As it's heading into firework season (with Thanksgiving, Guy Fawkes, and New Years), I've never been particularly successful at photographing fireworks. In previous years I think I've always had too long an exposure, but what do you think I should be using?

Given the fireworks tend to not be in too predictable a location, would I be better off going faster with a handheld shot, or go longer and wider with a tripod, and crop later?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Where are you that celebrates Guy Fawkes and Thanksgiving? :) \$\endgroup\$
    – user1879
    Commented Oct 29, 2010 at 22:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jon I could say by a US airbase in the UK ;) Although that said, people haven't figured that it isn't Guy Fawkes' Night yet, and have already started on the fireworks \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2010 at 22:24
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Where I live, The Fourth of July lasts from June 1 - Aug 31. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1879
    Commented Oct 29, 2010 at 22:26
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ They do fireworks displays at airforce bases?! I would have thought would be a bad idea :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Grum
    Commented Oct 30, 2010 at 10:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just tried hand holding some shots, and added them to this website Flickr group at: flickr.com/groups/1585269@N22 Definitely need a tripod though :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 6, 2010 at 21:13

10 Answers 10


In addition to the tripod I use a remote to trigger exposures around 8 second. Or you could set it to 'bulb' (or the equivalent on your camera) and click to open and close the shutter manually with the remote, so you can capture the action you desire.

I've shot fireworks at 200 ISO, no need to go higher, in my experience. In fact I stop down the aperture to F/8 or F/11.

Example (Rose Bowl Fourth of July show, from Colorado Street bridge in Pasadena, CA):


(click for more examples)


Take a tripod and experiment!

Different displays will suit different settings. Is it going to be mainly rockets, or will there be roman candles? Is the scenery worth capturing? And etc.

From experience you're going to want a tripod as your exposures won't be in the handheld range. I would also err toward very long exposures and shoot often — you're more likely to get several bursts in and you'll get some cool long exposure effects with clouds and water.

There a lot of very similar fireworks photos on the net so it's important to look around — it's not just about the expensive displays with the big rockets; you can cool effects with smaller fireworks. Also think of capturing the people along with the display.

Here's a few examples of what I'm talking about:

  • \$\begingroup\$ These are great. More interesting up close. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 2, 2010 at 0:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Matt: Looks like the links to your images are now dead. Might want to use the image upload feature so we get a permanent copy in the imgur cache. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 1:08

As most other answers suggest using long exposure times, I'd like to add that this is very dependent on the number and intensity of the fireworks themselves.

During bigger fireworks shows, long times like 4 seconds of exposure (even with a small aperture) would probably be too much and render too long trails.

Here is one example taken on New Year's Eve (2011) in Copacabana where 1.6 seconds and a not that small aperture (4.5 on a Canon Powershot) were enough for a decent exposure, including the people in front of the camera.

Copacabana 2011, Orange Fireworks

OTOH, there are times where you need more exposure time. On quieter moments of the show you may be able to use longer times in order to capture not only the fireworks but the also the (not much lit) foreground:

2013 is Here (1/4)

Here is what would be my checklist:

  • White balancing can be really trick, experiment with it before the fireworks begin if possible.

  • Turn off image stabilization.

  • Focus on infinity and use the lowest ISO possible.

  • The camera needs to be really stable (not necessarily using a tripod). Look for plane surfaces like tables or chairs, but a rock or trunk will do if you manage to align the camera correctly. Watch out for passing people and their interference.

  • If you don't have a remote shutter release (as most compacts don't), use the camera timer (2 seconds are enough) in order to not shake the camera after pressing the shutter. This will make timing shots a lot harder, but still viable (see below).

Try to take some shots before things start and the check background/foreground exposure, white balance and composition. It can be hard to setup things during the show and you may end up loosing a lot of shots during the process.

After you've found one (or two at most) position that looks good, wait for the first few fireworks in order to estimate the time it takes from the launching sound (usually lower in intensity) to the blasting itself. This will give you a rough idea of when to press the shutter if you are using the camera timer.

Once you feel the timing of the fireworks, shoot continuously. Just keep checking the results and adjusting the shutter time in order to get your desired trail length while keeping the exposure under control.

In the previous example, I started with a 4 seconds exposure and 8 aperture but found out that Rio's show was a lot brighter than expected and the fireworks were much faster too, so I had to quickly adapt and reduce the shutter speed while opening the aperture.

Concerning the location of the camera, even when using a tripod try to find a non crowded place (a harder than expected task since people are generally good at find the good places to stay). Since you will be using longer exposures, the camera will stay really vulnerable to vibration or to people jumping around. Depending on how close you are to the fireworks, even the sound of them can be enough to make the camera vibrate more than you would like.

One thing that I learned the hard way is that 28mm is not that wide when you are close to the fireworks launching pads. You maybe forced to choose (under quite a stress) between showing the fireworks completely or the foreground.

Here is an example of a 28mm lens being able to handle the composition of the fireworks and the foreground (note how blurred things are due to rain, people bouncing the pier where I was and wind):

Blurred Ectype | Cópia borrada

But on this other example, where the fireworks were launched way closer to the pier, it was not possible to include the boat reflections, even while clipping part of the fireworks top curves:

Darkleworks | Chorões de artifício

Shooting fireworks is a continuos learning experience, too bad we don't have many chances to do this in Rio other than on December 31th. :o)


I can't claim any deep expertise, but I made some fireworks photos this past summer and the "formula for next time" I came up with was:

  1. Tripod
  2. Wide angle (i.e., crop afterwards)
  3. f/9.5
  4. ISO 200
  5. Bulb mode

The advice I read was to chimp a lot, which I agree with. One thing to keep in mind is that only a small percentage of the frame will be bright (i.e., just the fireworks themselves), which means the histogram of a properly exposed frame may not look as you expect -- if you expose to get the usual hump in the middle, it will be very overexposed.

