Photographing fireworks with your DSLR can be a bit tricky but relatively simple. There is no rocket science behind and you don’t need advanced skills to be able to perform this task. As most of the photographers are using only one main way to shoot fireworks (long exposure), I want to share with you in this guide two different ways that can be easily done.
Wherever is a local event, New Year’s Eve or a national celebration, the spectacular firework display can last only for a few minutes, time with no room for mistakes. Although this can be done with most of the cameras on the market, there is no doubt that a DSLR should be the way to go.
How to photograph fireworks with your DSLR: You will need to set your camera on a tripod with a shutter speed between 3 and 8 seconds, an aperture of f/5.6 to f/8 and ISO 100 with a medium lens or if you want to capture fireworks handheld you will need a telephoto lens to fill the frame with fireworks for enough light to reach the sensor and to capture with a fast shutter speed.
How to photograph fireworks with your DSLR and what settings to use.
Knowing that fireworks can give you bursts of light, everything changes. The settings you will have to use are different from anything else and this is related directly to the focal length of your lens.
Normally, with a narrower field of view and focal lengths inclining towards telephoto or super-telephoto, it is more difficult to capture handheld on darker scenes where the lighting is insufficient due to the fact that on higher magnification, the hand movement and body shake is more noticeable, therefore, those images will suffer from sharpness and a lot of motion will be induced.
Let’s put it this way. You are photographing a low light scene with an 18mm lens and with a 200mm lens. Due to a wide field of view and focal length, it is much easier to capture an image handheld with an 18mm lens than with a 200mm, where you will require more stability before everything else and where the lighting gather may be insufficient due to a very narrow field of view.
But when you are photographing fireworks, in special the fireworks and rarely in other scenarios, this works as the opposite, due to the fact that you basically “magnify” into the fireworks. And as these are great sources of lighting, your settings will allow you to use fast shutter speeds and low ISO numbers, wherewith an 18mm lens let’s say, the fireworks would be only a small part of your frame and the lighting can be insufficient for fast shutter speed settings.
Therefore, it is important to know what lens you are going to use and the relative position to the fireworks. If you emerge to be closer to the fireworks, a wider focal length would play a good role, where a more telephoto lens (105mm+) would also play an important role in distant fireworks.
Photographing fireworks handheld with fast shutter speeds
The above photographs I took them with a Sigma 105mm lens on a DX camera, implying the 1.5x crop ratio, handheld. Due to the fact that (as mentioned above) I could work out for the fireworks to fill the whole frame, the lighting was more than enough to be able to capture handheld on very fast shutter speeds.
ISO under 2000, an aperture of f/2.8 and shutter speeds of 1/320 and beyond, those were the basic settings, more or less, I used to capture the fireworks during the night.
It is more than possible to capture those fireworks handheld and to know, with any DSLR’s with higher magnification, a reason to choose above a mobile phone camera or point and shoot, which will suffer from lack of large sensors and light gathering.
- You can take bursts of photographs, even hundreds per firework session.
- You will always have what to pick from.
- A good and sharp firework photograph will worth all the effort.
- A large variety of shots.
- It doesn’t require much setup before.
- Can be easily done handheld
- Unable to photograph scenes (e.g. cityscapes at night with fireworks)
- It requires a clean black sky for the best results.
- Relatively high ISO and noise image with some cameras.
- Unable to quickly swap to a long-exposure setup.
Tips to photograph fireworks handheld with fast shutter speed.
Use either Manual Settings or Aperture Mode to do that. If you are going to use the manual mode, keep in mind that there are very quick changes in exposure and therefore it may be difficult to match the right settings and the images could result being underexposed or overexposed. Therefore, I recommend using the Aperture Mode in this case.
Let’s assume that your camera is not the cheapest DSLR on the market. It is a good practice to use a full-frame camera due to the large sensor and low light capabilities. If your settings result in the exposure time on being around 1/160, 1/200 or even 1/320 (more or less) you may get the right settings.
Also, it is a good practice to use a fast prime lens inclining towards telephoto. Although the photographs I took above are captured with my Sigma 105mm F2.8 Macro Lens on a Crop Sensor / DX Camera (Nikon D500), the results could be even better if done with a wider aperture telephoto lens because I could magnify or zoom more into the fireworks, to better fill the frame and benefit from the burst of light.
Let’s imagine that your position to the fireworks remains relatively the same. Use autofocus at the beginning and review your photos on camera with the zoom function. If the images are crystal clear, switch to manual focus and do not touch the focus ring anymore.
In the case you own a good DSLR with good autofocus capabilities (incl. the lens) on the low light situation (as Nikon D500 as an instance) you can keep the autofocus on, as it is quick enough to focus every time.
Image stabilization is another thing to keep in mind. Not impossible without it, but you are aiming at taking the sharpest pictures you can get in this case. Moreover, a prime lens with a wide aperture would benefit more than a zoom lens with a narrower aperture.
Also, the above five photographs were taken on Aperture Mode with the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 G2, ISO 1600-3200 and around 70mm focal length on my Nikon D500. Shutter speed was always around 1/200sec, which is more than enough to freeze the scene.
