June 7, 2020

Create More: Episode 2.

Flame Definition

Evening all my lovely spinners and shooters! Before I get started today, I wanted to touch on the fact that living in Darwin, in the Top End of Australia as a white woman I have a pretty damn good life. I am incredibly lucky that our "city" - honestly there are only like 100,000 of us here - is completely Covid free. I'm able to walk safely home without feeling scared (much more than anywhere else I've lived at least), Police smile and wave when we're literally lighting fires in the city and taking photos. We regularly spin in places with questionable legality without issue. Now, I hope that you can see what I'm getting at here, but if you can't I want to make it crystal clear.

I am granted all of this freedom and privilege because I'm white. Because I won the genetic lottery. Born into the side of a system that doesn't persecute me.

But it does persecute billions of others.

That system isn't broken either; that implies it was ever designed fairly. No, it is achieving its goal: To systematically protect and expand the power of rich white men and their interests.

The problem doesn't just exist worlds away in the US either. It exists here too.

So, this week, instead of carrying on like everything was normal and posting away non stop, or even just sitting with this feeling of helplessness, I have instead been working to check my privilege. I am learning about the Black history of white Australia. I learning how to be a better and more culturally inclusive psychologist. I am looking inward and addressing my own biases. I am attending vigils and protests, I am learning, I am hearing, I am asking how I can help. I am donating my time, my heart, and my money to the causes that need my attention most. I hope if you are reading this and wondering where to start, like I was a week ago, that you'll consider doing some of these things yourself.

So, if you're here thinking... I came for flame def. I hope you leave with that knowledge, but also, a renewed found drive to use your voice, your privilege, your skills to lend a voice to those society won't let breathe, let alone speak. Finally, before we start, I would like to acknowledge that today's and every day's piece is being written on the traditional lands of the Larrakia people, custodians of the land and sea I have the privilege of living my life on. I pay my respects to the Larrakia elders, past, present and emerging.

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Sony Ziess 55mm f1.8 lens. Settings were 1/100, f6.3, iso 320. Performer is Hale, an incredible traditional fire knife spinner. This was shot long before I really got the hang of my lenses. I got lucky to get this much definition using such a slow shutter speed. I would have had a better shot swapping to something like 1/250, f3.5, iso320. This would have allowed me to better freeze the motion of the flames (faster shutter) and still have enough light (lower F-stop).

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Sony Ziess 55mm f1.8 lens. Settings were 1/60, f14, iso500. Performer is the incredible @Willow.jaye, my favourite model. This was our first shoot together and one of my first ever designated shoots. I had NO IDEA what I was doing. My settings are an absolute mess. Again, total miracle this shot worked. I should have an aperture of somewhere in the f2.8 - f6 range at most, shutter speed more like 1/400 and iso to balance light. Still, so cool to see my improvement in 18 months!

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Samyang 35mm f1.4 lens. Settings were 1/100, f5, iso200. Performer here is the incredible @Mr_Jedly. This shot went really quite well considering how dark it had gotten. Again, using a 1/100 shutter here wasn't ideal and if I had my way I'd pop it up to 1/250, this time keeping the F-stop and instead cranking iso as required to ensure that those flames further away from me stayed in focus.

Flame Def.

Flame definition is the white whale of the fire photography world. It is absolutely maddening to get right some days and my god is it an addictive and all consuming chase. From the second you get into fire photography your central battle is - probably, and certainly if you're anything like me - to get your camera to capture the flames how you experience them.

This chase for flame definition is a really, really difficult process. There are three main reasons for this:

Reason One: Dynamic Range

Like I mentioned last time, cameras just aren't designed to expose for really bright and really dark scenes simultaneously and their brains just can't do it for you. Have a read of my last article for more info on why. Point is, you have to work out how to balance this exposure all by yourself using your cameras manual mode and that takes loads of practice. I'll talk about some ways you can do that in a minute.

Reason two: Fire outright sucks

Fire is an awful light source. Again, this is going to be a common thread across all of my posts. Fire sucks as a light source. It changes non stop, everything in your environment affects it, it'll be different every time you light it, it always involves some element of chance, it just sucks. Learning to work with fire in a way that allows you to use it to light your subject effectively while still catching it in its own beauty is a L O N G road, but I do have a lot of tricks to share about it, assuming you keep reading.

