Tips for taking fireworks photos with a smartphone

Fireworks over the Jefferson Memorial make a memorable photo (Thinkstock)

By Ken Colburn, Data Doctors

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Q: What tips can you suggest for getting decent fireworks pictures with my smartphone?

A: The sophistication of the smartphone camera continues to improve, but most of them still falter in low-light settings.

Capturing fireworks the way you see them in magazines may be a stretch, but getting a shot worthy of a social media post or for your memory books is certainly achievable.

The biggest tip I can give you is: Get familiar with your camera settings prior to the big show. Assuming that the camera will figure everything out automatically will generally result in pretty poor results.

The first thing you should do is turn off the flash and any HDR settings your camera may have.

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is great for getting shots in situations with variable lighting in the frame, such as when people stand in front of a sunset, but not fireworks. It tells your camera to take multiple shots at different exposures and combine them afterwards.

With fireworks, this will result in blurred images, as each frame will be slightly different. So make sure you turn HDR off.

You need to hold still to get a clear shot, so, if you can, get a smartphone tripod.

Some cameras have a stabilization feature that will also help, so turn it on if you have it.

If your camera has a fireworks or night mode, use it — and if you can set the ISO manually, try starting around 400 and work up and down from there.

If your camera has a burst mode, which takes several pictures in succession, turn it on so you will have many more images to choose from.


Framing the fireworks

The vantage point you pick will play a major role in the outcome. For the best shots, try not to set up right underneath the fireworks. Look for a higher vantage point that keeps the show in front of you rather than over you.

If you want to go for a really interesting shot, try to frame the fireworks with other objects, such as a body of water or city skyline (another great reason to find a higher vantage point).

When the show starts, use the first couple of fireworks to make sure your camera is focusing in the right area by tapping the screen as they explode. This will also allow the camera to adjust its metering, so that when you start taking shots, it’s set to go.

The fireworks may seem a little small on your screen when you take the pictures, but avoid the urge to use your smartphone’s digital zoom.

Digital zoom is essentially cropping the image, not actually zooming, so do your cropping afterwards with a real image-editing program such as Adobe’s free Photoshop Express app.

If you want to take a completely different approach, some apps will let you extract images from video, but don’t expect the same level of quality.

iPhone users should take a look at StillShot ($0.99), which allows you to scan the frames of a video and save them as photos right from your phone.

Android users can use the free AndroVid Video Editor to do the same thing, as well as many other things that may come in handy for just about anything you might want to do with video.

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