Labor Day Photography: Capturing Fire

5 tips to shooting and getting creative with sparklers

With Labor Day right around the corner, everybody’s gearing up for the impending long weekend with riverside grill outs, picnics, and of course fireworks. An entire fleet of boats, aptly named “Boat City,” comes out of the framework just to watch Cincinnati Bell/WEBN’s enormous fireworks display on the Ohio riverfront. I’ve never quite understood this Cincinnati tradition; the spectacle easily takes the cake over any July 4th display in the city. One thing is for sure, though, if you get booked for an event with or just want to capture the memories with your friends, you’ll want to know how to shoot pictures with fireworks since there’s likely going to be a few firing off around you.

Fireworks add excitement and awe to any celebratory event, but photographing them can be complicated. Large-scale fireworks pose different problems from capturing sparklers, but both are similar in many regards. Both require slower shutter speeds, a tripod, and accurate framing, but for the sake of space and short attention spans, I’m focusing specifically on how to photograph sparklers. For one, they’re much more accessible and abundant, plus you can have more fun with them and include people in the photos.

Sparklers will never cease to amuse me with those tiny little frayed sparks firing out of the tips of each light beam, like miniature shooting stars. I am, after all, forever a child and never want to know the science behind this magic or I fear that it may spoil it. I am, however, about to spoil the mystery of sparkler photography, but that’s a good thing. There are many ways you can capture sparklers’ light, but there are a few approaches that I find to be accessible and fun for everyone to participate in.

The two methods I used are: 1)shooting a long exposure for making shapes and 2)shooting a shorter exposure for still sparklers with added light. The longer the shutter is open, the more motion of the fireworks you’ll be able to capture. This makes sense, but bear in mind that the longer your shutter is open, the more light is let into your exposure overall. Keep in mind that streetlights, window lights, and car lights will affect your photo so try to remove as much of this light “pollution” as you can. In photography, this is called ambient light. If you’re shooting in the city, it’s almost impossible to remove completely, but try to eliminate as much as you can. For sparklers or any fireworks, switch to manual exposure mode and you will have more control over experimenting with the shots.


1. Slow shutter speed, close up the aperture, and lower the ISO

Our instinct as photographers is that when it’s dark, we bump up the ISO and open up to the widest f-stop. This will destroy your fireworks photos, so unless you’re taking photos of people looking at the fireworks, avoid this impulse.  Bring your ISO down between 100-400 (I shot most of mine at ISO 250). Aim for an aperture between f5.6-f/11 to keep the focal plane wider, meaning more content will be in focus. Keep the shutter speed between 2 and 10 seconds when capturing sparklers. 

These longer shutter speeds, however, require a stable camera to produce a clear and stunning image. Although you can try to shoot sparklers freehand, such as a sparkler exit at a wedding, it requires a flash and an adequately fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. Otherwise, your photos will appear blurry. This is called camera shake, due to the slight shakiness that everyone’s hands naturally have, but it’s an easy fix.


2. Stabilize your camera with a tripod

You can always set your camera on the ledge of something, or a chair, as long as the surface is stable. However, you can often find tripods for very cheap, even at thrift stores, so take your pick. A tripod will give you much greater control over the long exposures required to capturing fireworks and minimize camera shake. 

Now that you have your camera stable, feel free to play with the BULB function. This will allow you to release the shutter for as long or as short as you want and close it whenever you need to, but it will also increase your risk of camera shake since you are touching the camera.

You can also play with timed shutter release or remote release if you have these functions on your camera. That way, not only will you avoid touching the camera, but you can also be in the photo yourself and play around with making sparker shapes! I have a cheap remote that comes in handy for these kinds of experiments, so I highly recommend keeping one in your tool kit.


3. Frame the shot

Using a tripod will also mean that you need to frame your shot before it happens, so even though it will be dark, make sure you point your camera towards the action and try to keep streetlights and building lights out of the frame. Remember that ambient light can also be light from the sky, so shooting after dark is ideal.

