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Obligatory Once-a-Year How to Shoot Fireworks Post

It’s that time of year again. And chances are pretty good that you’re going to fireworks this weekend… unless of course you live in Des Moines, like I do. In that case, you’re going to see fireworks tonight, because, ummm… I have no idea why Des Moines is celebrating the 4th of July on July 1.

Anyway, so you’re going to go see fireworks. Many of you will bring a camera. Many of you will come home, look at those photos and think, “Where did I go wrong?!” “How do those guys get those long arches, bright colors on black shots???” Go check Flickr, there are thousands of mediocre-at-best fireworks shots.

4th of july des moines, iowa how to shoot fireworks photographer

I’m going to dispel some fireworks myths for you. Hope it helps makes some impressive results for your obligatory fireworks post.

Myth #1 It’s night, turn on your flash.

Turn off the flash. Your on-camera flash can only illuminate the nearest 2-15 feet at most. There is no way your flash will do anything other than annoy and blind the people near you. For most of you, the flash is represented by a lightning bolt symbol on your camera. You’ll want to find the symbol with the lightning bolt crossed out.


Myth #2 It’s night, pump up that ISO.

That might be your intuitive response, but actually, you want to pull it way back. If you shoot Nikon, pull it down to ISO 200 if you’re trying to catch the nightsky only, and a max of 400 if you’re also pulling in water reflections or skyline lights with it. Canon users usually have an ISO of 100 on camera – you can try that if it’s a bright, close display or jump back up to 200-400.

Myth #3 I love good bokeh, I want a low aperture number.

While this is great for macros of flowers, it won’t make your fireworks look sharp. Shoot fireworks around f/11 for skylines and reflections and f/8 if you’re only shooting the sky. You want more in focus, not less.

Myth #4 Put the camera in auto, and let it focus.

Your camera will have a hard time focusing when the sky is all black – you will hear the motor zoom and not lock and you may miss it if you have to focus when the fireworks are firing. Click your autofocus to manual, and turn the lens to the infinity symbol to start. This usually looks like a figure 8 symbol and may be hard to see at night. Find this before the sun goes down – or put your cell phone light to good use like a dim flashlight to help you. After a few displays, you’ll be able to adjust the focus, manually, as needed.

Myth #5 You need a tripod to shoot fireworks.

Okay this one isn’t a myth. It’s a cold, hard fact. If you want the crisp clear shots the pros get, you’ll need a tripod. Even a cute gorillapod($20!) will work. This isn’t tripod envy… size doesn’t matter – stillness does. On that note, if your lens is a VR lens, turn that off while on a tripod – unless you’re going for the wiggley fireworks look. VR will look for vibrations and upon not finding them is known to misbehave.

Myth #6 Fireworks are fast, shoot fast!

And this is the million dollar tip… you want a very long exposure. This will make sure you record not only the burst, but the tail as the lights fall. Capturing both the burst and the fall is the secret of those gorgeous fireworks photos. And since you will need to leave the shutter open for several seconds… this goes back up to #5. You simply can’t handhold a camera that still for that long. Start with 2 seconds, and adjust as you’d like. If you know the finale is coming, turn down your ISO to 100 or low 0.7 or 0.3 and try a 10-second exposure! (Update: if you’re very close – that will be too bright! You’ll want to go faster at the finale if you’re close enough to see the brightness!) You’ll probably have to practice this before hand if you’ve never set your camera for long exposures. Ideally you can use a remote control to fire your shutter so you don’t have to touch the camera. Another idea is to get a hand-held shutter release that allows you to hold the release button for the duration you want. Then again, if you know about stuff like that, you probably aren’t reading my blog for advice.

There will be some things beyond your control – things that may matter such as clouds and wind direction. You don’t want the smoke lingering or blowing toward you. If you can be up-wind on a clear night, you’ll like your results better.

In summary:
flash off
ISO 200 – 400, ISO 100 or low for a bright finale.
focus to infinity to start, adjust as the display plays out.
get a tripod
VR off
loooong exposures, 2 – 10 seconds.

update: My friend Kent posted a much more entertaining than this fireworks tutorial. Go check it out!


  1. what a fantastic obligatory post darcy!! i definitely want to go see some fireworks and bring my camera AND tripod with me now!!! happy 4th of july!!

