Shoot The Works!

I have an updated article on photographing fireworks here.


This weekend, you’ll be one among millions who are pointing their cameras at the sky. Many of these photographers will come away with some pretty good photos, but I know you will not be content with only making good images, right? You want your images to be GREAT! As with most types of night photography, making the best fireworks images requires a good deal of advanced planning. The quick-and-dirty for shooting fireworks is to mount the camera on a tripod, choose a composition and leave it set for the entire show, set the shutter to bulb, aperture from f/8 to f/16, and ISO at 100 or 200. Fire the shutter and after a burst of fireworks occurs, close it and start again. For the detailed discussion on how to make your photos stand out from the crowd, read on.  

Fireworks at Wilmington, North Carolina

Fireworks over the USS North Carolina Battleship



Composition.The key to making great fireworks photos is to compose with an interesting foreground or background in the scene. Photos that show just the lights appear striking at first, but become boring after you’ve seen a few of them. Of course, your composition will necessarily be limited according to where the fireworks are being set off. Once you know this, you can explore the landscape in every direction for a suitable spot from which to shoot. Don’t be afraid to get a good distance away from the show. Particularly if you have a good foreground, you could shoot from a few miles away with great results. Backgrounds work best when you shoot from a high vantage point, say from the roof of a building looking down or out on the fireworks. Usually, backgrounds need some sort of lights or else they will not show up well. A good candidate for a background is a city skyline. You have to be careful with high vantage points, however, because the fireworks can become lost in the clutter. Typically, you want to be at ground level and looking up at the fireworks so they’ll be isolated against the sky. A low angle works best for including an interesting foreground. Foregrounds can work well without lights, provided they create a good silhouette in front of the fireworks. Subjects with graphic lines, such as bridges, sailboats, and skyscrapers make great foregrounds. As a rule, you’ll want to compose so at least some of the fireworks are isolated in the sky above the foreground. Another great subject for a foreground is water, which will reflect the fireworks. Reflections make good photos regardless of the subject, but with fireworks they can really make your images stand out. Lakes, rivers, canals, and the ocean are obvious choices, but consider other possibilities such as swimming pools or wet streets. If you’re lucky enough to shoot the fireworks from your own neighborhood, you could even use a water hose to wet down your street.


Regardless of the composition you choose, be prepared to fine-tune it after the first burst occurs. Certainly, you need to determine ahead of time as best you can where and how high the lights will occur, but you should expect to do some tweaking once the show starts.


Focusing. If you know exactly where the lights are being set off, you can prefocus on an object in the same plane before the show begins. Otherwise, autofocus (or manually, if you are fast and have better eyes than I do) on the first burst and then turn autofocus off for the rest of the show. You don’t want the camera to keep trying to refocus. I go a step farther and tape the focus ring in place so I won’t accidentally move it when the action gets going. Focusing on the fireworks assumes that you do not have a close foreground that will require a lot of depth of field to be sharp. In that case, you might need to focus on the foreground or at a spot between it and the fireworks. The focus point will depend on the aperture you’re using, how close the foreground is, and how far away the fireworks are. 

Proper exposure for the fireworks comes from a combination of aperture, ISO, the brightness of the fireworks, and to a limited extent, shutter speed. Shutter speed mainly affects how many fireworks will show up in a single frame, although if you have a lighted foreground or background the shutter speed will affect that as well. There are two general approaches to exposing fireworks. The first exposure method is easier and allows you make adjustments more quickly, but the second method is necessary when the composition includes other lights.


First, if you do not have a lighted foreground or background and the only significant exposure consideration is the fireworks themselves, then the best approach is the set the shutter to bulb and during the show manually fire the shutter and leave it open until one or more bursts occur, then close the shutter and start again. For aperture, start with a setting between f/8 and f/16 and for ISO start at 100 or 200. After the first burst, quickly check the LCD and make any needed adjustments and then leave it set for the rest of the show. Some of the brightest bursts (particularly the white ones) might blow out and some of the fainter ones might be a bit underexposed, but you can’t change exposure for every burst. You have to pick something and go with it. Just be careful that your setting doesn’t overexposure the majority of the bursts, which is the biggest problem I see with fireworks images. It’s okay to have some of the core blown out of the brightest bursts, but you definitely want to see color in the rest of the lights.


Second, if there is a lighted foreground or background in the composition, you have to consider that when determining exposure. Right before the show begins, when the ambient light most closely matches the lighting during the show, determine the proper exposure for the scene based on the same starting point of ISO 100 to 200 and f/8 to f/16. The goal is to end up with a shutter speed from about 4 to 8 seconds. Set the shutter to continuous and let it rip while the show is going on. A locking cable release comes in handy here. Just as with the first exposure method, you still need to check the first burst to make sure the fireworks are exposed properly with the chosen settings, but you have to be a little more careful to make sure you do not adjust the settings so much that you severely underexpose or overexpose the rest of the scene.

Fireworks over Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, NC fireworks


Fireworks create a tremendous amount of smoke, which may or may not benefit you as the photographer. Most of the time, the smoke generated from one burst acts a distraction for the burst following it, but sometimes it will enhance the scene if the next burst illuminates it well. Wind speed and direction play a pivotal role here. Using a quicker shutter speed might help a little to keep the smoke from recording as much, but other than that there is nothing you can do about it.





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