A thrilling fireworks display can confuse a modern camera’s automated settings. The explosions are fast, dynamic, and bright, and they disappear just as quickly as they appear. But by tweaking a few manual settings on whatever camera you’re using, you can take advantage of some battle-tested methods for capturing dramatic photos of those explosions in the sky. Even if you’re using a smartphone, there are a few apps and quick tips that will help you nab the best shots.
Scout Your Location
If you can visit the location of the fireworks show ahead of time, it’ll help you gauge the best angles for your photos. You obviously want a clear shot of the sky, and a nice wide-angle view of the skyline should do wonders for your shot composition.
But you won’t be able to predict the crowds, so make sure you scout out a couple of backup, super-secret locations too. There’s another thing you won’t be able to predict ahead of time: The wind. If it’s blowing towards you from the direction of the fireworks, you may end up with increasingly murky photos as the show goes on. If that’s the case, try to get as many good shots early on as possible. If the wind’s at your back, you’ll have great shooting conditions during the whole display.
The early part of the display is crucial: It’ll let you frame the entire show and take a few test shots to make sure your settings are producing the look you like. Plus, the early part of the show is the best time to get any wide-angle shots. Once the sky starts filling up with smoke, you can still get some good shots if you use a tighter zoom that features less of the smoke-filled skyline.
Prep Your Smartphone
You can certainly get great shots of fireworks with a smartphone, but the rules of engagement are a bit different than they are with a full-on camera. You won’t have a zoom lens or deep manual controls at your disposal, and because phones don’t come with standard tripod mounts, you’ll need a special case or a special tripod to keep it steady.
Here are the basics.
Turn off the flash. The fireworks will be hundreds of feet away, so you won’t need it.
Learn how to manually adjust your camera’s settings—or get an app that lets you do it.
Practice. Test your setup by taking pictures of a sparkler in a dark room.
Use a tripod for the best results
Get as close to the action as possible.
When shooting with your phone, you’re going to want to be even closer to the action than you would with any other kind of camera. Because your phone doesn’t come with an optical zoom lens, getting closer helps you fill the as much of the frame as possible with fireworks. There’s another good reason to get close: Your smartphone’s auto-exposure settings will probably boost the ISO if you’re composing a shot of faraway fireworks against a dark sky. This may lead to noisy photos with inaccurate colors. Post up as close to the fireworks as you possibly can. Find the barricades and plant yourself against them. Even better, use rooftops creatively, sneak onto the fireworks barge as a stowaway—anything to get really close to the action and force your smartphone to expose the shot for the fireworks themselves.
I know what you’re thinking: Why not just use digital zoom, which lets you stand wherever you’d like? That one’s easy: Because the results are terrible. Digital zoom just crops and enlarges the photo, making your photo look fuzzy and dull. Zooming in too far makes your decent-looking 12-megapixel still look like a grainy and embarrassing 3-megapixel disaster.
For those manual camera settings, there are many variables you’ll have to navigate to find the right settings. But as a starting point, slow the shutter speed way down. Begin with leaving the shutter open for one or two seconds, then go longer if needed. This technique will capture light trails as the fireworks fall to earth post-explosion, and it will help illuminate more of the scene, like the skyline or the crowd of spectators. Fireworks photos are much better if they show more than just the fireworks. In long-exposure shots, you’ll need a tripod—or at least an unmoving surface you can use to prop up your phone—to avoid blur. You can still get great shots of fireworks with faster shutter speeds (and you won’t need a tripod). The key is to experiment and shoot as many photos as it takes to find the right mix of settings.
Apps and Accessories
Some devices (like, for instance, LG’s G7 and the OnePlus 6) include a comprehensive camera app that gives you manual control of the shutter speed and other parameters. If your phone doesn’t have settings you can tweak, there are plenty of options. On Android, try Camera FV-5 or Open Camera. Both of those apps will let you set your shutter speed and control your ISO settings. Got an iPhone? Manual and Halide are both great picks that give you more control.
Nothing beats a tripod when it comes to keeping your phone or camera stable. Manfrotto makes excellent aluminum tripods. Prefer to travel light? You can get something like a Joby GorillaPod. Don’t forget to grab a dedicated phone mount whether you’re buying your first tripod or using one you already own.
Shoot a 4K Video Instead
If your phone can capture high-resolution 4K/30p video, try that instead. You’ll be able to relax during the show and enjoy the spectacle while your phone captures footage. Later on, it’s easy to grab single, 8-megapixel frames that are more than good enough to post to Facebook or Instagram. Why stop at stills? Make a GIF! Or, edit the video down to just the highlights.
DSLRs, Mirrorless, and Cameras With Manual Controls
Most modern cameras have a “Fireworks” scene mode that optimize all the in-camera settings for you: It slows the shutter speed down, sets the focus to infinity, stops down the aperture, uses a low ISO setting, and prompts you to put the camera on a tripod. If you’re cool with letting the camera do all the work, go for it.
If you’d rather put a personal touch on your fireworks photos, here are the basics for any camera with manual controls.
Use a tripod.
Turn off the flash.
If you use slow shutter speeds, use a narrower aperture. (f/8.0 to f/16).
If you use faster shutter speeds, use a wider aperture.
Keep your ISO as low as possible. It keeps the colors accurate and the sky looking black and noise-free.
Consider shooting RAW instead of JPEG
Beyond those guidelines, here’s some additional advice.
Turn Off Autofocus. You won’t be adjusting your focus from shot to shot in this scenario, so flip your camera to manual focus and set that focus to infinity. It should keep the entire show in focus.
Turn Off Image Stabilization. Disable the camera’s image-stabilization system if you’re using a tripod. This may seem counterintuitive, but some stabilization systems actually introduce shake if there isn’t any, and some of them also boost the ISO or use a faster shutter speed to snap a crisper shot.
Slow Your Shutter. The general rule of thumb for fireworks is that if you use a slow shutter speed, you’ll get more-dramatic photos—start by leaving the shutter open for 4 or 5 seconds, then experiment from there. The slower your shutter speed, the narrower you’ll want your aperture to be. You also may want to use exposure compensation downward with slower shutter speeds.
Nail the Timing. You may want to press the shutter button just as you see shells launch into the sky so that your long-exposure shot depicts the light trails from that upward journey as well as the full drama of the explosion. If your camera has it, you should use “bulb mode” to get the greatest control over your shots. In bulb mode, the camera takes a shot for as long as you press the shutter button, so you can start the exposure exactly when you want and end it just as precisely.
Try Video. Have a lousy sense of timing? Consider shooting a video of the fireworks instead! If you have the ability to capture 4K video with your camera, you can keep rolling for the entire show. Not only will you get a video of the event, you’ll also be able to pull 8-megapixel photos to print or post online—all without missing a moment.
Get a Tripod. Unless you want to get really creative and light-painty, a camera-stabilizing tripod is a must-have. Any movement of the camera will make the light trails and other objects in the scene look like blurs, but this feature can also be used to great creative effect. If you’d rather keep your images looking tack-sharp, use a tripod and a remote-control app or shutter-release cable. Many modern cameras have sidecar mobile apps that let you take control of the camera without touching it. This is especially handy for fireworks photos, because you can unwittingly move the camera slightly every time you physically touch its shutter button or controls.
Shoot RAW. If you like to edit and process your photos before sharing them, try shooting in RAW. Using this file format, which most higher-end cameras support, gives you more options for correcting color and exposure, and can bring out nuances that aren’t visible when shooting in JPEG mode.
This post was updated on 7/3/2017. It was originally published on 7/3/2014 by Tim Moynihan.
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