Firework shows might only last for about fifteen minutes, but their fleeting nature is part of what makes them interesting to photograph. You have a short window to capture the perfect shot, but at the same time, there aren’t any “rules.” We’ve seen photographers try super creative things to elevate a simple firework into something otherworldly, from playing around with a 90-year-old film camera to refocusing during an exposure.
We asked six of these artists–with backgrounds ranging from photojournalism to commercial photography–to tell us their secrets for creating firework photos that are anything but ordinary. You don’t need much to follow in their footsteps: a camera, lens, and tripod will do the trick.
“When composing, stand back a little; try to include silhouettes of the people in front of you or nearby buildings and bridges. Images that incorporate other elements into the frame will have much more of an impact.”
1. Arrive early
Give yourself plenty of time to set up your composition and anticipate where the show will be, especially if you’ll be competing with a crowd for the best spots. “I’ve found the best approach to shooting fireworks is to use a tripod and compose a shot before things get started,” the photojournalist Dave Sanders explains.
“When composing, stand back a little; try to include silhouettes of the people in front of you or nearby buildings and bridges. Images that incorporate other elements into the frame will have much more of an impact.” As Dave explains, there’s also another reason to get started early: “Smoke will soon obscure the scene, so the best window for images is often towards the beginning of the show.”
“Know the general area where the fireworks will be displayed, and shoot wide. You can always crop later if needed.”
2. Go wide
In a similar vein, it can help to bring a wider lens so everything’s visible in-frame. “I use a wide-angle lens to make sure I can capture everything in the display,” the commercial photographer Jeff Sudmeier tells us. “Know the general area where the fireworks will be displayed, and shoot wide. You can always crop later if needed. Last year, I used a 28mm lens, only because I forgot my other wider lens at home (rookie mistake), but it worked just fine.”
3. Shoot in manual mode
The number one tip among the artists we interviewed: switch to manual exposure settings. You want full control over your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. “Unlike most subjects, it’s more challenging to photograph fireworks with a fully automatic camera than a fully manual one,” Johnny Martyr, who specialises in 35mm black and white photography, tells us. “So choose a camera that either has no automatic control, has fully manual mode, or at least the ability to hold the shutter open for an extended period (this is called Bulb Mode).” He prefers a classic Leica and a 90mm, but he says even a simple starter camera like the beloved Pentax K1000 with a nifty fifty lens will do the trick.
4. Ditch the autofocus
Manual focusing is also your best bet, as autofocus is unlikely to cut it. “Set your focus to manual and to infinity,” Johnny says. “Autofocus systems may have difficulty finding the correct focus point, and it’s very difficult to manually focus on moving fireworks in the dark. In nearly all cases, infinity will be correct, so just set your lens to it, and forget about focus for the rest of the night.”
5. Experiment with exposure times
“I like setting my shutter to Bulb for fireworks,” Johnny says. “The way Bulb Mode works is that you press the release to open the shutter, and it remains open as long as your finger is on that button. The moment you let go, the shutter closes, and the photograph is over. Doing this means that you don’t have an exact exposure time, but I like it because you control exactly what sequences of the firework explosion you capture on film.
“When photographing fireworks in Bulb Mode, the longer you hold the shutter open, the more of the firework’s path you get in the final image. So, if you open the shutter when you see a rocket first launch into the sky, the resulting photo will contain the ‘tail,’ or the line up to the main explosion. Most people will want to keep the shutter open through the explosion until no more light from it is visible. This ensures that you capture the full shape of the firework.
“But it’s good to experiment. Try releasing the shutter at the moment of the explosion. This will ‘delete’ the tail of the firework and create an image of only the explosion. And you can experiment with how long after each explosion you keep the shutter open. The longer the exposure, the more detail and shape; the shorter the exposure, the smaller and less movement.”
