Filming Fireworks With an iPhone
Auto and manual settings tested.
In this article I’m sharing my initial results from filming fireworks with an iPhone, in my case an SE2. This previous generation SE model has been improved on with subsequent iPhone iterations so you should be able to achieve equal or better results with newer models.
First, I take the iPhone out to a fireworks display and use fully auto mode, handheld and with auto focus. Then, I try an app called Filmic Pro to manually control the camera to see if the results can be improved upon.
Watch the video of iPhone fireworks footage
The best way to appreciate the end results is of course to watch the footage I shot with my iPhone. You can do this in the video below, which also contains extensive discussion about the results and various tests on white balance, shutter speed and ISO. I will also summarise the results further down in this article, for those who just want to get straight to the recommended settings.
iPhone fireworks video settings: Summarised
Just want a synopsis of the video and the important settings? Here we go:
Auto mode (using built-in app):
There are no settings to change. Results are acceptable and stabilisation, even hand held, is exceptional. Occasional loss of focus which is quickly re-acquired. Colours a little washed out (warm white balance suppresses most blue effects). Use 4K over 1080p where possible.
Manual mode (using Filmic Pro, a paid app):
Assuming 4k25p video:
Lock white balance to 3500K or similar (use higher for warmer footage, up to 5500K max – above this yellows out the footage).
Use your phone on a tripod with stabilisation turned off, and focus set to manual (use the focus box to lock on to something the same distance as the fireworks, or the first firework when the display starts).
Use 1/25th or 1/50th shutter speed. I prefer 1/25th but some will prefer the shorter trails from 1/50th.
Use 200 ISO as a starting point. Lock shutter in Filmic Pro and then use the slider to change the ISO while shooting as required (drag this slider in from the left and tap the shutter value to lock it).
Note: For 50p footage (which is smoother), use 1/50th shutter. For US/NTSC readers, 25p becomes 30p, 1/25th becomes 1/30th etc.
In more detail: Auto mode for iPhone fireworks footage
My expectations here were quite low given that my phone was hand held and I know from experience with a lot of consumer grade camera gear, this is where stabilisation can really suffer. You can often see continual “jitters” as the movement overwhelms the camera or the shutter speed is too low due to the dark conditions. My GoPro in particular is bad for low light scenes in fully auto.
Then there’s the worry with auto focus that the phone will be confused by any dark sky and lose its focus lock.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by the results, which you can see in my video above. There wasn’t a single jitter from being hand held, even after over 10 minutes of holding the phone and getting progressively more shaky. The focus, as predicted, was lost a few times, but only a few. Even then it quickly re-acquired focus lock.
I can confidently say as a result that for most people, auto mode is perfectly acceptable.
Of course, there were some shortcomings with auto mode. I observed the following issues and I will make some suggestions on how to improve them:
Stabilisation in this case with my SE2 is completely electronic. This crops in slightly and then the phone will take successive video frames and try and realign them. Each frame then is slightly processed for position and possibly rotation and scale to a degree. All of this will slightly degrade image quality (and make the field of view narrower).
Suggestions: Newer iPhones have optical in addition to electronic stabilisation and this could improve things. You should also look into better ways to hold your phone, such as a hand grip and phone holder, or better still a tripod. Though whether you want to take a full tripod to a display is a personal choice (the bulk of this negates the portability and stealth benefits of using a mobile). If you use a tripod you can then turn stabilisation off completely, resulting in a cleaner and non-cropped image.
The short trails left by the fireworks in this footage suggest to me a fast shutter speed such as 1/100th or similar. This is expected to help ensure smooth stabilisation. This means the phone increases exposure (making the image brighter) by increasing the ISO, given that aperture is fixed. The side effect of higher ISOs is a much noisier image and it’s where small sensor devices including phones and action cameras can suffer. The end result of high ISO is usually murkiness, mushiness and significant loss of detail.
Suggestions: The only way to keep ISO low is to use manual settings, as discussed later in this article.
The footage shown above was filmed in 1080p as I was worried about lack of file space on my phone! However subsequent shooting has shown that 4K is vastly superior, even if you then render your edited video (should you edit afterwards) as 1080p. In other words, 1080p derived from 4K is, in my tests, much better than natively filmed 1080p footage. So switch to 4K where possible.
