iPhone on Fire(works)

Let’s get this blog off with a bang! There, I said it.

Enough of that.

I’ve seen my fair share of fireworks displays over the years and I’ve taken photos of most. They are such grand, festive events and the individual bursts are so beautiful. I just want to capture it all. But I rarely get a shot I really love. I am always humbled the next day by beautiful fireworks shots taken by the pros.

The thing is, I don’t really want to haul my big DSLR and tripod to the beach. I’m already loaded up with blanket, chair, and snacks. But neither am I ready to give up on getting some shots of my own. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if I went the opposite direction and could get some decent fireworks photos on my iPhone.

Turns out, I can.

There are 3 challenges to taking nice fireworks photos with the iPhone:

  1. Focusing on the fireworks display

  2. Getting the right exposure

  3. Avoiding camera movement

As you might guess, using the iPhone camera after dark to photograph something that moves quickly and disappears is “pushing the envelope” of what the camera can do. Usually (on my old iPhone 5) the camera has to hunt for a moment to find something to lock focus on. By the time it does, the cool part of the display is gone. If I’m lucky, I get something sort of nice as it’s burning out. If I’m not, I get a bright, blurry blob that looks more like a lava lamp than a thousand dollar mortar burst.

The way to finesse this problem is to lock the camera’s focus and exposure. Here is how.

Once you’ve settled into your viewing spot, set up your camera position to center on the fireworks display (more coming on this). As the fireworks begin, with your camera app launched, watch for a particularly large burst. On the iPhone display, touch and hold the center of the burst (which may not be in the center of the screen) until you get a yellow AE/AF that shows you locked in that focus and exposure. This disables the camera autofocus so it doesn’t have to lock in on something before you can trip the shutter.

Now we’ve got the focus adjusted to the distance of the display and we should have the exposure adjusted and locked at the same time. But what I found is that manually darkening the exposure a little more helps improve detail in the fireworks.

With the AE/AF LOCK on, there is a small yellow slider to the right of the target square. By sliding up and down you can fine tune the exposure. Sliding down a bit will darken the exposure so that even the brightest highlights of the display will have more detail and stand out against a dark, black sky.

Remember I mentioned “setting up” the camera? Well, that’s what makes it all work. Setting up the camera; on a tripod.

Yeah, the tripod seems very un-iPhone like. Kind of anti-mobile. And you have to attach it, somehow. But there are cases (I use an iPro lens case), phone grips like the GLIF, and even a selfie stick can be braced to take a steadier picture. Of course, in a pinch, you can hold the camera tightly and brace your elbows on your knees, or set it on a fence or chair back to steady it.

The point is that limiting camera movement is especially important when shooting fireworks because the shutter will be open longer than it would in bright sunlight. Any camera jiggle will show up as a blurred image. And when you’re aiming at a moving object, the tendency is to move your view with it. Much better to have the iPhone aimed steady at a fixed place in the sky.

So again, get the focus and exposure properly adjusted and locked, then get your iPhone steady and fire away. You should have much better success getting great fireworks pictures that you really want to share.

Take it up a notch.

Fireworks shows are also a fun time to try out new tools and techniques. If you are feeling adventurous, here are some additional spins on fireworks photography.

Technique - The iPhone also lets you capture the show in more dynamic ways. You can shoot a burst of photos and put them together after as an animation. Or you can take a slo-mo video on the newer iPhones. They both make for interesting additions in a presentation or iCloud share.

Apps - There are several good photo apps that offer more control than the native Camera app. Apps like Moment, Halide, Camera+ and PureShot allow you to independently lock the focus and the exposure as well as adjust sensitivity and shutter functions. PureShot even lets you save files to a higher quality .tif file format.

Lenses - Using add-on lenses offers a variety of interesting options. I use an Moment lens set. Sandmarc and OlloClip are other popular options. Having a telephoto lens is nice for closer shots of the displays, and a wide-angle option allows you to get fireworks displays in the context of a whole scene. Especially nice when you are shooting across water and the fireworks reflections create silhouettes of the crowd. Really cool.

Get Crazy.

Slow Shutter is an app that deserves its own shoutout. I use it a lot for night photography because of how it offers tools to create light trails and blurs with some level of control. It is especially neat when there are bright lights (cars, neon signs . . . fireworks) against dark backgrounds. There are other apps like it, but I started with Slow Shutter and love it.

Waterlogue is a second tier app, but one that I always try when I’m just not happy with my straight shots. What makes it great for fireworks is that you can get some really interesting images from those lava lamp shots when the camera didn’t focus or some running kid bumped your tripod. It’s very fun and if you have an eye for watercolor style, it could be your first tier app.

I hope you found a couple of gold nuggets in this post. Please share with your friends and let me know what worked best for you.

If you would like a little more detail along with some examples of each point and links to the references in the post, you can download a PDF here.

Thanks for reading my blog and I hope to see you back again soon.

iPhonePaul Einarsen