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How to photograph fireworks

7 tips for shooting great fireworks photos this Fourth of July

Last updated: July 02, 2014 03:08 PM
I set my advanced camera to manual and used a very long shutter speed of 8 seconds.

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Fireworks are beautiful. Photos of them can be, too. But you need to adjust the settings on your camera and take the time to experiment. Here are the key techniques for getting keepers from a challenging photographic subject.

1. Use a tripod. Because of the long shutter speeds fireworks require, camera motion can ruin your shot. Mounting the camera on a tripod is best, but if you can't do that, seat it on something stable, such as a fence and table. With an advanced camera, such as an SLR or mirrorless SLR-like, you can further reduce the chances of camera shake by using a remote release to trigger the shutter. Or, if you can seat the camera without having to hold it, try its self-timer, which can minimize some camera shake.

2. Check your camera’s scene modes.  If you’re nervous about setting your digital camera on manual, many digital cameras, basic and advanced, include a simpler option: a fireworks scene mode. If your camera doesn't have one, try the night scene mode.

3. Dial down the ISO. If you’re not satisfied with your camera’s fireworks scene mode, try setting the camera to manual mode, so you can control the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO yourself. In most cases, you’ll want to dial down the ISO to 100, in order to minimize any image noise. Then, set your aperture at f/8 or f/16. (Note: Many basic models don't allow you to change these settings manually.)

Instead of shooting manually, I simply used a fireworks scene mode to capture this photo.

For more on point-and-shoots and advanced cameras, check out our buying guide and Ratings for digital cameras.

4. Use a long shutter speed. Because fireworks are bright and dynamic, you may need to take a few shots to determine the best shutter speed, assuming you're shooting manually. If you close the shutter too quickly, you'll miss the spheres, rings, and other formations. Leave it open too long and you'll overexpose. For starters, set the speed to several seconds and, for each shot, press the shutter release just before the fireworks explode. Based on the results of each shot, fine tune the speed.

5. Include some context. Your photos will be more interesting if you shoot wider and include the horizon, landscape, buildings, or people. Using the fireworks to light the landscape from behind or the side can produce stunning shots. To avoid overexposing or underexposing the surroundings, before the fireworks starts, try several variations of shutter speed, ISO, and focal length.

This was shot with an in-camera illustration art filter.

6. Plan ahead. If possible, stay upwind of the fireworks or your shots may be ruined by smoke. Bring a charged spare camera battery and enough flash storage to take lots of shots. Before the fireworks start, make sure to remove any light-reducing filters (such as a polarizer) from your lens. Turn off the camera’s flash; you won't need it. Also, bring along a flashlight in case you drop a memory card on the ground or can’t see the camera controls in the dark.

7. Experiment with special effects. There are many ways to experiment when shooting fireworks displays. Many advanced cameras let you use various filters, including illustration filters that make photos look like a graphic painting or drawing. Or, you might try a specialty lens, such as a Lens Baby lens, which is a selective-focus lens that lets you move the optics and alter the focus to produce very creative effects.

If you’re looking to buy a digital camera that lets you shoot great fireworks photos, consider the following two advanced models.

  • Sony Alpha a6000, $800, has lots of manual features and settings and includes a special illustration filter mode and other filters for creating special effects.
  • Samsung NX30, $850, like many Samsung models, includes a fireworks scene mode, specifically designed for capturing fireworks displays.

—Terry Sullivan & Jeff Fox

This photo was captured with a Lens Baby lens, which creates unusual distortion effects.

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