How to Improve Photography of Fire Fans

 Danielle MacNevin with her fire fans, surrounded by fire faeries. F1.6 @ 1/160", ISO1600

Danielle MacNevin with her fire fans, surrounded by fire faeries. F1.6 @ 1/160", ISO1600

Fire Fan and Palm Torch Photography

In my last post, before I covered how to photograph fire breathers, I made several assumptions about your photography, some of which I will repeat here:

  • You have access to a camera with manual settings.
  • You know how to change those settings relatively quickly.
  • You're familiar with how Aperture, Shutter, and ISO interact with each other both with exposure and with each individual setting's other effects.
  • You've read other parts of this series on photographing fire performers. In particular, you have read this one:
  • Your performer has a safety and you, yourself, are comfortable with being a safety if needed.
  • You and everyone involved are clearheaded, sober, have safety equipment and procedures in place.
  • You hold me harmless for anything that may happen as a result of anything that you or the performers do.

Ready? Good, let's begin.

 Kayla Jane Feist at a portrait photography session with her palm torches. There were two external flashes set up with softboxes for keylight (about 8 o'clock) and fill light (about 2 o'clock). A wide-angle Tokina 11-16mm lens gives the photo added impact. F5.6 @ 1/100", ISO800.

Kayla Jane Feist at a portrait photography session with her palm torches. There were two external flashes set up with softboxes for keylight (about 8 o'clock) and fill light (about 2 o'clock). A wide-angle Tokina 11-16mm lens gives the photo added impact. F5.6 @ 1/100", ISO800.


In this post I am going to discuss primarily fire fans; however, things are also applicable to palm torches since they are functionally similar from a photography perspective.

Of all the fire props and flow toys out there, my favorite to photograph are fire fans for two simple reasons: 

  1. Fire fans, more than any other prop, are an effective two-light source. A key-light and a rim-light, fill-light, or back-light.
  2. There is always a natural pause in movement at full extension just before a transition to another movement and, if you're lucky, great expression. 

Settings can vary, depending on what you're going for. Can you get siiiiiiiiiiick textures in the flames? Sure, but often times at the expense of all that fantastic portrait lighting, by underexposing the performer. You can even get some fire trails with fans, with some siiiiiiiiiiick flames. If that is your goal, then be sure to have some softened speedlight flash ready and use 2nd curtain sync to help time the shot. I am always amazed at the ability of flash to freeze motion on long exposures, as long as your ambient light is dark enough.

 Dani Rei and some siiiiiiiiiiiiick textures at Wildfire Retreat. F16 @ 1", ISO400.

Dani Rei and some siiiiiiiiiiiiick textures at Wildfire Retreat. F16 @ 1", ISO400.

 Dani a few moments later. F16 @ 1", ISO800, eTTL flash.

Dani a few moments later. F16 @ 1", ISO800, eTTL flash.

Personally, I like to treat a fire fan performance as a candid portrait session with highly variable light placement. My focus will be to watch for, and expose for, those expressive moments so, for me, I want fast shutter speeds to freeze motion and apertures as wide as possible to force those faster shutter speeds with ISO around 800-2000 to help with skin exposure. Typically I'll be around f1.8-f2.8, and shutter speeds ranging from 1/25" to about 1/800". For certain shots, I've pushed to 1/4000" with a wide open aperture and ISO2000.

The challenges at those extreme apertures happen when wider apertures create an incredibly thin depth of field, and auto-focus getting easily fooled by the very bright shiny light source that can get between you and the face, a mere arm's length behind it. If you can be positioned so that the fans are at a near right angle from you and the performer at full extension, the odds of such a thin depth of field becoming apparent are greatly minimized.

 Emily Gandolfo (f) and Jenny Suh (r) at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors' Summer Solstice Celebration. Notice how thin the depth of field becomes at f1.4, and how easily auto-focus can get fooled by the closest bright and contrasty object in front of it? Also, notice that, even though the shutter speed is so quick, there isn't a lot of siiiiiiiiiiiiiick flame texture? Why? F1.4 @ 1/4000", ISO 2000.

