Daily Photo – Austin Fireworks Redux

The Daily Photo series focuses on the two or three key creative choices, in terms of composition and processing, that go into creating an image.  Specific technical details about the shot have been left out — you won’t hear me talking about tone curve adjustments and whatnot unless it was a key component of the end result.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to shoot fireworks this past year, and with each attempt I’ve tried to improve on the overall concept.  Conveniently, the city of Austin sets them off a few times a year on Town Lake, and the launch point is about two blocks from my 12th floor balcony.

This image is a massive composite of several images.  I’ve included a couple samples of originals, but not all of them.

  • Shutter:  8 seconds (fireworks and background HDR); 30 seconds (bridge light trails)
  • Aperture:  f/22 (fireworks and bridge light trails);  f/22 – f/4 (HDR background)
  • ISO:  200 (fireworks and background HDR);  50 (bridge light trails)
  • Camera:  Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III
  • Lens:  Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM

Original Fireworks Example:

Original HDR Example:

Original Light Trails Example:

Composition and Processing

  • The first time I shot fireworks I was happy with the fireworks themselves, but the background felt a little lackluster.  I could try reversing the angle, shooting from the bridge or across the river, but the Austin skyline is a bit ugly at the moment with several new buildings under construction.  I decided to try and balance the fireworks with another light effect:  the light trails from traffic crossing the 1st street bridge.  That meant shrinking the size of the fireworks to accomodate the larger scene, which may or may not have been worth it.
  • The first component of the shot was the fireworks themselves.  I chose two images and processed them individually like the last time. Blending the two together didn’t work because they overlapped and it looked like a mess.  So I took one of them and moved it adjacent to the main burst.  This had the nice side effect of increasing the overall size of the fireworks themselves.
  • The second component was the background, which was a simple HDR composite using five frames and served as the basis for most of the image (the fireworks were painted into this scene in their original position).
  • The final component was a blend of about a dozen shots of vehicle light trails on the bridge, using the “difference” blending operation in Photoshop.  There weren’t any cars on the bridge during the fireworks themselves– I simply left the camera on the tripod until the streets were re-opened and rattled off about 100 30 second exposures once cars started moving through.  The only problem with my plan was that the bridge lighting is actually brighter than the tail lights of most of the cars, and with traffic infrequent and moving quickly across the bridge, I had very little material to work with.  Hence the blending of so many images in the hopes of getting something interesting.  The end result was painted into the HDR image.
  • Ultimately, this image is close to what I wanted for the shot, but fails in a few places:
    • The background is still weak and somwewhat distracting.  The light trails themselves look interesting and do balance the fireworks a little, but they might have helped frame the scene more if I’d been able to capture them on Cesar Chavez and San Antonio too (the streets running to the right of the building in the middle as well as along the water).  Not to mention the road the runs in front of the Long Center across the river.
    • The empty water treatment plant in the lower right is too distracting and should probably be removed or at least de-emphasized in the image.
    • The fireworks are simply too small for the scene.  As interesting as it is to capture this from high up, there may be better angles down on the street that can achieve the same effect (such as the main intersection on the left side of the image, shooting back down Cesar Chavez).
  • I didn’t shoot the New Years fireworks, but I may give this another go on the 4th this year.  One thing that did occur to me was that the three components that go into the shot don’t actually have to be shot on the same night.  In fact, it would be better to shoot the traffic trails during rush hour.  And the fireworks, if kept against a black background, don’t even need to be aligned perfectly since there are no other visual cues to identify where they are supposed to be in the scene.

January 03 2009 07:40 pm | Photography

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