In Disney/ Photography

How to Photograph Fireworks – Learning to Paint with Light in the Happiest Place on Earth

Happily Ever After over the Liberty Belle, new in the shop this weekend

Last week, we talked about why it’s great to be a photographer at Walt Disney World. On that list, fireworks got an entire line item. And for good reason—Disney is the biggest buyer of fireworks in the world, and ranks behind only the U.S. Department of Defense as the world’s overall top buyer of explosives! With multiple world class shows every night across Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, if you’re looking to learn to take the perfect fireworks photo, this is the spot.

It’s also one of those events that just draws the photography appreciators out of the crowd. There’s nothing like watching people’s faces light up as they see the long exposure photos you’re capturing during the show. Those long lines of light are one of the few areas of photography that still feel a little like magic. Probably because these sorts of long exposures are one of the few things that we still can’t reproduce with our camera phones.

It’s not magic, though! It still feels a little like it—but it’s absolutely accessible to you if you have the right equipment and the patience to learn some basic camera settings and techniques. I’m going to cover them all for you right here.

Painting with light.

When I first started really digging into photography, I took a LOT of fireworks photos. I think around here we all tend to do that, but in part I was drawn to them because the world of photography had sort of opened to me for the first time when I learned that “photography” literally means to paint (or, more literally, draw) with light—photo+graph.

I’d always wanted to get more into photography but felt overwhelmed by my big camera with all of its settings. When I found out that it was all just painting with light, something finally clicked and I thought…I can totally do that. The camera’s sensor is your canvas and the light around you, in all of its varying brightnesses and color, is your palette of paint. Your job, as a photographer, is to learn how to control and compose with it.

Composition—Scoping out your location.

You compose your shot by being deliberate about what’s in (and not in) your viewfinder and the four corners of your final cropped image. There are all sorts of helpful guidelines that you can use along the way, with names like the rule of thirds, the Fibonacci spiral, and leading lines, to help you to figure out what the human eye is more likely to enjoy. We can delve more into those another day—but for now, especially with fireworks and as you begin generally, it pays just to remember that what you do and don’t include in your shot is just as important as your camera settings.

A reconnaissance trip or two is great if you have the chance. Take some time to scope out the area for your pictures. You are going to need a full tripod, so find a spot where you’ll have space to set up. Get an idea of where you’d like to be and what focal length lens and camera orientation, landscape or portrait, you’ll want to use to capture as much of the scene as you’d like. Ideally, even watch the fireworks themselves on location beforehand once or twice with an eye toward unique vantage points and when crowds start to gather so that you can arrive early enough to set up. How high in the sky do the fireworks go? How far back do you need to be to really capture everything? Do you want to focus on the fireworks themselves, or include the crowd or other details for context? When in doubt, you can use the camera on your phone to practice framing your shot.

The bridge overlooking the Liberty Belle and Rivers of America is one of the most peaceful places in Magic Kingdom to watch Happily Ever After–this image is new in the shop this weekend!

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box a little for your location, especially after you’ve done the classic views a few times. There are countless places to watch Happily Ever After besides Main Street, inside and outside of the park, and so many different angles for Luminous at EPCOT. Some of these can make for really unique shots, not to mention the pleasure of shooting in less mobbed areas.

EPCOT’s newest show, Luminous, on its opening night.

What equipment will you need?

What equipment will you want to have with you for your shoot? Needless to say, bring anything that you’re accustomed to having with you for photography, but the firework specific basics are:

  • Camera Body: A camera, such as a DSLR or mirrorless, that allows you to control its settings (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) and allows for a shutter speed of at least 10 or so seconds.
  • Lens: The lens that you chose when you scoped out the location. A 35mm is usually a good starting point and you can go closer or wider depending on your specific needs at your location. A versatile zoom lens is great if you aren’t positive about what you’ll want when the time comes and also if you’ll want to change things up a bit during the show, as you won’t want to take the time to switch lenses during the fireworks themselves. Aperture capabilities of the lens don’t really matter, as we won’t typically want to shoot fireworks wide open. You’ll typically want a crisper overall view. (More on this later. For now just know you don’t need a super expensive lens.)
  • Tripod: You’re going to be shooting long exposures, which means that your camera shutter is going to be open gathering light for its picture for extended periods of time. As you might imagine, this makes holding your camera as still as possible one of the most important things about getting a great fireworks picture. For that reason, I’d opt for a full-sized tripod that you can set up on the ground rather than a tabletop version that you’d set up atop a trashcan or table. Make sure that it goes high enough for your needs, especially if you expect to be in a crowd. They can be a little more costly, but you might at some point also consider investing in a carbon fiber tripod. They’re super lightweight to carry around all day and when it’s time to shoot, the carbon fiber is great at absorbing vibrations and keeping your camera still. The difference that this can make is obvious when you stand on Main Street and feel the ground shake under your feet with the booms.
  • Remote Shutter Trigger: To avoid the brief camera shake of pressing the trigger button, it’s great to have a remote trigger. I use this one but be sure to pick one that work with your camera brand. If your camera doesn’t support a remote or you otherwise don’t have one, a workaround is to set a brief timer delay of 2-3 seconds on your camera to give it a moment to still itself after you press the shutter button.
  • Lens Cleaning Cloth: Especially on a humid evening.
  • Something to do while you wait: A book, your phone, a friend. If you want a good spot with your tripod, you’re generally going to want to get set up early.