  2. Thanks 🙂 I’m glad you posted this early because I live in Canada and OUR holiday is today (July 1st) so I will be going to the fireworks tonight. I’ve never managed good firework photos before so I’m going to follow these steps 🙂

  3. Thanks for this. I better try putting my camera on the tripod before leaving the house. i haven’t done that yet. Yes, total newbie!

  4. Awesome post! Thanks for sharing your tips!!

  5. I can’t wait!

    I had only had my camera a couple of months last year on the 4th and struggled to get good shots. Fingers crossed ~ hoping I can pull out some sweet ones this year!

  6. Seriously gonna have to bookmark this one! I was just going to look up some tutorials.

  7. This is great and right on time! Thanks for sharing!

  8. I was hoping to get some fireworks shots this year, but me = no tripod. Me = no tripod because I need a Macbook worse. 🙁

    • No problem, for absolutely no money at all you can use the top of a car, a fence post – anything that can safely balance the camera and not move. You may want to grab a pile of books to help point the lens sky-ward.

      Anything that can securely hold camera very still will work.

      Have fun!

  9. Thank you!!! I needed some good tips for taking pics of fireworks! Can’t wait to try!

  10. Thanks so much for the tips! I need a tripod 🙂

  11. FANTASTIC!!! Thanks so much Darcy!!……..I’m adding a link to this post on my I’m Lovin’ It – “All Things Patriotic” post that will go up tonight!

  12. ok, dumb question here. I have a Nikon D40. I shoot on Manual 99% and AF 100% of the time…….I see where to set my 35mm on Manual focus, but I don’t know how to set it to infinity? I don’t see where that sideways 8 symbol is……can you help?

    • There should be a window on the lens itself. The lens measures distance in ft and m. Change the lens to manual. On a Nikon it will say M or M/A. You want M – then you should be able to rotate the lens until you see infinity.

      Then on the camera itself, you have the following options for a Nikon:

      Pick M and start with ISO 200, f/11 and 2″ (seconds) . You can adjust as needed as you see your results.

      Good luck!

  13. ThanX for sharing these eXcellent tips.

  14. Thanks for doing this. I was doing everything wrong! Now I hope I can just remember all the steps. Happy 4th!

  15. thanks for the tips and debunking the myths! you rock! happy 4th!

  16. This is a fantastic, well-written post. Shooting fireworks eluded me for years – I just couldn’t figure out how to get the whole burst just right. You nailed all the requirements in this post – nicely done, friend!


  17. Mr. Darcy says:

    I love the shot you added at the beginning of your post from last night, gorgeous!

  18. Thanks so much for this. I really needed a refresher. We live in the U.S., but my husband is Canadian, so we celebrate both days. Our local Whole Foods even has a Canada Day celebration. Weird. We only have fireworks on the 4th though.

  19. I used your tips (except your absolutely essential tripod one because I don’t have a tri-pod and it was too late to get one for the evening.) Depite the missing tripod, they turned out way better than other years when, not only did I have the setting all wrong, but I still didn’t have a tripod haha.

  20. Darcy – seriously – you are a great teacher! Have you ever thought of – in addition to your 31 days to a better photo series, of creating a “How To…” photo page with all of these tutorials?

    You should create these tutorials into a book – they are so good!

  21. Nice post. We are going to see fireworks tomorrow and I have not tried to take photos of them before. Hope to get some good ones this year though.

  22. You are genius. And generous. And fabulous. Thank you. Muah!

  23. Wowo I did everything on this list and still bad luck. I think it was my remote. So bummed, they all looked like silly string in the sky. Better luck next year I am sure.

  24. Gale Hansen says:

    Great tips, Darcy!
    I have shot firework photos for years and admire your great shots. One thing that I use to capture good shots is a Fluid Head tripod…it gives a very smooth following of the “rocket” going up. If you ever get a chance, try to attend the PGI (Pyrotechnics Guilde International) events that are often competes several places in the country. It gives you a great chance to experiment on fireworks. I have attended many in the past. One question, in the Photograph on Pinterest, it appears to me that the perspective of the fireworks to the ground skyline and bridge are off a little. Is this a photo montage of two seperate photos? Regardless, it is still a breath taking photograph.

    Carry On and thanks for all the tips!
    Gale Hansen


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