Fireworks are synonymous with the Fourth of July holiday. From rural towns to bustling urban metropolises, Independence Day creates endless opportunities to watch sparks fly. Thanks to their complex patterns and varied color combinations (created through a special mixture of metals and compounds), fireworks make great photographic subjects — yet they can also be challenging to capture in an image.
Any moving subject shot in the dark is tricky to capture on camera — including fireworks. But with the proper equipment and a willingness to fiddle with your camera’s exposure settings, you can capture great fireworks shots. Ideally, the best way to photograph fireworks is with a mirrorless or DSLR camera, but with a few tricks, quality smartphone shots aren’t impossible either. Here’s how to get the best fireworks photos this 4th of July — or any other holiday where fireworks might be spotted overhead.
Tricks to setting up for fireworks photography
While we recommend using a DSLR or mirrorless camera for the best results, any camera — including a smartphone — will work. Advanced superzoom cameras, like the Sony RX10 series, are also good choices, as their long lenses offer a broad range of framing options without the hassle of swapping lenses. We also recommend shooting in manual exposure mode so you can get consistent and predictable results, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. But no matter what camera you are using, there are a few tricks that can help you get the clearest shot of the fireworks and a strong composition.
It’s always a good idea to find out where in the sky the fireworks show will be before you head out to photograph it. If you can set up well before the event starts, with a clear idea of where to aim your camera and how you’ll frame your shot, this will take away a lot of the guesswork.
Sometimes it’s better to include some context in your photos.
If possible, try to position yourself upwind of the action. That way, all the smoke from the fireworks will blow away from you, keeping an open view of the sky in front of your camera so each successive round of explosions remains clearly visible.
Also, look for unique perspectives. A parking garage might have an open roof you can access to get higher, or if the show takes place over water, there might be a tour boat that can get you closer to the action.
While the contrast of bright colors against a solid black background makes for a dramatic image, sometimes it’s better to include some context in your photos. Frame your shots a bit wider to include the skyline, landscape, or the gathering crowd. Try a reflection shot for fireworks over the water. This will make your images more interesting and provide a sense of scale for the fireworks show.
How to photograph fireworks with a DSLR or mirrorless camera
If you do go out with an interchangeable lens camera, whether DSLR or mirrorless, think about what lens you’ll use to photograph fireworks before they start exploding. Depending on how far away you are, the altitude of the fireworks, and whether you want to include some of the surrounding environment in your photos, you may want to use a wide-angle, normal, or even a telephoto lens.
Using a tripod is all but necessary to capture clear and sharp photos of fireworks.
Adding some context into your fireworks photos is never a bad idea, and wide-angle lenses are good for this. Telephoto lenses will let you zero in on details or focus on a specific background element (like a single building, rather than a full cityscape) to frame the fireworks.
If possible, bring a couple of different choices so you can try out various different shots, but keep in mind that swapping lenses during the show might not be the easiest thing to do without missing good moments.
Use a tripod
Using a tripod is all but necessary to capture clear and sharp photos of fireworks, especially when using a longer lens. A tripod will also let you use a slower shutter speed so you can get creative, capturing long streaks of light as the glowing particles spread out into the night sky.
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
If you don’t own a tripod or can’t buy one in time, there are other ways to stabilize your camera. Many cameras and lenses offer sophisticated image stabilization that allows you to shoot at shutter speeds down to 1/10th of a second or so — provided you have steady hands.
Another option is to steady your camera on a pole, a railing, a wall, a table, or anything with an even surface. Something like a Gorillapod comes in handy for this. You can also just stick to faster shutter speeds as fireworks provide plenty of light, but you’ll sacrifice the creative options of long exposures if you do.
Ditch the flash
We can’t say how many times we’ve seen people trying to photograph fireworks with their camera’s flash turned on. This usually results from leaving the camera in fully automatic mode, but if your flash is firing for any reason, find the option to disable it in your camera’s menu system. A flash won’t help you here. (Note: In advanced exposure modes like manual or shutter priority, the flash should not automatically fire. Likewise, if your camera has a night or fireworks mode, the flash should be disabled by default.)
If your camera gives you the option, simply turn autofocus off. If you leave it on, your camera’s autofocus system will likely “hunt” back and forth because it won’t have a clear object to lock onto. This could cause you to miss the shot completely. Instead, set your focus using an object that’s the same distance from you as the fireworks will be, such as a building, tree, or skyline. Enabling focus peaking, found on most mirrorless cameras and on DSLRs in live view mode, will help.
Most DSLR lenses and some lenses for mirrorless cameras have a distance scale on the focus ring or in a separate window (as seen in the Sigma 135mm F1.8 above). Chances are, the fireworks will be far enough away that you can set your lens to the infinity (∞) position and adjust from there if necessary. The important thing is to not accidentally change the focus after you get everything set, so try not to bump the lens.
Use a remote shutter release
A cable release is handy to reduce vibrations caused by pressing the shutter button on the camera. It’s not really necessary, but it can be helpful. If you don’t have one, the motion of your hand on the camera could introduce blur if you’re trying to photograph fireworks using a long shutter speed. At faster shutter speeds, it won’t be an issue.
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
Many new cameras today come with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, which you can use to remotely activate the shutter from a smartphone app. This is the same idea as a cable release, so use it if it’s available — just remember that your phone’s battery will drain pretty quickly.
The other nice thing about using an app, rather than a standard cable release, is that it allows you to completely control exposure settings from your phone, which is especially nice at night when it might be too dark to see your camera’s controls.
Exposure settings (ISO and aperture)
For the most control over your fireworks images, manual mode is ideal, though many cameras have a fireworks mode for novices unfamiliar with manual mode. In manual mode, start by setting your camera’s ISO to the lowest setting (probably 100 or 200). While most modern higher-end cameras produce low noise even at higher ISO settings, sticking to the lowest possible setting will yield the cleanest results. Again, the fireworks themselves are plenty bright enough to get a proper exposure at base ISO. This is especially true if you plan on using a slow shutter speed, which increases the amount of light recorded by your camera.
We can’t say how many times we’ve seen people photographing fireworks with their camera’s flash turned on.
Shutter speed plays a big role in getting a good fireworks shot, and there are two main options — bulb mode or a fixed shutter speed. Bulb mode is more fun and allows you to time the shot with the length of the explosion, but a fixed shutter speed is more consistent and predictable.
Bulb mode is activated by turning your shutter speed all the way down to B (for “bulb”) mode. This mode keeps the shutter open for as long as you depress the button. Using bulb