Nine essential tips for photographing fireworks

November 5, 2021

Bonfire Night means lots of great photo opportunities, but getting memorable photos of fireworks is a technical challenge – people snapping away with phones at displays will struggle to get more than record shots of big bangs far away in the sky. If you want images that will still be interesting all year round, read on for some essential advice.

Photographing fireworks requires you to take full manual control over the camera, so if you’ve never strayed away from Auto or Program mode before, now is the time to take the plunge. The skills you will learn will help you in other areas of your photography too. Whether you’re it’s the first time you’ve photographed fireworks, or the 16th time, Bonfire night or Guy Fawkes night is a great time to get some amazing shots.

You’ll also be working in the dark, so it pays to do some preparation first. Here are some things you need to know about photographing fireworks on bonfire night before venturing out…

1. Use a tripod

Even with the huge leaps forward in image stabilisation over the last few years, if you are going to be photographing fireworks, it pays to take a tripod. That way you can keep as much sharpness and detail in the fireworks, while also keeping buildings and other contextual elements looking nice and crisp.

As you will be working in the dark and exposures are likely to be 10secs or more, the camera must be fixed securely in place so that no camera movement can ruin your shot. Also ensure that all three legs are tightly locked so they won’t slip. Even a minuscule amount of movement can spoil the image, so don’t take that chance.

Be very careful where you locate the tripod if there are lots of people walking past at the display, or excited kids running about. And obviously watch out for any bonfires!

Remember to switch off any image stabilisation in your lens because it won’t be necessary when the camera is on a tripod – and it could actually cause the image to blur slightly.

2. Remote release

There is no point mounting the camera on a tripod if you then jog the camera when you fire the shutter by hand. Instead, you should use a remote or cable release to allow safe, jog-free operation of the shutter. Another option is to use a phone app that fires your shutter button via Bluetooth.

If you don’t own a remote release you can use your camera’s self-timer, but the delay between pressing the shutter button and the exposure starting means you might miss the optimum moment to take the shot. To avoid this as much as possible, set the time delay from pressing the button to the shutter firing to the minimum that your camera allows.

3. Focusing

If it’s so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, how are you going to focus? The simplest method is to manually focus the camera to infinity, which should be marked on your lens with this ∞ icon. You will normally be far enough from the fireworks so that once the lens is set to infinity, you can just leave it there.

Or you can focus using Live View on a DSLR or focus peaking/zooming in with a mirrorless camera. Fireworks go off very fast, so try pre-focussing on a building or landmark.

Alternatively, shine a torch onto something approximately one third of the way into the scene and focus on that point. This could be the heads of the crowd watching the fireworks display, for example.

4. Head torch and gloves

A head torch is a hugely practical piece of kit that is perfect for anyone who regularly takes photos at night. You can use it to help illuminate the camera when you need to make adjustments, or to shine on objects you need to focus on. Because the torch is fixed on your head, both hands are left free to operate your kit, or even eat a hotdog.

Take along some decent photography gloves that keep your hands warm while also enabling you to adjust camera buttons and dials. Cheap woollen items will feel like boxing gloves and get very frustrating.

5. Scout out your location in daylight

If you intend to visit a local fireworks display, then it’s definitely worth casing the joint first! Find out where the fireworks are going to be released from and where the front of the crowd will be, as it will help give you an idea of where best to set up. Look for high ground to shoot from, and consider what is in the background and anything that can be used to give your image a fresh twist.

If there is a local landmark near the display, such as old church tower, monument or photogenic tower block, try and include that too. Such elements will keep the shot interesting all year round.

6. Take a stepladder or box

If you’re lucky enough to find some high ground to shoot from, you’re doing well; if not, you might find yourself stuck behind a crowd of spectators. To frame them neatly at the base of your shot, you’ll need your tripod extended to its maximum height. But unless you are equally tall, this makes it difficult to look through the viewfinder to frame the scene or make exposure adjustments. So borrow a tip from the paparazzi who often jump onto little step ladders or boxes to give themselves a boost in height.

7. Play with the exposure

It is all too easy to underexpose or overexpose your fireworks shots. If you find that your fireworks look too bright, try altering your settings to achieve a darker sky and crisper fireworks. While the ‘Fireworks’ mode on more entry level cameras might sound tempting to use, the end results are usually disappointing. Your camera may have some other useful features though. Many Olympus cameras have “Live Time / Live Bulb” modes that allow you to see the exposure as it’s happening and this can be very helpful for changing settings on the fly.

8. Use reflections

If you’re lucky enough to be photographing fireworks near water, then reflections work really well. Being further from the display might mean fewer crowds to contend with too!

9. Tips for taking the shot

1. Frame your shot and focus either to infinity or on a point roughly one-third of the way into the scene

2. Set your camera to manual exposure or bulb. Manual exposure is probably best to start with, as exposures are unlikely to last much more than 5-10ses. Bulb is better when you need to keep the shutter open for a much longer period of time because the shutter remains open until you press the shutter button a second time to close it

3. Set a low ISO, such as ISO 100 or 200. This will help keep noise to a minimum, and because the camera is fixed on a tripod you don’t need to worry about setting a fast shutter speed

4. Set your aperture to f/8 as a starting point and your exposure to 5secs. When a firework goes up, open the shutter using the remote release, then review the result on the back screen

5. If you want to ensure you are getting more than one firework exploding within the scene, take a small black card that you can hold over the front of the lens. If you don’t have a card, then a cupped, dark-gloved hand will work, but take care not to touch the lens itself. Extend the exposure time and hold the card over the front of the lens between fireworks to prevent any ambient light entering. The shutter may be open for 15secs or 20secs, but as you are holding back the exposure with the card, the camera is only capturing the light trails from each separate explosion. This technique works best with bulb mode, especially if you need to extend the exposure.

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