Emily Gandolfo (f) and Jenny Suh (r) at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors' Summer Solstice Celebration. Notice how thin the depth of field becomes at f1.4, and how easily auto-focus can get fooled by the closest bright and contrasty object in front of it? Also, notice that, even though the shutter speed is so quick, there isn't a lot of siiiiiiiiiiiiiick flame texture? Why? F1.4 @ 1/4000", ISO 2000.

 Danielle MacNevin at a small party in Boston, MA. F1.8 also creates a very thin depth of field, but Dani's arms are not at full extension. As a result, even though the camera focused on her knuckles, there was enough depth of field to create a pleasing shot with her amazing smile still recognizable. F1.8 @ 1/200", ISO1600.

Danielle MacNevin at a small party in Boston, MA. F1.8 also creates a very thin depth of field, but Dani's arms are not at full extension. As a result, even though the camera focused on her knuckles, there was enough depth of field to create a pleasing shot with her amazing smile still recognizable. F1.8 @ 1/200", ISO1600.

Because focus becomes so challenging at wider apertures, whatever features your camera has for auto-focus tracking and continuous auto-focus, etc, become crucial. Learn about backbutton auto-focus. Make use of those features as often as you can. Some would also suggest turning on Servo mode, or continuous shot mode. You know, that 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 - 20 frames per second your camera is capable of. As much as I hammer on the idea of using Manual exposure mode, you could try the "Sports" Scene mode, if your camera uses it, as a starting point. 

Speaking of Manual mode, personally, I tend to use Single Shot auto-focus with the classic half-press of the shutter to engage and lock focus and Single Shot mode rather than focus-tracking auto-focus and Servo mode, because I prefer to maintain as much control over the shooting process as possible. It's something I will continuously adjust while looking through the viewfinder, until I take the photo. For follow up photos, I won't raise my finger all the way, in favor of keeping the half-press on the shutter button. This is not the way you're normally taught to handle action shots.

Think of it as having an A, B, and C position on the shutter release button. A = Your shutter finger is lightly rested on the shutter button. B = You half-press on the shutter to engage and lock auto-focus. You'll feel it. C = Push the shutter button all the way to take a photo. 

Most people will only follow this finger sequence: A (Rest) -> B (Auto-focus) -> C (Shutter release) -> A (Reset) before preparing to take the next shot.

Instead, try this finger sequence to improve shot to shot times: A (Rest) -> B (Auto-focus) -> C (Shutter Release) -> B (Auto-focus) -> C (Shutter Release)

If you're familiar with shooting a fire-arm, and riding the trigger's reset between shots in order to increase shooting speed, you'll find sequence this very familiar.

By altering your finger sequence, you can also improve your odds of nailing focus in single-shot focus mode, the way I do. Track the performer with the camera held to your dominant eye, while keeping both eyes open: A (Rest) -> B (focus) -> A (Reset) -> B (Focus) -> A (Reset) -> B (Focus) until you're ready to shoot on -> C (Shutter) -> B (Focus stays locked) -> C (Shutter) -> B (Focus stays locked) -> things changed so then A (Reset) -> B (Focus) -> A (Reset) -> B (Focus) -> C (Shutter), etc.

 Brittny Popolizio performing with her fire fans at CoSM's Summer Solstice Celebration. Having both eyes open while looking through the viewfinder, and the continual A, B, A, B, A, B (hold), A (Reset), B (Hold), C (Shutter) auto-focusing technique and a fast shutter speed made all the difference in capturing a lit fire fan in mid-toss. F1.4, 1/1600", ISO2000.

