8 Tips and Techniques to Photographing Sparkler Exits at Weddings

March 25, 2020

By Katch Silva

© Katch Silva

Yay! Your couple is having a sparkler exit! It’s exciting, right?

Sure, but it can also be terrifying and anxiety-inducing. It’s tough to fix bad lighting while you’re photographing weddings. We have to catch that perfect storm of focus, direction, timing and settings, and it’s always over in a flash (#punny).

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Instead of having to say a little prayer every time you click that shutter, here are eight tips to help you take charge of your next sparkler exit.

P.S. These tips apply to any low-light exit scenario, whether it’s sparklers or bubbles or confetti. They all tend to be crazy dark and crazy fast-paced! 


couple kissing at wedding sparkler exit
All Photos © Katch Silva

Recommend that your couple buy the longest, biggest sparklers they can find. The regular-sized sparklers burn out very fast, and by the time the last ones get lit, the first ones are already burning out. Having more of them lit for longer means more light for you to shoot with and more excitement among the guests! 


I can’t stress enough how important this is! Right before the exit, remind the couple to take their time, enjoy the moment and not rush it. If they run through like a flash and disappear into the night, you won’t have enough time to focus and shoot.

Depending on your couple’s dynamic and personality, you can have them do different things so that the slow-walk doesn’t look or feel awkward for them. You still want that high energy for this moment! 

You could have them dance through it together so they’re moving constantly but not moving forward at a rapid speed. Or you could have them stop in the middle of the line to kiss, to hug and dip, to bow, to clap and scream, to pick each other up and twirl.  

Keep in mind: It’s okay to have them go through twice if they’re feeling it—as long as it’s not a forced “you’re gonna have to do I again because I missed the shot” kind of situation. Some couples have asked me if they can go through more than once because they’re loving the attention, and I love that because it gives me another chance to get a great in-focus shot, so it’s a win-win.

I don’t direct during the actual exit, but I do tell them all of this right before they go through. Once they start that exit, I relinquish control and just embrace the spontaneity of the moment. So be ready! 


close up couple kissing at wedding sparkler exit

You know that back-and-forth rrr-rrr-rrr thing your poor lens does when its just too dark to focus? Your flash’s AF Assist Beam helps your lens find that focal plane way faster, without the focus delay we all know and hate so much. Making use of your flash’s AF Assist Beam is incredibly helpful, even if you’re shooting ambient light only, so that the flash doesn’t light the image.

If you’re wondering what the heck this is, the AF Assist Beam is that infrared laser light that your flash emits to help your lens focus in dark situations, when you’d normally need flash.

We can make use of this infrared (which won’t be visible when the shutter clicks) by mounting the flash on the camera but telling your flash not to actually fire when the shutter opens. That way you get a well-focused ambient light image without that on-camera-flash-in-your-face aesthetic. 

So how do we tell our flashes to do this? It’s all about the settings.

First, make sure your AF Assist is enabled on your flash. Here is an easy way to test if its enabled: Go into a pitch-black room like a bathroom or closet and try to take a photo with the on-camera flash. If you see red light beams, you’re enabled and good to go. You need a dark room to test this because your flash reads the light and only uses this in very dark situations.

If you still need to enable it, the steps are different for every flash, so I advise that you look up exactly how to do this for your particular flash.

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Mount your flash on your camera’s hot shoe, and then make sure your camera is set to autofocus and One-Shot mode. AF won’t work in AI Servo mode (at least for my flash and camera configuration). Then tell your camera to disable flash firing. On the Canon 5D Mark IV, you do this by going into the first red menu option and selecting External Speedlite Control > Flash Firing > Disable.

Test it out by going into a dark room and taking a shot. You should see the red assist beam go off but the flash won’t actually fire. You’re good to go! 

Using AF Assist helps your camera focus way faster and gives you more flexibility when shooting in dark situations, without a flash firing. No more hoping and praying that you get that focus!  


couple holding sparklers wedding reception

If your exposure isn’t set before they begin, you’re likely to miss moments while you’re fumbling with your settings. I figure out my settings as the sparklers are being lit by shooting the guests while they’re lighting the sparklers and getting in line. You can ask your second shooter to be your quick stand-in if you’re having trouble nailing it.  

Start with your ISO and aperture; then change your shutter speed accordingly.

For example, start by setting your ISO to 3200 and your aperture to f/2.0. Then work with the shutter speed to see how fast you can go with it to nail the exposure. As with any exposure, just play around with these three settings until your exposure looks good.

