Photographing Fireworks: Breaking All The Rules

A few years ago I found myself at a baseball game with fireworks.  I did not plan to take photos of them. But I did.  Afterward I wrote an article for the Pioneer Woman about how we sometimes “break the rules” when it comes to photography.  Since this upcoming weekend is the 4th of July and Canada Day, there will be lots of firework displays in North America.  There are hundreds of articles on photographing fireworks the right way. But for today, we are going to cover what I did, break the rules.

photographing fireworks without tripod

Who decided the rules anyway? If you do a Google search online for “photographing fireworks” you will find a few common tips in every article.

  • Use a tripod: You CAN NOT photograph fireworks without one! Period!
  • Shoot manual and at a slow shutter speed: Allow for long exposures of many seconds to 30 seconds, even try bulb settings
  • Use a quick release trigger for the camera if at all possible
  • Shoot at a low ISO 100-200

So rewind back to summer of 2009 – we were at a Detroit Tigers Game. We won a special package through a Silent Auction for a charity included going on the field for batting practice and watching the fireworks show from the visitors’ dugout.

My twins were in awe as this “relatively small” fireworks display started. They wanted me to take pictures of the fireworks. So here I was with no intention of shooting fireworks, completely unprepared to follow any of the basic rules, and aware that I have no tripod or tools to steady the camera. Even if I had planned on it, I do not think I would be allowed a tripod at a Major League Baseball game. So I had two choices. Forget it or break the rules. I chose to break them.

As you will see, these fireworks photos look completely different than if I followed the rules.

* I hand held the camera (no tripod or monopod or even good place to lean)
* Release the shutter with my own fingers
* I tried various speed settings ranging from 1/8 of a second (remember I am hand holding here) to 1/250 too. I experimented with a bunch of speeds in between.
* I was mostly at ISO 800.

The results of breaking the rules:

  • The background was pitch black.
  • I did not capture long trails and fall off with the light that you normally get with fireworks pictures.
  • It made my twins happy.
  • The results were artistic and fun.

In conclusion, if you are able to prepare, do so. If you can follow the rules, do so. But if you are not able to or just did not prep yourself and do not have the right gear; do not hesitate to photograph those fireworks anyway. You may just surprise yourself and get some interesting shots despite your rebellion.

Jodi Friedman, MCP Actions

Jodi Friedman is the founder of MCP Actions. She designs popular Photoshop actions and Lightroom presets that make editing faster, easier and more fun.

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Comments

  1. 1

    Michele says

    This is how I usually photograph the fireworks. I don’t like the pictures with all the smoke in them and so prefer the quicker speed. Yes, quite a few are not ‘good’ but the ones that I do get are quite fun! This was one of my favorites from last year. ISO 1600, 1/80, f5.6, handheld.

  2. 4

    says

    I don’t have a good tripod, and I really like holding my camera…just get a better feel. I’m no where near professional level but when in Hawaii, you gotta take pictures of the fireworks!! I did and love the results….not all are great but those that are are pretty good!! Thanks for your article…it makes me feel better because I don’t even know all the rule!! lol

    Attached a pic. Be kind, I’m not a professional just a hobbyist!

  3. 5

    says

    Here is one of mine-straight out of my …cell phone! I want a “real” camera, but I love that I can also capture cool stuff I would have missed without carrying one on my pocket :)

  4. 7

    says

    Thank you so much for the tips — and ways to break them. This will be my first fireworks with a DSLR, so I am very excited.

  5. 8

    says

    I love to watch Fireworks and so try to spend as little time behind a viewfinder and thinking about rules as possible.. especially as we only get them once a year. Also, I generally need my hands free for candyfloss, burgers and warm tea! I hope you get to enjoy some excellent displays on your July Fourth celebrations.

    Here is a picture that I took on Bonfire night 2010

  6. 10

    Barbara says

    I love all of these photos! hopefully I will have a chance to try my hand at this this weekend.

    Thanks for the tips!

    Barbara

  7. 12

    Ronda says

    I love photographing fireworks. I have done so for the past three years. Each year, my shots get better (and my husband gets more patient). I also found that I could use ‘overlay’ in PSE to put more than one shot in the picture. Happy 4th to you all?

