Deciphering the Jargon
When I started out in fire photography, there were almost no blogs, videos, or how to guides in existence anywhere on the internet. While that has changed a little over the last few years, I'm still yet to find a blogger or Youtuber who specializes in fire photography that I actually find super helpful. So, here goes my attempt at being the content I wanna see in the world!
Without any further stalling, please enjoy Create More, the blog. In this series I'll be focusing on how to shoot fire photography. From what gear I use, to how to set up a shot, settings, timing, and everything in between, this is (hopefully) going to become your one stop fire photo skill drop.
And please god be kind because this is a first for me!
Lets start with Jargon
So because this is my first time writing one of these I'm going to start nice and easy with a huge brain dump. Today, I'll be working through the most important jargon terms in photography, what they mean for fire photography, and how understanding them can help you take better photos, pick the right gear to buy, and understand why some of the problems you might be having are happening.
Key Terms to Learn
Photography is just FULL of jargon. When I was starting out this made it virtually impossible to understand and navigate the buying of my gear and I spent literal days in confusion trying to decipher what I would or wouldn't need to worry about. So, here is a quick guide for the major things that matter in fire photography and what on earth these terms actually mean.
F STOP/ F / APERTURE
This is the number on your lens that looks like f1.8, f3.5, f8 on your lens specifications. It's usually also listed on the front of your lens and might look something like 3.5-5.6 or 4:16. In this case the left hand side number is the lowest F-Stop at your widest zoom, right side is the lowest F-Stop at your tightest zoom. This number determines how much light your camera lets in and can be (usually) set by yourself within your lens' physical restrictions. Lower numbers mean the camera lets in more light. An easy way to remember this is that in low light you need low F-Stop numbers. Because fire is such a difficult light source, and we generally shoot it at night, I use lenses that have the lowest available F-Stop possible. All of my lenses are able to go to at least f2.8, with most between f1.4 - f1.8. Aside from light coming into your camera, aperture (interchangeable term for F-Stop) also determines something called your depth of field, which I will talk about below. Low apertures (e.g., f1.4, f1.8, f2) have a thin depth of field and mean very few things will be in focus with everything else blurry. High apertures (f8, f16, f22, etc.) will have moderate to large depths of field and more the of things in your frame in focus.
DEPTH OF FIELD
Depth of field is tricky to simplify as lots of things impact it. As a beginner what you really need to know is that depth of field means how much of your photo will be in focus. A thin depth of field has very few things in focus, a deep depth of field has lots of things in focus. While a fair few things impact depth of field, the most noticeable is your F-Stop. A low F-Stop will make it harder to make sure everything you want in focus is clear and sharp, but will provide you with a nice blurry background. Alternatively a high F-Stop will mean more of the frame is in focus and nice and sharp, but you won't get the same bokeh, like a low F-Stop provides. Bokeh is just a fancy word for the aesthetic look of the blurred background that each lens produces. When you're shooting a posed model, f1.4 makes for a really beautiful soft blurry background. On the other hand, if you're shooting a fast moving performer who doesn't stay the same distance away from you consistently, catching them in focus perfectly when you're shooting at f1.8 is very difficult because of your very shallow depth of field. In this case you might need to go to f4 or even higher, the same rule applies for shooting multiple performers at once who are differing distances away from you. In order to ensure everyone is in focus, you’ll need to push your F-Stop higher.
This is the measure of how long your camera captures light for. A shutter speed looks like 1", 2", 30", 1/250, 1/500, 1/2000 etc and is a measurement of time. Think about how fast one two thousandth of a second is, that's not a lot of time! A fast shutter speed means the camera is only catching a tiny fraction of time, a slow one means the camera might catch 1/50 of a second, one whole second or even 30 seconds of time. To minimise performer and flame blur you'll need a fast shutter, like 1/200 or faster, depending on your cameras ability to see in the dark and how fast your performer is moving. For photos with fire trails or led trails you'll need a slow shutter, like 1" (one second) or more so you can capture light and what’s happening for longer. Remember, your shutter speed impacts how much light your image has, so be careful not to push it too fast or two slow or you'll end up with too much or too little light and blur.
