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Amazing multiple fireworks photos...with a little help from Photoshop
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Amazing multiple fireworks photos...with a little help from Photoshop

When the rockets stop, the magic begins


Once you know how to get the best possible fireworks shots, you can work some magic on your computer.

I love to shoot the fireworks displays each 4th of July and I have learned by experience how to get the kind of images I like. But I have found that if I shoot the grand finale, with many bursts going off in rapid succession, I get a jumbled mess with too much going on, overexposure where several bursts overlap, and too much smoke.

Instead, I use a focal length that will let me shoot individual bursts or just a few bursts together, early in the show before too much smoke is in the air, and build my own composites of these individual bursts. The result is a very clean image, with the bursts arranged just the way I want them.

Here are a few basic rules:

•    I bring a small flashlight so I can make camera settings in the dark.
•    I try to find a shooting spot upwind so the smoke is blowing away from my line of sight to the bursts, or at least to the side.
•    I put the camera on a sturdy tripod and weight it down with my camera bag, which hangs on a hook at the bottom of the center column.
•    I set the camera to vertical orientation.
•    I use a shutter release cable to minimize camera movement.
•    I set Bulb mode so the shutter will stay open as long as I hold down the button on the release cable. A burst usually lasts 2 to 4 seconds until the fragments have trailed off.
•    I don’t use mirror lockup, so I can open the shutter instantly when I see a burst go off. At 2-4 second exposures it is not really necessary because the mirror slap vibration time is a short fraction of the exposure time and occurs when the dense center of the burst is happening, where it is not so noticeable.
•    I set the zoom setting of the lens on the first burst so it is wide enough to catch most of them.  I may tweak that a bit during the first few bursts.
•    I focus on the first burst and switch the lens to manual focus.
•    If I change the zoom setting I redo the focus.
•    If there is any significant light behind me I cover the viewfinder, as it won’t be blocked by my eye. I have precomposed the image and won’t need to be looking through the viewfinder. Stray light coming in it will throw off the exposure.
•    I turn long exposure noise reduction off, because it doubles the write time to the card and hampers my ability to shoot subsequent bursts in rapid succession.
•    I use manual exposure, and I have found ISO 100 and f/13 works best for me. This is something of a compromise because the bursts are of variable brightness and all are brighter at the beginning and taper off at the end.

As I see a rocket streak up I am ready on the shutter release. On some bursts I will open the shutter while the rocket is going up, to capture its streak, and on some I will wait until a split second after the burst has exploded, to give me some variety.

To the digital darkroom!

Back in my digital darkroom I sort out the images I like best and the fun begins. I choose two I want to composite and open both in Photoshop. I used Adobe Photoshop CS4 for these effects but Photoshop CS6 will work just as well. You may be able to use a different image editor, but you’ll need one that allows layer blending modes, explained below. This capability has been in Photoshop as far back as I can remember.

Here are two I chose to start with. I first cloned out any imperfections or undesired elements in each image and set the Levels or Curves as needed to give a black background. This is one case where I would simplify things and flatten any adjustment layers on each image before proceeding. When I have made a composite of several bursts, some of which may have clipped adjustment layers that I will choose to make after they are added to the layer stack, I will have enough layers to keep track of.

Once I have two images I like, both open side by side, I choose the Move tool, click in one of the images (not on the title bar) and drag and drop into the other image. While dragging I hold the Shift key to cause the second layer to align with the base image. I now have two pixel layers in the Layers panel, which you can see in the figure below, and the top one is hiding the bottom one. (The palettes in previous versions of Photoshop are now called panels in CS4.)

After the second image has been added to the working image, you can close it.

If you don’t hold the Shift key the two layers will not be aligned and some of the bottom one may be showing. With the Move tool still active you can use it to reposition the top layer. To better see where the top layer is, you can turn off the visibility of the bottom (Background) layer. The top layer’s position doesn’t really matter at this point as long as its burst is visible in the image frame.

Now here is the magic step. In the Layers panel make sure the top layer is the active one (highlighted in blue) and go to the blending mode choices, shown circled in red in the figure below:

Click on the dropdown arrow to the right of the word Normal to see the blending choices. Step through the lighten modes, shown circled in the figure below, and choose the one you like best. Zoom in to 100% to see how they differ in what happens to the details. You will need to move the top layer burst so it overlaps the bottom one to get an accurate idea of what is happening. If they don’t overlap, all of these blending modes will look the same. Screen or Linear Dodge will give the most realistic effect. If you don’t want the bursts to overlap, you can move the top one around at any time, with the Move tool. (Make sure its layer is the active one.)

Here is the result of choosing Screen mode:


Now you can add more bursts in the same way, and reposition each with the Move tool.



If necessary to accommodate your added bursts, you can enlarge the image by adding black canvas. If you do so, you need to be sure your original background is truly black so it matches the added canvas. Monitors don’t distinguish near-black tones well so you need to use a little trickery by lightening the blacks in the whole image. Make a temporary Levels layer on top of all the other layers and make the image very bright by pulling the right hand slider far to the left.  If the blacks in your original background are not black enough it will show here.  You can then make another Levels or Curves layer just below the temporary one you just made and use it to darken the blacks by pulling the left hand slider to the right a little bit. This is a case where you do want to block up some of the darks, so it is OK to pull it beyond the start of the histogram curve.

Here is my final image:

The only hard part of this is deciding where to place the bursts. Of course, when you are “finished” you will save your master file with all the layers intact, so that next week or next year you can rearrange the bursts if you want to. I have a love/hate relationship with the fact that the paint never dries, but love wins out.

Diane Miller is a widely exhibited freelance photographer who lives north of San Francisco in the Wine Country and specializes in fine-art nature photography. Her work, which can be found on her web site, has been published and exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest. Many of her images are represented for stock by Monsoon Images and Photolibrary.


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