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Shooting fireworks

Last weekend, there were fireworks down at Surfers Paradise beach as part of the Surfers Paradise Festival. In recent years, there’s been at least 2 or 3 fireworks events on the beach. I’ve photographed some of these from a distance, but not up close, so I made a point to shoot these ones from the beach.

Here are some tips for shooting fireworks.

Logistical tips:

  • scout the location during the day (if possible) – this will help you identify where fireworks barges are, so you can plan your composition and shooting location
  • on the day, plan for traffic – fireworks are a magnet for people, so expect traffic jams & limited parking, and then lots of people
  • look for event staff – they can help you by providing info such as confirming start times and viewing areas

General photo tips:

  • use a tripod and a cable-release to trip the shutter
  • if using a digital camera, use one that has good noise control (i.e. doesn’t force you to wait while it applies noise reduction – you may miss some good shots in this situation)
  • if you’re close to the action, use the widest lens you have (e.g. 21mm) as bursts tend to be very wide
  • shoot at base ISO (usually around 100)
  • shoot at small aperture due to burst brightness – the closer you are, the smaller the aperture you’ll need (generally I use F8 to F16, with F11 a good starting point)
  • use ‘Bulb’ shutter mode – this will allow you to control the exposure duration to coincide with the bursts. You can also try using a black object (like a card or lens cap) to limit exposure while the shutter remains open
  • if using digital, frequently view the LCD screen to check image composition and burst are not appearing overexposed (though in reality, exposure can be hard to judge) – if so, reduce the aperture or shutter open time
  • Resist the urge to keep the shutter open too long – you could get too many bursts in your shot making it look ‘busy’ or over-exposed
  • Avoid shots of fireworks only – try to get something else into the frame e.g. people or buildings to make the scene more compositionally interesting.

Despite the above, I’ve personally found that getting a good fireworks shot is always a bit hit or miss for the following reasons:

  • not knowing precisely where the bursts will appear, thus making it hard to compose a good scene initially
  • the unpredictability of the bursts (brightness, size, positioning, timing & duration)
  • if buildings or other objects are in the scene, it can be hard to make the exposure look naturally ‘balanced’ due to lighting extremes (scene vs bursts) and sensor dynamic range limitation

The last point I’ll explore more in this post.

I think there are 2 ways to produce a fireworks image (assuming you’re shooting something with the fireworks):

  1. single exposure: from an exposure point of view, the fireworks happen to balance sufficiently well with the rest of the scene (or you can recover imbalances with Photoshop work)
  2. multiple exposures: shoot the scene with no fireworks, then shoot the same scene with fireworks, and blend together using photoshop. In this case, it’s ideal to not move your camera between shots. Usually 2 shots are enough, but it’s of course possible to combine several fireworks shots with a background. This technique provides the opportunity to use different exposure times to capture the different scenes.

I always aim to create shots using method 1, but also I usually try to get at least one no-fireworks shot as ‘insurance’, so I might be able to create at least one usable fireworks image. In this case, it’s important to make sure the end result still looks ‘faithful’ i.e. believeable to the viewer.

So here’s my ‘insurance’ shot using method 2 – I will explain step-by-step how this was achieved.

At the end of this post, some ‘method 1′ images will be shown.

OK here we go.. I wont go into minute detail since I’ll assume you have basic Photoshop knowledge (i.e. you know what layers are).

Step 1: Combine layers

The following image shows a summary. Two layers are made in Photoshop. The scene without fireworks is placed at the bottom layer position, and the scene containing the fireworks is placed at the upper layer position. The former image was shot at about 30s exposure, and the latter about 2s – both were shot at the same aperture (F16) using a 21mm lens.

For clarity, the layer order is shown as below:

However this alone is not enough – we need to blend the 2 layers together. This is done by changing the layer blend mode for the firework layer from “Normal” to “Lighten” as summarised below. Make sure you select the “firework” layer first before changing the blend mode.

What lighten does is examines all the pixels on the firework layer, and compares these to pixels on the underlying “No firework bg” layer. If the pixel on the “firework” layer is darker than the corresponding one on the “No firework bg” layer, then that pixel is replaced by the one on the “No firework bg” layer. The end result is what we’re looking for: a natural-looking blend of the two layers. However there are some ‘ghost’ like artefacts that also come along, as shown below (with red arrows). For example: the missing head; transparent body (showing ocean through a person); and, camera flash). These need to be repaired.

Step 2: Clean ups

To fix these artefacts, we copy the affected portion as a new layer. Select the “firework” layer, and select a marquee area around the ghost portion, as shown below:

Then eiher right-click the selection (to get the pop-up menu) and select ‘Layer via Copy’ as shown below (or press Ctrl-J as a keyboard shortcut).

This will produce a new layer (as shown below) set to the default blending mode of Normal (which is what we need). You’ll see this introduces another artefact (shown by the red arrow) but this is necessary – we are introducing solid features here to wipe out the ghosting artefacts from before.

We need to remove the unwanted parts of the new layer. This is done by erasing. Below, I’ve elected to create a layer mask (drag the layer onto the icon) and paint out or erase (using the Brush tool) the unwanted areas (using Black as the paint colour on the mask), as shown below. Don’t forget to click on the mask thumbnail for the appropriate layer prior to painting with black to erase.

Fine detail erasing:

The end result of erasing the necessary portions of the new layer is shown below:

I’ve expanded the above screen shot to show in the top-left that there are some more ghosts to deal with. So the above process should be repeated for that other area also (not shown here). A keen eye is needed to catch all these kind of issues.

Another thing that can be done to improve an image is (if possible) remove any smoke (which tends to detract from the image). Select the layer with the smoke (“firework” layer, as shown by the red arrow below) and use the Eraser tool to erase the smoke. Fortunately in this case, the smoke is isolated and easy to remove.

Thereafter, merge all the layers together to create the final composited image. This step is optional.

Step 3: Final improvements

Finally, it may be necessary to boost other elements like shadow detail in the foreground. Methods for this vary due to personal preference. You can elect to duplicate the merged layer, and apply a boost to shadows as shown below. This will apply the effect to the whole scene, which may not be desired.

By duplicating the layer to apply the boost, you can then subsequently apply a layer mask to localise the shadow adjustment to just the areas needed (e.g. the foreground). As shown below, I’ve painted out (erased) the area above the horizon and beach line. This will allow the underlying layer (called “merged” that did not have any shadow boosting applied) to show through. The net result is the foreground only appears to have the shadow boost.

That’s it. Then you’ll end up with the result shown at the start of the post.

FWIW, here are some “method 1″ results. These are all single scene shots with some Photoshop work.

All these were shot with the Leica M9 & Zeiss 21mm Biogon lens.

Thanks for reading.

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