Shooting fire

I think fire is one of the hardest things to photograph well. The scenes are almost always high contrast, there are hot spots that drive your camera sensor crazy, and freezing the action with a flash is a bad option, because you really don't want the flash taking away from the light of the fire.

So what to do?

Isa "Glittergirl" Isaacs was holding her Temple of Poi Fire Dancing Expo in Union Square on Saturday evening, so there was going to be a whole new set of challenges. Isa is an amazing person and an incredible teacher, and if you'd like to learn how to fire dance yourself, you can't do better than learning from her.I first met Isa about seven years ago, in a back street near the Chronicle building in a not-so-fashionable part of the South of Market. She was leading one of her fire classes, and the chance meeting eventually resulted in a story. Her school has done really well since then, and her free Union Square event was part of San Francisco's dance week festivities.

But like I said, photographing fire is really tricky. You don't want to set your camera on automatic exposure, because the light varies too dramatically between the hot bright light of the fireballs and the much darker ambient light. The camera is not very smart, and it's going to be fooled. Many point-and-shoots and DSLRs have multiple scene modes, but I don't think they have one for fire festivals yet.

If you try an aperture-priority setting, you'll get either a well-exposed flame with a completely dark background, or you'll get an overall scene that is much too bright. The same is true with shutter-priority. The camera will adjust for the flame or the scene, but not both.

(the camera's auto settings will often give you a result that's too dark.)

So you you have only option left, manual exposure. I know that's going to intimidate at least some of you (and me!), but in this case you'll likely only have to make the settings once, and then you're good to go. I find the right manual setting by taking a bunch of shots, and then picking the exposure that looks the best -- bright flame, but with sufficient ambient light. And I do the test shots with the highest ISO setting possible (in my case, 1600) and the widest aperture, so I can get as much shutter speed as possible. The performers are going to be moving, and I want the best chance of freezing the motion and getting a nice sharp picture.When I look at the test shots, I don't mind if some of the highlights in the flames are blown out, because that's the way flames are supposed to look -- extremely bright. And I try to let in at least some ambient light, so the performers don't look like they are standing in total darkness.

We were lucky on this night, because the show was beginning before it was totally dark, so we'd have some ambient light to work with. (Oh yes, I'm sure Isa had this in mind when she set the timing for her show. Uh huh.)
I was using a 135mm, 2.0 fixed-length lens, and I could afford to expose for about 1/200th or 1/320th of a second at 1600 ISO to get the look I wanted.
Compositionally, I looked for the moments when the dancers held the flame close to their faces, so their features would be lit up by the light of the fire. The flames are cool, but it's still all about the people.

There are lots more photographs from lots of other people over on Flickr.


  1. wow! thanks for the lesson. your photos came out great! i can't wait to try this out. do you use a similar technique for firework shows?

  2. awesome shots john. although you've got the technique down-and i much appreciate you sharing-- more importantly-- you capture the essence of the people and the atmosphere. you have a gift for that. thank you for sharing

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  5. good tutorial!

    except in my case, i shoot fire generally with A-mode (aperture priority), with some negative exposure adjustment. this works quite well with my camera.

    my series from this event is here: http://www.loupiote.com/sets/72157617456095095.shtml.

  6. super, super, super to see you doing this kind of a blog, john! interesting, informative and easy to understand, perfect!!! i ihear your voice so clearly.

    you rock!!!

  7. Great post John. It's great when people who are authors and photographers blog because everything fits together so beautifully!

    I use a bit of an old school method for fireworks.

    Camera on tripod, positioned in a nice spot (over the river, cityscape, whatever), exposure set to bulb. Using the cable release I open the shutter just as I see the trail of the firework going up in the air.

    Once it's finished exploding I cover the lens with a small piece of card/thick black cloth (being careful not to move the camera!). I remove the card when I see the next trail, and the next. A combined exposure of around 15 seconds of uncovered lens at around f11, 200 ISO usually works really well. Generally only three fireworks blast per image works well.

    I like this technique because it also renders some of the ambient scene really nicely as well instead of just giving black surrounds.

    I'm sure there are heaps of easier ways that I'd love to hear, but this one's always worked for me!

  8. thanks for your generous comment and helpful information, Jen!

  9. Thank you for the wonderful information! I went to a fire jam last night and I got some really nice fire trails because I just assumed that a longer exposure was my best shot shooting in the dark, but none of the performers are in focus. Your pictures turned out fantastic and I will definitely have to give your techniques a try next month.

  10. I have a shoot coming up in the near future and your information has been very very helpful. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us newbies :)

  11. The only problem with the fast shutter speed is that you don't capture the beautiful geometry the dancers create with their flames. I much prefer a slower shutter speed.

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