Fire photography doesn’t have to be scary, and it can be a lot of fun, too – if you know what you’re doing.
As an experienced fire photographer, I’ve discovered all the tips, tricks, and techniques that will guarantee you gorgeous results, including:
- The proper fire photoshoot settings
- How to stay safe while photographing fire
- How to include fire in your compositions
By the time you’re done with this article, you’ll know how to photograph fire like a pro (and you’ll hopefully be inspired by dozens of example images).
Let’s get started.
1. Make sure to photograph fire safely
In the wise words of Frankenstein’s monster, “Fire bad!” This is especially true for photographers.
If you want to do fire photography, you must take fire seriously. The heat and smoke can damage your equipment, the flames can quickly get out of control and burn things down, and – most importantly! – fire can flat out kill you.
Plenty of great fire information can be found on this website, but here are some basic safety tips you should memorize immediately:
- Think ahead and plan your shoot from beginning to end, so you know exactly what will be on fire at any given time and how you’ll be photographing it
- Have a plan for putting out the fire should it get loose
- Do not work near anything that you don’t want on fire
- Work in a well-ventilated area
- Be sure you’re working in a location where, if the worst happens, everything will be okay
Got it? Please, I beg of you: Take proper safety precautions before capturing fire photos. You might believe the rules don’t apply to you, that you’ll be fine, and so on…but that type of thinking is a disaster waiting to happen.
2. Photograph fire as your subject
Fire photography can be done in three main ways:
With fire as the subject, with fire as an accentuating element, and with fire as the primary light source. (Of course, you can mix several of these elements together, but it’s important to understand them individually first.)
And I recommend you start by photographing fire as your subject, simply because it looks really, really cool.
With such fire shots, the main focus is on the flame (or the effects of it) and the detail that is shown within it. I’m talking about shots like this, which feature clear flame detail:
So how do you capture such well-exposed, crisp flames? First, you’ll need to use a fast-enough shutter speed to freeze the flame’s motion. What counts as “fast enough” is relative to what you’re shooting, but start around 1/250s, then take some test shots and boost the shutter speed as necessary.
Exposure can be difficult, as your camera will often want to underexpose the flames to compensate for their incredible brightness. So don’t be afraid to overexpose by a stop or two for perfect flame detail.
I’d also recommend you take a handful of test shots at the beginning of your fire photoshoot. Don’t think about composition, not at the start; instead, focus on nailing the exposure for the flames.
Then, once you’ve determined the perfect flame exposure, you can bring in helpful composition techniques, like the rule of thirds, to position the most prominent flames and to position any subjects in the flames, like this:
While a fast shutter speed is good for freezing flame motion, you may notice that the fire emits interesting sparks (especially if you’re photographing a sparkler!). If that’s the case, slow your shutter speed way down and consider using a tripod.
Slower shutter speeds were key to capturing this photo (it’s a 1.6-second exposure):
And here’s another shot that required an insanely long (30+ second!) exposure to create an interesting abstract effect:
Fast shutter speeds are good, but slow shutter speeds can work, too. It’s all about what you want to achieve.
3. Photograph fire as an accent
Instead of shooting fire as the primary subject, you may want to try shooting the flame as one element in a larger scene, like this:
These types of shots can be difficult, because you must show both the flames and the surroundings. (Notice how you can see the Hot Wheels reflection in the image above?)
The key here is to expose for the flame and then add light to the rest of the scene. So meter off the flame (here, spot metering is the way to go), take some test shots to make sure you get the result you’re after, then add in light to brighten up the surrounding elements.
If you’re not able to control the lighting situation (e.g., you’re photographing outdoors), then you’ll need to look for shooting angles where you can put the flame against a contrasting background. A darker, solid area is preferable, but anything that offers some contrast should work.
Note how the gray smoke offers a clean, neutral background to highlight the flames:
4. Use fire as a light source
Fire offers soft shadows and warm color, so it makes for a wonderful light source – especially in campfire situations like this one:
Notice how the fire beautifully illuminates the surrounding trees.
But how do you photograph fire with such a magical result? Here are a few quick tips:
- Use a long shutter speed. While fire looks gorgeous, it’s not very bright. To compensate, you’ll often need to work at 1 second, 5 seconds, or even 30 seconds.
