To capture fireworks “properly”, one would normally require a large, capable camera and a whole lot of photography knowledge, right? Not really! You can also snap great-looking photos of fireworks with your everyday smartphone. Of course, this will require having the right settings and knowing a few tricks, letting you capture some beautiful-looking photos of New Year’s Eve with your handset.
1. Requirements for fireworks photos
First of all, you need your smartphone (doh!). Alternatively, you can of course make use of these tips with your digital camera. Most Android smartphones come with a Pro mode that allows you to manually adjust focus, exposure time, and ISO sensitivity. Combine this with the ever-improving image quality in smartphone camera sensors, and your device is well-equipped to capture great fireworks photos.
Many of the existing smartphones also offer more or less usable modes for long exposures, such as the Google Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, numerous Honor and Huawei smartphones, or the current iPhone models.
1.2 A mini tripod helps
For better fireworks photos with your phone, I would highly recommend using a simple tripod. This is because the required shutter speeds last several seconds, it is no longer possible to take sharp photos even with the steadiest hands. In an emergency, you can always lean your smartphone against something or clamp it as a makeshift solution, but then you won’t have the full flexibility required when it comes to framing a shot.
1.3 Aligning the smartphone
When aligning your smartphone, it is very important to ensure that you leave more space for the fireworks in the picture as opposed to having too little. This is especially important as many of the smartphones these days feature ultra-high resolution cameras, enabling you to crop the photo afterwards.
I also recommend that you always include some landscape, such as a few buildings in the foreground, a hill or a tree, to put the fireworks in context. If you manage to put an area of water (or other reflective things) between you and the fireworks, and you will be rewarded with spectacular results. In fact, even a puddle can look spectacular under such circumstances.
2. The right settings
Some smartphones and third-party camera apps offer special modes for fireworks or long exposure times that more or less activate settings that we suggested in this article. In some cases, they even stabilize the image while shooting, aiming to eliminate the need for tripods. But do these additions really work?
The first problem is, cameras only deliver JPEG images, which only offer limited editing options. And if the results don’t meet your expectations, you have hardly any correction possibilities afterwards. Therefore, I would recommend you to shoot in manual mode or pro mode, which offers far more setting possibilities.
2.2 Enable RAW shooting
Even though this is usually the case in Pro mode, you should make sure that HDR mode is turned off and RAW mode is enabled instead. HDR mode tends to cause ghosting in moving subjects, while RAW images offer far greater color depth and a better dynamic range. However, to get the most out of them, you’ll need to edit the RAW files using a special app or software.
In our list of the best photo editing apps for Android and iOS, you’ll be able to find several options that also support RAW photos.
2.3 The right shutter speed
In the Pro mode on your smartphone, you will be confronted with a variety of adjustable parameters. Getting the right shutter speed is crucial here. It determines just how many effects are ultimately visible in the photo. With a very fast shutter speed, you will only see individual points of the fireworks on the picture. Only exposure times in the range of one second up to several seconds can create beautiful light trails.
However, there is also a sensible upper limit here: shutter speeds that are too slow make for a photo that is overloaded with light trails. Typically, exposure times between one and eight seconds provide nice results.
The ISO value determines how sensitive the camera sensor views things. Here, you should set the lowest value that the smartphone offers. Usually, this is ISO 50 or ISO 100, but if possible, choose an even lower value. The light effects are very bright and will otherwise be completely blinding. If you have a smartphone with an iris aperture, like the Huawei Mate 50 Pro, then set the aperture to the highest possible value, in this case F4.0. In addition, F8.0 is usually a good value for cameras with an iris aperture.
2.5 Manual focus set to infinity
The next aspect concerns focus, which you can also set manually on Pro modes. Set this to the “infinity” setting, often indicated by a mountain. This will ensure that the camera app is focused on distant subjects in every photo. Just don’t forget to undo this setting after the fireworks photos, otherwise portraits, for instance, will all be out of focus.
For white balance, I would also recommend a manual setting, namely the one for daylight or about 5000K to 5500K if your camera app allows you to set a specific color temperature. However, since you’re (hopefully) shooting RAW, you can easily adjust the white balance afterward.
Finally, getting the right timing is very important for successful fireworks photos. Usually, you see the ball bombs, etc., as a glowing trail that rises into the night sky, before taking around half a second until the explosion occurs. Hence, the beginning of the ascent would be exactly the right moment to take the photo.
By the way, you can practice the right timing: Just play a fireworks video on your computer or TV and try to take a picture of it. This will give you a feel for how different shutter speeds affect the final image. To avoid any nasty reflections, you should practice in a dark room.
Even if you use a tripod, there is a risk of camera shake: namely when you press the shutter release with your finger. This can usually be avoided by using the two-second self-timer. However, due to the critical timing when photographing fireworks, this is not very practical here.
I would therefore recommend you to simply use a (wired) headset. Normally, you can trigger the camera app of the smartphone with the attached buttons. If that doesn’t work, you may have to set your camera app to allow the volume buttons to be used to capture the photo.
Is it all too complicated for you? Or does the manual mode only allow very fast shutter speeds? Then modes with names such as “light trails”, “long exposure” or the like will help you. Just browse through the camera app on your smartphone to see which options are available.
On the Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, for example, you will find the option Long Exposure in the so-called Motion Mode. And in many of the current iPhones, you can simply select the option “Long exposure” instead of “Live” in the upper left corner of the gallery to turn the short video into a stabilized long exposure.
In the absence of large-scale fireworks, we tested the long-exposure effects with the iPhone 13 Pro and with the Pixel 6 by photographing a fireworks video on the screen. Unfortunately, the results are just okay even with extensive post-processing.
By the way, not much has changed in terms of long exposures with the change from iOS 15 to iOS 16 or from the iPhone 13 (Pro) to the iPhone 14 (Pro). The Pixel 7 (Pro) still has the long-exposure mode in beta. Here as well, you have virtually no control over the picture result. The manual mode works better in any case.