Disney Photography Spots – Illuminations in Canada

By Katie Marino on April 29th, 2011   |    Posted in:  Disney Photo Tips   |    8 Comments
Disney World EPCOT Fireworks

Illuminations at EPCOT as seen from the Canadian Pavilion

Illuminations: Reflections of Earth – who doesn’t love this show?  As the lights extinguish and the drums start beating faster, the first streak of light launches into the air and – chaos explodes over the lagoon!

For a while now, I had wondered what Illuminations would look like from Canada.  It seemed risky but, on my last trip, I was finally ready to give it a try.  I arrived in Canada about 30 minutes prior to the show and scouted out the area.  (I know, in my last post I recommended scouting out an area early in the day.  I often ignore my own advice).  I thought about standing at the top of the stairs and framing the totem poles but after walking around a bit, I decided that I really wanted to include the buildings of the Canada pavilion in the frame.  I love these buildings and have often walked around them, wishing that the doors would open and I could explore inside.  I felt that these buildings would make a very interesting foreground for the shot.

The night I chose was not an extra-magic hours night so just prior to Illuminations, this area was fairly empty.  Occasionally, a person or two would walk up the stairs but in general, I had this area to myself.  It was very peaceful.  Before the show started, I bracketed exposures for the scene.  I was not sure if the ambient lighting would decrease when the show started and, if so, I assumed I would need additional exposures for post production.  In fact, most of the lamps did extinguish for the show- it was quite dark back there in the Great White North!

As the show started, I watched with excited anticipation and was happy when I saw that the bursts over the lagoon filled the center of my frame, in between the buildings.  I was so excited!  I had guessed correctly and had chosen a really fun composition.  For once, I did not need to move or adjust my tripod; I just started shooting.   The only downside of the location was that it was difficult to hear the musical score over the hum of the waterfall behind me.  However, I was familiar enough with the show that this did not hinder my timing.

I shot the show at ISO 100, f/20.  I stopped down because I wanted to capture as many bursts as possible, knowing that some of the bursts would be obstructed by the buildings.  Another option to increase my exposure time would have been to use an ND filter but I chose not to do so in this instance because I am not that experienced with them and I felt that, in this new location, I should stick with what I already knew how to do.  My exposure times with these settings were about 10-15 seconds, depending on the brightness of the bursts.  When the finale came, I shortened this time to 1-2 seconds.   After the show, I shot a few more foreground brackets and then packed up, patting myself on the back for a location well chosen.

When it was time to process this image, I found that my favorite burst frame was one of the finale because it was higher and therefore had more of an impact among the buildings.  However, my exposure time for this burst was short (1 second), rendering the the foreground that I had chosen so carefully completely in shadows.  Luckily, I had taken foreground exposures before the show to use as a solution.

The finale burst, straight out of the camera

My first task was to create the foreground.  Whenever possible, I like to do this with a single RAW file, opening up the shadows and recovering the highlights.  However, in this instance, I wasn’t getting the result I wanted so I decided to create an HDR image.  I selected several of my bracketed exposures and ran them through Photomatix.  Once again, I had some difficulty.  I realized I had made an error in my bracketing and I was having difficulty generating a pleasing image.  Someone more skilled at HDR than I am may have been able to make it work but instead, I turned to a third tactic.  I think this task illustrates an important point- there are many different ways to process an image and when you run into a road block, try something different and you may find another way to get the result you are looking for.   My solution here was to chose the best middle exposure I had for the scene and open it in Camera RAW.  There, I created three separate TIFF files- one each with the exposure at 0, +2 and -2.  I then ran these three files through Photomatix.  I chose the “Exposure Fusion” setting, rather than “Generate HDR” because this seems to generate more realistic looking images, which was my goal.  My third (somewhat roundabout) attempt worked well.  I liked the image so I saved it and opened it in Photoshop to make some further adjustments.

The foreground image generated using “Exposure Fusion” in Photomatix

Once I opened the image in Photoshop, I realized that I still had some uncontrolled highlights so I made two adjustments.  First, I duplicated the layer and used the highlight/shadow tool on this layer.  This still did control the highlights as much as I wanted so I tried a second approach.  I went back to my set of bracketed images and chose one with well controlled highlights.  I then opened this exposure, layered it on top of my image and masked in the improved highlights.

