comment

It seems that everyone under the sun is writing tips about how to shoot fireworks! While I don't want to seem like every other photographer, I did recently shoot some fireworks photos (shared here) this past 4th using an amalgamation of tips from various trusted sources. Some of these tips stood out more than others, so I thought I'd reiterate them to you based on my own experience! In no particular order:

  1. Tripod. Use a sturdy tripod. Many of my shots were shot at small apertures, low sensitivity, and long shutter times which would make it impossible to hand hold my full-framed DSLR for seconds on end. Even the smallest vibration can ruin an otherwise fantastic shot. In fact, I had to scrap several images due to obvious vibrations (something bumped the tripod or my shutter release cable mid-burst). 
  2. Manual mode. When possible, set the camera to full manual mode. If not, try a fireworks scene mode for comparable results, but it's better to be in full control. Whatever you do, avoid auto mode which fires the flash. All you'll see is your foreground, and small amounts of dimly lit fireworks! 
  3. Use a low ISO sensitivity. Avoid using Auto-ISO in cases like this. Fireworks are fairly bright, and higher sensitivities are more likely to expose background subjects, introduce noise, or unnecessarily mute the colors of your fireworks. Most cameras have a native ISO anywhere between 50-200 (mine is 100). 
  4. For a painted look, use a long shutter speed. I use bulb mode (one click beyond 30 seconds in manual mode on most Nikons). This keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter or remote release button is depressed. More advanced models also have a "--" mode, to which the first press opens the shutter, and the second press closes it again. Either works well. Most of my shots ranged from 2-24 seconds. 
  5. Use a higher (smaller) aperture. f/13 worked best for me, but anything between f/8-f/16 (at ISO 100) should do just fine. You'll want to experiment to see what works best. Going too wide may blow out highlights. Conversely, stopping down too much will also underexpose your fireworks. Either way, avoid being wide open. You probably want to avoid overexposing the background, and the fireworks are intense enough to shine through the smaller apertures.
  6. Cable or remote release. To prevent shaking the camera, use a cable or remote release. This prevents unwanted shakes from the camera. If this is not possible, use a long shutter time, and mask the front of the lens with a black card to start and stop your exposure(s). My camera supports WiFi to my phone, however using this is a large battery consumer, so I prefer a cable release, such as this inexpensive version for Nikon: http://amzn.com/B0049D7FHK (there are others which cost more that include useful timer features - pick what's right for you). They come in handy for other tasks, such as macro and product photography too.
  7. Avoid exposing for too long. Avoid the temptation to keep that shutter open for tens of seconds. While some of my better images were above 20 seconds, multiple bursts can overlap each other, and make the image "too busy". Depending on the image you're trying to acquire, try to open the shutter just before the mortar fires, and close it immediately after the burst finishes. One to three bursts is usually more than enough - especially if they all fire in different directions. 
  8. Use a proper focal length/zoom level. Zooming out too wide may not keep enough detail in the fireworks. That is, unless the surrounding objects add desired dimension and size to your image. Conversely, zooming in too tight may leave you clipping fireworks that don't shoot along your desired path. If possible, bring more than one zoom range if you own one so you don't constrict yourself one way or the other. I only brought my 24-70mm, and found myself at 70mm the entire time, wanting 105-120mm.
  9. Manual focus. There's nothing worse than finding your camera attempting to hunt for focus at every attempt, only to give up and leave you with blurry images. Nail your focus ahead of time, then leave it be. It's very unlikely to change throughout the entire performance. If you're unable to check it reliably, use the focus indicator on your lens (if equipped) and pick the infinity setting. Note: If you use back-button focus, this tip is probably moot, unless you're prone to bumping the AF-ON button during your shots.
  10. Use Live View to double-check your focus. Single-point phase-detect focus rarely works in the dark or on quick moving objects like fireworks. Use live view and zoom to 100% on the first few bursts in order to grab sharp focus (manual or one-time auto), then keep the focus in manual mode (unless you use back-button focus). The first few fireworks are rarely the best, unless winds and smoke aren't in your favor (see #13). 
  11. Bring an extra battery. All that long-exposure, Live View or Wi-Fi tethering can quickly drain your battery. Even more so for mirrorless cameras with an always-on EVF. I lucked out with my D750 only using 20-40% the entire time, but not all cameras are that battery-friendly.
  12. Take off any extra UV filters! Nothing ruins a firework photo more quickly than the blue-green flare caused by the internal reflections of a UV filter, or the light-robbing photos of a circular polarizer. That said, there are some cases where using slightly wider apertures and neutral density filters can work in your favor. 
  13. Scout out a good location. There's nothing worse than discovering you have power lines, light poles with FAA-mandated red lights (like a stadium), treelines, headlights, or other distractions in your image, with little time to change your angle once the performance has started. 
  14. When picking your location, consider the prevailing wind! You want that smoke blowing away from your shooting location for clear shots! Sometimes weather changes, but for example, if winds are out of the west a few hours prior to sunset, chances are, they'll still be out of the west after sunset. That means you'll want to be west of the location where they're firing off the shells. 
  15. Shoot RAW! Or, RAW+JPEG. RAW files provide far more flexibility when post-processing any file, fireworks included. Recovering strong highlights in the center of the burst or shadows of your surroundings is nearly impossible without the extra data RAW can provide! Even if you don't have Lightroom or Photoshop ($10/mo for the Photographer's package gets you both! Why not?), many camera providers provide "some" sort of software that allows basic adjustments (such as Nikon's ViewNX-i and CaptureNX-D) that can rescue an image in a pinch.

Don't forget to enjoy the fireworks! Be mindful of pressing the shutter at the right time, but don't forget to enjoy the show too! Following most or all of these tips should yield great results! Here's one of my favorites from the evening (you can find the rest here):

Fireworks - Surprise, AZ- July 4, 2015Fireworks - Long ExposureLocal fireworks, shot in manual mode 24 seconds, f/13, ISO 100.

What tips work best for you? Do you have others? Share in the comments below!


Keith Farnsworth(non-registered)
Great list! Thanks for sharing.
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