It’s that time of year again. Tonight in the U.S., millions of people will flock to a neighborhood street corner, park or Independence Day Festival to stare at the sky. And after a few beautiful moments, many will attempt to snap photos of fireworks with their smartphones. 

Watching fireworks displays can be an exciting, awe-inspiring experience. Flipping through photos of them later on is usually anything but. This time last year, I remember trying to capture the spectacle of light exploding above me and my friends, only to scroll through an Instagram feed of terrible, blurry images the day after. 

Don’t let the same thing happen to you. Before you take off for the evening’s festivities, take a look at these tips for capturing and sharing your photos (and videos!) on Instagram.

Pro tip: No matter which advice you follow, always make sure your flash is turned off. Camera LED flashes yield terrible night-time shots anyway, but if you’re in a crowd, all you’ll see is the back of people’s heads—brightly lit and set against a dark sky with a speckle of light that may or may not be a firework. 

Get As Close As Possible

One of the big reasons fireworks photos tend to be a total failure is because spectators sit far away from the subject. But the closer you can (safely) get, the better the pictures will be. The lights will be closer and brighter, and with a more direct line of sight, you’ll have fewer pesky phones getting in the way. 

Don’t try to take photos during the first few fireworks. Wait a moment to see where in the sky the fireworks explode, then angle your phone at the spot where most of the action appears.

Brace your smartphone with both arms to stabilize the picture.

Put Your Body Into It

Last year, my fireworks photos were awful, partly because I, like everyone else, raised my hands high in the air before taking the pictures.

Instead, try the old trick teachers tell budding photographers and videographers: Use your body to stabilize the shots. 

Essentially, the idea is to use your arms and torso as a tripod. Just hold the device in your right hand and bring your right elbow in against your abdomen (nestling it in there), so that your right hand is in front of your face. Bring your left arm tight against your body, and grasp your right wrist. Southpaws out there can do the same, but with the opposite arms.

Use Focus Tools

Similar to the stock iPhone or Android camera app, Instagram has a tool that lets you change the focus, and lightness or darkness of a photo, with a simple tap. A circle will appear where you touched the screen, and automatically adjust based on the area you chose. Try tapping a few different spots to get the best exposure. 

See Also: Capture A Moment: The Best Photo And Video Apps

You could also use the built-in camera app on your phone, and import the photos from your camera roll or gallery into Instagram. Android users can even lock the exposure by holding down the capture button. 

Before you take any photos, turn on HDR (or high dynamic range) to balance the luminosity and retain the best parts of the picture. For iPhones, you can do this by tapping the top of your display. To take multiple photos at once, hold down the capture button; you’ll see how many photos you’ve taken appear at the bottom of your screen. On Android phones, you can turn on HDR and multi-shot options on under “settings.” 

Use The New Instagram Filters To Amp Up The Light Show

Thanks to the new filter and editing tools Instagram rolled out last month, you can take even more creative control of your photos.

Tap on the wrench icon to adjust the brightness, contrast, warmth, highlights, shadows and more on each photo. And if you don’t want the filter to overtake your image—which happens to me more than I’d like to admit—you can now double-tap on the filter and lower the strength of it.

Don’t Forget The IRL Experience

#tbt to the most spectacular fireworks show at #stadiumoffire last year #2013 #fireworks #fourth #july

A video posted by Chewbecca (@beckward) on

You might get the urge to scroll through your Instagram feed and see what all your friends are up to tonight in real life, but chances are good they’re posting fireworks photos, just like you are.

After you’ve got a nice shot or two, put the device back in your pocket and enjoy the show. It’s amazing how immersive and stunning fireworks displays are now, and trapping your view in that smartphone screen is no way to celebrate independence.

Because let’s be honest, no matter how good your photos are, they’ll never be as good as seeing the real thing. 

Images by Richard on Flickr.