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Portrait Tips: Sparkler portraits

Photographing fireworks is one of the most fun things you can do on the Fourth of July — but it’s also a great way to ruin your family fun. While everyone is trying to enjoy the show, you’re sitting there cussing at your camera and running around to get a different angle while your spouse wrangles kids who are throwing potato salad at each other.

Fortunately, there’s a great way to redeem yourself: Sparkler portraits. I can’t wait to make these this year — last year we were in a forest and couldn’t use sparklers for fire danger.


Remember, you’re trying to make a fun activity for the kiddos, so don’t get stuck focused on making the perfect picture. Let the kids have fun — they’ll surprise you with their creativity. Tuck the ideas away for next week when the sparklers are half price and you can spend some time with a model making the perfect picture. Right now, just let the kids have fun and don’t let burn each other.

Camera settings

The key to making these pictures is time, so shutter speed is your creative setting and you’ll adjust everything else to give you the time you need to let the kids make shapes and spell their names.

Start here:

  • Manual mode
  • Shutter speed: 3 seconds
  • Aperture: f/8
  • ISO: 100
  • White balance: Daylight
  • Focus on the kids, then switch to manual focus

Do the kids need more time? Make the shutter speed longer.

Is the picture too bright? Make the aperture smaller — f/11, f/16, f/22

Need more light in the background? Raise the ISO a little.

Add flash

Adding flash is where this gets really fun. The flash will freeze the kid’s face and make a sharp picture with the lights blurring all over elsewhere. Read this article for complete instructions on how to use your flash.


These are pictures of my kids practicing this technique in the living room with flashlights this morning. They had some fun for about 15 minutes and then got tired of me telling them what to do. But tomorrow night with friends they’ll have a blast telling the other neighborhood kids how cool it’ll be and they’ll help set up the pictures.

Ideas to try

  • Have a kid write their name
  • Draw crazy shapes with the light
  • Draw smiley faces
  • Have several kids each write one letter of a word — it’ll be backward, but go with it
  • Outline something else, like a car
  • Have several kids dance around one kid who holds still and gets flashed

I can’t wait to see your results. Upload them to the Photofocus Facebook Group and tag me. For more ideas, check out my course on Viewbug, “Ten Portraits with One Light.”

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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