I’ll never forget the first time I tried to photograph fireworks. I was in Busan, South Korea, at their annual fireworks show. I had the perfect spot, a brand new DSLR, and a decent knowledge of photography. When I got home and looked at my images, they were either flat, blurry, boring, or all of the above.
It took me years to perfect my firework photography workflow. I worked on every aspect from composition, camera settings, gear, and editing styles. When I finally got the result I was after, I felt like I solved one of photography’s trickiest riddles. Here’s how I did it:
Firework Composition Tips
The first thing you need to do is find a compelling composition. The best way to do that is to spend some time exploring the area you’re going to shoot. Get to know it inside and out. What does it look like from different angles? What does it feel like?
Another important step is to research your location. Search places like Google images, popular photo sites, and social media to see what others have done. Don’t let this hinder your own creativity though.
For instance, one of the most iconic images of Malaysia is of Kek Lok Si temple in Penang during the Chinese New Year fireworks celebration. If you’re from Malaysia and love landscape photography, you’ll travel across the country to photograph it.
Not only did I research how others photographed it, I spent time exploring the temple and scouting the best locations. You can see how I did it in the above video (and learn about one of Penang’s most famous dishes – laksa in Air Itam).
Bonus Tip: Don’t forget to arrive at your location a few hours early to claim a good spot. And be sure to find an interesting foreground or background element to give your photo a point of interest in addition to the fireworks.
Best Settings to Photograph Fireworks
1. Shutter Speed: The most important part of the exposure triangle when it comes to photographing fireworks is shutter speed. If you’re too fast you won’t catch the full effect of the fireworks. If you’re too slow you’ll get too many exploding at once, resulting in a bunch of blown out highlights.
[Still don’t understand Aperture, Shutter Speed, & ISO? Click here for my premium tutorial: A Beginner’s Guide to Landscape Photography]
There is no definitive shutter speed to properly expose for fireworks. It all depends on how much ambient light there is, how fast the fireworks are shooting off, and what ISO and aperture you’re at.
As a (very) general rule, you want to aim for a .5 to 1 second exposure. Again, this is only a starting point.
2. ISO: Keep it as low as possible (100-200). Turn off long exposure noise reduction. This can slow down your camera is not necessary when shooting at a low ISO.
3. Aperture: Try f/8 to f/11. Again, this is only a starting point.
4. Manual Focus: Set your focus point before the fireworks start. Then leave your camera on manual focus. If you leave it on autofocus, it’ll be hunting around trying to find the correct focus as the fireworks are going off. Here’s a YouTube video I made about How To Take Super Sharp Photos in Live View.
5. Shoot in RAW to get the highest quality image possible and give you more flexibility when editing.
Suggested Photo Gear for Fireworks
1. Tripod: This is a must if you want to photograph fireworks well. You can’t take a long exposure without one.
2. Cable (Shutter) Release: A shutter release allows you to trigger your shutter without touching your camera – which causes your camera to vibrate and produce blurry images. Another huge benefit is that if you set your camera to bulb mode, you can trigger the shutter at exactly the right moment and the keep it open as long as you need for each firework explosion.
If you don’t have a shutter release, you can always set your camera to timer mode to avoid having to release your shutter with your finger. The problem is that your shutter probably won’t open the exact moment the fireworks are going off. You’ll have to rely on luck.
Editing Fireworks – Digital Time Blending
My most important tip for getting epic fireworks photographs is to create a composite image of what you saw. In other words, you want to take a few different photographs and blend them together.
It’s not as difficult as it sounds.You have to plan your shot properly beforehand though to make it all fit. Here’s a few of my images from my temple shot workflow:
First, compose your shot. And remember to leave plenty of room in the sky in case the fireworks explode higher in your frame than you imagined. Next, don’t move your camera around or change your composition. Keep it one place. As the fireworks go off, keep taking photos.
When the show is over, go through your fireworks photographs and select the best ones, i.e. the ones that were exposed properly, had the best colors, shapes, etc…
Then, to process your image, open your photos as layers in Photoshop and use “Blend Mode Lighten” to merge all of the highlights from each image. For a more detailed explanation, check out Jimmy McIntyre’s video above.
Jimmy also demonstrates how to use layer masks to recover the highlights in your fireworks, and although that makes for a much cleaner images, you don’t have to do it if you find it too complicated. His article Use Blend Modes In Photoshop To Beautifully Enhance Your Photos is also helpful.
A Final Firework Photo Tip
You might be telling yourself that this is way too much work or photo manipulation for one image. That’s fine. It’s not for everyone.
For me, this is one of my greatest pleasures in photography, to interpret a scene as I see it, not document an event as it actually was. In the end, the best tip I have for photographing and editing fireworks is to follow your creative muse wherever it leads you.