Back in January of 2019, I went to a fire performance event at the old Creative Labs in Baltimore. I had never been to a show with fire performers before and I had no idea what to expect and I didn't know anybody there; I just brought some cameras and went to work. Looking back at those photos now I can see that they were...okay. But I stuck with it, stopping off at a handful of burns there each year each time refining my technique and settling on a style that felt right.
|Jonah breathing fire at the old|
Creative Labs in Baltimore.
My first "Oh wow!" fire photo.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021 and I had my first real "Season of Fire" with multiple shoots with a bunch of different people, and really solid results attained throughout. My technique, both for shooting and editing, had evolved a good bit, and I had met lots of wonderful people, both performers and photographers, who helped me along the way.
It's now the fall of 2022 and due to circumstances beyond my control, it's been more of a "Season of Instant Photography" than another "Season of Fire". Funny how that happens. So, in an effort to keep my skills sharp and help share what I've learned with the community that's been so supportive of me, I wrote this 'blog post about how I photograph fire performers.
Safety First, and Come Prepared
It is absolutely critical that you communicate with your performers before they start so you know what to expect. If you're at a venue with folks performing for an audience and can't readily talk to the performers, spend some time watching them for a while before taking photos. This is mainly for safety reasons, but it also helps to learn how much room you'll need to frame your shots and how much light they'll be putting out.
Performing with fire is inherently dangerous. Properly trained performers always rely on a second person as a safety to point out anything that's on fire that shouldn't be and to be ready with a fireproof blanket to extinguish any fire that needs to be put out. While you as a photographer have the luxury of some stand-off distance so aren't at much risk yourself, you will be paying close attention to someone who is at risk which puts you in a position to help their safety, or take action yourself if need be.
Speaking of stand-off distance, if you're at a group burn or other performance venue, there will often be a designated "burn circle" that is meant only for the fire performers. Respect that boundary. It's for everyone's safety. Don't come inside that boundary for photos unless you've arranged it in advance with both the organizers and the performers.
I would highly suggest that you learn the ins and outs of being a fire safety from a skilled performer at some point in your journey. The earlier the better. You probably won't need it, but if you ever do you'll be glad you did. I can direct you to instructors if you like.
Lastly, always bring a good lighter with you, preferably one that is large and easily visible. You will instantly become popular.
Expect To Fail A Lot
Fire is fickle.
Remember this because I'll be coming back to it often. There is so much more than "use this gear", "use these settings", or "edit this way" involved here; the fire will be brighter or dimmer depending on how quickly it's moving and how much fuel it has left, the illumination of your subject will depend on where the fire is relative to them or what's nearby reflecting light, and so on.
|Rachel with her palm torches and a touch of flare.|
Even after a dozen times doing it, I was missing lots of shots. Heck, even now as I feel confident enough to write this post I still miss a lot of shots. And that's normal, because you're capturing something that's inherently chaotic. If you walk away from a fire shoot with a one-in-ten hit rate, that's okay* because the shots you do land will be worth it.
There Is No One "Right" Way
What I'm going for here is a general guide, with a few detailed examples of how I do things. I've developed a very specific style for my work, and there are specific shooting and editing techniques that go along with that. But I don't for a moment claim that these are the only way to photograph fire performers, they're simply my way. Any photographer reading this post who is serious about exploring fire photography should expect to experiment on their own and toss my techniques out the window if they're not working for them. At best I hope to provide a good starting point for other folks to build on and refine to their liking.
The "JPEG vs RAW" debate has been done on the Internet countless times and never has any winners. Each format has their own strengths and weaknesses, and each are tools for their own unique purposes. It's all about choosing the right tool for your individual needs.
However, in this instance RAW is the superior tool to use because you will be relying quite heavily on one the greatest strengths it has over JPEG: dynamic range. JPEG is typically saved in an 8-bit format, while RAW will have, depending on your camera, 10-bit, 12-bit, or 14-bit format. That extra bit depth saves far more information in the shadows and leaves your highlights less susceptible to clipping, and both of these attributes are essential to your workflow. You will also have much more control over your white balance, which is a critical component of your edits.
