Q - How To Photograph Fire Performers?
A - US Army Basic Rifle Marksmanship
In Part One of this series of blog posts on how to take better pictures of fire performers, we covered how three compositional and conceptual elements help photojournalists and sports photographers create powerful images by depicting the human being, interacting with an object and struggling against adversity. In Part Two, the ideas of gaining consent and "Safety Third" are discussed as a way to continue the human focus. Performers are not props, they are people. There is nothing wrong with actually working with them, and the other people around them -- photography becomes a dance, as a result.
Which brings us to this post. You've now got the consent of the venue/promoter to photograph on location, and consent of the performer(s) to take pics of them from within the safety circle doing some really cool things with fire during a freeform performance, you've even asked if it is okay to use flash during some shots, and everyone is cool with it, and you've grabbed yourself a great spot, but holy hell, they move fast! How are you supposed to take a good shot if they're constantly moving?
You can either wait until they line back up, at some point, with you and your position or you can say screw waiting and begin moving with them. You can be a passive marksman, or a kinetic shooter. Both have their advantages, and disadvantages.
BASIC RIFLE MARKSMANSHIP:
When I was in the Army, we were taught the Four Fundamentals of Basic Rifle Marksmanship.
Steady Position - Your stance, grip, body position, orientation, all combine to give a relaxed and steady platform to shoot from.
Proper Aim - You're consistently looking properly down the barrel through your sites, to your target.
Breath Control - Your breathing is relaxed and steady, not elevated and erratic.
Trigger Squeeze - You aren't pulling the trigger, you're gently squeezing it, so that the act of actuating the trigger itself does not throw off your aim.
What does any of this have to do with shooting a camera?
Especially when a dark environment, using typically much slower shutter speeds, and relying longer focal lengths all combine to cause any minor unsteady movement of the camera to be more greatly magnified increasing overall motion blur. Add to that much wider apertures (with the right lenses, you'll be between 2.8 all the way to 1.4 and fiddling with ISO in order to raise those shutter speeds faster) and your depth of field gets razor thin.
In my experience, shooting a camera is no different from shooting a rifle and the basics of hitting a target are no different than getting a sharper, well composed photograph:
Steady Position - Hold the camera with both hands, one on the camera body and the other steadying the lens and acting as the support for the camera, lens and possibly an external flash.
Proper Aim - Look through the viewfinder, held to your dominant eye, pulled in lightly against your face for additional steadying. I shoot with both eyes open. It helps greatly with situational awareness.
Breath Control - Steady breathing helps to lower your heartbeat, and muscles to relax, reducing a tense/anxious grip, and camera sway as a result.
Trigger Squeeze - I keep my finger lightly on the shutter release button, half-pressing to lock focus, and re half-pressing to re-lock focus (I tend to shoot in single focus mode, rather than servo focus, preferring to control autofocus myself). When I actually release the shutter to take a photo, it's a matter of a very light twitch. When the camera fires, I do not fully remove my finger from the shutter button. I reduce pressure until the internal spring resets -- you can feel it reset, it's subtle -- it me to helps take follow up shots quickly, with the same focus.