Playing With Fire - How to Photograph Fire

Playing With Fire – How to Photograph Fire


Photographing Fire can be a tricky thing – in this post Peter Carey shares some tips on how to do it.

Copyright Space RitualAll photography needs light. It’s at the heart of the word photography. For the most part that light comes from the sun or from an artificial flash. But today I’d like to talk about the use of fire as the primary source of light. Fire, from a single candle to a raging inferno, presents some great opportunities to stretch your creative side. There are many different forms fire takes and a few different ways to attempt to capture those special images that convey the power, heat, subtlety or warmth that comes from the flame. Let’s take a look at some of the more common practices. Feel free to experiment and post links to your own findings in the comments section below.

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Single Flame

Shooting a single flame is one of those tasks that seems simple at first, until it’s attempted. For this experiment you’ll need a candle of just about any type, a dark area to help highlight the flame, a tripod or some sturdy surface to hold your camera and patience. It’s best to use manual focus and focus on the end of the wick. The flame itself will not be in super clear focus as it is producing the light while being a three dimensional object, meaning the intensity and points to focus on it will be varied. If your camera has spot metering, use it and take a reading off the flame itself. This may produce a fairly dark image, so experiment with overexposing a little by slowing down the shutter speed. Make sure there are no drafts around to move the flame if what you’re looking for is the photo at left. Conversely, once you have the basic technique and shutter speed figured out, play around a little by lightly blowing on the flame and attempting to capture its dance. This candle photo was shot at 1/6th of a second at f/8 to help increase depth of field in the candle itself.

Stop or Go

The two photos below are examples of the same basic activity but with drastic differences in presentation. The top photo was taken with a fast shutter speed (1/60th at f/3.5) to stop the action of the fire spinning while the image on the bottom has a much slower shutter speed (3.2 seconds at f/3.4). Both images are dramatic in their own way; the top image highlights the spinner and gives structure to the fire, while the bottom one shows what the action really looks like and trades off clarity in the spinner. DPS has an excellent video tutorial by Forum Member Light Painting if you’re looking to shoot more shots like the photo on the right.

Copyright jswieringa Copyright Gaetan Lee

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Campfires are one of the easiest fire images to take. But the key is in getting the shutter speed dialed in. It’s best to use a slightly longer shutter time to help blur the fire as well as give any sparks a chance to leave a light trail. The image at left was exposed for one second at f/3.5 so the participants had to remain fairly still and the camera had to be tripod mounted or on a suitable surface (rock, backpack, cooler, etc…). Campfire shots are great at conveying warmth and calm or a wild party attitude, depending on what the subjects in the picture are doing. If the shutter is left open too long here, the fire will be too bright and the mood lost.

Big Fire

Attempting to capture images of large scale fire while not losing the feel of the heat can be tough. Most images are understandably taken at a distance far from the flames, which causes the fire to lose impact and scale. Here, safety is a number one concern as wildfires are very unpredictable. The shot below, taken of the Santa Barbara Fire in California, does an excellent job of capturing the ferocity of the fire by waiting until night to add a dramatic effect to the smoke. Being able to highlight the smoke gives a sense of volume and space to the fire beyond its attachment to the ground. Also, shooting at night with a slower shutter speed allows for more intensity in the flames varying color and brightness.

Copyright Jason Fox

Fire carries with it a lot of impact and variety. Show us how you have captured images of flames, big and small, in the comment section below.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Paige May 24, 2013 07:49 am

    Hi there to every one, the contents present at this web site are in fact remarkable for people knowledge, well,
    keep up the good work fellows.

  • Daniela January 24, 2013 05:08 am

    Here's my fire gallery

  • Jean-Pierre January 25, 2012 11:57 pm

  • Seamus April 29, 2011 02:41 pm

    I was trying to capture the reflected glow of a small camp fire on the faces across from me. I was shooting through the tips of the flame attempting to focus on the people seated on the other side. I tried locking the exposure for each shot. I was shooting hand held.

    Because the fire light was a flickering light source the light reflected on the faces of the subjects was uneven. The camera captured the variations and the result was an unattractive blotchy Leopard Skin appearance of the skin on the faces opposite me.

    If I have not deleted all of these horrible images I will attempt to share an example.

    I look forward to learning of a solution if one exists.

    Thank you. :)

  • Greet Verellen March 29, 2011 11:34 pm

    Your blog is really helping for taking real photography. Thanks for sharing your experience. I appreciate your post.

