Taking pictures of fireworks can be a fun experience that proves quite the technical challenge for many photographers. Beginners may struggle with photographing such a brief and bright subject streaking across a dark summer sky, and advanced users may need to optimize their manual camera controls while also keeping in mind things like location and composition to get the pictures they seek. At any skill level, there are ways to try fireworks photography with automated settings or fine-tunable manual controls to get a shot that encapsulates the awe and wonder of this explosively colorful light. Here we go over some of the core techniques and universal practices to photograph fireworks while also noting which cameras might be the most optimal for capturing an event that is synonymous with summer, the 4th of July, and a general sense of excitement and delight.
There are some core tenets and general tips that always go with taking pictures of fireworks. You ideally want to have the following:
- A sturdy tripod
- A camera with manual exposure control or an automated Fireworks “Scene Mode”
- A remote shutter release cable or a connected smartphone app, to trigger the camera without physically touching it
- An unobstructed prime vantage point to shoot from – once the show begins it is too late to relocate for a better view
- A spare battery (optional, but always good to have on reserve)
Perhaps you have tried taking pictures of fireworks in the past and wondered why they came out blurry or so incredibly bright that the colorful lights burn to a white crisp of overexposure. When pointing a camera toward the night sky it sees a very dark subject that it thinks needs to be brightened up, not suspecting you may be about to press the shutter right as an unexpected burst of bright light comes cascading into the composition. This often results in an overexposed photo, or sometimes the opposite – with an underexposed photo showing dim streaks of color across a black void. This is where the proper techniques and know-how to shooting fireworks comes in. It is vital to tackle this challenge one of two ways: A) Control all facets of the exposure manually, or B) Use a preset mode for fireworks so your camera knows what subject you are capturing, giving the best chance possible to yield a solid result for most scenarios.
Let’s first look at what a camera with a dedicated Fireworks Scene Mode can do to help beginners who are just getting started. A few examples of cameras that have this preset Fireworks setting are the Leica Q2, Leica CL, and Leica TL2. (For cameras like the Leica D-Lux 7, V-Lux 5, and C-Lux that do not have a dedicated Fireworks Scene, try “Artistic Nightscape” on a tripod or “Handheld Night Shot.”) It is important to note that once a scene like Fireworks mode is selected, the camera takes over nearly all controls. Any physical dials such as shutter speed or aperture are ignored while using a Scene Mode. One of the few key controls you still maintain is Exposure Compensation, to make the exposure darker or brighter – though be aware that this adjusts the shutter speed to be longer or shorter.
Take note of what settings the camera is dialing in for you. For example, you may see that the camera immediately selects a 4-second exposure and aperture of f/8 with ISO set to AUTO. This is a good catch-all setup, giving you a one-size-fits-most for this subject matter. It also tells you right away that it is important to get the camera on a tripod, or at least solidly anchored on something stable, as handholding a camera steady for 4 whole seconds is impossible. These shortcut settings can also clue you in on the kind of settings that might be good to try if you decide to venture into manual mode, giving you a good baseline starting point.
While in Fireworks mode, you can also set the camera to Self-Timer on a 2 or 12-second delay. The 2-second delay is helpful if you do not have a release cable, though it makes timing the shot with a round of fireworks require a little more anticipation. Alternatively, the Leica FOTOS app on your smartphone can be used to wirelessly trigger a WiFi-equipped camera quite seamlessly. Once you have the Fireworks scene dialed in and you’re all set up on your tripod with a remote release or self-timer – start shooting! Fireworks shows don’t last very long, and the sooner you start taking pictures the sooner you can review them on the rear LCD to make any necessary adjustments. Consider the brightness of the image and dial Exposure Compensation up or down as needed, but then quickly shift your attention more towards framing your composition and getting yourself synced up with the cadence of the fireworks being launched. You want the framing of your shot to give enough room for the fireworks to expand to full bloom without being cropped out. There is nothing wrong with a little guess-and-check work on the rear LCD to help you along the way to capturing beautiful fireworks. Shoot, check, and adjust quickly on the fly – even if you’re at first relying on the camera to do some of the heavy lifting.
