Three Keys to Photographing Fireworks Successfully

It's that time of year again! Time to clean off the grill, pull the patio furniture out of the garage and get together with friends and family to celebrate our nation's independence.

One of my favorite things about the Fourth of July is the spectacular fireworks displays in cities across the country. Whether you’re traveling to New Castle, Pennsylvania (the Fireworks Capital of America) or watching your hometown's fireworks display, there is no denying that fireworks can make some beautiful photographs. Here are a few tips from the crew at TRG Reality to help make your Fourth of July fireworks photos worthy of a Facebook album or a spot above the fireplace.

1. The equipment.

There are a few key pieces of equipment you’ll need to photograph fireworks really effectively:

  • You’ll need a camera with manual control over shutter speed and aperture.

  • Take a good sturdy tripod. Exposure times will be long (in excess of 2 to 4 seconds, depending on the types of fireworks). A tripod will reduce the blur caused by trying to handhold your camera during these long exposures.

  • You’ll also need a cable release, which will allow you to photograph the fireworks without ever physically touching the camera. A cable release and tripod will ensure that the fireworks you photograph are in focus while reducing the chance of motion blur due to camera movement.

2. The location.

Finding a prime location for camera setup is one of the most important parts of photographing fireworks successfully. Follow the tips below before setting up shop:

  • Talk to the event organizers about logistics, like from where the fireworks will be detonated and in which direction.

  • Check the weather. Consider wind speed and wind direction, as both will influence the way fireworks drift through the air as they explode and fall back to the ground.

  • Find good foreground and background elements that will complement the fireworks. Maybe framing a crowd in the foreground of your picture, watching the fireworks, with the skyline in the background? Or the black night sky accented by pops of color? In any case, including other subjects in the picture will help create a context for the fireworks display and give more compositional interest to the image.

  • Take some time to pre-visualize how the image will look so you can anticipate and adapt to any changes that may (and will!) happen along the way.

TRG Reality image of fireworks. 

Personal anecdote: when I photographed the image above, I knew ahead of time the location and direction in which the fireworks would be shot over Cleveland Browns Stadium. I knew the fireworks were occurring immediately after the game ended, so I anticipated the crowds of people that would be milling around the stadium exits. I wanted to shoot from above the crowd, so the photograph could effectively capture the depth of people gathered around. Even with all of my pre-planning, I found myself sprinting down West 3rd Street towards the stadium, an already-mounted camera attached to my tripod in one arm and a six-foot ladder slung across the other.

In the end, I was poised and ready 15 minutes before the game ended, but making sure I was there ahead of time meant I could spend a few extra minutes getting my camera set up correctly to balance the lights of the stadium with the exposure times needed for the fireworks.

3. The settings.

When it comes to the different camera settings for photographing fireworks, the trick is to keep the shutter open as long as necessary to capture the full burst of color from the fireworks explosion. Digital has made this easier because you can experiment in the field and look at the result of each shutter, f-stop, and ISO combination. I would recommend a shutter speed of between 2 to 4 seconds and a fairly wide aperture (f 5.6-f 8) that allows you to have an ISO level low enough to not introduce excess digital noise. Experiment and find which combo works best with your camera. Luckily, the best part of a fireworks display is the grand finale, so you’ll have some time.

In a nutshell: take your time, visualize the final result, bring the proper equipment, and plan ahead. With a little patience, your fireworks photos will come out beautifully.