The opening of Illuminations, EPCOT’s beloved retired show, from a balcony at the Contemporary

This probably felt like the hard part going in, but if you’ve done everything so far then this should just be fun!! You’ve already chosen your lens and other equipment, as well as your spot. Make sure to arrive plenty early to set up before the crowds arrive if you’re shooting in a crowded area. Choose a spot that’s going to be courteous to Cast Members and other guests (when in doubt, ask a CM) and get yourself situated. Get your scene framed on your tripod and then start to get your settings in place.

I’d recommend starting with some version of the following, with tweaks as needed. We’re glossing over some big concepts at a high level here, so you’ll get a little camera 101 with the lesson for this specific setup.

Base settings:

  • Manual Mode: To control all of these things, you’ll first need to put your camera in manual mode.
  • Focus: Start with “wide” and continuous autofocus, or whatever is the equivalent on your camera. You can work with manual focus for fireworks but, as a relative beginner or not, I find that putting my camera into continuous autofocus keeps my images plenty sharp.
  • Remote Shutter / Delayed Shutter Trigger – like we covered under Equipment, you’ll need either your remote trigger connected and ready to go or to have at least a short delay on your shutter timer.

Pillar settings:

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are the three ways that you control light with your camera. For this reason, they’re called the “three pillars of photography”. You have your camera in manual mode so that you can control each one individually.

  • Aperture: f/11-16

    • Concept Overview: Aperture controls how much light hits your camera’s sensor by changing how wide or narrow the opening is that lets the light in. Wide open apertures are represented by lower numbers (called f-stops) and let more light in, but at the “expense” of focus. I put expense in quotes because the blurry effect of the lost focus can be beautiful and is sought after in many styles of photography, but it’s not something you’ll be aiming for with fireworks.

Background lights that look like this are called bokeh and result from a wide open aperture.

    • Fireworks Settings: Happily, opening the aperture up wide isn’t necessary here because you’ll be gathering your light a different way: by keeping your shutter open for a long time. So we can keep our focus sharp by narrowing our aperture down to f/11 or so. If you want to play with this as you’re shooting, you might take it as low as f/8 or as high as f/16 to see how it affects your images.
      • Tip: Aperture is represented by f-stop setting. (You’ll often see it written as f/#.) A big wide aperture (remember, lots of light but shallower field of focus) is represented by a low f-stop number. A narrow aperture (lets less light in but more of your shot is in focus) is represented by a high f-stop number. Your lens is what controls your f-stop capabilities. An expensive lens might be able to “stop down” to f/1.4 or even 1.2, opening up super wide to gather lots of light very quickly. But like we’ve already discussed, that’s not what we’re looking for here. We want the opposite—to leave our shutter open for a long time and to keep as much as possible in focus—so we’ll be using a high f-stop number.
      • Side note: Put your phone’s camera in portrait mode. See that f in a circle in the upper right corner? That’s your cell phone’s answer to aperture. Select it and slide the number up and down with an object in the foreground of your shot and other things in the background. See how changing this setting affects the focus areas of your image and creates depth? Aperture in your “big” camera works in a similar way.
  • Shutter Speed: 10-30 seconds (or manual)

    • Concept Overview: Shutter speed refers to how long the camera’s shutter remains open to gather light and is probably the most intuitive and easy to grasp of the three pillars. If you lengthen the shutter speed, you increase the amount of time that your shutter is open and so increase the light in your resulting image. If you shorten the shutter speed, you decrease the amount of time that the shutter is open and so decrease the light in your resulting image. But as with aperture, by changing our shutter speed we end up affecting our final image in different ways. With aperture, it was how much of your image is in focus across different depths. With shutter speed, perhaps more intuitively, slower speeds can introduce motion blur into the image, since any movement is captured while the shutter remains open. You can play with this to achieve your desired effect. If you want to freeze a bird flying in midair, you might increase your shutter speed to an extreme—but often photographers don’t want that because they want to convey that the bird is in motion. So they will opt for a slightly slower speed to introduce motion blur in a purposeful way.
    • Fireworks Settings: Shutter speed is where the real fun is in fireworks photography—and where the painting with light quite literally happens. Because the trick for fireworks photography is to get your camera settings fixed and then keep your setup very still while you leave your camera shutter open for extended periods of time to make your image. As the fireworks streak across the sky, the lines of light that they follow are traced onto your sensor while the night sky around them remains dark and everything below them remains still. You can experiment with different lengths of time to see what they do—typically anywhere from 10-30 seconds, or you can manually operate the bulb to control the opening and closing more directly. Keep in mind as you experiment with shutter speed that more isn’t always more. If you leave the shutter open for too long during the most active sections, there will be so much light that you’ll lose the details. (Just imagine all of the light of the Happily Ever After finale hitting your sensor for 30 full seconds—you end up with more of a blob of light around the Castle than those sought after clean lines.) In any event though, have fun playing with your shutter speed throughout the show. It’s always exciting to hit that trigger and then watch the fireworks fly knowing that your sensor is picking up every detail. I just try to be mindful to decrease my shutter speed a bit as the show ramps up to its finale so that I’m still getting the detail that I want.
      • Side note: Shutter speed control like this is one of the main reasons that we still need “real cameras” and not just the cameras on our phones. While it’s possible to play with motion blur by setting your phone’s camera to live mode and then choosing the live mode “long exposure” option once you’ve taken the photo (this is cool to try with running water), you aren’t going to get a clean enough result for good fireworks photos.
  • ISO: 100