The footage above is all quite yellowy which suggests a warmer white balance was picked by the camera. I have also observed colours changing even in the same clip. The effect of too warm a white balance setting is mainly that silvers appear gold and blues struggle to show.
Suggestions: You will need to use manual controls to take over and fix the white balance setting. Be aware that even in manual mode, my SE2 struggled to show blues very well even on blue-priority white balance settings, so I believe it’s just a reflection of the sensor. Newer iPhones will hopefully do better.
This is where a reflection of the fireworks comes back into the lens (usually from bouncing back from the main lens protecting glass) and creates and equal and opposite image. Fireworks shooting up then will have a mirror image shooting down in the frame. Ghosting is the main complaint from iPhone users who shoot at night and it’s particularly bad when shooting oncoming headlights or bright lights at night such as from fairgrounds.
Suggestions: This cannot be fixed as its a lens issue. My GoPro and mirrorless cameras do not have this problem and I do not know if it’s also an issue on other makes of phone. It’s certainly an issue for iPhones, even high end ones, as other YouTubers are clearly showing and can ruin serious attempts to film at night if and when a bright light enters the scene. For me this one issue rules the iPhone out as a professional fireworks filming option, until it’s fixed.
Taking manual control using Filmic Pro
For better and certainly more consistent results then we need to take manual control over the video camera and its settings. My iPhone’s default camera app really doesn’t allow much manual control at all so for this we need to turn to a third party app.
There are a few video apps out there (all reviewed in great detail on YouTube so I won’t dwell on that here) and the one I am using is Filmic Pro. This is a paid app. Ironically, I didn’t buy the app initially to shoot fireworks but rather to help shoot overhead desk (unboxing) videos, where setting up a mobile was easier than a heavy mirrorless camera. Filmic Pro’s excellent companion app, Filmic Remote, allows monitoring and control of the phone from another device such as an iPad, making this type of shooting easy.
For fireworks shooting, Filmic Pro allows full control over all settings, plus it has a number of advanced features that can be unlocked for further payment or depending on your phone model, such as higher quality video, custom frame rates and more.
My only two criticisms as a result of using Filmic Pro a lot are: First, the white balance slider is truly awful and trying to get a consistent, exact number like 3500K on the small slider is next to impossible. It needs an option to manually enter a number. Second, even in manual mode, some changes of exposure are happening when you move the view from a light to dark area as an example. I understand this is some inbuilt HDR processing and cannot be turned off – along with the ghosting mentioned above it’s something more professional iPhone filmmakers have been complaining about for a long time.
Note: Since producing this video and feature, Filmic Pro has moved over to a subscription model and is considerably more expensive. As a result I would no longer recommend it simply to film fireworks and you should look at alternatives. There’s a lot more information about Filmic’s change of pricing structure on YouTube (it didn’t go down well) along with reviews of alternatives but it’s beyond the scope of this article to look into these. So I will continue to refer to Filmic Pro in this article and in my video.
My video above contains extensive tests using manual mode in Filmic Pro. I have also summarised the settings above too.
In general, I found the best way to film with Filmic Pro is to lock the white balance and then drag the exposure slider in from the left. You can then tap on the shutter to lock that too which then turns the slider into a very handy exposure dial which you can move up and down to suit as the display unfolds.
This option to change exposure on the fly is important with fireworks. This is because, in general you’ll want to keep the ISO low (cleaner image) but in some parts of the display you will need to increase it. This could be for sections of fine gold glitter or willow effects, or if you have a crowd or scenery in the shot and you want that to show up more. Conversely, very bright sections and busy finales or salute sequences may need the exposure dialled down a bit.
So you should appreciate that with fireworks there is no single setting that works well with all types, colours or brightness of fireworks. If you stick rigidly to one single setting then you will have to accept that some sections of your footage may be underexposed and some will be overexposed.
I found an ISO of 200 was a good place to start. This produced good results with a fountain, some candles and also a cake. Move up to 300 or so for dimmer effects or to make scenery show up.
For shutter speed, personally after much experimentation I prefer 1/25th or 1/50th (for 30P or 60P shooters, use 1/30th or 1/60th). You can of course go a lot faster but even 1/100th to my eyes produced a jumble of dots on a fountain and you need some trails to give an impression of movement. I know 1/25th might seem slow to some people but I like the results and this is of course subjective, your mileage may vary as the saying goes. 1/50th possibly is the best compromise setting. You’ll definitely need 1/50th if shooting in 50p.
