A good fireworks photo can be quite striking, but it can also be a very tough shot to get. While many cameras now have a Fireworks scene mode, taking a little bit of time to configure your camera manually will get you better-quality photos. And you don’t need to bring an interchangeable lens camera (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt), but you will need a model with manual controls. Follow these tips, and you’ll get great shots that would impress even the founding fathers.
#1: Bring a Tripod
While it’s easy to get a sharp photo of fireworks without a tripod, bringing one with you will allow you to get a little more creative. It lets you use a longer shutter speed and gives you the flexibility to position the camera at an angle that might be uncomfortable for you to hold. If you’re worried about space or shooting at a venue where a larger tripod is verboten, consider something like a Gorillapod—these compact camera supports have flexible legs that can wrap around trees and other objects to help steady your shots.
#2: Turn Off That Flash
Fireworks are very bright, and using your camera’s flash won’t do anything to help your shot. If you’re using a point-and-shoot, the button with the lightning bolt will bring up a menu to control the flash—switch it to the Off position. If you’re using an SLR, simply lowering the flash and setting the camera to Manual mode will keep it from going off.
#3: Set ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Manually
Here’s where the tripod is going to come in handy. To get a nice exposure, you’re actually going to want to let just a little bit of light into the camera for a longer period of time. This lets you capture the full effect of the fireworks through the motion of light. You’ll probably have to experiment a little bit to get the look you want, but start with ISO 100 and set your lens to f/8 with a one-second shutter speed.
The scene I was shooting on the 4th involved some lit buildings, and I varied settings a bit depending on the type of look I wanted to get. Shooting at ISO 200 at f/11 with a 1.6-second exposure netted the image at the top of this story, which preserved some shadows on the structure, but I shot a few at f/8 with a 2-second exposure to give the structure a more saturated, painted look. You can stop the lens down even further if you want a longer exposure, which will allow you to capture multiple bursts in one shot.
If your camera has a Bulb exposure mode, which keeps the shutter open as long as you hold the release down, you can also use that to better time your shots. A shutter release cable or a wireless remote will come in handy when working in Bulb mode, so bring it. If you don’t have one, or are using a compact camera, just be careful not to jostle it too much when tripping the shutter.
#4: Find Your Spot and Frame Your Shot
The fireworks themselves are sure to steal the show, but for a really great shot you’ll want to have something else in the frame as well. If you’re in a city, try and frame the skyline or a landmark toward the bottom of your photo, showing the fireworks going off above it. I captured some of the shots in this article at the SteelStacks complex in Bethlehem, Pa. It was my first time attending that show and, in retrospect, I could have found a better spot had I known exactly where the display was going to appear in the sky, but the dramatic lighting of the abandoned steel mill went a long way to save my photos.
But not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to have such a dramatic manmade structure in front of the light show. If you’re in a more natural environment, try and find a display over a lake or river, as the reflections of the show in the water can add drama. Things can get a little tricky if you’re out in a park or another rural area. Approach framing the fireworks as you would a landscape—if you can get a good balance of ground and sky, perhaps showing fellow spectators, you can add a bit to your shot. Don’t be afraid to change as the show goes on—zooming in for some tight shots of the light show will make your series more interesting. But it might be tricky to get up and move, as the displays are often over more quickly than you realize. Alternatively, you could try using a telephoto lens and work on getting tight, abstract images.
#5: Try New Things
Sure the fireworks themselves are breathtaking, but you can try some different techniques to keep things interesting. If you’re shooting with a manual zoom lens, you can adjust the focal length during the exposure, which can result in some crazy light trails like in the shot below. You may also want to try breaking some of these rules; shooting a long exposure handheld can result in blurry, trippy results—I just wouldn’t recommend doing it for the entirety of the show.
#6: Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, But Don’t Forget to Curate
Bring a big memory card and take as many shots as you can manage—but don’t just go and put them all online. Toss out the ones that aren’t as good, and apply some cropping as necessary to the ones you want to share with the world. Twenty excellent shots will leave more of an impression than 100 so-so photos. If you’ve got an SLR and like to shoot Raw images, you’ll undoubtedly spend some time post-processing—which will let you darken the sky for increased contrast and bring out details in the shadows that may otherwise be lost.
#7: But What About My Phone?
Smartphone cameras have improved by leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. But don’t expect them to capture firework photos that wow you like a long exposure SLR shot (like the ones in this story).
If you have a recent flagship smartphone, something like the iPhone 8 or Galaxy S9 or newer, you have a camera in your pocket that, minus zoom, is quite capable. But fireworks are tough for phones. Their cameras are designed for low-light and quick shots—you can’t stop down the aperture, it’s always fixed at its widest.
That puts the long exposure method we recommend for SLRs and mirrorless cameras out of the picture. So vary your technique a bit. Enable HDR on your phone if you have it. And if you have manual shooting controls, set the ISO to the lowest setting and the shutter speed to something short enough to hand hold. You’re going to have to play around with this based on the type of phone you have, but start at 1/60-second and experiment until you get a dark sky and colorful firework bursts. Speaking of bursts, if your phone has a burst shooting mode use it—it’s going to be tough to time the perfect moment when shooting without multi-second exposures. With some care, practice, and probably a little editing, you’ll get something suitable for Instagram.
If you don’t have manual shutter and ISO controls available, things get really tricky. Some phones let you set your light meter on a specific part of the scene by touching—with the iPhone you can touch and drag the focus box to separate metering and autofocus. Lock onto something bright and, if you can, lock the exposure settings in. This will prevent your phone from trying to brighten the dark sky around the fireworks. It’s also not a bad idea to opt for 4K video recording if your phone has it—each frame is 8MP in size and you can certainly pull one out that is suitable for social sharing.