We all love to get out to try and capture the spectacle of fireworks during the Fourth of July holiday. Sometimes we do better than others. And, sometimes we’ve done better than we thought. Let’s talk about some post-processing ideas. The Chicago skyline you see above was made the same basic time as the fireworks. Unfortunately, the fireworks show was way to the right of the city. I rectified that error and moved the fireworks over the skyline to be more in line with my vision.

Initial post-production

It’s a great idea to take all your images through a quick run in your software whether it is Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or other choice. My post-production workflow system uses Adobe Bridge, Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) and Photoshop. Most of these techniques work the same but may have slightly different names or control positions for the functions.

Five image composite. See details below.

Adobe Bridge is used for my first run through images is to cull the mistimed, overexposed or poorly composed photos that I know I never wish to see again. I also use keyboard shortcuts to rate images I absolutely know are winners with a four and those I’m sure will shine with some extra work as a three. Hold down the Cmd (Mac) or Ctrl (PC) key and then the numbers 1-5 to apply the rating. If you have multiple images that will receive the same rating highlight them and that rating will be applied to all selected images. Using Cmd (Mac) or Ctrl (PC) and 0 (zero) will reset the choice of any selected images to no rating.

photoshop palette with fireworks bob coates image
Layers Palette in Photoshop with Adjustment Layers. Five individual images were combined.

Next I grab the rated images rated three and four and open in ACR. I select all and hit the images with a combination of settings.

Start with an adjustment to the overall exposure. Lower highlights (being careful not to totally lose highlights), lower protect shadows, add a little black, a little white and lower the smoke. Add a little Vibrance without overdoing it and work with adding or subtracting some Saturation.

Then I take a quick run and tweak individual images for their best, adding contrast or taking away Black or White.  Season to taste. To speed up the process if I see a number of images that need the same tweak I’ll select them and make the changes en masse. Once an overall adjustment has been made, make one more quick run-through of individual tweaking.

Now what?

If you made an image such as this one below you are pretty good to go. Great exposure and color with no blown out areas. This rocks!

fireworks processing bob coates photo
Single frame capture of fireworks with ACR settings. f/11 one sec ISO 200

You can also control the final image by blending together multiple captures into a single image. The best way is to move into Photoshop and use the power of Layers and Blend Modes. Select all the bursts which you would like to work in Bridge and Menu Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers. The files will be ready to go without having to open each individually.

To go further most fireworks images will be better when you have an interesting foreground rather than just the bursts against a blank sky. Water, a skyline and interesting tree or piece of architecture can add a ton of interest. In my area one of the fireworks displays occurs over an empty parking lot and another over a macadam storage site. This means it is time get creative in post-production. One caveat — I never promote these images as anything other than my imagination at work!


HDR image of Cliff Castle Casino with plenty of dark sky

Search through your files for images with dark skies above an interesting nighttime subject. See the example above. Add pre-processed files to the dark skies. Maneuver to taste with the Blend Mode set to Screen or Lighten. The black portions of the fireworks images will disappear leaving only the burst of color. Add a mask to remove anything that you would rather not see by painting on the Mask with black.

Casino with fireworks image composited using the same technique as for the Chicago skyline.

You might want to bookmark this page plus the one on photographing fireworks to have on hand before you go out to photograph next Independence Day celebration.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob