How to take photos of fireworks with a smartphone camera (iPhone and Android tutorial)

Being a photographer in the late 19th century was a job much more dangerous than one might think. Dealing with chemicals was heavily involved, the most spectacular of them being flash powder – the kind of stuff that was lit to illuminate low-light scenes, as you might have seen in movies from the silent era. And by "lit" we mean that the substance was literally set on fire, which resulted in a loud bang, a cloud of smoke, and a bright, fiery explosion. Flash powder is still in use today, but you'll only find it in fireworks. 

Speaking of fireworks, they can be really tricky to photograph: timing, location, and framing are all factors of importance, not to mention that you're only going to observe such a spectacle at night, when light is scarce. On the other hand, the results could be quite impressive if you follow a few simple guidelines. 

Step #1: Setting up shop


First and foremost, consider spending some time to examine your surroundings. Find out where the fireworks are going to be launched from, and think of a location from which you'd be able to capture them well. In a best-case scenario, you'd be able to include both the fireworks and some scenery or landmarks for context in a single frame. For example, I was lucky enough to capture the image on the left at Disneyland, while the photo on the right was shot from the beach across the port. 

The setting makes these fireworks photos even more striking
The setting makes these fireworks photos even more striking

The setting makes these fireworks photos even more striking


To take a good photo of fireworks, you'll need to keep your camera as still as possible. This is where a smartphone tripod would come in handy; in fact, I used one when taking the photo above. If you don't have one, think of something that you can rest your phone against so that it doesn't shake. Movement that occurs while the camera is taking the photo may produce motion blur, especially on phones without image stabilization.

Huawei has this nifty selfie stick that turns into a tripod

Huawei has this nifty selfie stick that turns into a tripod


Step #2: Configuring the camera


At this point you have two options: you can point your camera at the fireworks and start mashing the shutter button hoping for the best, or enter your manual mode and tweak the settings for optimum results. Should you choose the latter route, here are the values you need to set:

  • Shutter speed: This setting determines the time period over which your camera captures light. The longer the shutter stays "open", the more light goes into the camera and the longer the fireworks' trails will be.  A value between 1/8 and 1/2 of a second should produce good results. 
  • ISO: This figure determines the sensitivity setting of your sensor. A higher value makes the sensor more sensitive to light, but also more susceptible to digital noise. When photographing fireworks, a value between 100 and 200 should do. The ideal setting will vary from one camera to another due to differences in aperture sizes.
  • Focus: You'll have to figure this one on your own. Maybe your camera will be able to focus automatically, but if it tends to fail, set it yourself to a position that looks best on the screen. Chances are that a value close to infinity would work just fine.
  • White balance: In this case, using an automatic setting would be okay.
  • Flash: Nope, you don't need a flash so just turn it off.

We hope you're comfortable working with your phone's manual camera controls

We hope you're comfortable working with your phone's manual camera controls


iPhone owners, your phone's default camera app doesn't offer much in terms of manual camera settings, so consider installing a third-party camera app that does. Or if you don't feel like spending money on one, just stick to the stock camera app. You can use its burst capture feature (hold down the shutter button) to take a series of photos and then pick the best of the bunch. You may also hold your finger on the screen to lock the focus and exposure (look for a yellow AF LOCK sign) in a state that looks good on the screen. 

Step #3: Taking the photo


When photographing fireworks, timing can make the difference between an epic shot and a disaster of darkness. Ideally, you want to press the shutter right before the burst. This will capture pretty colorful light trails as the ball expands. You might need to tweak the shutter speed since some fireworks travel slower or faster than others. 

Don't forget that you need to keep your camera as steady as possible. Consider using the camera's timer feature to set a delay. This will eliminate the chance of you shaking the camera by accident when pressing the shutter button. On the other hand, you'll have less control over the timing of your photos. Keep in mind that some cameras will add a small shutter lag automatically to prevent shaky blur from happening.

It is also important to take many photos. At least a few of them are going to turn out awesome!   


Step #4: Forget everything and enjoy the show


Let's not forget that fireworks are to be observed, to be enjoyed, to be admired. It's not every day that we witness such a spectacle, so please, please don't forget to watch the light show as well, especially if you're in the company of a special someone. Perhaps it is best if you take a few shots in the beginning, then put that camera down and feast on the bursts of colors. If your photos turn out great, then let us know in the comments! If they don't, well, there's always next year.

