How to Shoot Fireworks (My 4th of July Post Tradition )

Hi Gang: Each year right before Independence Day (celebrated here in the U.S. on the Fourth of July), I share a quick post on how to photograph Fireworks (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, Part 1." 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 buttonâ”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 timingâ”because now you've got the exposure and sharpness covered.

There you have itâ”-hope you all get some great shots on the fourth, and remember to stay safe around fireworks of any kind, and we'll see you back here in one piece tomorrow. :)

  1. Thank
    you for the instructions on shooting fireworks.

    It would
    have been nice to have these a few days earlier for Canada Day (July 1st of
    every year)!

  2. Jo-Anne, I think you meant to say, “it’s too bad I didn’t read these tips last year so I was ready for Canada Day this year” followed by a “thanks for the tips Scott, I will be sure to save these for next year”.

    1. Yes, it is
      regretful that I had not seen and saved these tips last year, so I would have
      been ready for Canada Day this year.

      But using
      this logic, it is then regretful that everybody did not see and save these tips
      last year, so they could have been ready for this year (Canada Day and the 4th
      of July).  It would then not have been necessary
      to repost them!

      So no,
      although thankful for the tips, I meant to say that it is regretful that they
      were not posted 5 days earlier.

  3. My Olympus camera has a special setting just for fireworks (it sets the shutter & aperture automatically, as well as a 3-4 second shutter speed).  Is it better to use manual mode?

  4. Exposure has 3 elements: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  At an aperture of f/11, I have found an ISO of 100 works well for fireworks.  The shutter speed will determine how many bursts you get in a frame, but it also controls the amount of light exposing buildings or other objects in your photo (if you have any).  So, adjust the shutter speed up or down to properly expose for objects and the f/11 should be good for the fireworks.  And finally, don’t expect too much from finale at the very end.  There are so many fireworks going off that it burns out to white.   Hope this helps!

  5. Dear Scott,

    great idea to help people to get some nice pictures of fireworks.

    Please let me share some more tips for everyone.


    It is very important to set the camera to manual focus as the fireworks is moving very ;) fast towards the camera and the auto focus won´t work.

    Just set the manual focus to infinity – this will work 99,9 %.

    increase the dynamic range:

    I would recommend to use raw files instead of jpeg whenever this is possible.

    You will always need some kind of highlight recovery in your favorite raw converter. 

    Personally, I do normally underexpose my pictures and light up the shadow in the post production.


    You have to control the exposure via the aperture and not the shutter speed.

    Change the aperture with the colors.

    Red, white and green are very bright, purple and blue are much darker and some sorts of charcoal gold are the darkest effects.

    The speed is only important if there is a lot of fireworks on the exact same position in the sky / on the picture.


    Set the camera to the lowest ISO of your camera.

    The night sky is dark, but the fireworks are very bright.

    location location location:

    Try to check the wind direction!

    The wind should blow always towards the fireworks and not towards your camera.

    This would keep the smoke behind the fireworks – so the smoke will be almost invisible on your pictures.

    timing & duration:

    It won´t work to take “good” fireworks pictures of what you already see.

    You have to start the exposure before you see anything at all.

    Rockets and shells need a few seconds to reach the sky, so start the exposure before they burst in the sky and stop the exposure after they have burned out completely.

    4 to 30 seconds might be ok.


    Sorry, not easy solution for this topic ;)

    Try to take pictures of as many fireworks displays as you can.


    Don´t forget that you (or others) are shooting fireworks to celebrate – so celebrate!

    Maybe you should not take pictures during the complete display.

    Try to enjoy at least some moments without working on the camera.

    Take care,



    1. Christoph, your photographs are dazzling, but what about shooting fireworks at a small town show where there is no water, beautiful buildings, etc. Just a grass field behind a high school. How does one make them special under less-than-special circumstances?

    1. Manual focus is best to avoid hunting. There will be nothing to focus on. Focus just SHY of infinity. Remember, the fireworks AREN’T an infinite distance away. ;) But if you shoot with a high enough aperture (11 should be OK, but even 18 or 20 can be very nice for fine trails and lots of color) your focus plain is so wide it will all be in focus anyway.

    1. Just a very personal note regarding your favorite shot.
      This is what I do personally call a “dead shell ;)”, because the burst is not captured.
      One Japanese college of mine, also dedicated to pyro photos, described these situations quite similar.
      He said the “eye of the shell” is missing and I do agree.
      Technical the exposure started milliseconds to late.


  6.  other important tips: USE your lens hood to reduce stray light from being recorded during those long exposures. Focus: I find focusing at infinity not ideal. Focus at infinity but then pull back your focus just a tiny bit and you images will be much crisper.

  7. Many fireworks exhibitions are being cancelled in northeastern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin because of the heat wave coupled with lack of rain.

    Also, excuse my being pedantic, but we *should* be celebrating Independence Day on July 2nd, the day Lee’s Resolutions were approved. John Adams penned a famous letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3rd attesting to that fact.

    I quote, in part, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

    Happy Independence Day, folks! Reflect a bit tomorrow on Liberty, while we still have some.


  8. If you want to capture more bursts in a single exposure, shoot the “grand finale” without blowing everything out to white, and avoid having to muck around with putting a hat on the lens between bursts, use a neutral-density filter. I use a variable ND filter set to about six stops. Depending on the number of bursts, you can shoot exposures of 90 seconds or more in some cases. It works best if the bursts don’t all explode in the same position in the sky, as I have encountered in a couple of smaller civic displays. Also, I highly recommend shooting in RAW and (especially if you use an ND filter) turning off your camera’s long-exposure noise reduction — if you don’t, you’re bound to miss opportunities! Finally, you can control the quality of the bursts somewhat through the aperture you set. If you stop down less, you’ll get thicker trails of light. Stop down a bit more to get thinner, finer trails that might hold a bit more color.

  9. Actually MOST DSLRs. Including Sony and the rest have BULB mode. And BULB is far easier than setting 3 or 4 seconds and trying to time the burst.

  10. Scott, I know you said you no longer used ISO (conversation with Joe McNolty), and this post just proves it.   Consistency of the message is a good thing.

  11. A photographer posted in the NAPP forum that he likes to set the shutter speed to 5 seconds and then (after framing, focusing and dialing in the other settings) set the burst mode to continuous-high and lock the shutter release cable button down.  At this point he just sits back and lets the fireworks display go to the end with his camera shooting away on its own.  One of the reasons for doing it this way is to capture multiple bursts within each frame. 

    I haven’t tried this myself but might this year.

  12.  A common problem people have with fireworks, like the photo you show above, is they just shoot the bursts.  Compose your image like any good landscape photos – look for foreground elements.  Try to find a reflection if possible.

    Also, try using an ND filter.  You can get even longer exposures with an ND. 

    The one I posted was 16 seconds.

  13. Scott,
    One thing I learned last night. This method does not work when you are really close to the fireworks. We were at a very small town celebration here in WA state. We were directly under the fireworks. With your specs on shutter speed and aperture, I had great lights but a ton of the smoke. My guess is I needed to get farther away. Also, it meant to get an entire burst I had to pull back on my zoom to 18mm. Even then some of them were going outside my field of vision. 

  14. These were taken in Roanoke, TX. Thank you Scott for your tips! It made a WORLD of difference! – Colleen Mauboules, Flower Mound, TX

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