How to Photograph and Post Process Fireworks
Shooting fireworks is a lot of fun and it's pretty easy to do if you know how. There's lots of tutorials out there already, but I haven't seen any that go all the way to output so I decided to add some tips along with my picture share.
Before the show
Figure out the best location. If you are going with family, you may not have much choice. If you can, though, think about the show as a photographer rather than just an ooh-ahh-er. Spectators want an unobstructed view; photographers may want interesting foreground. This year, I am going to position myself to get a distinctive local bridge between the fireworks and me so I can include that in the shot. Plain fireworks are pretty but fireworks with a sense of place give your photo a little extra.
Figure out what lens to use. As I said above, if you are right in the main audience, you're going to want to go somewhat wide. I'm not talking fisheye, but 50 on a crop may not be wide enough. When I went with my children to an early show last Saturday, I used my 24 on my fullframe (from the main audience) and that was a bit too wide on most of the shots. For my attempt to include the bridge on the 4th, I will be a few miles from both the bridge and the fireworks and so will likely be zoomed in more. If you scout ahead of time, you can see how wide you need to go to include the desired foreground or at least make a rough guess at how big the fireworks will be from there.
Before it's totally dark, get pictures of people, especially kids with their glow sticks/rings/etc. This is where a video light comes in handy. You can add a little extra light to the face so you don't have to crank the ISO so high and you won't totally blow out the glowing objects like you can if you aren't careful with flash. A snooted flash would work, too, I suppose, but I just find the video light easier for this.
After you get your people photos, get everything set up for the fireworks. Once the show starts, it goes fast. Depending on your city's budget, they may not last long and then your time is up for the year unless you're lucky enough to live in an area like I do where the communities stagger their fireworks.
RAW vs JPG: Even if you normally shoot JPG, I highly recommend shooting RAW for this if you want to have the most flexibility in post processing. If you decide to shoot JPG, anyway, pick a white balance you will be happy with. I can't tell you what this is because I always shoot RAW and use WB in post to suit my vision.
ISO: 100 or 200 is fine. It may be dark out but fireworks are bright and can overexpose quickly. Plus, higher ISOs will add noise. On that note, if your camera has special noise reduction built in for long exposures, turn that off. It'll eat up precious time and you'll miss bursts and it's not really needed for this.
Shutter: Bulb if you can. Ideally you will have a shutter release where you can hold the shutter open as long as you like and close it at will. If you don't, then set it for a few seconds and be prepared to adjust once the show starts and you have a better idea of what's working. Be very careful not to completely blow your whites. You can let parts get overexposed (we'll fix that in post) but don't totally blow them because then they are not recoverable.
Aperture: F5.6-F11 Open wider for brighter fireworks. Try to stay around the sweet spot of your lens. Don't stop down really far; it doesn't help with DOF, the fireworks be dimmer, and they will be softer because of diffraction. I like F8... F8 and be there. ;) (Old joke)
Live view: Off. Watch the sky, not the camera, and peek through your viewfinder if you really need to. You don't want to kill your battery part way through the show. A couple second review time is good, though, as a sanity check.
Focus: Manual but don't panic! You just need to focus on infinity. That's not as deep as it sounds. :) Focusing on infinity basically is setting your lens to focus as far away as it can. If you have a lens with a distance scale, it should have infinity on it. Set it to there and you're done. If you don't have that, then, while it is still light, try to focus on something far away from you and see what way you need to turn it to get things farther away in focus. Then turn it all the way that way.
Why does this work? It's because of how DOF works with things that are far away. Let's say you are shooting with a 50mm lens at F8 and the fireworks are 100 feet away. The DOF runs from 25.5 feet away from you all the way to infinity. (See Online Depth of Field Calculator) Anything beyond about 30 feet (or closer, depending on your lens) might as well be at infinity. With such a huge DOF, focus really isn't critical as long as you aren't on the wrong end of the twist and focusing on the person in front of you. ;)
So, at this point you have your camera on a tripod, setting set, aimed at the part of the sky you expect the fireworks to be, composed properly for foreground if so desired, and have remote in hand. Your other hand should have your oatmeal container. Why? So you can stack your bursts without overexposing other things.
The sky during the show is very dark. Unless you have rude people around you, you should be sitting in relative darkness. No matter how long you hold your shutter open, dark doesn't get much less dark and so a photo of dark will be dark even if it's an hour long exposure. Fireworks are very brief flashes of light in the dark and act like, well, flashes that shoot light to the sensor for only that brief moment. Longer shutter speeds won't make them any brighter (aperture/ISO will do that) but longer shutter speed means you can have more of them on a single frame.
