I went to Worcester, this past Saturday, to meet with Ashley for a photoshoot idea she had contacted me about. Not gonna lie, it was a cold day.
Massachusetts is under a COVID-19 stay-at-home advisory between 10pm-5am for most people, so the timing was a little challenging. We scheduled the shoot early enough to have day light available to set up equipment and have plenty of time available for photography, and late enough that we would not be fighting with bright sunlight or waiting too long for darkness to happen, in case we had some flow toys to incorporate.
Ashley did bring an LED light-whip; however, conditions were not conducive to effective long exposure photography.
In order to simulate darker conditions, I decided to work with lower ISO, a shutter speed around 1/200″ and f-stops between 4.0 and 5.6, while using a speedlight for keylighting. Also, taking into account some fan-art of Shego using a greenish outline to her hair against black backgrounds, I used the mobility and hands-free operation of the RTMS2000 with a second speedlight with a green gel to provide hair lighting. You can see the full effect of those settings in the photo gallery below.
Once we got started, the shoot went surprisingly quickly and we were able to maintain strict distance and shooting protocols with COVID-19 in mind. There were a couple of occasions where I had to lower my mask due to my camera’s eyepiece fogging up a little, but it was a temporary measure as needed. By the time we packed up, what felt like three to four hours of photography ended up being about two hours and I was able to maintain consistency across images due to simulating darkness through in-camera settings.
Cosplay photography is something I don’t do all that often, but I am glad for the opportunity to exercise some creative muscles after a fairly sizable drought, due to the every worsening COVID-19 pandemic, here in the United States. As always, I am happy to be around people who take precautions seriously, and are willing to take the extra little steps necessary to watch out for each other.
Thank you to Ashley and the RTMS2000, without whom this photoshoot could not have happened!
Halloween Photoshoot With a Demon and a Witch at Burrage Pond
This past Saturday, I met with some friends at Burrage Pond in Hanson, MA for some much needed photoshoot therapy together. It was the first time I picked up my camera since this past February, so I was a little nervous. Because COVID-19 rates are climbing again in the United States, I was considerably nervous. I have asthma and it places me into a higher risk group for serious complications because of SARS-CoV-2.
While organizing the shoot, it was important to be sure everyone present was on the same page in terms of what to expect, and that included outlining some procedures for everyone’s health and safety. I required a COVID-19 test to be taken two days prior to the shoot and if it was not possible due to timing, then strict social-distancing measures would be necessary. Thankfully, everyone involved understood and took precautions very seriously.
The day of the shoot itself went smoothly. The group of us walked into Burrage Pond in the late afternoon so we had plenty of light to work with, and so we had options on how to light and caught up with mutual banter and friendly roasting while I set up my lighting kit. It’d been so long that I was having momentary brain-farts, like “so how many batteries do I need for this flash again?..” Ugh.
We set up along a wooded pathway, isolated from everyone else, and very private. Perfect place for a photographer and his assistant to lure set up a shoot with two gorgeous models. The area included a large boulder off the walking path that was another perfect spot to use for the shoot.
The set up was a simple three point lighting kit. 1 speedlight and umbrella for the keylight, two gelled speedlights for the background and accent lighting, one red, one bluish-purple, all on basic manual radio-triggers. At the boulder, lighting was even simpler. The red and blue lights were set up for the background and accent lighting again while the key light was a handheld LED video light mounted on a voice-activated, remote-controlled, semi-autonomous, all-terrain capable mobile light-stand (my assistant).
The sun was setting, and shooting at night isn’t an issue more than trying to put away gear in pitch black darkness would be, so rather than shoot from the afternoon until around 9pm, it was better to call it a day around 7pm instead.
It was good to get back into a creative head-space again, after 8 months of self-isolating due to COVID-19. It was even better, more importantly, to be among people who were willing to be responsible for each other’s health and safety and who, clearly, value each other’s friendship. This pandemic has revealed a lot about people, who can be trusted, who is responsible, and who is worth making an effort for. I’m looking forward to another creative session with good friends soon!
It irritates me to no end to see the United States Flag used as a patriotic virtue-signaling fetish object by multiple photographers. Meanwhile, kneeling during the National Anthem is still seen as disrespectful.
To begin with, I do not mean anything US Flag styled, an embroidered flag, a lapel pin, or any representation of the flag itself. For example:
Flag-pattered bikini? I’ve no issue. It’s not the flag, itself.
Got a shirt with red, white, and blue and stars? Same. It’s fine.
Repeating flag patterned leggings? Bogan, but still acceptable.
I do mean an actual honest-to-God, Stars and Stripes Forever, Iwo Jima planted, Star Spangled Banner, I bleed red, white, and blue from my asshole United States Flag.
Are you conducting a beachside implied nude-shoot only the flag for “modesty?” You’re tasteless.
Did you wrap your teeny-bopper kid with an actual flag in a high-school senior portrait photo session and love how people simp and fawn over how beautiful the photo of Becky is? You’re indulging in gross fetishism on several levels.
Did you just beat the shit out of a Russian machine that destroys anything it touches, and use the Flag as a towel over your shoulders while preaching to those godless Commie bastards about how we can all change? You’re obviously a palooka from Philly.
