Photography Tips

Shooting Fireworks

It does not look like it, but this is a firework picture. Hand held, slow shutter speed with zoom out. Lumix GH1 ISO400 1/4s with 14-45 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 16mm f/3.5

It does not look like it, but this is a firework picture. Hand held, slow shutter speed with zoom out. Lumix GH1 ISO400 1/4s with 14-45 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 16mm f/3.5

Here are the 10 most asked question for shooting fireworks, and I am answering to all of them!
By Franc Peret

During my Essential Photography course, which duration is only 25 hours, I cannot cover every aspect of photography in detail.

Light and Colors
However, anytime, I am having specific question from a student, I do take the time to explain the in and out of any special use of the camera.

Nikon D750 = Manual Mode = ISO400 1/3s -0.3 EV with 35 mm f/1.4 @ f/5.6
Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 0.6 s + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/2.5

One of the topic that often come to the discussion is firework. And it is easy to understand its attraction to photography students.

3 Good reasons to give it a try
First, for a person dedicated to light and colors, a firework show is just magnificent to watch.
Second, This is happening at night, when most of the time people do not take their camera out and this is a very special experience to try.
Third, this subject seems very challenging to shoot as the illumination, which is hard to anticipate, does not last long.
Overall, there is plenty of reasons to give it a try for a photographer, but how to make it a successful experience?
Here are the most often asked question, answered with my tips and the way I am dealing with this subject.

Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 01/4s +0.3EV + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/1.6
Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 0.8 s – 0.3EV + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/9

1 – Do I need a tripod?
Yes and no. Tripod can be useful if you are shooting the firework AND the environment (such as a enlighten city landscape). Then, it is important to keep the camera steady as you want to get the background sharp as well.
However, if the main source of light of the location is the firework itself, you can shoot handheld, even with a long pose, as the explosion behave like a flash and the environment is going to be light up only a very short fraction of second and not during your complete shutter time.

2 – Do I need to shoot in manual mode?
If you get a bright background, It is possible to shoot in semi-auto mode (Aperture priority) with some exposure compensation to force the image to get darker(such as -2 or so), however I personally use manual mode, playing around the Aperture and the shutter speed to grab all the color of the firework and to create some special effect with long pause.

Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 0.6s + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/7.1
Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 1.3s + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/9

3 – Do I need a fast lens?
You do not need a lens with a big Aperture (such as f/1.8 or so) as you are shooting a very bright source of light and by using a wide Aperture, you will take the risk to overexpose the image and therefore, you will get no colors to see. Most of the time, my lens is set to f/4 or f/8 which is a good news as any average zoom will get that Aperture.

4 – Do I need a fast Shutter speed?
All depends what you want to achieve, Get a very sharp view of the explosion or to give time to the fire and colors to spread around to fill up more of the sky. Best is to constantly play around with shutter speed from 1/30s to more than 3s.

Nikon D750 = Manual Mode = ISO200 1/5s -0.3 EV with 35 mm f/1.4 @ f/8

5 – Do I need to increase the ISO a lot?
Best is to keep the ISO low as raising it will bring more noise to the shot, especially in the dark part of the shot (the sky). Also, a higher ISO means less details, less dynamic range and less colors. I usually try to stay as low as ISO 200 or ISO 800.

6 – Do I need to be perfectly stable?
No, as firework is a very good subject to paint with light and by combining a long shutter pause with some camera shake, you can achieve very subliminal results.

Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 1/5s + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/1.6
Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 1/4s + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/1.6

7 – What lens should I use?
Best is to start with your usual zoom as one problem with firework is to know where exactly things are going to happen. By starting with the wide side of the zoom, you get more chance to grab the show and after you are more confident to guess where the following blow of light will occur, you can zoom in more and more to get some interesting close up.

8 – Should I use manual focus or auto-focus?
You cannot rely on your auto-focus if you point your camera straight to the sky as there is nothing to focus on.
Best, is to pick up something as near as possible to the explosion (such as a tree or a building) and to preset your focus there with auto-focus. You can lock this by half-pressing the shutter button while waiting for the explosion or you can switch your camera to manual mode.

Panasonic GM5 = Manual Mode = ISO200 1/2s + 25 mm f/1.4 @ f/2

If you do so, be very sure to NOT turn the focus ring after as your focus point will not be well preset anymore.
Some camera gets a back button you can use to force your camera to focus and lock it as soon as you stop to press this button. This feature can be useful here, as you need to preset your focus and keep it as is.

9 – When should I press the shutter button?
As often as possible, even you are seeing nothing coming yet. When the sound of the firework is coming to your hear or when your eyes are seeing the light, it is almost too late to shoot. You have to be ready, and listen to the starting explosion which is launching the rocket in the sky.
Also, by using a long pause (slow shutter speed), you get much more chance to grab something as your sensor is open to the show for a longer period of time.

Nikon D750 ISO200 1/5s -0.3 EV with 35 mm f/1.4 @ f/5.6

10 – Where should I position myself?
First try to be out of the crowd to not get pushed around. Second, find a higher position to not get other people head, hands or smartphone in your framing. Sometime, it is good to insert some viewers in the shot to give a sense of scale and to create an atmosphere, but for a first experiment, better to keep it simple…

I hope all of this was useful.
If you are having more questions or if you are in need of more explanation, drop me an email.

Former photo journalist, Film maker and ELC Shanghai Photography teacher, Franc Peret is teaching Essential Photography Classes, Advanced Photography Workshop and Film Making Classes in Shanghai, for the last 11 years.
If you wish to contact Franc, just drop an email to