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Seattle 4th of July Fireworks from Gas Works Park 2019

How to photograph fireworks

Millions of people take fireworks photos every year, and millions of those photos will be poor. Taking compelling fireworks photos isn’t all that difficult but takes some advanced planning and gear.

Fireworks need a tripod

If you want good photos of fireworks, you need a tripod. The average firework shell may take 1-5 seconds to burst, and you cannot hold the camera steady for that duration.

Camera for fireworks

Almost any DSLR, mirrorless, or point-and-shoot camera can be a fantastic fireworks camera, provided you have it on a tripod.

Many consumer-focused cameras even have a dedicated fireworks mode that can be useful if you are frightened away by exposure settings like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Lens for fireworks

You do not need a fancy or expensive lens to shoot awesome fireworks photos. Fireworks are sufficiently bright that shooting at an aperture of f/8 is more than sufficient and will get you optimal sharpness from most lenses.

You generally want a wide-angle lens for fireworks, especially if you are close to the show. At close range, a 24mm focal length on a full-frame camera (16mm on APS-C crop-sensor cameras) is usually wide enough, though major fireworks shows sometimes have enormous shells that still go past the edges of your frame.

Seattle 4th of July Fireworks from Gas Works Park 2019
At 24mm, the largest fireworks bursts go outside of the frame.

Zoomed-in shots can also be interesting if you feel creative or plan to operate a second camera. There can be groundworks or crowd elements that can be an opportunity to try a shot with a 70–200mm telephoto lens, for example.

Seattle 4th of July Fireworks from Gas Works Park 2018
Groundworks on Lake Union. Nikon D810, 135mm, 1.3″, f/9.0, ISO 320
Seattle Fireworks from Lake Union Park 2017
Boats on Lake Union. Nikon D810, 200mm, 8.0″, f/9.0, ISO 100

Focus for fireworks

Fireworks are bright, and most cameras can autofocus on them. The challenge is that you often trigger the camera before a fireworks burst when the sky is blank, and there is nothing to focus on, so you need to set your camera to manual focus mode.

When using a wide-angle lens, setting focus to infinity works well. Before the show begins, find a distant light or building and focus on that to set your camera at infinity focus. Then, switch your lens or camera to manual focus mode so that the autofocus motor doesn’t change the focus each time you press the shutter. You may want to bring a piece of gaffer tape to secure the lens focus ring so you don’t bump or change it.

Also, remember that if you use a zoom lens and decide to change the focal length of your shot, be sure to refocus on the scene.

If your location is very dark, here are some more tips about finding infinity focus at night.

Exposure settings for fireworks

First of all, remember to turn off your flash if your camera has one built-in. A flash will add nothing to fireworks photos other than messing up the foreground and underexposing the fireworks.

If you aren’t comfortable with manual exposure settings and your camera has a dedicated fireworks mode, go ahead and use it. If you are familiar with camera exposure settings like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, put your camera into manual exposure mode.

A reasonable aperture for most lenses is f/8. What about shutter speed and ISO?

Shutter speed is the most crucial setting here. Fireworks bursts develop over time, and some linger in the air. You want a shutter speed long enough to capture an entire burst. Shutter speeds shorter than 1 second often will give disappointing results.

New Year's fireworks at the Space Needle
Space Needle New Year’s Fireworks. Nikon D850, 70mm, 4.0″, f/8.0, ISO 100

The exact shutter speed you choose depends on the density of the fireworks show you are viewing. If you are in a city with a large and dense fireworks display, a shutter speed of 2–4 seconds will often be able to isolate some of the bursts. Longer shutter speeds, like 6–10 seconds, capture more bursts but can lead to too many bursts in one scene. For smaller fireworks shows, a longer shutter speed may improve the shot by adding more bursts into one picture.

There is no right or wrong answer to shutter speed, so feel free to experiment somewhere in the 2″-10″ range.

Given the brightness of fireworks, it is not necessary to have high ISO settings, and something like ISO 100-320 is sufficient. You want to ensure you don’t overexpose the fireworks so you don’t lose color and detail.

If you know how to read your camera’s histogram, turn it on and check that you aren’t overexposing by checking the first few shots. It is OK if the center explosion of each shell is blown out, but you don’t want to overexpose the colored trails that radiate outward.

Composing your scene

It does help to arrive early at your shooting location to get set up. It is much easier to accomplish this before the place is packed with people.

Avoid pointing your camera directly up in the sky, which leads to boring pictures. The best fireworks photos include landscape elements, whether a city skyline, buildings, trees, or crowds.

Seattle Fireworks from Lake Union Park 2017
Seattle’s Fourth of July Fireworks. Nikon D810, 70mm, 8.0″, f/9.0, ISO 100

Don’t forget about the crowd. Pictures of people enjoying the fireworks can be compelling, and it is all too easy to forget to turn around and snap a shot of people’s reactions.

4th of July fireworks at Seattle's Gasworks Park 2016
Crowd waves a flag at Seattle’s Lake Union fireworks. Nikon D810, 24mm, 5.0″, f/9.0, ISO 200

Watch out for smoke

Large fireworks displays can create a lot of smoke. Some of the best fireworks photos will be in the first minute or so before there is too much smoke.

If the air is still, there isn’t much you can do about the smoke. If there is wind, try to position yourself in an upwind shooting location so the smoke moves away from you during the show.

Seattle 4th of July Fireworks from Gas Works Park 2018
Fireworks and smoke over Seattle’s Lake Union. Nikon D850, 24mm, 1.6″, f/8.0, ISO 250

How to trigger the camera

Since you will be shooting long exposures of the fireworks, it is important not to shake the camera by pushing the shutter button. There are a few ways to avoid this:

  1. Turn on a 2-second shutter delay. Most cameras have this capability, allowing you to press the shutter button with a 2-second delay before taking the photo.
  2. Using a cable release allows you to trigger the shutter without touching the camera, and cable releases are inexpensive.
  3. Use your camera’s smartphone app. Many cameras can connect to a smartphone app via Bluetooth or WiFi, allowing you to trigger the shutter on your phone. These apps usually work well, but if you are in a crowd of thousands or tens of thousands, wireless networks can fail because there are too many other phones around.

Trying to time precisely when fireworks will burst in the sky isn’t easy or intuitive. One method is to use a cable release and keep pushing the shutter when you think the next batch of fireworks is coming. A more straightforward method is to use an intervalometer and take photos at 1″ intervals. Some cameras have this capability built-in, while others may need an intervalometer accessory.

Seattle 4th of July Fireworks from Gas Works Park 2019
Fireworks fall in front of Seattle’s Space Needle. Nikon D850, 200mm 4.0″, f/9.0, ISO 100

To maximize your chances of capturing interesting fireworks photos, take photos continuously. Most shows are 15-20 minutes long, and you will end up with a few hundred photos. Many won’t be great, but sift through them at home and discard the boring ones.

Enjoy the show

Don’t forget to enjoy the show. It is easy to get wrapped up in your camera settings, but allow yourself a few “oohs” and “ahhs.” Remember, if you don’t get the shot, there is always next year for fireworks!

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