Achieve spectacular photos of July 4th fireworks

Top tips to take spectacular photos of July 4th fireworks with your digital camera and smartphone.

Philadelphia Welcomes America, Independence Day celebration, on the Parkway at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Copyright © 2023 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.Tomorrow is US Independence Day, the time to take spectacular photos of July 4th fireworks that are part of the celebrations.

It commemorates the ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was adopted and signed in the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall. The Declaration explains to the world why the thirteen colonies considered themselves sovereign states, independent, and no longer subject to the rule of the British monarchy.

The second President of the United States, John Adams, is in large part responsible for how Independence Day is celebrated. In his July 3, 1776 letter to Abigail, his wife, he said that the day should be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

The Pennsylvania Evening Post described the first anniversary of Independence Day.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post stated that in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, “The evening closed with the ring of bells and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons and the city was beautifully illuminated.”

Like many Americans, I’ll celebrate Independence Day tomorrow evening by enjoying a fireworks show like John Adams envisioned. I’m fortunate that I’ll be able to see and photograph the fireworks in America’s birthplace, Philadelphia.

Fireworks aren’t dark like many believe. They are extremely bright and must be photographed with that in mind.

Fireworks are extremely bright and persist for a few seconds, typically against an almost black background. Focus and particularly the exposure settings for fireworks’ photos aren’t straight-forward. If you’re traveling in the U.S. this week and want to get great images of the fireworks near you, here are my fireworks’ photography tips for both digital cameras and smartphones.

Scout for a location and choose wisely:
Fireworks draw large crowds. Find a position where people won’t wander in front of you and accidentally knock into your equipment. Choose an upwind location from the fireworks to avoid their smoke, which can obscure your images. Avoid unwanted light from street lamps. Consider the setting’s background. Look out for tree branches that could intrude into your photo.

Arrive early:
To be able to claim the great spot you scouted, arrive early. Make a few test photos to ensure nothing unexpected shows up in your images, like a light or branch.

Always use a tripod:
Whether you’re shooting with a camera or smartphone, fireworks’ photography requires long exposures to capture both light trails and full bursts in your photos. That requires camera support to ensure sharp images. Use a tripod appropriate for your equipment.

Use manual settings on cameras and smartphones. For smartphones, that means you’ll need an app for that.

For smartphones get a camera app that allows manual shooting:
Fireworks’ images are best made when you can manually set your smartphone camera’s exposure settings manually. Most camera apps that come standard on smartphones have limited manual capability or don’t have it at all. For Android, consider Camera FV-5 ($4.99). For the iPhone, I use ProCam 8 ($9.99). Both of these apps provide extensive manual control to make great fireworks photos.

Use a remote shutter release:
Minute movements of your camera or smartphone can blur your images. When using either, use a remote shutter release, if possible, to avoid shake caused by pressing the shutter release button. Most cameras accept wireless or wired remote shutter releases. For iPhones, if you have an Apple Watch, you can use it as a remote shutter release with the ProCam 8 app.

For cameras or smartphones you’ll need a fully charged battery, plenty of memory and save files using the highest quality setting.

Start with a fully charged battery:
You don’t want to run out of power before the end of the show.

Have enough free memory:
I typically take photos of every fireworks’ burst. I format the largest memory card I have, so it’s at full capacity in my camera. For smartphones, consider off-loading as many photo and video files as possible, so you have plenty of room for shooting the fireworks.

Use manual focus:
The fireworks will likely be several hundred yards/meters away or more. It’s difficult to focus in darkness, so focus manually and set it to infinity. For cameras or smartphones that don’t have manual focus, use landscape mode to approximate it.

Use the highest quality setting for your photos:
I shoot fireworks exclusively in RAW format. If you take your photos in JPG, choose the best quality and the largest size (least compression) to avoid JPG compression artifacts, which often occur in scenes with high luminance and color contrast, as in fireworks’ images.

Chose a low ISO setting for your photos:
To minimize digital noise in your fireworks’ photos use a low ISO setting of 50–200.

It’s night, but the exposures only need 1-4 seconds to catch the trail and the burst.

It’s night, but you don’t need extremely long exposures:
Fireworks are very bright lights. Set your camera to manual exposure mode. I expose my fireworks’ photos from 1 to 4 seconds to capture the trail(s) and burst(s). If your camera or smartphone app has a B (Bulb) shutter setting, you can use it for long exposures. Try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter. Close it immediately after it reaches its peak.

Base your aperture on your ISO setting:
A good starting point would be ISO 100 – f/8 to f/16 or ISO 200 – f/11 to f/22 on your camera. On smartphones you’ll need to experiment to find the best exposure value (EV). Check your photos as you shoot and adjust the aperture or EV as necessary.

White Balance:
Set your white balance to daylight.

Frame your photo well, add a foreground subject for context and interest and don’t forget — no flash.

Frame your photo well:
A vertical format is generally better, as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide. Frame your image so you have a reasonably sized foreground and “head-room” above the topmost fireworks’ bursts. For cameras, your position relative to the firework’s display will determine your optimal lens focal length.

Turn off your flash:
Your flash is useless for photographing fireworks themselves, though it might be used to light something in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.

Add a foreground subject:
Possibly add a statue, crowd silhouettes, a tree or building in the foreground for context and interest.

Have a blast shooting fireworks tomorrow on July 4th.

(Image: Philadelphia Welcomes America, Independence Day celebration, on the Parkway at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Copyright © 2023 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.)