Each and every July — since perhaps the dawn of time — our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds are bombarded with low-lit and grainy photos of fireworks displays. These shots are never not mundane, even when they're capturing a wondrous explosion of light in the night's sky. That's because your average smartphone photographer is often too far away from the show, without a healthy amount of light or a steady tripod setup, to truly capture what their eye is seeing.
The truth is even as smartphone cameras improve with each new device cycle, they're still not very capable when it comes to snapping a solid photo of anything in the dark at a distance. The "X-Pro II" or "Lo-Fi" filter will only do so much, and it's often that the only decent photos you'll see are saturated to death. Maybe in a few years' time, when our phones are packed with more powerful sensors and even better image software, we'll have devices in our pockets shooting DSLR-quality photos in low light.
The "X-Pro II" or "Lo-Fi" filter will only do so much
For now, there are alternatives ways to share the moment that go beyond stills. Because as more tech companies invest in artificial intelligence techniques like image recognition, there's a bountiful number of creative tools that let you capture the moment in interactive fashion. Most of the work is even done for us. So check the Instagram hashtag this weekend, remind yourself that your photo won't look different, and try this instead.
Make a moving image
Animated GIFs may be best suited for conveying unspoken messages in a group text, but that doesn't mean the art form can't used for more traditional purposes, like capturing the unfolding color burst of fireworks. There's tons of great GIF-making apps out there, with GIPHY Cam, DSCO Cam, and Giffage being among the best of the bunch. Another option is Instagram's under-used Boomerang app. While not GIF-making software per se, Boomerang lets you capture a quick burst of five photos and the app animates them together.
For iOS users, there's even more appealing option with Live Photos. With the introduction of iOS 9 last year and the iPhone 6S's 3D Touch-capable screen, Apple added a way to snap shots that come to life with the hard press of your finger. This works because the iPhone captures a few quick shots before and after you press the button, so long as the viewfinder is option and the feature remains turned on. Live Photos also have one key advantage over most other formats: they capture sound. With fireworks, capturing the boom of the explosion can be just as powerful as the burst of light.
For fans of Google software, regardless of your mobile OS of choice, there's a couple options for creating really neat moving images. The Google Photos app — besides its proficiency as the best cloud storage option for smartphone image files — also happens to utilize some AI to turn your shots into moving pictures. The feature is filed under the Assistant tab, and Google takes a collection of photos captured within close proximity of one another to create what it calls animations.
There's also Google's Motion Stills iOS app, which improves your Live Photos by stabilizing them and turning them into more shareable GIFs and movie files. Motion Stills encourages you to both keep Apple's Live Photos feature active all the time and take a ton of photos in the process. That way, when the dust has settled, you can open the app and scroll through pre-made GIFs to see which look best as moving images. It's a great addition to the iPhone's built-in feature set, and it's a perfect example of why so many iOS users lean on Google for its software smarts.
Capture a video
Over the last few years, every social platform has grown far more accommodating when to comes video. Seeing a play button in your Instagram feed no longer causes you to scroll past with urgency, and Facebook's immense resource investment in video has turned the News Feed in a sea of moving images. So when it comes to fireworks, don't hesitate to film them. Apple has built-in time-lapse and slow-mo features that are fun to experiment with. Android users have countless third-party apps — VivaVid Pro and AndroVid Pro, to name a couple — for improved video capture and editing.
Try Facebook's Slideshow feature
Even better, videos can be used with Facebook's new Slideshow feature. Slideshow was originally part of the social network's Moments app, but the company adopted it late last month as a new feature for the main Facebook app. Slideshow effectively takes any photos or videos you've captured in the last 24 hours and transforms them into a clean little movie. The short film is also customizable with different themes and music.
If you need to shoot a photo, get close and keep it steady
Despite our best efforts, we know there are people out there who cannot resist the urge to try and craft a like-worthy Instagram photo. For those shameless few, it is possible to capture a solid smartphone picture of fireworks. It just takes a little bit of effort, some time, and maybe a tripod (or a beer can and a picnic table).
The first step is to get close. Not so close you combust in a fiery explosion, but close enough so your smartphone's wide-angle lens can soak in enough light while still encompassing the majority of the fireworks show you're trying to capture. It's a common mobile photographer mistake to assume what you're seeing with your eye is going to be roughly replicated by your device's lens. Smartphone cameras will set the subject quite a bit back in distance, so stake out a solid location before the show starts if you're intent on capturing a useable shot.
Who needs a tripod when you have a soda can?
The other tip is to steady your smartphone. This can be done with either a mobile tripod, like the popular GorillaPod, or by tilting the phone against something sturdy. From there, you can check your phone's camera settings and, on more capable Android devices, lock in a low ISO setting and slow shutter speed. That should remove graininess, let in a lot of light, and also open up the possibility for some artsy light painting or light streaking effects.