  • NOLAfleur January 13, 2011 04:06 pm

    I've got my first fire shoot (with a fire breather) scheduled for tomorrow night. He's warned me that the first shoot won't be any good - that it takes 2 or 3 to get the aperture, etc right, but I'm determined to prove him wrong! : ) Thanks for all of the tips!

  • NOLAfleur January 13, 2011 04:03 pm

    I've got my first fire shoot (with a fire breather) scheduled for tomorrow night. He's warned me that the first shoot won't be any good - that it takes 2 or 3 to get the aperture, etc right, but I'm determined to prove him wrong! : ) Thanks for all of the tips!

  • Sneaky McFLy November 19, 2010 02:45 am

    As I fire spinner I have so many photographers come up to me very excited about the pictures they took. Most are of big circles of fire with the spinner blurred beyond recognition. I never have the heart to tell them that I have about 1000 of these types of pictures that are cool until you have seen about 50. Not being much of a photographer i can't offer assistance here but the best pics are of the big circles with the spinner still in focus. Of course, you have to catch the spinner when he is not moving much to capture these. See some of the best fire breathing and spinning photos taken of my troupe, Unifire Theatre, spanning 10 years of performance. Some of these photographers have managed to capture some absolutely amazing

  • Seshu V January 3, 2010 03:55 pm

    I tried to capture the scene of Lava meeting the ocean at night in The Big Island of Hawaii. Used a 70-250mm lens on Canon XSi. I had to zoom in to the max, as the volcano was pretty active that night. Please let me know if this looks good and how can I improve it:

  • Seshu V January 3, 2010 03:54 pm

    I tried to capture the scene of Lava meeting the ocean at night in The Big Island of Hawaii. Used a 70-250mm lens on Canon XSi. I had to zoom in to the max, as the volcano was pretty active that night. Please let me know if this looks good and how can I improve it:[eimg url='' title='78829732@N00']

  • Millard August 14, 2009 11:00 pm

    I am going to be photographing an industrial furnace for a client next week and I was looking for tips on photographing fire. Looks like I found some good tips. Thanks,

  • Daz January 26, 2009 03:17 pm

    Hi! Great knowledge being shared.I find this site very informative!

    I recently took a series of photos of a ceremonial burning of a mountain here in Japan (quite large scale)
    using a 400 mm lens. The results are here if you care to look.
    Thanks again!

  • Rich Lucas January 21, 2009 12:43 am

    I've just got my hands on a Canon 50mm f1.8 prime lens and a set of macro filters. After reading this article I decided to test the set-up on a lit match.

    The result can be found here:

  • Toggz January 20, 2009 11:57 am

    Some i took at a huge fire a few days ago in downtown Reykjavik, thankfully everyone got out in time.
    I hadn't read this when i took these but thanks for the pointers:

  • Matt Carter January 16, 2009 08:02 pm



    has some good photos

    Kind regards

  • Matt Carter January 16, 2009 08:00 pm

    A few from the fire ground



    Kind regards,


  • Raman Sharma January 16, 2009 04:33 am

    very nice tutorial.

  • Paul Sanduleac January 15, 2009 08:25 pm

    Thanks Peter

  • Peter Carey January 15, 2009 01:21 pm

    Awesome examples! I'm glad to see people get out and try it for themselves!
    Paul, it has no effect on the camera as far as damaging electronics, if that's what you're asking. As always with fire, just don't get too close!! But be careful of your eyes.

  • Paul Sanduleac January 14, 2009 11:41 pm

    Does taking pictures of fire affect the camera? Is it safe for the camera?

  • S January 13, 2009 09:26 pm

    Nice article...I will also like to know if capturing the Fireworks be considered other that capturing fire.....
    I tried to capture fireworks earlier but failed to get nice results...I dont have a SLR camera I use Canon S2 IS

  • Pauline Rendall January 13, 2009 08:56 pm

    Some lovely shots above. Here's one I took last week, and a couple of others from earlier. The second I used as a Christmas card, and the third is the same candles burnt down. The ISO is up at 400 though, as I thought that was they way to go. I'll try it lower next time.


  • Rajesh Dudwadkar January 13, 2009 03:57 pm

    Really superb techniques you are teaching, that too with easiest possible manner.

  • Debbie Schinker January 12, 2009 10:02 am

    This picture is one of the most viewed on my photoblog. I was holding the candle and the camera at the same time! I'm not great at shallow DOF (unless I'm doing macro flower shots), but I was pleased with the effect I achieved on this one.

  • Sam January 10, 2009 02:52 pm

    Burning large objects in the desert.

