Top tips for great firework photos

By Geoff Harris

It’s Bonfire Night this weekend which means lots of great photo opportunities, as well as lots of fun for the family.

Getting memorable photos of fireworks is a challenge though – you often see lots of people snapping away with phones at displays, but they are likely to end up with little more than ephemeral record shots. There is nothing wrong with that, but if you want images that will still be interesting on November 6th, read on for some essential advice.

Try taking along a tripod

For the best firework images, with maximum crispness and detail, you will need to be taking quite long exposures – by which we mean slow shutter speeds of 10 seconds to 1 second.

You are shooting in the dark too, so very little light is reaching your camera sensor, and often you will be shooting at narrower apertures to try and keep some detail in landmarks and buildings. Camera shake is pretty much inevitable at these slower speeds if you shoot handheld, although you might just about get away with it if you have a camera with excellent image stabilisation – Olympus continues to lead the field here.

Use a remote shutter release

If you don’t want to lug around a big heavy tripod, a lighter device aimed at travel photographers might be ok if it’s not too windy, or a mini tripod if you can find a wall or fence to rest it on.

Whatever you use, you will need some kind of device to fire the shutter button without actually touching it, as again, this will add camera shake. You can plug in a remote cable release or more conveniently, use an app that fires your camera shutter via Bluetooth. You can set the camera timer as a last result, though your timing will need to be perfect or you could miss the best firework explosions.

Good exposure settings to try

We recommend setting your camera to Manual exposure (M) so you can control both aperture and shutter speed, or to Bulb mode – the shutter stays open until you release it.

As a starting point, try an aperture of f/8 and a shutter speed of 5 seconds, then adjust from there. Mirrorless cameras enable you to see the effects of exposure adjustments in real time, or you can use Live View on your DSLR, which reveals the real-time scene on the rear LCD. Don’t be tempted to push up the ISO: this can give you a higher shutter speed than desired, and add lots of digital noise. ISO 200 is a sensible starting point. Shooting in raw is a good idea as you get the maximum amount of resolution as recorded by your camera, without any JPEG compression, and you can adjust white balance later if needed.

Focus manually

For the best results when shooting fireworks, focus manually: autofocus tends to struggle. This can be easier if there is some kind of building or landmark in the image – these often add visual interest to the image anyway. A church tower is ideal or even a block of flats if you live in a city. Focussing manually can be tough at night, so try setting your lens to infinity (look out for the ∞ icon on the lens barrel). Focus peaking may also work well if there is a big enough structure in the scene to focus on.

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Don’t forget composition

While you might be chuffed that you managed to get a sharp, well exposed shot of fireworks going off, it probably won’t be very interesting to others if there is nothing else in the frame apart from the night sky. As mentioned, try and include interesting local landmarks and be prepared to walk around the bonfire for the best compositions (putting safety first at all times). Shooting fireworks going off above water can make the image more interesting too – try visiting the location of the display in the day so you can scout out the location for the best shooting angles.

Olympus user? Try this

There might be a firework mode on your camera or even your phone, but the results tend to very hit and miss. There might be some useful functions that are worth checking out, however; many Olympus cameras have "Live Time / Live Bulb" modes that allow you to see the exposure as it's happening.

Dress for the occasion

Obviously stay warm, but consider taking along a head torch to make it easier to adjust camera settings in the dark, or photographer’s gloves which keep your hands toasty while still allowing you to feel your camera’s buttons and dials.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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