Easiest way I’ve found to learn to shoot fire

I haven’t got a ton of experience under my belt photographing people literally playing with fire, but there’s one type that has been unquestionably the easiest so far: fire breathers.  Specifically plural, because individual breathers are about as unpredictable (certainly fun to watch and get shots of, but unpredictable) as anyone else with a prop on the burn field.

A typical multi-person breathing session has tended to cycle through steps like this: 

What the fire breathers do What this lets you, the photographer, do
Choose a place to have everyone stand, interlocking limbs as necessary Walk around them (and the safety people on standby) deciding where you want to shoot from
Do one or more practice breaths without any fire involved, asking their watching safeties whether the wind & amount of force each breather used would’ve led to a safe fire plume or if anyone needs to adjust Compose the shot: see how each breather is going to lean, turn, or otherwise move from their starting position just before they expel fuel, see where the fuel is going to go, and walk around the group more if you want to re-adjust who’ll be in the foreground
Refuel Have your camera ready and make sure you’re not in the way of any safeties, audience members, or other shooters
Breathe fire Take one or more shots
Disengage from each other, doing additional individual-person, smaller fire breaths if they want to get rid of the unused fuel in their mouth Take yet more shots, particularly of the ones who come closer to you when disengaging. Their breath won’t be as bright as the combined one, but they’ll be closer, so you may not have to adjust camera settings at all to get a decent exposure. You may also be able to get the frontside of people who may have had their back to you just a moment ago
Gather enough safety people on standby for the next burn, possibly with additional breathers Chimp your shots and make adjustments for the next one, which will have more light if more breathers and torches are going to be involved

Even without asking them to do anything special or wait for you to be ready, this gives you ample time to poke at camera dials or buttons.  You also get more control over composition than you might have from standing at the edge of the prop burn field.  As far as I can tell, none of what I’ve been doing here interferes at all with the normal steps in their process, so they get to be just as safe and do burns just as often as they could without me hovering around them.

Once you get accustomed to the flow of events, all you have to do is patiently shoot and re-adjust yourself & your camera until you get the right amount of exposure from the flame.  All three of these examples were shot handheld and are shown straight out of the camera, before even looking at the Develop area in Lightroom to adjust them.

 

1/160, f1.6, ISO 500
One of my first breather shots, way too overexposed at 1/160, f1.6, ISO 500

 

Slightly better fire breather shot, but not by much, at 1/250, f2.0, ISO 200
Slightly better fire breather shot, but not by much, at 1/250, f2.0, ISO 200

 

Finally, a much better shot, at 1/500, f2.2, ISO 200
Finally, a much better shot, at 1/500, f2.2, ISO 200

Geek-out paragraph incoming: fire breathing gets bright enough that none of these absolutely required an expensive lens. The better two of these three could’ve been done just as well with a 50mm f1.8, which is one of the cheapest Canon still makes, costing about one-third what I paid for my 50mm f1.4.  And the worst of the three would’ve been less exposed (i.e. it would’ve turned out better) if I’d been forced by the cheaper lens to only be able to open up as wide as f1.8 instead of having it set wider at f1.6.  If you think you need to spend a fortune to be a photographer, there’s a good chance you’re wrong in the happy direction; maybe you only need to spend half a fortune.

To show the importance of learning to get proper exposure from your shots: if I slap the “auto tone” button in Lightroom, or if I use one of the bajillion Instagram-like filters available on the Internet (in this case, Seim Effects – Super Hero (PW3.5) from a free sampler pack of presets), then with one buttonpress I can show off our friendly badasses a little better:

 

Fire breathing example with Lightroom's auto tone applied
Fire breathing example with Lightroom’s auto tone applied

 

Different Lightroom preset applied
Example with different free Lightroom preset applied instead of auto tone

But I can’t use things that simple to try to rescue my earlier shot (shown here with Lightroom’s auto tone, hardly helpful enough)

 

Auto tone tries to get more detail out of the flames, but there's only so much you can rescue
You can try to get more detail out of the flames of a poorly-exposed shot (mostly on the left edge here), but there’s only so much you can rescue

 It’d take a lot more manual effort to rescue this thing, which is something I don’t have the patience to sit at my computer and attempt.  I’d rather sit and read a book learning to take better shots, or better yet, go out and practice in person.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this, and let me know what you’d like to see me write about next!

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