How to Photograph Fire

How to Photograph Fire

A Guest Post by Jon Beard

1/320 f/8 ISO1000 105mm

Fire is an interesting thing. Watch people around a campfire and it’s easy to see the spell it can cast on us. We have such a deep and instinctive relationship with it, there’s no wonder why including flame in a photo can have such an impact. In this write-up I hope to give you some examples, some understanding of how they’re done, and some direction toward creating your own fire shots.

Safety First

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In the wise words of Frankenstein’s monster, “Fire bad!” The heat and smoke can damage your equipment, the flame can quickly get out of control and burn things you don’t want burned, and most importantly, fire can flat out kill you. Plenty of great fire info can be found at http://www.ready.gov/home-fires but here are some basic safety tips you should already know (and follow!):

  • Think ahead and plan your shoot from beginning to end.
  • Have a plan for putting the fire out should it get loose.
  • Do not work near anything that you do not want on fire as well.
  • Work in a well-ventilated area.
  • Be sure you’re working somewhere that if the worst happens, the worst isn’t all that bad.
  • And if the grandmothers in the area where I grew up can be believed: Don’t play with matches or you’ll wet the bed.

Well, folks… Break out the bed liners and a grab a change of clothes because here we go!

You’ll find fire used in three main ways in a photo. It can be the primary subject, an accentuating element, or the primary light source. Typically, you’ll have a combination of the three, but understanding them individually is the best way to start.

Fire as the Subject

With these shots, the main draw and focus is on the flame (or effects of it) and the detail that can be shown within it.

In most cases you’ll want to use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion in order to see the detail in the flame. As always, “fast enough” is relative to what you’re shooting, but a good starting point is around 1/250 or faster. As your shutter speeds increase you’ll need to use wider apertures and higher ISOs.

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Sometimes, the more interesting detail will be in what the fire emits – the path sparks take when leaving a jumping jack or a sparkler, for example. Slower shutter speeds are the key to capturing this kind of photo.

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38” f/36 ISO100 105mm

Fire as an Accent

In this type of shot the flame is one element of larger scene. It can be the most difficult kind to pull off because of the additional lighting needed to show the flame while still seeing the surroundings. The key here is to expose for the flame and then add light to the rest of the scene. If you’re not able to control the lighting situation then you’ll need to look for shooting angles where you can put the flame against a background that will let it stand out. A darker, solid background is preferable, but anything that can offer some contrast should work.

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1/60 f/11 ISO1000 105mm

1/250 f/7.1 ISO200 105mm

30” f/8 ISO640 15mm

Fire as the Primary Light Source

Fire can make a wonderful light source with its soft shadows and warm color. Longer shutter speeds, wider apertures, and higher ISOs are often the right choice for campfire situations. Medium to shorter shutter speeds can be used as you get closer to the fire and have more and stronger light falling on your subject.

When working with the narrower depth of field that comes along with a wider aperture, try setting your focus on objects that have hard contrast edges (like silhouettes of stationary objects) rather than what you may consider the main subject. This can give you an overall sharper looking image since the shifting fire light will blur edges and soften shadows of the objects it illuminates.

25” f/4.5 ISO3200 14mm

30” f/8 ISO200 20mm

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Flame Color

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Take a close look at a flame and you’ll see multiple colors, gradients, and intensities so it should go without saying that the color of a flame is a complex topic. It’s dependent on temperature, fuel-type, how much oxygen there is and how well it’s mixed with the fuel, along with many other factors. With that said, when it comes to photographing fire, a few simple ideas should help you control the color of your flame.

In fire photography, the most influential factor in the color of the flame will be the fuel being burned. Wood, paper, clothing, or anything else that puts off a lot of unburned particles (smoke) will probably burn yellowish-orange. Butanes lighters, propanes torches, liquids with high alcohol content, or other fuels that can more easily mix with the available oxygen before burning will burn more on the bluish side. There are additives (pyrotechnic colorants to be precise) you can buy to add to your fire to change the color of the flame. I found some pre-packaged powders at my local camping store designed to be thrown onto a campfire and they worked pretty well. Or, if you’re into chemistry, this wiki article describes which compounds can be used to create which colors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrotechnic_colorant

Of course, the easiest way to get control of your flame color is to add the desired color in post.

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Showing Smoke

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Smoke can add an interesting element to your photo, but unless you’re taking steps to make sure it’s in there, you’ll be lucky to see it. Here are three things you can do to better show it off:

  • Be certain your fire is making smoke. Fuels that burn efficiently (like some gas torches and alcohols) may not emit much. Using inefficient fuels like wood or paper will maximize your smoke output.
  • Light the smoke. A light source shining into the smoke can solidify those lines and cause them to stand out more.
  • Use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the smoke trails. Slower shutters will make the smoke appear like haze rather than wisps.

An Easy Place to Start

Left: 1/8 f/8 ISO800 50mm --- Center: 4” f/8 ISO800 50mm --- Right: 1/8 f/8 ISO800 50mm + Flash

A candle is a simple and relatively safe way to learn about flame photography. As practice, see if you can accomplish the three primary types of fire shots we’ve covered – as the subject, an accent, and a light source. Try shooting a similar series to what I have above and make notes of what settings it takes to freeze the flame and what it takes to illuminate a subject sitting next to the candle. Then, use an artificial light source and take a shot where you can see both the flame in detail along with the well exposed subject next to it.

I always have a great time adding fire to my photos and I hope I’ve given you a good start on making your own. I’d love to hear from you and see some of the creative ways you’ve used fire in your own photography!

The images in this write-up and other fire related images can be seen in a Flickr set at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonbeard/sets/72157631529831299/

Jon Beard is an adventurer from the mountains of southwestern Virginia. He organizes the regional photo club, leads photography workshops and guided shoots, and has a passion for shooting in the dark. Photos, workshop dates, and more at http://JonBeard.com.

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