A key concept that I'll talk about in more detail later is contrast management. Shooting fire performers in a dark setting is inherently a high contrast situation, and you want to be able to reign in that contrast in your edits to produce appealing images. Shooting RAW makes contrast management much easier.
|Melly with her fans. Shooting in daylight|
reduces the necessity to use RAW.
If you are shooting fire performers in daylight or using auxiliary lights to supplement the illumination that the fire provides, shooting RAW is less critical since the dynamic range of your scene will be lower in both situations. I'll come back to these situations later though, for now I mainly want to focus on using firelight exclusively.
Of course, all of the downsides of shooting RAW come along with this (more easily filled buffers, much larger files, more limited selection of editing tools, etc.) and you will have to proceed accordingly, but these are the prices you have to pay for that dynamic range. If your workflow isn't already set up to handle RAW, I would strongly suggest that you do a few test edits to incorporate it before you delve too far into this. I hope you'll agree based on my work that the downsides are worth the extra effort.
Know Your Camera
This may seem like an obvious statement, but in trying to take detailed photos of fire and also the person wielding it in the absence of any other light you truly are pushing modern cameras to their limits. This fact, coupled with the fact that no two cameras are the same, means that it is critical to know how your camera responds in these situations. I am writing this post from the point of view my camera (a Nikon D750), not your camera, so you'll need to keep this in mind.
|My workhorse: The Nikon D750.|
In particular, different cameras will have different base ISOs, different dynamic range curves, different noise reduction, etc. The first few times you shoot, you really ought to try a wide variety of settings to see what gets you the best results. As a general rule, your dynamic range will be higher the closer you are to your base ISO. But this doesn't mean you should always shoot at your base ISO; sometimes having loads of dynamic range doesn't help you if you can't gather enough light to make a useful image. Some cameras are better at retaining shadow detail at higher ISOs than others. Some cameras have better built-in noise reduction. Really knowing your camera goes far beyond just sensor size and resolution, you need to get a feel for the kinds of things that aren't listed on a spec sheet.
If you really want to geek out here, one good resource for looking up things like dynamic range for your camera is a website called Photons to Photos. Their Photographic Dynamic Range plot will give you an idea of how your camera's effective dynamic range varies as you increase ISO, and their Shadow Improvement plot will give you an idea of how high it's worth setting your ISO to help capture shadow detail.
As an example, compare the Nikon D750 (my camera) and the Canon 5D MkIII (one of my friend's cameras). The D750 has 2.5 more stops of dynamic range at base ISO, but the 5D MkIII is much better at recovering shadow detail at higher ISOs. Looking at these charts, it would seem that the D750 would benefit from staying as close to base ISO as possible (which is what I've found in experience) while the 5D MkIII seems to have sweet spots at ISO 160 and ISO 320 where it will match or exceed the D750's performance.
Manual Focus Is Your Friend
I do a lot of my photography in general using manual focus and a larger focusing screen. I got hooked on this when I started shooting medium format film and it carried over into my digital work where now I'll use Live View and zoom in to really nail critical focus**. It's a bit more effort, but I also feel more connected to my work.
I'm not afraid to admit that the autofocus on my Nikon D750 can struggle with fire performers at night, especially in Live View. It handles most other situations nicely, but in this context the scene is simply too contrasty and the light is fluctuating too quickly and sometimes it will hunt like mad or try to focus on the fire because it's so bright. I suggest trying autofocus with your camera to see if it works well, especially if you have a newer camera. If autofocus works for you and manual focus isn't your thing, great, you can skip this section.
If you are going to be focusing manually, I strongly suggest using a lens that feels good to focus. This may seem strange to say out loud, but when you look at many modern lenses, especially zoom lenses, the focus ring seems like an afterthought and feels like a bad engineering choice; they're there as a redundancy, not to be used for hours.
|My lens of choice: the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-s.|
My personal suggestion, whether focusing manually or using autofocus, is to start with a prime lens (i.e. a lens that has only a single, fixed focal length). Prime lenses tend to have faster apertures than zooms, which will give you more exposure latitude, and they also tend to have larger focus rings that are more enjoyable to use. The downside is that they don't zoom, so you'll have to be mindful of that and stick with something that's not to wide and not too long. I've shot with focal lengths ranging from 35mm to 85mm and those feel about "right": much wider and you'll be too close to the performer, much longer and you'll be too far away.
