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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

9 tips for amazing firework photos!

Updated: Jul 20

A landscape photo of fireworks over Shaldon by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Fireworks over Shaldon

Mobile phone cameras often do a reasonable job of taking snaps of the annual fireworks displays, but if you want to create fantastic firework photos, you need to follow a few rules. A bit of understanding goes a long way, but as it's such a fast moving scene, with difficult and rapidly changing light, there is always a little bit of trial and error (and luck!) involved in getting that great shot! 1 Use a tripod Unsurprisingly, firework displays happen when it's dark, so your camera settings are always going to have to take account of the low light (apart from the bright fireworks, obviously). There are two ways to compensate for the low light; either using a higher ISO or a longer shutter speed; if your camera is on automatic, exactly what it chooses will depend on how it is programmed. If it errs towards longer exposure times, or if you get off auto and choose your settings yourself and choose a shutter speed longer than around 1/50th of a second, then you risk camera shake ruining your shots. So, it's always better if you can to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod; you don't have to spend lots of money (I once had someone on one of my courses who had a perfectly adequate tripod which had cost them £15 from the middle aisle of Lidl!) but having one will mean you can go to longer shutter speeds and get more creative with your photography. 2 Use a remote release If you are using longer shutter speeds, and even if you have a tripod, the last thing you will want to do is shake the camera by pressing the shutter button every time you want to take a photo. So, it's really worth investing in some kind of remote shutter release; there are loads of options, from wired ones which plug in, to infrared or even bluetooth remote releases (depending on the capability of your camera). Many are inexpensive (around £10 and upwards) - so just do an online search for your camera make and model and 'remote release' and see what you can find. 3 Get there early and scout the location The last thing you want is to turn up late and be at the back of the crowd without a clear view of the fireworks, as this will lead to dull photos of just the fireworks in the sky or fireworks with the backs of people's heads as foreground (although this can actually work well sometimes!). It's always better to try and turn up a couple of hours before the display and scout the area around the display location for good potential photo spots. The main things to look for are views that provide interesting foreground / middle ground to give interest to the fireworks. I particularly like looking for locations with water, so that I can get the reflection of the fireworks for added interest.

4 Set up early and concentrate on the start of the show The main problem with fireworks is that they produce lots of smoke, which can spoil the look of your photos. I always make sure that I arrive and set up early, and have my finger on the remote release ready for the start of the display, and as soon as I hear the first bang of a firework going up, I open the shutter - if you're lucky, you'll capture the first firework exploding in a nice sky clear of smoke! How badly the sky is effected by smoke depends on the weather and wind conditions, but it's always good to try and capture the early ones as an insurance policy, in case the later ones are badly affected by smoke. 5. Shoot wide enough to capture the high ones! Although it's not always easy to do, try and predict how high the fireworks are likely to be in the sky, and try and frame the shot leaving lots of space around the frame. The finale fireworks often tend to be the best, but also the highest in the sky, and I've had many photos of these ruined by missing the top of them off, as I underestimated how high they would be when I framed the shot. It's always better to zoom in on your photo later, than miss the top of the best fireworks. 6. Don't forget about composition, especially foreground interest Fireworks of just the fireworks might look great, but they are unlikely to be great photos that make you go 'wow'. As always in photography, composition matters, and in the case of fireworks, the choice of an interesting foreground (and in some cases middle ground too) can turn a firework shot into a great photo! See tip number 3, about arriving early and scouting the location for good composition well ahead of time (this is most easily done when it is still light). 7 Shoot on Manual (Pro tip!) To get properly creative with fireworks, you really need to know how to get off auto and shoot on Manual mode (hence why teaching this is a key objective of all my photography workshops!). Some suggestions for settings are below, but it's always good to experiment:

Start with an aperture of f11; if you spot that you are underexposing the fireworks then you can open your aperture up to f10, f9 or wider (but note that this also affects how wide the firework streaks will be)

Keep your ISO low to minimise noise; ISO 200 is a good place to start, and you can change it if you are under or over exposing the fireworks.

Rather than setting a shutter speed, it's better to set your shutter to Bulb. This means you can open the shutter when you hear a firework go up, and then close it after the explosion (or after multiple explosions). It's fun to experiment with anything between 1 and 10 seconds.

You will need to know how to check your exposure after some of the early shots, to check you're not under or over exposing the whole set

Make sure you expose for the fireworks, not for the foreground. It's very likely that the foreground will be in deep shadow (unless you're in the middle of a very brightly lit area like a city). See tip 9 for an alternative approach to this.

8 Use manual focus (Pro tip!) The last thing you want is to keep missing the fireworks as you camera keeps hunting for focus in the darkness, every time you half depress the shutter. The best way to avoid this is to switch your lens / camera to manual focus, and before the fireworks start, use manual focus to focus on the middle distance; it's often easiest to do this on a bright area such as a street light or a lit house window. 9 Consider creating a composite (Pro tip!) As mentioned in tip 7, the most important thing is to have your fireworks well exposed, and this normally means that your foreground will be in deep shadow or completely dark (unless you're in a very well lit area such as a city). Often this can still work fine, but the approach that I often choose to use these days is two take two photos, one of my chosen composition in the blue hour when there is still a little light around, and another of the firework later, and then merge these in photoshop; this was the technique used to create the firework shot below. Here is a brief overview of how I do this, but to replicate this you will need an understanding of using Lightroom as well as using layers in Adobe Photoshop (or equivalent alternative software).

Arrive by the blue hour, and compose the photo you intend to take of the fireworks later; making sure you frame the shot wide enough for the highest firework!

Take a shot, using low ISO and long shutter speed to get a well exposed photo (you can do anything up to 30 seconds or even longer).

Now set up the camera for your firework shots and wait! This can be an hour or more so you'll need to be patient!

Take your firework shots, without changing the composition (otherwise combining the photos gets more complicated!)

When home, process the blue hour shot, and your chosen firework shot separately so they look how you want (I use Lightroom for this).

I then crop the firework shot so all I have is a photo of the firework itself (and its' reflection if reflected in water in the foreground)

Open the two images as layers in Photoshop

Put the firework as the top later, and move it to the correct position over the main image.

Now in the control panel above the layers, change the blend mode of the firework layer so that only the bright areas are visible above the main image (the best blend mode is usually 'Lighten' but feel free to try others)

If you want to, you can repeat the above for multiple fireworks, although it does get increasing complex to make the result look realistic.

Want to learn how to take photos like a pro?

If you want to learn more, why not consider one of my one-to-one courses, or if you're not local to Devon, one of my highly rated weekend residential workshops for beginner photographers or for intermediate photographers?

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