Wednesday, June 30, 2021

16 Easy ways to give your Independence Day fireworks photos pizzazz!

Whether using a Mirrorless camera, DSLR or Smartphone, you can make great fireworks photos, if you follow these easy to use suggestions.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, July 4th FireworksIn the U.S., Sunday is July 4, Independence Day. The nation's second president, John Adams, is in large part responsible for how it's celebrated. In his July 3, 1776 letter to Abigail, his wife, he said that the day should be celebrated “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

The Pennsylvania Evening Post stated that in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, “The evening closed with the ring of bells and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons and the city was beautifully illuminated.”

Fireworks are extremely bright and persist for a few seconds, typically against an almost black background. Focus and particularly the exposure settings for fireworks' photos aren't straight-forward. If you're in the U.S. this week, here are my fireworks' photography tips for digital cameras and smartphones.

Scout for a location and choose wisely:
Fireworks draw large crowds. Find a position where people won't wander in front of you and accidentally knock into your equipment. Choose an upwind location from the fireworks to avoid their smoke, which can obscure your images. Avoid unwanted light from street lamps. Consider the setting's background. Look out for tree branches that could intrude into your photo.

Arrive early:
To be able to claim the great spot you scouted, arrive early. Make a few test photos to ensure nothing unexpected shows up in your images, like a light or branch.

Always use a tripod:
Whether you're shooting with a camera or smartphone, fireworks' photography requires long exposures to capture both light trails and full bursts in your photos. That requires camera support to ensure sharp images. Use a tripod appropriate for your equipment.

For smartphones you need the right app to make great photos. The built in ones are without solid manual controls which you will need for shooting fireworks.

For smartphones get a camera app that allows manual shooting:
Fireworks' images are best made when you can set your smartphone camera's exposure settings manually. Most camera apps that come standard on smartphones have limited manual capability or don't have it at all. For Android, I recommend ProCam X ($4.99). For the iPhone, I recommend and use either Halide Mark II (One time purchase $39.99, Yearly subscription $11.99, Monthly subscription $1.99) or ProCamera ($8.99 and there are some good in-app purchases). These apps provide extensive manual control to make great fireworks' photos.

Use a remote shutter release:
Minute movements of your camera or smartphone can blur your images. When using either, use a remote shutter release, if possible, to avoid shake caused by pressing the shutter release button. Most cameras accept wireless or wired remote shutter releases. For iPhones, if you have an Apple Watch, you can use it as a remote shutter release with both Halide Mark II and ProCamera.

Start with a fully charged battery:
You don't want to run out of power before the end of the show.

Have enough free memory:
I typically take photos of every fireworks' burst. I format the largest memory card I have, so it's at full capacity in my camera. For smartphones, consider off-loading as many photo and video files as possible, so you have plenty of room for shooting the fireworks.

Use manual focus:
The fireworks will likely be several hundred yards/meters away or more. It's difficult to focus in darkness, so focus manually and set it to infinity. For smartphones that don't have manual focus, use landscape mode to approximate it.

On your Mirrorless camera or DSLR save your files in RAW format. If your smartphone has RAW, such as the latest iPhones, use it.

Use the highest quality setting for your photos:
I shoot fireworks exclusively in RAW format. If you take your photos in JPG, chose the best quality and the largest size (least compression) to avoid JPG compression artifacts which often occur in scenes with high luminance and color contrast, as in fireworks' images.

Chose a low ISO setting for your photos:
To minimize digital noise in your fireworks' photos use a low ISO setting of 50–200.

It may be night, but those fireworks you're photographing are extremely bright.

It’s night, but you don't need extremely long exposures:
Fireworks are very bright lights. Set your camera to manual exposure mode. I expose my fireworks' photos from 1 to 4 seconds to capture the trail(s) and burst(s). If your camera or smartphone app has a B (Bulb) shutter setting, you can use it for long exposures. Try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter. Close it immediately after it reaches its peak.

