Good fireworks photography is no easy feat. You’re not just capturing an event; you’re capturing a spectacle, a momentary slice of grandeur that lights up the sky. Over the years, I’ve developed a method to not only capture these bursts of light but also to create a composition that tells a fuller story. Here are my personal tips and techniques for photographing fireworks like a seasoned pro.

Core Components for Fireworks Photography

Gear matters when capturing next level fireworks photography, and knowing your equipment inside and out can make or break your photos. Here’s my list of gear that I consider indispensable for capturing those awe-inspiring fireworks:

  • Camera: Canon EOS 5DS R SLR – I’m an old-school DSLR fan, and the control this camera offers is unmatched. Mirrorless is probably fine, but my Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless is not as powerful as my SLR. Protip: I will often do a timelapse with my mirrorless while I shoot with my SLR.
  • Lens: Canon EF Mark II 24-70mm f2.8L USM – Versatile and sharp, this lens is perfect for capturing the vibrant colors and intricate designs of the fireworks. It also gives me just enough zoom to play with composition and permits me to set focus and lock it.
  • Tripod: Cameron T200BH – Don’t underestimate the importance of a reliable tripod; it’s the cornerstone of successful long-exposure photography. While the Cameron T200BH is easy on the wallet, it doesn’t compromise on functionality. The latching leg locks are invaluable, particularly in colder climates like Canada’s—trust me, twist locks become an absolute hassle in frigid temperatures. As for the material, I opt for the sturdiness and cost-effectiveness of aluminum over the lighter but pricier carbon fiber. Considering I go through tripods relatively frequently, affordability is a must. All things considered, the Cameron T200BH is hands-down the best tripod I’ve ever owned.
  • Wireless Shutter Release: MIOPS Smart+ Controller and App – Wireless is the way to go for long exposures. It minimizes camera shake and gives you that much-needed freedom to play with settings. I was in early on the MIOPs when they did their first Kickstarter, and I absolutely love their app and hardware.
  • Camera Strap: I mention this because whenever doing very long exposures, having the ability to remove the strap to prevent wind vibration is key. I use the Peak Design SLIDE camera strap and love it. Not only because its adjustable, but also because it makes it very easy to remove the strap for shooting long exposures.

So that sums up my gear setup. While you don’t need to replicate my kit item for item, the essentials remain the same: a sturdy tripod, a camera capable of wireless control in bulb mode, and a quality lens are all key components.

Scout Your Location

Much like in landscape photography, planning is crucial when it comes to capturing fireworks. The ideal location isn’t just about proximity; it’s about adding depth and drama to your photos with a compelling foreground. While many photographers aim to get as close as possible, essentially shooting skyward, I find that approach limiting if you’re aiming for impactful imagery.

That’s where the PIXEO App comes in handy for me, and is one of the reasons we developed it. It’s an invaluable tool for scouting locations, offering insights into potential viewpoints and visual elements. Being prepared allows me to visualize the shots I want to capture beforehand. Additionally, I often go on site the day before, to scout the fireworks expected launch location. Then that evening I go on  Google Earth to scout the location once again and make sure the angles all work from where the fireworks are launched from. Finally, I arrive on-site early the day of, I walk around and frame potential shots through my camera lens. When doing this I use the principles I was taught in my early days by composing my frame from back to front—aligning background elements first before moving to the foreground, all while keeping the rules of thirds and other compositional principles in mind. A move of a few inches or feet can make the difference when it come to composition.

Height considerations for fireworks are also crucial. It’s disappointing to meticulously plan a shoot only to find out that the fireworks are either too low or too high to include your chosen foreground elements. The height at which fireworks detonate can vary widely; smaller shows typically have explosions between 200-500 feet, while large-scale displays can reach heights of 500-1500 feet and beyond. To gauge the likely height of the fireworks, I often look up photos from previous years’ events, especially for recurring shows like July 4th or Canada Day. This research helps me frame my shots more effectively, allowing for the incorporation of landmarks or crowds to enhance the visual appeal.

