Unfortunately, fires are too often unexpected, unwelcome, and unpleasant events.
But still they can be a great opportunity to capture some really spectacular shots.
From a photographic standpoint, fires fall into one of two categories: under control and out of control.
Controlled fires, like campfires, make for a serene and tranquil setting. Small fires as a part of a gathering are a chance to capture a quiet and thought provoking moment.
On the other hand, uncontrolled fires can be extremely intense and visually dramatic. Photographing them is exceptionally challenging because we must respond quickly and cautiously to capture the ever changing moments.
Most light sources we see at night are unchanging points of light. No matter how bright, they are easy to handle as visual elements. But fire burns as a changing mass of light, creating both technical and compositional challenges.
Artistically we want to capture a subtle sense of movement of the smoke and flames, and also record the neighboring landscape lit by the fire. Sub-second exposures will typically capture the blaze, but may still under expose the rest of the scene.
Fire on its own is something that invites contemplation and personal reflection, but does not necessarily make for a compelling photograph. It is the relationship of fire to its setting that gives an image visual strength and evocative power.
The challenge is two fold. Not only do we need to be in the right place at the right time, but we also need to compose an image that captures the interaction of the fire with the people and things in its environment. An interesting mix of luck and presence is needed, because fire as a visual element is constantly changing in shape, size and light intensity.
Keep in mind that fires can be very dangerous, so always practice safety first. Keep your distance from the heat. In other words, don’t use a wide angle lens close up.
HOW TO : Photograph Fire
Fires burn unpredictably, but we can still manage our exposures correctly. Light metering will be inaccurate when facing a massive fire, but will provide what we need to get started.
- begin by setting your f-stop to that recommended in aperture settings
- take a light meter reading, keeping in mind that this will cause under exposure
- multiply the shutter speed by 4 for your initial exposure
- follow the exposure guidelines using this as your starting point exposure
- capture a range of exposures for each scene if possible
- concentrate on grabbing as many variations as you can
IMAGE : Fire, Carlsbad, NM
I was driving around one night looking for something to photograph when I found myself surrounded by smoke. I turned into the wind to find the source, a burning building on the corner of a residential neighborhood.
I began shooting, and kept on shooting from various vantage points, until the building was a pile of hot embers on the ground. I was invited to move back many times by firemen.
My shutter speeds were short, between 1/8 and 1 second. This image is a 1/8 second exposure shot at f8, chosen from a series of similar images.
EXERCISE : Fire
You can’t exactly go out and find a blazing inferno to photograph when you feel like it. But you can be prepared for the night you might happen upon one.
Practice by photographing a campfire and its surroundings. Experiment by bracketing a wide range of exposures to familiarize yourself with what to expect.
Know in advance what your initial aperture setting and shutter speed should be, because you will have to respond quickly to capture what you see as it unfolds.
Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.
FEEDBACK : Fire
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NEXT TIME : “Smoke”
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