An Introduction to Photographing Fireworks

Photographing fireworks is for photographers and photography enthusiasts among the highlights of New Year’s Eve, national days and other events. There’s something special when the city or landscape you love is topped with a beautiful display of exploding colors.

Capturing the fireworks while correctly exposing the image, however, is challenging even professional photographers struggle with. There are many methods and techniques that can be used but unfortunately many choose to set their camera on automatic mode and hope for the best. While you might be able to capture one or two fireworks in automatic mode, the quality is rarely good and the city/landscape ends up heavily underexposed.

Photographing Fireworks
Fireworks in Seattle captured by Mahesh Thapa

Mahesh Thapa, more known as StarvingPhotographer, is a Seattle-based photographer that has found a simple, yet effective, technique to photographing fireworks.

Required Equipment

As it often is with photography, there is some equipment that’s required for photographing fireworks. However, the equipment required for this technique is most likely something you’ve already got and if not, it’s something you should use if you’re into landscape photography.

Firstly, you need a tripod. Since we will be working with shutter speeds of multiple seconds, even minutes, you are dependent on having a tripod. Using a tripod allows you to photograph long exposures while still keeping the image quality high and avoiding any unwanted motion and blur. If you don’t already own a tripod, be sure to take a look at our purchasing guide.

The second equipment you need is a remote shutter release. This method of photographing fireworks requires the use of the Bulb Mode which means a remote shutter release is required. You don’t need to get the most advanced one, just make sure that you get something that has the possibility to lock the release button (rather than manually holding it down for minutes).

remote shutter release
A standard remote shutter release

Lastly, to complete this technique you need a black card that is large enough to cover the entire lens. This could be something as simple as a black piece of A4 paper.

10 Steps to Photographing Fireworks

Mahesh’s method of photographing fireworks consists of 10 pretty straight-forward steps. It might take a few attempts before you master it and you should consider bringing a notebook to write down the shutter speeds you use.

photographing fireworks

  1. Set up your tripod and attach your remote shutter release – Since this technique is based on using a long shutter speed using a tripod and remote shutter release is essential.
  2. Use ISO 100 and an aperture between f/6.3 and f/11 – These are the optimal settings also during daytime and will result in an image that is sharp from front to back and has little noise.
  3. Compose your shot – Remember to include a lot of sky in your composition when photographing fireworks.
  4. Switch to manual focus and take several test shots – It’s most likely dark as you’re setting up so you will need to focus manually (See: How to Focus in Night Photography). Take several test shots before the fireworks begin to ensure proper exposure of the scene. Note the exposure time for the ISO and aperture values you’ve chosen.
  5. Switch to Bulb exposure mode – As we using a shutter speed of more than 30 seconds make sure that you’re in Bulb Mode. In some cameras, you might need to adjust the ISO and aperture values again so choose the values to what was determined in step 4 – your now ready for the show
  6. Place the black card in front of your lens – As the show begins, place the black card in front of your lens and release your shutter. When you see an interesting burst, let the card down.
  7. Cover the lens again a second or two later with the black card.
  8. Repeat the process of letting the card down and back up when another interesting burst happens.
  9. Note the total seconds – Mentally you have to guess approximately how many total seconds the sensor has been exposed to light (the total time the black card has NOT been covering the lens). When that total time approximately equals the exposure time you determined in your earlier test shots, you can stop the exposure. This ensures the proper exposure of your overall scene. In other words, your overall scene will not be under or over exposed.
  10. Repeat the above steps for another round of fireworks.

That wasn’t too difficult, right? After testing this technique a few times you’re ready to capture some beautiful fireworks.

You can find more of Mahesh’s images on Instagram where he also shares tips & tricks related to photography and post-production.