What do you need?
1. Your smartphone’s camera
First, of course, you need your smartphone. Alternatively, you can of course also implement these tips with your digital camera. Practically all Android smartphones offer a Pro mode in which you can manually adjust focus, exposure time and ISO sensitivity. In combination with the ever-better image quality, your smartphone is well equipped for successful fireworks photos.
Your smartphone (iPhone, *cough*) doesn’t have a manual mode? Try the app Filmic Firstlight (Android/iOS) or one of the other alternative camera apps from this article.
2. A mini tripod
I would highly recommend a simple tripod. Because with the required shutter speeds of several seconds, it is no longer possible to take sharp photos even with the calmest hands. In case of an emergency, you can lean your smartphone somewhere or clamp it temporarily, but then you don’t have the full flexibility regarding the picture detail.
3. Align your smartphone correctly
When aligning the smartphone, it is very important to make sure that you leave a little too much space for the fireworks rather than too little space in the picture. Especially in times of ultra-high-resolution smartphone cameras, you can still crop the photo later.
In addition, I recommend that you always show some landscape, for example, a few buildings in the foreground, a hill or a tree. So you put the fireworks into context. If you manage to bring a water surface (or other reflective things) between you and the fireworks, you will be rewarded with spectacular reflections.
The right camera settings
1. Use pro mode rather than fireworks mode
Some smartphones and third-party camera apps already offer fireworks modes that essentially enable the settings we suggested in this article. However, the cameras here usually deliver JPEG images, which offer only limited processing options. And if the results don’t meet your expectations, you will have fewer correction options later. I would therefore recommend that you photograph in manual mode or Pro mode, which offers many setting options.
2. Activate RAW recording
Although this is usually the case in Pro mode, you should make sure that HDR mode is turned off and RAW mode is enabled. The HDR mode can be used to ghost moving subjects, and RAW shots offer much greater color depth and dynamics. To get the most out of your RAW files, however, you need to use a special app or software called a RAW converter.
We have already dealt with RAW photos and smartphones elsewhere.
3. The correct shutter speed
In Pro mode on your smartphone, you’ll be confronted with a variety of parameters. The decisive factor here is the shutter speed. It determines how many effects are ultimately visible in the photo. With a very short shutter speed you will only see single dots of the fireworks on the picture. Only exposure times in the range from one second up to several seconds show beautiful traces of light.
However, there is also a sensible upper limit here: too long shutter speeds cause a photo to be overloaded with traces of light. Exposure times between one and eight seconds usually provide beautiful results.
4. Lowest ISO sensitivity
The ISO value determines how sensitively the camera sensor is read. Here you should set the lowest value that the smartphone offers, usually ISO 50 or ISO 100, but also lower. The light effects are very bright and are otherwise completely over-illuminated. If you have a smartphone with iris diaphragm like the Samsung Galaxy S10, then set the f-number to as high a value as possible, in this case F2.4.
If you are completely fancy, you can limit the amount of light entering the lens with the help of a special ND filter for smartphones.
5. Manual focus on infinity
The next aspect is the focus, which you can also set manually in the Pro modes. Sets it to the setting “infinite”, often marked by a mountain. This ensures that the camera app is focused on distant subjects for every photo. Just don’t forget to undo this setting after the fireworks photos, because otherwise, for example, all portraits become blurred.
6. White balance in daylight
For the white balance I would also recommend a manual setting, namely for daylight or about 5000K to 5500K, if your camera app allows you to set a certain color temperature. After (hopefully) photographing RAW, you can adjust the white balance later.
The right timing decides!
After all, the right timing is very important for successful fireworks photos. Usually you see the ball bombs etc. rise as a glowing track into the sky – then it takes about half a second until the effect explodes. So this would be just the right moment to take the picture.
By the way, you can also practice the right timing: play a fireworks video on your computer or television and try to photograph it. This gives you a feel for how different shutter speeds affect the final image. To avoid reflections, you should practice in a dark room.
Avoiding camera shakes
Even if you are using a tripod, there is a risk of camera shake: when you press the shutter button with your finger. This can usually be avoided by using the two-second self-timer, but due to the critical timing, this is not particularly practical.
I would therefore recommend that you simply use a cable headset. Usually you can use the buttons attached here to trigger the camera app of your smartphone. If this does not work, you may have to set your camera app to allow the volume keys to be used to trigger the photo.
No manual mode – what now?
Is this all way too complicated for you? Or the manual mode allows only very short shutter speeds? Then modes with names like “Light Trace”, “Long Exposure” or the like can help. Just browse through the camera app of your smartphone to see which options are available to you.
By the way, the above-mentioned tips are not only suitable for the photography of fireworks, but also for light painting, for example, or to transform cars passing by in a city photo into long traces of light. And I’m sure you’ll find more scenarios!
If you have any more tips for fireworks photos or any kind of feedback, I’m looking forward to your comments. Apart from that, all I can say is: Have fun with the New Year’s fireworks, watch your fins and slide well into the new year!
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