Let the Fireworks Begin: Some Photography Tips

The above-featured image was taken last weekend at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a warm-up shoot for my Fourth of July benefit fireworks photography workshop. It’s just one of many fireworks shows I have photographed since my last DC July 4th Fireworks shoot. Here are some fireworks photography tips based on the shows I have photographed.

I took this DC fireworks show photograph seven years ago.

The evening is a special benefit photo workshop on how to photograph a fireworks show. Interested parties just need to donate $100 to my sister’s stroke recovery GoFundMe.

I am looking forward to photographing the July 4th fireworks for the first time in seven years this weekend. While I like the above DC fireworks shot, I know how much better this year’s shoot will be. I’ve learned so much, and I am excited to share some of those lessons with you.

The Basics

First Night Fireworks in Alexandria, VA 2020

The above is probably the best or close to the best fireworks shot I have taken. It incorporates framing, timing, and intentional settings to garner long fireworks light trails and a sense of place.

The Nationals win the National League Championship in 2019.

I have read a few tutorials on fireworks and many of them deal with what that photographer feels are ideal camera settings and equipment for the shot. The fireworks tip sheet at the end of this Nikon article (my camera of choice) encapsulates many of the tips. Below are the ones I think are essential:
Tripod for stability

External trigger

Pre mapped location

Mid-range f stop, f8-11

Use a low ISO setting to allow for a clean file and long exposures (100-400, at most).

Shoot RAW files so you can edit

White balance: I tend to shoot fluorescent and adjust in post. I find tungsten is too blue, and daylight is too yellow.

Focus on the physical object near the fireworks show and turn off autofocus. When in doubt set to infinity as there is no way you will be close enough to the show for anything else.

July 4th Fireworks in Bar Harbor Maine, 2021

Many people say wide-angle lenses for fireworks, but I will disagree. It depends on how close you are to the shot. The premapped location is essential so you understand which lens to bring. You want to have the shot framed before you show up. Knowing where you will shoot lets you select the correct lens.

My DC shot from seven years ago was not ideally located. I shot north of Reagan Airport by the bridge because my four-year old did not want to go any further. Rather than watch my kid meltdown, I stopped our journey and settled for a happy kid and the above improvised fireworks shot. If I had known was going to photograph that far south of the show, I would have used a telephoto lens to zoom in closer to the fireworks.

If you are super close like I was for the above Bar Harbor fireworks, then yeah a wide-angle makes sense. But, if you are a good distance from the fireworks, you will want a 50mm or even a telephoto lens. When in doubt, bring a 24-105 mm, an 18/24-200 mm or a 24-70/70-200 mm lens combo.

composition tips

Independence Fireworks, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2022

Have a vision when you show up. One thing to consider is the length of the plume. You can go full on 30 seconds — like my Bar Harbor shots and 2020 First Night photo — in your timer or use the bulb setting for even longer exposures. However, if it is a big show with many multiple explosions this can overwhelm the shot with fireworks building upon each other. You may also need a neutral density filter to avoid blowing out your image with too much light.

A short exposure of 5-10 seconds can be long enough to get a nice set of explosions, especially during the peak of the show when the fireworks come fast and furious. Be prepared to adjust your shutter speed, lengthening to start, and then reducing at the conclusion to get the shot you want.

This is the conclusion of the Mount Vernon Fireworks, shot over 10 seconds. An eight second exposure may have been less busy.

In my more recent fireworks photos, I like composing the shot so there is a building or, at a minimum, some people in the foreground to provide a sense of scale and place. A firework plume like the one immediately below taken on First Night Alexandria, 2016 is beautiful, but has little context and is only about a fireworks show in a literal sense. There is no time or place associated with it.

Founder’s Day Fireworks, Alexandria, VA in July 9, 2016

Of course, that might be a look you are are going for, too, and that’s OK. In the past, I avoided the crowds and photographed mirror images of plumes in the Potomac River and actual fireworks explosions.

Founders Day Fireworks, 2018
First Night Fireworks, 2018

In comparison, you can see how defined objects in the foreground can add context and make for a more engaging image. A story can be told, whether it is the Fourth of July on the rocky shores of Maine or the abandoned George Washington Memorial Day Parkway during a country club fireworks show.

July 4th Fireworks, Bar Harbor Maine, 2018
Belle Haven Country Club Independence Day Fireworks, 2015

If you want to see how I edit photos in post, check out this Facebook post where I show how I edited the lead image in this section in just five minutes.

Have a safe and happy July Fourth!