  • Sam January 10, 2009 02:45 pm

    A mushroom cloud that becomes a smoke ring!

  • Sam January 10, 2009 02:41 pm

    Here is my first almost successful attempt at capturing a fire dancer.

    I still have lats to learn, so keep up the good work.

  • Stephen January 10, 2009 05:31 am

    Last fall, I was playing around with my son and he had some sparklers. I like this one because it shows his face just a bit.

    I will definitly be doing this one again and playing around with flash on it.

    Thanks for the great material and inspiration.

  • Vinay January 10, 2009 02:41 am

    I had tried taking a photo of the fire some time back (probably 2 months back) when I was camping with my friends.

    Please check out the photo at the following location and give your valuable inputs on it.


  • Smitty January 9, 2009 06:13 pm

    This was done with a Canon Digital Rebel XT and a 50mm lens at 200 ISO.

  • Asha January 9, 2009 04:33 pm

    Thank you for this great tutorial! I am a beginner and would love to try this.

  • Ritvik January 9, 2009 02:51 pm

    While partying away in a club in Goa, India, caught a group of Fire Poi dancers and just snapped away these pics. A series of dance sequences left some amazing fire trails ... check them out at

  • Jules Terrad January 9, 2009 12:23 pm

    It really helps if you give examples with shooting information, that way, we get a clear idea of how it's done and do it ourselves =). Thanks so much.

    Here's one candle shot I did which I think I did with a bit of success, nothing pro, but I'm happy with it nonetheless. I shot it without tripod while at some beachfront resto in Boracay. I experimented countless times, and came up with this at 1/30th of a second at f/5.

  • Dan C January 9, 2009 07:47 am

    I quite like this one of mine... with lightning in the background.

  • Pancho January 9, 2009 06:03 am

    I prefer campfires. An endless game.

  • Gijs January 9, 2009 05:18 am

    At New Year's Eve I made some fun pictures of my kids and their friends waving a torch:

  • Sandy January 9, 2009 04:26 am

    I took these a little over a year ago.

  • Timothy January 9, 2009 02:10 am

    Nice post. Thanks.

  • Bryce Pollet January 9, 2009 12:58 am

    Great tutorial
    check out some of my fire pics "and leave me some comment love

  • Bam Roberts January 9, 2009 12:17 am

    Great stuff. Shooting Fire and light is probably my favourite subject, haven't done too many recently but this has inspired me to set fire to more things.

    Check out my Fire & Light set:

  • ramin January 8, 2009 08:10 pm

    I should really go through all of my fire and rescue shots and publish the publishable ones. But in the meantime here's a gallery that has picture from a house fire:

    Don't worry, the house was burned as an exercise - we don't usually stand around quite so relaxed. But the camera and photographer (me) were inside the building at times to get the shots.

    Note, remember your own safety and do not enter a burning building or go as near as I've gone. I'm a firefighter and had on all the necessary protective gear.

  • Sybren January 8, 2009 06:20 pm

    Last time I shot fire it was a block of buildings that was burning down:

  • Carolyn January 8, 2009 06:16 pm

  • Carolyn January 8, 2009 06:09 pm

    I agree it takes practice but luckily we can now preview our pictures and adjust the shutter speed, ISO, ect.

  • Kevin January 8, 2009 03:18 pm

    You know I've never thought taking shots of a single flame would prove to be quite difficult then again I've only recently got into photography.

    Will definitely try this out.

  • allan January 8, 2009 02:45 pm

    i think i got a nice one here...

  • mikeG January 8, 2009 10:39 am

    I'm a bit new to photography, i experimented with a few different types of flames not too long ago. let me know how i did. thanks!

  • Sean January 8, 2009 10:20 am

  • Sean January 8, 2009 10:19 am

    Aside from photographing campfires, I would recommend shooting welding scenes.

  • caroline January 8, 2009 09:19 am

    I shot this at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival last year:

    I have a whole series from his show, it was a lot of fun to shoot.

  • zacco January 8, 2009 08:04 am
    alot of these fire poi photos that i done are on shutter prioity,i also timed the loops or twirls to catch a near perfect shape

  • Skyler January 8, 2009 07:45 am

    Nice tutorial.