The lens I most commonly use for shooting fire performers is a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-s. It's heavier than an f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens, and I rarely use it faster than f/2, but its focus ring is both large and silky smooth, which makes it an absolute dream to focus manually. Its optical performance at f/2 and below are also highly desirable, at least among DSLR lenses. And in those instances where I do use it at f/1.2.... <chef's kiss>
Expose For The Fire
In most situations when you're taking a photo, you are only photographing a scene or subject; the light sources are generally out of the frame. What makes photographing fire performers so challenging is that you are photographing both your light source and the things that your light source are illuminating, and you want as much detail in both as you can get because they are both your subject.
It took talking with a few fire performers, especially fire breathers, to understand this. You're not taking photos of the people in the frame, you are taking photos of the fire and that fire just happens to be illuminating the person preforming with it. With this in mind, you want to expose for the fire; it should definitely be bright, but not so bright that you clip the highlights and wash it out. You want to preserve all of the chaotic detail, all of the magic.
|Mia posing with her torches.|
Straight out of camera (left) vs. edited photo (right). This is what exposing for the fire looks like
and why shooting RAW at night is so important.
Straight out of camera, many of my best shots don't look that good because all I could see was the fire, but thanks to the power of RAW, there is enough information in the shadows to boost them up.
If you get the opportunity, ask your performers using wicked*** props if you can look at their props before you shoot. Wicks of different sizes can put out very different amounts of light. 1" wicks only put out about half as much light as 2" wicks and knowing which you're photographing can be incredibly helpful. Your eyes may not be able to tell the difference from a distance once they've been lit (at least mine often can't) but I promise you your camera will.
Adjust As The Burn Progresses
Fire is fickle.
Fire is always changing, but it will often change in predictable ways. Your fire, be it a spinner's wick or a breather's fireball, will start off brightest at the beginning and then taper off in brightness as it burns through its fuel. For fire breathers, this typically happens over the course of one or two seconds, for fire spinners with burning wicks, it will be more like minutes. But either way, you have to be ready to adjust your exposure as the light tapers off.
|Joey with her hoop, which had just been lit.|
A large flame, putting out plenty of light.
One important lesson that I learned the hard way is to not be afraid to stop shooting if you don't have enough light. It can be hard to stop, especially if you're in a good groove, but my rate of good shots tends to drop to almost nothing towards the end of a burn, even if I adjust my exposure to keep up. For 1" wicks, this is usually about halfway through a typical burn, with larger wicks putting out sufficient light for a larger portion of their burn. If you're doing static posed shots, you can probably stretch this out more if you're willing to open up to f/1.4 or faster, but be careful about your highlights if you use such a fast aperture.
Also worth noting: fast-moving wicks will burn more dimly than slow-moving or stationary ones. You will want to allow for a bit more exposure for performer doing intricate, high-speed maneuvers...but since they are moving faster it's also harder to freeze motion. It's just one more balancing act to consider.
Basic Settings And Shooting
Now for the nitty gritty.
All of the values in this section are based on the assumption that you're using a lens with a field of view that's equivalent to 50mm on a full frame digital sensor. Longer lenses will put you further away, shorter lenses will bring you closer and both will impact your exposure; you are photographing a light source after all. Also assumed is that you're shooting in full manual mode; relying on your camera to adjust your exposure for you is risky since you need to both spot meter accurately and keep your spot on top of the fire consistently. I tend to shoot in 3-6 shot bursts instead of taking individual photos because it's easy to miss a great shot when your light only lasts for a split second. Yes, you will have to stay on top of your data management because you will end up with a lot of photos.
