How to Shoot Fireworks


With Independence Day being celebrated here in the U.S. on the Fourth of July, I usually do a quick post on how to photograph Fireworks (which is a traditional part of the 4th of July celebration here). I’m posting the technique that I included on page 175 of my book, “The Digital Photography Book.” Here we go:

This is another one that throws a lot of people (one of my best friends, who didn’t get a single crisp fireworks shot on the Fourth of July, made me including this tip just for him, and the thousands of other digital shooters that share his pain).

For starters, you’ll need to shoot fireworks with your camera on a tripod, because you’re going to need a slow enough shutter speed to capture the falling light trails, which is what you’re really after.

Also, this is where using a cable release really pays off, because you’ll need to see the rocket’s trajectory to know when to push the shutter button—if you’re looking in the viewfinder instead, it will be more of a hit or miss proposition.

Next, use a zoom lens (ideally a 200mm or more) so you can get in tight and capture just the fireworks themselves. If you want fireworks and the background (like fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World), then use a wider lens.

Now, I recommend shooting in full Manual mode, because you just set two settings and you’re good to go:

  1. Set the Shutter Speed to 4 seconds
  2. Set the Aperture to f/11. Fire a test shot and look at the LCD monitor on the back of your camera to see if you like the results. If it overexposes, lower the shutter speed to 3 seconds, then take another shot and check the results again.

TIP: If your camera has “Bulb” mode (where the shutter stays open as long as you hold down the shutter release button down), this works great–hold the shutter button down when the rocket bursts, then release when the light trails start to fade. (By the way; most Canon and Nikon digital SLRs have bulb mode). The rest is timing—because now you’ve got the exposure and sharpness covered.

There you have it—-hope you all get some great shots on the fourth! :-)

  1. Could you not have posted this a day earlier?! I have read that part, but here in Canada, We just had Our big fireworks extravaganza today!

  2. Hey guys and gals!
    I would like to encourage you to try wider shots when photographing professional fireworks.

    I would aim for the wider shots to include some background because the background in the shot puts the effect into perspective. With some background, you have an idea how big the effect was, how high it was, etc. For example, if the fireworks is near water or over water, including the reflections on the water is in my opinion always a good idea. Or if there are buildings in the background that are lit by the fireworks, you shouldn’t neglect them as well. From my experience, using a 24-70, 16-85, or even 18-55 works best regarding the focal length when shooting professional fireworks. If you are further away from the fireworks, you may need a longer lens. I just want to encourage to additionally bring a wider lens to the shoot. Make some tests before the fireworks starts to assess what is included in the picture and what not.
    Timing is important for nice firework photographs. Often professional fireworks repeat the effects, so try to observe the fireworks when you shoot. (Observe not enjoy! ;-) You can enjoy the pictures later.) If you missed an effect, probably it will be repeated and you can adapt your timing. Typically the intensity of the effect varies. So you may have to adapt your aperture in order to have images that are not overexposed but also leave the shutter open until the trails fade. You won’t know the intensity in advance but remember the effect might be repeated.

    These are my experience, your mileage may of course vary.

  3. When you want to capture multiple bursts in one frame, you can use this tip:
    Set a small aperture and exposure to bulb or choose a long exposure. (My F4 had a T-setting, where the shutter opened when you pressed the release and shut when you moved the dial away from the T-setting).
    * Place some (dark) cardboard or cloth close to the lens
    * Start exposing with the lens still covered
    * Right before a burst, remove the covering until the trails fade
    * Cover up the lens again and wait for another burst
    * After two or three bursts, stop the exposure and start again

  4. Scott, you should probably remind your readers about lowering the ISO speed as well :)
    And I’m with the wide angle crowd here – fireworks are a great way to emphasize the charm of a place.

    1. And turn off auto-ISO – otherwise the camera still goes for the higher ISO-values because it thinks the shutterspeed is too slow.

      I’m also with you guys on the wide-angle.
      The methods I described above helps to lighten up the surrounding in a couple of bursts. Just keep the aperture small, so the surrounding doesn’t overexpose.
      And if you really want to experiment:
      how about firing a (handheld) flash to “freeze” moving subjects like the crowd while the shutter is open…

  5. Scott, you didn’t mention anything about focus (neither here nor in the book)… my guess is manual focus set to infinity, but thought I should check :-) … thanks

  6. Another technique to try is to zoom in or out from the burst, or turn your focus ring so the burst goes in or out of focus during the exposure (of course, not both at the same time!). Makes for some interesting effects. This month’s PopPhoto mentioned this.

    I was happy with my shots from last year, but I picked up a remote release for my D300 this year, so I won’t have to hold the shutter button while in “bulb” mode. Thanks for all the tips, Scott!

  7. Thanks for the reminders!

    I’d add that I find it useful to switch to manual focus–so the camera doesn’t try to hunt for the point of focus–and I remove any lens filters–to avoid any flare-ups.

    Happy shooting! :-)

  8. Scott, For a photo full of fireworks I take and do a selection with the magic wand then inverse and use blending sliders to get black out between trails then copy and paste. This way I can use them in other photos. I have put them on twilight photos and they look good.