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As a general rule, I don’t like to go any slower than 1/125th of a second or any wider than f/1.6. For ISO, I generally stay at 3200. If you absolutely have to push more, I definitely recommend pushing ISO higher instead of going to a slower shutter speed; you’ll just get all fuzzy blurry photos and not always in a good way. 

The important thing to remember is to nail your exposure down in camera. If you underexpose dramatically, at an ISO as high as 3200 or 6400, the exposure bump in LR will make the photo muddy and start to show those awful digital noise lines. Remember, I’m shooting with a Canon 5D Mark IV, so these generalities may be different for your camera.  


If there is a videographer, make sure you talk to them well beforehand about their plans for the exit (and read up on the five things they wished that we, the photographers, understood about collaborating). Will they be using a video light? Where will they be positioned?

I usually ask the videographer not to use a video light during the sparkler exit if possible (the sparklers usually provide enough light for them too), and we just stand next to each other so we can both shoot and not get in each other’s way.  

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groom carrying bride in wedding sparkler exit

I shoot mainly with ambient light, but there’s no reason why you can’t try flashing the sparkler exit to get some fill light on your couple!

What is fill light? It’s light we add to fill in shadow areas, while trying to keep mid-tone and highlights un-affected. As a matter of fact, you should learn how to use off-camera flash seamlessly in your weddings.

If you set your flash to Auto or TTL, the flash will overpower the scene and you won’t get that romantic sparkler vibe. To maintain the sparkler mood while adding some fill light, use your flash on your camera and set it to Manual Mode so you can decide how much light it gives out.

Here’s a quick guide on how to find that sweet spot for fill light.

Set your camera settings first, before adding any flash. Use the tips I gave you above, starting with ISO around 1600 or 3200, but expose for the entire frame, including the background. This means that the subject’s face will likely be darker and underexposed if it’s in shadow, but the ambiance of the sparklers will be romantic and visible.

Now that the overall frame exposure is set, it’s time to add the flash. Mount your flash on your camera’s hot shoe, and set it to Manual Mode. Then set the output to the lowest possible Manual setting. For my flash, that is 1/64 power.

Take a shot with the flash firing, and see how it looks. If the couple’s face is exposed correctly and the image looks great, then you’re set! But chances are that you’ll have to tweak the settings around for optimal aesthetic.

If your couple’s face is still very dark, increase the flash output to 1/32 and try again. If the couple’s face is way overexposed, but everything else in the scene is exposed correctly, try a lower flash output. If you’re on your flash’s lowest output and they’re still overexposed, then you’ll need to tweak ISO and aperture until you find that sweet spot, where the background is well exposed and the fill light is ideal.

What we’re trying to do here is use your flash to pop in a really small amount of light right into your couple’s faces while the background stays the same. This takes a bit of practice and planning ahead, before the exit begins, but it’s well worth it! 


wedding sparkler exit dance

When it’s time to shoot, you should be ready and set so that you can focus on the present moment instead of fiddling with your camera. Now it’s time to just embrace the action!

I usually stand toward the end of the line so I can stay in one spot while they come towards me. If the line is long, I’ll begin about halfway through and walk backwards with them.

If you have to do this, just don’t forget to stay low and watch the fire! My hair has almost caught fire way too many times.


bride and groom kissing wedding bubble exit

Editing sparkler exit shots can be quite a pain. You’ve got a recipe for tricky aesthetics: bright, overpowering warm and tungsten hot spots, with really dark and uneven backgrounds and edges, orange skin tones, and sometimes deep blue sky if there’s still some light left in the sky.

The key is to edit in a way that makes your couple pop in the frame. For me, this means muted and slightly desaturated yellows and oranges, desaturated blues if there’s sky, low-ish contrast so that those deep darks aren’t so stark, and slightly crushed highlights. I also sometimes like to add a slight vignette to enhance the spotlight on the couple even more.

For your own editing, I recommend you first gather a few sparkler exit images that have the ideal tones that you want to have. It could be your own or your inspiration. Then, gather your own RAW images from past weddings with sparkler exits and get to playing. Any one of these 16 software editing programs could help you out.

Have your ideal set on hand so that you can keep in mind what types of tones you’re aiming for. Apply different presets, play with the hue, saturation and luminance of the colors you see the most—mainly yellows, oranges, reds and sometimes greens—until you get the look you want.

I’ve made a sparkler exit preset (as well as a twilight preset, as part of my wedding presets pack) that I use just for this. All the images in this article were edited with either my sparkler exit preset, twilight preset, or campfire preset. 

Katch Silva is a wedding photographer who was named a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2015.