Photographing Fireworks Tutorial

Fireworks can be very frustrating to shoot especially if you’re trying to photograph them using full auto mode on your camera. If you’ve ever done so you’ve either ended up with blurry, shaky photos, or photos in which your flash fired for no good reason.

In this guide, I’ll share step-by-step tips that will help you nail fireworks every time.

What you’ll need

  1. A good tripod.  There’s just no way around it, a good solid tripod will give you the stability you’ll need to for shooting the long exposure shots necessary to capture good firework photos. I used the Induro AT-213 with the Manfrotto 498Rc2 Head
  2. Cable release/remote.  You can make do without this and use a delay timer in your camera, but your shots will be hit-or-miss.  So get a remote in order to capture the moment.  I use the Vello Wireless Sutterboss (there’s a Nikon version too).  It’s pretty pricy, but it does a good job.
  3. Watch/digital timer.  This is not an absolute necessity, but you’ll want to use something to get the correct shutter speed.  My cable release has a timer so that solves the problem for me.  You can also just set a predetermined exposure time.

Got it all? Wonderful, let’s get working.

Know your location.  You can’t capture good images unless you know where the fireworks will be.  In the shot above, I scouted the location early in the morning, tried different vantage points and lenses before deciding to finally on where place my tripod.  There is no substitute for this step.  Scout early, setup early.

You will need a solid tripod, that’s obvious.  Be aware though, just because your tripod is stable doesn’t mean it’ll remain that way – especially if you’re in a crowd.  Know where your tripod legs are and try to stand behind one of them.  If you can, have friends at each of the other legs to prevent the crowd from bumping your tripod and ruining your shot.

Embrace Manual
Don’t be afraid of the big bad “M” on your dial.  It seems scary but, it gives you full control.  What you are aiming for is long exposures, this means small apertures and long shutter speeds coupled with low ISO.   So set your dial to “M” and get ready.  Your camera will not make the right decisions when shooting fireworks, it just doesn’t know what it’s looking at.  Take control, you’ll be happy you did.

Somewhere between f/8 to f/16 is where you want to be.  There’s no “rule”, ambient light will play a role so use your judgement keeping in mind that you’re looking for an exposure between 8-30 seconds. (try f/8 for 11 seconds to start and adjust down from there).

Stay under 400 and save yourself from noise.  You’re already going to have noise because of the long exposure so 100-200 will do (100 is better).

Again, you’re looking for a long exposure.   You’ll be setting your shutter speed to bulb, but not yet.  First, set your shutter manually keeping in mind how much ambient light/surroundings you want in your shot.  In the case with the shot above, I wanted to be sure I had the castle well illuminated and a shutter speed of about 10sec or so.  Then, I set my shutter and played with my ISO and Aperture.

Now, remember you’ll want to use the cable release/remote and bulb.  So take a few test shots and check your image.  Note the shutter speed you used as you’ll want to use it during the show.  Once you know what speed you want to be at, set your shutter to bulb and set your watch/digital timer.  More on this later.

Focus is going to be difficult – especially if you’re just looking at empty sky.  If you have something in the foreground to focus on that’s great.   Just focus then be sure to turn off autofocus once your focus is locked in.  Turning off autofocus is critical (I use back-button focus so my camera never focuses when the shutter button is depressed.  If you don’t want to dive into the world of back-button AF, just turn off our autofocus);  if you don’t do this, your lens will hunt trying to lock in focus and you’ll probably end up missing the shot or getting a best guess from the lens and ending up with a blurry photo.

If you don’t have something in the foreground then you’re off to focusing manually.  Do the best you can and make sure your autofocus is off.  Make no mistake: focus at night is tricky and there are no rules to save you.  You’re just going to have to get good at it with experience.  Sometimes focusing on a person in the crowd in the middle of your scene can help; that’s a good trick and it can help you.

Turn it off, you don’t need it if you’re just trying to capture fireworks.

Ok, whew.  So far so good, now it gets fun.

White Balance
User your discretion but manually choose your white balance.  Tungsten is a good choice, but it depends on the temperature of the ambient light you have and the look you are going for.  Stay away from auto white balance as it’ll just cause havoc with your shot-to-shot consistency.  Ah, the joys of manual heh.

Mirror Lockup
Turn it on to make sure your mirror does not cause vibrations as it is moving out of the way for the shutter to open.  Another alternative is to just use LiveView as that locks up your mirror.  You can then just look at your LCD to see the scene.

Long exposure noise reduction
Personally, I like using it, but I may be in the minority here.  What is it?  Basically, after your image is captured, your camera will close the shutter and capture an additional image at the same shutter speed.  The second image will contain noise that is subtracted from the original image you captured.  The result: nice clean images.  The downside: a 10 sec exposure becomes a 20sec exposure and you’re missing a lot of your fireworks show.

Do you want to use it?  It’s up to you.  If you have good noise reduction software, then turn it off and experiment and see how it goes.  If not, turn it on and sacrifice part of your show.  This, again, is your decision.

Tripod Part 2
If you’re not above everyone’s heads, think about extending your center column keeping in mind you’re losing stability.   All your other settings are locked in now, so this is a good time to do this if you deem it necessary.

Finally, let’s Shoot!
Ok, so now you’re ready to go.  Experiment with shutter speeds.  You know what shutter speed will correctly expose for your ambient light, but you’re shooting bulb so you can try different shutter speeds.  From here you’re just going to have to experiment but keep the following in mind:

1) Try to get the moment just before the fireworks explode
2) Some portions of the show will be brighter than others, so adjust your shutter speed accordingly.  This is especially true during the finale.  Remember, you’re on bulb so you get to open and close the shutter.
3) Use your timer/watch.  You can guess and just open/close the shutter manually but you won’t be as accurate.

Well, there you go.  The steps above should get you well on your way to shooting good solid fireworks images.  Drop me a comment if you have questions or with links to images you captured.  I’d love to see what you come up with.