Speaking of Disrespecting the Flag and Russians
Are you wearing a tiny flag lapel-pin for the cameras because it makes you a patriot in the eyes of your cult of morons while, you know, simultaneously sniveling as Vladmir Putun’s lap-dog Russian puppet? You’re definitely this guy:
Are you screaming orgasmically in a bizarre attempt to suck up to your boyfriend’s is-he-or-isn’t-he incestuous father while gesticulating loudly to an empty room in front of a wall of flags, there to serve as a simplistic visual aid for the Cult of Morons’ benefit? You’re Kimberly Guilfoyle, and I’ve got nothing else for you. Get help.
BuT AdRiAn wHaTaBoUt bUrNiNg tHe fLaG????????
In 1989, The United States Supreme Court upheld that burning the flag is protected speech under the 1st Amendment. I may not always agree with it, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable to see as a Veteran; however, that’s the point and it’s exactly why the 1st Amendment exists.
On paper, no one is at risk of life, limb, liberty, and property by the Government for exercising free speech. It’s a power left to The People, as it should be.
One could argue that wrapping your sister with a flag for a quick portrait shoot is an exercise of artistic free speech, (which it is) but free speech is not an absolute right. Depending on circumstance, and context, your expression could be subject to laws concerning commercial activity, defamation, false advertising, copyright infringement, privacy, pornography, and more.
If You Disrespect The Flag, Are You Actually A Traitor or Treasonous?
I really am not sure what the point of all this is, as there are much more immediate and pressing issues. Black lives still matter, Trump is an incompetently malignant cancer, COVID-19 is still rampaging across the United States, and children are still in ICE custody.
No component of the US Flag Code is enforceable, and thankfully it cannot be. No statutory penalties exist for violating any of the strongly-worded suggestions contained with in because if they did exist, the Flag Code would be unconstitutional.
The United States Constitution left it, again, as a Power for the People to decide for themselves about how the Flag, or any other National symbol, may ultimately be used, as it must be. No soldier or politician or “peace” officer ever swears an oath of loyalty to any piece cloth, book, or impeached president. They swear to support, defend, and bear true faith and allegiance to the document guarantees that their own government will never call free-expression, journalism, art, photography, Satanism, and saying that “Donald Trump is a munted cunt who absolutely must be removed from office,” an illegal act. It is also absolutely not treason; however, constantly betraying your oath to bear true faith and allegiance, and to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, for Russia’s benefit is, according to the letter of the law.
Also, Be Grateful This Song Exists
Conclusion and Stance on Flags
My stance is simple. I won’t ever support arresting people for burning a flag, or fining them for wearing a flag as a diaper in an adult-baby photo shoot, or blowing their nose in Made In China flag-tissues, but at the same time, I will I never call any of them traitors and scream about treason.
I will, however, absolutely base my judgement of you, good and bad, on what you choose to do in that grand old Flag’s name.
I wanted to pass on some wisdom. Something I learned that applies to sales in general, whether it’s screening applicants as a corporate recruiter or selling digital cameras at CompUSA, Best Buy, or Ritz Camera absolutely is advice that applies to photographers as well:
I’ll be blunt here:
As a salesperson, people don’t buy the camera you’re selling because you work at Best Buy when they can get that exact model at Amazon, probably for cheaper and without getting hounded about that stupid extended warranty all retailers try to push on you.
As a job applicant, people certainly don’t hire your “unique” skill-set, because you are not that unique, my special snowflake. As an applicant, there are a thousand other products applicants with the same skills, same generic resume, same blasé personality, and they’re probably wearing the same tie that you are wearing.
As a photographer, people don’t buy your photos because you’re “the best!” photographer in the world. There will always be another photographer who is better or cheaper. Suck it up, hero.
In the end, we are all just selling the same crap.
The point is:
There will always be someone else selling the same camera, taking the same types of photos that you do, or who has a similar skill set. Someone will always will be better, cheaper, hungrier, luckier, or more connected than you are. It is a frustratingly difficult lesson to learn and a brutally humbling truth to accept.
TeLL mE wHy ShUd I HiRe U?
The Jerk Who Should Be Hiring You
If all of that is true, then what really differentiates you from another sales person, new hire, or photographer then what actually differentiates you from another?
You know what does? You do.
Here’s a little secret advice:
The only reason why people buy from you or decide to hire you is because they like you.
If you want to play in the ‘commodity’ lane and be compared on your prices, yeah, you’re gonna be made (sic) when someone comes out who is cheaper than you […] But if you manage to step out of that lane and sell yourself based on value and experience, then you never have to worry. Never once […]
In the end, I, you, they — anyone with a camera really — can take a photo. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can photograph poi spinning dready-haired spunion wooks and hoop spinning burner yoga goddesses at a festival. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can do a half priced mini portrait session weekend flash sale at a park. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can be a freelancer and specialize in newborn, family, maternity, wedding, social media, product, influencer, mom-blogging, solopreneuer, boss-babe photography. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can be a creepy GWC and go trawling for models on Model Mayhem to indulge in shibari “art” collabs as a neckbearded fedora-tipping incel master-rigger with a sketchy modeling contract. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can always be cheaper, more expensive, less skilled, have better equipment, use retro cheap gear, specialize in natural light, be a Strobist snob with a 3 pointed lighting kit and run an assembly line headshot boudoir business as they masturbate endlessly about off-camera, always on flash, Sony ruleZ, laughs in EOS, Nikon 4 Lyfe, M4/3 cultism (RIP Olympus) while getting more likes and vlog about photography (hit that Subscribe button!) or hating on the latest Peter Lik abomination. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Do what you will. Create your own market how ever you decide. Fill it with fanatics who love you and love your work. Market yourself as the best experience for your clients. Charge what you feel you are worth, charge the average for your market, overcharge, or give away the store. None of those options are sustainable in the wrong market, anyway. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
The photographer who is stalking your posts on Facebook and complaining about your choice to charge a fee or not? They don’t have a market that actually supports their photography. They haven’t differentiated themselves enough on anything but price simply because, as they’re unconsciously realizing, anyone with a camera can be a photographer, and it terrifies them. So what? That’s entirely their problem to figure out. Do you, and keep taking photos.
