by Alex W.
What links July 4th in the US, Bonfire Night in the UK, and New Years Eve in Sydney?
That’s right – Fireworks.
Of course, fireworks aren’t just limited to these celebrations – Dozens of countries around the world have their own traditions that culminate in a spectacular pyrotechnic show.
One big question remains though – How do you actually photograph a firework display?
Fortunately, it’s nowhere near as difficult as you might imagine, so read on for all our tips and tricks for photographing fireworks.
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The first, and most important, thing to remember about photographing fireworks is that a tripod is absolutely essential.
Okay, you could get away with some other form of makeshift stabilisation method, but if you want sharp images and full control over your composition then a tripod is a must-have.
The reason for this is pretty clear – We’re not going to spend much time photographing fireworks in daylight are we? So light levels are going to be low, requiring a longer shutter speed.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but bear in mind that a cheap tripod usually causes as many problems as it solves. We have some great options in our Ultimate Guide to Landscape Photography, but our favourite tripod when it comes to value for money is the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+, as reviewed here.
We recommend using manual mode for a wide variety of reasons, and when it comes to firework photography our stance remains unchanged.
Having full control over your cameras settings is crucial when shooting fireworks.
Think about it – You’re shooting dazzlingly bright explosions in an otherwise dark environment. Not to mention the fact that you’re setting your camera up while the whole scene is dark.
If you’re in any of the automatic modes the camera simply won’t know what’s going on. It will be nigh on impossible for your camera to select the correct exposure, so it’s your job to give it a helping hand.
Our first priority is making sure the highlights from the fireworks don’t get blown out. Here’s a good starting point, and you can experiment from there:
If you’re not familiar with Bulb Mode, it’s basically a setting that allows you to leave the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is pressed.
Fireworks are a flash of bright light that dissipate quickly, so simply leaving your shutter open until the explosion is finished is the most efficient way of getting the shot. The relatively small aperture and low ISO means you don’t have to worry about overexposing the rest of the dark scene.
However, holding the shutter release down physically will almost certainly cause a large amount of camera shake. That’s where the remote shutter release comes in…
When using a tripod, remote shutter releases can be lifesavers. The action of physically pressing the shutter release on your camera often causes camera shake that ruins your images.
This can be combated with the use of the 2-second timer, but a remote shutter release is a much better option. This allows you to trigger your camera’s shutter without physically touching your camera, allowing it to remain stable and unmoved.
When it comes to firework photography, we’ve already discussed the benefits of using Bulb Mode. As we mentioned, holding your shutter release down by hand is a fast track to blurry, shaky images.
Using a remote shutter release you can trigger the shutter remotely and keep it open until you release the shutter lock, never touching your camera and keeping it nice and steady.
These shutter releases are available in wired or wireless versions, branded and unbranded. We recommend just opting for a cheap version like the one below.
If you’ve ever tried any form of astrophotography, you’ll know that trying to use autofocus in low light is a frustrating process.
The camera simply can’t find enough contrast within the scene to accurately focus, and because of this just finds itself hunting back and forth without success.
If you try to use autofocus when photographing fireworks, you will miss every single shot.
What we need to do is focus beforehand, and then set your lens to manual focus and leave it well alone.
How do you focus beforehand?
Easy – Fireworks tend to explode a long way from our camera. If they’re exploding nearby, then getting a shot is the last thing you should be worrying about!
This means that we can just set our lens to focus at infinity and forget about it. You can do this manually, or you can autofocus on a bright, distant object (like the moon, for example) and then set your lens to manual focus and leave alone.
As with every genre of photography, we recommend experimenting with everything.
When photographing fireworks, we’re capturing short lived, bright explosions, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to get creative.
For example, you could set your camera to Bulb mode and leave the shutter open for as long as it takes to correctly expose the environment. All the while, your camera will be capturing the multiple fireworks exploding above the landscape.
The result? Well, look at the image below – Multiple firework explosions above a well exposed scene.
The art of photography is all about telling a story to the viewer, and a few pretty explosions in the sky doesn’t change that fundamental idea.
We want to tell a story with our images, and providing context to the viewer is key to achieving that.
With that in mind, make sure you have a compelling composition to complement the fireworks in the scene. Never neglect the composition – It is what makes the difference between a random photo of a cool scene and a truly great photograph.
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A good way to create a compelling image with firework photography is to hint at why there are fireworks.
Is it Bonfire Night in London? Include a bonfire in the shot.
Maybe it’s July 4th in New York? Get some iconic buildings in there.
There are many stories you can tell with your images. Such as a lone hiker admiring the distant celebrations above, or the modern compulsion to view everything through the screen of a smartphone below.
Completely ignoring what I just said, not all photography has to tell a story.
Instead, you can focus on conveying a sense of mystery and intrigue, and the best way to do that is to zoom in on something that is usually only seen from a distance.
Attach your telephoto lens and zoom in on the area of the sky where the fireworks are being launched.
You might miss a few shots, admittedly, but those you do capture will be a series of striking and mysterious abstract images full of colour and contrast. Just take a look below to see exactly what I mean.
Filling the frame using a telephoto lens and providing context aren’t mutually exclusive ideas.
Combining these two methods can yield some incredible results. The image above showing a smartphone screen at a firework display is one such example of these ideas working in harmony.
If you have an adequately impressive firework display and an interesting scene in front of you, this is one of the best ways to create something unique with your firework photography.
Take the image below, for example. The iconic Space Needle in Seattle provides the context, but using a telephoto lens filled the surrounding frame with fireworks to create a stunning overall image.
You must know by now that we don’t abide by or agree with the idea of photography rules. Not even the ones we’ve made up ourselves!
Context for your firework photography is great. So is filling the frame with those dazzling sparks. However, there are plenty of other paths you can take to create compelling imagery.
One of my favorites is to go down the route of minimalism. We’ve said time and time again that excluding as much as possible from the frame is often the best way to improve a composition, and firework photography is no different.
Try utilizing all that dark negative space in the night sky by shooting firework displays at a fairly wide focal length but with nothing else in the scene. You can see an example below. Notice how the contrast and colours stand out so much more vividly on the completely black background.
Remember – Oversimplification is usually better than over complication.
About Alex W.
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.