How to Shoot Epic Firework Photos - Cramer Imaging - Quality Fine Art Photography
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How to Shoot Epic Firework Photos

How to Shoot Epic Firework Photos
The Fourth of July, with all its firework glory, is just around the corner.  Everyone wants to capture those memorable moments with the bright lights on film but most firework photos leave something to be desired in the depiction of the experience.  Here are some ways you can get those accurate and larger-than-life firework photos you want.

Blue fireworks with pink centers from Melalueca Freedom Fireworks Show professionally photographed by Cramer Imaging in Idaho Falls, Bonneville, Idaho
This photo is a minimum of a 5 second exposure for full firework coverage.
When I first got into photography, I remember wanting to get some of those epic firework photos when the Fourth of July came around.  Knowing I had no clue how, I decided to research out how to get the kinds of firework photos I wanted.  I found a few books and several good websites to give me some tutorials.

The first thing I came to realize is that fireworks are multiple second to even multiple minute experiences.  We can see the entire explosion of color with our eyes, from start to finish, but this is a point where the camera does not match the eye.

Camera shutters are only open for fractions of a second.  This far smaller time interval is the reason that most firework photos don't work out as hoped.  The camera only sees a tiny portion of the entire experience.  It records what it sees but it doesn't see the entire time interval.  This is one of the points which you must address in order to take epic firework photos.  Fortunately, there are some simple and easy ways to handle this.

The Gear

  • DSLR camera
  • tripod
  • cable release
  • telephoto lens

Multicolored fireworks from Melalueca Freedom Fireworks Show professionally photographed by Cramer Imaging in Idaho Falls, Bonneville, Idaho
Multiple bursts in the same shot can be just as interesting as singles or doubles.
The average consumer level digital camera does not have the option of manipulating the length of the shutter speed.  This means that you must have a minimum of an entry level DSLR camera in order to attempt this kind of photograph.

In order to take sharp photos, you must also use a tripod.  Multi second exposures are guaranteed to blur due to camera shake and your own motion.

This also means that you need a cable release so that your hand does not shake the camera as you trigger the shutter.  I have made that mistake before and there was motion blur in what was otherwise a tack sharp photo.

The telephoto lens will allow you to get in close to the big fireworks for more dramatic and epic shots.

The Technique

In order to make this work, you will need to set your camera up on your tripod.  Make sure that your cable release is also connected in properly.

You will need to set your camera up with Manual Mode, then you have the option to set the shutter speed to about 5 seconds or longer or you may choose to set your shutter on Bulb Mode (this may be found by scrolling out to the end of the long shutter speed lengths).

Bulb Mode gives you the power to decide how long you want the shutter to be open without using a preset time.  You simply push and hold the button down for the time you want to expose with.  When you release, the shutter will close.

Orange fireworks from The Biggest Show in Idaho professionally photographed by Cramer Imaging in Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho
This photo was taken using a tripod and cable release on bulb mode with a low ISO.
Set your ISO on the lowest setting that you can (200 for most Nikons, 100 for most Canons) so that you don't over expose the image and so that you don't end up with lots of digital noise either.  (Newer model cameras are less noisy than older models are)

Thanks to varying light conditions at each fireworks show location, you will need to decide what the best aperture setting for your camera will be.  I generally go with a mid-range f-stop number, such as f/8, thanks to the locations where I shoot firework photos.  You might have more light pollution to deal with and might want to stop down more.  Take a few test shots to double check your exposure.  Make adjustments if necessary.

Finally, you will need to learn how to anticipate when the fireworks are about to explode so that you can get the entire burst in your shot.  This will only be achieved through trial and error.  After a few attempts, you'll begin to get the idea.

Final Thoughts

The best firework shots are taken towards the beginning of a show, no matter what size.  This is for the simple reason that there will be an accumulation of smoke in the air obscuring the fireworks if you wait for later.  The fireworks will light up and highlight the smoke in areas you may not wish to have illuminated.  I have tried some of those shots before and been very disappointed.

An interesting foreground can add something to wide angle firework shots.  Make sure that the foreground is properly lit as the silhouette of something exposed through the long shutter time might not be epic enough.  Choose your foreground wisely.

Above all, make sure that you have a happy and safe Fourth of July this year.