Realize that you differentiate yourself from all those other people. You are not any of your “competitors,” and that is your greatest asset.
It’s no huge secret that I have been working on putting together a small e-commerce store as a platform and income stream to support my photography. To that end, I’ve thought about “branding” and how I could align it with my own beliefs and values, whatever that means. I have already embraced the idea of “imperfection” as a photographer. In my view, flaws and mistakes can exist side-by-side with precision and accuracy because perfection is an impossible standard to achieve. It is when precision and flaws are combined in unique ways that true beauty can be found. Which leads me back to branding and values.
Let’s cut right to the chase:
More often than not, the photography used in the fashion world promotes a negative body image and distorted sense of beauty held to genetically unrealistic standards.
Fashion segments people into a gendered binary, or a sliding scale of sizes, and then prices accordingly.
Sourcing material has its own problems where exploitative conditions in the name of profits frequently trumps fair wages or local jobs, etc.
Obviously, this is all a gross over simplification but it covers what I want to address. I intend to align my branding with what I believe in:
Human beings are beautiful. I intend to work with models of different physical, genetic, or gender expressions to help promote my store. It’s simple. Wear my stuff and I’ll happily photograph you wearing it.
As often as possible, I will collaborate with local models, performers, graphic designers, illustrators, and other creatives and pay them for their work. None of this “do it for the exposure!” crap.
If it is available for plus-sizes, I will price it the same as non-plus sizes. I may price a little higher than average, but that will only be because I am willing to lose $2 in profit on one end in order to avoid punishing someone of a different size.
I will price items the same regardless of someone’s different physical sex characteristics. For example, a cut and sew all over print crew neck shirt will be priced the same for men and women.
I may charge a little differently from time to time, but it will not to the detriment of female bodied people, and only when it makes sense. For example, in the case of non-yoga leggings for men vs non-yoga leggings for women, I may charge a little more for men. After all, as a cis-bodied man myself, we need more material and my penis’ comfort is worth it, damnit!
The sourcing for clothing blanks, and fabrics will be as ethical as possible. Originally, I had looked into American Apparel as a t-shirt blank; however, after a recent purchase of American Apparel by Gildan, and digging more into Gildan’s ethical practices, I do not feel comfortable supporting American Apparel, at this time.
For now, my blanks are sourced from suppliers including Bella+Canvas, Next Level Apparel, and LA Apparel, manufacturers who make every effort to commit to fair wages, free trade, and produce sweatshop and child-labor free apparel. Direct to Garment Printing and the fulfillment of Cut and Sew items is based in the United States of America whenever possible.
Let’s talk about representation
Nick is a very proud gay man and has given me his full consent to identify him as a gay man. We started our shoot very plainly. Simple headshots while wandering the woods of Purgatory Chasm, looking for good lighting and places for quickie shots.
It is in this spirit that I present to you my friend, Nick, and our photoshoot at Purgatory Chasm, in Central Massachusetts.
Welcome to Purgatory
All About That Bear Honey
The closer to the edge of the chasm we went the more the jokes, innuendo, laughs, and gayety came out. Between Nick and Artemis, my intrepid photo-assistant, we had multiple moments such as the following exchange:
Her – “You got a new Grindr photo now!”
Me – “Yeah, you’ve totally got some bear honey right there…”
Hey, it’s important to have fun on a photoshoot, right?
“I never thought I’d say this to another man, but put that dress on…”
At the end of the shoot, we decided to go all out and do some real gender-fuckery. A cis-bodied gay man in a dress for no other reason than to wear one, super tight yoga leggings, classic gothy black lipstick, femme style fashion model emoting, and lumbersexual posing with a pole. What you don’t see are the photos with the massive stiletto heels Nick wore while perched near the edge of the chasm.
Don’t worry, Nick wasn’t really anywhere close to the edge; my liability insurance only covers so much…
My friend Dani asked me to set up a photography session with her before Valentine’s Day. After some discussion, I suggested making it a boudoir styled shoot because boudoir and Valentine’s Day go hand in hand, in my experience, for three reasons. Couples like to gift intimate photos to each other that are well above and beyond the typical smartphone centered photos they often engage in as play together. Single people like to indulge in self-empowerment and giving their confidence a little extra pampering. For other people, it is important for them to give a little push back against Valentine’s Day as a trite consumer holiday, for themselves, or as means to help purge emotions tied to a former partner.
I’ve shot boudoir for all three purposes and my personal opinions are irrelevant outside of how we can utilize those feelings to guide the shoot, and what their feelings are coming in to a session, and how they feel when the session is over and photos are delivered.
I don’t judge.
PRO TIP: Swap the hot-shoe trigger for an on-camera speedlight flagged with a black-foamie thing and you can easily leave your entire portrait light set up, while still getting flattering directional light in a different room. Swap the on-camera speedlight back to the trigger to change gears in seconds, everything is dialed in anyway, right?
