Independence Day weekend is just around the corner, which means three days of heat, hot dogs and hometown pageantry. Photo ops abound on this patriotic holiday, but when you throw in ketchup stains, sweat and combustible entertainment, things can get messy. In this article, you’ll find a roundup of tips, gadgets and apps to not only capture great fireworks images, but also also snap stellar portraits of you and your friends during those festive block parties and beach barbecues. So go forth, seize your photographic freedom and liberate your Fourth of July photos from oppressive mediocrity!
Who wants to lug around a telephoto zoom bazooka lens when miniature add-ons are popping up all over the market? Step up your game with conveniently sized accessories that let you zone in on the action, minus the bulky equipment. Check out Smart PHOCUS, olloclip or the variety pack lens series from Photojojo, which includes a telephoto lens that can be purchased separately if you don’t want the whole package.
Avoid these features
Using a flash on a firework is like adding salt to a saltine cracker: You don’t need it. Same goes for the zoom and HDR. Zooming in reduces image quality and adds graininess (we suggest snapping now and cropping later), and “since bursts of fireworks happen quickly…taking long-exposure photos with HDR slows things down,” PCWorld advises.
Steady as she goes
The more shaky your smartphone while you’re clicking away during that fantastic fireworks finale, the more your photos will look like a toddler scribbled blurred lines across the night sky with a sparkler pen. Keep the razzle dazzle crisp and clean with a handy smartphone tripod that steadies your device and controls the angle of your lens. With reasonably priced options such as the GripTight GorillaPod from Joby, or the creepy but highly effective all-in-one positioning device, Life-Phorm, it’s an investment that will come in handy well beyond Independence Day.
“The longer the shutter is open, the more susceptible your photo is to motion blur,” reminds Suzanne Kantra of Techlicious. “So use a tripod to make sure there’s no movement.”
Feeling thrifty? Hug a tree with one hand and shoot with the other. Holding your breath for several seconds while shooting helps as well.
Mode’s the word
Finding the right mode mojo varies depending on your device, but there’s a plethora of native settings to optimize your smartphone’s camera for making photo magic all on its own (it will also likely have the fastest shutter speed for snapping pics in the dark, too). So before opting for a third party app – which can introduce lag to your phone’s camera – “keep your timing sharp by using your built-in camera app, and upload it to Instagram later,” suggests design/technology blog Gizmodo. Settings vary by device, but if you have the ability, try tweaking and experimenting with the following:
- Scene mode: During the finale, or when there are multiple fireworks going off, switch to “landscape.” This sets the focus to infinity and helps get all the fireworks in one shot. Also try “night” and “fireworks” modes.
- Portrait mode: Try shooting in portrait mode at the beginning of the show. Shooting in portrait mode enables you to better see each individual firework as it takes off from the ground and then descends.
- Burst mode: Great for taking a rapid series of successive shots.
- Resolution: Select the highest.
- Other options: Select “low-light” and/or “anti-shake.”
- Tap to take a picture: If your camera has this function, enable it so you don’t have to worry about keeping your finger exactly on the shutter button.
- Picture stabilization: On the Samsung Galaxy S5, for example, in settings, enable picture stabilization. This allows you to take brighter and clearer pictures without using the flash in low light, and automatically detects low light levels and adjusts the camera accordingly (with this mode, it’s really important to hold the device steady while shooting in the dark).
- Turn down the ISO: If you have manual control over the ISO, avoid overexposure and reduce noise by taking it out of Auto ISO and changing the setting to ISO 100 or 50. Photojojo does a good job of explaining this further:
“The higher your ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to light. Normally this means you want to use a higher ISO in dark settings, but when you’re shooting longer exposures (long shutter speeds) high ISO can introduce a lot of digital noise to your photograph. An ISO setting of 100 is a good bet.”
Think before you shoot
As the French father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson once advised, “shooting quickly and without thought” leads to “overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.” And that sounds like fun for no one.
If you’re on a mission to capture some truly spectacular fireworks shots, remember to:
- Anticipate the shot by gauging where in the sky the fireworks are blowing up, and positioning your phone in advance.
- Tap your screen and lock in the exposure and/or focus of the general area you’re shooting in, then click when the next explosion occurs.
- Fill empty space and create depth by incorporating people, a landscape or building into your photo.
- Be choosey about your location. Scope out the scene ahead of time, get a good vantage point and avoid shooting near streetlights. They’re evil.
- Shoot most of your shots at the start of the show. This is a great tip from Darlene Hildebrandt, managing editor of the Digital Photography School. You’ll have a better chance of getting some great shots at the beginning of the show, she advises, since later in the evening the sky starts to fill up with smoke and haze, “and it’s not as pretty looking.”
Fireworks aren’t the only things lighting up pictures…
It’s the Fourth of July. Chances are you’re hot, sweaty and have ketchup and/or sand on your face. But you can be a hot mess and still look haute with Perfect365, a fun and easy digital makeover app that lets you freshen up your complexion in just a single tap. So even if you’re feeling a little haggard from playing beach volleyball or walking around in 90-degree weather at your local block party, Perfect365’s subtle makeup templates like “pure” and “natural” can blot out shine and smooth skin for unlimited self-conscious-free Fourth of July photos.
In the mood for a more festive look? Give the fireworks a run for their money with Perfect365’s new “Aurora” makeup style, inspired by dazzling northern lights hues that brighten your eyelids with a playful splash of bright colors. Get “Aurora” and dozens of other cool makeup styles by downloading Perfect365 for free in iTunes, Google play or Windows stores.
As the saying goes, “there’s an app for that,” and fireworks photography is no exception. Here’s a handful worth trying for the shooting and post-processing of fireworks pics:
- Camera Zoom FX (Android, $2.99): Has a fireworks setting; burst mode; grid overlay option for framing your shot; and a screen image stabilizer to show how steady your hand is while holding your device.
- Night Camera (Android, free): Lets you capture high-quality images in low-light environments by reducing blur and improving the dynamic range.
- Fast Burst Camera (Android, $3.99) or Turbo Camera (Windows, $1.29): Great if your smartphone doesn’t have a burst mode.
- Magic Shutter (iPhone): Fun if you want to get creative with light trails. Mimics the effect of shooting at slow shutter speeds.
- Slow Shutter Cam (iPhone, $2.99): Has motion blur, light trail and low-light capture modes – great for mimicking slow shutter speed effects; good for manual shutter control.
- iLightning Cam (iPhone, $1.99): Real-time lightning photography app; works great for fireworks too.
- Cortex Camera (iPhone, $2.99): Reduces noise in low-light conditions by combining dozens of images to create a sharp image. With this app, it’s important to hold the camera steady for about three seconds.
The following two apps give a broad range of control, similar to what you have with a DSLR:
- Camera FV-5 (Android, $3.95): Lets you take beautiful night photos and light trails with long exposure times up to 60 seconds; has infinity focus modes and focus lock switch.
- 645 Pro MK II (iPhone, $3.99): Supports extreme low-light photography; features anti-shake; burst shots; separate exposure and focus locks; and various slow shutter settings.
Have any tips to add? Tell us in the comments!