Next, I added some contrast to the scene using a Curves Layer as well as Nix Software’s  Procontrast and Tonal Contrast filters.  I also used an additional Curves layer to cool the scene off a little.  At this point, I was happy with my foreground so I saved my image.

The foreground image after adjustments in Photoshop

With the foreground ready, I opened the firework frame and adjusted it in Camera RAW.  Even at 1 second, the bursts were slightly overexposed so I lowered the exposure a little and added some recovery.  I also added a moderate amount of fill light to bring out the edges of the bursts.  I brought out the colors with a lot of vibrance and a little bit of saturation and then added a small amount of clarity to the image.

The finale burst, adjusted in Adobe Camera RAW

Now that the burst frame was adjusted, I opened this image in Photoshop and brought it into my foreground image as a new layer.  I then used a layer mask to mask the burst into my foreground.  Finally, I sharpened the image and I was done!

Disney World EPCOT Fireworks

The final image

Admittedly, I spent a lot of time post-processing this image.  Most of the time was dedicated to creating the foreground.  While this is a lot of time to spend on one image, once I invested this time, I could easily open another burst frame, layer it into my foreground and copy the layer mask that I had already created onto this new layer.  Then, very quickly, I have a second, new image.

Of course, as much as I am a fan of saving time, I also like to mix things up a bit.  I decided that in some of the frames, I really like the warm lighting the bursts added to the buildings so I also edited a frame using a single exposure to achieve a different look.  That’s the beauty of post-processing- there is a world of possibilities!


  1. Dana   |   Apr 29, 2011

    Beautiful job! And standing back there is probably a heck of a lot more peaceful than fighting the crowds up against the lagoon!

  2. Larry White   |   Apr 29, 2011

    Awesome work and write up Katie!

  3. Scott Smith   |   Apr 29, 2011

    Amazing amazing work!!! It’s great to see some fresh vantage points of Illuminations.

  4. Christian Lambert   |   Apr 29, 2011

    Awesome work!!!!

  5. Michael Summers   |   May 7, 2011

    Excellent articles Katie! You’ve inspired me to find some different locations to shoot from on future trips.

    I also have a suggestion to make it easier to combine the background image and the fireworks image. Instead of using a layer mask, if you place the fireworks image on the layer below the background image in Photoshop, you can then select the layer containing the background image and change it from “normal” to “lighten”. This will allow the fireworks to show through the black sky in the background image without needing to make a mask.

  6. Michelle Schaefer   |   Aug 12, 2011

    Loved this article! You explained in great depth what is involved to getting to this end result & I hugely appreciate that. I didn’t realize how much work is involved so its encouraging for us ‘newbies’ to know that you don’t just get this shot out of the camera. And that even if you have shots out of the camera that aren’t great, there’s still hope for them! Thanks!

  7. Joanie Eddis-Koch   |   Aug 23, 2011

    Thanks for the inspirational idea and Photoshop tutorial. I envy your PS skills and I hope to one day acquire the knowledge that is necessary to process my images on this level.

    I’d like to ask how you acquired the knowledge in PS.

    I have taken a 4 session mini course at my local community college but it was insanely fast to the point of being almost useless for beginners. I’m starting to get the idea that the way to go for PS knowledge is to do the online tutorials. I can proceed at my own pace and practice to my hearts content.

    So thanks again and if you would, please tell us about how you acquired your Photoshop or other post processing knowledge.

    • Adam Hansen   |   Aug 23, 2011

      Not sure if Katie will see this post right away and respond, but I wanted to offer two thoughts.

      First, if you are looking for online training there are two options I would consider. The first is http://www.lynda.com which has online courses for pretty much and software subject you can think of. I have used them in the past and found them helpful.

      The second option would be Kelby Trianing http://www.kelbytraining.com which also offers online courses. Scott Kelby is one of the best when it comes to Photoshop and his team at NAPP have created an excellent series of training videos. I am not sure if they are too advanced though for a beginner, so you may want to check with Lynda.com first.

      Also, when we relaunch we will be putting more emphasis on training and including more processing tutorials that will take you step-by-step.



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