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Fire Photography: 11 Expert Tips for Gorgeous Results

Tips for beautiful photos of fire

This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from John Beard, Peter West Carey, Darlene Hildebrandt, and Markus Hofstaetter.

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 share 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

Fire Photography: 11 Expert Tips for Gorgeous Results

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
matches on fire

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: 11 Expert Tips for Gorgeous Results

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:

football on fire

So how do you capture such well-exposed, crisp flames? First, you’ll need to use a fast 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.

(Note: As your shutter speed increases, you’ll need to use wider apertures and higher ISOs.)

Exposure can be difficult, as your camera often wants 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:

flaming camera

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):

long exposure sparks

And here’s another shot that required an insanely long (30+ second!) exposure to create an interesting abstract effect:

abstract sparks long exposure

Bottom line:

Fast shutter speeds are good, but slow shutter speeds can work, too. It’s all about what you want to achieve.

Fire Photography: 11 Expert Tips for Gorgeous Results

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:

hot wheels car on fire

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.

match characters

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:

person jumping near flames

4. Try to show scale

One of the first things you’ll notice about fire is how its size can be deceiving in photographs. Sometimes, this ambiguity adds mystery to your shots, but in many cases, especially with large or unusually small fires, conveying the scale is crucial. It gives viewers a real sense of the fire’s presence. For example, a small campfire and a massive bonfire could look surprisingly similar in a photo without proper scale.

A straightforward way to show scale is by using a wider lens. This allows you to capture the fire and its surroundings, placing the fire in context. The environment around the fire, be it a vast wilderness or a cozy backyard, tells a story about the fire’s size and significance.

Another effective method is to include a reference object in the frame. Something as simple as a person sitting near a campfire instantly gives viewers a size reference. But remember, safety comes first. Never compromise your safety or that of others for a photo!

5. Photograph campfires

Campfires, with their controlled yet lively nature, are a fantastic subject for honing your fire photography skills. They offer a mix of opportunities, from detailed close-ups of the flames to wider shots that capture the campfire’s role in a broader scene.

When capturing the intricate details of campfire flames, a longer lens can be your best friend. It allows you to keep a safe distance while zooming in to capture the fire. You’ll be able to focus on patterns and colors in the flames, and the abstract forms created by the fire can result in mesmerizing images.

But don’t just zoom in on the flames. As I mentioned above, try capturing the campfire as part of a larger scene. Maybe it’s the center of a gathering of friends or the focal point of a serene night under the stars. These wider shots create a narrative and evoke emotions connected to the warmth and light of the fire.

One of my favorite aspects of campfire photography is capturing people illuminated by the fire’s glow. The warm, flickering light casts unique shadows and highlights, creating a wonderfully intimate atmosphere. (Of course, when photographing campfires, remember to adjust your camera settings for the low-light conditions!)

6. 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:

campfire photography at night

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Widen your aperture. Again, the goal here is to compensate for the lack of light. If needed, push your aperture to its maximum setting.
  3. 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).
  4. 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…

blue flame in a bottle on snow

…and consider emphasizing them in post-processing!

orange flame from a lighter

Speaking of which:

7. Learn to control the color of your flame

colorful fire photography

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.

Fire Photography: 11 Expert Tips for Gorgeous Results

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:

green flame

8. Have fun photographing smoke

smoke photography

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

9. Start with a candle

candle fire photography

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.

10. Look for scenes with both fire and people

Incorporating people into your fire photography can transform your images from simple shots of flames to narratively rich photos. When you capture the interplay between humans and fire, you’re doing more than photographing the fire’s form: you’re telling a story that first began thousands of years ago. This human-focused approach offers a lot of possibilities – you can capture intimate campfire gatherings, silhouettes of a lone figure against a fireplace, or someone carefully lighting a candle.

For the most striking shots, pay careful attention to the lighting the fire provides. The warm glow on faces, the dance of shadows, and the contrast between the bright flames and the surrounding darkness all create a dramatic effect. Be attentive to these details and use them to enhance the emotional impact of your images.

Silhouettes are always worth a try. To achieve a nice result, expose for the flames, allowing your human subjects to become dark figures against the bright background. This technique can create a sense of mystery and drama, adding a layer of intrigue to your photos. But the key is balance; you want to capture the brilliance of the fire without losing the outline of the human form.

Ultimately, including people in your fire photography provides context and scale, but more importantly, it adds a human element that resonates on a deeper level.

11. Post-process your fire photos

Post-processing is crucial in fire photography. It’s rare to get a perfect shot straight out of the camera, especially with something as unpredictable as flames! Fortunately, you won’t need to make ultra-technical changes for the best results.

I’d encourage you to start with the basics: exposure and tonal adjustments. Adjust the main exposure slider, then play around with the shadows, highlights, and midtones to bring out details in both the fire and its surroundings.

Next, tackle the white balance. Fire can range from a warm orange to an intense blue, and getting this color right is vital for the mood of your photo. Adjust the temperature slider until the fire looks natural and appealing.

Enhancing contrast can give your fire photos some extra punch. And a slight increase in saturation can enhance the fire’s vibrancy without making it look unnatural.

Don’t forget about a vignette (i.e., a darkening effect around the edges of the frame). Adding a subtle vignette can draw the viewer’s eyes toward the main subject. But be careful not to overdo it; a heavy-handed vignette can look artificial.

Finally, for those willing to delve a bit deeper, dodging and burning can add a three-dimensional feel to your images. Lighten (dodge) areas you want to highlight, and darken (burn) parts you wish to recede. This technique can bring a lifelike quality to the flames so that they really leap off the screen.

How to photograph fire: final words

person with gas mask and fire

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!

Fire Photography: 11 Expert Tips for Gorgeous Results

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