How to photograph fireworks
like a pro

Guy Fawkes Night, the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve — there’s always a few nights a year when we have a chance to photograph these impressive pyrotechnic displays.

But fireworks photography can be somewhat tricky. What shutter speed do you use? Where, and how, do you focus in the dark? And what equipment do you need? I answer all of this below, as well as share my top tips to help you learn how to photograph fireworks like a pro.

Top tips for creative fireworks photography

1. Plan your shot

As with any type of photography, planning is key. Before you head out to shoot, think about your shot, what you want to achieve and how you can create the final result. Think about the location where you’ll be shooting, what equipment you’ll need, and what settings you may want to use.

2. Scout your location beforehand

If you can’t get to the location beforehand to determine the best composition for the shot, at least consider getting there early. This will give you a chance to think about your composition, set your focus, and take a few test shots before the fireworks show starts. Arriving early should also mean you get a good spot to photograph from.

3. Let your camera acclimatise

Taking your camera out into a chilly evening from a warm house can cause condensation to form on the lens. To avoid this, make sure you arrive ahead of time to give your camera time to adjust to the cooler temperature.

4. Get creative with your composition

When framing fireworks photos, you don’t always want just a plain black sky. There are plenty of ways you can get more creative results simply by considering your surroundings (this is where my first and second tip will really help).

One of the easiest ways to achieve a more creative composition is to consider elements that you can include in the foreground and background of the image. Are there some buildings you could include in the background, perhaps to one side, of the display? Including interesting foreground elements such as water or other reflective surfaces can also add an extra creative touch. What you don’t want though, are objects that will obscure and block the fireworks, so keep that in mind when choosing your location.

Fireworks in Guernsey
© Ashleigh Morris

Equipment & settings for fireworks photography

What many people struggle with is knowing what equipment they need and what camera settings to use for photographing fireworks. The good news is that it’s all relatively simple. You don’t need any fancy equipment, and I’m going to share some guidelines for camera settings that will offer a good starting point.

Recommended equipment

There is only really two essential pieces of equipment for photographing fireworks: your camera (any DSLR with the ability to shoot in Manual mode will work), and a good tripod. If you don’t have a tripod you could look for somewhere stable to rest your camera, like a wall or the floor.

Other pieces of equipment you might want to have on hand include:

  • Spare batteries
  • Extra memory cards
  • Shutter release cable — Although not essential, a cable release will help reduce camera shake when shooting long exposures.
  • Torch —  This can be useful if you want to illuminate certain parts of your scene or even the buttons on your camera.

You don’t need a wide selection of lenses for these types of shots either. Zoom lenses can be a good option as they offer the ability to quickly and easily change your focal length. Just keep in mind that any change in focal length will require you to check and maybe adjust your focus. Generally wider angle lenses are better as they allow you to capture more of the scene, but if you’re shooting some distance from the fireworks then you may want a slightly longer focal length.

© Ashleigh Morris

Camera settings

  • Mode — The best mode to shoot in is Manual mode, as this is the only mode that will give you full control over the final result.
  • Focus mode — Setting your focus to manual mode is the best way to guarantee a sharp image. If you rely on autofocus, your camera might not be able to focus in time, causing you to miss the shot. If you aren’t yet comfortable using manual focus, you can set your camera to autofocus, focus on a point, and then switch to manual focus.
  • Shutter speed — Generally, the best shutter speed for fireworks is a slower shutter speed. I’d recommend starting somewhere around one-minute as a long exposure will allow you to capture a good amount of light.
  • Aperture — As a starting point, set your aperture to f11. This should ensure you have sufficient depth of field while balancing the light from the long exposure.
  • ISO — As a rule, I tend to shoot on the lowest ISO wherever possible, and this is no different. Set your ISO to 100 (or as low as it will go) to start and adjust it if you need.
  • Noise reduction — While you can leave this feature off for your test shots, it may be useful to have on during the display, if your camera offers it. However, enabling this function will slow the write speed and increase the time it takes to preview the images.
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These settings should act as a guide and offer a good starting point for the next time you’re shooting fireworks, though it might take a couple of shots to get a perfect balance. If the fireworks are too dark, try opening the aperture or increasing the ISO. However, if the surrounding lights in the scene are too bright or too dark, you might need to increase or decrease the shutter speed.
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  1. I’m a licensed pyrotechnician, so here are my two cents on this topic.

    One minute of exposure can work when photographing amateur displays on Silvester, but it is way to long when photographing a professional fireworks display. Every shell that has been fired during the exposure will be visible in the photo, and over the course of one minute, this will be to much volume, overloading the picture.

    My preferred mode for photographing fireworks displays is the bulb mode using a cable release. This gives me full control over when an exposure starts and when it ends. When photographing aerial displays, I usually try to start the exposure slightly before a volley bursts. Shells will burst at or near the culmination point of their trajectory, so they will slow down their ascend before the burst. Starting the exposure at this point in time will give me the full trail of the stars from the center outwards; starting the exposure to late will result in a black hole in the center of the shells. When photographing larger displays, I will often include only a single volley into the picture. With smaller displays, I usually collect two to three volleys before I end the exposure. All volleys collected in this way should stem from the same scene of the display; keeping the picture consistent.

    f11 is a good aperture for color shells and silver effects, but for some gold tones, you will have to open up the aperture to around f5.6, otherwise they will not show up in the picture.

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