fire photography part II: technique (non-flash portraiture)

Here’s how I go about non-flash fire portraiture; your mileage may vary greatly. Photographers have lots of different styles; I personally try to balance crisp fire shapes with a focus on candid, expressive portraiture and motion. This is all junk I’ve just figured out by shooting often enough, and is by no means an exhaustive guide; I’d love to hear about your tricks and findings too.

For context, I’ve been practicing photography in general since 2008, and I started spinning and photographing fire at the beginning of 2016.

Part 1 of this post, on equipment, is here.
You can find my photo portfolio here and my videography here.

debugging fire photography

At the most recent fire jam, I took 533 shots and posted 27 of them: 5% yield. By comparison, my yield tends to be 20–35% in daylight conditions. Fire is annoying because you have to find the tiny intersection of good technical conditions and good poses by people who are trying not to drop rapidly spinning flaming objects while also not scrunching up their faces in concentration.

Frustrating factors that you just have to live with and learn to work around when photographing fire:

Subject lighting

You are trying to take photos in the dead of night and the only source of illumination is a flaming object that is chaotically spinning around, and often behind, someone’s body. Even when there is enough light to see a face by, it is probably casting ghastly, unflattering directional shadows. I think fire portraits tend to turn out best when the wicks are within 1–2 feet of someone’s face, in a plane between their face and your camera.

Spinoffs, where people spin the excess fuel off their wicks at the beginning of the burn, are a great time to get well-illuminated photos with any prop because there will be a massive gout of flame. They are also prone to overexposure, so be ready to quickly ratchet your exposure down and then back up.

Dual props or props with more wicks give you more even lighting, so I gravitate toward those. Dragonstaffs act as a natural ring light. Fans have many wicks and are one of the best props for illumination because they’re usually held in front of the upper body. If you see someone lighting up one of these props, run over because you’ll get a lot of technically solid photos out of them.

Hannah Elizabeth w/ fans

Fire eating involves small wicks, but allows for tightly framed, precise shots since fire eaters are not moving around much and the flame is always illuminating their faces.

Alice Ottesen w/ eating torches

It can be difficult to capture people spinning small, fast-moving props, especially at full arm extension. By far the worst props for portrait illumination are poi and rope dart, the two props I spin the most. On the other hand, their patterns look incredible with long-exposure flash shots, which I won’t be discussing here due to my lack of experience with them.

You can certainly get good photos with these difficult props, but yield is very low since these props happen to spend much less time near the spinner’s face; rope darts spend most of their time at least 3 feet away. As you shoot more fire, you’ll build a vocabulary for what shootable situations to keep an eye out for.

For example, the photo below is as illuminated as a dart photo will ever be because it’s a groundwork spinoff (lots of flame, close to face) and this performer happens to use a massive wick. The vast majority of dart photos will have 10% of this light in a much worse lighting position.
Dresden Blue w/ rope dart

If your photos aren’t turning out well, try getting your subject’s attention and asking them if they can spin closer to their face or keep all their moves in front of their body for a bit! You should get photographic consent at some point anyways, so go kill two birds with one stone. (Here’s my bash macro to streamline said photographic consent acquisition.)

People’s wicks only burn bright enough for good portraits for the first half of their burn, and a typical burn lasts for 3 to 5 minutes, so if you see someone just starting to light up, run over and get them while they’re hot.

Fire shape vs. lighting

One thing you usually internalize about low-light photography is how to push your camera settings to give you as much light as possible. In fire photography, there are tradeoffs.

More light sensitivity will make it easier to see your subjects’ faces, but it also makes the fire shape less distinctive and can drown details. Here’s a photo from the first fire jam I ever photographed—some pretty cool stuff is happening in real life, but it’s overexposed in such a way that the light from the fire obscures what the hands and props are doing, which was definitely not my intent.

Eliot Alter w/ poi

Underexposure can be mitigated in postprocessing, but information cannot be recovered from overexposure. By contrast, the first two photos in this post have more distinctive, dynamic flame shapes where the spinners’ features are emphasized and you can clearly see how the fire interacts with the wick.

Flow face & timing

The absolute bane of every fire performer’s existence: flow face. When you are spinning large flaming objects around your body in complex patterns and trying not to get hit by them, it’s really damn hard to remember to smile, and you’ll probably have your eyes half shut, your mouth hanging open, and your chin scrunched up in half your photos.

There’s not a whole lot you can do about this from behind the camera, but having your subject’s attention definitely helps improve yield. People who are excited to pose yield awesome shots! (I am not excited to pose.)

I also keep an eye peeled for people’s most flattering angles and move my camera accordingly; there are always lots of blinking-chin-scrunched-up shots with great lighting that just have to be dropped.

