Color Bursts (tutorial)

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This is the time of the year for fireworks photography on Saturdays due to National Day rehearsals. Got to location really late and had to resort to a more bystander view. The wind was in our favour and pretty much smokeless. I improvised some of my past experiences for better timings.

A total of 6 shots blended into one final image.

I have received a few PMs from people regarding how I did the shot above. To simplify things for everyone, it is a 3 step process – Setup, Execution and Processing.

Setup
1) Set your camera on tripod.
2) Get a base shot (important to bracket the shots +1,0,-1 EV for post processing)
3) Reframe according to the firing point and estimate height of burst of fireworks. Please note that you need to be really familiar with your tripod to quickly re-adjust framing during the fireworks. You do not want your fireworks to be clipped.
4) Set camera and lens to manual mode.
Lens will be adjusted to infinity.
Camera will be adjusted to f11, iso 100 and bulb mode w/o remote (I am more of a no remote guy so…its your choice)

Just a few things to note regarding the base shot in point (2). It is important to be able to visualise how you want your final shot and the amount of technical work involved in post. The base shot is where all the fireworks will be blended onto. Therefore you need to note how to overlay it properly.

I believe my explanation above for base shot is terrible so I will use my own photo as an example. I had 3 things in mind when I framed my shot – foreground, mid-ground and empty space. For the foreground, I decided to use the bystanders. Then the next layer would be the SG skyline. Finally, in consideration of these 2 layers in the frame, I need to account for an empty space in which the fireworks can be placed onto. In this case, I used the left side as my empty space so that I could blend in the fireworks.

Execution
This is really base on experience and your judgement. With practice, you will notice that your timing will get more accurate. Basically, fireworks are burst of light trails which are made up of different burst and timings. Because of the different burst and timings, you will need to be in bulb mode. There is no hard and fast rule regarding a specific timing for capturing the best burst. Essentially, you want to capture your fireworks without over-exposure and in its maximum burst. I will try my best to put my experience across so that you guys can concentrate on getting the best fireworks burst.
1) You will notice 2 small “blips” of light during the fireworks. One is at the firing point and the other is when the pyrotechnics reaches the sky and is about to burst. These 2 are your cues. I find the the “blips” of light in the sky to be a much accurate cue for the burst. Whereas the firing point “blips” are more of you-better-put-your-hands-and-be-ready cue.
2) The moment you see the “blip” in the sky, press your remote for the shutter to open. Now the key question is…how long do I allow the shutter to be open? You close the shutter when you observe the fireworks has burst at the maximum bloom.

Processing
The real meat to this post where most people are scratching their head and trying to figure out the steps. It is manageable if you can understand the simple concept of mask and layer. Basically in Photoshop, everything is make of layers. The order of the layers affects the visibility which is why I keep saying “Base shot” above. It is the base shot because it is the lowest in hierarchy in the layers column where the rest of the fireworks are stacked on top of it.
1) Choose 3-4 of the fireworks that are nice. For this, you really gotta use your own judgement and decide. Remember that too many will make the overall image messy and few will make it feel empty. My suggestion is about 3 full burst and 2 small ones which was my selection for “Color Burst”.
2) After you have make the necessary adjustments in Camera Raw, click ok. Then duplicate the layers onto your Base shot.

  • Decrease your blacks and you will notice significant loss of smoke
  • Increase your whites and you will notice the burst getting brighter
  • Slight increase in contrast to further decrease the smoke
  • Slight increase in clarity to further sharpen the fireworks
  • Slight increase in vibrance/saturation combination to enhance the colors on the fireworks

3) For all the fireworks, you will have to change the blending mode to Lighten
4) You will notice that with lighten, there will be strays of unwanted light. Use the mask option and a black brush to remove all of these strays
5) Re-arrange the fireworks in realistic manner
6) Ta-da and there you go…your final image is done!

*Please note that the re-framing causes a small problem of slanted buildings so you might need to resolve this little issue via “Lens Correction Tool”.

Hope the above will help all those who are shooting fireworks and I welcome any questions.

Settings: ISO 100, f8, 15s
Equipment – D600 + 17-35mm
Accessories – Sirui N1004
Place – Marina Promontory

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