- Widen your aperture. Again, the goal here is to compensate for the lack of light. If needed, push your aperture to its maximum setting.
- Boost your ISO. It’s generally a good idea to start with a low ISO – but if you’ve taken some test shots and they’re just not bright, then push your ISO (and keep pushing your ISO until you get the result that you’re after).
- Pay careful attention to where the light falls. If you’re shooting around a campfire, you can get interesting lighting on subjects a dozen feet from the flames – so don’t feel compelled to crop tight. Instead, get creative with your surroundings.
Also, when working with a wide aperture and therefore a narrow depth of field, try setting your focus on objects with high-contrast edges (like the silhouettes of stationary subjects) instead of the main subject. You’ll technically miss focus, but that’s okay; the shifting fire light will blur edges and soften the shadows of the objects it illuminates, so you should do what you can to nail the hard edges.
Oh, and take advantage of the interesting colors that fire offers…
…and consider emphasizing them in post-processing!
Speaking of which:
5. Learn to control the color of your flame
Take a close look at a flame, and you’ll see multiple colors, gradients, and intensities depending on temperature, fuel type, oxygen quantities, how well the oxygen is mixed with the fuel, and more.
It sounds complicated, and it kind of is. But when it comes to fire photography, a few simple tips should help you control the color of your flame – and get the shots you’re after.
See, when photographing fire, the most influential factor is the fuel being burned. Wood, paper, clothing, or anything else that puts off a lot of unburned particles (smoke) will probably burn yellowish-orange. Butane lighters, propane torches, liquids with high alcohol content, or other fuels that can more easily mix with the available oxygen will burn more on the bluish side.
Blue and yellow don’t satisfy you? Never fear; there are additives (pyrotechnic colorants, to be precise) you can buy to change the color of the flame at will. I found some pre-packaged powders at my local camping store, and they worked pretty well. Or if you’re into chemistry, this article describes which compounds can be used to create which colors.
And you have yet another option: Simply change the color of the fire in post-processing. Because fire colors are so dominant, it’s easy to select the color and adjust it throughout the entire image. I used post-processing to achieve this interesting green flame:
6. Have fun photographing smoke
Smoke can look very cool, but unless you’re taking steps to make sure it appears in your scene, you’ll probably end up with smokeless shots (or totally underwhelming smoke photos, which is almost as frustrating).
Here are three things you can do to highlight smoke and capture gorgeous results:
- Be certain your fire is making smoke. Fuels that burn efficiently (like some gas torches and alcohols) may not emit much smoke at all. Use inefficient fuels like wood or paper to maximize your smoke output.
- Light the smoke. A light source shining into the smoke can solidify those lines and help them stand out. Use backlight to create the most powerful effect, while sidelight is better for a mysterious look.
- Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the smoke trails (start at 1/100s, but increase this if necessary). Slower shutter speeds will make the smoke appear like haze, not well-defined wisps.
Also, be sure to take plenty of images. Smoke is constantly changing shape and direction, so it’s generally not enough to capture one shot and call it a day; instead, take dozens of shots, delete the mediocre ones, and keep your best.
7. Start with a candle
If you want to get started with fire photography but you’re not quite ready to dive in feet first, I recommend you photograph a candle.
Candles are simple, relatively safe, and easy to work with – so you can do plenty of shooting without any high-stakes compositions.
To practice, try to accomplish the three primary types of fire shots I discussed above (fire as a subject, fire as an accent, and fire as a light source).
Then have some fun experimenting. And as you go along, make sure to write down your settings. In particular, determine the shutter speed you need to freeze the flame, as well as the shutter speed you need to illuminate a subject on a table. Finally, use an artificial light source to photograph both the flame and the surrounding environment in a single frame.
How to photograph fire: final words
Well, there you have it:
My favorite tips and techniques for fire photoshoots. Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know how to photograph fire, and you should be inspired and ready to shoot on your own!
Now over to you:
Which of these fire photography techniques is your favorite? Which do you plan to try? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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. See photos, workshop dates, and more at http://JonBeard.com.