    • Concept Overview: ISO controls the light in your image by adjusting how sensitive your camera’s sensor is. If aperture controls how big of an opening the light enters through, and shutter speed controls for how long the light enters, ISO controls how much of an impact the light that does get in has when it hits the sensor.  The more you increase your ISO, the more you can artificially brighten your image—but we’ve learned quickly that everything comes at a cost, right? The trick to photography is to knowing how to balance the effects of each of these settings to make the image that you want in the situation you’re in. With ISO, the cost of increasing your light is increasing the “noise” in the resulting image. Noise is that grainy look that you’ll often see in dark pictures. The amount of noise that you’ll get from higher ISO settings varies by camera. Very generally, pricier cameras will allow higher ISO settings with less noise. Because of this, even in manual mode, photographers will often set a permitted range for their ISO and otherwise set it on automatic.
      • Side note: We’ll cover this more in the editing section below, but it’s also worth noting that modern editing software does a great job with noise reduction, so there are options to deal with excessive noise in post-processing if a high ISO is your only choice.
    • Fireworks Settings: Here, however, we’ll just leave ISO set to its very typical and ideal 100. Cameras generally don’t do well on auto ISO with ever changing backgrounds of extreme dark and light (e.g., fireworks on a night sky). So we’ll want to choose something, and ISO 100 is perfectly fine here. The fireworks are plenty bright and we want to keep the sky itself nice and dark for contrast.
      • Tip: If you find that your camera is taking a really long time to process your images after each extended shutter release, check to see if something called “Extended Shutter Noise Reduction” or similar is turned on in your camera’s settings. While it can be a useful setting when you aren’t in a hurry, it can be maddening when you’re trying to grab those moments during a limited show and you’re losing minutes between 10-30 second exposures to processing. You can deal with noise during your editing process.

Basic Settings Recap:

  • Focus: Wide, Continuous Autofocus
  • Remote Trigger Setup / Short Timer (2-3 seconds)
  • Manual Mode:
    • Aperture: 11-16
    • Shutter Speed: 10-30 Seconds (or manual)
    • ISO: 100
  • Extended Shutter Noise Reduction: Off


This isn’t intended to be  a course in editing, but there are a few specific tools that are especially useful in editing fireworks photos. I primarily edit in Lightroom, which has a free mobile version that you can use when you’re just getting started.

  • Highlights: You can reduce your highlights to tone down the brightest parts of your image, often being able to tease out individual fireworks from areas that might have been overexposed during the extended shutter release.
  • Denoise: If you end up with some noise in your image, it can be dealt with in processing. Just make sure to balance your denoising edits against any softness in the final result, as often getting rid of noise can give a photograph a softened look that almost resembles a painting.
  • Dehaze: Dehaze can be an essential editing tool for fireworks photos, especially late in the show when the air is filled with smoke. The dehaze slider can help clear up the background, making the fireworks stand out more against the night sky.
  • Clarity: Clarity enhances the midtone contrast of your photo, making the fireworks appear more defined and any textures more pronounced. Adjusting the clarity can give your fireworks a crisper look, but be careful not to overdo it, as it can start to make the image look unnatural.
  • Sharpen: Sharpening can further define the edges of your fireworks and other details in your image. Again, just use this tool in moderation to avoid any resulting harshness or noise.
  • You might also play with shadows, contrast, vibrance and saturation, temperature and tint, and any other tools that you typically use in photo editing. You can of course also crop and straighten your image as you see fit!

Wrap Up

Hopefully we’ve lifted the curtain a bit on the mystery of fireworks photos for you. It’s really all about doing your homework in advance—scope out your setting, gather up your equipment, and show up and get your (courteous) spot. Then set up your camera, adjust your settings, and see what light paintings you can create!

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Important Note: Sometimes, on my site, I will share products that I’ve personally used and that consistently work for me. If you buy these items through links on my site, I may earn a small commission. It won’t affect the price that you pay but it does help to keep the lights on around here so that we can bring your more like this, so thank you! 

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If you’re missing home (or love someone who is) and are looking for a way to bring the magic home, I’d love for you to check out my photography prints over at Thousand Circles Images.  

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You can find my complete guide to running trails on Walt Disney World property RIGHT HERE.

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