As part of the pre-shoot discussion stage, we talked about what boudoir photography is all about and how the word “boudoir” itself comes from the French verb “to sulk or pout,” (bouder), or the adjective for “sulking,” (boudeur). It is literally, a room to sulk in or withdraw to, where one can fully exist and feel safe away from the world. We would utilize her apartment, and her bedroom, surrounded by things that mattered and felt she comfortable with (and that included her kitty, Noah). Backdrops would be created with her own tapestries and her own bedding, music she enjoyed played on her own speakers, and so on. Lighting was quick, portable, and mostly unobtrusive (small, gelled, remote-triggered, manual speedlights on thin lightstands, with minimal modifiers), and no camera tripod. We could easily move from one room to another as needed and everything was dialed in.
It also made sense to start off very slowly. Simple and basic headshots where we could laugh and have some comfortable prattle in order to keep spirits up.
Also helpful during a boudoir shoot, or any photoshoot really, is to have the full resources available of the RTMS2000 Photo Assistant. The RTMS2000 is a voice-activated, fully-articulated, remote-controlled, semiautonomous, firmware-upgradable Light-Stand and Model-Wrangler with Audio Bending Technology, Advanced Volume Control Slider (3 Algorithm Selected Presets: 0, 10, and 11), optional Flame Thrower Attachments, and Xtreme Integrated Sass Valve (there is an open support ticket for Sass Valve which is currently stuck wide open). So far, using the RTMS2000 has helped me to keep models well wrangled, light-stands aimed, hair slicked, papers organized, releases signed, music bumping (affiliate link), cattle-stampeded, 4th walls broken, and deserts combed.
I highly recommend one, once the testing phase is completed.
These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration (FDA). RTMS2000s are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. *
Finally, and most importantly, boudoir photography images are intended for the personal enjoyment of the model and the people they choose to share or gift them to. It’s very different from, say, producing commercial images for a client with the model serving as one of many props. It’s an opportunity to help someone feel confident and better about themselves through a photography session designed entirely around their comfort. The photographer helps to set the stage as works closely with the model to enables them to indulge in a little bit of fantasy and role-play.
It is in this light that I hope these images from our boudoir session, and the process to take them, fulfill their intended purpose for Dani. I am flattered to have been chosen to take them, happy to produce them, and am looking forward to future photo sessions with a good friend.
During the height of summer festival season for 2018, and I began seeing things that bothered me more and more. It really brought out issues of consent, particularly where it is assumed to be granted vs where it is explicitly granted, and the idea of “community.”
At one festival, a friend had a gift from her mother cut off her tent and stolen as part of a Pirate Flag stealing game. It was her first festival, and none of this was explained to her. It was just assumed she was participating, and has been told multiple (paraphrased) times that “well, that’s just how the game goes,” and “if you didn’t want it stolen, you should not have brought it.”
It happens that at a festival I attended, the year before, I had my own pirate flag that I had put out onto the side of Nightshade, specifically, so friends who were attending could find where we were camped. Someone on a golf cart, claiming to be a member of security, warned that “well, it’s gonna get stolen, cuz that’s how the game goes.” Again, this was new to me, and after pushing back along the lines of “no one here has consented to this game” his reply was, basically, “it doesn’t matter, I’m just giving a warning and a heads up; it will get stolen.”
Again, how rape-y.
Concerning another festival due to take place later in 2018, a friend discovered that a photo of her and her child had been used for this year’s marketing collateral. After some back and forth with members of the festival crew, it was pointed out to her that she had consented to all terms and conditions on their website by agreeing to attend. Though this is normal, what I found specifically concerning was “All guests consent to photography…[to be used] in promotional [material]” and that people attending with children “understand that photography WILL be taken of their children” and that they “consent to photography” of their children, also to be used potentially in promotional material. Their photo policy further states that they possess full copyright “of all photographs” taken during their event and that “guests who photograph [at the event] consent to [the crew] using their photos” in promotional material. Her follow up contacts have been ignored by the festival crew in question ever since. It appears to be their modus operandi.
Yet again, how rape-y.
Also concerning that same festival crew’s marketing efforts, I discovered a photo of mine edited and used to advertise ticket sales for the same festival without my consent, and without any compensation. My out-reach to them was most definitely read and ignored. Instead, the event crew’s co-founder reached out to the talent depicted in the photo in order to see about continuing to use the photo. They never contacted me directly about using it or continuing to use it. Ultimately, my attorney sued them for copyright infringement.
Once again, how rape-y.
Another annual event’s photo policy states that “your attendance…grants consent for any picture or movie that is put in the public domain, taken by you, to be used [by us].” People who pay to attend are consenting, by default, that any photography they take, professional or not, can be used promotionally to sell tickets to the event, without any need to contact the original photographer or to discuss purchasing rights to use those photographs in any commercial manner.
Still fucking rape-y.
And, in 2019, I attended a festival in Massachusetts. For the 4 days on site before the festival opened, the pirate flag was left alone. I had put it up for friends to use as a landmark, again, to help them find me once the festival itself opened. On the day the festival opened, the flag was stolen from my camp. During dinner, that same night, I made an announcement that it was stolen, and thievery was not cool. Though some sitting at dinner snickered, a couple of people sneered, and I pointed out that snickering and sneering at a theft was not cool, no one came forward. The flag, ultimately, was never returned.