Reason three: fingerprints & snowflakes

Much like fire is an inconsistent and forever changing light source, performers also vary massively. Like fingerprints or snowflakes, each and every spinner has their own unique style. This means the way they move, their speed, their preference for poses, their trick knowledge, their prop choices, their wick qualities, their understanding of fire, their understanding of photography, they are all different. As a result, every time you get behind the camera with the intention of catching a new person in flow you have a massive new set of variables to account for. Even if two people did the same trick with the same prop every time you would find differences in the flames and the way they move. In order to catch great flames every time you have to become a master of movement. Being a good fire photographer means understanding exactly the right time to shoot, studying the subtle movements of every performer you see, looking for patterns, learning common prop patterns and sequences, and even teaching performers how to help you get better photos for them. While I personally think this is the best part of fire photography hands down, this also is hella difficult. Hella.

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Sony G Master 135mm f1.8 lens. Settings were 1/125, f1.8, iso2000. I'll talk more about the challenges in this shot later, but in a nutshell, shooting a fast fire hooper from across a busy fire circle is super hard. Hoops give off virtually no light, they are awful to shoot, and Lenka is a BOSS hooper, so quick! On top of that I have very limited experience shooting hoop and was using a lens I was borrowing and haven't used before - hard!

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Sony Ziess 55mm f1.8 lens. Settings were 1/200, f4, iso2500. This shot of @thomasrobinsonfire is a great example of how sometimes you'll need to sacrifice the light that you get from f1.8 in favour of f4 or more to ensure enough of your subject is in focus. Similarly here, I had to go for a fast shutter speed to freeze Thom's motion and avoid blur. To compensate for the loss of light that comes from these choices I then had to shoot iso2500, which is pretty high.

Shot on Sony A7RiV with 35mm Samyang f1.4 lens. Settings were 1/80, f2.5, iso320. Performer here was @Willow.Jaye. Again, shot a long time ago this one. I was yet to understand that I could have saved the definition with a lower F-stop and pumping my iso to around the 1500 - 2000 mark. Granted, I may not have been able to completely rescue it, this was one hell of a windy afternoon!

Tell me the secret already!

Okay so now we know why it sucks lets talk about how to get amazing flames in spite of all this. Heads up though, I am not a trained photographer. I have a completely self-taught, trial and error, critical thinking, google and youtube based understanding of photography. I don't say that to discredit my knowledge, I have a great understanding of fire photography, but that understanding is not rooted in theory. Instead, it's built on a foundation of thousands of hours spent behind the camera.

Interestingly, I have a similar relationship with fire. Not only am I a fire photographer, but I'm also a fire performer. This seems to be a pretty common trait in great fire photographers, I believe because playing with props yourself gives you insider knowledge into how your performers move. However, it isn't a prereq and you can totally get this information through sustained observation of your subjects too. Just like a sports photographer watches LOADS of sport, you should be watching LOADS of flow, but we'll talk about all of that in more detail in a sec. First, lets chat about exposure and settings.


Alright, here is the secret to great flame definition. You ready?

"Every single shot has to be MASSIVELY under exposed. "

Yeah, that's really it. Under exposure. Usually by at least two stops of light, but often more. At the end of this blog I've included some before and afters to really hit home what I mean by under exposed. So how do you do underexposure right then? Well, you need to allow enough light to see your performer (barely) while simultaneously limiting your light such that you don't have too many sections of pure white in your flame, because no matter if you shoot raw or jpeg, you won't get pure white back. Wait pure white? How do I tell what's pure white? Well, that depends on whether you have an electronic view finder or optical view finder. You can learn more about them here because I am bad at tech. Basically, if you have an EVF like me, seeing pure white is easier because the image you see is closer to the final product. If you're shooting on an OVF it's a little trickier and you'll need to take a photo, check the exposure, take another, check again and so on. I started with an OVF though, so don't get disheartened it is totally possible!

Next step is, like we spoke about last time, you just have to be shooting raw. This allows you to retain as much info as possible from your image and allows you to edit it later to brighten your performer and darken your highlights. Finally, you have to get your settings right. It's no good under exposing using your F-stop if you're going to shoot a shutter speed that creates blur. As I think we've covered by now, settings will vary massively from shot to shot depending on what you're looking at and when. Unfortunately that means I can't teach you specific settings that will always work, but I can give you some guidelines.

You have three main settings for exposure: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. If you're a little lost, read about what these are in more detail in my last blog here before you read on.

Step One: Aperture

Aperture controls a couple of things with regards to fire definition, how hard it will be to get your flames in focus/sharp and how bright your flames are. I always start with setting my aperture first. When deciding on what aperture you need for strong fire def you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is what I'm shooting all on one plane of focus or have I got multiple planes I need in focus?
  • Yep, it's all in one plane, I'm shooting a single fire eater - Cool, you can shoot with almost any aperture so long as you account for brightness with your other settings
  • Nope, I've got a leviwander/rope dart/multiple people/etc. - You need to decide how much you want in focus and pick an aperture that matches (say f4 or more)
  • How much ambient light is there in the environment and on the prop?
  • Loads, I'm about to shoot a chain staff flare - use any aperture you want as long as your shutter speed is fast enough to make sure your highlights aren't blown out
  • Barely any, (e.g., leviwand/ropedart/small poi/fire hoop etc) - you need to think about adding light - try a wide aperture, slower shutter speed, high iso, or a flash. Without adding light you'll either lose the ability to see your performer (but get nice flames) or see your performer and have crap flames.