This is all well and good for the actual bursts but there can be other things in your frame that will be affected by longer shutter speeds. Like that distinctive foreground I suggested you try to find. Or even the smoke that starts to get heavy after a while. To keep those from getting over exposed, simply cover your lens in between bursts. It should be a loose cover that won't jar the camera, so a lens cap isn't a good choice. I use an old cardboard oatmeal container that was given to me many years ago by the person who taught me how to photograph fireworks. Bonus: this also works to get rid of the rocket trails if you time it well.
Putting it all together:
A couple other tips:
If you want to show people along with the fireworks, a quick flash burst before you close the shutter will freeze them. Careful, though, because if there is enough ambient light to have them show up during the time your shutter was open, you'll have ghosts. Which can be cool but may not be what you want.
The grand finale and the "fountains" are super duper bright. The fireworks themselves will over-expose in a second. Keep those shutter speeds short (under a second, usually).
The show is over and you've gotten your photos loaded into the computer. At this point, you may consider your photos done and that's perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong with taking a photo-journalistic approach to the show and keeping your images as the camera captured them. Me, I look at the capture as raw materials when it comes to fireworks.
I edit in Lightroom 5, which hasn't changed much since LR4 but LR3 users will have different sliders and the numbers will be way off. You can do edits in any order in LR. This is just the way I do it because it makes the most sense to me visually.
Step by step:
Crop: I crop to what I feel is a pleasing composition. I don't ever print these, so I free crop. If you want to print, keep aspect ratios in mind.
Tone: This is very much to taste and depends on the photo (especially level of smoke wanted) as well as the exposure you start with, so I'm mostly going to give you reasons rather than exact numbers.
The last sliders I play with are Temp & Tint. In normal photos, you use these to adjust your white balance to make the image look correct. In fireworks, these are used to get creative. Do you think that blue firework would be better in red? Or that red one is just crying out for green? Move the sliders around until it "clicks" for you. Unless you are capturing these for a newspaper or giving them to the local fireworks club, no one cares what color they started out. Have fun!
I rarely will do major "structural" changes to an image (and I don't do composites) but I will clone out stray bits that I don't like. Alternately, if it's an image that doesn't feature smoke, I will "black out" bits that I don't like. To make a "blackout brush", move exposure, highlights, and shadows all the the far negative. Set your flow to 100 and feather to 0. Make sure auto mask is not checked. Then paint right over anything you want to disappear. You can also use this to get rid of smoke around the edges but it can be very tricky (and more work than I want to do) to get it right between the streaks. One thing that helps on a black background is to make note of your settings, temporarily slide exposure, shadows, and blacks all the way to the right, and then use the blackout brush on all the outliers that will now be quite bright and visible. Then return your settings to normal.
And, there you have it. My whole procedure from start to finish.
Here are some examples with the final image and then the SOOR. My settings for all of these were F8, ISO 200, and shutters usually 3-5 seconds (I wasn't able to use my lens cover this year. When I do, the exposure time is usually longer, 10 seconds or more. Since I wasn't able to cover, I kept them shorter.). Unless otherwise noted, assume Contrast +15, Whites -100, Clarity +10, Vibrance +20, and Saturation +10.
This one just cried out to me to be red. Also, it wasn't nearly bright enough.
Temp 50,000 | Tint +98 | Exposure +1.03 | Highlights -27 | Shadows -73 | Blacks -51
If you look close, it looks like the star is surrounded by hairy green critters with glowing yellow eyes. Hairy white creatures just wouldn't be the same.
Temp 2000 | Tint -150 | Exposure +.46 | Highlights -14 | Shadows -57 | Blacks -53
White fireworks are blah. Blue snowflakes on a hot June night are so much cooler. (Pun intended.)
Temp 2000 | Tint -1 | Exposure +.46 | Highlights -9 | Shadows 0 (default) | Blacks -24
I hope that helps you make the most of this fireworks season. :) For more of my fireworks images, see my Fireworks Gallery.
Used your tips to photograph fireworks lat night. Got great results made better with your post processing tips. Many thanks
This is great. I just took some firework pic last night and r wondering how the pro made their firework so crisp and clear. Ur tips have clear out my questions
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