Framing

With tight framings as in the photo above, subjects can move out of frame in a split second. Practicing videography helps build a reflex for movement tracking. Familiarity with the spinners also helps since you can build reflex for their differing movement styles and flourishes.

If you watch people play with fire enough, you’ll build a reflex for how different props move and when they look good; for example, you see that fire eaters bring a torch straight down vertically when they’re about to put it in their mouth, or you’ll know when poi are about to be brought near someone’s face.

settings

All of the above is somewhat subjective and takes practice to bake into reflexes. To get down to actual numbers:

ISO: Push this as high as you can without looking too grainy. On my full-frame Sony, I use ISO 4000. Others I’ve talked to prefer to shoot lower. On an APS-C camera, your max acceptable ISO is probably more like 2000.

Aperture: In part 1 of this post, I explained why a smaller aperture (a.k.a. higher f-stop) is actually ok for fire photography; people tend to move around so quickly that it’s hard to maintain focus with a DoF under 6 inches deep. I shoot around f/4–5.6 on my 135mm lens, and around f/2.8 on my 35mm lens.

Your ISO and f-stop constrain the rest of your settings. On my camera, the above settings and the movement of the flame mean that I can shoot crisp-looking fire shapes best at a shutter speed of about 1/400 to 1/640. Play around with it to figure out what works best for your equipment. Don’t shoot blindly — inspect each successive shot and methodically change one parameter at a time until your shots look the way you want.

Position: As explained in part 1, I tend to shoot about 8–15 feet away from my subject. This constraint arises naturally from the fact that said subject is spinning a bunch of flaming objects around and it’s not a great idea to get much closer.

Focusing: Manual action focusing is a huge pain and takes me at least 15 minutes to warm up to every jam, so my photos from the first few burns I shoot usually get thrown away. I use focus assist zoom to set my initial bearings. On the fly, I near-focus overshoot, quickly far-focus to the same level of blurriness, and then focus to what felt like halfway in between that in order to track the focus plane. Real pros probably rangefind or use autofocus or something.

Videography: Some cameras (looking at you, Nikon) re-meter and adjust exposure levels by default while you’re shooting video — make sure your auto-exposure is locked during videography, or it’ll look like your videos are flickering.

Note: With fuel and props, I don’t have backpack space to bring a tripod to fire jams, so all my videography is handheld. I stabilize it by shooting from a low vantage point on the ground, bracing the camera against my body, and doing controlled pivots using my feet and knees to get four stabilization points.

I don’t shoot RAW in daylight, but I always use it for fire.

Postprocessing

Photochop time! I don’t do much postprocessing for daylight photography, but it’s pretty essential for fire photography. The fire is so bright and tends to wash out features so much that you have to alter the dynamic range to make it look realistic.

Neil Johnson w/ torches. The unaltered image was overwhelmingly warm, so I postprocessed to add more color differentiation and crisp up the fire shapes. This visually delineates the props and fire from the subject. I also rotated it very subtly counterclockwise to emphasize the stability of the pose and cropped it slightly tighter to emphasize the feeling that the torches were about to fly out of the frame (which they were indeed doing in real life).

White balance: fire makes photos look a lot warmer than real life, so I tend to tweak this pretty heavily toward the cool spectrum to bring out the blues of the hot flame closest to the wick.

Clarity is that setting that makes HDR cloud photos look fake. But it makes fire look crisp and closer to how your eyes originally perceived the scene! (Human eyes are a lot better at dynamic range than camera sensors.) Crank this setting up with wild abandon; I often do +20 or +30. It also increases the sharpness and contrast of people’s features, which looks fake in daylight but fine in a fire photography setting.

Highlights can be brought down a little to get more distinctive fire shapes, reducing ambient glow. If you bring them down too far, the fire does start to look fake.

Shadows can be brought up a little to even out illumination differences. If you bring them up too far, the shadowed areas look grainy, since less light information was captured about them.

Dirty tricks: even with the most paranoid of focusing, it’s easy for dancers to slip out of your focus plane. I will often brush their eyes with the sharpening brush to make them seem more in focus. Yes, it’s cheating ;p

Crop: I make an effort to shoot so that minimal to no framing adjustment is necessary in postprocessing, but very slight rotations (of a degree or less) are often helpful to create tension or to emphasize certain movement lines in a photo. Tighter cropping makes movement feel bigger and more dynamic.

I’ve never gotten around to installing Adobe Lightroom for reasons that can only be ascribed to habit and sheer laziness around workflow changes. Literally every other photographer in the world will tell you to use Lightroom, so you should probably check it out.


That’s about it; have fun, don’t let any loose fire props collide with your camera, and I’d love to hear feedback or about how you achieve differing photography styles. One day maybe I’ll actually bring a tripod to a jam and try some crazy long-exposure dart selfies.