Base your aperture on your ISO setting:
A good starting point would be ISO 100 – f/8 to f/16 or ISO 200 - f/11 to f/22 on your camera. On smartphones you'll need to experiment to find the best exposure value (EV). Check your photos as you shoot and adjust the aperture or EV as necessary.

White Balance:
Set your white balance to daylight.

Frame your photo well:
A vertical format is generally better as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide. Frame your image so you have a reasonably sized foreground and "head-room" above the topmost fireworks' bursts. For cameras, your position relative to the firework's display will determine your optimal lens focal length.

Turn off your flash:
Your flash is useless for photographing fireworks themselves, though it might be used to light something in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.

Add a foreground subject:
Possibly add a statue, crowd silhouettes, a tree or building in the foreground for context and interest.

Have a blast shooting fireworks on July 4th.


Neils-Ann Arbor said...

Hi Ned. Great refresh. Excellent new information. Thanks.

I just got Halide Mark II for my iPhone. It's awesome. I'll be ready on the 4th.

Jeff - Ames said...

Great article. I'm going to have more confidence when I try to photograph fireworks on Sunday.

Elaine - Austin said...

On your recommendation I got Halide Mark II this morning. It's really great. Thanks.

Randy - Chicago said...

I've had Halide Mark II for about a year, but never knew I could use my Apple Watch to remotely trip the camera on my iPhone. Neat. Thanks.

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Randy.

You're very welcome. For those using either Halide Mark II or ProCamera you can install their Apple Watch apps on the Apple Watch and remotely trip the iPhone camera from the watch.

With the Halide Mark II app you'll even see the image you'll get when you snap the picture. The Apple Watch extension of the app on the iPhone is top drawer.

Jean - Boston said...

Too many ignore the potential of high quality smartphone photography. Thanks for keeping it in mind.

Elinor - Chicago said...

Ned, I'd add to your arrive early to stake out a good spot that it would probably be best if it's high ground so you're not shooting through the back of the people in the crowd.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks Elinor. That's a good idea, but make sure you're upwind, which I think is more important. You want to shoot through as little smoke as possible. Typically you're shooting up more than across, so if you can't get to high ground (There's none at the fireworks show I'm going to this year.) you can still get great shots. I may bring a three step photographers ladder Sunday. I can stand on the top step and can support a camera from there.

Bruce - Philly said...

Didn't know I could use my Apple Watch with Halide on my iPhone and iPad. Thanks for tip. I could use that for making family portraits with me in them as well as fireworks shots.

Ned S. Levi said...

Bruce, your Apple Watch won't work with Halide on your iPad. It doesn't have the link required to you Apple Watch that the iPhone has. The pairing only works with the Apple Watch and iPhone because they are "paired." I'm not a fan of photography with the iPad anyway. It's too cumbersome and bulky. The latest iPhones have better cameras too.

Susan - NYC said...

You beat me to it about the Apple Watch pairing Ned. You're exactly right.

The Apple Watch pairs with Blue Tooth and WiFi for all Apple Watches. If the Apple Watch also has cellular it communicates between them in a very limited way with Cellular if both Blue Tooth and WiFi are unavailable. If Cellular is the only thing available while they communicate for phone calls, they won't do things like long distance remote control through apps like Halide.

They communicate (paired) through Blue Tooth primarily as long as they are close enough, then Wifi if both are on the same network if Blue Tooth can't do it.

Cellular only comes into play if both Blue Tooth and WiFi are unavailable and then only for phone calls.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks Susan.

Steve (I'm from Atlanta) said...

Another thanks about the Apple Watch. You're a great resource. By the way your article at Travelers United about the COVID test for visitors and returning Americans entering the US is right on the money. The requirement for fully vaccinated people makes no sense at all.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks Steve. I appreciate it.

For those of you who haven't seen it, my weekly column about travel is published every Monday at Travelers United in their blog. Travelers United is the oldest traveler advocacy organization in the nation.

This week's column "Abandon the weak US COVID entry test requirement today," if you would like to read it, is located at:

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