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Boston's Most Imperfect Photographer

How to Improve Photography of Fire Performers, Part 1

How to Improve Photography of Fire Performers, Part 1

Q – How To Photograph Fire Performers?

A – Practice Sports Photography.

What Makes a Powerful Photograph?

As photojournalists, we are taught that powerful images revolve around the human element and their struggle within the environment around them. In those images, the human expends energy to overcome an obstacle. Success or failure is is irrelevant — what matters is the emotion captured in that moment. 

So what makes a great photo? Three simple elements:

  1. Effort – A human being struggling.

  2. With Something – A ball, a baby, a partner, an animal, themselves, whatever.

  3. Adversity – An opponent, a sidewalk, rain, Donald Trump, racism, you get the idea.

That’s all.

How to Improve Photography of Fire Performers, Part 1
2011-03-12 Western Mass Div I High School Basketball Finals at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: Amherst vs Longmeadow

In the case of a great sports photograph, the most memorable images capture, in an single instant, a three-way marriage of:

  1. The athlete’s EFFORT

  2. With a BALL

  3. To “overcome ADVERSITY.”

In the example photograph, those elements are demonstrated by the combination of the basketball player taking a shot for Amherst High School, off-balance, while nearly triple-teamed as her teammate and the crowd behind her anxiously watches. The photograph also leaves you with potential unanswered questions:

Does she make the basket or does she miss? (Nailed it)

Did her team win or lose? (They won)

Finally, images from both the winning and losing side(s) help to frame the story. To hijack something the narrator for “Wide World of Sports” once described, the best images capture “…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”


How to Improve Photography of Fire Performers, Part 1
Julie Dion in a backbend buzzsaw at the Quincy Quarry, Quincy, MA.

Conceptually, there is absolutely no difference in elements when photographing fire-performers in action than when photographing a basketball player. A powerful photograph is created, in an instant, when the performer is caught in a three-way dance combining:

  1. The performer’s EFFORT

  2. with a PROP

  3. in the face of ADVERSITY (of danger, of failure, a photographer getting too close, etc).

In the case of this photograph, those elements are depicted in the effort it takes for Julie to:

  1. Bend backwards

  2. Spin fire poi

  3. Maintain balance, and composure, while in an unnatural position in the dead of winter.

What are some possible unanswered questions that you could consider as a result of Julie’s photo?


Finally, what about the three-way challenge that exists when a photographer:

  1. Makes EFFORT

  2. With their gear

  3. against ADVERSITY (level of experience, technical limitations, environmental challenges, performers, other people, etc)?

Sometimes, shit happens. Flames don’t ignite, settings are way off, batteries die, motors fail, people get in your way, and if you’re really lucky, better fire performer photography should be. I’ll give you a hint — it is not on the fire.

For example, have ever heard of the concept of “Safety Third?”


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