Focus Like a Pro

Once I know where I will be shooting from, I generally don’t move from that spot. Before the first rocket sails into the sky, and even before night falls, I take a moment to focus my lens and then switch off the auto-focus. Then, because my lens supports it, I flick the switch to lock the focus. This latter step allows me to freely change my composition by zooming and moving the ball head throughout the show without worrying about my camera refocusing.

Once I’ve set everything up, I take a break and sit with my gear to wait for nightfall so I can set my base exposure.

Base Exposure and the Secret Recipe

Short verses Long Exposure Fireworks Photography

Note: In the above photos, you’ll notice distinct differences between fireworks captured using short and long exposures. While short exposure shots have their merits, my personal preference leans toward the visual impact of long exposures. The following sections will delve into the techniques for achieving stunning long exposure shots. However, if you’re more inclined towards the aesthetic of short exposure, simply adapt the information below and set your camera to a minimum shutter speed of 1/125th of a second.

Before the sky lights up with fireworks, I take a few crucial steps to set up what I call the perfect “base exposure”. Typically I need a minimum of five seconds of exposure time to capture 3 bursts, I aim to minimize noise by sticking to my camera’s native ISO of 200, and I want to avoid unnecessary depth-of-field issues or diffraction blur. Also, I find it helpful to think of each firework as kind of like a camera flash or strobe—their brightness is constant, so my shutter speed mainly controls how “streaky” each firework will be. I go for maximum streakiness.

Through trial and lots of error, I’ve found the sweet spot for exposing fireworks to be between f8 and f11 at ISO 200. If I close the aperture too much (like above f14), the fireworks look dim; if I open it too wide, the colors wash out. Now, the final piece of the puzzle is shutter speed.

After setting my camera to f8 and ISO 200, I take test shots to gauge the minimum shutter speed needed for my desired ambient light. Typically, I find 5–10 seconds to be just right.

So, here’s my “secret recipe” for base exposure when shooting in a location with ambient city lights:

  • f8
  • ISO 200
  • 5-second exposure

But here’s the kicker: I set my shutter to 20 seconds. Why? Because even if I expose for the full 20 seconds, I only overexpose the foreground by two stops. My real goal is to capture 3 or 4 good bursts without completely blowing out the highlights of the ambient lights, but also having the flexibility to expose longer if needed. The dynamic range of my camera when I shoot raw means I can get away with about 2 stops overexposed and 4 stops underexposed. So if the city lights end up exposing 2 stops over I can usually rescue the highlights in post processing.

In practice, here is what I do. As soon as I see the first firework go off, I start my exposure and then count to 5 in my head. If I see at least 3 bursts, I’m golden and I close the shutter. If not, I keep waiting for a third or fourth burst until the shutter closes on its own at 20 seconds. The whole time I am trying to visualize the final photo based on what I see and cut the exposure off at just the right moment.

A bit of a historical note that might work for you as well. In days gone by, I was taught to use wired controllers to keep the shutter open, blocking the lens with a black card in between firework bursts (wireless controllers didn’t exist). But today I find that method risky—there’s too much potential for nudging the camera and spoiling the shot with the black card, not to mention the light leakage you might experience from surrounding city lights.

One Last Camera Setting Tip:

Turn off your camera’s Automatic Noise Reduction, otherwise, you’ll be waiting as long as your exposure time for the photo to process.

Safety and Photographer Etiquette

It goes without saying, but safety is paramount. Always maintain a reasonable distance from the fireworks and stay alert to your surroundings. Drone pilots, don’t be reckless-flying in unauthorized zones or through fireworks. This kind of nonsense is not only illegal but dangerous. You risk damaging your drone and potentially injuring someone, not to mention adding to environmental waste with your downed drone. Worst of all you give drone pilots like us a bad name, and contribute to the increasing restrictions placed on pilots these days.

Regarding etiquette, if you arrive late, don’t be the person who obstructs others’ views by setting up a tripod right in front of a row of early-bird photographers. Always check with those behind you to ensure you’re not ruining anyone’s shots. If you are, either find a new spot or make plans to arrive earlier next time.

The Result

And there you have it! That’s my complete guide to capturing fireworks like a pro. Feel free to adapt these tips to fit your own style and gear. The below photos are some of my shots from a recent fireworks festival using these techniques. Happy shooting!

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