Light & Shadow

Do I need a tripod to take photos of fireworks?


_KHK2836-強化-NR-2-blogImage Credit: Asuka Inukai, Japan (used with permission)

With the summer in full swing and the 4th of July right around the corner, here in the United States, we are gearing up for many summer activities. July here in Utah is marked by American flags on every street corner, the smell of barbecue in the air, parades for every city, and of course firework shows. Whether you’re going to be watching a fireworks show put on by a city or lighting your own at home this summer, we want to make sure you’re ready to capture those moments on camera.

Why the Tripod Matters:

The big question I often hear about photographing fireworks is, “Do I need a tripod to take good photos of fireworks?” With modern cameras capable of low-light photography with minimal noise, it’s a valid question to ask. The short answer is yes, but it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

The long answer is that you can snap photos of fireworks with your phone or a handheld camera these days with no issue, but if you want to capture clean fireworks trails as they move through the night sky, you need to have the shutter open for a long time, often longer than what you can reliably hand-hold without your movement showing up in the fireworks trails. A tripod is absolutely necessary to get clean trails when doing long exposures and not all tripods are created equal. Let me tell you a little story about my experience taking long exposures of fireworks on a tripod.

A number of years ago, I was in Ohio visiting a family friend, John, who was a relatively new photographer at the time. It was 4th of July and after a day at the lake, we found ourselves parked along the side of the road overlooking the Akron city fireworks show. We both had our tripods out and were taking long exposures of the fireworks displays. We would routinely compare our timing, camera settings, and composition. On one occasion, he zoomed in and asked me, “Why do the fireworks look so squiggly when I zoom in? Are they moving through the air in that pattern?” Fascinated by his discovery, I zoomed into my own image of the same firework and said to him, “John, mine don’t look like that, they have clean lines”. We quickly came to realize his tripod was the culprit and my RRS tripod didn’t have the same behavior, even after swapping camera setups.

While fireworks are definitely a big thing for the 4th of July and other celebrations here in the United States, there are some amazing opportunities to photograph fireworks with our friends abroad as well. I want to take some time to highlight the work of our friend Asuka Inukai, who has been a long-time customer of RRS and takes spectacular photos of Japanese fireworks shows.


Image Credit: Asuka Inukai, Japan (used with permission)

In this image above, Asuka is holding the shutter open for 18 seconds in order to capture this incredible burst of color.


Image Credit: Asuka Inukai, Japan (used with permission)

Here’s another example where she actually has the shutter open for 34 seconds to capture the full travel of the sparks through the sky. I love the way the wind whips around the tail and how the color changes at the end-tip.


Image Credit: Asuka Inukai, Japan (used with permission)

Here’s an example of where a shorter shutter duration is needed and perhaps a tripod is not required. The goal here was to stop the motion rather than blur it so Asuka used a shutter speed of 1/250th to freeze the subject and the action.

I must admit that looking at these images and her galleries makes me jealous of what great opportunities Asuka has to work with over in Japan. These Japanese fireworks shows are next level and I hope to one day be able to witness some myself.

Here’s what Asuka herself had to say:

“Japanese fireworks are delicate and beautiful, and are very popular overseas as well. Recently, there has been a rise in the use of what are known as Music Starmines, which are fireworks set off in time with music. Hand-held fireworks are also held in various places in the spring and autumn as a traditional event. The flames and sound that erupt up close are very impressive.

To photograph these fireworks beautifully, a sturdy tripod and gear are essential. That's why I've been using the TFC-34 MK2 and BH55 for many years. Starmine fireworks require long exposures. Therefore, the composition needs to be fixed and the fireworks need not to blur. I hope to continue using the RRS to enjoy photographing fireworks and other things in the future.”

Be sure to follow her on Instagram for more of her fantastic work.

Tips for Taking Photos of Fireworks:

Every venue and condition is going to differ a little bit so it would be difficult to give a blanket answer, but there are two major things working in your favor as you experiment:

  1. Not many light sources are going to be brighter than the fireworks themselves in the night sky, so you don’t have to try to manage exposure levels of multiple light sources, perhaps unless you are in a very well-lit area.
  2. The fireworks are moving, distant light sources so it’s more akin to a light-painting than working with strobes or a stationary light source that are illuminating a wide area evenly.

Because of this, as long as you can get a base exposure level for the fireworks itself, lengthening and shortening the shutter speed doesn’t change much about the exposure level. General recommendations would be to start around ISO 100 (or base ISO for cleanest image) and f8.0, then choose a shutter speed long enough to capture the full motion of the fireworks from start to finish, which may vary depending on the height and size of the firework. If you need to adjust the exposure level, it would be best to leave the ISO at base and adjust the aperture instead.

Here’s some tips on how to get started taking photos of fireworks:

  1. Find the right location. Try to get unobstructed views of the fireworks bursts and think about what your overall composition is going to be before the fireworks show starts. Once things kick off, it might be difficult to relocate. Try to avoid high-traffic roads or sidewalks where something might move your tripod mid-shot or where you might be forced to move out of the way.
  2. Make sure you’re using a sturdy tripod like our TVC-33 with BH-55 LR. As I mentioned in my story, quality matters and so don’t cheap out and let your tripod ruin your moment.
  3. Use a shutter release or 2 second self timer to avoid moving the camera at the beginning of the shutter actuation.
  4. Establish your ideal exposure settings early in the show and use some of the smaller fireworks in the beginning to practice timing for the large finale.
  5. Have fun and tag us #reallyrightstuff with your best shot!

From all of us here at Really Right Stuff, we wish you a happy 4th of July and may both your summer days and nights be bright!