After many tests in the video above my preferred white balance is 3500K or maybe slightly warmer (say 4000K). Many people film in daylight white balance or around 5500K and did too for many years, but now find it all a bit too warm. To my eyes, firework footage that preserves blues and purples looks aesthetically better than gold and red tinted footage, but again this is subjective and you should adjust to your own tastes.
Things not covered in these tests
With this video and article intended to be my initial results filming fireworks with an iPhone, there are some areas I have not covered yet and plan to do so in a future video:
Higher frame rates auch as 50p or 60p
Most of my YouTube content is 25p so for me, filming in 50p (which I’d pick over 60p being in a PAL region, as it will mix nicely with 25p) isn’t something I tend to do unless I know in advance that my whole final video will be rendered in 50p. However I have done a few early experiments and found 50p footage to be really, really nice. As expected, it’s very smooth with twice the number of frames per second.
You’ll need at least 1/50th shutter speed (1/60th for 60p) and luckily my experiments above showed 1/50th does work OK. Note: Please disregard the “180 degree shutter rule” when it comes to filming fireworks. Night shooting of pyro (or most night scenes) plays by completely different rules. The 180 degree shutter “rule” is not actually a rule and nothing breaks if you ignore it – the best settings to use are always the ones that work best for your specific needs (the 180 rule is an obsession with quite a few YouTubers!).
Higher frame rates have some overheads including increased file size, increased render times when editing and be warned if you produce content for YouTube and social media that 50p or 60p footage cannot be played by everyone. My previous MacBook Pro couldn’t play 50p footage for example even in 720p.
All of those caveats aside, I do think 50p/60p is the way forwards and once you have seen 50p footage side by side with 25p you can really appreciate how much smoother it is.
The in-built microphone on the iPone is perfectly good at picking up firework sounds but the problem is avoiding wind noise. The only solution really is external audio of some kind. Yes, we then run into the catch 22 similar to with a tripod: If you have to take separate audio gear you negate the portability and convenience of using a phone.
I think a good compromise here will be to use an external microphone that can be protected from wind noise with a dead cat, and have this attached to the phone’s grip that you’re using (say in the cold shoe mount if you have one). I’m currently experimenting with a few options and will report back in a future video.
Prores and high-end video codecs
I’m not overly sold on Prores given that it’s still just a phone – as some YouTubers have said, you can’t polish a turd. Also, preliminary results I’ve seen in comparison videos show little real world difference in normal and Prores sourced phone footage. I would also question whether, once you’re compressing for YouTube anyway, it’s worth the massively increased file sizes.
Initially then, I won’t be exploring Prores as an option but will keep an open mind as I watch more YouTubers experiment with it.
Saturation and vibrance settings
Filmic Pro comes with sliders for saturation and vibrance. I left this on default for my shooting above. I do think all of the video I produced for this article could benefit from a big boost to the colour saturation. However, leaving that to the editing stage has advantages over baking it into the source footage. So for now, I am happy to keep these on default and then edit my colours later to suit.
But if you’re not editing your iPhone footage afterwards I recommend sliding the saturation up a bit.
Wrapping things up
All things considered, the iPhone is a remarkable camera system, more so when you consider the insane level of stabilisation it can do in the dark, even hand held. It’s one of the few consumer camera systems I’d be happy to film in auto focus too, knowing it will quickly re-acquire any lost focus. Move to a tripod and manual settings and it only gets better.
For home firework users who want some footage of their displays, buy a phone holder and grip and give your iPhone in auto mode to an audience member – you’ll get more than adequate results.
It’s also an excellent light-weight and portable option for taking to firework events.
For professional use it’s a little more tricky. I had hoped the results would negate the need to buy a full-blown mirrorless camera and it’s so agonisingly close. What spoils the party is the annoying ghosting (see my video above for examples) which, until fixed, means I could not recommend it unless you can live with the resulting reflections. Which will range from hardly there to glaringly obvious depending on the firework effect. Plus, pro-level users will find the poorer high ISO performance (compared to a mirrorless camera) a deal breaker too.