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How to Capture Artistic Handheld Shots of Firework Displays!

When it comes to capturing firework displays, it is common to use long exposure photography, in which a camera with a wide angle lens is mounted on a tripod and a remote shutter release is used. So what kind of results will we get when we use a telephoto lens without a remote shutter release while performing handheld photography instead? You just might find yourself capturing exciting images of artistic fireworks. In this article, I will explain just how to capture such photos of fireworks.(Edited by studio9)


Essentials for capturing artistic fireworks

You might be wondering how exactly you can take such photos of fireworks, but it is easier than you think. Once you have set up the camera ahead of time, it’s as simple as just moving the camera however you want at the right time!

Things you’ll need

• A camera that is capable of long exposure photography

For this shoot, I used Bulb Mode [B]. Do note that on some entry-level EOS cameras, setting the shutter speed at 30 seconds or more while in Manual ([M]) mode may automatically lead the mode to change to [B] mode. Be sure to refer to your instruction manual to confirm the required setting method.

While it is possible to use [M] mode to shoot, I would recommend Bulb mode because it is easy to use. If you do shoot in [M] mode, you should set the shutter speed to 1 to 3 seconds.

• Telephoto lens

Because this shoot focuses on the fireworks itself, a telephoto lens is more convenient than a wide-angle lens. Even a telephoto kit lens should do the trick. An easy to use lens would be one with a focal length of approximately 100 to 200mm (35mm film-equivalent).

Try using a monopod if you have one on hand. This is because you will be using a telephoto lens throughout the shoot.  Another good idea would be to attach a ball head when shooting.

*All sample shots in this article were shot using the EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens.

Camera settings

The camera settings themselves are the same as those for normal fireworks photography.

- Bulb mode
- ISO100, f/11 (f/8 - 16)
- Manual Focus (MF)
- Image Stabilization OFF


Detailed procedure on how to capture fireworks

1. Focus on the background (the fireworks)

Firstly, set the focus on the fireworks. As the camera is set to Manual Focus (MF), it will probably difficult to establish focus on the launched fireworks. But for this shoot, there is no need to focus on anything with pinpoint accuracy. It is sufficient for the focus to appear "fairly sharp", so just focus on something that stands out, such as a distant building. You do not need to have too accurate a focus as you will be moving the camera later on to create a blur.

2. Frame the fireworks

Set up the framing so that the fireworks fit within the screen when they shoot up into the sky. Observe where in the sky the first few fireworks burst.

Initially set your camera to a reasonable telephoto distance to ensure that the fireworks fit within the screen. As you get used to it, you can gradually increase the zoom magnification.

With more practice, you will be able to better line up your camera and have it ready before the fireworks burst. It is easier to take successful shots if you follow the fireworks as they shoot up into the sky.

Using this trail as a guide makes it easier to follow the fireworks.

3. Press and hold the shutter button

Once you are done framing the fireworks, press and hold the shutter button. When you press the button and hold it, press it down fully!

Because the camera is in Bulb mode, the shutter stays open for long exposure while the shutter button is held down. You will not be able to take good shots if you release the button too soon. Hold for about 1 to 3 seconds while viewing the fireworks through the viewfinder or on the screen, and then release.

If you move the camera or adjust the focus ring during the few second where you are holding down the shutter button, you could get fantastic and artistic shots!


Techniques to capture attractive artistic photos

Technique 1: Move your camera

The simplest technique is to move your camera. When you have framed the fireworks and pressed down the shutter button, move the camera in whichever way you want. This is to intentionally introduce camera shake.

And yet, by simply moving the camera however you want, you can create a wonderful photo like this.

Here, I pressed down the shutter button at the moment the red fireworks burst open, and then released the button after moving the camera around.

The shutter speed used here was 0.8 sec.


Be sure to move the camera rapidly

A key point is to move the camera rapidly. This brings out a sense of vibrancy in the lines. If you move too slowly, the lines become unnatural—or the firework may even have opened up and disappeared in the first place.

Here, I pressed and held down the shutter button and waited with the camera ready before the fireworks burst open, capturing the centre of the fireworks.

The shutter speed used here was 3.4 sec.

Turn off Image Stabilisation!

Because you are intentionally moving the camera, turn off Image Stabilisation. If left on, the light trails will appear unnaturally wobbly.

Note that the direction of movement is reversed in your photos

When moving the camera to aim, you should remember that the direction in which the light trails extend is opposite to the direction of movement of the camera.

Therefore, if you move your camera to the right, the light trails will extend to the left.

The shutter speed used here was 0.7 sec.

Technique 2: Adjust the focus

This technique is a step up in difficulty level. While holding down the shutter button, try turning the focus ring to put the camera out of focus during exposure. This technique is referred to as focus blur (focusing during exposure).

To make it easier, I mounted the camera on a tripod to keep the camera still, while only adjusting the focus. The focus was sharp at first, but I gradually put the camera out of focus as the fireworks spread out, creating teardrop fireworks.

The shutter speed used here was 1.8 sec.

A tripod is essential to keeping the camera still while adjusting the focus. If you want to take photos like the one above, give it a shot!

The shutter speed used here was 2.2 sec.

After putting your camera out of focus and shooting, refocus your camera in preparation for the next shot.

Technique 3: Move both the camera and point of focus

Next, we will try moving both the camera and focus. This technique combines techniques 1 and 2. While it might look tricky at a glance, camera shake is acceptable for this technique, so it is actually simpler than technique 2, whereby you had to keep the camera still for the shoot.

Here, I held the shutter button down when the fireworks started to open, and while slowly wobbling the camera, I turned the focus ring to put the lens out of focus.

The shutter speed used here was 2.9 sec.

The shutter speed used here was 1.3 sec.

You can also take photos of fireworks with bokeh circles

There are some fireworks that flash with a crackling effect when they burst open. Because each flash is a point light source, you can form bokeh circles by blurring the focus. This allows you to capture sparkling fireworks like gems scattered across the night sky.

The shutter speed used here was 3.5 sec.

Try delaying the timing of focusing once you become used to it

As you become more used to this technique, you should try delaying the timing of moving the camera and turning the focus ring. For example, you can try moving only the camera for the first second, and then turning the focus ring for the remaining second.

Here, I took a shot of crackling fireworks. I captured the fine lines initially before later defocusing. For darker fireworks, I recommend using an f-number in the range of f/8.

The shutter speed used here was 2.8 sec.



In this article I have introduced some techniques for capturing unconventional photos of fireworks.

If you have some time left over after you have taken your normal shots of fireworks, you can have fun trying the kinds of shots that I have shown here. I recommend this for those of you who find yourselves taking what feels like the same picture over and over again.

Be sure to give it a go!




A photography website established in Japan in 2011. With the slogan “Bringing photography closer to you”, the site provides content that is useful for everyone who enjoys photography. Besides web content, studio9 also conducts seminars and workshops.