TIME

Learn How to Photograph Fireworks From America’s Best Pyrotechnic Experts

Long exposures and wide angles are key

Photographer, and certified pyrotechnician, Lauren Grucci’s entire life revolves around fireworks. She is part of the sixth generation of “America’s First Family of Fireworks” who also happens to hold the Guinness World Record for the Largest Fireworks Display ever recorded.

Fireworks by Grucci has been family-owned for 165 years and boasts an impressive portfolio of fireworks displays, including the Dubai 2013/2014 New Years Eve world record setter, the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem Star Spangled Banner Spectacular, the Olympic Games in Beijing and Salt Lake City, and seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations.

Grucci, who began photographing fireworks at the age of 17, says she’s always wanted to add a personal touch to fireworks, and “something clicked” when she was able to bring her passion for photography to the family business. TIME LightBox spoke with Grucci, who shared her tips for photographing fireworks this Fourth of July.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: What is the most interesting fireworks show you have ever photographed?

Lauren Grucci: Back in 2008, I found myself on an undeveloped and completely empty portion of the Palm Island in Dubai capturing one of the largest displays we had done, at that time, for the opening of the Atlantis Hotel. I was alone and completely surrounded by fireworks – it was overwhelming and very emotional. Another time I was harnessed to a hops silo at the Guinness Brewery in Ireland to photograph fireworks for their 250th Anniversary where we created Arthur Guinness’ signature across the building in fireworks. It’s always a crazy situation – but never fails to be unforgettable.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: What tips can you share for photographers shooting fireworks?

Lauren Grucci: A lot of it is timing. It helps if there is music because you can anticipate the firework choreography based on the song. The color of the firework plays a big part as well. For example, a firework that burns white is going to [necessitate] a different exposure than a firework that burns red. A lot of times, you have to compensate for the colors, and know when to change your settings.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: What camera settings are ideal?

Lauren Grucci: Most of my images are shot with the lowest ISO and an 8-10 second exposure. Aperture depends on how many fireworks are in the sky at the time of exposure and what color they are. I use a Canon 5D Mark II and III on a tripod, always with a wide angle lens.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: How do you know when to snap the photo?

Lauren Grucci: Being so closely involved with firework displays, I’ve learned to anticipate when a firework is going to break. When a firework is launched there is a tail that resembles an ember shooting into the sky. I usually wait 2-3 seconds after first seeing the ember before I release my shutter.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Where is the best place to position yourself during a fireworks show?

Lauren Grucci: It’s important to take into account the height of the fireworks, you never want to be too close – its always better to look for a wide angle. I also like to include some element of the audience or movement from objects that may frame the firework display. The photos are all pretty long exposures, so the blur of the crowd or the movement of water in a fountain can add a bit of life and context to the photo.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: What’s the best way to improve images of fireworks?

Lauren Grucci: A remote shutter makes a huge difference in firework photography. The streak effect achieved by the long exposure is so fine that even the slightest camera shake will result in a wiggly looking firework. The less you physically handle the camera, the better.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Any tips for shooting fireworks if you only have an iPhone?

Lauren Grucci: I would recommend downloading an app that allows you to change the exposure on your phone. A lot of times the fireworks can be too bright and end up blowing out the whole image.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: What is most exciting thing about photographing fireworks?

Lauren Grucci: The travel and the access. Sometimes I will find myself in locations where the public is not allowed, in some of the most beautiful countries in the world, and it always seems very surreal. It is also a challenge every time. There are a lot of elements that need to be taken into account – but when you get that perfect shot, you know you’ve learned something new.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Are there opportunities for firework photography enthusiasts to get work?

Lauren Grucci: We are always looking for photographers to help us document our work. For New Years Eve 2014, we worked with a team of photographers from Japan, Germany, and the US to capture a World Record setting display in Dubai as well as a display off the tallest building in the world – The Burj Khalifa. Finding new talent within fireworks photography and giving them the opportunity to join us is something we look forward to.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Can you explain the logistics of producing multiple, massive fireworks shows every year?

Lauren Grucci: We have a great team of people at the design office on Long Island who gear up for our busy seasons. During the Fourth of July and New Years Eve, we put in long hours and many weekends to keep up with the demand. There is also a massive team of pyro-technicians made up of hundreds of people from all over the world who travel to various locations and work extremely hard to make these shows happen. All in all, everyone appreciates the thrill that is felt when the dust settles. It is what keeps the gears turning year after to year to produce some of the worlds largest and best firework shows.

Finally, don’t get too caught up on settings and technical details. A good shot comes from practice and just a little bit of luck. Also – don’t forget to enjoy the fireworks! We love the ooo’s and ahh’s.

Lauren Grucci is a photographer based in Long Island, N.Y.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.com. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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