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How to take photos of fireworks with your smartphone

How to take photos of fireworks with your smartphone

Fireworks are wonderful to watch in person, but it's hard to capture the beauty with a smartphone camera unless you know what you're doing. In this article, we'll give you a few tips to help you capture the impressive light show.

Most smartphones nowadays offer extensive manual configuration options and allow you to adjust focus, exposure time, and ISO sensitivity. Combined with improved image quality, your smartphone is thus well-equipped for firework photos.

However, I highly recommend that you get one accessory, namely a simple tripod, because the required multi-second shutter speed no longer makes it possible to take clear photos, even with the calmest of hands. Although you can lean your smartphone against something or use a makeshift clamp if you’re in a pinch, you won’t have full flexibility when it comes to image detail.

fireworks gorillapod
For long exposures, a tripod is a great help. / © AndroidPIT

Speaking of image detail: Make sure that you give the fireworks more space on the image rather than less, since you can always crop the photo afterwards. Thanks to the wide-angle lenses on smartphone cameras, that shouldn’t be a problem. Furthermore, I recommend that you always show some scenery as well, which contextualizes the fireworks. If you manage to position a water surface (or other reflective object) between you and the fireworks, you will be rewarded with spectacular reflections.

The right picture-taking settings

Some smartphones and third-party camera apps already offer modes for fireworks that essentially activate the settings we recommend in this article. However, cameras generally only provide JPEG images, which offer only limited editing options, and if the results are not what you wanted, then you can’t correct them. Thus, I would recommend that you take pictures in manual or Pro mode, which offers many configuration options.

Even if it is normally the case in Pro mode, you should make sure that HDR mode is disabled and that RAW mode is enabled instead. HDR mode produces ghost images for moving subjects sometimes and RAW shots offer significantly greater color depth and better dynamics. To take advantage of the full potential, however, you must edit the RAW files with a special app or software, a RAW converter.

We have already dealt with the topic of RAW photos and smartphones in detail in a previous article.

Which camera settings do I use for fireworks?

In your smartphone’s pro mode, you will be faced with a multitude of parameters, and shutter speed here is very crucial. It determines how many effects can ultimately be seen on the photo. With a very short shutter speed, you will only see single dots from the fireworks on the image. Only exposure times ranging from one second to several seconds produce beautiful traces of light. But there is also a practical upper limit here as well: Conversely, excessively long shutter speeds produce a photo that is overloaded with light traces. Shutter speeds between one and eight seconds usually produce beautiful results.

The sweet spot: Here you can see how the same fireworks sequence looks with different shutter speeds. To accomplish this, we simply took pictures of a video. / © AndroidPIT

At this point, it’s also important for you to set the ISO sensitivity to the lowest setting that the smartphone has, usually ISO 50 or ISO 100, but feel free to set it lower. The lighting effects in particular are very bright and are otherwise depicted with excessive shine. Dimming like in cameras with a true iris diaphragm is not possible on smartphones – the only option here is to limit the amount of light entering the lens using a special ND filter for smartphones.

The next aspect relates to the focus, which you can also define in Pro modes. Set this setting to “infinity”, which is often marked with a mountain. This ensures that the camera app is focused on faraway subjects on every picture. Just don’t forget to undo this setting after taking pictures of the fireworks, because otherwise all the portraits, for instance, will become blurry. I would also recommend the manual setting for the white balance, particularly the one for daylight such as 5000K to 5500K if your camera app lets you set the color temperature.

fireworks manual mode
Most current smartphones offer a manual mode with which the shutter speed can be adjusted manually. / © AndroidPIT

Timing is everything!

Lastly, the right timing is very important for successfully taking firework photos. Normally, you always see spherical bombs and the sort in large fireworks rising to the sky as a bright trail. Then it takes another half-second until the effect explodes. That would be just the right moment to take the picture. However, pressing the trigger with your finger has a certain risk of shaking the camera and, due to the critical timing, the two-second self-timer is not overly practical here.

Therefore, I’d recommend that you simply use a wired headset. You can usually trigger the smartphone’s camera app using the buttons installed here. If that doesn’t work, you may need to enable the setting in your camera app that allows you to use the volume buttons to take pictures.

fireworks headset trigger
Practical: A headset that also serves as a shutter button. / © AndroidPIT

There’s no manual mode. What do I do now?

If the camera app does not have manual mode or if the manual mode only allows for very slow shutter speeds, modes such as light traces, time exposure or the sort are helpful. Simply go through your smartphone’s camera app and see what options are available to you. Alternatively, you can always download a third-party app such as Camera FV-5, which definitely offers manual mode.

By the way, the aforementioned tips are not only suitable for taking pictures of fireworks, but also for light paintings or turning passing cars into long trails of light in a city photo. And I’m sure that you will find even more use cases!

Furthermore, these tips can not only be used for smartphones but also for cameras in general, and you can also use them with your compact or DSLR camera. On advanced cameras, you have the huge advantage of being able to regulate the amount of light entering the lens using an iris diaphragm.

And if you have any other tips for fireworks photos or any feedback, I look forward to reading them in the comments – happy holidays!

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