Capturing Fireworks Using Focus Blur and Long Exposure

Whether it be for a nation’s birthday, the dawn of a new year, or any other momentous occasion, fireworks have become a symbol of celebration used worldwide to provide entertainment in the form of explosive pyrotechnics. Characterized by sparks, smoke, and deafening cracks, fireworks inspire ooh’s and ah’s from mesmerized crowds, and often burn in the back of our eyelids long after the grand finale. But can we capture them on camera and still do justice to their grandeur?

focus blur fireworks
photo by David Johnson 1sec, f5.6 iso 100

The answer, of course, is yes – with the right techniques and equipment, anyone can capture this fascinating display of explosives as they illuminate and dissolve into the sky, and get really cool results.

There are several tricks to shooting fireworks that require practice and experimentation. As with most night photography, low ISO’s and slow shutter speeds are your friends, as are tripods, which will help you get a stable shot.
Previously we discussed Zoom blur and Zoom spinning techniques, which can also be applied when shooting fireworks. Today we would like to introduce the technique of Focus Blur.

focus blur fireworks
photo by Chase Schiefer 2sec f4.5 iso 400

Focus blur is a special trick that can turn a firework picture from decent to magical. This technique allows photographers to have part of their firework photograph in sharp focus, with other parts out of focus and blurred to lend a softer and puffier look to some shapes, while keeping other bursts perfectly clear.

Steps for creating focus blur for fireworks display:

1. Camera must be on tripod.
2. Set ISO to 100. ( you will need low iso not only by minimize noise from time exposure but also to allow longer shutter speed.
3. Set Shutter speed to 2 seconds as a starting point
4. Set F-stop somewhere f 5.6 , f8
5. Timing is very important and you have to experiment and get lucky as you never know what to expect from the next firework. Ideal time to press on the shutter is at the beginning of the burst.
(Test your exposure prior to moving to the next step)
6. Now the most crucial element: The focus blur.

  • Figure out what is the sharp focus setting. Use the first one or two rounds of fireworks to test and set the point of sharp focus.
  • Set the camera or your lens to Manual Focus to ensure focus will not move.
  • Observe your lens and visually remember where your focus need to line up in order to return to sharp focus later (see image below)

focus blur lens setting

Your Start Point (Soft Focus) for focusing will be on the other end of the scale (see image below)


lens setting for fucus blur technique

Shooting Steps:

  1. Set lens to your start point (out of focus close up focal point)
  2. Release the shutter, right before the firework bursts.(listen for the boom)
  3. Gradually move the focus into the sharp focus position.

Make sure to have the focus returned to sharp focus point quick enough before the end of exposure.

Basic Troubleshooting: If the shot come out overexposed. Reduce time or increase f-stop.

If everything looks blurry – Get to the Sharp Focus Point faster.

If everything is too sharp without the cool effect increase the rotation time.

focal brur effect with fireworks
Photo by Forrest Tanaka 2sec, f6.3 iso 100

Reversed Effect.

To reverse the effect (as seen in the image above) start shooting at Sharp Point Focus and gradually turn your focusing ring towards the Soft Focus Spot.

Shoot some great images and come back here to post your results. Please share your images in comments below.

Images were contributed by David Johnson (Check out his tips on shooting fireworksChase Schiefer (Connect with him on FB) and Forrest Tanak