Fire comes in many shapes and sizes—from massive wildfires that race up hillsides at 20 miles per hour and burn hundreds of thousands of acres in a few days to the highly controlled fire used to inflate hot air baloons to the little flame at the end of a candle that’s being blown out at a birthday party.
What matters in fire photography and what’s important to the photographer isn’t the size of the flame but getting the correct mood and emotion that it creates.
Fire photography is challenging, especially when shooting in ‘auto’ mode. If the camera exposes for the flame, then the background will likely be very dark due to the difference between the darker ambient light and the bright flame.
If you use your flash without adjusting its output, or your camera automatically uses it in a low-light setting, you’ll notice two things:
First, that the flash overpowers the glow of the flames as it illuminates the entire scene; and, Second, it will create harsh shadows as the camera will default to a faster shutter speed. This combination will take away any natural or spontaneous feel of the photo – likely the very reason you took the picture in the first place.
So how do you capture both scene and flame? How do you reproduce the all-important mood created by firelight?
Slow your shutter speed
Above all else, good fire photography is achieved by mastering a combination of your shutter speed, aperture and ISO. As a general rule, the smaller the flame(s) the slower the shutter speed. This allows them to move and dance and help create a feeling. The slower the better, because your fire, in most situations, will be considerably dimmer than your background.
If your scene has movement that you don’t want expressed in the picture, too slow of a shutter speed may make things look blurry. You can ameliorate this by using a higher ISO.
Now, if people are dancing around a fire as here, you may want to capture the swinging of their arms and legs. Blurriness can add to the scene. It’s up to you to decide the effect you want.
Aperture size matters
For the most control, you need to experiment with different shutter speed/f-stop combinations. Larger apertures (f/2, f/2.8) let in more light and allow you to use longer shutter speeds.
They also change the effect of the flames. To try this out yourself, look at a fire with your eyes wide open, then squint and see the difference. This is the same difference a smaller lens opening has versus a larger one.
Controllable fill flash can also be of extraordinary help in making your fire photos come to life with added dimension. Using it at a (-) setting and mixing it with a slow shutter speed can accomplish great things around the campire. And don’t forget the tripod
Remember that every scene has countless variables that need to be taken into account—the level of movement, how far away your subject is from the flame, how much you wish to light the background, how intense the flame is, etc.
The great thing about digital cameras is you can check how your exposure settings worked and delete and adjust as necessary. After all, they’re only electrons.
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