Q - How To Take Better Photographs Of Fire Performers?
A - Get bored. It's okay.
In Part One of this series on how to improve fire performer photography, we looked at how the discipline of photojournalism brings the focus back to the human being behind the fire prop. In Part Two we covered Consent Always and Safety Third. Performers are people, first. Not props. Treat them with respect. In Part Three, we looked at how learning to shoot a camera is essentially the same as Basic Rifle Marksmanship. In Part Four, we took the rifle concept a step further and looked at Shoot, Move, Communicate is useful for photography as it is for combat.
Are you bored, yet? I hope so. That's exactly the point of this post.
Photographing fire performers and flow artists has become a specialty of mine over the years. Obviously not every prop is fire based and not every prop is represented but every event that I have been to since 2010 has had its share of some combination of fire eaters, fire breathers, poi spinners, hoopers, dragon-staff spinners, fan dancers, pixel whips, levitation wands, palm torches, glovers, and so on, and they are inevitably surrounded by the folks and photographers who love them. More often than not I end up seeing the same people, regularly, with the same props at all the semi regular events, weeklies, monthlies, and outdoor festivals I've been to whether or not they are jam band based events, Christmas themed raves, or psytrance oriented festivals.
I'll tell you a big secret. As a photographer, I find it all very boring. And that is perfectly okay.
My Very First Photos of Fire Performers
Art and artistic expression is necessary and healthy and very human. It's easy to fall into a routine, a creative rut, without even realizing it. It's normal and it will happen. Same with boredom. It, too, is normal, will happen, and is perfectly okay. As an artist, photographer, musician, fire performer, flow artist, author, welder, banker, real estate agent, partner, spouse, parent -- as a human being -- recognizing when boredom strikes, understanding why you feel stagnant, and using it as motivation to change, is absolutely necessary in order to grow.
Can you imagine how a photographer who specializes in, say, weddings feels at having to take the same types of shots from a set list of must-haves, with the same general flow of activity, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year?
Let's take this even farther. Can you imagine being, say, Morbid Angel and having to record music that sounds very similar to their debut album ("Altars of Madness" is a fucking classic!) for the next twenty years and then also ending up only playing the same songs from your first four albums? Concert after concert, album after album, city after city, country after country, year after year? What if Anne Rice only wrote about Vampires? What if Mike Myers only did characters with Scottish accents? What if Enya's musical career involved releasing multiple variations of that one album with that "Sail away, sail away, sail away" song?
Unfortunately, Mike Myers became typecast with Scottish accents, and Enya got stuck on "Watermark." They became boring. Thankfully, for the rest of us, Morbid Angel released albums that sound different from each other and Anne Rice wrote porn.
So, as a photographer, how do you avoid falling into the pit of boredom? For starters, understand that you cannot avoid it. Secondly, put the camera down and walk away. For an hour. For a day. For a week. For a month. For a year. Whatever. Find something else to do. Maybe photography isn't your thing, and you realize you enjoy shooting guns instead of cameras? Maybe it's the subject matter -- fire performers have lost their .. uh .. spark for you -- and you really like fine art nudes? Maybe you just cannot stand people at all and prefer landscapes?
Maybe, though, photography is your life's blood and you really enjoy the energy and warmth and genuine compassion from flow artists? Have you considered that you could put the camera down and mingle? Get out from behind the lens and really put yourself out there. You could always pick up a set of poi and try your hand at spinning. One photographer I know is currently trying his hand at spinning behind the DJ decks and experiencing his "scene" from a different perspective entirely.
For me, whenever I get bored at an event, I'll almost inevitably start grabbing random people for some on the spot portraits. Whatever it takes. For example, at last year's Fractalfest I made the choice to let others concentrate on the glory shots of the stage, the different DJs, producers, and the various bigger-perspective moments that always get the attention. I wanted to experience Fractalfest differently from the past incarnations that I attended so I chose to primarily stalk the dance floors, photograph The Firefly Caravan, the art projects, and interact more with the attendees, strange creatures, masked characters, and live blog about the experience whenever possible. When photographing fire spinners at Petrified Forest III in Maine, I set up a spot to do portraits of people with a wall of fire behind them.
During my second festival, ever, at Tir Na Nog in Saratoga Springs, NY, I ran into my friend Kaitlyn after putting my camera away, and nearly quitting photography all together, who asked to do some portraits. Under the conditions that we were under, giving explanations while photographing was particularly difficult, so I asked her to just do whatever came to mind and I would try to take some shots. After about fifteen minutes, I was distracted by someone who decided to nearly set himself on fire next to me while pouring Kaitlyn's fuel onto a dying fire pit (no, seriously, dude was that fucked up), so after making sure no one was injured or killed, I shouted back over, "KAITLYNNNNN, I don't care what you do, just keep moving, PLEASE?.."
Kaitlyn at Tir Na Nog in Saratoga Springs, NY
My photography has changed completely as a result of taking these images of Kaitlyn. I am forever grateful.
So, how do you improve your photography of fire performers by getting bored? Simple. Over exposure. Over and over again. Repetition until you're numb and ready for something different. Grow so used to, and comfortable with, whatever you have been photographing that it becomes routine and boring. Wallow in the boredom, and then look around you for something different. There are always photographic opportunities when you get sick of the boredom and decide to look for them.
For starters, I'll assume that you're aiming for light trails? Good. It's a given in this genre. Go for it. Get it out of your system. Photograph every poi spinner you find. Look for the hoopers at events (they're everywhere). Go to a rave and look for the glovers, usually they are in a darkened corner giving someone a light show. Photograph them over and over again until you get sick of it and then use that rut to motivate you into trying something different.
For me, I hit that boredom point long ago. At some point, every photographer ends up dazzled by the pretty lights and challenged into recording mesmerizing textures and patterns to the detriment of a good shot of the performer behind the lights. I don't really focus on that anymore. Rather than photographing light trails, I aim for faces and the try to photograph performer. Light trails are just a secondary element in the shot, they're just another prop.
If you've been following this series on improving fire performer photography at all, none of this should be a total surprise, or shocking advice, and is applicable to any kind of people-centered photography.
To take it one step further as a photographer, try any or all of the following:
- Get away from Auto settings.
- Try change modes on the P/A/S/M dial. (P/Av/Tv/M if you use Canon)
- Change lenses.
- Change cameras.
- Change apertures.
- Change shutter speeds.
- Vary the size of the heads in your photos.
- If you think you are close, get closer.
- Get even closer. (If you're careful, there is no such thing as too close)
- Remember Consent Always and Safety Third.
- Be okay with happy mistakes. I made friends with fire faeries entirely by accident.
- Make eye contact, and try silent communication. Direct with your hands.
- Incorporate different lights into the shot.
- Use people as foreground elements.
- Look for the goofy faces, and record their expressions! Everyone makes them.
- Stalk other photographers.
- Try 2nd curtain sync flash vs 1st curtain sync, and see what difference it makes. (Spoiler alert: it makes no difference to the final image, it only changes the timing)
- Use multiple lights. Mix it up. LED video lights. Remote triggered flashes.
- Engage in color fuckery: Change white balance. Then gel the flashes.
- Don't use a tripod during a long exposure. In fact, move around during the exposure. Fuck it up deliberately. Shake the damned camera. Twist it. Rotate it. Pan it.
- Or use a tripod. With a remote-shutter release. On Bulb Mode, if your camera supports it.
Finally, if this series of blog posts has not made it plainly obvious, by now, it is my opinion that if you want to improve your fire performer photography then the best photography tip I can give is to stop trying to photograph the fire and start photographing the performer.
It will absolutely change your entire photography technique, I promise.