By Andrew Tower
Summer means long days and warm nights, hamburger cookouts and sunscreen, pool lounging and ice-cold drinks. The peak of summer for me has always been the Fourth of July. Ever since I was a kid, I looked forward to grilling up some hot dogs and anxiously awaiting the evening’s fireworks show. From the subtle trail they leave after being shot from the earth to the spidery tendrils of light that burst at their crescendo, fireworks are dazzling. Starry-eyed and open-mouthed, lying on my back in the grass and absorbing the light show is tip-top of my summer checklist every year.
But capturing the event in photos can be a tricky, confusing process. Before I started working as a copywriter for SmugMug, I wasn’t regularly able to lean on the expertise of so many fantastic photographers like Head of Product, Aaron Meyers, who authored the pro tips below. If I had, I may not have spent the entirety of one New Year’s fireworks show adjusting, fixing, and panicking as I ruined shot after shot after shot with my ineptitude. My confidence was shattered as the finale began and I hadn’t taken one decent picture of the fireworks. With time running out, I made a few more adjustments and managed to snag one great photo as the very last firework took flight.
I want to save you from suffering the same fate, so I’ve put together a little step by step guide complete with my failed attempts to help illustrate the pitfalls and best practices for your very own fireworks photoshoot.
1. Get a tripod.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t believe how many people you’ll see holding their digital cameras trying to capture the light show without a steady vantage. Fireworks are bright to our eyes, but the long exposure required to capture them clearly and in all their glory necessitates a solid, unmoving camera.
I wasn’t shooting with the camera in my hands, but I didn’t have a tripod and the upturned trashcan I was using instead wasn’t quite working as you can see from this blur-fest.
Pro tip: If possible, use a remote. It will cut down on small movements caused by manually taking a photo. Sounds minimal, but accidental blur happens no matter how careful you are.
If you have a general idea where the fireworks will be exploding, take some time to frame your images before it begins. Take special note of foreground to ensure nothing will obstruct your direct view of the fireworks. If you’re not trying to capture a specific landmark and want the fireworks to be the main focus of your image, try to find a location where you can shoot with an empty foreground. Pay special attention to the moon’s stage and position. The moon’s light can drastically alter your ability to capture both the fireworks and foreground if you’re trying to include it in your image.
What was I even aiming for? Poor framing didn’t even allow for the entirety of the firework in the image plus I chopped off part of a house.
Pro tip: If you’re photographing in a city, try to find a high vantage point that looks down on the city while also capturing the fireworks. If you’re at a beach, look for landmarks like a pier or natural elements like a tree to use to frame the photo.
Because fireworks can and will burst in any direction, you’ll want to shoot at a higher aperture. Speed will be sacrificed in your exposures by letting less light in, but your depth of field will accommodate a broader focal area and help keep your images sharp. It will be a fully manual process, so you’ll want to change your camera into “manual” mode and set the aperture somewhere around F6–F12. Adjust and tweak to let more or less light into your shots depending on how bright the fireworks are.
Notice how neither the house nor the firework burst is in focus, but the hill behind them is slightly more in focus. The tight depth of field made it almost impossible to get right, so nothing turned out sharp.
Pro tip: Prime lenses (fixed focal length lenses) can often be found with apertures that go as low as F1.4 or F1.8. With such a wide aperture, capturing the bright lights of fireworks in the night sky will be much easier, but it will narrow your depth of field and be trickier to maintain overall sharpness.
Your autofocus probably won’t be able to find the right length in the dark, so focusing will likely be a manual process as well. Your focusing ring should have an infinity option that looks like ∞. After switching your lens from autofocus to manual focus, turn the focus ring to infinity and take a practice shot. Depending on the distance you are from your fireworks display, you may need to adjust the focus ring to slightly less than infinity to keep everything in focus. The higher aperture setting and bigger depth of field are more forgiving but take practice shots until you’re happy with the clarity and focus of your images.
See? Just bad. Unfortunately, I have way too many of these examples from this shoot.
Pro tip: Set your focus using autofocus before it gets too dark. Focusing at night can be hard and trying to get focus in the half a second the firework bursts and gives off enough light will be hard. Once you’ve found the focus, switch the camera to manual focus and let it be.
In an ideal world, we’d always have enough light to shoot the sharpest images, but with fireworks, as with many nighttime shoots, that’s not always the case. Of course depending on the moon, the stars, light pollution, and your proximity to the fireworks you’re shooting, you’ll have to adjust accordingly. If you jack your ISO up too much, your images will be overexposed and may be unfit for printing or very grainy when blown up to bigger sizes. If you leave it too low you’ll end up with dark images that don’t show off the incredible fireworks.
Notice the grain on the left image, shot at ISO3200. When blown up for print that grain will severely detract from your image. On the right at ISO640, the sky is much more clear and grain-free.
Pro tip: Adjust ISO often throughout the fireworks display. As smoke fills the air, it’ll catch the light and brighten the scene. As a result, you’ll need to turn down the ISO. As the smoke clears away, turn the ISO back up. For the finale, you’ll want to turn the ISO back down.
When shooting fireworks, the shutter speed can make or break a potentially great photo. We see and remember fireworks as dazzling explosions with brightly colored tendrils of light streaming toward the earth, but what your camera will see if your shutter is too fast, is just a single moment within that firework’s life in the sky. You’ll end up with a brightly lit photo and a polka dotted sky of firework sparks. Capturing the stream of light from the initial explosion through to a firework’s end requires a shutter speed as long as that firework is lit and in the air, typically 2-4 second exposures.
Look ma, no tails! Not only is it out of focus, but since the shutter speed was only about ⅙ second, I only managed to capture a short bit of the firework tendrils’ paths. Turns out pretty lackluster.
Pro tip: Set your camera to BULB mode and either hold the shutter down or use a remote shutter. Start pressing the shutter when the firework is launching, then let go when it’s exploded in the shape you want to capture. Adjust ISO/aperture as needed to get the right exposure.
7. Putting it all together and shooting!
Shoot throughout the entire fireworks show, constantly taking images and checking them. Review the histogram and look at the clipping to make sure you’re not blowing out the photo. Try to time your shots when you hear the firework ignition so you can capture the entirety of the explosion. Every fireworks location and vantage point will be different so be ready to adjust your camera on the fly as you review the images you’re capturing. With any luck, when you get home and have a chance to edit, you’ll end up with the perfect fireworks shot. (And hopefully for you, it won’t be the very last image you took during the show.) Happy shooting!
Ooooohhh! Ahhhhh! This was literally the last firework of the entire show. Somehow I managed to frame it correctly including the scene around the firework, expose the background and foreground without being distracting, and catch the bright beautiful tails of the firework.
Pro tip: If you have access to photo editing software, you’ll get a lot more out of your photos in the editing process if you can shoot in RAW as opposed to hi-res jpgs. It will allow you to bring out more colors and brighten dark skies and stars while processing.
Andrew Tower is a copywriter at SmugMug in Mountain View and loves night photography despite struggling with it immensely.
Big thanks to Aaron Meyers who provided technical review and pro tips for this article. He is Head of Product for SmugMug and credits his firework photography as his foot in the door.