Contrast the above behavior, experiences, and policies with excerpts from the venue page that hosts The Starwood Festival, a Pagan oriented summer festival in Ohio:
Leave No Trace is a set of principles for participation in outdoor recreation that seeks to minimize the impact on the natural environment. Proponents of Leave No Trace believe that individual impacts caused by recreation can accumulate to degrade the land. Therefore, the Leave No Trace message encourages people who spend time in the out-of-doors to behave in such a way that they can minimize unavoidable impacts and prevent avoidable impacts. It is often summarized: “Take only photos, leave only foot prints.”
Please be respectful of the privacy of others while photographing and recording. It is necessary to obtain permission from the subjects to photograph people.
If it is not yours, please leave it where it is. This could be a chair, a drum, a blanket, or other instruments. The owner WILL return for that item, whether it be tonight, tomorrow, or next year. Please help us maintain the trust we hold with our attendees that their things will be safe with their neighbors.
Please do not touch anyone without their consent, be they dancer, drummer, or other energy worker. You are also an energy worker, and please feel empowered to speak to any of the staff nearby, or a fire tender, if you are made to feel uncomfortable. Please do be aware that drummers, dancers, and energy workers may be on their own journeys, and attempting to engage them is a form of energetic touch which also requires consent.
During my time at Starwood, I put out my pirate flag. It was left alone, even though there were Pirates everywhere and I was on site for a week.
From start to finish, the Starwood Festival was true community participation. The opening ceremony was an authentic and honest ritual without any ridiculously new-age appropriative “shamanic” costuming and verbal psychotwaddle, one that took itself so seriously that they could laugh every time someone made a mistake. Saturday night at Starwood, which is typically the peak night of any festival that takes place, generated more energy and tapped into deeper magick with more reliance on organic instruments, individual moments of ritual, and the acknowledgment that accepting chaos and loss of control is as equally necessary as structure and planning.
Via conversations held with people, Starwood had its largest festival attendance (estimates were about 1,200 by Saturday afternoon), and on Sunday it was stated that there were zero calls required to any outside services. No medical/EMS calls and no calls to Law Enforcement needed to be contacted, and the property was, to the best of my knowledge, left completely alone and un-harassed by any outside authorities.
I urge us all to look past the veneer of whichever festivals we have attended this year or in years past. The most powerful magick, art, performance, or transformative festival experience occurs when the artist, magus, director, or crew can create the ritual experience, canvas, stage, or structure that allows the participants to tap into the deep flow of energy on their own, in their own way, as they will. In the end, what is magick, but “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
We preach magick and transformative experiences yet fail at allowing deep magick to truly manifest in favor of more lights, more visuals, more sonic ambience, more forced authenticity, creating the proper aesthetic, and lust for control and structure. We preach consent and support while failing to see how another person may need to be heard or listened to. We assume or we require that consent is given just by virtue of physically existing in the same space. We preach PLUR constantly, but fail to apply it to others in favor of requiring it and expecting it for ourselves first. Therefore, I feel it is appropriate to challenge all of the so-called transformational festival crews, organizations, tribes, retreats, events, burns, and communities that we are a part of to actually learn something from Starwood Festival’s example.
We conveniently appropriate elements of paganism, here and there, into our respective scenes while forgetting that Pagans have been partying in the wilderness, and have been doing it better with far less, for a much, much longer time. We can do better.
We must do better.
The Pufferdome at Starwood Festival: A Photo Gallery
Your performer has a safety and you, yourself, are comfortable with being a safety if needed.
You and everyone involved are clearheaded, sober, have safety equipment and procedures in place.
You have read through the Limitation of Liability section of our Terms and Conditions page. (You HAVE read it, right?…)
Ready? Good, let’s begin.
In this post I am going to discuss primarily fire fans; however, things are also applicable to palm torches since they are functionally similar from a photography perspective.
Of all the fire props and flow toys out there, my favorite to photograph are fire fans for two simple reasons:
Fire fans, more than any other prop, are an effective two-light source. A key-light and a rim-light, fill-light, or back-light.
There is always a natural pause in movement at full extension just before a transition to another movement and, if you’re lucky, great expression.
Settings can vary, depending on what you’re going for. Can you get siiiiiiiiiiick textures in the flames? Sure, but often times at the expense of all that fantastic portrait lighting, by underexposing the performer. You can even get some fire trails with fans, with some siiiiiiiiiiick flames. If that is your goal, then be sure to have some softened speedlight flash ready and use 2nd curtain sync to help time the shot. I am always amazed at the ability of flash to freeze motion on long exposures, as long as your ambient light is dark enough.
Personally, I like to treat a fire fan performance as a candid portrait session with highly variable light placement. My focus will be to watch for, and expose for, those expressive moments so, for me, I want fast shutter speeds to freeze motion and apertures as wide as possible to force those faster shutter speeds with ISO around 800-2000 to help with skin exposure. Typically I’ll be around f1.8-f2.8, and shutter speeds ranging from 1/25″ to about 1/800″. For certain shots, I’ve pushed to 1/4000″ with a wide open aperture and ISO2000.
The challenges at those extreme apertures happen when wider apertures create an incredibly thin depth of field, and auto-focus getting easily fooled by the very bright shiny light source that can get between you and the face, a mere arm’s length behind it. If you can be positioned so that the fans are at a near right angle from you and the performer at full extension, the odds of such a thin depth of field becoming apparent are greatly minimized.
