IllumiNations: Filling the Sky with Fireworks in Black & White

By Adam Hansen on May 9th, 2012   |    Posted in:  Processing   |    4 Comments

I posted a photo today on my flickr stream of IllumiNations in Black & White. On flickr I had mentioned that I was not happy with the original color version of the shot. Not that the fireworks were completely blown out or anything, just something about it did not click with me. I had decided to just see how it would look as black and white and was surprised at how much I liked it. I then did some fine tuning of the settings to lighten up the crowd and increase the contrast so that the bursts of the fireworks really stood out against the black sky.

Original photo out of the camera

Here is the original version before any processing. You can see that the shot itself is not the problem. I really like the composition (this is one of my favorite locations to view IllumiNations at Epcot) and the number of bursts captured make it a really interesting shot to view. There is so much going on between the fireworks coming from the side, off the water and exploding above the World Showcase Lagoon.

Deciding to convert to Black & White

I then processed this photo the same way I would normally process a fireworks photo. I try to control the highlights as best I can in post (it is obviously better to do this when you are photographing the fireworks but that is not always possible). So I use the highlights slider in Lightroom along with the clarity, blacks and vibrance sliders. I usually process a fireworks photo using those four sliders and getting results I am happy with. For this shot though, I just did not like the way things came out. I tried a number of different processing methods and never came up with something I thought worked well. It was disappointing though because I felt that the fireworks that I captured were excellent and I really liked the added human element of the crowd at the bottom. With that in mind, I decided to see how things would look if I converted to black and white.

Processing the Black & White Photo

Above you can see how things looked when I first converted to black and white. I do all of my processing in Adobe Lightroom but these steps will also work if you use Adobe Camera RAW that comes with Photoshop. You can convert your photo to black and white by just clicking on that button in either software. I don’t like the results from that though and feel that I get better results and more flexibility by lowering the saturation slider to 0 and adjusting other sliders as needed. You can see where these two settings are located in Lightroom in the photo on the left.

Once I have lowered the saturation, I then try to get the contrast set by using the Blacks and Whites sliders in Lightroom. Note that these sliders changed names in the most recent Lightroom 4 update. For this photo, I wanted the contrast to be very high. The fireworks should be as close to a pure white as possible with the background a pure black. The one area I need to be sure to not turn into a pure black or white was the smoke around the water level bursts.  I felt the smoke added a great element and had to make sure not to adjust the sliders too much where it gets lost. So if you come across a situation like that with your photo, make sure to adjust the sliders just enough to get your contrast correct but still keeping the details you want in the photo.

Here you can see the photo after I have finished converting to Black and White and adjusting the contrast:

Bringing the crowd into the shot

The final part of the processing is to bring the crowd back into the shot. I really liked the human element that the crowd on the bottom brought to the shot and wanted to make sure that it was not only saved but made even better. The work I did with the contrast in the previous step unfortunately made it difficult to see the crowd in the photo. To fix that (and make it better) I used the healing brush tool in Lightroom. Before I could do that though, there was one thing bugging me that I needed to fix.

If you look to the right of the globe, you will see that someone was standing and moving when the photo was taken, so there is a big blurry spot there. I brought the photo into Photoshop and used the cloning tool to remove that spot. Essentially, you are painting over it with another part of the photo (in this case, the crowd). I then brought the photo back into Lightroom to work with the healing brush.

If you are not familiar with the healing brush, it allows you to adjust a specific part of a photo by setting the sliders (exposure, contrast, saturation, clarity, etc) and painting on the photo where you want the adjustments made. This way you can lower the exposure of just a single part of an image or raise the clarity of just the ground. In this case, I increased the exposure and also the clarity just a bit to bring the crowd back into the shot. I painted over that area and adjusted the exposure until I felt the crowd stood out the way I wanted.

I had one final step in mind that had to be done in Photoshop. I exported the photo to Photoshop and resized the canvas height so that I could include the black bars at the top and bottom which in my opinion added to the overall presentation of the photo. I also did some final sharpening and minor adjustments with the curves tool to fine tune the contrast.

Here is the final photo after all the processing steps I made above. I am very happy with the results and honestly surprised at how well the Black and White worked for a fireworks photo. I still think that the bursts were perfect for this type of shot and of course the crowed added a great extra element to it.

Black & White Fireworks Photo of IllumiNations at Disney


This photo was taken using a Nikon D90 camera along with the Sigma 10-20mm f/4 – 5.6 lens. Since this was a fireworks photo that ended up being 13 seconds, I needed to keep the camera steady so I used my Velbon Luxi L II Tripod which is perfect for a trip to a Disney Park. I also used Adobe Lightroom 4 and Photoshop for the processing.

If you have any fireworks photos that you processed in Black & White, we would love to see them. Make sure to head over to our Disney Photography Blog Forum and post in our daily photo thread!

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  1. Charles   |   May 9, 2012

    Wow, this is the coolest shot of Illuminations I think I have seen. I love all the crazy colors you guys capture with your extra long exposures, but this is so different and works so well! Thanks for sharing the steps you took. I am still a beginner when it comes to any fancy processing but I plan on trying this with one of my shots later tonight.

  2. Jennifer Rodriguez   |   May 9, 2012

    That picture works on so many levels in B&W! I think my favorite element is the crowd. The way you highlighted them so they stand out is amazing. Thank you SO MUCH for going over your workflow for processing that image. A newbie like me really appreciated it!

  3. Jim   |   May 9, 2012

    Can I put in a request for a future article? More firework photos in black & white! I never would have thought to do this or even thought it would look good, but this is an epic shot! I bet you could turn some of the other great fireworks photos you guys have into something just as cool.

    What I like is that you did not just make it black and white and then stop, you adjusted the contrast in a way that really makes it unique and stand out. One of my favorite photos I have seen on the site, great job!!!!

  4. Del Benson   |   May 10, 2012

    WOW! Amazing shot! That is really cool. I really like the tone. I appreciate it so much. The fireworks is awesome but i love the crowd is my favorite. Look at that! that’s WOW!



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