It's that time of year again! You know, that time when you frantically type "How to photograph fireworks" into Google before heading out of your house into the cold December night to line up next to hundreds of other photographers, all with the end goal of being the first to post an epic fireworks photo on social media. Well, fear not! We are here to help you not only nail those firework exposures, but also show you how to blend them seamlessly in Photoshop.
Now, just like you, I too typed that all too common search term in Google a couple of years ago. Low and behold, one of the first results I found was a simple, yet effective tutorial by my buddy Toby Harriman, owner of Planet Unicorn. I am going to take some of the lessons from his tutorial and expand on them here.
You put on the wool cap and the puffy down jacket to head out of your house, and just as you make it to the car, you realize you forgot your tripod inside. Well, don't forget your tripod, because you can't take photos of fireworks without one.
Tripod in hand, you get to the location of your dreams, and after elbowing a couple other photographers, secure your place by expanding those tripod legs. The first thing you want to do is capture your background photo of the city skyline (or whatever scene is in front of you). This photo, without fireworks, will be the one that takes up most of the final composite. You want to take your time and make sure you really nail it. This will be a normal nighttime long-exposure of the scene in front of you, so it will take some trial and error to get it right. Most likely your aperture will be anywhere from f/11 to f/18 and your shutter speed around 30 seconds to one minute. Keep that ISO low to prevent noise, and turn on your long-exposure reduction. Once you lock in your composition and get the photo, don't move your tripod. You need to capture all of the firework photos in the identical composition, so tell that drunk guy next to you to stop kicking your tripod.
You got your long exposure of the scene nailed down and now it's time to wait for the show. While you are waiting, make sure to turn your long-exposure reduction back to off. You need to photograph the fireworks in quick succession, and leaving this setting on will prevent you from getting lots of good shots.
Also while you are waiting, get your remote release out if you have one. This is a valuable piece of equipment to have, but not necessary. If you do have it, you can put your camera on bulb mode and simply hit the shutter when a firework is launched, then release the shutter after the firework has exploded. The remote release will help prevent camera shake that occurs when you hit the shutter on the camera. If you don't have one, then you can either shoot on bulb mode with your finger holding down the shutter, or set your camera on a two second timer with a set shutter speed, and fire off one photo after another. The disadvantage of this way is that you need to set the shutter speed in advance of the show, since you won't be manually controlling it in bulb mode.
Generally, Harriman suggests trying to get your aperture and ISO set so you can effectively take well-exposed photos of the fireworks from a quarter of a second up to two seconds. Luckily, firework shows usually last about 15 minutes, and the end is always the best so you have a minute or two of the show to dial in your settings. But Toby provides a pretty good starting point for testing of f/5 to f/11 and ISO 400. While the fireworks are exploding and you are triggering your shutter, remember to not move your tripod or camera!
So now the show is over, and you head to your car to wait in an insane amount of traffic to get home. Once you get home, how do you use all the photos you captured to create an exciting firework photo you will be proud to show off? Harriman walks us through his Photoshop workflow.
All photographs used with permission from Toby Harriman.
You can view the original tutorial on Planet Unicorn.