Last year’s Fourth of July fireworks made you say ooh and ahh, but when you look at your iPhone photos from that night, the sound you make is more of an ugh. Want to shoot better fireworks photos this time around?
Don’t blame Siri or some engineer in Cupertino for previous photo fails. The iPhone camera, as mighty as it is, can’t do all the thinking for you — especially in challenging lighting conditions like a fireworks display. But with a little thought and preparation, you can make this holiday worth reliving on your iPhone camera roll.
Below are some simple tips to make your iPhone fireworks photos sizzle.
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How to make great iPhone fireworks photos
You may need to spend a couple of bucks before the big night. You will want a tripod to steady your device. I am also going to recommend an app that turns some of the camera controls over to you. Don’t worry — the apps I suggest won’t require a formal education.
Get a tripod
This tip is crucial for making the best possible fireworks photos: Get a tripod and use it.
Fireworks will reveal just how much shake there is when you take a photo with an iPhone. When you hold your device out in front of you in low light, something as simple as your own breathing will blur the image. This is not something you normally worry about when taking pictures in the middle of a sunny day, because there is plenty of light and the iPhone camera can give you a fast enough shutter speed.
With a tripod, either large or tabletop-size, you will immediately increase your chances of great fireworks pictures. Just be sure you don’t plant it in someone’s leg or obstruct the view of people around you.
Whatever tripod you use, make sure it has a mount to hold an iPhone. (Here are some iPhone tripods we recommend, in several price ranges, but you can find tripods with smartphone mounts for next to nothing.) If all you have is a selfie stick, you can find ways to brace or tie it against a fence post or lawn chair to give you the needed steadiness.
Turn off these iPhone camera settings
Make sure your flash is turned off. Your iPhone will want to activate your flash because of the surrounding darkness. You know how sometimes you watch a big championship sporting event and see all the flashes from cameras in the stands going off? Looks cool on TV but the light from all those flashes isn’t reaching the action on the field. The flash provides only a wink of light to illuminate a few feet in front of you.
Also, make sure your iPhone camera’s HDR function is off. HDR stands for high dynamic range; this setting takes multiple exposures, from darkest to lightest, and then sandwiches the captures into one image. In general, this is great for picturesque landscapes, but bad for photographing moving objects. The pictures won’t match up. (However, I might try it anyway this Fourth of July to see if it captures something accidentally cool.)
Turn on these iPhone camera settings
If you have a new enough iPhone, your shots will benefit from Night mode. If your iPhone supports Night mode, it should be turned on by default, but make sure you didn’t turn it off somehow.
How about the iPhone’s Panorama setting? I’ve lived in places where you can see the fireworks shows of nearby communities. You just might get something cool. Keep the tripod planted and turn the tripod head to the next position. Obviously, don’t train your lens to the next spot until after you’ve taken the first picture.
Time-lapse. There’s not much to say about this setting other than ooh and ahh.
Video of the fireworks is also a nice option. This way you can hit record and enjoy the show without constantly looking at your screen.
Scout your location
This sounds like a no-brainer, but putting thought into where you are going to stand is critical to capturing stunning fireworks photos.
Let’s say the big bangs are going to be set off over a lake. If you are too close, the fireworks might shoot right out of view. Standing further back could help you get a fuller view of the sky, and you also might catch interesting reflections off the water or even some light falling on boats, bridges or faces in the crowd.
Identifying a distinctive element in the foreground that gives you a sense of place also makes for a more interesting picture.
Try a long-exposure iPhone app
A good fireworks picture depends on a long exposure. With a conventional camera, I would set my camera on bulb, which left the shutter open in the dark. The trail, burst and colors would all burn into the image, and the light falling would pull some detail from the shadows.
The iPhone camera doesn’t let you manage your exposure, but several iOS apps let you take control. I am going to recommend three that get good reviews and are useful for any shooting you would do in the evening hours.
The three apps are Manual ($3.99), Slow Shutter Cam ($1.99) and LongExpo (free). All three provide you the tools you need to make brighter pictures in dimly lit situations. Each allows the user to set the exposure time, the most critical control for making good fireworks pictures.
Whatever you do, don’t download the app an hour before blastoff. You should allow yourself time to play with the app so you can be familiar with it when it’s time to shoot the big show.
Take a few Live Photos
It might be fun to try a few bursts in Live Photos as well. You could get a colorful and lively burst that makes the perfect short video clip. You also could create a long exposure to give a few of your shots a blurred trail of colors.
Here is how to create a long exposure using Live Photos as outlined by the iPhone Photography School website, a great resource to learn the various ways to unlock hidden camera features:
With your iPhone on its tripod, make sure the Live Photos setting is activated. Then place your camera on self-timer. This will create a delay between you pressing the shutter and when the camera sensor starts recording. Even with a touchscreen, the act of pressing the shutter could cause the the tripod to shake. If you use the self-timer, by the time the shutter opens, the shake should have died down.
Afterward, go to the Photos app and open up a Live Photos file. Swipe up, then swipe to the right to get the “Effects” header. “Long Exposure” is at the bottom of a list of other options.
Shoot away to capture the best fireworks photos
Legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “You have to milk the cow a lot and get lots of milk to make a little piece of cheese.” He wasn’t talking about taking great fireworks photos, but this tip applies. Take a lot of pictures because the more you make, the more likely you will end up with a couple of really nice fireworks photos.
Just be sure you have plenty of storage on your device by sunset.
Note: We originally published this how-to on July 3, 2018. We updated it with new information.