6. Keep that ISO low
“Two common mistakes I see are not using a shutter release cable (for long exposures) and using a high ISO, which will introduce noise,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Charlie Sin explains. “A shutter release will help you get sharper firework photos because pressing on the camera itself will shake the camera and create a wavy firework (unless that is what you are going for). Let a slower shutter speed do the work, not the ISO. Otherwise, you’ll get grain in the shadows (again, unless that’s something you’re intentionally going for).”
7. Stop down your lens
Your next setting is aperture. “Your aperture will always be stopped down considerably, between f8 and f22,” Johnny tells us. “This helps ensure a lot of depth of field, guaranteeing that the entire firework is in focus and sharp. Most 35mm-size lenses perform best at middle apertures, so that’s where I like to set mine.”
“If your shutter speed is too short, you won't be able to capture the full streaks of the fireworks. If your shutter speed is too long, you may overexpose your image because there are too many fireworks in one shot. I suggest a shutter speed between four and ten seconds.”
8. Use a tripod
“It’s necessary to use a tripod if you want your scene to be still and clean,” Jeff tells us. Last year, he used a shutter speed of eight seconds, so that support was vital. “I suggest using a shutter speed that’s not too short, but also not too long,” he suggests. “If your shutter speed is too short, you won’t be able to capture the full streaks of the fireworks. If your shutter speed is too long, you may overexpose your image because there are too many fireworks in one shot. I suggest a shutter speed between four and ten seconds.”
9. Beware of overexposure
“Overexposure is a problem I see frequently,” the Seattle-based photographer John Cornicello admits. “It often comes from having the camera in an automatic exposure mode like aperture or shutter priority mode. The camera sees a lot of dark sky and compensates by giving more exposure.” Aside from shooting in manual mode, check your histogram to ensure you’re not blowing out those highlights; it’s better to lose some detail in the dark sky than in the fireworks themselves.
10. Try an intervalometer
One option is to use an intervalometer, a tool commonly used for timelapses. That way, you can set your camera on your tripod, adjust your settings to perfection, and let the intervalometer click the shutter at regular intervals (the intervalometer will also double as a shutter release, and you can use it with Bulb mode).
“My approach is probably very, very different than most photographers, but the way I like to shoot fireworks is to set up my frame on a tripod and use an intervalometer to take a photo every five seconds,” the photographer Evan Halleck, who also shoots timelapses, tells us. “The timing of firework photography can be very tricky, so this way, if you like your frame, you know you are going to get a nice shot at some point.”
11. Play with reflections
“If you’re shooting near a body of water, try to incorporate reflections in your composition,” Jeff urges. “It can make a huge difference.”
12. Boost that contrast
Deep shadows and bright highlights can make a firework photo “pop” off the page (or screen). “I usually create an S-Curve on the curve tool to get a nice contrast,” Charlie says. “From there, I’ll dodge and burn the smoke from the fireworks to get a clean look.”
13. Get creative in post
If you used an intervalometer, you have plenty to play with in post-production. Try combining multiple shots. “I always like to blend several photos together with the same composition to really show what five minutes of fireworks looks like in one photo,” Evan explains. “I use the lighten blend mode a lot and mask out the fireworks I really enjoy.”
“Super sharp, detailed fireworks photos can be found all over the internet. Try something different!”
14. Have fun with it!
Charlie uses a technique called focus pulling to transform fireworks into flowers made of light; essentially, he’s turning the focus ring during an exposure. Johnny, the film photographer, has experimented with film stocks ranging from Kodak Tri-X (b&w) to Kodak Ektar 100 (colour). Both of these artists stress the importance of being creative and thinking outside the box.
“I see people showing up to fireworks displays with big professional cameras, lenses, and tripods, but all this stuff can be a distraction from just having fun,” Johnny explains. “Plus, you end up with photos that look like everyone else’s. I wonder if people realise how easy it can be to get quality fireworks photos with any old 35mm or medium format camera and a $10 roll of film. Super sharp, detailed fireworks photos can be found all over the internet. Try something different!”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.