    I really enjoy taking photos of fire. It's a great challenge capturing such a violent part of nature. We recently burnt down a small shed at my parents house, here is the flickr set:

    I like taking a varied range of fire shots. Getting some of the darker stop flame shots, as well as some exposed to capture the burning embers

  • Pat Herz January 8, 2009 07:04 am

    I've been photographing fire performers for a few years now - took quite a while to master the technique. The mission is to capture a crisp, dramatic fire trail as well as a sharply focused face or performer. It's quite difficult to do both, as these people are in constant motion in very low light. Here's how to do it: set the shutter speed to 1/4 sec plus minus 1/4 sec; this allows enough time for a fire trail to develop, but not so much as to totally blur out the performer. Aperature is best at f11 - 14 or so. Let your flash freeze the motion, use a powerful unit if you have one, and adjust the power according the the distance from your primary subject, less power up close, more for farther away. But here's the real secret: set your flash to rear curtain sync. This setup allows the camera to see a developed fire trail for the amount of time the shutter is open, and the very brief flash at the end of shutter opening (rear curtain) freezes the performer in good focus. My early shots on flikr show good fire trails, but mostly blurred performers. When I went to rear curtain sync, I began to get good focus of everything. See my pictures at

  • mysticeyes January 8, 2009 06:25 am

  • Peter Carey January 8, 2009 05:54 am

    Michael, Jamie has taken some good shots. I like the last one most.

    Joni, That's a great shot of a sad incident. The framing with the fireman in the foreground helps bring in a human element.

    Natalie, Thanks!

  • TLCbull January 8, 2009 05:54 am

    I am a firebug and love to photograph flames. Here is a pic of my kid lighting a candle at Notre Dame. Only light came from candles.

  • Naveen Roy January 8, 2009 05:22 am

    I would love to get more opps to capture images of flames...

    My most viewed image on Flickr is actually an image of a campfire the way it came out..

  • Natalie Norton January 8, 2009 05:10 am

    I love this post. This can be tricky. Cool, different, fun. Love it. Good work Peter.

  • Joni January 8, 2009 04:58 am

    I happened to be there when a building nearby was burned completely. I didn't have any experience of taking pictures of fire back then, but managed to get some good shots. Hardest part was to set the exposure well. See for example:

  • Caroline Ghetes January 8, 2009 04:54 am

    Very useful info and will be putting it into practice. Thank you!

  • KV January 8, 2009 03:52 am

    I think this is a good discussion relevant for anyone that photographs wildfires. Many people post their wildfire photos online and it can benefit all (esp anyone trying to assess a fire from a photo) if some of the tips here are followed by the photographers. We have a lot of citizen journalists out there that might benefit from this tip!

  • Travis January 8, 2009 03:17 am

    I've found that you get a much better depiction of the flame when fire spinning if you stop down to f8 or f11 (I've gone down as far as f22).

    Here's some of my stuff.


    f11@0.75s with some added flash

  • sesh January 8, 2009 03:02 am

    Great tutorial. I just have a doubt if ISO sensitivity also plays a role when it comes to snapping stage shows of fire.

    Really it is tough to get it just right. Here is one of my attempts at it:

  • Digital Photography Tips January 8, 2009 02:33 am

    When shooting in these situations many people also automatically think they need to increase their ISO .. which is a bad thing. It will guarantee massive noise. As a stock photo administrator I see at least a dozen low light candle shots every day (they are pretty common) and everyone always bumps their ISO up on them .. and they get rejected for noise.

  • Ray Lee January 8, 2009 02:29 am

    Nice article.

    I uploaded a few fire photos to my flickr account, tagged fire: . These were all taken outside in pitch black conditions, so for the fire spinners (poi) the only illumination on the performers is from the fire itself.

  • Yngve Thoresen January 8, 2009 02:01 am

    I photographed a fire a little over a year ago. I'm quite happy with the results.

  • marinus January 8, 2009 02:01 am

    These techniques should apply to both signage and fountains at night.

  • Michael Warf January 8, 2009 01:50 am

    Photographing fire spinning would be a great opportunity. Only a few of our local photographers have taken the challenge. Here's Jaime Vedres formerly of Lethbridge, AB.

  • Jessie Hockett January 8, 2009 01:47 am

    My fire-shooting attempts:

  • Paul Johnston-Knight January 8, 2009 01:19 am

    Great tutorial - must do more of this - have a look at my one success with flames at the website address or here even better on a black background.

  • Zeeshan Kazmi January 8, 2009 12:18 am

    A great tutorial. By seeing great fireworks and similar images in magazines it may see that this is easy to do, but it definately does take a lot of patience and practice. Nice tutorial, will certainly help me in my next attempt. It might be of interest to see another tutorial on Colours Magazine about creating a Sin City Style look.

    Zeeshan Kazmi
    Colours Magazine