Firework Photography

01 Aug 2012

With lots of Carnivals and outdoor events happening this Summer, not to mention the Olympics, there have been a lot of firework displays this Summer and plenty more yet to come. 

Here is a tutorial which I hope will help you get some good firework shots.

Swanage Fireworks

Preparation

You will need a cable release and a tripod.

First of all choose a good position to photograph the fireworks from. Find out where they will be launched from, check the direction of the wind and try to find a place where you won't get pushed in front of or nudged.

Next is to try and pick a strong composition which you will be happy with. Of course a little guesswork is involved in predicting how high the fireworks will be in the sky, but if you're shooting with a wide angle zoom, this shouldn't be too hard to approximate.

Set the camera to manual, switch off auto-focus as well as any image stabilisation you may have on your lens.

It's a good idea to set your focus point too before it gets dark.

Shooting

My recent shot of Swanage Carnival Fireworks ended up being a composite of 5 images. The reason I opted for a composite is because the display comprised of a number of consecutive fireworks being launched in one patch of sky. ie. One on top of the other in my frame. Obviously this was not ideal. We really want the frame filled with fireworks.

I shot all my images at 5 seconds ISO400 at f10 using a 21mm lens. I was able to establish a baseline exposure within the first couple of fireworks. I found 5 seconds was just enough to get the full streak of the explosion, but not so much it lost definition and became a mess.) Count as a firework explodes and see how many seconds until it is full open, then set your cameras shutter speed to this and adjust your aperture until you have a correct exposure.

Brighter fireworks will blow out, so either quickly shorten the shutter speed for those or cover the lens with a piece of black card or cloth. 

Another way to do this is to shoot using Bulb mode on your camera and cover and uncover the lens with the card or cloth and keep a count in your head of how many seconds you have exposed for.

I found it best to press the shutter after the fireworks had been launched, but before they had exploded, to avoid the trails from the ground as they were launched as that part burns out and ruins the image easily. Obviously it's a bit hit and miss as you never know what's coming next, but if you keep shooting you'll get enough.

Processing

Photoshop Layer PanelYou may get lucky and have a shot with perfectly placed fireworks filling your frame, in which case you're done, as I was a few years ago when I shot the image at the top of the page.

If not read on...

Import your images into Lightroom, or open them in Bridge and ear mark the key shots. I use the star rating system in Lightroom to assign a star to ones which I think look good. I then process one to get the white balance required and make any adjustments to contrast, saturation etc. I then sync these adjustments to the other images to ensure they are all the same. This will make a blend much easier in the next step.

Select all the images and right click and choose Edit in Photoshop>as layers. Photoshop will then open these images in one step and put them one on top of another in the layers panel.

Starting at the top of the stack of layers change the blending mode to "Lighten". The layers in the red box have all had their layer mode set to "Lighten" The bottom Layer remains set to "Normal".

Now you will see the Lighter parts of the image below revealed. Continue working to the bottom of the stack leaving the bottom most layer as "Normal"

Below shows the progress as each layer is set to lighten, revealing the light parts of the layer beneath.

Progress

Photoshop layer panelAs you can see the final step was to move one of the fireworks to the left to balance my final image. I simply moved one of the layers to the left. Moving up or down would be less successful as the gradient of light to dark in the sky would have become interrupted. I had to make a layer mask of the layer I moved as the lights of the town on the horizon also moved with the firework. A simple layer mask (as seen below) allowed me to remove that section from the frame.

My final step was to flatten this and save it back to Lightroom to make some minor tweaks to highlight recovery and contrast.

2012 Carnival Fireworks in Swanage