  8. 15

    says

    Another fun thing to try that is fun is to shoot with a wide open aperture. If you’re going for the ‘fun’ and ‘experimental’ thing.

  9. 16

    Jessica says

    Here are a couple pictures I was lucky enough to get last weekend. This was my first attempt ever taking pictures of fireworks and these are the only ones that, I think, turned out pretty good. I took these in bulb mode.
    Looks like I can only upload one at a time, so I’ll post two more. :)

  10. 22

    says

    Happy 4th of July! Happy Canada Day too! Great advice! My thoughts…when I’m in a crowd I just set my small Lumix point and shoot on a tripod…change scene mode to fireworks and hit the shutter while watching the fireworks. Works great for me every year! Good luck!

  11. 26

    says

    This is so cool! Thank you for sharing. My family and I are going to a soccer game tonight and they will be having a fireworks show. I can’t wait to try this out :)

    Oh, and I LOVE the results you got!!!

  12. 30

    says

    You inspired me to go ahead and try it. I think I got some decent ones for not following any rules. I have seen ‘bulb mode’ show up on my camera but I don’t really understand it yet. I need to go do some research on that. I actually don’t mind the smoke in the shot. It’s what I see in real life and it reminds me of the whole experience.
    Here’s one of my favorites from last night.

  13. 32

    susan says

    This was my first time with fireworks in 09, here my favorite.

    Exposure 0.125 sec (1/8)
    Aperture f/4.5
    Focal Length 75 mm
    ISO Speed 400
    no tripod

  14. 38

    says

    My first real attempt at photographing fireworks. I had tried before with a point and shoot, handheld with less than so-so results. Got lucky on a few. Bought my first DSLR just 11 months ago (have already upgraded since) and have fallen in LOVE.

    D7000 on tripod
    Tamron 17-50mm 2.8 VC (17mm, VC off)
    Shutter set to Bulb – 4.1 sec.
    ISO 100
    Aperture f16

  15. 40

    says

    I took these last year in northern California. And much to my surprise, they came out great. I hand held my Nikon D80 w/55-200 zoom…I did the 800 iso and I can’t remember what the f stop was. I actually won 2 ribbons on this shot. Not bad for an amature.

  16. 43

    Rachel says

    I took fireworks for the first time this year. I love how they turned out but after reading your blog, I’m going to experiment some tonight. :-)

  17. 48

    says

    I love the results you got from handholding the camera. I did that last year and got a few decent shots. This one was ISO200, Tamrom 18-270 set at 42mm, 1/5 sec @ f14.

  18. 49

    Lisa McCully says

    When you’re taking pictures for family fun, sometimes it’s not practical to be so rigid about the rules, concentrating more on the fun. I handhold my camera, break all the rules and get little surprises in the pictures. Plus I use my iPhone too :) Those pictures make us happy and that’s all that matters to me. Plus you can get very creative with the images too, collages especially. Happy 4th of July everyone!!!!

  19. 50

    says

    First time I shot fireworks were at disneyworld in Florida at epcot. I found myself a nice location and I used my 70-200 at ISO between 320-800 and shot mostly between 2.8-5.6 and the photos came out very nice. Some of the lower shots had some smoke because there are so many fireworks going off. I was able to sit on a curb with my lens steadied on a raw iron fence. I also did some long exposure but photography is all about creating art and following the rules all the time sometimes doesn’t give you the most creative flow.

  20. 55

    says

    Tried the “Bulb Mode” for the first time last night…didn’t even know I had one!

    It was alot of fun trying something new!
    Robin

  21. 57

    says

    I had fun breaking all of the rules! Thanks for the push! I even went so far as to move my camera around for a few which made for some fun “light painting” shots. Here’s one where I kept as still as I could.

  22. 59

    Jessica says

    Fantastic shots everyone!

    I am a rule follower here, lol. I cannot hand hold very well! Even with my little point & shoot I used a tripod (only past couple years), and last year I had a remote to use with my camera, which was great! Just aim, set my settings up (i was low iso, other settings I can’t remember), and push the button, lol. Last year ended up with alot of smoke in the shots but it wasn’t windy at all. But here’s one of my faves

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