Holiday Extravaganza: Photographing Fireworks

Canada Day and U.S. Fourth of July Offer Exciting Photo Ops

by Kerry Drager

Minnesota Capitol Fireworks
Minnesota State Capitol
© Sharon Morris
All Rights Reserved

Photographing Fireworks .. Include Identifiable Landmarks

Pictures of fireworks come in two types: generic (which focus entirely on the blasts of light and could have been photographed anywhere) and location related (which include recognizable features). The accompanying images show fireworks displays in familiar settings: San Francisco, New York City, Minnesota, and Long Beach, Calif. Check BetterPhoto's outstanding Fireworks Picture Page gallery for fireworks scenes that focus on Seattle, Mount Rushmore, Atlanta, and many other locations.

Washington D.C. is also a hot locale for fireworks, and here are some thoughts from Smithsonian staff photographers:

  • Choosing the correct viewing position should be a main consideration. Advises Eric Long: "Have something in the photo that's identifiable. That might be a building, or as is often the case on the Mall, one or more of the national monuments. Having water in the foreground to reflect the fireworks also works well."

  • "Find out which way the wind is blowing and get upwind," says Richard Strauss. "Fireworks create smoke, and if the wind blows it towards your position it not only blocks the shot but makes it uncomfortable to shoot. From the right position you can use the smoke to your advantage. As the fireworks program builds, the smoke reflects light and can help define the shot."

Fireworks, Statue of Liberty, New York
Statue of Liberty - B&W
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

In Praise of Color ... and Black and White!

Fireworks and color just seem to go together. Streaks of bright lights can fill the picture with so many different colors. However, as instructor/author Jim Zuckerman proves in his photo at the right, some landmarks - even New York's Statue of Liberty - can catch the eye in glorious b&w too.

BetterPhoto founder and author Jim Miotke explains the visual attraction of the classic visual medium: "The simplicity of black and white helps you focus on the important stuff. You can often turn a drab color shot into an amazing black and white. If you do your own darkroom work - traditional or digital - it opens up a world of magic and fun."

Of course, with his rendition of the Statue of Liberty that appears on this page, BP member Robert A. Simpson shows why color imagery is so often associated with fireworks. Such a striking splash of yellows and reds!

Fireworks, Statue of Liberty, New York
Statue of Liberty - Color
© Robert A. Simpson
All Rights Reserved

Photographing Fireworks: Tips and Techniques

Arrive early in order to pick the best vantage point. Set the camera's focus to infinity (via Manual mode). Wide-angle or "normal" focal lengths are usually recommended for fireworks photography. Use a tripod and cable release (or remote cord). Turn off the auto-flash - it won't help for distant subjects. As for exposure, the articles and BP links listed below include excellent advice.

More thoughts from instructor/author Peter Burian:

  • Wait for the right moment. Once you're ready to shoot, be patient. The location of the displays will vary. Wait until a very large burst fills a dark area of sky before pointing the camera and taking the picture. This will help to ensure correct framing, including the entire subject and light trails, as well as correct exposure.

  • Shoot lots of frames. As impressive as a multi-colored burst may look to the eye, not every photograph will record it as you hoped. Plan to shoot at least a couple of rolls of film during the event if you're serious about coming home with a few perfect, stunning frames. If you use a digital camera, take a high-capacity memory card or several cards of lower capacity.

Fireworks, Queen Mary, Long Beach
Long Beach, Calif.
© Thomas McConville
All Rights Reserved

Resources on Fireworks Photography

BP founder Jim Miotke's how-to article:
Top Tips for Photographing Fireworks

Instructor/author Kerry Drager's article on fireworks photography:
4th of July Photos: A Celebration of Light and Color!

Instructor/author Peter K. Burian's article:
How to Get Great Fireworks Photos

Article by Smithsonian staff photographers:
Shooting Fireworks: Capture The Spectacle

Atlanta Fireworks Display
San Francisco
© Katherine Chan
All Rights Reserved
Type in the word "fireworks" in BetterPhoto's Search Site, and then check the QnA and photo-discussion sections. Some links to get you started:

For picture ideas and inspiration, check out BetterPhoto's collection of eye-catching images:
Fireworks Picture Page gallery

About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Kerry Drager
Photography Instructor: Kerry Drager
Kerry Drager is a professional photographer, teacher and writer who is also the co-author of two books: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light. He has taught many photography courses (online and in person), seminars and field workshops.

Be sure to check out Kerry's website -

Also, he is the author of Scenic Photography 101, the photographer of the photo-essay books The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood and California Desert , a contributor to the books BetterPhoto Basics and Daybreak 2000, and a co-photographer of Portrait of California. In addition, Kerry was profiled in the April 1994 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine and in Vik Orenstein's 2010 book The Photographer's Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business, and his website was showcased in the January 2003 issue of Shutterbug magazine. Plus, his work has appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards and Sierra Club calendars, and in advertising campaigns for American Express and Sinar Bron Imaging.

Also follow Kerry on Facebook, where he posts photos several times a week that include shooting tips and thoughts.

Kerry lives with his wife, Mary, on California's Central Coast, with their three Newfoundland dogs, four cats, and a mixed terrier.