ISO is a setting that determines the sensitivity of your camera to light, it's a holdover term from back when we used to use film, but it is important to know as this will allow you to brighten or darken your exposure. Where possible you should opt for the lowest possible iso that still allows you to achieve the look you want in your image as higher iso's will start to make your photos noisy (grainy looking) and mean more editing. Generally I try not to use an iso much higher than iso2000. I would estimate 80% of my images are taken with an iso less than 800. In really bad lighting I might use up to as high as iso6000 and edit to fix later, but this is a pain.
Lenses come in zoom and prime. Zoom lenses have more than one focal length available. While there are some zoom lenses that have low apertures across their zoom range, most stop at around f4 as the lowest. Zoom lenses with low apertures are usually super expensive, so instead I opt for prime lenses. Prime lenses are fixed at just one focal length, so no zoom. I use a prime 35mm and 85mm for almost all of my shots. You'll find prime lenses with low apertures and amazing build quality for far better prices than zooms! Often they're also sharper and faster to focus which is also great. I only own one zoom lens, the Tamron 28 – 75mm f2.8. It also happens to be my only lens with a minimum F-Stop above 1.8. While it’s a good festival lens, not being able to get to that f1.8 makes a huge difference in available light and I find I get really lazy when I use it. What do I mean by lazy? Well, I personally believe prime lenses are an amazing artistic tool because they force you to move your feet to reframe your shot and you need to be more creative in your own placement to get the image you want. When I use my zoom I absolutely notice that I plant my feet and take loads of images from the same place, which from an artistic standpoint really limits what I can create. Because of this I always recommend that when you’re starting out, you start out with prime lenses.
This is a term for cameras that have smaller cropped sensors, not a full 35mm sensor. There are plenty of fantastic cameras that are aps-c, including the Sony a6000 series, so don't feel like having an APS-C camera isn't as good as a full frame, it's just different and has different limitations. I’ve included an image from my first ever camera above to demonstrate this, it's the shot of @Thomasrobinsonfire with black face paint on. While the settings on this shot are an absolute MESS, this camera still absolutely created good quality low light images. I just didn’t really know how to do it that well yet... In any case, you can absolutely get amazing images out of an aps-c body, you just have to learn how to use it. Eventually you’ll get there, I certainly did!
These cameras have full 35mm sensors that are bigger than their aps-c counterparts. This means that they can capture more light than their aps-c counterparts in the same amount of time. So a photo taken at 1/100, f1/8, iso 100 on both a full frame and aps-c camera would be brighter on the full frame. While you don't need a full frame camera for low light and fire shots, it definitely helps! Starting with a full frame also means that if you ever want to upgrade your body you won't need to upgrade your lenses, where as staring with an aps-c body can mean needing to start from scratch with lenses when you upgrade.
Exposure is essentially how bright or dark your photo is. Overexpose a photo and you'll get blown out flames and patches of pure white that you can't edit back to colour, underexpose and you might get great flame details but no information in the rest of the image. The trick with exposure is finding the right balance to allow you to see your flames definition and your performer. This is hard. To do it correctly you’ll really need to shoot in Raw (more about that later) and edit your images. You will almost never get a correctly exposed fire photo without editing, so jump into that world as soon as you can. Exposing correctly for fire is something that I have seen almost no professional photographers, even those I’ve worked with at Canon and Olympus, manage to get right on the first go. Don’t feel disheartened if it takes hundreds or thousands of photos to get the amount of detail you’re hoping for in your images. I estimate I’ve taken over 750,000 photos in the last two and a half years I’ve been shooting and I still get it wrong a lot!
Exposure is determined by your iso, aperture, and shutter speed. Change one of these and you'll change your exposure. I shoot and recommend shooting only on full manual mode for fire photography (more info next), which means I can control all three of these settings individually. When exposing for fire you want to start by setting your F-Stop to what you need for the image. For example, if you have more than one performer you want sharp you might need to use f5. If you're shooting a more artistic shot of a single performer f1.8 might be perfect. Set your F-Stop to suit your stylistic choice (and take into account how it will change your light!). Then, determine your shutter speed. Again, stylistic choice is important here. For sharp flames you'll want fast shutters usually not less than 1/200. On cameras with less low light ability you can go about as slow as 1/100 if you really need, remembering of course that the slower you go the more blur you’ll introduce. Finally, once you’ve chosen your F-Stop and shutter speed you can choose your iso. Remember, you want to use the lowest possible iso that lets you see your performer and your flame details. If you find you’re having to push your iso too high to get enough detail you need to add light. There are three ways to do that: with a light (flash, torch, shooting at sunset and not midnight, choosing a well lit space, etc.), with a lower F-Stop that lets your camera see more light, or with a slower shutter speed. It’s up to you to work out which of these will work in which situations, but I’d suggest you learn how to shoot fire in a well lit space, at sunset, or with loads of artificial lights and then move to the midnight shoots next to a black hole later on!