That sounds like more than just two questions though, right? Well, it is. Take for example the center photo of Thom above. Here I needed an aperture that was bright (to allow me to catch a relatively dark scene well) but also something that was stopped down enough to allow me to see some definition in those sparkles and not just get straight bokeh. If I had of gone with f1.8 here getting both the reflection in his sun glasses and those sparkles looking sparkly just would not have happened. Instead I would have had either sharp glasses or blurry sparkles or sharp sparkles and no clear reflections. The reverse is true in the shots of Lenka (left) and Willow (right). Here, I was running low on light, so I had to make a decision between seeing my performer or seeing their flame details. With Lenka the issue was that her flames were burning low, she was in the middle of a burn circle a fair way away from me, and I had no way to add light. I chose to include this photo because it highlights how sometimes, you just can't get flame def no matter how hard you try and you don't necessarily need to, to take a great shot. Lenka's wicks barely had enough fuel left on them to create a flame with definition, so instead I chose to focus on making her look incredible. Thus, I went for f1.8 with a nice fast shutter speed to freeze her movement in time. In the case of Willow's shot, those torches were battling some heavy wind and the sun was setting fast. Having lost all of my light sources I instead shifted focus from the fire to Willow, making her look fierce and the fire more of an afterthought. Unfortunately I wasn't yet technically skilled enough to realise the role my iso could have played in supporting this shot and under the pressure obviously didn't get my settings quite right. Honestly, this is inevitable. Unfortunately flame definition isn't always really achievable, but if you consider these questions carefully you might have more luck.

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Sony Ziess 55mm f1.8 lens. Settings were 1/6400, f1.8, iso400. This thing was INSANE, I've never seen a burnoff like it. This needed a massive shutter speed to catch and honestly, I could have stopped down to f4 or even more given how much light there was. I just didn't have the presence of mind to react that fast. I don't know the performers name, but this was taken at Spinfest 2020.

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Tamron 28 - 75mm f2.8 lens at 59mm. Settings were f2.8, 1/160, iso800. Performer is Sophie of @allthelightswa. This shot was taken when I was roaming the beginner fire lessons at @Spunout Festival in October last year. Shooting on the fly in the pitch black rainy night was a pretty unique challenge. I didn't have too long to adjust my settings so I just had to "go with it". This shot was more overexposed than I'd like. But I fixed it in post. More about that later!

Shot on Sony A7RiV with Sony Ziess 55mm f1.8 lens. Settings were 1/6400, f1.8, iso400. Performer here is @thedaveonfire again at Spinfest 2020. Similar to the chainstaff on the far right this image was hectic to see in person. I feel like I did a great job catching it. All I would change if I could go back is shooting at say f3.5 and dropping the shutter speed to match, say around 5000 or so, to have less grain in Dave's face and more sharpness on him.

Step Two: Shutter Speed

So, once you've set your aperture you'll want to chose your shutter speed. When you're thinking about your shutter speed with respects to its impact on flame definition you need to consider the following:

  • How fast is your performer moving? Flames will only be sharp if your shutter speed is faster than your performer and their prop move. Generally, a lot faster. Most of my shots are between 1/250 - 1/500 but this is just a starting point, as you can see in the photos so far my shutter speed varies massively.
  • How wide is your aperture set? Remember, f1.8 means loads of light into your sensor so to make sure you have flame detail you'll need to shoot super fast, anywhere between 1/500 all the way up to 1/6400 (see the chain staff above). The opposite is true for tight apertures, if you have multiple planes to keep in focus and you're using f6.3 for example you might need the extra light and have to shoot at 1/100 (at the lowest, lower than this and you'll get almost certainly get blur).

Overall if you're shooting like I do, you'll have a minimum shutter speed you can use to ensure your flames aren't blurred and stay nice and sharp and clear (e.g., nothing under 1/100) and from there all of your shutter speed decisions need to be made off of exposing correctly. That means you need to go fast enough that you don't end up with big blobs of white in your flames, but slow enough that you can still see your performer. A tough balance. My advice is to practice, practice, practice, till you get it. Over time you'll start to develop an eye for what counts as under/over exposed for your camera, but you can't get that till you stuff it up at least a million times!

