The Secrets of Shooting Fireworks

Taking pictures of fireworks has always thrilled me! I remember the first time I attempted doing this with a Minolta film point and shoot. With visions of what I’d seen in newspapers and magazines, I recall my disappointment and bewilderment when the prints came back showing only blur and blah. There had to be a better way!

First try at fireworks

I tried again with Dad’s film SLR one year, and then with the Canon 20D the next. Every time the 4th of July rolled around, I was out shooting with a camera. Every post-4th-of-July, I would tell myself that there had to be a better way. As each year passed, I considered different aspects of the art, modifying my formula to heighten the odds of getting a greater percentage of “good ones” the next year.

Well, now I think it is time to share what I’ve learned from all these years of experience and trial and error. Really, it is quite simple. To start off, you just need three things:

  1. A steady place to set the camera (preferably a tripod)
  2. A camera that supports custom shutter-speed (“bulb” on an SLR)
  3. A remote shutter release (not necessary, but extremely helpful)

Waiting for the show to begin Imagine you are now at the park right after dusk for the last 4th of July celebration. The place is bustling with excited crowds of people and the cool, damp grass complements the warm, summer air. All your camera equipment is set up and ready to go. Now you just need to set the camera’s exposure. With exposure mode set to Manual (M):

  1. Set the aperture to f/11
  2. Set the shutter-speed to “bulb”
  3. Set the ISO to 100

The calm before the storm The hour for the firework show is drawing closer; the crowds are hushed; the lights around you flicker off one by one. The only light around is the lonely moon hanging in the vast expanse above you. There isn’t much time left. With your exposure set, there are only three things left to do:

  1. Choose a wide angle lens (but one that will not include the horizon)
  2. Set the white balance to Tungsten (or 2800K)
  3. Focus on a distant object, and then set the focus to Manual

The fireworks have begun! The fireworks have begun! Without zooming in or out, click and hold the shutter release button from when the firework leaves the ground to when the last bits of fire peters out after it’s glorious burst. If the circumstances are the same as they have always been for me, you will have a magnificent, stunning, and satisfactory image of the most explosive piece of artwork created by man!

But this is only where the creativity begins! Once you’ve mastered shooting single bursts, there are endless possibilities of making your work distinctive and extra-awe-inspiring. Here are a few ideas:

  • Allow multiple blasts in the same image by simply keeping the shutter open longer.

Multiple blasts in the same frame (without using Photoshop)

  • Allow blasts to enter at different places of your image by slightly panning the camera to the right or to the left between bursts.

Two fireworks in two different locations because the camera was moved between the blasts

  • Create weird effects with zooming. Just be aware that you will have to re-focus.

The weird effect of zooming

  • Include objects in the foreground. They will be silhouetted against the fireworks.

Silhouetted foreground objects

  • Include illuminated objects in the foreground by firing a flash at the beginning of the exposure (unless they are already illuminated).

Illuminated foreground objects

  • Use a telephoto lens instead of a wide angle lens to allow focus on abstract patterns within the firework itself.

Close up and dramatic!

  • Catch only the end of the blast, creating the “spiky ball” effect.

The Spiky Ball

  • See how you can incorporate colored smoke in the composition.

Colored smoke

  • Increase or decrease the aperture to create thinner or thicker lines.

Super thick lines

  • Increase the ISO to lighten up the sky.

You never know what the result will be; the camera sees things completely different than our eyes will ever see.

Just as taking pictures of fireworks is thrilling, taking time to read the Bible is also thrilling! Recently, I memorized Proverbs 3:3, “Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart.” In the same way that the light of a firework burns a stroke of light through the wide open shutter and onto the camera’s sensor, I picture the bright light of God’s truth being written upon my heart as I read and re-read His truth in the quite times of devotion. May you think about God’s Word and it’s impact on your heart every time you see a firework display!

6 Comments

  1. Joshua July 25, 2009 at 7:35 pm #

    Thank you James for taking the time to put this up. I’m sure our team of budding photographers will find this post to be very helpful!

  2. Daniel Staddon July 27, 2009 at 11:41 am #

    Wow! What a difference between the first one and the others!! I never would have guessed there would be so much to shooting fireworks. Nor would I have ever thought of moving the camera to catch multiple blasts in one picture. My favorite was the fifth from the last. Incredible!

  3. Robert July 27, 2009 at 11:40 pm #

    Amazing, James! This was a very instructive and fascinating tutorial on shooting fireworks. I’d like to try it out next 4th!

  4. Mom August 11, 2009 at 9:11 am #

    I too am amazed at the difference in the first photograph compared with the others. This definitely heightens my appreciation for your fireworks pictures.

  5. Polprav October 11, 2009 at 2:43 pm #

    Hello from Russia

  6. James November 3, 2016 at 7:41 am #

    Thank you Jed! I’ve learned a lot about photography since 2009 and moved most of my work over to Lenspiration.com. Have you ever tried to shoot fireworks?

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