Fire Trails

029_AbqFireDancerFire trails are a unique form of light trails created by fire in constant motion.

Fire trails are not well defined streams of light like those left by other light sources.

Fire streaking through the air, or running along the ground, creates flames all along the path of movement.

Opportunities to capture fire trails are rare indeed. Contained fires are usually stationary and burn as a hot mass. Out of control fires spread and grow in unpredictable ways, but frequently do create blazing trails along the way.

But let’s be smart. Trying to track down fiery trails in the middle of a fire emergency, like a burning building or a forest fire, might reap spectacular results, but is a lot more dangerous than wise. Not an activity being promoted here.

On the other hand, there are people who perform with fire in a safe and orderly manner. Such activity affords us the opportunity to capture fire in motion as an expanded moment.

Fire trails are a form of light painting in a controlled environment. The difference is that we are recording someone else performing the drawing with light, someone who’s a seasoned veteran and knows how to play with fire.

When we find such an event, it is a chance to capitalize on our practice of photographing light in all of its forms, and an opportunity to capture an uncommon image.

HOW TO : Photograph Fire Trails

Use the suggested f-stop outlined in aperture settings. Typical exposures should be just a few seconds to avoid overlapping trails.

Leave the shutter open only while the fire is in motion to capture the subtle details in the flames. Watch for patterns created by the moving flames to determine when to close the shutter.

Knowing how to photograph fire as outlined in my earlier post is a must.

IMAGE : Fire Dancer, Albuquerque, NM

I had the opportunity to photograph a practice session of a group of fire spinners as a part of my “Rhythm of the Night” portfolio for the Albuquerque Arts Program in 2010.

The fire trails were created by a man swinging burning balls hanging at the end of 2 ropes.

This image is the result of a 4 to 5 second exposure shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film. It was selected from 2 rolls of film I shot over a period of 2 hours. I captured a lot of variations, but this image was the most unexpected.

  • Mouse over the image above to view the original BW image without toning. If mouse over does not work, go to Fire Trails on my blog.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryFireGolden

The warm to hot toning was chosen to emphasize the fire trails by adding color contrast to the flames. This is a good example of using toning to colorize a black and white image.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile derived from the “GalleryFireGolden” Color Map created in Mac App SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Fire Trails

Seek out a group or an individual who performs with fire in the night. Get permission to photograph an event or a practice session. Always keep yourself and your camera at a safe distance from the flames.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that tossing or twirling burning objects around yourself to get shots of fire trails is a really bad idea. As they say, “Do not try this at home.”

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.

FEEDBACK : Fire Trails

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Fire Revisited

028_CarlsbadFireFightersWhere there is smoke, there is fire … and a lot of the time, firemen and fire trucks on the scene to get a blazing inferno under control.

Such an event gives us an opportunity to capture some great editorial shots of fire fighters in action.

The combination of the intensity of the fire, the glow of smoke, and firemen at work can be incredibly photogenic. We get to capture not only the movement of the smoke and flames, but also the activity of the fire fighters caught in the throes of what they do best.

Review how to photograph fire in my earlier post.

IMAGE : Fire Fighters, Carlsbad, NM

This was taken the same night as the fire and smoke images in the previous two posts. I captured these fire fighters just before the side of the building collapsed.

This image is a 1 second exposure shot at f8.

EXERCISE : Fire Revisited

Review the exercises in the posts on fire and smoke.

If you have the opportunity to photograph the scene of an out of control fire, try to capture shots that are dynamic, ones that portray the interaction of the firemen battling the flames.

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.

FEEDBACK : Fire Revisited

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NEXT TIME : “Fire Trails”


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027_CarlsbadFireTrucksSmokeSmoke is used in many songs, like “smoke gets in your camera’s eye.”

The use of smoke as a metaphor abounds.

There are a lot of sayings about smoke, but there isn’t a whole lot to say about it.

Like fire, smoke is ever changing. The constant movement of smoke in the breeze creates unlimited photo possibilities, from the powerful to the sublime.

The presence of smoke can appear as a thick cloud or a light mist filling the landscape. As shutter speeds increase, smoke morphs into a ghostly presence, giving us the opportunity to capture differing expanded moments.

We can utilize the presence of a smoke screen to mask unwanted visual distractions, and at the same time, reveal the essence of our chosen subject.

Smoke can turn an ordinary scene into something mysterious. The changing light caught in the smoke can soften a harshly lit setting, or make an action packed scene seem peaceful.

IMAGE : Fire Truck & Smoke, Carlsbad, NM

  • Mouse over the image above to view the scene without the cloud of smoke. If mouse over does not work, go to Smoke on my blog.

I had photographed the scene of this fire for over an hour. I was down to my last 3 shots. I wanted to capture the fire truck and fire fighters on the street.

A giant cloud of smoke swept across the scene from the ashes upwind to the right. As the smoke passed in front of me, I grabbed 3 shots of the fire truck peeking out of the haze.

The smoke did a great job of hiding the uninspiring aspects of my composition, revealing only the parts that caught my attention in the first place. Mouse over shows the image with the distracting details unhidden by the smoke.

This image is a 1 second exposure shot at f8. A 2 second shot might have given me more to work with, however the low key rendition matches the visual impact I witnessed at the moment of capture.


Of course, finding clouds of smoke to compose an image around is not that common.

But when you do get a chance, be sure to photograph it at various shutter speeds to familiarize yourself with the very different and dramatic effects smoke has to offer.

Also look for shots that use smoke to mask out undesirable portions of a scene.

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.


Leave comments on this post to share your ideas and experience, or ask questions.

NEXT TIME : “Fire Revisited”


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026_CarlsbadFireFires burn really hot, and can be really cool to photograph.

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.


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.


Leave comments on this post to share your ideas and experience, or ask questions.

NEXT TIME : “Smoke”


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