Step Three: ISO

Finally you have to set your iso. The thing about iso is that it can REALLY stuff up your flame def if you're pushing it too far. Why? Well iso can induce noise. You know when photos look like they're old because they're all grainy and pixelated, that's called noise. While you can remove noise in editing relatively easily, if you go too far that noise removal you'll need to do to clean the image up will start to impact on how sharp your image looks. Ideally when setting your iso you should think about these two factors:

  • How high does my iso need to be in order to be able to see my performer (barely) and not create too much pure white? Ideally I wouldn't shoot fire at iso higher than 2000 or so.
  • Do I really need my iso that high, or could I add light some other way? Could my aperture be lower, could my shutter be slower? Could I add a flash or a standing light?
  • If your answer is yes and you can't add more light be wary that you might lose some sharpness and need to play with it a lot in post to fix it.

Finally, to round out all this info on settings, don't forget that if you're at your limits with any of your settings you can always change your conditions instead. One of the easiest ways to do this is to learn how to direct your performers. Request that if they want nicer images they spin slower, pose with their props lighting them well (e.g., not miles out to the side of behind them), look at you, and try to stay near the edge of the burn circle. If you can add light to your shoots, shoot earlier in the day, shoot in well lit areas, or add a steady spotlight to your jam circle. It's hard to work at the extremes of your settings so it is totally fair to adjust the settings to help you succeed.

No editing completed yet. You can see that in this shot you have a lot of "light yellow" but no real chunks of white. This shot is save-able with some quality editing, but honestly I could have gone for more underexposure here to get those flames even cleaner considering how bright the performer is.

Again, no editing yet. This image shows you how overexposed this shot was. Honestly, it was close to not salvageable from a flame perspective (obviously Soph looks fab). To save the flame here once I'd pulled down the highlights as much as I could I added a slight yellow/blue split tone to give the white highlights more of a yellow tone and even out her skin tone with some more blue.

Again, no editing yet. As I mentioned earlier this image is brilliant, except that it was virtually impossible to save Dave's face. On social media you can't really tell, but if you're paying close attention you'll see so much grain and blur. Up close on a big screen it just doesn't cut it. Luckily, editing has given it some life and really made his hands pop instead.


Finally lets chat about editing. I won't get too in depth here because Episode three, coming up this week, is all about the edit. In the case of shooting fire you'll notice that a huge portion of the final product comes from your edits. Now I don't personally use Photoshop unless I absolutely have to (I hate it and it's awful and so counter intuitive and cruel), so don't think you need to become some master editor. Ninety percent of the editing you need to do is super duper simple and can be done in any basic editing program. My favourite is Lightroom but it is a paid program. If you can afford it, give it a go. Nothing else I've used come close to it in terms of user experience and ease of learning. If you aren't able to or interested in paying for an editing program right now you can try Darktable, a free open source editing program that is tricky but definitely functional for editing raw images of fire. You could even try apple photos/Microsoft photos depending on your gear or any number of editing apps on your smart phone/tablet, just make sure you're editing straight from your SD card connected via an SD card reader and not through a photo transfer app as many won't transfer raw files without first compressing them in turn totally ruining the whole point of shooting raw.

So, what do I do to take these images from yellow mess to detailed craziness?

  1. Pull up your exposure until you can see your performer stopping right before your image gets noisy.
  2. Drop your highlights, find that setting and make them as dark as you can, if they are still white at the lowest setting then go back to step one and decrease your exposure, play with this till your highlights look good. Sometimes you won't need to go too low on your highlights and other times you'll have to crank it down. This takes playing.
  3. At this point you probably can't see your performer. To fix this you have to pull up your shadows. Find this setting and make them brighter, again, balance your shadows against your noise and your overall fire details. A little noise is fine, we can get rid of that. A whole grainy picture is a bigger issue.
  4. Drop your white balance a bit to make your image more blue (assuming it's pretty red to start with). You might then need to repeat steps one through 3.
  5. Play with colour, split toning, hue, etc. These are all personal preference so play lots and work out what you like through trial and error.
  6. Add some clarity, sharpness, dehaze, noise reduction, etc. These are all options to make your image clearer, pop more, contrast more and so on. Again, all rely on taste so you'll have to play with these lots.
  7. Don't be afraid to edit the same image 100 times and compare them all next to each other. It's how you learn!

Well, I think that is HEAPS of info for today. Thank you so much for coming back again and I hope this has given you some new inspiration, skills, and goals. And as I mentioned at the start, if I'm not posting as frequently at the moment it's because I'm improving other parts of my soul and trying my best to make tangible change, I hope you are too.

Much love, Flowpyre.