Colour, MOVEMENT, light, and SHADOW all play a part in effectively capturing FIRE and the atmosphere it creates
Whether you’re wrapped up in the warmth of a crackling fire indoors, red coals gleaming from the ash below, or sat around a cosy camp as tongues of flame flicker, it’s hard not to be spellbound by the amber light. It’s easy to lose yourself in the snap and pop of burning wood, sparks flying into the blackness. Add undulating embers aglow, swirls of flame leaping up; it’s hypnotic.
Fire is ablaze with dynamic hues of colour, intensities, gradients, and endless motion, which entwined with our primordial relationship with it, is why I love shooting fire. Here are a few examples and some know-how guidance about lighting the way to capturing fire.
PRACTICE MAKES PYROFECT
Practise with a candle (or sparkler, lantern, fire torch etc) and tripod to keep shots sharp and engaging. Start with 1/15th second at f/5.6 to aid depth of field in the candle itself. With the wick as the subject, add a light source. Note down what settings work best to capture the flame with an impactful light falling on it.
When fire’s the subject, the eye should be drawn to the flames, its spectrum of colours from yellowish golds to coppery ambers, and movement. Shooting in darkness with a slower shutter speed enables a greater intensity in the flames’ colours and brightness. Keep your flash off and manual focus on. Use a shutter speed to transfix the motion and to illuminate the flame. Begin with something like 1/250, a low ISO (100-200) and a mid-range aperture (f/8-f/11) to start experimenting. The larger your f-stop value, the darker your image.
Flame colour varies depending on several factors including temperature, fuel, and oxygen present, to name but a few. If you don’t achieve your preferred shade, tint, and tone, edit in post (shoot in raw). Quite often, the interest will lie in what the fire throws out, or the trajectory the fiery sparks take. Slow your shutter speed in freezing the flying sparks: watch the magic happen!
PRIMARY LIGHT SOURCE
When fire is used as the light source, it can produce a beautiful atmosphere when you shoot its softer shadows in the right way. You’ll need longer shutter speeds, wider apertures, and higher ISOs for campfire scenarios as light levels diminish. If you want a shallower depth of field, which will mean using a wider aperture, put your focus on a subject with hard contrast edges, such as a silhouette. This will give you an overall more striking image since the shifting firelight will blur edges and soften shadows of the subject(s) it illuminates.
WHERE THERE’S SMOKE
Smoke makes an intriguing component when there’s fire. There are various things you can do to accentuate the appearance of smoke in your images, otherwise it can vaporise into obscurity. To make the movement of smoke tendrils pop:
• Optimise your smoke output. Efficient fuels (gas and alcohols) don’t always give rise to aesthetic clouds and trails of smoke as much as wood or green leaves/vegetation.
• Back-light the smoke. An artificial but bright light source on the smoke will emphasise the plumes.
• Opt for a faster shutter speed to give structure to the wisps, unless you want a hazier result with less clarity from a slower shutter speed.
Giving prominence to the smoke will give a sense of space and add a voluminous quality to the fire beyond its fixed point on the ground.
Learning by doing is the best way to improve your fire photos. The key is getting a slower shutter speed that works. Light needs a moment or two to record itself on your sensor — the brighter the light, the less time is required and vice versa. Aperture size matters — small holes (a f/16, for example) let in little light, big holes (like a f/2) much more. Two main variables to tweak when shooting fire are the brightness of the light source and the distance of the light source from your subject.
FLAMEOUS LAST WORDS
Personally, I prefer a slightly longer shutter time, exposing an image for about a second at f/3.5 to blur the flames while giving the sparks time to leave a unique light trail, creating that snug, lose-yourself feeling with fire. Whether it’s power and intense heat you want to convey, or a subtle glow of warmth and protection, I hope there are a few takeaways to start stretching your creative side in developing those bewitching shots. Fire away!
Jason Spafford loves all things adventure travel, where the perfect end to the perfect day is throwing down a sleeping bag and setting up the tripod somewhere in the wilderness. That, and a cuppa. With an infatuation for chasing light in big open spaces comes the pursuit of photography, which has been his passion for 30-plus years. Through his work, Jason aims to engage folks with nature’s backyard while promoting the preservation of wild places. His internationally published portfolio captures two decades of adventure travel, landscape, and commercial photography.
Follow him on Instagram (@fourwheelednomad) or see www.fourwheelednomad.com for more photographic adventures and inspiration.