When the New Year arrives, fireworks will be going off in cities all around the world. Whether you plan on celebrating with the crowds here in Oz or overseas, some simple shooting tips and handy apps will help you capture the spectacular with your smartphone.
Great fireworks photographs rely on slow shutter speeds, where controls within the camera work to keep the shutter mechanism open long enough for the light trails against the dark sky to be captured to the sensor.
The camera function within a smartphone tends to lack this level of control, but armed with basic photo knowledge and some useful apps, you can overcome some of the limitations of your hardware.
One of the most important criteria for achieving a long exposure is stability. Any movement of the camera will cause the image to blur, so the key here is to hold still. With a device as small as a smartphone, though, that’s difficult.
A tripod makes a world of difference here, and there are models available for smartphones. They’re often tiny (read: portable), flexible and not very expensive. And they work a treat when anchored firmly to a surface.
Joby – makers of the GorillaPod – have been making flexible tripods for ages, and you can easily equip most smartphones (including the iPhone) with one of these.
Alternatively, grab a phone stand and sit your phone inside it.
Hug a tree
We’re not telling you to change your political beliefs with this one; instead, holding onto a tree is a good way of providing much needed stability when taking photos in low light.
Find a strong vertical object, a telegraph pole or fence also works, and either lean against it or hug it. The stability of the standing object will increase your stability, with the effect of turning your entire body into a tripod.
Hold your breath
If you don’t have a phone tripod or you can’t find something to lean against, try holding your breath.
The rationale here is that, the less your body moves, the less movement there will be to transfer to your smartphone and, in turn, the images it’s capturing.
So hold your phone in either one or two hands, and bring your arms in close to your chest, as if you were being held against your will. Now hold your breath for ten or twenty seconds, breathing in (obviously) when the photo is done or you become uncomfortable. Or when you actually need to breath.
The excess movement should be limited, and your shot should exhibit less unwanted motion. We’ve used this technique when shooting with a professional camera, and it works effectively.
It may sound hard to attain focus on something that’s there one second and not the next, but the practice is far less difficult than you’d expect.
You’re actually focusing on the farthest thing from your smartphone, so select an object that’s far away from you – a building several kilometres away, or you see the moon in the night sky – and use these to set your focal distance.
If your phone camera allows you to change your focus type, try selecting ‘infinite’ to help you out here.
One with the night
Almost every smartphone camera provides a number of “scene” options, many of which include a “night” mode. If your smartphone camera also includes a “fireworks” scene, select that. If not, switch to the “night” mode and shoot normally.
These modes are designed to deal with the low ambient light conditions inherent to night-time shooting, so experiment with them to judge the results.
‘Appy New Year!
Apps can make a world of difference to the quality of low light photography captured on a smartphone. Here are our picks.
Top Camera (iPad/iPhone)
Top Camera is an excellent camera replacement app for the iPhone and iPad, offering numerous settings for slow shutter images, including time exposed and how the long exposure is handled. There are other camera setting too, such as a burst mode, timer, and the intense light and colour seen in high dynamic range (HDR) images.
To shoot the fireworks with this app, hit the settings icon, select “Slow Shutter”, and then fire away at the sky.
Magic Shutter (iPhone)
Designed specifically for time-lapse and long exposure photography, Magic Shutter does one thing and only thing: it records images over the course of 1, 2, 4, 8, 30, or 60 seconds. There’s also a “Bulb” option also available for shooting as long as you want.
To grab an image in this app, simply hit the settings next to “Shoot” and change the exposure time to something manageable, like 2, 4 or 8 seconds. Once that’s locked in, shoot the image and see how it looks.
Camera Zoom FX (Android)
Considered one of the best camera apps for Android, Camera Zoom FX can fire fast shots in burst mode, help you stabilise shots by showing you how steady your hand is, and even throw stand-in “friends” – such as the Queen of England – into pictures with you using the Buddy Prop packs.
But if you’re itching to shoot fireworks, switch to night mode by hitting the icon above the flash symbol and switching “NightShot” to on.
Video works too
When you want a memory of the fireworks display you watch this New Year’s Eve, but don’t want to spend any money at an app store or on accessories, look to the video mode on your phone.
Sure, it’s not going to give you a still image of the fireworks, but you won’t need to fiddle with settings and you’ll achieve a neat fireworks video with no problems whatsoever.
To do this, just switch your phone over to video mode, aim it at the sky, and hit record.
We suggest holding your phone in landscape mode, though, as videos shot in portrait don’t look as big or impressive when shared with friends from the phone, or viewed online.