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30 Comments

3. josephnero

Posts: 773; Member since: Nov 16, 2011

Thanks

4. thetruthhasbeenspoken

Posts: 81; Member since: May 02, 2017

Step 1: DON'T take fireworks videos or pics because you wouldn't watch it again afterwards.

12. Settings

Posts: 2942; Member since: Jul 02, 2014

This. Unless you're taking journals. Fireworks are meant to be enjoyed, not to be put on social media just for likes.

17. firebird820

Posts: 157; Member since: Jan 01, 2017

I run a photography account though so that's why I take pictures of them.

20. Settings

Posts: 2942; Member since: Jul 02, 2014

But not on a smartphone. It's limited and wont produce desired results compared to what you get on a dedicated camera.

26. firebird820

Posts: 157; Member since: Jan 01, 2017

I do agree with you on part of that, however my Note8's camera is one of the best cameras I have ever had, including DSLRs and true dedicated cameras.

19. worldpeace

Posts: 3077; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

Right.. Just sit back and enjoy they show..

24. makatijules

Posts: 835; Member since: Dec 11, 2017

I always do. Ans I share them with my family and friends back home in the Philippines I have recordings of Fireworks shows from DisneyWorld, Six Flags and just local in town, all at QHD or UHD, done with various Samsung phones and all have been awesome.

29. strategic_developer

Posts: 1627; Member since: Jul 17, 2018

I always do

5. hemedans

Posts: 746; Member since: Jun 01, 2013

nokia 808 and lumia 1020 laugh at this article.

6. Wiencon

Posts: 2278; Member since: Aug 06, 2014

Yeah, but there aren't many out there :/

9. SIGPRO

Posts: 2810; Member since: Oct 03, 2012

Indeed the kings are laughing their ass off! Those phones where magnificent!

11. L0n3n1nja

Posts: 1504; Member since: Jul 12, 2016

So does my Nikon, but I don't carry my Nikon everywhere. I doubt anyone still uses the 808 as a daily phone.

13. Settings

Posts: 2942; Member since: Jul 02, 2014

But prepare the hell out of it. It takes a couple of seconds to take shots in between, I used 1020 before, it was slow AF but shots were amazing.

30. andrewc31394

Posts: 270; Member since: Jun 23, 2012

and every other phone laughs at every other aspect of the 808 and 1020

7. Wiencon

Posts: 2278; Member since: Aug 06, 2014

Has anybody actually watched the video of the fireworks that they shot? Just enjoy the moment and forget about documenting every second of your life on social media

18. firebird820

Posts: 157; Member since: Jan 01, 2017

I'm a photographer so I take pictures of fireworks to sell and post online because, that's what a photographer does.

14. L0n3n1nja

Posts: 1504; Member since: Jul 12, 2016

Looking at stock hardware and software, the Note 8 is probably best for this, telephoto lens and manual controls. IPhone would do well with the installation of a real camera app.

23. makatijules

Posts: 835; Member since: Dec 11, 2017

The iPhone camera itself is fine. The software not allowing pro level settings is the issue.

15. Humanoid

Posts: 1226; Member since: Dec 11, 2017

My Sony has a mode Scene Fireworks @ 3MP/8MP.

21. midan

Posts: 2481; Member since: Oct 09, 2017

Take iPhone X and shoot 4k 60fps. Then afterwards If you want still photos just choose the best one from video still. https://youtu.be/p94Fbwp0yyw

25. makatijules

Posts: 835; Member since: Dec 11, 2017

Its actually not that good. Very noisy due to the iPhone having poor low light skills compared to other options. Even the Galaxy S6 which still has better low light skills, would do a better job without 4K @ 60FPS. Most movies you watch, on TV or at the movies, are shot in 23-30FPS, which means @60 is purely for show and is pretty much just a gimmicky feature. The major downsides to it are, the file size is doubled vs 30FPS, doesn't offer better quality all the time, as your video proves and when you want to share it to FB/Instagram, the file is gonna lose the quality anyways.

22. makatijules

Posts: 835; Member since: Dec 11, 2017

I do similar settings, but just use record instead of snapping a photo. Then I use software like Vegas or FCP to play the video and I take out the frame I want. Recording insures you don't miss a rocket exploding vs risking missing the shot.

27. surethom

Posts: 1560; Member since: Mar 04, 2009

NUMBER 1 rule if recording video. Hold the phone in LANDSCAPE, portrait is horrendous on anything other than a smartphone.

28. shnibz

Posts: 504; Member since: Sep 18, 2011

Step 1...Don't.

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