As a special effects fire photographer with mild pyromanic tendencies, I often get people asking me a bunch of questions on what they should think about/look into when shooting fire. I’ve compiled a list of tips that should help you out if you ever get called upon to shoot a fire show, capture a memorable moment of a friend lighting himself on fire, or even juggle fire on your own. (I’ll add an FAQ section at the end of this article, so if you have any questions, leave a comment below and I’ll add the answer to the article)
Disclaimer: You should only play with fire in the presence of trained professionals. Kids, don’t try this at home. Adults, you probably shouldn’t either. Fire is very dangerous and should never be treated lightly. Please make sure to read the safety section before scrolling down this article.
See the BTS video here
1. Make sure you’re in the presence of a trained professional
I can’t stress this part enough. You want a professional capable of preventing things from going wrong. You also want that same professional around when something goes wrong (and I say when, not if, because it happens.) If you happen to be lucky enough to be in Paris, France… check out Burn Crew Concept!
2. Wear organic, not synthetic
Organic clothing will burn whereas synthetic will melt. And while catching on fire doesn’t sound like the best of situations, I can assure you that it’s better than having something melt into your skin. It actually takes a lot longer for cotton to catch on fire whereas synthetic clothing will almost instantaneously melt. Don’t trust me? Try burning your shirt with a lighter. Of course, fire retardant materials like Nomex are even better but for someone who doesn’t work with fire much and who isn’t in direct contact, the best price/efficiency ratio is to have 100% organic cotton clothing handy.
3. Keep your stuff away from the fiery stuff.
Probably sounds stupid but when flammable fluids are out and about and you don’t quite understand what’s happening the best is to stay far far away. Photographers have the tendency to focus too much on their cameras and their target, but in these situations you want to stay hyperaware of what’s happening around you. Accidents happen and if everyone’s paying attention, it usually keeps things a lot safer.
4. Bring water and a towel
Though the professional there should have all safety materials, it never hurts to be too safe. If, for whatever reason, something goes wrong, a wet towel can solve a lot of your problems and put out most fires or even soothe a burn.
5. Beware the wind!
Wind can and will affect the flames. If possible, try to choose a day without wind or at least search for a sheltered location! If it’s too windy, the flames will RETURN onto a fire spitter!
Now onto the fun part…
Tips and tricks when shooting fire
1. Master your camera
Fire, as most of you probably know is a pretty volatile thing. The shape, texture and colour of the flame will vary depending on the type of material and fuel that is being used. Add onto the fact that the elements (wind, temperature) will also change how the flame reacts means that you need to really be on top of your game to come out of there with the results that you want.
Don’t get caught up in one camera setting, be sure to be able to chimp quickly and recalibrate. Whether your pyrotechnician is spitting fire, lighting himself on fire, or spinning poi’s he’s playing with resources that are literally burning away.
2. Underexpose rather than overexpose
Cameras today such as my D800E have a massive amount of dynamic range. This means that you can recover an amazing amount of detail from the shadows. The same can’t be said for highlights. Lightroom 4 in particular does an amazing job recovering detail.
Overexposed flames! No detail! Still cool… but could have been better! See the BTS video here
3. Using flashes? Add a CTO and a half!
If you plan on using flashes to capture some exciting motion blurs, keep in mind that fire burns a very strong orange! To preserve proper skin tones you’ll want your flashes to be properly gelled if you’re blending flash-frozen subjects with your flames. Failure to do so will result in ghostly white models or way-too-orange environments! Grab two 3/4 CTO gels and stack them!
See the BTS video here.
4. Shooting a fire show and don’t have time to change settings? Try Bracketing!
I don’t know about you canon folks but the Nikon D7000 and above has a nifty bracketing function which means that you can set your camera to shoot at a variety of exposure settings without ever needing to tweak your camera settings. This can be useful when you’re not sure what the next effect is going to be thrown your way as you can set your camera to capture in continuous burst a -2EV/0/+2EV (for example) series of images that will give you a greater chance of capturing the unexpected.
Of course, as you get more and more familiar with how a show goes, you can confidently toss your camera into manual and change settings without your eye ever leaving the viewfinder!
5. Capturing someone spitting fire? Fast shutter speed!
Fire spitting essentially consists of creating a miniature explosion. This means that you have an extremely rapid “movement” of expanding gas. As all you photographers know, what do you do when you want to freeze movement? You got it! Fast shutter speed!
See the BTS video here
6. Capture someone spinning fire? Slow shutter speed!
Similar to light painting, you can also do fire painting with a burning torch. Keep in mind that you can either keep your camera on a tripod to “burn” in the environment or you can paint with the camera too by moving or zooming it around.
Click HERE to see the BTS video and blog post!
7. Too easy? Try combining slow shutter speed, fast shutter speed AND flashes all at once!
Check out this article and BTS video I wrote on using multiple exposures to combine a slow shutter speed, fast shutter speed and flashes to create the image below.
See the BTS video & blog post to create this image here!
Hopefully these tips and tricks helped you out. Be sure to check back on Wednesday the 1st of Febuary for yet another exciting BTS video and article on my latest fire shoot 🙂 Subscribe to the newsletter to receive it straight in your email!
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