Because focus becomes so challenging at wider apertures, whatever features your camera has for auto-focus tracking and continuous auto-focus, etc, become crucial. Learn about backbutton auto-focus. Make use of those features as often as you can. Some would also suggest turning on Servo mode, or continuous shot mode. You know, that 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – 20 frames per second your camera is capable of. As much as I hammer on the idea of using Manual exposure mode, you could try the “Sports” Scene mode, if your camera uses it, as a starting point.
Speaking of Manual mode, personally, I tend to use Single Shot auto-focus with the classic half-press of the shutter to engage and lock focus and Single Shot mode rather than focus-tracking auto-focus and Servo mode, because I prefer to maintain as much control over the shooting process as possible. It’s something I will continuously adjust while looking through the viewfinder, until I take the photo. For follow up photos, I won’t raise my finger all the way, in favor of keeping the half-press on the shutter button. This is not the way you’re normally taught to handle action shots.
Think of it as having an A, B, and C position on the shutter release button. A = Your shutter finger is lightly rested on the shutter button. B = You half-press on the shutter to engage and lock auto-focus. You’ll feel it. C = Push the shutter button all the way to take a photo.
Most people will only follow this finger sequence: A (Rest) -> B (Auto-focus) -> C (Shutter release) -> A (Reset) before preparing to take the next shot.
Instead, try this finger sequence to improve shot to shot times: A (Rest) -> B (Auto-focus) -> C (Shutter Release) -> B (Auto-focus) -> C (Shutter Release)
If you’re familiar with shooting a fire-arm, and riding the trigger’s reset between shots in order to increase shooting speed, you’ll find sequence this very familiar.
By altering your finger sequence, you can also improve your odds of nailing focus in single-shot focus mode, the way I do. Track the performer with the camera held to your dominant eye, while keeping both eyes open: A (Rest) -> B (focus) -> A (Reset) -> B (Focus) -> A (Reset) -> B (Focus) until you’re ready to shoot on -> C (Shutter) -> B (Focus stays locked) -> C (Shutter) -> B (Focus stays locked) -> things changed so then A (Reset) -> B (Focus) -> A (Reset) -> B (Focus) -> C (Shutter), etc.
It takes a bit to get used to, but once you’re used to it, your auto-focus and shot to shot times improve all while you maintain as much control over your camera as possible.
So, how to photograph fire fans:
Make full use of the two-point lighting that fire fans or palm torches create. If there is any light in the background, even better; you now have a three-point lighting system at your disposal.
Watch for natural pauses in movement. That is your best chance to catch a performer in a pose at their most expressive. Those pauses also are less likely to be motion-blurred by the performer while your shutter speeds decrease due to dimmer flames over time.
You ARE adjusting your shutter speeds to maintain exposure while the flames dim, right?..
Be wary of thinner and thinner depths of field as you push your apertures wider.
Focus becomes critical. If your camera has subject tracking auto-focus, use it. If you have Ai Servo focus or something similar, use it.
Since you’re shooting fast action, use Servo mode and make use of the fast frames per second rates your camera is capable of.
Then throw all that out the window and really work to improve your use of Single Shot mode and Single Shot Auto-focus by shaking off the usual A, B, C shutter finger sequence and altering it to improve on auto-focus and shot to shot times.
Speaking of auto-focus, I only use a single focus point. The center one.
If you use any kind of auto-focus zone, set it to a small zone focus area, centered on the center focus point. It’s always the most sensitive one.
Before I dive into photographing fire breathers, I will make a few very general assumptions:
You are using a dSLR, mirrorless dSLR, compact system camera, or whatever industry marketing-speak is for a camera that has manual controls and a decent lens with a good aperture range.
You are familiar enough with your camera to be using Manual Mode and you are capable of changing settings for auto focus (setting focus points and setting focus mode), shutter drive modes (single shot, or multi shot), etc.
Ideally you can do this by muscle memory so you don’t have to take your eyes off the fire breather constantly.
You have a grasp of the “exposure triangle” and know that when you change one setting for one effect it will simultaneously brighten or darken the image and/or increase or decrease the range of your flash.
Your performer has a fire-safety, you have some familiarity with what a safety does, and are willing to step in immediately if something goes wrong.
You and everyone involved with your shoot/at the performance are sober, clear headed, know what you/they are doing, experienced, and have safety equipment and procedures in place.
Okay, ready? Let’s get started.
The camera settings I use to take photos of fire breathers are:
Aperture – Brighten or darken the flame. The higher the f/stop the more the camera squints at the light. This is crucial. I like to use apertures between f5.6 and f16
Shutter – Increase or decrease size of fire plume. The faster the shutter, the smaller and dimmer the plume. The slower the shutter, the larger and brighter the plume. With flash, changing shutter speeds also brightens and darkens the ambient exposure. I range between 1/160 – 1/2000 of a second.
ISO – Amplify signal from base. Basically, it brightens the image. The worst thing to have is amazing texture and siiiiiiiiick flames but a muddy, underexposed, dark subject. This happens all the time. Start at 100, of course, and work your way up. Often times I find myself around 800-1600 or 100-200; it always depends on the other settings.
RAW vs JPEG – Shoot RAW. Period. I’ll show you why shortly.
There are some other factors to consider, though, outside of the above settings. Think of it like buying a computer. Everyone tends to focus on the same basic things: CPU, RAM and Storage. Just like there are more specs to consider when it comes to how good a computer system is, there are additional settings and options to consider with a camera system that can make a big difference to your final photo.