      1. tzb, I don’t live in a big town so I have to get one blast at a time. I take and photoshop these into one photo to make it look like I’m in NYC. Do I hear the chalk board screaching? :)

  9. You might want to add that your recommendation is for cameras that have a base ISO of 200. At a base 100 ISO an f/8 starting point might be a better starting point.

    Another consideration is whether to leave the long exposure noise reduction feature activated. If left on, you will spend half your time watching fireworks go off that you cannot shoot because the camera is taking its 3-8 second NR frame. I learned the hard way and turned mine off for fireworks at least.

    Finally, because the background is generally black, you can create your own “grand finale” image by combining several frames in different layers in PhotoShop and experiment with blending modes and turning the layers on an off. Mine turned out well enough that Getty Images picked it up for their Flickr collection.

  10. No. Your “exposure” of the fireworks is not controlled by shutter speed. The common simplification is this:

    * Aperture controls the “exposure” of the blasts
    * Shutter speed controls the length of the tails

    Like lighting, the blast of light at the start of a fireworks burst is near instantaneous. Changing a shutter speed doesn’t really help you with that.

    If you’re close to the fireworks or they are very bright, you move down in aperture from f/11. If you’re far from the fireworks or they are smaller blasts, you may move up to f/8.

  11. I use 200 iso, man focus, bulb, f11,no nr, and time the start of the trail until burst is at peak. I think the best advice Scott has is telephoto lens and fill the frame. After several shots I get my timing down to capture the liftoff trails. I also try to stay away from night lights and I close my diopter.

  12. I tried posting a pair of links to blog articles that i did earlier in the week about fireworks photography, however it is still awaiting moderation. That says if you go to tamaginidesign[dot]com/blog you can see them there


  13. I came back over here to search for last year’s post, and fortunately here’s the info, easy to find! I had my camera settings right, but you just made me change my lens choice. Last year I did everything right except forgetting the tripod. It wasn’t too bad on the fireworks, but the jiggly moon was a dead giveaway. :-)

  14. I absolutely love your pictures. I also travel a lot and love to take pictures everywhere I go. I was considering doing a journal of them. How did you do this? I recognize Dubai, as I’m going there in 10 days! Keep up the great work. I’ll be following you! :)

    1. Me too!!! His books are amazing, and make learning so much easier!! I feel like he is shooting right with me!!! He is such a great teacher!!

  15. Scott, I have a D300 with Multiple exposure setting can I use this in manual mode set to bulb to shoot fireworks?

    When are you going to take the drive up 95 north to shoot some pictures in the Lowcountry, you can take this as an invitation!

    One more thing does anyone else realize that of all the other wars that this country has fought in, this is the only one that we celebrate the beginning of?

    Be safe and have a Happy Fourth of July
    Thanks Mike

  16. Hi – vielen Dank für die Ausführungen über das Fotografieren eines Feuerwerks – werde es am 1. 8 mal ausprobieren – dann ist unser Nationalfeiertag in der Schweiz. Entschuldige, dass ich auf Deusch schreibe – kann leider kein englisch. Wollte eigentlich nur ne Nachrischt schreiben zu deinem Buch Photoshop CS4. Ich hab das Buch seit einem halben Jahr und bin begeistert – Danke dafür! Ich bin eine PS – anfängerin und komme super damit klar – ich habe noch nicht das ganze Buch gelesen, aber schon das eine oder andere ausprobiert. Ach ja und die Kapiteleinstiege lese ich immer *loll* gerade weil sie nicht wirklich wichtig sind – sie zaubern mir oft ein Grinsen (Lachen) ins Gesicht. Nun musste ich grad eben wieder für mich lachen, hab einfach so mal das Thema schiefe Fotos ausrichten durchgelesen und dann weiter geblättert – danach kommt das Thema “Local Color” Geheimnisse der Farbkorrektur – nun da ich ja gerade vom ausrichten komme, ist mir der schiefe Horizont auf dem Titelbild gewaltig aufgefallen – sonst hätt ich es warscheinlich nicht bemerkt *loll*
    So ich übe weiter und lass dir liebe Grüsse da

  17. Happy July 4th and Happy Shooting (fireworks, that is)! And a belated Happy Canada Day to our friends in Canada.

    Will try my hand at some fireworks tonight for the first time. The process should prove interesting and hopefully produce a decent image or two to enjoy and share.


  18. The choice of lens length depends on how close you are to the fireworks, and how big the display is. Here’s a set I shot in May at KFOG KaBoom, using a 17-40 wide angle lens and tripod, but no cable release:

    Here’s a set of photos shot in a brisk cross-wind, sitting on top of an RV (which is shaking in the wind), hand-held (no tripod!) with a telephoto lens and no cable release:

    Shooting at the 70mm end of my 70-200 lens, using a tripod and cable release, shooting from the bed of a pickup (not a stable platform) which is why the light trails have wiggles in them:

  19. Ya I went for the wide angle for the most part too. Did a few close ups and far away. I was lucky and found a place with some water in it to catch some reflections in it. Such fun!! Nikon D-90 on a tripod. set to manual. ISO 200, F-10 and shutter on bulb. Tripped it with a remote shutter release and after a few went up I closed the shutter with it. 18-200 nikkor vr with vr off.–Edit-Edit.jpg

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