Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Guest Post: photographing sparklers

July 4th is coming soon and so is the season of picnics, barbeques, swimming and fireworks. Our stores here in CT have all kinds of summer items from picnic supplies to pool toys and a good variety of legal fireworks and sparklers. Last year, I asked my mother, a professional photographer, if she could photograph light drawing with sparklers. We got some really great shots of the glittery light as I scribbled words and shapes in the night air. It was so much fun that we bought more sparklers this year. I asked her if she would share her camera settings and give a few tips on how to take these awesome pictures and she agreed.

How to photograph sparklers at night

One of the first things that I experimented with when I was learning about photography as a kid was lights at night. It’s fun and is a good way to learn about your camera. Sparklers are another way of doing this. When you open the lens for long enough you can capture movement with a camera. That long exposure allows you to draw pictures with the sparklers and to create unique photos of your festivities.

You will need:

Sparklers - here are the two different kinds of sparklers that we bought. The little boxes are fun but the sparkler light does not last very long. The big box marked "neon" is very bright and easier to photograph due to the long burn time, but does not burn neon.
Pay attention to your state and national laws.

You need to have a camera with a Manual setting so that you can follow these instructions. This is marked as M on your camera and can be found on most SLR cameras; many point and shoot cameras, and some camera phones. This will be explained in more depth below.
You can't photograph and light the sparkler, so it is helpful to have a few people working on this and no kids on this one.

You will also need:

Masking Tape - optional
Piece of tin foil or a non-flammable tin for used sparklers


Find a safe place to photograph while it is still light out, a driveway or a sidewalk is a good place. Make sure that the background will be dark with as few distracting lights as possible. These lights will show up in your photographs and are hard to remove in Photoshop. Choose where your camera will be set up. Look thru the camera and have another person use masking tape to mark the center and edges of what's visible. This will be helpful if you want to set up more complex shots with writing or broad gestures. When it is dark, you will be able to go to your designated spots and things will run smoother than if you were running around aimlessly.

This picture illustrates with the red arrows how I marked out the frame of the photograph with white tape.
Set the camera to M (manual mode) which will allow you to better control your exposure. Set the camera on ISO 200 to insure that you will have no noise. The ISO tells the camera what kind of light situation you are in. The brighter the object you want to capture the lower the ISO. ISO 200 is normally a daylight setting but because the sparklers are bright you need this setting to capture the detail of the sparkler. This exposure should also insure that the background will be black.

Ready to go

Wait until the sky is completely dark before you start. Set your lens aperture at f/11 because of the brightness of the subject. Set the shutter speed at 8 seconds. Some cameras only go to 4 seconds and in that case set the aperture at f/8. These settings are a starting point. You may need to make adjustments depending on equipment.

Hint - If your exposure is too dark, increase your exposure time or set your aperture from f/11 to f/8. If your exposure is to bright, decrease your exposure time or change the aperture to f/16.

Put your camera on a tripod.

Some cameras will be able to auto focus on the sparkler and some won’t. I have explained both scenarios below.

Type 1 – autofocus method
When your partner lights the sparkler, aim the lens at the light while they hold it still. Your camera will be able to focus. If your pictures look blurry try Type 2 –manual focus.

Type 2 - manual focus
Turn off the auto focus setting and set on manual. This will vary from camera to camera. On my camera, this setting is located on the camera body near the lens on the left side. Illuminate the sparkler holder with the flashlight and make sure your partner is standing in the same place that they will be when you actually light the sparkler. Now focus the camera on something easier to see, such as their hand. Keep in mind that the sparkler will be extended an arm’s length from where they stand. With the focus set, when the sparkler is lit you’ll be ready to go.

You are now set to take the first picture. We got two or three photographs on each small sparkler, and ten 8 second shots with the large ones.

Now you can assess your images for exposure and sharpness on the viewing screen and tweak your settings as needed.


Below are some examples of some photographs that did not work and may help you troubleshoot if you have some exposure problems. I have listed the technical data to help explain why they did not work.

Image A - ISO 1250, f 4.8, 1/30 of a second. ISO was too high image was overexposed.
Make ISO a smaller number, make the f/stop a larger number or make the shutter speed faster to improve the exposure of the photograph.

Image B - ISO 800, f 5.6, 1/100 of a second. ISO too high shutter speed too fast to show any action. The solution is similar as in A but in order to see action the shutter speed has to be longer.

Image C - ISO 800, f 5.6, 1/100 of a second. ISO too high - overexposed. This is a more extreme example of Image A.

Image D – ISO 200, f5.6, 2 seconds. Poor planning in camera frame. This is where the tape and pre-shoot setup are helpful.

Image E - ISO 200, f5.6, 2 seconds. Out of focus. My camera had trouble with auto focus which is why I used the flashlight on my sparkler holder’s hand to focus to produce better results.

Here are some of our favorites that we took because we could – I can never have too many photographs – and that’s the truth!

About our guest blogger:

Photography has been my lifetime career and passion. You can find some of my work on my website or purchase prints on Etsy.  I also have a blog where I am retelling the love story between my grandparents in real time using my grandfather’s love letters. Each one is posted exactly 100 years after it was originally sent. It is a wonderful look into the world they shared. Check it out!
-Beth Shepherd Peters


  1. Wonderful tutorial! I love all the technical details and troubleshooting.

  2. Hi April,

    Thanks for the positive feedback - this is a first for us - hope this inspires lots of wonderful photographs from those that read this blog.

    Perhaps there will be more tutorials to come.


  3. Excellent instructions and your photos rock (even some of the mistakes I like!) - I'm not in the US so no real reason for sparklers this week but am super tempted to give it a try anyway. Thank you

  4. LOVED this tutorial! I am going to watch my friend perform at six flags (he is in a group called illuminate, look it up, its awesome!) and I wanted to take some pictures of him at the performance. Hopefully this will work out like I hope :) Either way, ive always wanted to know how to do the sparkler word writing picture thing! Thank you!!!

  5. I would totally love to see pics if it works. I'll look up his group too. do they use lights or fire?

  6. Wait, were they on america's got talent?


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