Hot dogs, sunshine, sandy beaches, and, of course, fireworks. You know what this means: it’s 4th of July!!! America the Beautiful is celebrating her birthday with a bang. But capturing the fleeting vision that is fireworks is difficult for any photographer — let alone an anyone armed with just a camera phone. Here are some things to consider while trying to capture the fiery festivities this weekend.
1. Play with exposure
Did you know you can control this on your smartphone camera? You can! It’s way easier than you think. (In fact, you’ve probably done it dozens of times without realizing). You simply hold your finger down on the screen and a yellow square will appear. That’s the signal for adjusting your exposure based on what you are focusing on. Different areas of a scene — whether brightly lit, or in shadow — will mean different levels of exposure.
You can also tweak your exposure afterwards, either with the phone’s built-in editing tools (open an image, then click ‘edit’ on the upper right hand corner) or a third party app like BeFunky or Snapseed (though we’re kinda partial to Mylio). Each app will have a standard set of editing tools like exposure, brightness and contrast, but filters and presets will vary.
2. Turn off the flash
This may seem counter-intuitive but trust me, it will totally help. You want as much of the dark as you can so that all light comes from the fireworks themselves. Your flash will only illuminate things that are about five to ten feet away from you — not up in the sky. Use one for fireworks, and you’ll end up with an awkwardly grainy photo of some meh looking lights. And you’re better than that.
3. Turn off your HDR setting
In theory your HRD setting would be great, but as it’s designed to reduce contrast (which night shots are full of) it will muddy your photos. HDR is designed to take multiple photos at different exposures and layer these photos together to get the best image possible. As I said earlier, night shots are full of varying contrasts and exposures and with the added elements of fireworks the photo layers will not match and you will get a less than stellar looking photo
3. Make a long exposure
Looking for that streaking light effect? Then a long exposure is for you. This isn’t a built-in feature for most smartphone cameras, but there are plenty of third-party apps with a small learning curve that allow you to take longer exposure shots. Play around with these and you may discover some spectacular images along the way. For the best long exposure shots, you’ll want a tripod, no matter how good your camera is. You can find a variety of smartphone tripods from $10 to $25. One of my favorites is the octopus style adjustable tripod, as it typically comes with a handy remote and can easily adjust to the wonkiest of terrains. You can even wrap it around a pole if you want.
4. Don’t be afraid to edit
I have some friends who absolutely refuse to edit photos because they think ‘editing a photo is dishonest.’ I don’t agree with this; most photography needs some sort of editing (just ask a pro). Whether it’s noise reduction, adjusting exposure or even cropping the frame – face it, we all edit, and it’s totally okay! If you need to increase the contrast on a photo to bring out a vivid purple firework, then do it. You can do this on your phone, or later on your computer using programs like BeFunky or Mylio. Editing has another plus: since you know you can fine tune your image later, you can relax and be in the moment.
5. Take a video
Video is sometimes your best option to capture an amazing photo on your phone. You can select whichever frame you like best, then save it as a single image.
6. Burst Mode
This is incredibly easy. Simply hold the capture button down whiles taking a photo and your phone will capture a bunch of images in rapid succession. I discovered this feature entirely by accident, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s a great option for moving objects, so you can capture some great action shots. And your phone will lump all of these shots together rather than having 40 individual photos in your camera roll.
7. Get Creative
You can shoot more than just the sky. Capture people watching the fireworks with the light illuminating their faces, or use a selfie stick to get more in each frame, or even take a timelapse video of the whole show! The 4th is your oyster to capture as you please. Have fun, be safe and enjoy!
** Bonus Tip **
Make sure you have enough storage on your phone before the fireworks begin. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting the no more storage message of doom right in the middle of an amazing fireworks display. I make sure to have my Mylio library synced before my trip to be sure I have optimal space on my phone.