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Posted by on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 in General

How to Photograph Fireworks


Fireworks over Dana Point Harbor Copyright © 2014 Charles Laumann,

Everyone loves to photograph fireworks! No matter whether it’s the 4th of July here in the United States or celebrating New Years around the world, we all love the color and sound of those pyrotechnics. So I have put together this how to guide for photographing those beautiful explosions in the sky.

Here’s what covered in this guide:


• Equipment You’ll Need

• Planning Your Location

• Camera Settings

• Capturing Your Images


Even though this guide is primarily written for DSLRs, much of this can also apply to using the premium compact cameras such as the Canon PowerShot G16 and the Nikon Coolpix P7800.

Equipment You’ll Need

Cable Release – I recommend one that plugs into the camera. If your camera came with a wireless one, I suggest that you test it out first to see if there is any shutter lag (the time between when your press the button and the shutter fires). To do this, mount your camera on a tripod, set your camera to manual focus, focus on an object and then see if there is a delay. If there is, you may not get the photos you’re hoping for.

Tripod – You will need a sturdy tripod. This is essential! To see if it is sturdy enough, mount your camera and lens onto your tripod, then tap on it and see if it sways or vibrates. If it does you may need a sturdier tripod. You can try hanging some weight from the center column and see if this helps. To verify this, attach a cable release to your camera and take a few long exposure test shots, about 10 to 15 seconds. How do they look they look on your computer? Any motion blur due to movement of the camera or tripod vibration?

Lenses – Try both a wide angle zoom and a telephoto use, depending upon your location and how you want to frame photos in your camera.

Bubble level for camera – I recommend using a camera bubble level in the hotshoe to help keep your photos square with the horizon and the foreground. Looking through the viewfinder in the dark can become a little disorienting.

Watch with timer function – This will help you time your exposure. If you use your smartphone or similar device, make sure the brightness is turned down so it doesn’t affect your ability to see in the dark or bother those around you.

Headlamp or hand held flashlight – If you use either of these, add a red gel or cellophane over the lens. By changing the color to red, you will not affect your night vision and the people around you will greatly appreciate this.


Planning Your Location

You may want to do your location planning well in advance so you know what to expect. That way you’ll have fun creating your images rather than being frustrated in not getting the photos you want.

First, find out where they are going to be setting off the fireworks. How long will the show last last? When scouting your location, take your camera and lenses with you. See if you can to find a good unobstructed view. Don’t tresspass on private property and please respect the rights of others. If you’re going to photograph the show in a city park or in a metropolitan area check to see if you can you use a tripod. Do you need a permit? Chances are you won’t but it’s worth the phone call to keep yourself safe and out of trouble. A word of warning for those of you who are thinking of using a tripod on Disney property, including their parking structures. You’re out of luck. It’s not allowed and they will ask you to leave. I know. It happened to me at Disneyland in Anaheim.

Try to find a location that will be upwind of where they will be setting off the fireworks. You don’t want to be downwind and having the smoke block your view. If you’re in southern California along the coast, the breeze blows inland from the ocean at night.

Next, look at what’s in the foreground and background. Do you want to photograph just the burst in the sky or do you want include the local scene in your photographs. Look through the viewfinder and provide some extra space for your image. You don’t want skyrockets flying out of your photograph and taking the viewer’s eye with them. All of this will help you chose the lenses you may want to use.

If you’ve selected your location days prior to the event, plan on getting to your location early so you don’t have to deal with the crowds. Take a comfy lawn chair, a small soft sided cooler with something to drink and eat, you may be waiting quite a while before the show begins. Also consider taking either your smartphone or tablet with earphones to help you pass the time.

Camera Settings

Ok, you got to your location early, people are starting to arrive and the sun is getting low in the sky, Time to start getting your camera ready. You want to have your camera and tripod setup well before the fireworks begin. You want to avoid rushing and making mistakes that can ruin your photos.

• Make sure that your camera is set in manual mode, the auto settings will not help you out at all and will only frustrate you.
• If your camera has a built in flash, make sure it’s turned off.
• Set your ISO to 160 for Canon cameras. For Nikons and other brands try setting set them at 100 or 200. Using a low ISO will give you less noise in your image and will provide you with a better exposure.
• Set your aperture between f8 and f16. I find that f8 is a reasonable place to start. Use your aperture to control your depth of field and exposure.
• Set your shutter speed to “bulb.” This mode will keep your shutter open as long has you hold down the button on your cable release.
• Set your camera to manual focus. If left in auto focus, your camera may search endlessly for something to focus on in the dark.
• Attach your cable release.

Capturing Your Image

With your camera set you’re ready to start creating your photographs.

• First manually focus on a distant object or set your lens to the mark just in front of the infinity symbol.
• Frame up your shot, remember to give a little extra space around your subject.
• When you hear the skyrocket launch, press down on the shutter release and hold it down till after it explodes. This may be between 4 to 10 seconds, then release the shutter. This should show the path of the skyrocket and the explosion against the dark night sky.
• To record multiple explosions open your shutter and place a piece of black foam core or black cardboard in front of the lens in between the bursts. This will layer multiple fireworks on to one photo.

Experiment with different exposures, some longer, some shorter. Get as many shots as you can before the smoke begins to fill the sky. Don’t keep the shutter open too long though, fireworks are bright and you don’t want to over expose them, especially when there are multiple bursts going off in the same part of the sky.

I hope that you enjoy photographing the fireworks and let us know how they turned out.

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