Create More: Episode 4
Shooting on the fly.
Looks like blogging fell off the radar - whoops. In any case, what are we looking at now? Well, with another season of Mindil under our belt I thought I'd take you through my process of shooting on the fly.
For those of you who haven't been around my stuff for too long, @thomasrobinsonfire (my partner in crimes and good times) and I live in Darwin, Australia's most northern capital city. Darwin is a dream, it's a country town by the beachside where the sun sets over the water and the weather is always perfect. It is the perfect city and Mindil Beach Markets are what started my obsession with this place. Mindil is our second home. Every dry we spend every Thursday and Sunday night busking, holding community jam circles, teaching friends, family, and travelers, late into the night. Mindil is magic.
Last year, because of Covid, Mindil was stolen away from us for most of the year. Having Mindil back in full swing this year is a dream come true. I love performing beachside shows and market busking. The sunset is divine, the crowd envelop you with their energy, and our show is pretty great too - actually, especially great this year. There are few things as fantastic as getting to shoot your best friend perform to a crowd of people on their edge of their picnic mats. There are some challenges with it though too, and in this post I'm going to work through some of these to give you a better idea of what it's like to shoot fast action fire shows, and how I manage it so well.
Shooting on the Fly
Shooting on the fly is a pretty great skill for any photographer to have, fire based or not. There aren't too many times where anyone in the street/doco/event/nature/action photography realm has a model that's static, a background that is free of distractions, and loads of time to plan perfect composition.
In my experience there are a few key parts to shooting fire well under pressure. The first of these is obvious and pretty universal to any action photography - a damn good knowledge of your camera. I don't think I can say this enough. You need to know your camera inside and out! Most of my best photos are the result of last minute changes to the settings or shot I had planned. It might be something as simple as dropping the ISO or bumping up the shutter speed, but these small and often 'in the moment' changes can make an absolute world of difference your images. Often this is because no matter how well you plan until you have a prop lit, you won't know how your environment will react to the light the fire introduces.
This was a lesson that it took me far too long to learn.
When I first found fire photography I stumbled across a quick blog with some suggested settings for shots (including using 1/25 as your shutter speed - eep!) and stuck closely to these settings for WEEKS. Yes. Weeks. That's right, I used the same settings on every shot regardless of context, light, prop, time of day, or location for weeks. Eventually, after wondering why I didn't have a magic answer to the perfect photo I started playing more (and taking some outright awful shots) until eventually I started to understand what each of my settings did to my image. Now, don't get me wrong, I by no means found the "right" settings quickly. Nor did I actually really learn much about the technical aspects of photography until well, I still don't know much. But, I certainly started to understand on a more instinctual level what made a shot something I was proud to show off.
A big part of getting to a place where I produce images I feel marry up to the photographers I look up to (looking at you Eric Dany) was of course learning from others and their experiences, but really, the biggest part of my learning has been through play and practice. Don't just take my word for it though, there is a huge literature on the importance of play for learning, so feel free to google the hell out of that.
There's more than practice right?
Okay so while there may not be any magic secret to shooting on the fly, and certainly it does come down to the age old practice, practice, practice, there are some other slightly more concrete and discrete tips I can give you. So, without further adieu:
- Organise your gear. Honestly, you can't get a good shot fast unless you know exactly where your stuff is. I know, but seriously, it's important.
- Know the parameters of your lens, not just your camera. Shooting quickly, you won't always have the chance to swap your lens. If you're like me and you use predominately primes you need to know how close/far to get from your subject to compose a beautiful shot quickly. If I'm shooting with my 85mm I need to be ready to run backwards fast to fit a flare or breath into my shot.. On the other hand with my 35mm during a show I just won't have the length to catch a good fire eating shot, but I could definitely pull off a great wide angle crowd and double staff shot. Make sure you know the limits of the lenses you're using and what conditions they will perform best in. Which part of the show will look best with each lens. Work that out and do it fast. Don't waste your time chasing images that won't happen with the lens you're using.
- Do your research ahead of time. If you're shooting a show for someone make sure to stalk their socials first. Ask them about the shoot in detail. Find out what props they use, if they have any extra lighting, if they have any restrictions on where you can shoot from, if flash is okay, what time of day the shoot will be, check your sunset & tide times, work out what light the environment might give you. If you can, go and see the venue. If not, check it out online and look for images of previous shows there. What have other photographers made of the space? Look for other performance shots for similar props and work out what kinds of images you might want to create. If you have a reference for what is possible when you're shooting next your brain will identify these moments faster and give you less roadblocks to smashing that shutter.
- Get moving! Seriously, I cannot stress enough how important it is to move around the space you're shooting in. Even if you've been given a designated spot to shoot from, move within that space. Get down low, get up high, try portrait and landscape, change your angle lots, just don't stand still. The compositions you try while you're learning the better. You never know which shot might end up inspiring your future style.
- And a note on style, try not to get too stuck on creating your signature "style" when you're shooting action. I'm planning a full blog on this at some point, but for now, let the moment inspire you. I think this is something street photographers inherently understand but that people in the fire scene can forget at times. When you're shooting performers, someone's show, buskers, or even just a burn circle, if your central concern is making every shot the right style, you're going to miss more than you'll ever catch. If you can be present, sit with the feeling of awe, or beauty, or excitement, or whatever else it is that drove you to try fire photography in the first place, your photos will show it. Look to capture peoples spirit, not their perfect poses or the time they looked just the right amount of candid. Obviously you can achieve both of these things, but if can get your mind truly present you'll find your flow with your camera improves astronomically. Remember, you can always add more of your own style to the images in post.
- Finally, don't be uncomfortable just absolutely smashing that shutter. Spray and pray is a core part of fire photography, because guess what - no matter how good you get fire photography always has a good element of chance to it. You can't control the flames and the sooner you get comfortable with that, the better you'll get.
What are you waiting for?!
Seriously, what are you waiting for? I told you this would be a shorter blog, go get practicing! Need some performers to practice on? I've made a quick list of groups/burn circles places for you to start looking in below. These can all be found via Facebook:
- Flow Art Darwin (this is the group we run!) - NT
- Burleigh Bongos Firecircle - QLD
- The Sideshow - Brisbane QLD
- Viral Happiness - Melbourne VIC
- Townsville Weekly Spin Jam - Strand Park Townsville QLD
- Hyde Park Burn Circle - Perth WA
- Sydney Fire Spinners - NSW
- Dragon Mill - Adelaide SA
- Newcastle Fire and Flow - NSW
Sadly for everyone else I am not going to list this many awesome local places because I just don't have that level of googling energy. However, the below groups would definitely be able to tell you where your local burn circles are!
- Fire Women (Note, female only space)
- Fire Breathers International
- Fire Eaters & Fire Breathers
- Amazing Flow Arts
- Dragon Staff / Dragon Staff Chat
- Poi Chat
- Hula Hoop Dance Society
- Leviwand Forum