Did You Whiff It on Fireworks Photos? AI Can Help, but Should It?

Did You Whiff It on Fireworks Photos? AI Can Help, but Should It?

I set up in my usual spot for fireworks photos this year, but with a bit of a lighter kit than normal, a small mirrorless camera, and a kit lens. With the advent of Photoshop's Generative Fill tool, perhaps I didn't need to even that.

Some years I get lucky and capture just the right moment at just the right settings, with a decent foreground and the perfect amount of fireworks streaking across the sky in the perfect way. Other years, I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time and I get skies filled with smoke or, worse, nothing usable at all. In those cases, I can sometimes salvage the day by taking some artistic license and compositing several fireworks photos together. This year, I did both of those things and added a third method: Generating fireworks using Adobe Photoshop's new AI-based tool, Generative Fill. For your consideration, take a look at these three takes on my fireworks photos this year:

One of these photos is untouched from the camera, another is a composite, and a third utilizes AI-generated fireworks. Can you tell which one?
While on the surface the photos look similar, there's something very different going on in each of these photos taken across from Station Yards in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. One of the photos in the collage was taken right from the camera, meaning that the fireworks in the photo actually existed as you see them, and aside from a light touch on the toning and color of the photo, and the crop to make it fit the box, nothing was added or removed.

Another one of the photos is a composite of several actual fireworks from the scene. The moment as it's composed didn't actually exist, but rather combined many elements to make one photo. And finally, the third photo used elements created from thin air in Adobe Photoshop.

Can you guess which photo is which?

I'll reveal the answers at the end of the article, but I'm going to put a few more words in between now and then so that you have some space to examine the photos.

Technique Versus Time

The amount of time used to create these images varied wildly. Of course, getting the image right in camera is the fastest way to do things, and if I was so lucky every time to get it right, this is always the way, for me, to go. Authenticity above else, though I suppose that's my old-school photojournalism values talking.

However, when making art, compositing isn't a bad idea either. But to do this required advance planning. I had to make sure that my camera was carefully placed on my tripod and that over the course of many exposures, I didn't move the camera at all. To ensure that I had enough variety to capture the fireworks for the purposes of blending later, I set my camera to manual, dialed in exposure at ISO 100, f/5.6, and a shutter speed of 3.2 seconds so that I could get a few streaks in the sky. Changing any of these settings would make things harder to blend later. I set up the interval timer to 99 photos and just let it go like that. In Photoshop, I selected the fireworks bursts I wanted to put together and then loaded them into layers and adjusted the blend modes to make things work, cleaning up some overlaps or artifacts after with the healing brush.

It was a painstaking process that took about 30 minutes or so of photo selection and editing, not to mention the care and time required to shoot the images to make up the composite.

While not as quick as getting it right in camera, what I did for the photo that used AI-generated fireworks was to load up a photo of the scene with a sky devoid of fireworks. I then used the selection tool and used the Generative Fill box to type in "Add fireworks." It gave me three choices, I chose one of them and that was, literally, it. About 2 minutes from start to finish.

And the crazy part, I posted the photos to my social media channels to see if my photographer friends could tell the difference, and the answers were all across the board. The AI and composited photos were often mistaken for the genuine article.

That said, there's something about using AI to add fireworks to this photo that left me a little uneasy. It just didn't feel right, and I while I can, as a photojournalist, place my finger exactly on why that is (it's simply not real), as an artist, I don't know what's wrong or right anymore. Do you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

(The answers: Photo A is the composited photo using actual fireworks. Photo B is the unedited photo. Photo C uses AI-generated fireworks)

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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