Flash – Provides fill light or key light. Really brightens your subject. Use a diffuser of some kind; direct harsh flash looks awful. Set on TTL and don’t think about it. While on the subject of flash, make sure it has HSS (High Speed Sync) flash mode; otherwise, you’ll only be able to use a shutter of about 1/200 of a second, depending on your camera. Limit the shutter and you have to really start paying attention to the other two sides of your exposure triangle. In simple terms, HSS lets you use your flash at any shutter speed you pick above 1/200 of a second.
Auto Focus – Center focus point only. It’s the most sensitive and accurate. Know how to lock focus with a classic half-shutter press or use back-button autofocus. Contrast helps with autofocus! Focus on clothing if it has stripes and your apertures are 5.6 or more (depth of field is very kind at those settings). If nothing else, focus on the torch head.
Zoom vs Prime Lens – I use primes with fast apertures, f1.4, f1.8, and f2.8. Zoom lenses typically fit between 3.5 at the widest angle and 5.6/8.0 at the full zoom, depending on how cheap it is. Expensive zooms will have good range, IS systems, and wide apertures through the full zoom range (typically f2.8). They are also bigger, more unwieldy, heavier, and much more expensive than your cheaper zoom lenses. For fire breathing photography, you can get away with the kit lens since you’ll mostly be using f/stops 5.6 or higher, ideally, anyway.
As far as settings go, that’s it. Think of these as guidelines more than hard and fast rules. It’s important to know and be comfortable with how each setting supports, and is affected by changes in, the others. Below, I’ve put together a few examples of fire breathing photos that I’ve taken over the years from my earliest attempts, to some of my most recent shots, in order to demonstrate some of the camera settings and concepts that I am describing.
Photos of William breathing fire at Petrified Forest III, Hartford, Maine, Autumn 2017
Photo of Kevin breathing fire at Oasis, Summer 2010
Photo of Fire Breathers at Oasis, Summer 2010
Artemis breathing Fire at Nahant Beach, MA, Summer 2011
Photo of Fire Breather at Wildfire Retreat, Summer 2015
Photo of Sarah breathing Fire at Wildfire Retreat, Summer 2015
Fire Breathing Photography Final Exam (Haha!)
These two final photos have vastly different Shutter speed, ISO settings, and f/stops and a flash fired for both. They still look somewhat similar. Why? On the other hand, as a result of those different settings, what is different?
What are your favorite fire breathing photography tips?
Q – What’s a surprisingly good technique I can use to photograph fire performers?
A – Thinking.
In Part One of this series on improving your fire performer photography, we looked at using concepts from photojournalism to keep the focus on the human performer. In Part Two we looked at Always Getting Consent and Safety Third. Fire performers are not props. They’re human. Treat them that way. For Part Three, we looked at Basic Rifle Marksmanship. A camera is no different, conceptually, from a rifle. In Part Four, combat shooting, er, improving photography with Shoot, Move, Communicate. In Part Five, even boredom and creative ruts can be effective photography tools.
Today, we’ll take a fairly high level look at how camera settings interact with each other, and what happens when you don’t fully think through what you’re trying to do. This is not a tutorial on how your camera works.
Generally speaking, shutter speed will control the size of the plume or length of the trail. The longer duration your shutter is open then the flame that gets recorded will be larger. Because light from the flames will also be, in most cases, your key-light, the slower the shutter the more you risk overall motion blur as well.
Aperture and ISO will control exposure. The smaller the aperture, and the lower the ISO, less details will get blown-out to white in the flames and the darker the photo will become at a given shutter speed.
This is, usually, where I see most people stop. Once they record super detail in the flames they feel that they nailed the shot, regardless of how badly they under exposed the photo to actually get there. The flame, and lust to capture “SIIIIICK” texture overrides all other considerations, including the human element.
Think of it this way: Imagine a photograph of, say, Thomas Edison, standing next to a brightly lit light-bulb with his hand holding the lamp, and the exposure on the light-bulb is SO good that you can see all the details of the tungsten coil wire, even as it is glowing yellow-hot. You can also see the texture to the glass bulb, but you can barely see Edison. Sure, you can see his hand holding the lamp but his arm is really dark and maybe, just maybe, you can see a hint of his face, but only if you squint.
Maybe he is a little brighter in frame but, at best, he looks muddied and muted compared to the bulb, and the details you see in the bulb are so much clearer than than the half smile he has or the texture in his exhausted brow.
Could you connect, emotionally, with that image?
For me, the flame is not the subject; the performer is. I’d rather nail the exposure, and action, with the emphasis squarely on the human being manipulating the flame than on any other element in the frame. I want to see the human, the effort made, countered with the inherent element of danger from the flames. The dance, to me, is more important than the costume. When present, the human element will always be the most important factor over anything else because people will visually connect more readily with people in an image.
Let’s take these concepts a little farther, and I am going to grossly oversimplify things to do it:
The primary effect of altering shutter speeds is the amount of motion that gets recorded. Faster shutter, less motion; slower shutter, more motion. The secondary effect of changing the shutter speed is altering exposure. A given amount of light (via the aperture setting) is dumped onto the camera sensor/film for a particular duration. Faster shutter, darker image; slower shutter, brighter image.
The primary effect of altering aperture is controlling the light for a given shutter speed. The iris of the lens opens more, or less. Wider aperture, brighter image; smaller aperture, darker image. Note: This is just like the pupils of an animal’s eyes in daylight or nighttime. The pupils of certain animals open wider than others. Cat’s pupils open far wider than those of humans. Think of them as having “faster lenses.” The secondary effect of altering aperture is controlling depth-of-field, the zone of focus (acceptable sharpness) from your subject. The wider the aperture, the narrower the zone of sharpness; the narrower the aperture, the wider the zone of sharpness.
