Skies Ablaze – Capturing Fireworks

Pod People [C_033010]

Photo 1: Abstract Sausalito fireworks (aka Pod People)

Several times a year Americans (and others around the world) find an excuse to gratuitously burn large amounts of black powder in spectacular displays that serve no real purpose except to create awe and wonder. For that reason alone, I love fireworks.

Fireworks are an interesting subject for Night Photography and require a little patience and experimentation to do well. And I have found some new approaches to photographing fireworks that make them even more interesting – as shown in Photo 1, above. Yes… that is a firework burst!  For information on how I achieved that effect, see below.

Challenges with Fireworks

Fireworks come with their own set of issues. From the ephemeral nature of the light to the selection of a site to photograph them from.  I generally favor more distant locations where I am able to switch between telephoto and wide angle lenses to alter the composition of the shot.  At greater distances the flashes of the fireworks are also a little less challenging photographically.

Brief Intense Light

Firework bursts are brief lasting seconds or less, but surprisingly they are very bright. Because they are so brief catching them at just the right moment may at first seem daunting. As with all things night photography the camera is quite inadequate at metering or adjusting for fireworks in a way that will capture the drama and grace. So the first tip:

Tip 1: Stay in MANUAL mode and do not let the camera try to adjust anything.

I generally prefer settings that are approximately like this:  200 ISO, f/9, 10 seconds.  But may change those dramatically based on the outcome of a shot or two, and how much background I’m trying to grab.  For example, I will often choose shorter exposures at higher ISOs, and sometimes I use BULB mode.  More on that in a moment.

Location, Location, Location

As in real estate, location is everything. Fireworks, in my opinion look better against a city skyline, reflected in water, or next to the moon or a snowy mountain peak. But creating an exposure to include those background elements is tricky, sometimes very tricky.

Nearly every event in which fireworks are employed is massively crowded (think 4th of July) so finding a clear view and a safe hassle free space to set up a tripod takes a little creativity and patience. Fortunately fireworks can be viewed from near or far – and far is often a bit better.

Photo 2: Fireworks and the San Francisco Skyline

Weather may also be problematic – as in the San Francisco area where fog in the summer evenings and mornings is normal. Four years of shooting produced only one year with moderate haze (as in Photo 2). Two years were complete shutouts.  Photo 2 could be improved with a brighter background – either by taking a longer exposure at the time or by combining with an exposure taken earlier or later in the evening.

The minions in the Night Photography group were clamoring to shoot fireworks, but thrice burned equals twice shy despite a fantastic location found years earlier.

Tip 2: A good location is always the better choice. Location, location, location!


Wide shot or tight shot?

Photo 3: Tight coverage of a burst

Photo 4: Wide angle with pond and reflection

Straight shot or creative shot:

Photo 5: Changing focus during exposure

Fortunately there is no rule that says you can not try a number of different approaches in the same event – provided the event lasts long enough.  However it is best to start with trying to get a pleasing result that is conventional in nature that is, more like Photo 4, above.


As in comedy, timing is important.  Start the exposure too soon and you’ll catch the bright burst of the firework which may very well overwhelm the camera and produce a “white blob”. There are three approaches to the timing problem, and sometimes I use all three in the same night:

  1. Set the camera up with an intervalometer/locked remote shutter and just let it run.
  2. Manually release the shutter using a fixed exposure length as soon as you see a burst.
  3. Manually control the shutter in bulb mode.

The main reason to use a fixed exposure length is if you intend to stack or animate your photos – keeping the background exposures the same produces a more pleasing, flicker free result. However if your only goal is to “get the boom”, option 3 is probably the best.  I recommend shooting after the initial “boom” because what makes the firework appealing is the light spreading and then falling over time.  How long to expose depends on a lot of things, of course, including how bright the background is and how many fireworks are blowing up at a time.  The Finale is usually a good time to take your eye off the camera and enjoy the show because finale’s usually end up a washed out mess.

Tip 3: Start the exposure immediately AFTER the boom.

Creative License

So how did I get the strange effects in Photo 1 and Photo 5?  I adjusted the focus while exposing.  I have also played with the zoom while exposing.  In Photo 1 the shot started focused and I defocussed it.  In shot 5 it was the other way around – it started out of focus and finished less out of focus.

Once you start playing with the focus, do not expect to have sharp images which is why I recommend you get the conventional exposure first before you get all creative.


4 thoughts on “Skies Ablaze – Capturing Fireworks

  1. Steven Christenson

    Here is a conventional shot of the 75th Anniversary Golden Gate Bridge Celebration:

    Pomp and Circumstance [C_040611]

    I felt this event was too important to struggle with focus, so I didn’t try any creative tricks during the event.

    You’ll notice one more thing about this photo… the prevailing wind was from the west. To get the clearest shot being on the West side was best in this case. Remember what I said: Location! Location! Location!

  2. Pingback: Playing with Fire | Star Circle Academy

  3. Kasturi

    Hi Steven …Not sure if its intentional, but a lot of the photographs are not view-able anymore! would love to see the focus/out of focus ones..


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