How to photograph fireworks

With Guy Fawkes night fast approaching, it’s time to grab your winter coat and prepare yourself for what's to come this winter. Photographing fireworks can be challenging but with a bit of planning, perseverance and guidance it can be done successfully. Here are a few pointers to help you photograph fireworks and get some explosive results.

Firework 4 sm

Correct technique combined with the right gear can help you get results like this. (Canon EOS 550D with 18-135mm lens, tripod and Canon RC6 remote, focal length 18mm, ISO 200, f/18, 7 second exposure)

 

Remember to plan ahead!

Write down some ideas beforehand to get an idea of what you want to achieve. If you want to capture more of the background, arrive early to work out where the fireworks will take off and where to set up. Try to find a spot where you have enough space to shoot comfortably without having to worry about people tripping over your gear.

Before you leave the house, however, make sure you have everything you might need in case you end up staying out later than you planned. There's nothing worse than getting to the grand finale and seeing the dreaded "Memory Card Full" notification appear on your camera's display, so make sure you pack a spare memory card and battery.

Equipment

Choosing a lens

If you want to capture the full explosion of fireworks and parts of the scene surrounding them, a wideangle (10-20mm) or standard kit lens (18-55mm) will suffice. If you're zooming in and concentrating more on the detail of the explosion, prime lenses with a focal length of 35mm, 50mm, or even 85mm are good to experiment with too. Browse our full range of lenses here.

A wideangle zoom lens is ideal for capturing fireworks, although longer lenses can also be used successfully

 

Strong set of legs

Using a sturdy tripod allows you to keep the shutter open for long periods of time and helps keep the camera still, thus avoiding camera shake. Using a long exposure will result in your fireworks developing smooth, streaky effects in the image. Browse our full range of tripods here.

A sturdy tripod is a must if you plan on using long exposures

 

Remote or self-timer function

Using a remote in conjunction with a tripod enables you to shoot in “Bulb” mode, which gives you full control over the length of exposure and release of the shutter. As well as preventing any unwanted vibrations, it also allows you to concentrate on what’s going on in the sky; timing is key, after all, so this will help you keep and eye on the action so you can plan when to release the shutter. A self-timer setting can also be used successfully, albeit with some limitations. Browse our full range of remote releases here.

A remote release will help you trigger the camera without touching the shutter release button, which helps to prevent image blur

 

Camera settings

Shooting handheld

If you don't own a tripod then don't worry - you can still get some decent results shooting handheld, although you may have to up the sensitivity (ISO 800 and upwards) which will provide you with a faster shutter speed to work with. Opening up our aperture to f/4 or f/2.8 will also help here. Having the freedom to compose your shots more quickly allows you to be more creative and experiment with moving the camera around to create some wacky light painting results.

Firework 2

You don't necessarily need a tripod to shoot fireworks - this was captured handheld at a shutter speed of 1/200sec. (Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens, no tripod, ISO 800, f/5.6, 18mm focal length, 1/200 second exposure, no flash)

 

Shoot in manual mode

I would recommend shooting in either manual (M), Shutter-priority (S) or Aperture-priority (A) modes, as this will give you more control over your exposure parameters. I would also advise focusing manually, by flicking the switch on your lens or body to the 'M' position; autofocus will struggle to lock on due to the lack of available light and will force you to spend more time waiting for the lens to focus (and so less time taking pictures). For far-away displays, focusing to infinity is usually appropriate.

No flash

There's not much point in using your flash due to the distance of the fireworks. If anything, it'll only illuminate subjects close to you that you probably don't want highlighted in your shot.

ISO

ISO controls the sensitivity of the sensor or film and usually ranges from 100 to 6400 - although some of the latest DSLRs can reach settings equivalent to ISO 204,800! The higher the number the more sensitive the sensor is to light, but you should use the lowest ISO setting possible (usually ISO 100) to avoid grain and to maximise image quality. Obviously, if you need a faster shutter speed and you can't open up your aperture any further, you may need to increase this.

