by Caleb Goellner

How to Compose and Edit Fireworks Photos for a Grand Finale

In the summer months, on any given evening around the globe, you can find colorful bursts of light across the skies. Summer time means fireworks, and fireworks make spectacular photo subjects.

I see a lot of tips for shooting fireworks each year, but what do you do with those great shots once the smoke clears? Create an image worthy of the grand finale by compositing multiple images in Adobe Photoshop.

Combining multiple photos of fireworks isn't complex. Through the use of blend modes, Photoshop does a lot of the work for you. Seamlessly blending those photos into one grand image does however take a little finesse. A pressure sensitive pen can be quite helpful in the process. Using a series of layer masks, you can hide or reveal portions of each photo/layer to make your image appear as one. Varying the opacity of your brush tool by pressing the pen softly or harder to the tablet can make the job a cinch.

Check out the video below to learn how to combine your photos of fireworks into an image of a grand finale.

And if you are gearing up to shoot a fireworks display, keep these tips in your back pocket:

  • Check the Weather

Get an idea of what the weather will be. Of course getting rained out stinks, but more importantly, look at the wind and cloud cover. Try to position yourself so that any wind is at your back. This way, when the residual smoke from the blasts fill the sky, it drifts away from you, not blocking the next burst. If it’s moderately cloudy, these bursts can make for cool effects.

  • Essential Gear

A camera of course, plus a wide-angle lens. A zoom is ideal depending on how far away you are from the show. I shoot with a DSLR and carry 24-70 and 70-200 zoom lenses with me at all times. A sturdy tripod is an absolute must, as you’ll be making long exposures. 5-10 seconds on average. A cable release is also very helpful. Aside from the camera gear, I advise that you dress appropriately for the event as well! (See weather.)

  • Stake your Claim

Get to the show early. Before nightfall is best. This will ensure that you get a good spot, free from trees and other obstructions. Its also easier to get set up in the light. Dial your gear into place so that all you have to worry about when the show starts is tripping the shutter.

  • Camera Settings
    • Turn off any settings pertaining to long exposure noise reduction
    • Set your camera to manual mode
    • To keep an entire burst in focus, select a wide aperture. Start at f11 and adjust as needed
    • Fireworks take a while to expose. At least the big bursts do. Experiment with 5-10 second exposures to start. Check the back of your camera for results. Try shorter or longer shutter speeds from there. A cable release set to bulb mode to open and close the shutter manually each time for longer exposures can be a great help. Note: The longer the exposure, the longer the light trails from the burst
    • Set camera to a low ISO. ISO 100-400 ideally (the lower, the better)
    • Set White Balance to Daylight or Cloudy. Adjust in post if need be, but these settings have served me well
    • Shoot Raw for maximum flexibility in post
    • Turn off autofocus on your lens and set it manually to infinity
    • When mounted on a tripod, turn off vibration reduction or image stabilization on your lens
  • General Advice

Fireworks alone are cool, but don’t forget the foreground. Family and friends make the experience special. Shoot some wide shots and take it all in. Adjust your aperture and thus depth of field, focusing on different subjects.

Less camera related, bring along some bug repellant. Many fireworks displays are viewed from parks and fields. And a lot of them are in warm, humid climates. Nothing spoils a night out faster than getting bit up!

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