If your subject is posing for you instead of performing for a crowd, you will have more flexibility in your exposure settings. They'll likely be moving more slowly and more predictably, or not moving at all, so you can get away with using a slower shutter speed (less motion blur) or a faster aperture (easier to focus on more slowly moving subjects), or a lower ISO. Just make sure you follow the reciprocal rule and adjust your overall exposure accordingly. Unless I'm deliberately going for light trails, I keep my exposure at 1/100s or faster; anything slower tends to blur out the details in the fire.
|Katriella with her fans.|
50mm, ISO 200, f/4, 1/200s
For props with only a few smaller (1") wicks (like palm torches, some hoops, small poi, etc.), I will start off at ISO 200, f/4, and 1/200s assuming a 50mm lens on my Nikon D750. This generally yields a good balance between depth of field, getting enough exposure without clipping highlights, preserving shadows without introducing too much noise in post, and freezing the motion of the fire and the performer. Depending on how close I can get or how fast they're moving, I'll adjust my exposure up or down accordingly; the further you are from them or the faster they're moving their props, the dimmer the light will be. (Just don't get too close for safety reasons.) This is also a good place to start for folks who are doing an actual performance instead of posing for you; they'll be moving around more so the fires won't be putting out as much light and you'll likely be a bit further away.
|Zahra with her palm torches.|
50mm, ISO 100, f/4, 1/200s
For props with larger (2") wicks or more wicks (like fans, dragon staffs, large poi, small swords, etc.) more light will usually end up on the performer so I can drop down to ISO 100 while keeping the aperture and shutter speed at f/4 and 1/200s. This also ups your dynamic range so you can potentially capture more detail in the fire or have an easier time recovering shadows. The same rules for proximity and speed apply; greater distance and higher prop speed both need more exposure. This is also a good place to start for more static/posed portraits; when the wicks aren't moving, they'll tend to put out more light so you can get away with less sensitivity, plus you'll be able to safely get closer. Just be sure to communicate with the performer, they need to know if you want them to hold still, especially with props that throw out a lot of heat.
|Zach with his swords.|
50mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/1000s
For fire breathers, folks with large swords, and other "big fire" performers, things get...fickle. It's hard to know how to set your exposure here without watching your performer a few times because you won't get consistent fire like you will with burning wicks. In these cases, the variations between individual performers will really stand out; in the photo here of Zach, he had loaded his swords and tuned his performance specifically to produce that massive initial fire and ended up with a short overall burn, but other performers can choose to have a more drawn-out burn. The burn times here may well be measured in seconds so you'll typically only get one good burst of photos per burn. A conservative starting point would be ISO 100, f/4, and 1/1000s. Definitely make sure you keep your distance here, and if possible watch them perform once or twice before shooting them.
Don't forget, all of these settings, particularly ISO, are for my particular camera rig. You will almost certainly need to adjust for your particular choice of camera and lens. Consider these settings to be starting points, and don't be afraid to experiment.
A special note about dragon staffs: they are tricky because unlike most other props, the fire never gets particularly close to the performer; even though they will put out a whole lot of light, that light is rarely as close to a performer's face as it is with other props. Getting good dragon staff shots, with fire detail and a well-lit performer, is tricky. I almost always need some kind of backdrop behind them to reflect some of the light back on them.
|Erin with her Dragon Staff.|
50mm, ISO 100, f/4, 1/200s
Low power LED illumination
One last note: all of these settings assume that your performer is using Coleman camp fuel (generically available as white gas) or something equivalent. This is a reasonably safe assumption since Coleman fuel seems to be incredibly popular, at least in my area. Some other fuels burn longer and more dimly, so you'll have to adjust accordingly. There are hotter, faster burning fuels available that will put out a lot of light for a very short time, but I've never met anyone willing to perform with them because they burn very hot. Also, some performers will add this magical stuff called "sklitter" to their props which throws off bright sparks like a sparkler, and that needs to be taken into account too. This is one more reason why communicating with the folks you're working with is so important.
And don't forget...fire is fickle. If what you're doing isn't working, go with the flow and try something new.
Shooting With Additional Lights
Everything I've talked about up until now has assumed that the fire being wielded by your performer is the only light source, but that doesn't have to be the case. Having additional lights can make your life easier because it makes you less reliant on the dynamic range of your camera and offers more options when editing. But it's also more to buy, carry, set up, etc. so there's a tradeoff involved. I'm not going to attempt to give a full explanation of lighting for photography here, but I do want to share two things I've learned that are fairly specific to this endeavor.
