During the recent New Year's celebrations I attempted to capture some of the fireworks on display with a rather mixed bag of results that look very little like the stock imagery one associates with celebratory fireworks.

5s, f/14, ISO 500

The fireworks are overexposed and the surroundings underexposed

At 10 sec the ambient structures are more visible but the fireworks are terribly overexposed

A 2.5 second exposure did make the fireworks come out better at the detriment of the surroundings. Admittedly, the setup capturing the building in this shot does not help the composition but that's seconday.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Most stock shots of fireworks that include a lot of their surroundings are composites. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 6:54

6 Answers 6


Think about what happens in a fireworks display. Essentially, the sky is black. Within the sky, a series of bright lights turn themselves on and then off in random places. The important thing to realise is that each firework is its own shutter! You need to set your ISO and aperture so that each firework's "natural shutter" results in a correct exposure of that firework. You can then leave the camera's shutter open for more or less as long as you want, and each firework that appears during that time will be added to the image, correctly exposed. If you leave the shutter open too long, multiple fireworks may go off in the same spot, which will over-expose.

I've found that something like f/11 and ISO-100 (fireworks are bright!) works well; if the fireworks are farther away, a wider aperture might be needed, as less of their light will be reaching you. Manual focus because you don't want the camera hunting trying to focus on the black sky, and the aperture's narrow enough, and the fireworks far enough away, that you'll have plenty of depth of field. Manual exposure mode, too. Tripod, of course.

If you're shooting fireworks just against the sky, use bulb mode, so you can start the exposure when something interesting is happening and stop when you think you've caught enough. If you're shooting with a foreground, choose whatever shutter speed gives a the exposure you want on that foreground – unfortunately, that means you can no longer choose how many fireworks you get in each shot. Make sure you figure out that exposure before the fireworks start.

Check the first few exposures, as you'll probably need to adjust.

  • If your initial guess of aperture and ISO were wrong for this fireworks display, you'll need to adjust to get them correctly exposed and you'll need to make the corresponding adjustment to the shutter speed so that the foreground exposure remains correct.

  • If the fireworks are illuminating the foreground enough, it will be over-exposed and you'll need to use a faster shutter.

  • If the fireworks are very intense, you might find that correct exposure of the foreground over-exposes the fireworks because more than one is going off in the same place of the image. In that case, you'll probably have to use a faster shutter to decrease the number of fireworks in each shot, so reducing the chance of them overlapping. Unfortunately, that will underexpose the foreground, though you can try to bring that up in post.

One helpful thing about fireworks is that you can get away with a certain amount of overexposure. They're bright, and they're bright colours, and a little overexposure will still look natural. A bit more overexposure might change the colour or even turn them white, but that can still look fine.

  • \$\begingroup\$ All good, except for the " if the fireworks are farther away, a wider aperture might be needed, as less of their light will be reaching you" part. The exposure will be exactly the same. Extreme example: The moon. Sunny f16 if you're standing in the sun on the surface of the moon. Generally same exposure if you're photographing the moon itself from your back yard- some atmospheric losses, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – BobT
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 17:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BobT How is the moon an example? It's at a pretty much fixed distance. If it were at half the distance, it would appear four times as bright and you'd need to adjust your exposure. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 17:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Object size gets smaller with distance. Less total light from object in frame but object brightness/exposure stays the same. I'm not sure how to explain it in a more lucid way... Here is a longer explanation... \$\endgroup\$
    – BobT
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 17:34

Use a tripod, take a shot of surroundings during an intermission (or even better, at dusk, before the fireworks start), and then shoot the fireworks. Blend the images in post production (this is a case where accurate overlap isn't even necessary).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great recommendation. Never thought of this before. November is a great month for fireworks in the UK so can't wait \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 6, 2019 at 0:39

There are many ways to tackle fireworks. A lot of it is experimental.

I found that I get near perfect handheld results with a 22mm to 35mm lens at around f/2.0 or f/2.8, ISO800 to ISO1250 and a shutter speed of 1/30 to 1/50. I keep the camera on Servo with continuous shooting.

It allows for shots that have the light streaks but keeps the highlights just below the point where they are completely blown out.

Any longer than 1/30 sec, I find that the highlights become unrecoverable.

Here are some cropped examples captured handheld on a Canon EOS-M(2012) with the above settings at Disney from the middle of a massive crowd, strollers and kids all over the place. In other words, no space for a tripod.

and the biggest secret that I just remembered, click after the explosion! that way you avoid the bright blownout explosion and capture just the streaks.

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These were taken with a Canon 700D with a 22 mm lens f/10 2,5 sec ISO 200

I had the camera set on a tripod and I was shooting with a remote control continuously leaving 1/2 seconds the camera cool before the next shot regardless of what was happening in front of me. Most of the shots showed nothing remarkable, but I got several nice shots.

June 24 2017, St. John's day, Turin, Italy

June 24 2017, St. John's day, Turin, Italy

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    \$\begingroup\$ Damn this looks awesome! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 22:30

You have a few choices of tastes Do you want streaks or little dots of light? Do you want the center flash captured?

Generally you want to NOT overexpose in digital
Fireworks are generally LV = 3
ISO 100, SS 2S, f-stop f/4

Under 1 sec will require timing by you
Over 4s you may get too many fireworks overlapping

100 2s f/4
400 2s f/8
800 2s f/11

On the faster side
1600 1/30 f/2
6400 1/60 f/2.8
100 1/2 f/2
400 1/2 f/4

These are good starting points.
You can fine tune depending on your tastes.


I've found that experimentation and practice leads to the best results over time!

But here's a few little tips I've picked up from other photographers and practice.

  1. Get there when there is still some light, this can give you a better vantage point and perhaps give you an idea of surfaces that the fireworks may reflect off (water etc...). You may choose to set your focus now on a static point and lock the focus.

  2. Experiment with a number of different exposure times, you may find too long an exposure loses some of the detail and generally overexposes the shot.

  3. Think of the foreground. You may opt to have people or moving objects in the foreground, so think about how their movement may appear in your shot. It can be nice to have people watching the fireworks in the photo, but it doesn't look great if they're blurry due to movement.

  4. have fun, shooting fireworks is awesome!


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