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How to Photograph Fire

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     
I donít know about you, but one of the things I really look forward to in the winter months is sitting around a bonfire with friends, toasting marshmallows, keeping warm, and getting some awesome photos!

Last year a couple of friends of mine had decided to burn off all the loose tree litter on their big property, so we all brought our cameras and tripods along and decided to make a go of it. I can remember how interesting it was that weíd all chosen different angles and details, which all made for very unique and amazing shots.

Iím going to share with you some tips that I learnt from that night, as well as some other fun ideas for photographing flames.

Safety first
I canít stress enough how important it is to have a safety plan in place, no matter how experienced you are.

Read this checklist before you even begin planning a fire shoot:

Do you have a well ventilated area to work in?
Is your work area clear of fire hazards and combustibles? I recommend working over sand, grass (without leaf litter), bricks, cement or gravel.
Do you have either a fire extinguisher, hose or buckets of water with you?
Shoot from a distance. Donít let you or your equipment get too close to the flames, and particularly anything that may spark.
Wear tight fitting clothing as opposed to loose, drapey clothing. Depending on your fire of choice, you may also want to wear safety goggles and gloves.
Do this at your own risk!

Once youíve got all your precautions in place, youíre ready for the fun stuff.

More than likely youíre going to need a tripod or a steady base to put your camera on, particularly if youíre shooting at night. I would also recommend using a zoom lens or a macro zoom lens. 100mm is excellent. You want to try and put some distance between you and the fire, not only for safety but to help isolate your subject.

The flames will obviously show up best on a dark background. For this reason itís best to be shooting outdoors at night. But if you are shooting in a lit area or during the day, you may want to place a backdrop of black card or cloth to strengthen the contrast.

Capturing the action
Thereís several different ways that you can approach this shoot, but itís a good idea to ask yourself what effect you want to capture, then work backwards.
Using a fast shutter speed will give you more of the split second details. For instance, the moment a match is lit or the spray from a sparkler or power tool.

ďFastĒ may be a little broad in terms of settings, but for most action shots youíll want to be at 1/250th or above. You may find that you need to go as high as 1/1000th or more, and thatís ok, just remember that the faster your shutter, the more youíll have to compensate for the lack of light by using a smaller aperture number or a higher ISO. Luckily the flames are a light source, so they will help to add ambient light to a scene.

A macro lens with a long focal length is excellent for capturing those small details, like the sparkler above or the lighter below. Notice how the details are sharp and the light particles twinkle.

Slowing things down
Using a slow shutter (one that falls below 1/50th second or as much as a few seconds worth) will have its own unique effects. The extra-long exposure will follow the path of spitting flames and sparks until they burn out, creating squiggles and fountain effects like in the photos below.

Take care with unnecessarily long exposures, as they may cause unwanted lens flaring and highlight blow out. If your fire lacks any detail at all it may lose effectiveness.

If your shot includes a human element, remember that they are likely to blur out of your shot with lots of movement in a long exposure. Try to keep them sharp if you can.

Get experimentalÖ
Whilst still maintaining the safety rules mentioned earlier. Hereís a couple of neat ideas you can try with little or no budget.

Double up on your lights. Add some background bokeh or expose for the stars on a dark night while your campfire is burning. I would recommend an exposure of at least 20Ē with a med-high aperture number for this effect.

Try adding smokebombs to your background for a funky psychedelic vibe. Alternatively you might capture a coloured flare preparing to go off.
Flame colourants are also available at some camping shops (at BCF for only $3.99) or search an auction site such as Ebay or Amazon.

Think outside the box. Where else can you see flames and sparks besides campfires? Think of power tools, knife sharpening blocks, lanterns, fire baton twirling and fire dancing to name a few.

Document or video the process of an object burning; a toy figurine or a pile of matches perhaps.

Just make sure youíre always maintaining a safe distance and wearing the appropriate safety gear.

Share your fire photography with us on the Photoh Facebook page here.

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