First, be mindful of the color of your light. Strobes
and flashes tend to output light at around 5500k so they are
considerably cooler on the white balance scale than
any typical flame, which is usually more like 2000k. Using a warmer light that's closer to the color of fire will produce a more uniform looking scene. This could be done with a strobe with a faint yellow gel. Using cooler lights that's closer to white will often result in more vibrant orange flames in your final photos. This could be done with a bare strobe, a strobe with a faint blue gel. You could also get artistic and use strongly colored gels, especially if you have a background that you're shooting against. There's a whole lot to explore here
depending on the look you're going for. Color-adjustable LED panels are another great option; you'll get much more control over your color at the expense of less intense light.
Second, try to keep your light dim. Fire naturally casts lots of shadows, but if you have a bright light filling them all in you'll lose that "fire-lit" feeling. Some light to boost shadows is great (especially if doing so lets you use a lower ISO), just don't fill them in completely. Plus, one of the benefits of exposing for the fire when shooting at night is that you have a much easier time making visually unappealing backgrounds disappear; if you roll up to a shoot packing a bright light kit, you'll have to contend with everything in the background cluttering up your scene instead of just having it naturally fade to black.
I would not suggest using strobes at an actual performance unless you discuss it with the organizers ahead of time because they can be quite distracting to both the performers and the audience.
|Hillary posing with torches and lit with two strobes.|
In this shot with Hillary, I used two strobes; one on each side of her set to relatively low power, both with large reflectors. The strobe on her left had a blue gel and was set to slightly higher power. The end result has a lot more variety of colors than much of my other work, especially with how orange the fire was, but the strobes did light up the fence behind her in a way that is a bit distracting. I would love to try this again in a larger space with nothing in the background, or at least a more uniform background.
Color-adjustable LED panels offer a different experience than strobes; they are naturally less intense (at least for units at the same price point), you can tweak the color-matching much more precisely, and their "always on" nature helps with focusing and makes them less distracting if you're photographing someone who's actually performing for a crowd. They're also less likely to illuminate a distracting background. The end results may not look all that different than shooting with only firelight (at least not with a warm LED), but they can make shooting and editing easier.
A Word About Video
Most video formats don't have the dynamic range to capture the details in the fire and also what the fire is illuminating without hefty additional illumination. The .MOV files my D750 output are fairly standard and they are either 8-bit or 10-bit (I haven't figured out which yet). This gives you dynamic range more like JPEGs and less like the 12-bit or 14-bit of RAW, so you can't shoot video like I shoot stills and expect to get good results; your fire will look okay-ish, but everything else will be too dark to be useful. There are newer RAW-like video formats that have more bit depth, but I have not yet had the opportunity to use them.
But fortunately for video shooters, what's more important in this medium is capturing motion, music, audience reactions, etc. The fact that you may have to completely blow out the highlights in the fire to do so is okay because no photograph can capture these other elements. It's just one more tradeoff.
I don't have a ton of experience with video so I'm not going to say anything other than that for now. Maybe in a few years.
Wait, What About The Edits?
This 'blog post is already ginormously large, so I'm going to save my thoughts on how to edit these types of photos for a separate post. But for those who know me for my...erratic posting schedule, fear not! I'll be releasing both posts at the same time, so there won't be a long wait for Part Two.
I have come to thoroughly enjoy fire photography. There is a chaotic energy to it that pushes me to go with the flow of the performance. It is a welcome break from my other styles of shooting, and it has taught me wondrous things. On top of that, the community of fire performers around where I live are simply an amazing group of people, and I couldn't have started myself on this journey if they hadn't all been so willing to let me capture moments of them on journeys of their own. In essence, fire photography has made me feel more connected; with my art, with my community, and with myself.
It's good stuff. I hope you try it.
If you don't already, feel free to look me up on Instagram and Twitter to catch up on my latest work or reach out with any questions about these posts or photography in general. And please check out all the performers I shared photos of in this post; I've linked to their social media accounts in the photo captions.
* It takes a long time to feel okay though. The imposter syndrome is strong....
** The fact that my eyesight is horrible and I can't ever see any detail in the tiny viewfinder of DLSRs also plays heavily here.
*** In this context I'm not saying "wicked" as something evil or wretched, I'm using it to describe a fire prop that has wicks on it.