Tutorial: Photographing fireworks

By Jonathan Ives 8 February 2016
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How to take photos of fireworks that will do all those oohs and aahs justice.

WHETHER IT’S 31 January, Chinese New Year or Guy Fawkes Night – the world over, we love to celebrate big events with amazing fireworks display.

Amidst staring in wonder at the explosions of colour across the sky, many people grab for their phone or point-and-shoot cameras in an attempt to capture and share what they’re witnessing (often with fairly average results).

For those of us with cameras that allow more control (such as a DSLR), we’re often unable to enjoy the show because we’re too busy trying to get the right camera settings to capture a decent photo!

Here are five easy-to-follow steps for how to both enjoy fireworks displays, and easily capture some fantastic images too.

1. Be prepared

It helps to get in position and set up early, rather than fighting for a good position only minutes before the fireworks begin. It’s easy to spot the barges and buildings from which the fireworks will launch, so find a good location where the fireworks will form a nice composition (see point three below), along with any iconic buildings, etc.

It’s not always about being close – if you’re too close, the fireworks explode above you rather than being framed by the city, and it’s too hard to capture the whole scene. 

It’s also a good idea to think about wind direction. Fireworks create a lot of smoke, so if you’re downwind from the display, the air through which you’re shooting will quickly fill with smoke haze, which is obviously not ideal. If you can, try and position yourself upwind so the breeze carries the smoke away behind the fireworks rather than towards you. 

2. Use a tripod (and a cable release if you have one)

Fireworks photography requires slow shutter speeds. When using slow shutter speeds it’s impossible to hand hold the camera steadily enough for a sharp photo. Therefore a tripod is a must. Thinking back to step one, when choosing your position, make sure your tripod is set up in a location that’s level and stable, because when the fireworks begin, there will likely be lots of people around (making it hard to set up a tripod later) and an unstable tripod can be easily knocked over.

If you have a cable release or remote, it’s worth using it, so you can trigger your camera without having to actually touch the shutter button. This helps reduce camera shake resulting from accidentally rocking the camera when taking a photo. It’s not essential to have a cable release, but they can be handy. The alternative option to reduce camera shake on a tripod is activating the 2-second timer delay on your camera. This option isn’t ideal on this occasion as it’s hard to predict when the fireworks will explode in the sky and you may want the option of triggering the camera instantly.

3. Frame up your shot (in advance) with good composition

Good composition is always very important. One common mistake with fireworks photography is having a crooked horizon – because the fireworks demand attention, often the horizon is forgotten. To avoid this, set up before the fireworks display and take some sample shots, double checking your horizon is straight. 

It’s worth paying attention to key buildings and structures in your scene. Remembering your ‘rule of thirds’, if it’s a city fireworks display, try and have a prominent building somewhere on one ‘vertical third’ line. If it’s a bridge (e.g. the Sydney Harbour Bridge) think about having this on a horizontal third line. Also, pay attention to your foreground. Sometimes trees framing up your shot look great silhouetted against the bright fireworks. 

Also consider where in the sky the fireworks are likely to be. As mentioned above, you can often spot the barges or similar structures set up which will launch the fireworks. You can be fairly confident fireworks will shoot straight up into the sky from there, so try to position these barges on the intersection points between the vertical and (bottom) horizontal third lines – that way your fireworks will likely reach up from there, exploding in the top third intersection points. 

Obviously it’s hard to gauge in advance how high the fireworks will travel, so using a wide lens and having plenty of sky in your photo increases the chance of capturing most of the explosions. You can always tweak your composition a little bit as the fireworks display progresses if you find your resulting photos aren’t capturing the angle you desire, and if a little too wide, you can always crop in later. 

Quick tip:

Try hand-holding the camera to your eye at first, until you find your desired composition, and then set up the tripod accordingly. This is usually easier than trying to work out the best composition when the camera is already awkwardly attached to the tripod. 

4. Manually ‘lock’ your focus

During the fireworks display, you’ll want to be able to take lots of photos, one after the other, without having to worry about refocusing the camera each time (which is difficult at night at the best of times).

Therefore, the easiest thing to do is grab a focus before the display begins and then ‘lock’ this focus. To do this, simply point the camera at a bright light or building in your scene and half press the shutter button. Once you get this autofocus on the building (you may hear the camera beep confirming a focus has been found) you can then take your finger off the button, and flick the switch (on the side of your lens) from AF (Auto Focus) to MF (Manual Focus). Assuming that you don’t swivel the manual focus ring around on your lens, this focus will now remain ‘locked’ and won’t change. This enables you to now take as many photos as you like from that same position and all of them will be at the same focus distance. 

5. Use a slow shutter speed with a low ISO

As mentioned above, fireworks look best with a slow shutter speed so that some of the movement of the explosion is caught on the camera’s sensor. To select a slow shutter speed, shoot in shutter priority (Tv or S mode) on your mode dial. A good shutter speed to start with is somewhere in the ball park of about 5 seconds – plenty of time to capture the movement of the fireworks in the sky, and perhaps form a cluster of several fireworks all adding in together. Generally low ISOs go with slow photos, so select a low ISO. ISO 100 is probably a good starting point. 

It’s a good idea to do a test shot before the fireworks start to see if you’re happy with your composition and the resulting exposure of the photo. Fireworks are obviously bright and introduce more light into the scene so once they begin, keep checking your resulting photos on the back of your screen.  

More advanced users may like to switch over into Manual Mode (rather than Tv or S) and dial in these same settings to lock-in correct exposure for the scene so that when these random explosions of light start going off in the sky, the camera doesn’t try to compensate by changing settings from one shot to the next. This isn’t usually much of a drama though, so I wouldn’t suggest you worry about going into Manual Mode unless you’re finding your images are varying wildly in their exposure from one to the next. 


Jonathan Ives runs photography courses and safaris with Chris Bray Photography. His photos have appeared in AG and Australian Geographic Adventure. He has a Bachelor of Science in Advanced Biology and a Master of Arts. Chris Bray Photography also runs one-day photography workshops in capital cities around Australia. Find out more.