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

Hi Gang: Each year on 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.” 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, and remember to stay safe around fireworks of any kind, and we’ll see you back here in one piece tomorrow. :)

    1. I’ve read a dozen how-to’s on fireworks and seem every one leaves out manual focus, I guess if it’s on 3D mode on a good D3 Nikon it might work! 8-)

  1. I’d really like to experience it. but as dear Ali knows we rarely have fireworks in Iran. Almost there’s no chance to shoot fireworks along a year or it’s not beautiful at all or it’s just a smoke in the air.

    I’d also like polar photography. Would somone tell me what’s the best shutter speed and aperture for polar photography?

      1. John, think we had our grands with us and one was sick. The windows to the old 4 star hotel in Roanoke VA had the small 8×10 squares for windows. I set my 70-200 back from window and shot through it, was amazed I got a shot, notice the buildings between us and the fireworks!

  2. Very nice photos from everyone. I would like to add, that the f-stop may also depend on the distance you are from the fireworks. I was shooting mine at f11 and after chimping the first few shots decided the color saturation was good enough so went down to f14, but stayed at 5 seconds (tripod and wireless release), all on manual, shooting in raw, Nikon D300. Also, a 200mm lens would have been too much for where we were seated. I was using my (ugh) 14 – 70 mm D70 kit lens on my D300 (my Nikkor 24 – 70 f2.8G is in the shop for repairs). I do not see how changed the shutter speed for fireworks is going to help in the exposure since it is the burst itself that much be controlled, not the length of time that the shutter is open. It seems to me that if it is over exposed, then a smaller f-stop is needed. The shutter should only be changed if you are getting too many bursts in one shot. Still, this is great information for those folks who are shooting fireworks for the first time. Now off to post process mine!

  3. Great tips from Scott and everyone else. One other thing I use is a black card in front of the lens while on bulb mode. Put it in front of the lens after one burst, then remove it for the duration of the next to get a double exposure.

    Hope everyone has a great time if you’re celebrating the Fourth tonight! Just be careful if you’re lighting off your own fireworks. Sadly, every year we hear of unfortunate accidents on this day of celebration!


  4. Didn’t have a chance to try this last night, but I will the next time there’s fireworks! I didn’t see anything about ISO. Anybody have a suggestion?

  5. Scott,

    Last night the wife and I grabbed the 70-200 based on the above notes in your Photo book, and I personally think it was a mistake. The 24-105 would have been a much better choice. Even at 70mm we could only fit in a single firework and this is a full frame. Granted you can always back up, but that changes the angle and bring in more trees and light sources.

    We watched the Safety Harbor fireworks show (right in your backyard) and I think you need to clarify that a 200mm lens is good for when you are VERY far away. When you can get somewhat close to the launch, a 200mm zoom is going to be unusable. So for a local firework show, I would have to recommend the 24-105 and highly discourage a 200mm or longer lens.

    Also want to add the other notes that are missing. Lower ISOs work better to keep the fireworks as the highlight. (We shot at 100-200 all night). Manual focus set to infinity as suggested previously.


    1. Great pictures. I liked them all, but REALLY liked #4 with the view of the town below the fireworks. I love how everything is lit up with the color of the fireworks above. Great job!

  6. Hi Scott. Just wanted to drop a not about your great article! I shot some fireworks over the weekend following your points in the article. The shots came out excellent (At least I think so).
    I would like to add additional tips here for other though.

    If you do not have a tripod, use a sturdy base. I didn’t have a tripod so I just sat the camera on my camera bag (which was on grass). It worked out pretty good.

    I set my camera to shoot on a 2-second self timer. So that my hands motion would not blur the shot. I simply pressed the shutter button, removed my hands and let it count down and take the shot.

    Have a look on Flickr.


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