How to Photograph Fireworks

by LizM

A free online photography lesson on how to take great fireworks photographs

Most of the world loves fireworks. In the US it is 4th of July and New Year's Eve with the most skyward pyrotechnics. In the UK Guy Fawkes Night is lit up. Chinese New Year is another large display of fireworks. Wherever you are, chances are you have a chance to see incredible fireworks at least once a year.

If you are like most folks, you've tried to photograph those fireworks before with disappointing results. Not this year, this year you'll get some great fireworks photos by following this photo lesson.

Fireworks Finale Photograph
Fireworks Finale Photograph

Pick Your Gear

First things first, you need the right gear.  Now don't panic.  Fireworks photography doesn't require a lot of fancy equipment.  Chances are the camera you already have will work fine.


  • Long exposure setting:  Whether it is manual control or a preset for fireworks, you need something that will let you hold the shutter open for a couple of seconds.
  • Support:  A tripod or beanbag will work well for this.  Anything to hold the camera steady while the shutter is open.  Note that the hood of an idling car is NOT stable at all.
  • Small aperture setting:  On your menu this will be a large FStop number.  This lets you have a large depth of field so focus points are not pinpoint critical.  Again, manual control or a preset for fireworks can be worked with, just be sure your camera has this ability.

 Nice to Have

  • Remote release: A wireless remote for your shutter will greatly reduce camera shake and reduce the risk of you tripping over your own tripod.
  • Full manual control:  It is much easier to set the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture on your own without fighting with presets that think they know more than you do.


Pick Your Location

Now we start getting to the nitty gritty of fireworks photography.  It will be dark and you'll be pointing your camera somewhat skyward so you don't have to worry about trash cans and such as that in the foreground but that doesn't mean just any old spot will do.

  • Visibility:  You need a location where you can actually see the fireworks without obstruction.  Trees are fine but not if they hide more than maybe 10% of the fireworks.  Power lines are sneaky, your mind will filter them out unless you look for them but they will show up strong on your photos.
  • Light pollution:  Are there street lights or brightly lit buildings between you and the fireworks?  Stray light can ghost or fog your images so you don't get a clear photo.  Pick a location as far away from stray lighting as possible.
  • Field of vision:  This is a touch different from visibility.  In addition to the fireworks being visible you actually don't want to be too close to them.  Professional fireworks displays cover a huge space in the sky.  It is better to be at least 4 blocks away or even 1 mile if you are looking to include a skyline in your images.  Even at a distance you'll rarely need more than about 100mm lens to capture the action.  Usually, you'll be using magnifications more around 50mm or 75mm at most.
  • Landmarks:  Do you want to include anything other than the fireworks in the shot?  Is there a statue you want to include?  Or is the display over a bay full of boats?  Pick a location where you have a good view of the landmark and can get the composition you want.

Scouting ahead is your best bet for finding the "perfect" spot for your fireworks photography.  Check with organizers where the display is to be aimed and then start looking for your location.  Remember that locations will look completely different at night than during the day.


Pick Your Settings

This is what you really wanted to hear isn't it?  Exactly what settings to plug into your camera for a perfect shot?  Well, here are settings that I have used with very good results.  However, you should consider these starting points for your photos because the light situation will not be exactly the same when you are shooting.  Take a few shots, review them on the LCD and adjust accordingly.  If you have too much light the colors will be washed out.  Too little light and you will barely see the light trails.  If your shutter is not open long enough you won't capture the full shape of the firework.

Individual Shells

  • Aperture:  F10
  • Film Speed: 100
  • Shutter Speed:  3 Seconds

Finale or Rapid Fire Shells

  • Aperture:  F14
  • Film Speed:  100
  • Shutter Speed:  5 Seconds


You need to focus your camera before the fireworks begin.  Or at least plan to miss the first few shots as you focus.  If your camera has manual focus you can prefocus easily by going to the infinity setting and pulling back just a hair from that.  If you only have autofocus then focus on the first few bursts and your camera should be ok from there once it has the range.

If you are including a landmark in the photo you'll need to focus on the landmark instead of the fireworks.  This is another reason for the large FStop/small aperture, it gives you more depth of field for shots like this.


Once you are ready to take your shots you have to be sure you trip the shutter at the right time.  You WILL miss the first few shells while you are learning this.  After you've photographed a few shows you'll get the count right on instinct.

  1. As soon as you hear the percussion of the shell being fired, start counting.
  2. Remember at what count you see the actual bloom explosion of the shell display begin.  Count how long it takes for the display to reach its full shape and remember this number as well.
  3. Now you know how long to wait after the percussion of launch to trip the shutter just before the display of the shell begins.  You also know how long your shutter speed needs to be in order to capture the full extent of the shell pattern.
Updated: 02/22/2013, LizM
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Sandi on 06/25/2013

Glad you posted, this as our club is going to fireworks and I needed a refresher, love shooting them. Thanks for a super great article, Liz, had forgotten some things. Excellent writing too!!

katiem2 on 03/07/2013

We have an amazing fireworks display every 4th and I attempt getting good photos every year with more bad ones than good ones. Now I feel hopeful of finally getting it right. Thanks for the tutorial on taking good pictures. :)K

HollieT on 02/22/2013

These are great tips, Liz. As a very amateur photographer I need all the help that I can get! Love the photograph by the way, it's beautiful.

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