10 Tips to Tell Your Novice Photography Friends on How to Shoot Fireworks

As a Shutterbug reader, you know how to shoot fireworks. But what do you say to your friends and kinfolk when they ask you for advice? Simple—just send them the link to this article. It’s a nice, relatively short list of 10 tips for photographing aerial pyrotechnics. Because, after all, there’s more to fireworks than what meets the sky.

1. Location is everything. Unless you have a clear and unobstructed view of the sky, you can’t get a good shot. Arrive at the venue well before dark to be sure there are no trees in your way. If you’re sitting on the grass, take the higher ground so that those who arrive after you do not block your view.

2. Bring a tripod that can be used comfortably whether you sit or stand. Under some circumstances, the LCD monitor on your camera may be difficult to see when the fireworks detonate, so consider doing a Mathew Brady and use a dark cloth draped over the camera to block out extraneous light. Just make sure you don’t obstruct the lens in the process.

3. Fireworks are bright, so don’t be tricked into using a high ISO. Use an initial ISO setting of 400 and experiment with ISO settings of 800 and 200, and other ISO settings, too. Remember—there is no single way fireworks “are supposed to look.” Some people like streaks, others like flashes. Experiment.

4. Turn the camera’s built-in flash OFF. This setting is generally indicated by the circle-slash-lighting bolt icon. Don’t worry; if you run into Elvis gobbling a hot dog over at the refreshment stand you can always turn the flash back on.

5. Set the camera on manual and the f/stop to the largest setting (remember, that’s the smallest number, like f2.8 or f3.5). Set the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second for starters. Later you’ll shoot at 1/30, and 1/15 settings until you find the right combination. If you’re quick you can shoot two or three shots of each burst of fireworks, and if you’re really quick you can change shutter speeds on the fly. Use the LCD monitor to judge whether or not you’ve achieved proper exposure. When you do, continue to shoot at that combination. And always keep in mind that fireworks are much brighter than you think they should be. In other words, err on the side of under exposure and you’ll probably be right.

No manual settings? Then you’ll have to shoot on Auto. The only way you can adjust the camera is by increasing and decreasing the ISO setting. If your camera selects a shutter speed that’s too long (like one-half second) your image will be a whitish, burned-out mess of streaks. Begin with the highest possible ISO setting and work your way down.

Nikon D300S with Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD SP AF, f4 at 1/60 sec, ISO400 (C) Jon Sienkiewicz

6. No need for autofocus here. If your camera has Manual Focus, Landscape Mode or forced Infinity Focus setting, you’re in luck. If not, you’ll probably still be okay, but you may lose some time while the autofocus servo motors scoot the lens in and out, looking for somewhere to lock focus. They usually default at infinity, but you could miss a shot or two.

7. All photography requires a good sense of timing, and fireworks photography even more so. Anticipate the flash point and trip the shutter so that it’s open during the peak brilliance of the explosion. Light travels faster than sound, so you’ll see the flash before you hear it.

8. Some cameras work with an infrared remote release that allows you to trigger the camera without touching it. Some other manufacturers offer this as an optional accessory, and a few cameras use old-fashioned wired releases. Touching the camera, even when it’s on a tripod, transfers movement that can appear as unsharpness in the picture. If you must press the shutter release button by hand, do it ever so gently.

9. Once you have a few great shots in the can, zoom back and/or otherwise change the composition to include some of the crowd in the picture. Silhouettes against a fireworks-lighted sky always look great, and some buildings can look dramatic, too. If you’re lucky enough to be watching fireworks launched over water, include some reflections. If at a baseball stadium, catch part of the scoreboard to add a sense of venue.

10. Fireworks are small explosions. The package that carries the explosive continues to burn on its way to the ground, leaving a trail of sparks and smoke. Because these are in freefall, they move at the whim of prevailing winds. Watch which way the wind is blowing, and if practical, have the wind at your back. It will blow the debris away from your view and you’ll get better results.

Here’s a rapid burst of common sense tips to finish it off.  Don’t set your camera down on the ground (as in wet grass) or it may become damaged. Since you’ll be running the LCD monitor continuously for up to thirty minutes, bring a spare battery if you have one. Buy a spare battery if you don’t have one. The high ISO settings will cause image noise to appear in your otherwise perfect pictures. This can be removed in post-processing. Bring a small flashlight—the Mini-Maglite type is perfect. Don’t forget that most of the action is on the ground. Shoot candid shots of the revelers, flags, set-up crew, etc. There’s much more to fireworks events than what meets the sky. Many times the end of the performance is signaled by a rapid fire barrage of white concussion rockets. Although they’re not at all colorful, they still make interesting pictures—especially because they illuminate so much of the ground below them.

—Jon Sienkiewicz