The other thing that was a bit tricky is focus - turn autofocus off and leave it on infinity, but make sure you don't bump it (which is easy to do).

Here is what I produced (f/8, 2-3 seconds exposure), if that's useful.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ A note on infinity focus: keep in mind that modern autofocus lenses turn past infinity, which allows more leeway in production. If you're using such a lens in manual focus mode, you can't just turn it all the way to focus to infinity. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 16:27

A lot of good advice here already - when I did my shots i did the following:

  1. Tripod
  2. Set up bulb
  3. ISO of 200
  4. Autofocus off - and focused manually on infinity
  5. App 16

I did have the wrong lens - would recommend a wide angle

I also found that if the fireworks were mainly white I needed only a short exposure of a few seconds

With multiple colours I had around 10-15 seconds and even up to 60 at some point

My shots were all over a lake so only a pure black background to focus on

Here is one of mine

  • \$\begingroup\$ AF off and manual at infinity... forgot that one! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 2, 2010 at 0:23

This was an answer to Akram's very similar but not identical question. Alas, he deleted iut while I was preparing the answer, so, here it is here.

I believe that shooting fireworks is close to shooting the moon, a very bright subject in a very dark sky.

There are very major differences between Moon and Fireworks photos.
Provided that a tripod is used, Moon photos can be taken at almost any ISO, shutter speed and aperture combination that suits.
Fireworks photos are relatively dependant on exposure time for effect. The time required varies with type and circumstance but is typically in the 0.5 to 4 seconds range with exposures of 10+ seconds making sense in some cases.

Exposure times are long not to achieve enough light input but to integrate the light trails over time. Where trails are developed in the air already, short shutter times may be OK, but in most cases it is desirable to have the shutter open during the formation of the trails.

A tripod or similarly rigid support is essentially essential.
The exposure times are long enough that while the trails will be captured well enough they will have unpleasant hand movement added to the trails.

To get "trails" an exposure time of 1 to 2 seconds is usually required, with about 4 seconds being useful for multiple similar airbursts.

The photo below is exceptional in that it shows many fully trails but is only 0.6s exposure time. This is because it is a finale and there was so much action that many different explosions are visible at once with fully developed trails.

Procedure is to choose exposure time to suit context and to then adjust aperture and ISO to suit exposure. ie exposure time is a non-free variable constrained by trail considerations.

enter image description here

This collection of photos has a number of fireworks photos of different subjects and exposure conditions. Delays are from 0.6s to 10s. These photos are on the dread facebook but the link is a public access one and the photos will always be available. [Not placing them on Imgur avoids giving them irrevocable royalty free rights to do absolutely whatever they wish with them, which would otherwise be the case].

Click the arrow at top right of image to get full screen versions. Click image to get next image or use prev/next or in-image arrows to navigate. Settings are shown on the photos.

Sparklers: 1.6s + flash. Flash provides user image and 1.6s is long enough for pleasnt sparkler trails to develop. Wrting takes much longer.

Hand held Roman Candles - don't try this at home: 3.2s + flash. Long enough to get several firings from each candle. Note trail in air above the rear users head.

Through the legs shot - don't try this at home or anywhere else - 10s. + flash. This was a multishot stand on ground unit. It failed physically and fell over and shot fireballs at various angles. Lethal. Person at left has miraculous escape as streamer passes between his legs. Long exposure allows multiple shots by firework.

LASER like 4s exposure allows streamer development.

4s airburst classic fireworks display


Exposure times shown on photos.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 thanks Russell, I liked "don't try this at home or anywhere else" :) \$\endgroup\$
    – K''
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ If the only things in the frame are the fireworks, changing the shutter speed will only minimally affect exposure. What it will affect is how long the trails are, since at any given instant the burning powder is only in a small specific space along the trail. If the exposure lasts long enough that several fireworks expose the same space, then of course you may be in danger of over saturation in that spot. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 20:06

I have yet to do it myself, but the New York Institute of Photography has a detailed article on the subject that is worth a read. Actually, the site in general is worth a read. :)


creativeLIVE have a fireworks workshop video which you can watch for online free or pay to download for later. There's an hour-long "class" and a 15-minute demonstration.

If you plan on shooting fireworks tomorrow or on the 4th (or any other time), watch the video!


My strategy would be:

  1. use a tripod
  2. frame a wide angle shot with some background (city, etc) and enough space where you expect the fireworks
  3. expose just the background, try to get something like 3-5 second exposure
  4. wait for the first explosion
  5. chimp and adjust

Some adjustment guidelines would be:

  • longer exposure time makes longer trails
  • aperture+ISO controls brightness of the trails

I'll attempt to demonstrate on fireworks snapshot I took this summer :-)

bad fireworks example

So the preferred way of correcting this would be to expose a bit longer, and try to avoid taking photos when there are big explosions on the bottom, since stopping down aperture might make the trails on the top too dark. But as the fireworks change all the time the best option would be to keep the principles in mind and then just experiment.


I got incredibly lucky with my Canon S70 -- the only smart things I did were to set the camera on a window sill (23rd floor view of the fireworks) and to use the two-second timer trick since I didn't have a remote and I wanted to avoid shaking when I pressed the shutter. The camera chose all the settings. You can see a few pictures here. I absolutely love how they came out -- the lights on the bridge, the armada of boats on the East River. This may be more a statement on location than on how to take pictures, but for the record, those were all f/5.3, 1s exposure, 21mm equiv.


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