Some thoughts on fire photography

First off: I would like to apologize to the readers I still have that I never get around to updating here. I am aware that I'm writing less than once I was planning to.


I have grown very interested in photography, as those of you who have seen my photo-a-day blog will have noticed. With the growing interest, I also notice a growing awareness of photography and of pictures, and I start thinking about how I would do things.

Such as this last weekend. There was a wedding. There was a wedding celebration. At one point we ended up down at a beach, watching a fire show. A friend of mine was running out of space on his memory card, so left his camera with me and ran to get the next card.

So I took some photos of the fire dancing (I haven't gotten access to them myself just yet, they'll be posted on my photo blog when I get hold of them). And I realized some things about how to photograph fire dancers. I'll enumerate a few of me recent (though I am convinced, not original) insights here. Worth noticing is that they are pretty much all inherently contradictory, emphasizing the *craft* aspect of photography.

Light juggling

1. Darkness matters. Large parts of the beauty of fire photography comes from actually seeing the fire, even from the fire being the main actor in the image. Hence, it helps if the fire light doesn't have to compete with ambient light. Pick a nice location, wait until late enough in the evening that ambient light is dim if not dark.

2. Long exposures. Conveying the motion of the flames in a fire dance gets easier and all the more impressive if each individual flame becomes a bright, vivid streak of light, tracing out the curve of the dance. You get this with long exposures. The longer the better: time really does translate pretty much directly to vivid visuals here.

3. Sharp facial features. A dancer dancing blurs. This is kinda the point of the item #2 above. Blurring the fire, and limbs, imbues a sense of motion, a sense of action to the picture. However, blurring the face removes the feeling of humanity more than anything else. Keeping the dancer immobile giving them sharp, recognizable features while still moving their extremities and the fire will make for a truly iconic fire dancing picture.

4. Slow dances. Related to all of the above, a slow fire dance will accomplish several things for us as photographers:
a. Dancing slowly means the fire moves slowly. If you've ever watched a fire dancer, you'll notice that when the fire moves slowly, it burns with a large, bright yellow flame, illuminating the area around it. Instead, when moving fast, the fire flickers, burns in a dim hot blue, and illuminates much less.
b. Dancing slowly means the dancer moves less, helping to keep the dancer sharp at the core.

After the performance this weekend, I talked to the performers, and I might be given the chance of making a dedicated photo shoot with them juggling fire. I am already making plans for the photo shoot: how to stage it, what to do and how. Expose for about -1, maybe -2ev, against the background, illuminating the juggler with their fire, but keeping the background visible and interesting. Posing them — with the fire — on a jetty, so that the fire dance is reflected in the water. And asking them to try and keep their face stationary, while twirling fire, and exposing at somewhere in the range of 1/2-3".

At least that's my current plan.