Firework 6

An ISO of 100 has been used for this image to minimise noise. (Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens, ISO 100, f/5.6, 55mm focal length, 0.6 second exposure, no flash, no tripod)

 

Aperture

The aperture refers to the lens opening formed by the iris diaphragm. The aperture controls the amount of light that enters your lens and is measured in f-stops or f-numbers (the smaller the f/number (f/1.8) the wider the aperture). If you're using a tripod and want to experiment with long exposures, I would recommend shooting between f/7.1-f/16. If you don’t have a tripod you may find it best to use a larger aperture, such as f/4-5.6, to allow the use of faster shutter speeds while avoiding blur.

Note: The aperture also plays a large part in determining how much of the overall scene will be in focus; this is known as the depth of field. A small aperture (f/22) will increase the depth of field (more of the overall scene will be in focus), so if you're using a wideangle lens and aim to capture the foreground too, bear this in mind.

Firework 6

An aperture of f/5.6 has provided enough depth of field while keeping the shutter speed fast enough for the camera to be used without a tripod. (Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens, ISO 800, f/5.6, 31mm focal length, 1/200 second exposure, no flash, no tripod)

 

Shutter speed

If you’re looking to capture a smooth, streaky effects, you'll need to use a fairly long exposure (anything between 1-15 seconds). If you own a remote release and want to capture multiple explosions then try experimenting in “Bulb” mode. Don't be fooled by the dark night sky; fireworks are very bright and if you're capturing a cluster of fireworks together it won’t take long before the shot becomes overexposed.

If you're planning to capture multiple explosions in one photo then try placing a dark glove or black piece of card in front of the lens after each explosion. This will help to avoid any additional light source (such as street lamps) creeping into the frame and potentially overexposing your shot.

Firework 1

By lengthening the shutter speed to 4 seconds, you can capture fireworks as they explode and streak across the sky. (Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 55mm focal length, 4 sec. exposure, no flash)

 

Framing

This is probably one of the hardest things to do as you can't always predict where the firework is going to explode, especially if it's windy. Be prepared to change camera orientation quickly, as, depending on how far away you are from the display, you may find the explosions are much higher or wider than anticipated.

Firework 3

Stepping back, or zooming out, allows you to bring additional elements into your images, which can make your results more varied and interesting. (Canon EOS 550D with 24-105mm lens, ISO 100, f/8, 16.7 second exposure, no flash, bean bag and Canon RC-6 remote)

 

5 final tips

1. Camera operation

Learn where your camera settings are. It seems like an obvious tip but you’ll be surprised how confusing it can be when shooing in the dark. Bring a head torch if you’re a little rusty.

2. Check as you go

Remember to check your results as you go to make sure you're not overexposing and that your fireworks sit nicely in the frame.

3. Experiment with different angles

As well as zooming into the explosion for an abstract effect try looking at the wider picture and involve more of the scene around you - it’s always nice when an image tells a story. If you’re choosing to shoot from a distance be wary of light pollution and other light sources that may enter your shot and cause overexposure. Remember to keep your horizons straight too!

4. Embrace reflections

Reflections can give dramatic results. If the fireworks display is set to go off near a river, the seaside or even scattered puddles in the street, try including this in the frame and using it to your advantage.

5. Be patient, have fun and wear plenty of layers

Remember to have fun with it and don’t worry if you don’t get the best results first time. Photographing fireworks is all about trial and error, and every situation is different, so play around with your settings and make a note of what worked and what didn't so you remember for next time.

Please share any tips and techniques of your own in the comments box below and add you images to our Google+FacebookTwitter or Flickr pages :)

Firework 5

Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 55mm focal length, 1 second exposure

 

Firework 8

Canon EOS 350D with 18-55mm lens, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/50 second exposure, no flash

 

Related links

Painting with light and long exposures

10 ways to get great autumnal shots

Shooting shooting stars