How to · Photography · Summer

The happy-snapper guide to capturing fireworks

Fireworks over the Quesnel River
Fireworks over the Quesnel River

So, I was reading an article recently about photographing fireworks. The author touched on all the normal points like “turn off your flash” (which is obvious because one can’t exactly light up fireworks now can one?) and “set the lens to manual focus” (it’s too dark for the camera to auto focus). But then – unlike other know-it-all photography aficionados – he went off on a comic tangent I loved, which went something like this*:

Point 3: Use a tripod. And a shutter release remote control system. Without these, the fireworks’ streamers will be squiggly rather than smooth. But if you don’t have a tripod don’t worry about it, you may just create cool and weird special effects.

Point 4: Set the camera to “Bulb” setting, or on to a long exposure where you can choose how long to keep the shutter open. This is to allow the fireworks to “draw” light across your camera’s sensor. If you don’t have these settings, don’t worry about it, just keep your shutter open for as long as possible, and remember to turn off your flash.

Point 5: Set your ISO as low as possible. If you don’t know what ISO is, don’t worry about it.

Point 6: Try an aperture of f/5.6 at 100 ISO and f/8 at ISO 200. If you don’t know what aperture is or your camera can’t set aperture, forget about it.

Point 7: Open your shutter, keep it open for one burst of fireworks, or for several bursts, and then close it. If it’s too dark, choose a larger aperture for the next shot. If it’s too bright, choose a smaller one.

Point 8: If you have a newer digital camera it may have a “fireworks” auto setting. Shoot on auto and concentrate on composing your shot – creating an image that speaks to you and whoever else gets to look at it.

Point 9: Not working at all? Put your camera down and enjoy the show …

I remember him going on at length about the importance of “image structure” or “underlying compositional order” that grabs the eye – about creating simple, yet engaging, photos. Learning the technical side of the camera and photography is important, but even more so is the ability to create context, to tell stories with one’s images and for them to speak to our subconscious. And, most importantly, to have fun while doing it …


A few nights ago I drove down to the “beach” – at the confluence of the Fraser and Quesnel rivers – to meet up with friends to watch the annual Billy Barker Days fireworks display together. Elissa (whom some of you know) was armed with a Canon DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex), wide-angle lens, tripod and shutter release cable. She captured the following photo of some of our friends:

Matt's hat and the fireworks
Matt’s hat and the fireworks

It really is a wonderful shot – getting everything just right, in my opinion. (Please do click on it to see the bigger version.)

I, however, had neither a tripod nor a remote control. I did, however, have a monopod (yes, that’s something with just one leg – much less stable than the three-legged instrument) and a fold-up camping chair. I wandered away from my friends just before the show started and installed myself on the edge of the Quesnel River – in order to get the rail bridge and water in some of my shots. I set my ISO way too high (for a grainy feel) and had fun – shooting with both eyes wide open.

Not one of my photos was particularly sharp, and will never win any awards. But as I look at them I do feel the screech, whump and boom of the fireworks exploding above my head. And I hear the whoops and expletives of amazement from the inebriated, ever-so-slightly-high-themselves youngsters sitting on the river bank in front of me.

600_0602 600_0607 600_0625 600_0627 600_0637 600_0639 600_0640 600_0649 600_0651

* I am not quoting the original author verbatim but trying to portray the vibe of what he had to say.

9 thoughts on “The happy-snapper guide to capturing fireworks

  1. I’ve always struggled with fireworks shots- trying to predict where the next one will explode-your pics give me hope. Maybe next time I’ll just watch:)

    1. That’s why one should shoot with a wide angle lens… And know where they are shooting them off from – then it’s much easier to predict.

  2. Love the first pic. It is amazing how each photographer has their own style. And your pics show promise! What a cool spot to watch from. No marauding hoards.

    1. By first pic, I mean second one. First in the line up of many. The one with the cowboy hat. Elissa’s one. Stop being lazy and get a tripod.

  3. your fireworks picture are quite impressive all the same, mine look soooooo blurry in comparison! but also, the fireworks you saw look much nicer than the ones I saw in Paris for Bastille day, I was really disappointed and it might also show in the results… Thanks for the tips anyway, I’ll try again later!

  4. I have many opportunities to take pictures of fireworks. Panameños love their fireworks! I can even get really good shots of them during the day…really, the bang and then Poof! Smoke. Thanks for the tips, I have a Canon Rebel T4i I’m teaching myself to use. I need to get some good lenses for it now. 🙂 Beautiful captures, as usual.

  5. Why are my shots so washed out compared to Elissa’s? Because I was shooting at a higher ISO (meaning the sensor was more sensitive to light) and at longer exposures. That didn’t make the fireworks brighter but did mean that the sky was lighter …

  6. Loved all the fireworks pictures Robin and Elissa! Some of them really capture BB Days, I was going to mention which ones I liked the best but I really like them all. Robin, I really like the end one in the dark at the beach and also the one above it, either the same or almost the same just lighter. Plus I like the one where you can see the bridge in the background. Elissa you should consider maybe seeing if Holly and Tyler can use your picture on the BB Days website or even consider seeing about submitting it to the Small Town Love Calendar. Robin, I forgot I love the one that is 3rd from the bottom. Robin, you used a more informal method (I believe) and captured a more artistic quality and I love it. Once again you also captured the feel of the festival, with not, just pictures of the fireworks in the sky.
    You should also maybe talk to Holly and Tyler and see if they can use any, if you want to of course.

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