1. Use a tripod and cable release.
Shooting at dusk means long exposures, and long exposures mean you need to use a tripod to steady the camera. You also need a cable release—or you can use the self-timer, though it’s not nearly as convenient. (If you really want to minimize the chance of camera shake, use your camera’s mirror lockup feature, as well.) Even if you have a brand-new DSLR that’s capable of shooting ultra-low-noise photos at ISOs above 3200, stay at ISO 100 to minimize noise and lengthen shutter speeds. This will showcase the beautiful colors and shapes of the moving light.
There’s no single solution for the perfect aperture and shutter speed combination, but luckily you can see your results on the back of the camera the moment an exposure is complete. Start at around ƒ/8 and stop down to ƒ/11, ƒ/16 and even ƒ/22 to increase depth of field and lengthen the duration of the exposure. A one-second minimum is a good start, and it probably won’t hurt to try two-, four- and even 10-second exposures. The longer the shutter is open, the more fireworks you can fill the scene with. But be careful: Too many explosions can muddle the image.
3. Shoot early and often.
Not only is the start of a fireworks display the most likely opportunity to have remaining ambient light in the sky for added color, but the beginning of the show is also when the sky will be clearest. If you’re lucky, a bit of a breeze will move the smoke out of frame and keep it from obscuring the show, but unless you’re watching a fireworks show in a tornado, chances are, you’re going to see more smoke as the show wears on.
4. Watch the background.
As much as the fireworks are the center of attention, if you’re watching the show in Washington, D.C., for example, you’d be silly not to include major monuments in the frame. For foreground subjects, consider using fill-flash to illuminate them. (This, by the way, is the only time you should even consider using a flash while photographing fireworks.) Pay attention with your compositions because this context is invaluable.
5. Find graphic elements.
Look for situations like the silhouetted shape of a child as she looks up at the show or the reflections of bright lights flashing off of reflective surfaces. These options add interest to scenes, help fill the frame and tell the story of the particular fireworks you’re watching.
6. Get high.
Tall hills, hotel balconies or any vantage point above ground level will help add context to a scene, as this offers your best chance to successfully fill the frame with those buildings, people, landmarks and reflections mentioned in the previous tips. From ground level, your fireworks usually are framed by black sky, but from above, you can incorporate everything at ground level instead.