I hope you had a chance to read my previous article, “Eight Tips for Better Fireworks Photos” before going out to make your fireworks images and found that helpful. If so, you should have some good shots to work with here. If not, these techniques will still work for you if you have some other good fireworks photos. Either way, let’s see if I can teach you how to do the basic editing on your fireworks images. Then, how to creatively composite your shots and take the “wow factor” up another notch.
You shot in Raw, yes?
I realize that beginning photographers may be making their images with their camera set to save only the .jpg file, perhaps not having the editing tools or having learned to edit a Raw file. While that’s not a deal-breaker, you will find doing so causes the camera to do much of the editing itself, using the camera’s built-in .jpg algorithm to “cook” the final image for you. Perhaps while you are still a novice image editor, (cook), editing raw files can seem intimidating, and you may feel the camera is a better cook than you are.
The trouble is, with something like your fireworks photos, you will want as much latitude for creative editing as possible as well as much file information as the camera originally captured. Letting the camera create a .jpg image lets it make the creative decisions and also throws away information you might have needed.
You will still be able to use the steps outlined here to edit a .jpg file. Just understand things might not work as well. One final plug for shooting Raw files before moving on – Almost all pros do, and that’s the level of work you want to create, right? ‘Nuff said.
This effect is what I call the “boom-zoom-bloom.” You’ll have to read Part One of this series if you missed how to create it.
The workflow described here assumes you will be using the editing programs I use for working with my images; Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. Other editing programs may work equally well such as Photoshop Elements or another favorite of mine, Corel Paintshop Pro. Use what you have and know; just understand the steps here are using the Adobe programs. I will also sometimes use plug-in filters such as those in the Nik suite, Topaz Labs or Aurora.
Basic editing of a fireworks photo with Lightroom
This is my workflow with an image in Lightroom. Much of the work simply involves moving each adjustment slider up and down to see what you like. Playing is encouraged.
White Balance – You shot in Raw, right? Good, because if so, you can take the white balance wherever you like. Play with the Temperature and Tint sliders and get the colors you like. Because fireworks have no “correct” color your viewer expects, you can pretty much adjust white balance however you like. Although, if you’ve included foreground objects, you may want to use those as a reference in determining what is realistic.
Basic Controls – Play with the Exposure, Contrast, and other sliders to bring the image to your liking. If your highlights are a little bright, (but still not blown out), you can bring them back with the Highlights slider. You might also want to bring down the Blacks if the sky needs darkening
Adjust colors with the HSL/Color sliders. You can play with the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance sliders to tweak colors to your liking. Don’t forget to try the Targeted Adjustment Tool to pick and adjust specific colors in your image.
Dehaze – The Dehaze tool could be your friend and help reduce smoke in the shot if it became a problem.
Clarity and Texture – These controls can give your fireworks images extra sharpness and pop. Also, try sliding these controls toward the left for different looks.
Vibrance and Saturation – With standard photography, these two are typically used conservatively, particularly Saturation which is a bit of a sledgehammer. With firework images, however, often you are going for “pow,” so go ahead and play… it’s your shot. Oversaturation will blow out details. Watch each histogram RGB channel. A histogram off the right edge means you’ve oversaturated that color.
Detail – Some sharpening can be good. The two best tools in this group for fireworks images are the Masking Tool and Noise Reduction/Luminance. Sharpen your image as desired. Then, hold down the Alt key, (Option on Mac), and drag the Masking slider to the right. What appears white will be sharpened, what is black will not. The idea to allow the fireworks to be sharpened, but not the dark sky. As for Noise Reduction, if you shot at a low ISO you probably won’t need much. Use as little as needed here.
Consider saving settings as a Preset. If you’ve used the sliders to get your image just right, you might want to apply the same settings to some of your other fireworks photos. Saving the settings as a preset will allow you to apply the same look with a single click.
I mentioned using plugins as options in your editing. The sky really is the limit here. Here are a few I have and sometimes find useful with fireworks photos:
Nik – Color Efex Pro, Viveza
Topaz Labs – Adjust, Denoise, (probably others too, I just I don’t have them).
Aurora HDR – You can work with a single image here not needing multiple shots as with traditional HDR work and can get some interesting looks.
Compositing for drama
Sometimes the best fireworks photo is a composite of several photos. You can layer multiple images and create your own grand finale. You can also put fireworks over places where they weren’t, but to your thinking should have been.
The image of the Boise (Idaho) Depot I used in the previous article, (and repeated above), is a composite.
They do have fireworks shows over this iconic landmark in our city; I’ve just never been there for a show. I did, however, have nice nighttime images of the depot and also fireworks photos from another time and place. With compositing, I created the image I wished I could have captured live but wasn’t there for. What can I say, creative license, right?
So, you have a great fireworks photo. You have a great night shot of a landmark or scene where you’d have liked to have captured a fireworks show. Here’s how you make those come together.