Brittny Popolizio performing with her fire fans at CoSM's Summer Solstice Celebration. Having both eyes open while looking through the viewfinder, and the continual A, B, A, B, A, B (hold), A (Reset), B (Hold), C (Shutter) auto-focusing technique and a fast shutter speed made all the difference in capturing a lit fire fan in mid-toss. F1.4, 1/1600", ISO2000.

 Jenrick Yabut dancing with palm torches at CoSM's Summer Solstice Celebration. Having a colorful background helps create separation and adds depth to an image. A, B, A, B, etc auto-focusing helped to keep focus on peak movement. F1.6 @ 1/800", ISO2000.

Jenrick Yabut dancing with palm torches at CoSM's Summer Solstice Celebration. Having a colorful background helps create separation and adds depth to an image. A, B, A, B, etc auto-focusing helped to keep focus on peak movement. F1.6 @ 1/800", ISO2000.

It takes a bit to get used to, but once you're used to it, your auto-focus and shot to shot times improve all while you maintain as much control over your camera as possible.


So, to summarize fire fan photography:

  • Make full use of the two-point lighting that fire fans or palm torches create. If there is any light in the background, even better; you now have a three-point lighting system at your disposal.
  • Watch for natural pauses in movement. That is your best chance to catch a performer in a pose at their most expressive. Those pauses also are less likely to be motion-blurred by the performer while your shutter speeds decrease due to dimmer flames over time.
  • You ARE adjusting your shutter speeds to maintain exposure while the flames dim, right?..
  • Be wary of thinner and thinner depths of field as you push your apertures wider.
  • Focus becomes critical. If your camera has subject tracking auto-focus, use it. If you have Ai Servo focus or something similar, use it.
  • Since you're shooting fast action, use Servo mode and make use of the fast frames per second rates your camera is capable of.
  • Then throw all that out the window and really work to improve your use of Single Shot mode and Single Shot Auto-focus by shaking off the usual A, B, C shutter finger sequence and altering it to improve on auto-focus and shot to shot times.
  • Speaking of auto-focus, I only use a single focus point. The center one.
  • If you use any kind of auto-focus zone, set it to a small zone focus area, centered on the center focus point. It's always the most sensitive one.

Additional Sample Photos

 Danielle MacNevin practicing for her Burning Man Conclave's performance at Wildfire Retreat. Everything combined to create an powerful image of a fire fan performer: Focus locked on eyes, shallow depth of field to keep focus on her face, frozen motion, intense expression, and perfect clamshell lighting from the fire fans. F2.8 @ 1/125", ISO1600.

Danielle MacNevin practicing for her Burning Man Conclave's performance at Wildfire Retreat. Everything combined to create an powerful image of a fire fan performer: Focus locked on eyes, shallow depth of field to keep focus on her face, frozen motion, intense expression, and perfect clamshell lighting from the fire fans. F2.8 @ 1/125", ISO1600.

 Lee Loo, performing at the Quincy Quarries during a winter photoshoot. Another example of fire fans perfect used as a portrait light source. F2.8 @ 1/50" ISO800

Lee Loo, performing at the Quincy Quarries during a winter photoshoot. Another example of fire fans perfect used as a portrait light source. F2.8 @ 1/50" ISO800

 Xeina Abh performing with her palm torches at Kiss Me Like the Ocean Breeze II in Brooklyn, NY. Another example of the flash's ability to freeze movement. F6.3 @ 1", ISO3200, eTTL flash.

Xeina Abh performing with her palm torches at Kiss Me Like the Ocean Breeze II in Brooklyn, NY. Another example of the flash's ability to freeze movement. F6.3 @ 1", ISO3200, eTTL flash.

 Cori Leah at Petrified Forest III in Hartford, ME. Fire fans as the keylight, and LED lighting in the background for backlighting. F2.0 @ 1/100", ISO3200.

Cori Leah at Petrified Forest III in Hartford, ME. Fire fans as the keylight, and LED lighting in the background for backlighting. F2.0 @ 1/100", ISO3200.