Sean Sullivan
July 4, 2009

[My Artistic Photography Website]

If you are interested in photographing fireworks on a digital camera, but are unsure of how to set it up, here are some tips. These comments will only be helpful if your camera has manual settings. Since fireworks are extremely different from ordinary photographic subjects, I feel that manual control is particularly valuable for this kind of photography.

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1 - Long Exposure.

For everyday photography, the exposure (the length of time that the camera is accepting light) is kept as short as possible, to reduce blur. This lets the camera get a clear snapshot of the scene as it appears to the eye. However, for fireworks, this is NOT what you want. Much of the visual effect is due to the symmetric motion away from the initial exposion, and this is lost in a snapshot, which may show nothing more than a ring of little dots of light.

With fireworks, it's better to take a long exposure that captures the sweep of the bright flares as they radiate away from the initial explosion. This more closely reflects the visual impression of watching the fireworks. Exposures between 1 and 5 seconds seem to work well. There's little benefit to going longer, because the flares from a given explosion will have fallen away. It can be interesting to get multiple explosions in a single image, which is more likely with longer exposures, but it can also make the image more confusing.

2 - Low Sensitivity.

Fireworks are bright. Snapshot photographs may appear mostly dark, but that's because the flares are point sources, and most of the image shows dark sky. But with a long exposure, each flare will be tracing a bright line across the photographic image. For this reason, the challenge is usually making the camera's optical system operate with a low sensitivity to light, so it doesn't overwhelm the sensor's dynamic range and overexpose.

First, the camera's light sensor should be set to a low-sensitivity (bright light) mode. This is expressed as the 'ISO', and I would recommend the lowest number available (e.g. ISO 50). This setting will also make the image as sharp as possible, since the sensor will generally have less noise or grain when it is less sensitive to light.

Second, to control the actual brightness of the image, use the setting for the lens aperature ('F stop'). Overall brightness is a product of F stop, light sensor sensitivity, and exposure time - and we've already used two of these settings, so the effective brightness will be controlled by the third parameter (F stop).

At the top of this page, you can see the exposure, F stop and ISO settings for some representative fireworks photographs that I have taken.

3 - Focus.

You can't autofocus on fireworks - there is either nothing to autofocus on, or the fireworks are moving too much to use as a target. But you know that fireworks are far away. So use manual focus, and set it to infinity.

4 - Tripod.

When taking long exposures, it's not practical to hold the camera by hand, since there will be too much vibration. Therefore, it is essential to have the camera on a stable surface. A tripod is ideal. If you do not have a tripod, you can prop the camera against a surface looking in the right direction, finding a way to tilt it towards the sky.

5 - Aiming.

Don't worry too much about the aiming. You can't predict exactly where each firework will explode. Use a wide setting, and aim in the right general direction, so that you are likely to get the whole of most fireworks inside your field of view. You can crop the images afterwards, and that is much more realistic than correctly aiming the camera in the first place for each image.

However, do pay attention to foreground obstructions. An awkwardly placed light pole or tree branch can ruin a whole series of images. If you have any foreground objects at all in your field of view, make sure it is by design. It can be surprisingly difficult to be careful about this, because at night, some obstructions may not make themselves evident - but still slow up clearly as a blockage against the general background sky.

6 - White Balance.

This step can be safely ignored. But if your camera has a white balance option, try using a 'daylight' setting. Automatic white balance might do something silly to the exposure, especially for brightly colored fireworks, if the camera trying to figure out how to restore normal color under the misguided impression that this is an everyday scene. So manual setting of white balance to normal light (daylight) seems like a safe precaution.

7 - Timing.

With long exposures, there is some flexibility in when you start each exposure. You can judge the motion of the ascending firework, and take the photograph when it is approaching the area where you expect it to explode. Then the shutter will be open throughout the explosion and flare lights.

But timing really doesn't matter that much. Without knowing what each firework will look like, or where it will be in the sky, there's really no way to carefully compose each image. Instead, it's effective to take lots of photographs with the same aiming and exposure, and see afterwards which frames have a good composition. If you keep a finger on the shutter, with the camera to your side on a tripod, you can take lots of photos without really thinking about the photography, and mostly be paying attention to watching the show.

8 - Checking your work.

After taking your first couple of photographs, you can see how they came out, to help you refine the technique for the rest of the show. In particular, see if the camera is aimed in the right direction, see if you are getting flare streaks of a desirable length (adjust with the exposure), and see if the image has a good level of brightness (adjust with the F stop).

Once you have it working, you probably won't need to go back and tinker with the settings. But if there are a series of similar fireworks that are unusually bright or faint, or in a different part of the sky, you can use these techniques to adjust for the changing circumstances.