April 24, 2024

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How To Photograph Fireworks And Edit Them

5 min read

Prior Lake Fireworks 2014-4_smThe 4th of July wraps up the festivities with a traditional fireworks show. Sending Chinese invented and manufactured controlled colorful explosions to celebrate America’s Independence from British rule.

Fireworks are exciting to watch in person and just as fun to capture them through photography. Unlike most event photos the best firework shots are not ‘snapshots’ but long exposure shots to create the streaks and see all the fingers of the high explosive might.

The concept of capturing fireworks is not difficult but getting all the details just right can be tricky. This post will help you get setup for capturing your own firework shots and I will also throw in some Photoshop processing to add a little extra. Of course the steps laid out below are more guidelines than absolute steps to get good fireworks shots. Like all photography or any art the more you do it the better you get.

The Photography Equipment

There are a few things you must have in order to do this.
1) A tripod.
2) A camera with a manual mode where you can control the shutter speed, aperture (F Stop), and ISO settings.
3) Optional – A shutter release cable. This is not required but having a cable will remove any chance of camera shake if you use the on camera shutter release button.

1) Set the ISO to the lowest setting, 100-200.
2) Aperture should be F8 to F10 for a good depth of field.
3) Focus, this can be tricky. Depending on your location relative to the fireworks you may set the focus to Infinity or just under if you are closer. Check this out before you get going, it’s very disappointing to take 50 shots and realize they are all out of focus. No amount of post processing can fix that.
4) Shutter speed should be set to Bulb mode or the mode for your camera that the shutter stays open as long as you have the shutter release pressed. This is another reason a shutter release cable is so handy and you can find them for cheap, mine I got for $20 off Ebay for my Nikon D700. It works for what I need. You don’t want to use pre-defined times, 5 second exposures, because you don’t know the frequency or schedule of the fireworks.
5) Optional – Shoot RAW format. Easier to post process color saturation, exposure, brightness, etc…

Hold the shutter down when the mortars are fired and release it just after the peak of the explosion to get the crispest definition of the firework. The longer you keep the shutter open the more light but you will get an image that shows the trails of every sparks as it falls and blows in the wind. That may be not what you are looking for.

Also, the longer you keep the shutter open the more light from the sky will accumulate as well. If there are clouds, if the moon is out, even stars will highlight the sky around and may wash out the fireworks and take away from a nice black background. Below is an example of the shutter held open too long. Your human eye will see each firework one at a time as they are launched but the camera is collecting and recording all the light the entire time and you get the photo below.

Shutter open too long

That’s pretty much it and trial and error as you shoot. Most firework shows are 20 minutes on average so it doesn’t leave much time to experiment too much. If the photos are too bright drop down the ISO setting or don’t leave the shutter open so long.

Whatever you do, don’t bump the tripod. Any little movement will make the fireworks wiggle.

Photoshop Tips
All of the photos in my collection are composites. None of them are stand alone images. Each one consists of at least 2 individual shots and some has as many as 5. Taking into account all the variables and trying to get the perfect shot while avoiding the washed out effect like the pic above, it’s easier to get good single shots and stack them later in Photoshop.

Single Shot

You can see here in the Single Shot that it’s not a bad photo, nice black sky, good definition of the fireworks but it’s just OK.


Taking several other single shots from the position and stacking them you get a more dynamic photo that gives the impressions of one long shot. In reality this one is about 5 picked out of a series of 30 to get the nice layout.

How to take the best individual shots you have and turn them into a great shot you go through a process called Stacking and it’s very easy to do. The steps below are for Photoshop.

Open the photos you want to stack. Tweak them as you need to individually before stacking them to correct any big issues or bring up the saturation. You can always adjust each one later but take note they will be layers in Photoshop.

In Photoshop CS6 –

File > Scripts > Load Files Into Stack
Select Add Open Files (This is why it’s easier to open them first rather than trying to browse for them here.)
– This will take the open photos and add them as layers into a new Photoshop file.
– When the file is done generating go to the Layers tab in the editing window and change the Layer Blending Mode to Lighten.

You will immediately see your shots blend together. Go and experiment with the others but Lighten is the one you want and here’s why.

“Lighten – Looks at the color information in each channel and selects the base or blend color—whichever is lighter—as the result color. Pixels darker than the blend color are replaced, and pixels lighter than the blend color do not change.”

Here’s a glossary of the blending modes and what they do.

That’s about it. I have also used this technique for lightning.

Here’s my slideshow from this year’s, 2014, local fireworks show using the techniques above.

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