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Photographing Fireworks

Fireworks are more common place today than they have been in the past, with many events having large displays. However you can rely in the UK on having far too many opportunities to choose from at the beginning of each November.

Just about everywhere, near to November the 5th, there will be major displays, and many of these will provide a great opportunity for the photographer. But there are also other opportunities such as at New Year and at the end of many large organised events such as the Lord Mayors Show in November.

To find the larger events check the photographers diary section (button on the left), or look in the listing available here.

Photographing a firework display requires a tripod, as the exposures are longer than you can handhold even with a stabilised lens. What you are showing is the track of the firework over a period of time.

When you watch TV, you see a single dot moving in lines down the screen, but your eyes retains information for a period making it appear as a picture, in a similar way when a rocket explodes, the dots go off in all directions, and its because your eye is slow and shows what is actually over a large space, a bit at a time, as a solid line that the firework display works. With a camera we need to make it also record what happens over a time as a single image.

The length of the exposure depends on the amount we want to have in an individual photo. So for example if we had the shutter open for the whole firework display then every firework that went off would be in the same photo. This however would be just a mess. Over a show we may want to vary the amount we include, perhaps some single bursts of a single firework, some several and maybe one or two more crowded shots.

The camera settings

The aperture we use will define the width of the firework track. A bright aperture (towards f2) and you have fat tracks with little detail, very dark apertures (towards f32) and you have very fine lines, with every spark showing, but perhaps too small an impact.

The ISO/ASA that you choose allows you to select the ideal combination of shutter speed and aperture, without the available light, lighting up the background too much.

Generally the focus is the easiest part, you can just switch to manual focus, set the focus at infinity and leave it there.

So lets start fairly simply, photographing a single rocket burst. To do this we need an exposure long enough to cover the firework burst plus a bit over, so perhaps around 2 seconds.

The image on the right and the one below was taken with the camera set at ISO 100, F11 at 2 seconds.

See Larger Image Image above - click to see a larger version




Both images photographed at

ISO = 100
2 sec at F11

Notice the detail as the sparks fall away along the tracks, the direction controlled by the wind.




You need to press the shutter when you see the rocket about half way up so as to get the full image. Of course if you prefer you can take flower like images, or open bursts, this is done by pressing the shutter later, as in the example below.



This images shows that if you press the shutter after the firework has reached its burst point, you end up with hollow centres. This has two bursts shown,  the front one has a burst for probably half a second, while the second one has only just gone off.

This can be used to get striking effects.




The image on the right shows the effect of very loud music playing.

The camera was on a tripod, but the sound was causing the ground to vibrate, which in turn put a vibration through the tripod and you can see the music vibration show up in the track of the bursts, giving a wiggly line effect.


By having the shutter open longer you can include more firework bursts within a single photo.

The white light you see in the background of many of these photos is the moon. As the viewing area for the fireworks was a specified safe area. It does not show in all photos, as the fireworks were going off in a number of areas.

Not every photograph is going to be a masterpiece, and as you are generally pushing the button before you know what you are gong to see, you will miss some, some with be outside your frame and many will be in another direction. So expect to take quite a lot and delete well over half. If you have two cameras and two tripods use one for wider longer shots with more in and one with a longer lens concentrating on capturing small groups or individual effects.

Remote or cable release

A cable release is the ideal and far easier to use than a remote control for this type of photography, its also far easier to get the timing right.

If you have a cable release you can also put the shutter on the 'B' or bulb setting and hold the shutter open while the cable release is pressed. The benefit of this is that for composite shots, including a number of fireworks you don't have to decide before how long you are going to leave the shutter open, you also don't shut it when a major burst is half way through.

More than fireworks

Once the basics are working, you can select places to go that offer you a variety of opportunities. For example firework shows over rivers and water allow wider shots including reflections, and some city shots may offer skyscrapers with silhouettes or other items in the foreground.

When combing fireworks and other items, for example buildings you need to be able to slow down the exposure so that you can capture the firework, but not overexpose the buildings or other items. You may be able to do this simply by playing with the exposure and ISO, but in many cases you can't, as even at the lowest ISO you have  floodlit buildings and the like would be overexposed. You can overcome this problem by using a Neutral density filter , choosing the value so as to give you a longer exposure with the buildings that lines up with the time you need for the fireworks. You can get both screw on and square ND filters, see the filters section for more details on these and the holders for them.

Other variations

There are many other techniques that you can combine with fireworks, for example a zoom burst, this is where you zoom the lens during a time exposure. Multiple exposures, where you add together a number of images in the camera or after, and variations of painting with light, to allow you to pick out some foreground items as well as the fireworks.

Firework safety

While here we have looked at organised displays there are also many possibilities that you can achieve by buying a few fireworks yourself.  However you will need assistance as you can't let them off and photograph them easily at the same time.

Fireworks are explosives, so always handle them as you might any other explosive. If carrying them anywhere you want them in containers that will not allow sparks in, and if you light one and it doesn't go off, treat it like you would a hand grenade with a pin out, and keep well clear of it.


You need warm clothing, and maybe even need gloves when photographing fireworks at night. Arrive early enough to get a good spot, and expect a lot of standing around waiting for the show to start, and the show may go on for some time. As you are out in the dark, with a lot of equipment, you will also need to make sure you keep your camera bag closed and it wrapped around your legs or something, so that while you are concentrating on the fireworks someone doesn't help themselves to it. Fireworks nights are good for photographers but also extremely good opportunities for pickpockets and the like.

We have a number articles on night time photography, and some of these may also be interesting or be combined with your firework photography.


By: Keith Park Section: Fire Festivals & Fireworks Key:
Page Ref: photographing_fireworks Topic: Activities and Educational  Last Updated: 11/2011

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