Photographing Fireworks

A fireworks exhibition in Las Vegas

Fireworks’ displays are the highlight of many celebrations in the United States. Cities feature these amazing light shows on New Year’s Eve, centennial events, and most notably, the 4th of July. Their various patterns and colors against the night background can produce stunning visual photographs – images that you can capture by following these easy steps:

Use a tripod and shutter release to keep the camera steady.
Set the ISO at 100-400 and the exposure on manual. (F/8 -11 is a good starting point at ISO 100).
Turn off the auto focus to prevent your lens from searching for a focus point in the black sky, and manually focus at infinity.
Turn off the lens stabilization; it doesn’t work well on a tripod.
Don’t use a wide lens or the bursts will appear very small in your frame.
Watch your framing, the fireworks usually explode higher than you think. It’s also nice to include buildings or vistas in the shot for scale and depth.

And now the big secret: lock your shutter open and hold a black card in front of your lens. When you see a good burst of color, remove the black card for a couple of seconds, then hold the black card over your lens again. Remove the card when you see another burst. Repeat this process of removing the card and releasing the shutter until you feel you have gotten a good set of bursts on that one frame. Usually three to five bursts per frame are enough.

Since fireworks are set off in very quick bursts, your shutter only needs to be open from 20-60 seconds to capture them. You can avoid delays in shooting your next frame by turning off the camera’s long exposure noise reduction. (See my previous blog on night photography to learn more about noise reduction) It is important to shoot as much as you can at the beginning of the fireworks’ display. As the show goes on, smoke builds up from the explosions, which gives the sky a hazy look.

Enjoy the spectacle and have a safe celebration.


3 thoughts on “Photographing Fireworks

  1. Pingback: Fourth of July in New York « National Geographic Photographer Ira Block Photography Blog

  2. i’ve shot a lot of fireworks using this technique, but i never seem to get enough of the ‘explosion’ i want – the trail of the rocket. also, i never heard before that lens stabilization doesnt work well on a tripod. i leave mine on all the time. write and let me know? thanks


    • for the fireworks explosion you need to play around with f stop and ISO to obtain the richest color saturation. A lens stabilizer is like a small gyro built into the lens, and if it the lens is locked down on the tripod the gyro is fighting with the lens. At slow shutter speeds you will see movement in the photos as the lens is vibrating and moving against the internal gyro. Some lens manufacturers have the lenses set to shut stabilization off when it senses the lens is on a tripod. I suggest you turn it off when on a tripod, but more importantly remember to turn it on again when you are working with the lens hand held.

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