How to Improve Photography of Fire Breathers

 Fire breathers at  Wildfire Retreat , Summer 2015. Camera Settings: 1/160" @ f13, ISO 800

Fire breathers at Wildfire Retreat, Summer 2015. Camera Settings: 1/160" @ f13, ISO 800

I will make a few assumptions before I go into some detail with my best tips for taking photos of fire breathers:

You are using a dSLR, mirrorless dSLR, compact system camera, or whatever industry marketing-speak is for a camera that has manual controls and a decent lens with a good aperture range.

You are familiar enough with your camera to be using Manual Mode and you are capable of changing settings for auto focus (setting focus points and setting focus mode), shutter drive modes (single shot, or multi shot), etc.

Ideally you can do this by muscle memory so you don't have to take your eyes off the fire breather constantly.

You have a grasp of the "exposure triangle" and know that when you change one setting for one effect it will simultaneously brighten or darken the image and/or increase or decrease the range of your flash.

You have read, at the minimum, my most recent tips for photographing fire performers in general.

Ideally, you've read all six posts to date. There's a lot of what I consider to be my best tips for fire performer photography.

Your performer has a safety, and you have some familiarity with what a safety does, and are willing to step in immediately if something goes wrong.

You and everyone involved with your shoot/at the performance are sober, clear headed, know what you/they are doing, experienced, and have safety equipment and procedures in place.

You agree to hold me harmless in all ways for any loss to property, life, limb, and/or other physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual trauma caused by you, your assigns, your agents, your assistants, or anyone else involved in any way with your shoot or your subject's performance. Playing with fire is dangerous; not advised; not suggested; is stupid; you take your own life into your hands; do not try this at home; some assembly required; batteries not included; not for human consumption (seriously, don't drink the fuels involved); contents may be hot; do not attempt; danger, danger, danger, danger; you or someone else could be burned, maimed, injured, immolated, or killed, property damaged, heavens burned, and hell frozen over; it's not my fault, it's your fault, etc, etc.

Okay, ready? Let's get started. 

The camera settings I use to take photos of fire breathers are:

  • Aperture - Brighten or darken the flame. The higher the f/stop the more the camera squints at the light. This is crucial. I like to use apertures between f5.6 and f16
  • Shutter - Increase or decrease size of fire plume. The faster the shutter, the smaller and dimmer the plume. The slower the shutter, the larger and brighter the plume. With flash, changing shutter speeds also brightens and darkens the ambient exposure. I range between 1/160 - 1/2000 of a second.
  • ISO - Amplify signal from base. Basically, it brightens the image. The worst thing to have is amazing texture and siiiiiiiiick flames but a muddy, underexposed, dark subject. This happens all the time. Start at 100, of course, and work your way up. Often times I find myself around 800-1600 or 100-200; it always depends on the other settings.
  • RAW vs JPEG - Shoot RAW. Period. I'll show you why shortly.
There are some other factors to consider, though, outside of the above settings. Think of it like buying a computer. Everyone tends to focus on the same basic things: CPU, RAM and Storage. Just like there are more specs to consider when it comes to how good a computer system is, there are additional settings and options to consider with a camera system that can make a big difference to your final photo.
  • Flash - Provides fill light or key light. Really brightens your subject. Use a diffuser of some kind; direct harsh flash looks awful. Set on TTL and don't think about it. While on the subject of flash, make sure it has HSS (High Speed Sync) flash mode; otherwise, you'll only be able to use a shutter of about 1/200 of a second, depending on your camera. Limit the shutter and you have to really start paying attention to the other two sides of your exposure triangle. In simple terms, HSS lets you use your flash at any shutter speed you pick above 1/200 of a second. 
  • Auto Focus - Center focus point only. It's the most sensitive and accurate. Know how to lock focus with a classic half-shutter press or use back-button autofocus. Contrast helps with autofocus! Focus on clothing if it has stripes and your apertures are 5.6 or more (depth of field is very kind at those settings). If nothing else, focus on the torch head.
  • Zoom vs Prime Lens - I use primes with fast apertures, f1.4, f1.8, and f2.8. Zoom lenses typically fit between 3.5 at the widest angle and 5.6/8.0 at the full zoom, depending on how cheap it is. Expensive zooms will have good range, IS systems, and wide apertures through the full zoom range (typically f2.8). They are also bigger, more unwieldy, heavier, and much more expensive than your cheaper zoom lenses. For fire breathing photography, you can get away with the kit lens since you'll mostly be using f/stops 5.6 or higher, ideally, anyway.

As far as settings go, that's it. Think of these as guidelines more than hard and fast rules. It's important to know and be comfortable with how each setting supports, and is affected by changes in, the others.

Below, I've put together a few examples of fire breathing photos that I've taken over the years from my earliest attempts, to some of my most recent shots, in order to demonstrate some of the camera settings and concepts that I am describing.

Photos of William breathing fire at Petrified Forest III, Hartford, Maine, Autumn 2017

1/800" @ f9, ISO 200, HSS Flash, unedited, converted from RAW.

Edited to taste in Lightroom. RAW gives an enormous ability to brighten, tweak white balance, adjust contrast, open up shadows, and reduce highlights.

4" at f22, ISO 100, about 20mm, no flash. Siiiiiiiiiiiick texture in the flames behind William but the additional flame from his mouth combined with the wall of fire behind him and blew out all detail, even at the smallest aperture, and lowest ISO. This kind of shot is pretty much impossible to pull off in camera and would be brutal to try and convincingly manipulate multiple images in Photoshop.

Photo of Kevin breathing fire at Oasis, Summer 2010

1/125" @ f6.3, ISO 400, 85mm, eTTL Flash. Edited to taste in Lightroom. Notice the overall smoothness and flowiness of the flames but Kevin is sharp. Do you know why?

Photo of Fire Breathers at Oasis, Summer 2010

GREENFIELD, MA - 1/160" @ f5.6, ISO 100, 50mm, eTTL flash. Edited to taste in Lightroom. What caused the fire plume to show a little more detail while it still remained fairly smooth?

Artemis breathing Fire at Nahant Beach, Summer 2011

REVERE, MA - 1/160" @ f5.6, ISO 800, 50mm, eTTL flash. The only setting that changed between this image and the one above it is the ISO. It made all the difference in the world because the flames have been blown out and way over exposed. There is hardly any detail in the plume.

Photo of Fire Breather at Wildfire Retreat, Summer 2015

1/80" @f11, ISO 800, 50mm, eTTL flash. What went wrong?

Photo of Sarah breathing Fire at Wildfire Retreat, Summer 2015

1/160" @ f10, ISO 800, 50mm, eTTL Flash. What went right?

Fire Breathing Photography Final Exam (Haha!)

Artemis breathing fire at Cross-Pollination, Summer 2016 - 1/200" @f10, ISO800, 50mm, eTTL flash. 

William breathing fire at Petrified Forest III, Autumn 2017 - 1/1250 @ f9, ISO 200, 50m, eTTL flash.

These two final photos have vastly different Shutter speeds and ISO settings, but the f/stops are very close and the flash fired for both. Based on the shutter speeds alone, what can you describe that is different between each photo, including the flash?

What are your favorite fire breathing photography tips?