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.
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.