July 4, 2011

photographing the 4th of July fireworks display, New York

Braving the crowds (and insane traffic) in Hoboken tonight, I had a good view of magnificent 4th of July fireworks display on the Hudson River. From this viewpoint, Manhattan is to my right, and barely visible on the edge of the frame. I wanted to include the reflections in the water as well, since the surreal blend of colors helped anchor the intricate fireworks. The photography technique was simple enough – a slow shutter speed, a low ISO … and a tripod and remote release for the camera.

Camera settings for the image above: 1/2 second @ f5.6 @ 200 ISO
but I felt that for this image and several others, the streaks of light became too much. Too ‘messy’ and with less visual impact. So for the rest of the night, I changed my camera settings to:
1/4 second @ f5.6 @ 400 ISO

White Balance for all images: Daylight.  Not all images worked since the brightness of the fireworks display varied a lot! But this is where shooting a large number of images, and then picking the best afterwards, really is the best method to ensure some successful images.

I was fascinated afterwards when the display had ended, by the pall of fireworks smoke shifting over Manhattan.

camera settings: 2 seconds @ f4 @ 400 ISO; Incandescent WB

As mentioned, the technique is simplicity itself. You do need a tripod to stabilize the camera, and then the camera should be fired with a remote release (or a cable release) so that the camera doesn’t move even slightly during the exposure.

The technique extends further than this though. While I like these images, for they capture some of the magnificence of the display, what is lacking is the context – Manhattan. The classic shots of the 4th of July fireworks display, usually shows some New York landmark in the image, such as one of the easily recognized bridges. Or, the images show Manhattan’s colored lights in the background.

For this, I was in completely the wrong place – Hoboken. Far too low down on the Hudson to get the necessary perspective against the Manhattan skyline. Weehawken would most likely have been a better choice here. Well, there is always 2012.

related article:  flash photography and fireworks 


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{ 23 comments. } Add a Comment

1 edy July 5, 2011 at 4:54 am

Hello Neil,
great article as always very good.
I did not understand why ‘in the last image you left the white balance to daylight.
Why ‘incandescent WB?
It ‘was your choice or you could shoot with daylight WB?

Follow you on your site to me and ‘like a drug!
Every day more ‘times a day do I connect with you to see the fantastic news’.

Good luck and good day
Edy Trigona Genoa Italy


2 Neil vN July 5, 2011 at 4:59 am

The city lights are incandescent .. or there-abouts. If I had left the WB to Daylight, it would’ve been a murky orange color.

Neil vN


3 Antoine Dell'Accio Grenoble France July 5, 2011 at 7:06 am

Hi Neil,

you seem to be far from those beautiful fireworks. Did you use your (favourite) 70-200mm f2.8 lens? Or did your change your viewpoint afterwards?

Great pictures! Thanks again for sharing your technique.



4 Stephen July 5, 2011 at 8:23 am

The last photo is really nice.

I wouldn’t have thought tripods would be allowed in viewing areas, since there would be a crowd. Some areas have security guards that would not allow people to carry much into the viewing area.


5 Lloyd July 5, 2011 at 9:33 am

Awesome images Neil.

Which camera and lens was use to capture these images?


6 Neil vN July 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I wanted. to travel light, and I thought the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 would be enough. I didn’t realize the fireworks would be so far up the Hudson from Hoboken. So this was the way I had to compose thie shots to fill the frame. The 70-200 would’ve been better suited at this distance. Better yet, the Nikon 24-120mm f4 (or Canon 24-105mm f4) would’ve been the ideal lens here Wide enough, bjut with some reach. I guess I will have to go shopping then. There’s always that to look forward to … shopping for more toys.

The tripod I took with me was one of Manfrotto’s carbon fiber tripods .. light-weight and relatively compact. No issues from the cops this time.

The camera I used was the Nikon D3

Neil vN


7 Jerry July 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Hi Neil,
Great, as usual. What were you focusing on? The water looks pretty sharp so I can’t tell what your focus point was.


8 Neil vN July 5, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I focused on the fireworks, and then locked my focus by going to manual focus. Since it is at infinity, and shot at f5.6 much of everything that is static in the frame, will be sharp.

Neil vN


9 forkboy1965 July 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm

I envy folks who have great locations available to them for shooting fireworks. I had planned to do such in my small Ohio community last night, but location selection wasn’t particularly rewarding. Wound up with nothing I wanted to keep.


10 Beth July 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I have been wondering how this is done. Thanks so much for this blog post!


11 Chip July 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Not sure why, but the fireworks in these shots look blurry to me– as if you didn’t use a tripod. Although, it’s clear that you did, since the landscape content at the bottom of the shots is all solid.


12 Neil vN July 5, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Half second exposures + wind + moving trails = blur.

Neil vN


13 Arnold Gallardo July 6, 2011 at 2:21 am

What about using a monopod? Will look forward to your review of the 24-120mm F/4 VR :)


14 Neil vN July 6, 2011 at 2:25 am

Monopods are too wobbly for such slow shutter speeds.

And yup, I pulled the trigger on the Nikon 24-120mm f4 today. It should be here later this week. I fully hope it is as good a lens as the Canon 24-105mm f4

Neil vN


15 Lance July 6, 2011 at 10:32 am

I shot some fireworks with my D7000 this past weekend, as well as a few weeks ago at our local Riverfest here in Wichita. I found that to get a similar look to yours, I had to shoot at least 2 seconds on the shutter. A half or quarter of a second wasn’t nearly long enough to capture the whole burst. Here’s what I ended up with:

Riverfest 2011

Independence Weekend


16 Neil vN July 6, 2011 at 11:33 am

Cool shots! They came out very well.

Neil vN


17 bart July 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I tried the to capture the fireworks at Chicago navy pier from the North Beach, and due to the fact that the fireworks were small and limited this year , the spot I picked was not good enough. The idea was to capture both the skyline and and fireworks, but it turned out the fireworks were too small in comparison to the skyline. Next time I will be on the other side so the works are closer to the camera. In my opinion if you don’t have nice background or something nice to go with the works your image will be forgotten quickly.


18 Neil vN July 6, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Bart, you, I also think photographs of fireworks look best if there is some context. Something to anchor the spectacle to a place.

Neil vN


19 Chip July 6, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Neil, did you consider the new Nikon 28-300 when buying the 24-120? It’s unreasonable to expect top-notch image quality from such an all-purpose lens, but it still intrigues me.


20 Neil vN July 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Chip, generally, the longer the zoom range, the less spectacular the performance of the lens. For myself, I can’t see myself using a 28-300 lens. The max aperture would also be quite slow. Even f4 is pushing it for me.

Neil vN


21 Urgyen Lhawong July 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm

hi Neil, you managed to get the fireworks shot with very very little smokes around it, Is it composition thing or there’s any other way to avoid the smokes, which ruined most of my shot which i took last year.



22 Michele Stapleton July 12, 2011 at 11:34 am

Nice job! I was there but on the Manhattan side as a tourist with my g12, also in a “wrong” spot. See https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2182951742886&set=a.2175257550536.2129639.1519743467&type=1&theater

Would have loved to shoot with you in a “right” spot.


23 Neil vN July 13, 2011 at 5:46 am

Michele, as I said, there’s always 2012, so if you’re in New York again, drop me a note.

Neil vN


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