There’s nothing like a loud bang and a bright flash of light to really make an occasion feel special. New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and of course, the Fourth of July are all celebrated with fireworks. They’re a pretty tricky subject to photograph, though, so let’s break down what you need to know.

What Makes a Good Firework Photo?

For all the flash and bang in real life, fireworks on their own are a pretty boring photo subject. Totally isolated, they look like something computer-generated. Instead, the best firework photos have something else happening in the image. It might be people in the foreground or just the fireworks bursting over a city, but there’s something else going on.

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When the pyrotechnicians let off fireworks, they do it to get the best show. This means that fireworks are let off individually or in small bursts one after the other. It’s rare that the whole sky will be filled all at once. This looks great in real life, but in a photo, a single firework going off looks anticlimactic. Most firework photos are actually long exposure images that capture all the fireworks that went off over a 10 second, 20 second, or even longer period.

The Technical Stuff

To capture a photo of fireworks, you’ve got two options: the first (and the bad one) is to hand-hold your camera and try and time a photo so you capture the fireworks as they go off. The second (and good solution) is to set your camera up on a tripod and use a long exposure time so that the fireworks burst at some point during it. This is the method I’ll be discussing.

For the best photos, get to the location of the firework display early, before the sun has fully gone down. Set up your tripod and frame the shot where you think the fireworks are going to be. You might need to adjust things later, but getting there early will let you get the best position and angle.

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What lens you use depends on how far away from the display you will be. A zoom lens will give you a lot more flexibility to adapt to whatever happens. In general, you won’t be so far away that you need a really long telephoto lens. Something with a focal length of between 18mm and 70mm will work for most situations. Just make sure to use manual focus.

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Aperture is less important than shutter speed for firework photos. You have to stand too far back from the display for depth of field to matter. Set your aperture to somewhere between f/8 and f/16, depending on the ambient light. If the fireworks are being let off over a city, f/16 will work better. If they’re out in the woods, lean towards f/8.

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Fireworks flash brightly, and since you’re using a tripod, ISO isn’t much of a concern. Set it to 100 and leave it there. We’ll be adjusting the exposure using shutter speed.

There is no one shutter speed that will capture fireworks. Whether you have the shutter open for 10 seconds or 30 seconds, what matters is the half second the firework actually flashes really brightly for. The difference is that with the shutter open for 30 seconds, you’ll capture five or six firework bursts rather than just one or two; you’ll also give the background more time to expose.

Start with a shutter speed of somewhere around 10 seconds and take some test shots. If the photos are overexposed, tighten your aperture or shorten your exposure time to five seconds. If they’re underexposed, you can open your aperture a little or else go for 20 second exposures. The only way to find out what will work is trial and error.

Other Tips and Tricks

Be prepared to adjust your shutter speed and aperture on the fly. As the firework display goes on, there will be bigger bursts and quieter periods. The shutter speed that gave a great exposure at the start might overexpose the crescendo.

Pay attention to the other elements in your image. A strong foreground or nice background will take a good firework photo and make it great.

If you have a cable release or remote trigger, you can put your camera in Bulb mode. As long as you hold down the release button, your camera’s shutter will stay open. This gives you a lot of flexibility in how long your exposures are.

It’s really difficult to capture firework displays using your phone. The best thing to do is record a video instead of photo, or use an app like Slow Shutter Cam on iPhone or a long exposure camera app on Android (Samsung phones have this built-in) as well as a smartphone tripod.

Enjoy the display. Don’t get so caught up in taking photos that you miss out on the fun of hearing things go bang and smelling gunpowder.

Firework photos are a little tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing, but once you have your camera on a tripod and use a long exposure time it’s hard to go wrong.

Image Credits: Alejandro Scaff, Vernon Raineil Cenzon, Alexandre Chambon, Mike Enerio, Matt Popovich.

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Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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