ISO will be different depending on your scene, the lens and the camera you own. I’ve been always kept my ISO in between 1600-6400 on the sweet spot to avoid adding too much image noise but still to be able to freeze the fireworks.
In general, a shutter speed of 1/50, 1/60sec would be more than enough to capture with your camera handheld almost anything. But in this case, to capture handheld firework, you need a lot faster than that due to the fact that also motion from exploding fireworks will be induced, therefore, your main aim is to freeze the shoot and avoid motion as much as possible.
Photographing fireworks with long exposures
Taking long exposure fireworks with your DSLR makes it another story. You will need two things to be able to take long exposures: A tripod and a shutter release control.
A shutter release control is not mandatory but very recommended due to the fact that you save time when taking long-exposure fireworks and you do not have to set a timer on your camera.
Pressing the shutter button on your camera and directly taking long exposures to fireworks is wrong although the camera is mounted on a tripod because the vibration is induced and there is a high risk of getting blurry pictures.
Therefore, I strongly recommend you have a shutter release control at least by cable if not wireless in order to improve your speed and stability of the tripod by avoiding to touch the camera after the basic settings have been done.
- Able to photograph night scenes where the fireworks can be the main elements to focus on.
- Results can be pretty impressive
- Low ISO with no image noise
- Widely used by most photographers
- It can be quickly swapped to a fast shutter speed mode if required.
- Requires setup before.
- If wrong settings, you can miss a good part of the firework session or all of it.
- Not enough variety of photographs.
What settings to use when taking long-exposure fireworks?
In general, all settings can be different and this directly depends on your camera, lens you have, the number of fireworks are present in the show and your distance to it. The values can fluctuate depending on many scenarios but in general, I found that during a few fireworks shows, my settings were quite similar.
The following values are used (more or less) to capture long-exposure fireworks with a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.
|Camera Mode||Manual||Always use the manual camera mode for long exposure fireworks photographs.|
|ISO||100||Keep your ISO always on 100. There is absolutely no reason to increase ISO beyond 100.|
|Aperture||f/5.6 to f/8||I found these aperture values are the best due to increased sharpness and to compensate with the right shutter speed.|
|Shutter Speed||Between 3sec and 8sec||Anything faster than 3 seconds would either take too short exposures to the firework or the images could get underexposed. Anything beyond 8 seconds I found that the exposure is too long and the image will look a mess. Moreover, there is a chance for the image to be overexposed.|
The right settings to capture long exposure fireworks, more or less, is around 5 seconds.
|Focus Mode||Manual.||Do not use autofocus at all for long exposures. Focus on the closest point where the fireworks will fire to avoid spending time on setting the right focus while the show is on. Remember, you have a limited time to do this right.|
|Other settings||– Live View ON|
– White Balance Auto
– NO FLASH
– Minimum post-processing
– Shoot in RAW and not JPEG.
|I do strongly recommend the live view on and use the (+) sign to zoom in and adjust your focus if this is out of focus. |
White balance doesn’t have a great impact on how the image looks and would be wrong to set a specific value of the white balance as this can have a negative impact on some specific colored-fireworks (e.g. red fireworks can look bluish and contrastless, hard to chance in post-processing).
Always keep your flash off and there are only minimal adjustments to make in post-processing.
What is the best technique to photograph fireworks with your DSLR
In some situations where not having a tripod or unable to set up your camera for long exposure fireworks captures, shooting fireworks with a fast shutter speed handheld is not that bad as it sounds. In fact, the results can be amazing; also, keep in mind that you will be able to capture hundreds of fireworks images per show, where long exposure fireworks will allow you to capture only a hand of these, increasing the risk of failure.
But, the beauty of capturing fireworks with a DSLR is related to the divine look of long exposure fireworks, which without doubt, is used by most professional photographers.
Moreover, capturing long exposures will allow you to capture the scene if there is a balanced amount of light resulted from the fireworks and the scene (e.g. if not, as in two photos listed above, the people and surroundings can look underexposed while the fireworks are normally exposed).
Post-processing fireworks images
In the case of post-processing, we have to keep in mind that not much has to be modified. Most of the photographs, if captured right, both handheld or long exposures, will look amazing without modifying anything.
As always there is a bit of room for improvement, I do recommend some basic retouching such as slightly increasing the contrast and saturation, adjusting the exposure and color balance, re-adjusting the darks and shadows for the background to look completely black (not always though), etc.
Also, it is pointless to increase the sharpness of your images unless required and to touch the noise reduction if the images are long-exposure, where would be more than recommended where the fireworks are captured with the camera handheld and high ISO number has been used.
I am sure you will be able to capture beautiful fireworks with your DSLR, both handheld or with the camera set on a tripod, long exposures. There are only the basics of photography which has to be known in order to excel in capturing amazing fireworks.
Therefore, do not be disappointed in yourself if, at first try, you will not obtain the results you are aiming for; to be honest, it took me a few tries both handheld and tripod to find the perfect settings to go with and learn by failure.
Well, that would be it, for now! Take care and I hope to see you around.
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