Fireworks Photography Rediscovered

Twelve-year-old Dakota Betancourt of Griffith, Ind., gets a birds-eye-view of the Griffith Independence Day Parade from atop the Army tank in Central Park along Broad St., Monday, July 4, 2011.

If there’s one thing more exciting than watching a professional fireworks show on Independence Day, at least for me, it would have to be photographing one! I spent a lot of time growing up shooting (and only marginally succeeding at) fireworks shows on 35mm film. After all, fireworks photography is a very technically demanding art. It requires that you know your camera’s controls intimately in the full manual realm, and that you’re able to make changes on the fly to compensate for the fireworks’ unpredictable locations in the frame along varying brightnesses and colors.

With the advent of digital SLR photography, documenting fireworks has become much less frustrating. Instant review of the images the camera’s LCD screen immediately confirms if you’re doing things right (or wrong), and takes much of the guesswork out of producing solid images. I suppose this is why I’ve sat out of fireworks photography the past few years. I’m not saying I’ve perfected fireworks shooting by any means, but I don’t find it as challenging as I once did. The lack of interesting locations for many of the shows in my area also means that, unless I was interested in only shooting lone colorful bursts in the sky (usually quite boring), I’d be left with few interesting foreground elements to choose from – that is unless you’re into Little League backstop fences or trees.

Yesterday afternoon, while trying to will myself into a nap after shooting the Griffith, Indiana, Independence Day Parade, I saw a fireworks tutorial video on the Creative Live web site, led by photographer John Cornicello. As I clicked play, I figured this would only be a review of everything I’d already figured out on my own, but surprisingly, I learned a few new tricks (my favorite one being racking the lens out of focus mid-way through a long fireworks exposure) and really enjoyed Cornicello’s teaching style. I recommend forcing yourself to watch the entire hour-long tutorial if you’re interested in trying fireworks photography yourself.

With a few of these new-found techniques bristling in my mind, I decided to take my camera along to a fireworks show I’d already planned on attending that evening at Hammond, Indiana’s, Wolf Lake. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Upon arriving at Wolf Lake, I scouted and chose a location close to the shoreline that overlooked the island where the fireworks would be fired from. This would give me an unobstructed view of the sky as well as the water in the foreground for possible images of reflections. Above is an iPhone snap of my camera set up on a tripod (a must) with a cable release. All that I had to do now was wait for the sun to set.


The shoreline location also gave me a great view of several other professional displays that got underway a bit earlier than and several miles away from the Wolf Lake show.

This is one of the first images where I tried racking the lens out of focus at the end of a two-second bulb exposure, causing the firework’s stars to blur into large, soft blobs.

Another attempt at the rack-focus technique, a bit more aggressively. This one kinda looks like a plant! The disjointed light trails are a result of me shaking the camera during the exposure as I grabbed the focus ring, showing just how critical a stable tripod is for smooth fireworks images.

This burst of Roman candles lit up the trees on Wolf Lake’s Boy Scout Island quite brightly, and created a stunning mirror image in the surface of the glassy, calm water.

“But, Guy, I thought you said images of the bursts alone in the sky without any foreground elements are boring?” Yeah, so what? I still think some of them look cool.

This is what happens when a fireworks shell doesn’t make it all the way into the air and falls back down on the ground before exploding. You can see the yellow “stars” flying well above the 30′ tall trees on the island, giving you a true sense of scale for just how large a firework explosion is in the sky overhead. I also like how the stars from the bottom part of the shell are bouncing around all over the ground. The guys hand-firing the show were near the red patch of light near the right of the frame, and as far as I know, were OK.


This is yet another attempt at racking focus during a long exposure over several fireworks bursts. In this situation, the technique actually creates the illusion of shallow depth of field across the bursts (which were actually fired in the same plane).

When the finale went off, I simply mashed down on the cable release button over and over and hoped for a nice frame with a lot of bursts and decent exposure. I lucked out with this image, as well as ending up with several other fireworks shows going on in the distance (visible near the left of the frame).

Posted in Photography, Photojournalism by Guy Rhodes on July 5th, 2011.

2 Responses to “Fireworks Photography Rediscovered”

  1. Asia Dickens says:

    Love Love LOVE every picture!! They are so life like! It feels as if im right there watching the fireworks explode!! Great job Guy!!

  2. Jahaira says:

    Almost better than being right there with you in person!

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