How to shoot fireworks


Words by Matt Whorlow

Fireworks were invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, shortly after the invention of gunpowder. They were originally used to frighten away evil sprits, but thankfully it did not take the Chinese long to discover that fireworks can be fun too. Today firework displays are more popular than ever, with an increasing number of events now climaxing with a dazzling display of colour and sound. This is excellent news for us photographers, as fireworks are extremely photogenic, and can give an old location a new and exciting twist.

The fifth of November is still the biggest fireworks event in the UK with displays throughout the country, although also keep an eye out for firework displays during the New Year celebrations as well. Search through your local press for details on the big displays. The Internet is another prime source of information.

For photography, the big displays really are essential – and the bigger the better. You need big explosions, and lots of them – home fireworks simply don’t cut the mustard. Also think about the location. Fireworks shots work best if there is another element in the frame, such as a building or a famous landmark.

It may sound boring, but doing some research and planning your shoot will reap huge rewards. Once the display starts, it is likely that you will not be able to move around until it finishes, so it is important to find the right spot and be there early. I try to establish precisely where the fireworks will be launched from, and where the best places to view the display are before the event. Don’t be afraid to phone the organiser if this information is not available in the paper or online.

I am not a great fan of including the back of people’s heads, so I try to arrive as early as possible and find my spot before the crowds arrive. Setting up in the dark is difficult, so I take my time and I get the camera on the tripod well in advance of the start, with the focus and exposure set and ready to go. Composition is difficult to judge when the main subject is still yet to happen, so I just leave a large space in the sky where I expect the fireworks to be.

Autofocus often struggles at night, so I switch to manual instead. If I am including a building in the foreground, then I will manually focus on this. Otherwise I will use the distance scale on the lens and set the focus to infinity. If in doubt (or if your lens does not have a distance scale), then the AF should be able to lock onto the bright fireworks as they explode. However turn the AF off once you have a good focus lock to stop it hunting on each shot.

I have always been in the habit of shooting Raw, although JPEGs can also give good results in this type of shot. I usually find there is less post-processing for this sort of image. However Raw will give greater scope for recovering a shot if you make a mistake with the exposure or white-balance. Speaking of white-balance, I find that daylight mode, or even shady, gives nice colourful results.

The bright fireworks can fool the camera’s metering into underexposing, so I take a metering reading before the display starts, using Evaluative metering mode, or even better, a handheld meter. I then set the camera to manual and dial this exposure in. With ISO 100 set for minimal noise during the exposure, I then select the aperture to give the desired shutter speed. With a wide-angle lens, and the subject far from the camera, there is not a great problem with depth-of-field, so any aperture value from f/4 to f/22 should be OK, unless your composition is including an object closer to the camera in the foreground.

There is often a lot of discussion over which exposure time gives the best results. Some say that the exposure should be as long as possible – 30 seconds or more. Others advocate a much shorter exposure, as little as one or two seconds. In my experience, both approaches can yield good results.

However I do recommend that you start off with a longer exposure first and then experiment with reducing the exposure duration if you have time. The object of the longer shutter speed is to capture a number of explosions during the exposure so that you fill the frame with colour. However that can be a problem if there are too many fireworks going off at the same place. A shorter exposure will let you capture just one or two explosions in the photograph.

There is a large random element to firework photography as you never know how many will take to the sky at any moment. The trick is to take as many photographs as possible, and don’t be too worried if some don’t work so well at first. Keeping an eye on the image review is not easy, as there is plenty going on to distract. However I do my best to keep checking to make sure that I’m not making any major errors before pressing the shutter for the next exposure.

Public displays will mean working in a crowd, so it is always best to take the minimum kit. The essentials to pack are an SLR camera, single wide-angle lens, remote release, hotshoe spirit level and a torch.

I find that moving around once the display has begun is next to impossible, so a zoom lens is ideal as it will allow a certain amount of flexibility in the composition. Sometimes I may pack a medium telephoto lens (70-200mm) to give me more flexibility when I arrive. However there is never time to change lenses during the display, and it is best to travel light. Finally, don’t forget to pack some warm clothes, as the temperature will drop at night.

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