Time for layers
If you only edit with Lightroom, this will be the end of the road for you. Lightroom doesn’t do layers and they are a must for this technique. Photoshop does layers, as does Photoshop Elements, Corel Paintshop Pro, and probably a few other editing programs. Layers capabilities are a must for compositing. So, your editing tool of choice must have them.
Compositing images is a pretty advanced technique in some cases. However, because the background of your fireworks photo is likely to be black or very dark, things become much easier. Learning compositing using fireworks images can be a great way to begin learning about layers, masks, and compositing in general.
Open your fireworks image in Photoshop (or your editing program of choice). You can open Photoshop first and then open the image or send it from Lightroom – (Photo/Edit In/Edit in Adobe Photoshop)
How to send an image from Lightroom to Photoshop for editing. You can also send multiple images as layers in Photoshop, useful when doing the “Grand Finale” composites described later in this article.
Open your other location photo, also in Photoshop. You will have the fireworks photo and the scene photo each on separate tabs at this point. Just a note when selecting the scene photo: Select one that has a logical view, angle, and lighting that it will seem consistent with having fireworks in the shot. Obviously, a daytime image or an image without much sky is just going to look weird.
Go to the image of the fireworks. Crop it to include just the fireworks section you want if you didn’t do this in Lightroom first. Then Select All (Ctrl-A, Cmd-A on a Mac), Copy (Ctrl/Cmd-C)
Go to the other tab with the Scene and hit Ctrl/Cmd-V for Paste. The firework image will be placed as a layer on top of the scene image.
With the fireworks layer selected, select the Screen blending mode. The dark parts of the sky will become transparent and the fireworks will be superimposed over the underlying Scene image.
Use the Screen blending mode and the black in the fireworks photo will become transparent showing the underlying image.
You will need to place and size the fireworks where you want them over the Scene shot. Use Free Transform for that. With the fireworks layer still the one selected, Ctrl/Cmd-T. Then hold down Shift and drag from a corner handle to resize while maintaining the aspect ratio of the fireworks image. Click, hold and drag in the middle of the shot to move the overlying fireworks where you like. Don’t worry about some of the fireworks perhaps appearing in front of things. You’ll handle that in the next step.
The fireworks moved and sized to put them where desired. Note: leaving a little overlap will add depth and make the composite look more realistic. You’ll clean-up in the next step.
To touch up areas where the fireworks might overlap an area they should be behind, (note the fireworks overlapping the tower in my shot and the roof at the bottom), you will create a Layer Mask. Click the icon that looks like a rectangle with the dark circle in the center A mask will be added to your fireworks layer.
With Black selected as your foreground color and the mask selected, use the brush tool to paint out areas where the fireworks overlap the foreground. You want the fireworks to look like they are behind any foreground objects.
You may find areas in the fireworks layer weren’t black enough that the Screen blending mode eliminated them. This might work for you – With the fireworks layer selected, (not the mask, the layer itself), open the Camera Raw Filter (Ctrl-Shift-A). Just the fireworks layer will appear in Camera Raw. Take the Blacks slider down (left) to see if you can darken the problem areas. Also, try the Shadows and Exposure sliders, but pay attention to how the fireworks are affected. When you click OK, you will be returned to the Photoshop main window. See if the problem is gone. If not, use the brush on the mask as you did in step 8 to clean up any remaining areas.
This grand finale was captured in one 6-second shot and is not a composite.
The Grand Finale
The most exciting part of a fireworks show is when they shoot off a flurry of fireworks in rapid-fire fashion. It can also be one of the harder parts of the show to photograph. Sometimes the intensity of so many fireworks bursting in the air can result in a blown-out, overexposed mess with the settings used for most of the show not right now.
What to do? How about creating your own finale with the compositing technique we just explored but this time, layering several fireworks images to build-up your finale shot.
When things really got crazy during the grand finale, the same 6-seconds was too much and the image was blown out. Look at the histogram. There’s no recovering highlights when they are pushed off the right side of the histogram. Way too overexposed!
Use the same steps as with the composite image we just covered. Stack up several layers of fireworks shots each on its own Photoshop layer. Then turn on the Screen blending mode on all layers but the bottom one. Use the technique as before, blending and masking as necessary.
Here’s what that might look like.
Position and clean each layer with a mask as before where necessary. Voila! Your own grand finale.
Fun even when the smoke clears
For most spectators, the fun of a fireworks show is over when the last boom is heard, and the smoke clears. As a photographer with editing skills, however, you can continue to create all kinds of exciting images with the fireworks shots you captured. Using the editing and compositing techniques here will not only help you produce some great fireworks images but grow your editing skills in general.
Now, go have a “blast.”
Feel free to share your fireworks images with us in the comments below.
Photography isn't just a hobby, it's an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the '70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4x5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I've pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here - on 500px and on instagram.
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