When shooting sparklers, keep in mind where your subjects’ arms are going to be, especially if they’re making shapes or writing words with the sparkers. There are a few of my example shots where the shapes go out of the frame, so you can see why this is important. Give them enough room and if they’re writing a word, instruct them to start writing the word far enough to the opposite side of their writing hand. If you’re right-handed like me, it’s your impulse to start writing slightly to the left and then trail off far to the right, curving around your body, and resulting in cutting off or distorting the word a bit, like here:


You’ll also notice something glaring: it’s backwards. I should note here that if your subject decides to write a word, it will need to be in cursive and if they write normally, behind the sparkler, it’s going to be backwards. Of course you can reverse the image or tell them to use their backwards-writing skills if they can, or you can position your subject between the sparkler and the camera, like this:


The only problem with this, as you can see, is that if the person is ever in the way of the sparkler light, you will see chunks of light missing from the stream. There are pros and cons with each method, so try out both of them and see which you prefer.


4. Use manual focus

Unfortunately, blurry photos don’t always mean that your camera moved during exposure. It can also mean you’re not in focus. Using autofocus, find your focal point and have your subject shine a light on him or herself. You can use a flashlight, but this also works with a cell phone. This will allow your camera to find focus since it’s not possible for your camera to focus in the dark. Once you’re focused, switch to manual focus so that your lens won’t try to re-focus when you release the shutter. 

If you find that focus is still off, try closing the aperture a bit to increase the focal plane and give yourself leeway. When you do this, you will also need to increase ISO a bit to compensate.

If you still find blurriness in your sparklers photos after trying everything, there can only be one problem: ghosting. *Cue scary movie music*


5. Pop in a flash and turn off the “pop-up” flash

This effect called ghosting is something you want to watch out for when painting with sparklers. It occurs when too much light is shed on the subject while they’re moving around. To fix this, tell your subject to hold the sparkler farther away from them while they draw. This usually fixes the problem, although you may still see traces of them in the background.

Now if you want to make the person clear in the photo, this is where the flash comes in. Definitely don’t try to use your pop-up flash, and if you have one on your camera turn it off. I don’t currently own a professional flash, but I’ve used them plenty of times and know that it works quite well. Power down your flash to about 1/8 power and experiment from there. If you don’t own a professional flash, don’t worry. They can be expensive and you can use a flashlight or your phone light, which is what I did. 

This is actually trickier than it seems. It was difficult to get enough light on him for a short enough amount of time that he wouldn’t be blurry, which is essentially what a flash does.

Here’s what you do. Make sure there’s enough time on the shutter for the person to draw a shape and then let you pop in to light them. Have the person draw their shape first, something that will not be in the way of their face, and instruct them to hold the sparkler in place when they’re done drawing. Hopefully there’s enough time left on the shutter that you can come in and pop the flash on them.

This must be done from the side of so you’re not in the way of the camera while the light shines on them. Remember, the camera can only see what reflects back to it. Also, make sure to cover the source of the light or you will see a strange-looking burst of light in your photo, seemingly coming from nowhere. A simple fix is to use your body or your hand to shade the source of light. If you’re using a flashlight, tell them to hold very still and make sure you aim it right on their face for about 1 second. If you are using a phone flashlight like I was, you will also need to get fairly close to them before lighting them, around 1 foot, otherwise the light won’t be powerful enough.


You can see the left photo still contains ghosting because my light was not powerful enough and the sparkler light was too close to his face while he was drawing. The photo on the right was fixed by having him move the sparkler farther from him and moving my light closer.

When photographing stationary sparklers with people, you will want to shorten the amount of time the shutter is open. I reduced mine to 2 seconds so that I had enough time to flash him with my phone and yet not overexpose the sparkler light. You can try this with or without a flash on your subject, you can see the difference here: 


After you’ve experimented with all the elements that go into shooting with sparklers, you can mix stationary sparklers with movement and make some really interesting images. I remember from photography school when we did a project called “painting with light” and we had a blast creating scenes at night using flashes, flashlights, and colored lights.


I had so much fun shooting these photos that I didn’t want the sparklers to run out.  Whether you’re shooting as a professional for an event or just fooling around with friends, shooting with sparklers is a great way to have fun manipulating light and getting creative with collaging shapes, words, and lighting subjects. The shapes we made were pretty basic, but the spirals were probably my favorite. 


Practice these tips on your friends, your family, or even yourself and then you will be more prepared to try it out with customers. With a few tries, you’ll be able to create some extraordinary images. Play with it! This skill set will come in handy if you get booked for a wedding or portrait shoot where the customer wants something that they can share online and brag about to their friends. Sparkler photographs are a fantastic way to amaze and delight your clients; they will think you wield some magical power. Light painting is a bit like magic, and even though I know the science behind it, it will never be ruined for me. 



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