Astrophotography Fireworks – My Crazy Epic Experiment

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INTRODUCTION
FIRE IN THE SKY

9 August, the time has come for NDP fireworks again. That is the National Day Parade, or Singapore’s Independence Day. So everyone prepare, flock in groups, enjoy some beer and shoot some fireworks together.

Yeah, fireworks are cool. But it gets kind of stale when everyone does the same thing. By that, I mean we get a ton of same looking fireworks pictures every year. I don’t mean in a bad way that we should stop having the same fireworks photos altogether.

It is fun to get together, shoot firework, and enjoy some food. But what I simply mean is that, we need to find more ways to “up the fun”… or just call it “upsized photography fun”.

Which is what brought me to this crazy idea. A crazy idea that I shall share in this guide.

 

 

CONFESSION
AN HONEST DISCLOSURE

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TABLE OF CONTENTS


Section A
The crazy idea

Section B
The gear

Section C
First try

Section D
Second try

Section E
Editing

Section F
Conclusion

 

 

SECTION A
MY CRAZY IDEA

Ever since plain fireworks have gone a little “old”, I did some searching on the Internet for more stuff to do. A crazy idea hit me as I browsed through Justin Ng’s astrophotography in Singapore. So what happens if we combine two of the most epic things in photography together – astrophotography and fireworks?

Will it be twice the fun and epic, or will it be twice the disaster? A little bit more fun and epic than usual? Challenge accepted.

So I set out on my quest to combine astrophotography and fireworks at the first National Day Parade Rehearsal.

 

SECTION B
THE GEAR

So I packed my bag full of my “usual stuff”, and prepare for the epic experiment.

For those who are interested, here are the things that I used.

 

  • Camera : Nikon D800E
  • Lens : Nikon 16-35mm f/4
  • Tripod : A good old reliable [Manfrotto]
  • Remote trigger : To keep hands off the camera, and reduce camera shake. [Nikon] [Canon] [Sony]
  • [Bubble spirit level] : A cheap bubble in liquid thing to prevent slanted horizons.
  • [Cree flashlight] : No more searching in the dark.
  • A copy of [Photoshop], of course.

 

SECTION C
THE FIRST TRY

This year, the NDP venue has moved back to the National Stadium, which is actually run by the private sector now, so much for “national” stadium?

Trivial aside, I made a mistake choosing a rather bad “main stream” location low along the shores of the stadium… Not knowing where to expect the fireworks, nor the exposure settings.

 

I tried to pull off an ETTR (exposed to the right) photo. But as expected, Singapore is way too light polluted. I only managed a 4 sec exposure at ISO 3200 f/4, and that, extracted a few specks of stars and sensor dust off the skies.

Nikon D800E, 16-35mm f4 @ f11 / 4s / ISO3200

Still, it resulted in a rather interesting final image when blended in Photoshop.

Fireworks, with specks of sensor dust behind.

A good first try. Now I know the problems with this shot, and what to do next :

  • Bad location, need somewhere with better composition.
  • Exposure time too short for astrophotography… why did I even use 4 sec!?
  • The ideal exposure time should be according to the 500 rule (500 / focal length = recommended shutter speed), at a high enough ISO and aperture.
  • Too much light pollution off the ground.
  • To use GND filters next time. Yes, GND filters at night.

 

SECTION D
THE SECOND TRY

The following week, I took a different jab to crack this “astrophotography fireworks”. Instead of going low “on ground”, I figured to get onto higher grounds. That is where I can get a better vantage point and perhaps beat the street lights.

 

I camped up at a local “HDB flat” (public apartment), high up on the top floor. Since the fireworks will not start until 8.30pm, I started with “blue hour landscape” first. Here are my “blue hour base shot”, “fireworks shot”, and “combined stack” for the day:

Nikon D800E + 24-70mm @ 24mm / f11 / ISO 200 / 25s
Nikon D800E + 24-70mm @ 24mm / f3.5 / ISO 200 / 0.5s

The show ended and I got a shot that I was pretty satisfied with. Everyone else started to pack their bags and move off, but I stayed. It was a clear day, and I knew it was the perfect chance to catch some stars action.

A little while later, smoke from the fireworks cleared, and I had all the clear sky to do my magic. I switched to a portrait composition (to capture more skies),  slapped on my GND (with the dark end on the stadium), and took my first ETTR (exposed to the right) shot.

Nikon D800E + 24-70mm f2.8 @ f4 / 30s / ISO1000

Next, another “base shot” with my “usual” landscape exposure.

Nikon D800E + 24-70mm f2.8 @ f10 / 25s / ISO200

 

SECTION E
EDITING

The last part of the experiment is of course, editing. Back at home, I pushed the RAW ETTR file to the extreme with Photoshop Camera Raw, and some stars peeked out.

 

(Photoshop Camera RAW should fire up when you open a RAW file, if not, Filter -> Camera Raw Filter)

That was still not quite enough, so HDR magic to the rescue (Image -> Adjustment -> HDR Toning).

The stars finally reveal their secrets to me… but a little tad bit too “overcooked with HDR” and suffered vignetting.

Well, I had these flaws “fixed” with more Photoshop magic.

So finally.

A last push with blending magic, I stacked 1 processed ETTR image, 1 base photo, and 3 fireworks photos together. That managed to bring all the elements I wanted together – landscape,  astrophotography and fireworks.

 

SECTION E
THE CONCLUSION

I know, it’s not perfect. I have not applied “strict 500 rule” either. But it was a fun experiment, and I deem it to be “successful”. So what do you guys think? Pretty sweet? Technology is definitely getting interesting.

I am sure that the purists will disagree with a lot of the methods used to achieve fireworks astrography. But I shall stand my ground that without all these technology, it would have been impossible.

Even if some people will not agree to these methods as photography, I do hope you will still accept this as art.  As for you dear readers, what will you create next?

I hope this has given you some good inspirations. Go shoot, have fun, and share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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2 Thoughts to “Astrophotography Fireworks – My Crazy Epic Experiment”

  1. Ken

    Hi. thanks a lot for the video. I am not proficient at photoshop but would like give a shot at editing my photo. However, I am lost at the part where u created a layer for “white Balance adjustments”. I believe you might have used a shortcut. Could you please show how Layer 2 was created? Thank you!

    1. W.S. Toh

      Thanks for pointing out. The white balance is done in camera raw, which should automatically fire up when you open a raw file in Photoshop. If not, you can manually use Filter -> Camera Raw FIlter.

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