Smartphone cameras have improved greatly since the days of grainy, blurry photos. But low-light photography remains a weak point for most smartphone cameras.
This Fourth of July, you'll need a bit of help to get the best fireworks photos with your iPhone or Android smartphone. An important note: Be sure to read this story and test some phone-camera settings, or download an app or two, before you head off to the fireworks show.
[Using a stand-alone digital camera instead? Try "6 Tips for Exciting Fireworks Photos."]
Keep the Flash, and the HDR Setting, Off
Flashes on smartphones are not strong enough to work well even in small dark rooms, so having your flash on when you're shooting fireworks is pointless.
Also, you may be familiar with high dynamic range, a feature available on many modern smartphones that--in many cases--can help you get better photo results. Unfortunately HDR is not appropriate for shooting images of fireworks, since bursts of fireworks happen quickly, and taking long-exposure photos with HDR slows things down. Be sure to turn your phone's HDR option off.
If you have an Android phone, you will want to check a few other settings to see if they're in order before the sun goes down.
- If your phone camera has a stabilizer feature, turn it on.
- If you can adjust the ISO sensitivity (which mimics film speeds on standard cameras), turn it up manually to around 400 for the best results.
- Make sure that the camera is set to take photos at the highest resolution possible. This will produce larger files, but the difference in quality is worth the trade-off.
Use the Cortex Camera iPhone App
If you have an iPhone 4S (only) or a camera-equipped iPad with iOS 5, Cortex Camera ($3) can help you take some great photos in low-light conditions. Although it looks like a regular photo app, note that when you press the shutter button, you will need to hold the camera steady for 3 seconds.
Why do you have to hold it that long? Instead of taking an actual still photo, the app captures a short video consisting of more than 100 frames; it then builds noise-free, sharp low-light photos from the frames using a specially designed algorithm.
Use the Night Camera Android App
On Android, Night Camera (free, Pro $3) does a similar job by combining a special-exposure mode and software post-processing to reduce blur and improve the dynamic range of photos taken in low-light environments.
The app has several settings that you can adjust to capture the best night shots for the occasion, so you will want to experiment a bit ahead of time to get the right results for your phone.
Take Advantage of Burst Mode
If you have a certain Android or Windows phone, burst mode is a feature worth trying when you're snapping fireworks. This mode lets you take a series of shots quickly; afterward, you can pick the best photo from the series.
Both the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One Android phones have this mode built in, but if your phone doesn't, try downloading Fast Burst Camera (Android) or Turbo Camera (Windows Phone), both of which offer a burst mode of sorts.
The Fast Burst Camera app ($3) is capable of taking 30 photos per second on high-end camera phones, and 5 to 10 photos per second on older or lower-end camera phones. It is an essential tool for capturing quick-moving, ephemeral subjects. Turbo Camera ($2) will let your Windows Phone take 14 to 16 frames per second.
Keep Steady and Avoid Digital Zoom
Having a steady camera is essential in low-light conditions. If you already own a tripod, you can buy a smartphone adapter such as the Glif to make your phone work with the tripod. The cost is around $20.
Not everyone wants to lug around a tripod, though. Instead, you can lessen your own movement by leaning against, say, a tree or a car when you're taking a photo. Or you can simply balance the phone on a wall, a table, or another nearby object.
Although photos you take with digital zoom on your phone might look okay on a small LCD, once you check them out on the big screen, you'll notice that they are not as sharp and clear.
Using digital zoom is an easy way to ruin your shots or increase their graininess, as a photo loses quality with every zoom level. If you want to get a better close-up shot, you're better off physically moving closer to the subject with your phone rather than using its digital zoom.
If you want to take smartphone photography to the next level, you can find a bunch of accessories that promise to give you both the versatility of a phone and the quality of a DSLR camera.
Ginny Mies of PCWorld contributed to this story.