Camera COntrol modes
On top of your camera somewhere near your shutter button you’ll find a dial that has a bunch of letters and symbols on it, like M, A, S, Auto and more. This dial allows you to set your cameras level of control over your photos. In auto all you need to do is point and shoot. Your camera decides on all of the settings such as iso, shutter speed, and aperture. While it might be tempting to use auto mode to get “perfect” images, it absolutely will not under any circumstances work for fire shots. Unfortunately (or fortunately in my opinion), our cameras are not smart enough to know how to expose for light sources that are both very bright and very dark. As such, they can’t work out the settings to get both your flames and your performer properly exposed. You can do this with practice, but your camera can’t. In addition to auto, your camera will likely also have some other similar control modes: A (aperture priority) and S (shutter priority). In these modes you get to set the aperture or the shutter speed yourself, and the camera does the rest. Unfortunately, even if you were to ask the camera to underexpose your images using the exposure control dial (looks like a -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3) these modes would still only sometimes work for you. That’s because you would have to constantly adjust the amount of underexposure you wanted as the performers burn went on and the intensity of their fire changed. You would also be guessing how much to under expose each time. Rather than doing this I am a firm believer of learning in full manual (M) mode.
Manual mode can feel really overwhelming at the start. This is because you need to adjust every setting as you go, changing your iso, shutter speed, and aperture constantly throughout a burn. When you first start out I would suggest starting with some rough numbers in mind based off images you’ve taken previously or off images like mine here. Then, set your aperture, shutter speed, and iso at the start of the burn and only adjust one or two of these as you go. In the next burn try adjusting different settings so you get a feel for what they do. Over time as you get a bit more confident you can start changing them more often, or all of them simultaneously. I’ve found the best way to really get the hang of photography is just to take thousands of images and adjust between each one to see what difference your changes make to the picture in real time. Over two and a half years into my fire photography journey I still do this every shoot, constantly reviewing images and revising settings every time I shoot.
RAW VS. JPEG
Finally, we have Raw and JPEG to talk about. If you're using a DSLR or mirrorless body, your camera can shoot in both JPEG format or some version of RAW format. JPEG files you're probably familiar with, they end in .jpeg on your computer. Raw files you might not have seen before, for Sony, raw files are .arw, for my old Nikon it was .nef, it varies camera to camera. Now, without going into too much detail RAW and JPEG are different ways your camera compresses and stores the information in each image you take and this is CRITICAL to fire photography. When you shoot in JPEG your camera edits and processes your image for you, and you can't undo these decisions later. It adds things like contrast, saturation, changes to white balance, sharpness, and so on, it also removes information it deems non important, like the difference between pitch black and dark shadows, or pure white and really bright yellow. While this means your image looks nicer from the back of your camera because it's already edited, it means you're losing loads of important information. In fire photography keeping the information that differentiates between really bright yellow and pure white is usually the difference between having flame definition and having bright white blobs. The difference between pitch black and dark grey or blue is usually what allows you to bring up your shadows in editing enough to actually see your performer. When you lose this information by shooting in JPEG, editing your images to achieve stellar flame definition or good performer exposure becomes almost impossible. You can usually change your compression settings in the file menu within your camera body. Please try shooting in raw, even if you don't have the software to edit it yet. When you're starting out shoot in jpeg+raw mode, this way once you do have the software to edit your shots you'll actually be able to see the difference! Why do I keep talking about software? Well, most raw files can't be edited unless you're using a specific editing program, like lightroom, photoshop, or capture one. Free software that will edit raw images exists too with the most popular being GIMP, Darktable, Apple Photos, and Microsoft Windows 10 photos. Trust me when I say this is 100% worth your while. Shooting raw will change your life.