How to shoot awesome fireworks photos

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

Millions of people will be taking photos of fireworks this week, and millions of those photos will be poor. Taking compelling pictures of fireworks is relatively easy but does take a little bit of 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.

In general, you want a wide-angle lens for fireworks. I shoot the enormous fireworks show on Seattle’s Lake Union every year, and I use a 24mm focal length on a full-frame camera, which translates into a 16mm lens on an APS-C crop-sensor camera. I am usually very close to the show at these wide focal lengths.

The focal length depends on how far away you are from the show, but every time I shoot the fireworks, I underestimate just how tall the largest shells are and find myself zooming out.

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

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 pretty bright, and most cameras have no problems auto-focusing on them. The challenge is that you may 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. Consider bringing 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, use it. If you are familiar with camera exposure settings like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, put your camera into manual exposure mode.

I generally shoot fireworks at an aperture of f/8. What about shutter speed and ISO?

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

I have shot ~10 fireworks shows over the past years and have experimented with various shutter speeds. 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.

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

I’ve also shot as long as 6–10 seconds, capturing many more bursts in the scene. In very dense fireworks shows, this can lead to too many bursts in the shot, which may or may not be what you are after. A longer shutter speed in smaller shows may improve the shot by adding more bursts into one picture.

There is no right or wrong answer to shutter speed, and I encourage you 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 should be sufficient. You want to make sure that you don’t overexpose the fireworks. Here is a rundown of the exposure settings I’ve used for the past few shows:

  1. 1.6 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 250
  2. 8.0 seconds, f/9.0, ISO 100
  3. 6.0 seconds, f/9.0, ISO 200
  4. 4.0 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 100
  5. 10.0 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 100

If you know how to read your camera’s histogram, turn it on, and you can check that you aren’t overexposing by checking the first few shots. It is OK if the center explosion of each firework is blown out on your histogram.

Composing your shot

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.

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.

4th of July Fireworks - Seattle 2015
4th of July Fireworks over Seattle’s Lake Union 2015. Nikon D750, 24mm, 6.0″, f/5.6, ISO 100

Remember 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. I was annoyed by the woman in front of me wildly waving the flag in this photo, but she made the picture more interesting.

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.

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

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.

How to trigger the camera

Since you will be shooting long exposures of the fireworks, avoid shaking the camera by pushing the shutter button. There are a few ways to prevent this:

  1. Turn on a 2-second shutter delay. The picture will be taken 2 seconds after you press the shutter.
  2. Use a cable release. This 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, which usually works well. Still, if you are in a crowd of thousands or tens of thousands of people, wireless networks can fail because there are too many other phones around. I recommend this only if you test it with a crowd present.

Trying to time precisely when fireworks will burst in the sky isn’t easy or intuitive. I used a cable release for many years and kept pushing the shutter repeatedly when I thought the next batch of fireworks was coming. You will take a few hundred photos, and many won’t be great, but this maximizes your potential to capture interesting ones.

4th of July fireworks at Seattle's Gasworks Park 2016
Fireworks fall in front of Seattle’s Space Needle. Nikon D810, 70mm (cropped), 6.0″, f/9.0, ISO 200

For the last couple of fireworks shows I photographed, I used the intervalometer on my camera to take shots at 1″ intervals, allowing me to enjoy the show without pressing the shutter. Some cameras have this capability built-in, while others may need an intervalometer accessory.

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!