Intermediate to Advanced Levels:
For the very best fireworks photos with the most creative potential, you want to control just about every facet of the camera. This includes shutter speed, ISO, aperture, and focusing. Be sure to set your File Format to RAW or RAW+JPG, as the RAW files give you the greatest latitude for adjusting exposure and color when in post-production software like Adobe Lightroom Classic or Capture One. As for exposure and focusing, here is beat-by-beat checklist to get you going:
- Set this to the base or lowest ISO setting, such as ISO 100 or 200. The flashes of light from the fireworks are incredibly bright, and your ISO brightens or darkens the entire scene on a linear scale. Keeping the ISO low ensures that the image stays as noise-free as possible, and that you maintain the maximum dynamic range for the best image quality and color fidelity.
- Shutter Speed:
- While Fireworks Mode dials in 4 seconds as the default, you have some freedom in selecting your shutter speed. You can try some shots with shorter or lengthier shutter speeds like 2, 8, or 11 seconds but you may want to consider using B (Bulb) mode. This keeps the shutter open for as long or as short as you hold down the button. All current Leica digital cameras have a B (Bulb) Mode or similar T (Time) Mode for very long shutter speeds.
- Set aperture to around f/8 or f/11, a smaller opening due to the shutter being open for such lengthy times. Feel free to experiment with wider apertures, but it might limit you to only capturing shorter bursts of fireworks with faster shutter speeds.
- Turn off autofocus and set the manual focusing distance of the lens to infinity. This ensures that the fireworks are nice and sharp with cleanly defined lines and gives one less thing to worry about when shooting. If the fireworks are much closer to you, try focusing on the initial bursts or a nearby landmark around the same distance, then leave the focus there. Pro-Tip: If using a Leica SL camera set to Manual Focus, the rear joystick can be pressed to quickly autofocus the lens on the fireworks and remain exactly where you leave it.
- Long Exposure Noise Reduction:
- On most Leica cameras, a long shutter speed of 1-second or more requires the use of Long Exposure Noise Reduction. The camera will capture your image for the duration you have chosen, and then immediately capture another image of total darkness for the same amount of time. It uses this “dark frame” to subtract noise from your recorded image. Therefore, a 10-second exposure now takes you 20 total seconds, which you must keep in mind when timing your shots for a pivotal moment like the bombastic grand finale. The Leica SL2 and SL2-S allow you to disable Long Exposure Noise Reduction. This feature combined with the 30-minute maximum shutter time of SL-System cameras make them arguably the best possible options for fireworks and long exposure nighttime photography as a whole. (Stay tuned for more future how-to instruction and content on using these cameras for long exposure photography.)
Beyond the technical settings of your camera, focus on composition and framing. Fireworks create the most compelling imagery when there is more in the shot than just colorful lights. If the location or the crowd are part of the photos, this can lead to a greater context of a time and place – made more compelling when featuring the human element. A bevy of fireworks against the backdrop of a city skyline, at the center of a suburban park, or in a remote rural field sets a larger and more intriguing stage for the dancing lights. Feel free to capture a lovely telephoto close-up shot of isolated fireworks against the night sky, but don’t forget to broaden the perspective with a wide-angle lens and capture the entire scene.
Getting creative & breaking the rules:
While we have reviewed many techniques and guidelines for taking a wide range of fireworks photos, it is good to remind yourself that all rules in photography can at times be broken. Sometimes a happy accident can lead to something brilliantly creative and fresh. Not every fireworks photo has to look exactly like the conventional types you always see. If you end up catching a fireworks show without your handy tripod, try light painting with the little dancing explosions. A handheld, sweeping camera movement with a dragging slow shutter can potentially yield an interesting and colorful abstraction that takes on a totally new life and interpretation.
Just as fireworks are designed for visual enjoyment and an excitement of the senses, the act of photographing them should be equally fun. Whether you’re taking conventional straight shots of a fireworks show, capturing a landscape where fireworks are just a supporting character in the scenery, or getting strange and intriguing results with handheld light painting, fireworks should be fun. Be sure to enjoy the spectacle, the process, and the end results.
Headline image: Leica SL2-S | Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-70 f/2.8 ASPH. | ISO 100 | f/10 | 24s | 56 mm | By Antonio Di Benedetto