7 Settings You'll Need to Know for Photographing Fireworks

Peggy Farren 2015-06-29

Here in Florida Fireworks are not just for holiday events. Disney World, Busch Gardens and our other major tourist attractions have turned fireworks into a nightly ritual. Photographing these magnificent displays often leads to disappointing results when you trust your camera to get things right. Fortunately, successful fireworks photography is easy to do and simple to learn.

As with most types of photography, photographing fireworks requires being in the right location, having the proper equipment, and knowing the appropriate techniques. The right location can make or break the success of the evening’s photo shoot. Fireworks create a great deal of smoke. You need to be upwind of the fireworks display or it may be hidden in a cloud of smoke. Check the weather and learn the predicted prevailing wind direction for the time of the fireworks display.

An interesting foreground can add visual interest to fireworks photos. The Disney Castle, people on a beach or lawn, a fishing pier, and many other objects can make a great foreground. Go early so you have plenty of time to decide on the best location. Farther back is usually better. You don’t want to be shooting up at the fireworks. Make sure that your view is unobstructed by utility poles and wires or people standing in front of you.

Equipment requirements are fairly simple. You will need a camera capable of shooting in a full manual mode and a tripod. The lens needed is determined by how far you expect to be from the fireworks display. Typically, a lens with a wide to normal field of view, 18mm-55mm for most consumer DSLRs, is about right. A tripod is a necessity since you will be shooting long exposures. For sharper images, use a cable release or phone app to trigger the camera without touching it. Long exposures put heavy demand on your camera’s battery. Having a spare battery and making sure your batteries are fully charged will ensure that your camera is still running when the grand finale takes place.

Once you’ve found the perfect location and your camera is firmly mounted on a tripod you can focus on what camera settings to use. You are attempting to photograph brilliant streaks of colored fire against a dark background. Your camera’s metering system is not set up for this type of shot and will grossly overexpose it. To capture the streaks of light made as the fireworks burn you need a slow shutter speed and to retain color in the streaks you need a low ISO setting and a small f/ stop. Your camera’s autofocus system will also have a great deal of difficulty getting a focus lock. This can cause you to miss the shot or have it out of focus.

lens to infinity
Lens set to infinity

To overcome these problems you will need to manually set all the camera controls. Start with autofocus. Turn it off. Then turn your lens’s focus control to infinity.

Auto white balance works well most of the time. For more consistent color shot after shot set the white balance to daylight, or cloudy if you prefer a warmer color cast. Next set your IS0 to 100. On some camera’s ISO 200 is as low as you can go. Use ISO 200 if this is the case.

Next, set your camera to manual exposure mode. On DSLR’s that is the M on the mode dial. On other camera’s you may need to go into the menu to change from Program to Manual. Next set your aperture. Fireworks can vary in intensity. Start with f/11. Use f/16 if you are at ISO 200. Next choose your shutter speed. You will want to leave the shutter open long enough to capture the full burst from start to finish. If you can fire your camera remotely use the B (bulb) setting. Then you can open the shutter and close it at the end of the burst. You can also leave the shutter open for multiple bursts. If you don’t have a Bulb shutter speed setting choose a shutter speed long enough to capture the burst. ½ second is a good starting point. This usually appears as 0“5. The shutter speed is the first number from the left as you look through your viewfinder.

overexposed fireworks
If the fireworks are overexposed, "stop down" your aperture to a smaller aperture such as f/16.

Check your images after you photograph the first couple of bursts. If the light trails are mostly white and lack color choose a smaller f/ stop, which is larger number such as F/16.

If they are too dark open up your aperture more - to F/8. Once you have gotten some shots you are happy with, experiment a little. If the bursts are close together, leave the shutter open for several bursts. Watch that you don’t leave the shutter open too long or the background will no longer appear black. One way around this is the “hat trick”. Leave the shutter open after the first burst but cover the lens with a hat or cloth. Then remove the hat during each successive burst you want to include in the final photo.

Settings for great fireworks photos:

  • Camera in manual (M) mode
  • Flash off
  • Autofocus off, lens set to infinity
  • Daylight or Cloudy White Balance
  • ISO 100
  • Aperture f/11
  • Shutter Speed – Bulb or 1/2 second or longer

~Joe Fitzpatrick is an experienced and well respected professional photographer who has consistently created award winning images. He is one of that rare breed of photographers who possesses both a vast array of technical knowledge and the ability to communicate it in clear, simple terms.

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