Taking photos of fireworks is not as difficult as you might think. Rather than pointing your smartphone or dSLR toward the sky and hoping for the best, keep these tips in mind before setting off to watch the holiday light show.
Get into position early. For the best results, scope out the area beforehand and work out where the fireworks will be set off so you can have the best vantage point. It's also handy to figure out how the wind is blowing so you can avoid the smoke which can affect the look of your photos.
The most important investment for firework photos is a tripod. For smartphones, here's how you can attach a handset to a standard tripod. Otherwise, you can invest in a portable solution like the GorillaPod GripTight that's compatible with almost every handset.
You need to keep your camera stable because the main trick to firework photography is keeping the shutter open for long enough to capture light.
Another tip for minimizing any blur caused by camera shake is using the self-timer option once your smartphone or camera is on a tripod. This is especially useful when using a smartphone as touching the screen to take a photo introduces a lot of movement.
Dreamstime stock photographer Betsy Hern also suggests to bring a flashlight, which works in two ways. "You can use the flashlight to help you see the camera's menu in the dark, but also as additional light for your frame," she says.
Once your smartphone is stable, there are a few options you will want to tweak before taking firework photos. The most important is to turn off the flash and make sure HDR mode is not active.
If your default camera app has a night mode or even a dedicated fireworks mode, enable it for better results. Set and lock your focus if possible using an AE/AF option and take some establishing shots to work out the exposure.
A smartphone that has manual exposure options in the default camera app will give the most control. Set your ISO to a low value such as 100 or 200, focus at infinity or on an object that's roughly on the same plane as where the fireworks will be.
As your aperture is fixed on a mobile phone, the shutter speed will need to be a little faster than on a dSLR to avoid blowing out the image. Experiment with a one second exposure, and reduce or increase as needed to capture the light trails from fireworks.
Another option is to take a video of the light show and extract still images of the best scenes. It will only give you the equivalent of a 2-megapixel image for full HD, or 8 megapixels for 4K, but it is something to consider if you want both photos and videos of the show.
If you can't get close enough, resist the urge to use digital zoom. Instead, use a telephoto clip-on lens so you can crop into your images later.
There is not much to mention when shooting on a compact, unless your camera has manual exposure controls. If it does, read the dSLR section for the settings to use.
Otherwise, if you are stuck with a camera that has automatic or program modes only, try and find a scene mode that is dedicated to fireworks or use a night mode with the flash deactivated. If you have the option, use manual focus.
You can also trick the camera into behaving like it has selectable shutter speeds by using program mode, turning off the flash and setting your ISO low. This will force the camera's shutter to stay open for a longer period of time in order to gather more light. As long as the camera is stable, you should get a shake-free shot.
Learn to get comfortable with manual mode on your dSLR. Set your lens to manual focus and don't change it during the fireworks.
Your aperture should be around f/8 to f/11 while your ISO should be low at 100. The shutter speed needs to be at least a few seconds' duration in order to capture the fireworks properly.
Experiment with 3 to 4 seconds to start with, increasing or decreasing the time depending on your results. To avoid camera shake from pressing the shutter button, use a remote shutter release or the self-timer option on your dSLR.
Another option is bulb mode, which keeps the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter button. It's best to use a remote release for bulb mode, otherwise you can introduce camera shake into your images.
During the fireworks show, try varying the shutter speed to obtain different effects. Remember that fireworks are a very bright light source, so anything longer than a few seconds may result in overexposure. Shooting in raw will help you recover detail in case your exposure is too long or short.
Consider shooting wide in order to capture more of the scene and then crop in later. Fireworks will be at all levels from high in the sky or close to the ground. You may need to recompose -- but don't refocus -- during the show.
Once you have nailed the technical component, think about composition. It's not all about what's happening in the sky; try and contextualize the fireworks by including some of the surrounds.
Also try playing around with orientation. Landscape shots can look great, but portrait orientation works well too so you can capture a longer trail of light.
Don't forget to take advantage of editing and processing your photos after the fireworks show is over. Consider boosting the contrast to make the background a deeper black; or increase the hue and saturation to make the fireworks pop, suggests Hern.
Also, you may want to combine several photos into one for a more dramatic effect. "Clone out any imperfections, crop them, and combine them on different layers so you can move them around," says Hern. Then you can layer them over each other and make it look like it was all taken in one photo by changing the blending mode in a program like Photoshop.
Remember that not every shot you take will be a keeper. Take plenty of photos, but also try to enjoy the show rather than watching it through your camera screen.
Editors' note: This post was originally published June 25, 2014, and has been updated.