Fireworks, teaching-photography, multi-layered,
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Fireworks Photography – From Daylight To Dark – All You Need

When you think about fireworks photography, most people only consider the brightness of fireworks and that they’re very difficult to shoot. Well, in fact, shooting fireworks photography is not nearly as complicated as it sounds. I’ll help break down all the technical aspects of shooting these types of photos and give you a step-by-step guide to some fun pics.

Set the Aperture and Iso

Your aperture starting point is f8. This is an aperture that on many lenses is the sharpest setting the lens has and it will allow for minor focus variances with its depth-of-field. As you shoot adjustments are made, if needed, to tweak your exposure with the aperture (More info to come). ISO can be set to 200. You’re photographing bright vivid colors so stay in the lower ISO numbers to record this.

Camera Set-up

The camera is about to be set in a way that may be new to you. That’s okay, life’s an adventure, and fireworks photography can help to capture the excitement of your 4th of July celebration.  Put your camera on a steady tripod and get ready to have some intense fun.

Shutter Speed

First, realize that you will be layering photos in-camera (easier than it sounds) by using your hand as your shutter. This technique is so much better with the ability to post-process so the preference is raw files. If you do not do post-processing you can still make some good memories.  But the tweaking and layering of post-production is taking this image-making to the next level. So let’s first deal with the shutter speed setting which needs set to B or Bulb. You’ll notice as you change to progressively slower speeds that the B will be visible.

This setting allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold down the shutter button. Push the button and the shutter opens, hold the button as long as you want the shutter to stay open.  Release the button and the shutter closes.  Consider doing this with a cable release, any quiver in your hand or bump while the shutter button is pressed will make the streaks of the fireworks have imperfections in their streakiness.

Your Hand–The Shutter

So the basic procedure is to hold your hand over the lens and press the shutter button; wait till the blast of fireworks is at its best. Move your hand away from the lens and replace it as the blast dissipates. With a hand covering the lens just wait. Another blast comes and all you do is remove your hand again….wait…replace your hand as that blast fades. You are now officially a shutter for your camera.

Here’s the Multiple Exposure/Layers

Start by getting three blasts by removing your hand and replacing it three times. Then release the shutter button to allow the camera shutter to close and advance for the next exposure collection. Look at your image preview and if it’s too bright close the lens a stop and if it’s too dark open a stop. Yes, your metering setting needs to be Manual. Now, try again.  First, a little information that you will find useful.

Why is the Brightness Such a Variable

Fireworks are made from a combination of an oxidizer, fuel, and color-producing chemicals. The chemicals burn at different rates creating the different colors we see in the show. The brightness of each color is also affected by how much oxidizer and fuel were added. By varying the amounts used, the color, the intensity, and the duration of each firework are determined. For example, strontium nitrate burns red with special brilliance. And copper chloride produces blue-green. Barium compounds create green-gold hues, lithium imparts pale lilac colors, sodium yields yellow/orange and calcium gives off an intense white light.

It’s a detailed creation but also the tone and brightness vary across a grand scale.  Lots of colors and lots of different intensities. So you may feel that you can combine 3 blasts at their peak and the next exposure you are greeted by a bright white blast that covers the sky.  Oh my, now it’s over-exposed.  Shoot lots of exposures and hope for a few memo special images.

Tweaking the exposure

You should try firework photography! It may be new to you, but it can provide an exciting way to capture your 4th of July celebration. There are many techniques to learn, like tweaking the exposure by making more or fewer blasts in your exposure.  Brighter or darker your image; try adjusting exposure by varying the number of blasts only.  Tweak the f-stop to be sure your close on exposure.  Then, as fast as you can, make exposures by varying the total brightness of the multiple blasts.

More blasts will make it brighter and less can make it darker. Of course when the bright white blast comes (you know the one that lights the sky like sunshine) it will overexpose so close quickly to limit the exposure. Another technique is to watch the blast and pick one in a specific area of the frame, open for that blast and then close your hand/shutter. When the next blast comes in the same area of the frame just keep the hand/shutter closed till a blast comes to another part of the frame then add that to your collection of blasts by just opening your hand/shutter. 

You’re working in layers building your exposures. When blasts layer on top of one another, the cumulative effect can overexpose your image so by watching where the blasts are in the frame you can minimize the overlapping effect. 

So you get a large red blast in the top-middle area of the frame. Then you get a set of small blue blasts low and spread out over the frame. These would make a good combination. Another way to watch and better your exposure is to note the time you open for each blast. 

If the exposure is too bright then cut back on the amount of time you open for each blast. If it’s too dark then hold your hand/shutter open for more of the blast. Example: I capture a blast and note that I counted 8 seconds each time I opened my hand/shutter and the cumulative exposure is a bit too bright. On the next group of blasts, I will hold my hand/shutter open for only a count of 5 seconds and YES I got a better image.


Focus the camera on the earliest blasts and check the focus.  Then leave it alone, turn off the auto-focus so however you set it, it’ll stay put. Be ready to shoot for an intense 10-20 minutes and then it’s over. So shooting and looking and checking and readying for the next is not the preferred workflow. Eliminate as many of the variables and set things and leave them so you can shoot, shoot, shoot and enjoy the experience. The rush.

Needed Accessories

Even without a tripod, you can capture some wonderful images in low light. Let’s agree to call them artsy.  Technically, this photography needs to be on Tripod.  I am always tripod bound for this photography. If not, it could be just a mixture of streaks and motion blurs.  Creative expression, if you like.  Not me. Cable Releases are a big help in fireworks photography and I would suggest them. Part of your evening can be spent getting ready for what can be an intense 10 or 15 minutes of shooting.  Pick the place that you’d like to shoot from early. Align with where the fireworks will be shot from and estimate where they’ll be at the apex of their flight. As the darkness falls you may need to see details on the camera in the dark.  Consider a small flashlight or headlamp to see your tools. Once the show starts, turn off the light. Your neighbors will like you for doing so. A white towel is a handy thing to have if you are changing lenses and caps during the darkness. This is definitely a zoom kinda thing so no time is wasted changing lenses. Just keep all the gear on the white towel (minimal or zero) so small gizmos are not lost in the grass and when all is over you can see on the white towel.  Not so good on darker surfaces.


Totally subjective, how close do you plan to be?  I shoot wide and close if possible.  I remember though shooting from a bridge over the Mississippi River to a site over a mile away.  Think through and visualize where the blasts will happen and allow for them to be bigger than you may think.  So, 24 and wide…Yes.  50 and normal…probably. Longer zooms…only for the distant viewing.

Wrap It Up

The aperture is set, the shutter speed is covered, the ISO is low and the focus is preset. All is good with your tripod and ready to go. Enjoy! A great way to improve your photography is by learning the best ways to capture firework blasts, minimizing mistakes that would otherwise result in blurry shots or lost opportunities. If you love fireworks and photography as I do, then these tips will help you create some gorgeous imagery. But don’t stop here! Check out the articles I’ve written that may help in other areas of your photo walk. Wishing you the best images!

If you love fireworks and photography as I do, then these tips will help you create some gorgeous imagery. But don’t stop here! What else would you be interested in?

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