Photographing Fire: Great Images Born Through Experimentation

In the photographic community, there’s something truly elusive about a good photo of fire. Freelance photographer Cameron Richardson described the difficulties of capturing fire as “constantly changing shapes of the flames make an interesting and exciting challenge for a photographer. You never exactly know how the final result will look.

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But there are clear and unique obstacles that arise when shooting fire - from the practical, to the equipment based, to the stylistic. Here’s some advice on how to effectively capture one of nature’s finest ethereal treats.

Before You Even Pick up Your Camera…

Firstly, you need to consider how you’re going to create the fire to photograph. There are plenty of websites offering safe, small devices to create fire in your own home (or thereabouts). But you really have to consider the practical side of using fire for any artistic endeavour:

  • How will you contain it?
  • What precautions will you take to protect yourself and (potentially more importantly) your equipment against it?
  • Where will you perform your shoot?
  • Do you want to photograph a single flame or a raging inferno?

It sounds pretty basic but getting these concerns out of the way early will allow you to focus on creating a wonderful shot later down the line without the worry of setting any part of you on fire, which is obviously not a desirable outcome!

If you’re looking to work with large fires or explosives, it’s advisable to seek formal training in order to not only ensure safe practices but also to get the best out of your set-up. The New York Film Academy is one school which offers photography tuition in a variety of locations; it’s also worth bearing in mind that some states will have mandatory pyrotechnics laws which will govern what you’re trying to achieve.

Experimenting with Shutter Speed

Fire looks great photographed against a stark background, and with the distinctive and powerful shapes it can create, you can easily play with the shutter speeds to create completely different kinds of photograph. For example, with a fast shutter speed you can better capture the characteristic blur and strong colors of a smaller flame. A fast shutter (say, around 1/300 or faster) can also better capture the detail in fire, such as the breaks or shapes in the flame.

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However, with a slower speed you can create a more striking contrasts between your background color and a stronger, unbroken color of the continued flame - in particular, if you’re trying to capture the particular trail of the sparks or the intricate combustion process itself, a slower shutter speed will work better.

Composition and Framing

These work best with fire you are photographing as the focus of the shot; usually, it’s easier to control the fire as a statement focus as opposed to shooting, say, a campfire. Here, you’ll probably be focusing on the effect the fire has on the surrounding scenery (such as the light being cast on the people around it). But the kind of shutter speed and depth you’ll want to use will be dependent on what role the fire plays in your picture; you need to consider whether the fire will be an sidenote to the main focus of the picture, the main light source, or simply the only thing in shot.

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Once you’ve worked out which one of these best fits your needs, with some experimenting you’ll be able to work out in what state you want the fire to be captured. This will often dictate the level of ISO you’ll want to use - for fire as the only focus in the picture you’ll want to use a low ISO but if you’re using it to complement another part of the shot, a higher one is generally more suitable.

Orchestrating the Fire Itself

You can also control the color of the flame in post, but most photographers like a purer shot to capture the true colors of the fire. Color in fire is generally changeable as it’s dependant on a plethora of things: fuel, atmosphere, the size, depth and part of the flame you are shooting. You can create some beautiful shots toying with the color of smaller flames and natural gas fires, and as a bonus those kinds of flames are often easier to control…

… as before however (and it can’t be understated) do be careful when working with combustables, especially gasoline.

What Equipment is Best?

Naturally you won’t want to thrust your Canon 6D right into the inferno, but with a bit of common sense you’ll find that your existing gear will accomplish the job just fine. It’ll take some time to figure out exactly what settings will work best for your individual set up (which, in itself, is variable depending on the fire and environment you’re shooting it) but all you’ll need is patience and a rather adventurous spirit.

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If you’re looking to take things one step further, you can purchase fireproof camera housing if you’re planning to get very up close and personal with a larger fire although industry grade equipment can easily cost $1k and up. You can even go as far to invest in a fireproof helmet camera if you really want to throw yourself into the action and photograph huge fires (say, a forest fire), but the general consensus is that, as long as you’re relatively careful with your camera and don’t get carried away shooting too close to the flame you’ll be fine.

Experimentation breeds creativity, and nowhere does that hold more true in photography than when working with fire.

Oh, and did we mention to stay safe while doing so?