Tips for photographing fireworks

Since it is getting to be that time of year again, I thought I would repost a short article I did for a private forum on photographing fireworks. 


While I have never taken professional fireworks photos myself, I grew up in the fireworks industry and my mother works for a fireworks company and does professional fireworks photography and my father has won several first prizes in international fireworks competition so to say the least I do know this subject matter.

1) Use bulb – no one shutter speed will work for all shots

2) Use a tripod – should be obvious

3) Place the tripod on stable ground – bleachers do not work

4) Photograph away from any lights – particularly street lights. Often they turn them out just before the show but sometimes they do not.

5) If you are photographing from a popular place, get there early because you don’t want people in front of you and the best spots will be taken quickly.

6) Don’t try to get too much in one shot. You want to be able to recognize the shells – this is especially relevant during the finale.

Now for some info that may be new:

1) Unless you are shooting a small local fireworks show, everything will be in the air (vs ground pieces) so that’s what I’ll focus on most. Some shows may use ‘mines’ which are shells that are aimed upwards on the ground. You can get some gorgeous shots if you get the mines in the right frame, but to do that you need to know where they’ll go off. General rules on finding mines.

a. If the show uses a barge, no mines

b. If you see a mine, expect more to go off near it (of course you may be in the wrong spot)

c. When you get to the site, try to see where the fireworks are being setup. Mines are much closer to the ground than the pipes for aerial shots so if they are there with some sharp eyes you can see them.

2) There are two types of aerial shells – ball shells and canister shells (OK – I have seen square shells but they are not used commercially in the US). When the shell is fired, you can tell which type it is based on how the shell goes up (the canister will spin). Why do you care? Ball shells typically have one break except for some of the very largest ones. Canister shells will have multiple breaks and are typically more interesting shots.

3) There are two main types of ball shells. It can be tough determining the difference at times with your eye, but your shots will notice the difference so you should try to pay attention.

a. Peony – stars light after the shell bursts

b. Chrysanthemum – stars light when the shell bursts.

4) As mentioned before, canister shots are often (but not always) multi-break. When you have seen a lot of shells, you will be able to predict with high accuracy how many breaks a shell will have and what types. The following can be used as rough guidelines.

a. If you look closely, the other break(s) will separate from the main shell before it bursts, though this doesn’t always happen.

b. Canister shells burst in a different pattern than ball shells – more of a rectangle than a circle. If this break is very plain (just colored stars), you can almost always expect another break.

c. Generally shells with tails will not multibreak.

5) There are obviously many types of breaks, but the following may provide info for shots

a. Torbillions – swirl around and make a buzzing noise, very common, can be hard to expose correctly because they are often white

b. Cyatines – equivalent of an M-80 in the air, sound like firecrackers, common and easy to get in the shot because they are not very bright

c. Bottom shot – a loud boom and always the last break. If you hear a “ba ba ba” then there will always be a “boom”. Can be hard to expose correctly because they are very bright but can make gorgeous shots if everything breaks right.

d. Go getter – each star has a tiny rocket attached to it and takes off in its own direction, can be confused with other affects but once you see one the effect is unmistakable, somewhat rare shell because it is extremely expensive and time consuming to make, almost impossible to get a good photo of one because the way the stars move makes the shot look cluttered. Of course I am biased on this shell because my father used one to win an international tournament.

e. Crosette – this is actually not really a multibreak shell because the technique is in how you build the stars vs multiple timed breaks, very common shell, effect is for shell to break in three, then each break to break in three, not very bright so best if you try to get all of the crosettes, sometimes have tails (where they area often called ‘palm trees’), the largest of these are among the most gorgeous shells around and if you can get the right shot it will be frameworthy. Perhaps the most beautiful shell I ever saw was a 16” crosette that filled the entire sky – but it is highly unlikely a show can afford a shell like that here (probably costs over $2000).

f. Flower bouquet – multiple colored breaks – the most I have seen is 11, relatively common shell but I don’t remember seeing one last year, sometimes can tease with a bottom shot but you can tell the difference because of the way the breaks fire (flower bouquet is much faster because it is trying to get as much color in the sky as possible), makes great shots because of the colors

g. Lampari – a fireball in the sky, basically it’s a bottom shot with kerosene added, hard to expose right because it is bright but fiery, I’ve seen some decent shots focused on the lampari (they exist in larger single shells as well) but never combined as a break in a shell, these used to be rare but I have seen smaller versions of them in commercial shows recently

7) Other types of shells

a. Willow – unmistakable charcoal stars that seem to hang in the sky forever, easy to expose because it’s not very bright, make gorgeous shots if the framing is correct but its best to try to get as much of the willow as you can

b. Pattern shells – rings, stars, butterflies – seems like new ones come out each year. The trick is to expose just right so the ring looks like a ring. You are really at the mercy of the shell here – because a lot of them don’t break right. I’ve seen a number of nice shots with pattern shells combined with other shells.

c. Salute – a single big bang, photograph as you would a bottom shot, often used in finales (in my opinion a finale is not reputable without them)

d. Comet – has a tail but no burst, the trick to getting a good shot here is the framing

e. Strobe – not really a shell but the way a shell rises, resulting in usually a peony or chrysanthemum burst, the tail basically strobes, hard to get a good shot of this type of tail so I would focus more on the burst

f. Rockets – very rarely used in commercial shows because the sticks come back down, extremely tricky getting a good shot of these unless there is a large flight – even then it is tricky

Other bits:

- Some of the most interesting shots I have seen are of the people shooting the fireworks. You’ll need a small show for this because larger shows are shot electrically. If you contact one of the fireworks companies beforehand you may be able to arrange access but you’ll need to be exceptionally nice because they are naturally a paranoid industry. If you are seriously interested in fireworks photography the best way to get access is to work a few shows with a fireworks company. This way they will get to know you and trust you and then you can obtain access to photograph shows you are not part of – the downside is you have to work on the 4th J

- Try to be original with your shots. Everyone tries to photograph fireworks and honestly 99.9% of these shots are very boring when you have seen a lot of them. Try to be artistic and you’ll have a much better chance of getting a good shot.

- Get to know the fireworks. It is said the best wildlife photographers learn about the animals they are photographing. The same can be said for fireworks. Learn to recognize the different types of shells before they are fired and the trend during a fireworks show (more impressive shells are fired later). Once you understand what you are shooting, you will be able to use this knowledge to create interesting frames.