ISO’s primary effect is amplifying the signal that is recorded by the sensor. The higher the ISO, the brighter the pixels become. The lower the ISO, the dimmer the pixels are. ISO’s secondary effect is a direct result of the first: everything is amplified, including the noise contained within the signal, especially in darker areas of the image where the camera may or may not have recorded much light data, but still recorded the noise present within that area. The higher the ISO, the brighter the noise becomes; the lower the ISO, the dimmer the noise gets.
Again, for most people, this is good enough. Fiddle with Aperture, Shutter, and ISO, and you’re golden.
What about distance, though? Just like Aperture, Shutter, and ISO, distance can affect the compositional side of the image. It can also have an enormous effect on exposure at the same time.
Distance, in particular, affects composition and exposure both by what exactly is visible within the frame (and the overall brightness and darkness of the frame as a result) and specifically it affects exposure due to the Inverse Square Law of Light. In the simplest of terms it means the intensity of light gets less as distance increases both from the observer and from the object being illuminated. Light from you is dimmer with distance from you. An illuminated face is dimmer with distance from you. A face is also illuminated more weakly the farther the light source is from it.
Finally, the last factor to consider is focal length. For the purposes of simplicity, more focal length will equal more reach. At a given camera-subject distance a longer focal length will magnify the subject more. When objects are in the frame the distance between them will appear to be much less at higher focal lengths. At wider focal lengths the distance between objects will appear to expand. Focal length will also affect depth of field as well as motion blur. More focal length narrows depth of field and increases motion blur from camera/lens shake. Less focal length deepens depth of field as well as reduces motion blur from camera/lens shake.
Here’s a couple of scenarios to consider:
A photo of Finlay is well exposed and bright because you balanced aperture at f2.8 on a 50mm lens with an ISO of 1600 and set a shutter of1/800th of a second to really freeze motion and bring out some flame texture. He is well exposed and the noise in the image is very low but when you look at it more closely, the closer torch heads are super sharp but his face is ever so slightly out of focus. What happened?
How about a shot of a Kendra where flame trails are long enough at a 1.3 second exposure to have recorded an interesting spiral pattern, flame textures are reasonable with detail because you waited until most of the fuel burnt off and the flame brightness died down, even at yet still have decent exposure at f5.6 because your ISO was at 800 and you were far but framed tight at about 60mm on a zoom lens and but the she is a fuzzy blob and everything else in the background looks like a wiggly mess?
How about LED flow props? (Yes, yes, LED poi is not fire performer photography, but the concepts are completely the same. The advantage to LED props is they are much dimmer and their brightness does not change much at all. Lock in exposure and you’re good from the beginning to the end of the performance)
How would you fix them?
(Mind you there are no right or wrong fixes to these particular scenarios)
For Finlay’s dragon staff photo, you could have been too close for the given aperture and angle, therefore narrowing the depth of field. Only the front most torches at that depth of field would have been in focus. Standing a little farther away or changing to a higher F stop would have increased the depth of field and made the angle somewhat irrelevant since DOF would have encompassed a wider area, but could also affect the exposure. Do you, then, lower shutter speed a little to compensate or reduce ISO? What if you reduce shutter speed it enough that even at 50mm, motion blur gets introduced? What if decide to avoid risking motion blur by changing the shutter speed after changing the aperture to increase depth of field but now your subject is even darker because of the aperture change? You could increase ISO, but that would push noise into obnoxious levels. Also, keep in mind the brightness of the fire prop is always getting lower and lower and that no prop will ever the same exact brightness as before. What about changing your auto-focus setting to AI-Servo and, using backbutton auto focus, prefocusing on the face, thus locking focus away from the torches? The face will be sharper, but not the torches. Would that work?
For Kendra’s photo, you could make a choice: either record trails or freeze motion. If you opt to record trails the only thing you COULD possibly do is freeze motion with flash (a powerful enough flash will freeze motion at a 1 second exposure simply because the duration of the flash can be something along the lines of 1/10000th of a second at low power). Or you could change your priority here, and opt to freeze motion — faster shutter, wider aperture (at 28mm, are you using a kit zoom lens at a max range of F3.5-5.6, another zoom lens with a 2.8-4.0 aperture, or do you have a 35mm lens at 1.4?), and higher ISO. What if F3.5 does not give you a fast enough shutter to freeze motion while keeping a decent exposure on your subject? What if an ISO above 400 is too noisy but you need 1600 at your given shutter and aperture combination to properly expose your image?
As far as the LED poi shot is concerned, using flash is no help when it is poorly bounced around a venue that is primarily black and eTTL is fooled because, well, black absorbs light. Also, optical lens stabilization makes zero difference to a moving subject. The overall exposure is fine; however, the image is awful. No one is sharp, no one is clearly visible. Just a couple of vaguely human shapes surrounded by squiggly lines but hey, siiiiiiiiiiiick patterns, and the room is bright…
What is the point to all of this? A good photograph is composed well and relies on effective use of one or two of these elements and is well supported by the rest, in order to show emotion and connect with the viewer. In order to use these different elements effectively, it takes a strong understanding of what each can do in relation to the others under fast changing conditions, incredibly variable lighting, and very little time to reach. A poor photograph, well composed or not, uses one or two of these elements and ignores the others, while failing to connect with the viewer.