How To Photograph Fire Breathers

Published Categorized as How to, Photography
woman with anarchy tattoo breathing fire during summer solstice celebration in upstate new york copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
Cait E Merks breathing fire at during a Summer Solstice celebration in Upstate New York.
multiple people breathing fire at night simultaneously how to photograph fire breathers copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
Fire breathers at Wildfire Retreat , Summer 2015.
Camera Settings: 1/160″ @ f13, ISO 800

Before I dive into photographing fire breathers, I will make a few very general assumptions:

  1. You have read my other posts on how to photograph fire performers. There’s a lot of what I consider to be my best tips for fire performer photography.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Ideally you can do this by muscle memory so you don’t have to take your eyes off the fire breather constantly.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. You have read through the Limitation of Liability section of the Website’s Terms and Conditions page. (You HAVE read it, right?…)

Also, read through to the very end because, if your photography eye is good, I have a little contest waiting!

Okay, ready? Let’s get started.


The camera settings I use to take photos of fire breathers are:

  1. Aperture – Helps to reveal textures by brightening or darkening the flame. The higher the f/stop the more you force the camera to squint at the light. This is crucial. I like to use apertures between f5.6 and f16.
  2. Shutter – Increases or decreases size of fire plume as well as creates smoother textures or sharper textures. The faster the shutter, the smaller and dimmer the plume and the crisper the textures. The slower the shutter, the larger and brighter the plume and smoother the textures. With flash, changing shutter speeds also brightens and darkens the ambient exposure. I range between 1/160 – 1/2000 of a second.
  3. ISO – Amplify signal from base. Basically, it helps to brighten 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. RAW vs JPEG – Unless you are on a newspaper assignment and under a deadline for publication, shoot in RAW. You will always have more flexibility with your editing, later.

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.

For example, most photos I see of fire breathers will show the siiiiiiiiiickest of fire textures and the crispest of images all while grossly underexposing the performer. Typically they used very large f-stops at the narrowest apertures, lowest ISOs, the fastest shutter speeds, and sometimes processing different layers in Photoshop in order to make certain they don’t over-expose the flames, but in doing so, the fire breather is reduced to a muddy gargoyle stuck in the shadows.

profile angle of red-haired woman breathing fire showing some siiiiiiiick flame textures | photo copyright Adrian Feliciano @ adrianfeliciano.com
Amanda breathing fire during a backyard spin-jam in Greenfield, MA

Let’s look briefly at Amanda’s fire breathing photo, above. My camera settings, as recorded in EXIF data are: f5.6 and 1/160″ at ISO 100, with eTTL flash. The flash was semi-direct, with a simple plastic Sto-fen cover angled at 45 degrees to limit the spread somewhat. The settings are identical to the image below of multiple ladies taking a simultaneous fire breath. Both images were saved as RAW files, and processed in Lightroom to touch up white balance, shadows, contrast, brightness, highlights, and shadows. No Photoshop; therefore, no blending of layers, no digital compositing, and no altering the “truthiness” of the images, something I will never do because doing so goes counter to all of my instincts and ethics as a photojournalist.

So, why do both images look so vastly different from each other, even though the settings were identical (even correcting white balance resulted in very different shifts in color)? I’ll give you a hint at what the biggest factor was between both photos. Look at the shadows on Amanda’s face, above, and compare it to the shadows on Kitty’s shoulders and back, and remember that the flash fired on eTTL.

Anyway, as far as the best camera settings for fire breathing photography is concerned, there aren’t any. Do you remember the range of apertures, different shutter speeds, and varying ISO settings I listed? Think of the camera settings above as guidelines more than hard and fast rules: To create effect X, then change setting 1 and balance it with settings 2 and/or 3. To emphasize Y, then change setting 2, then 1 and 3 to compensate.

It’s important to know and be comfortable with how each setting supports, and is affected by changes in, the others. If you cannot do that, instinctively, then keep practicing and practicing until you can change settings by touch and without looking away from the viewfinder to do it. Yes, I use US Army basic rifle marksmanship techniques with my camera. You should, too.

Have you read this blog post, yet? You should…

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 fire breather photography concepts that I am describing.


Photos of William breathing fire at Petrified Forest III, Hartford, Maine, Autumn 2017

  • unedited image of man breathing fire copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
    1/800″ @ f9, ISO 200, HSS Flash, unedited, converted from RAW.
  • image of man in red shirt breathing fire copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
    Edited to taste in Lightroom. RAW gives an enormous ability to brighten, tweak white balance, adjust contrast, open up shadows, and reduce highlights.
  • long exposure blurry image of man breathing fire with wall of fire behind him copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
    4″ at f22, ISO 100, about 20mm, no flash. Siiiiiiiiiiiick texture in the flames behind William but the additional flame from his mouth combined with the wall of fire behind him and blew out all detail, even at the smallest aperture, and lowest ISO. This kind of shot is pretty much impossible to pull off in camera and would be brutal to try and convincingly manipulate multiple images in Photoshop.

Photo of Kevin breathing fire at Oasis, Summer 2010

man wearing beanie cap breathing fire at backyard event copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
1/125″ @ f6.3, ISO 400, 85mm, eTTL Flash. Edited to taste in Lightroom. Notice the overall smoothness and flowiness of the flames but Kevin is sharp. Why?

Photo of Fire Breathers at Oasis, Summer 2010

three women breathing fire from single torch copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
1/160″ @ f5.6, ISO 100, 50mm, eTTL flash. Edited to taste in Lightroom. What caused the fire plume to show a little more detail while it still remained fairly smooth?

Artemis breathing Fire at Nahant Beach, MA, Summer 2011

woman wearing booty shorts breathing fire off hula hoop near boston massachusetts copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
1/160″ @ f5.6, ISO 800, 50mm, eTTL flash. The only setting that changed between this image and the one above it is the ISO. It made all the difference in the world because the flames have been blown out and way over exposed. There is hardly any detail in the plume.

Photo of Fire Breather at Wildfire Retreat, Summer 2015

blurry photo of woman breathing fire copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
1/80″ @f11, ISO 800, 50mm, eTTL flash. What went wrong?

Photo of Sarah breathing Fire at Wildfire Retreat, Summer 2015

woman wearing black kneeling while breathing fire copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
1/160″ @ f10, ISO 800, 50mm, eTTL Flash. What went right?

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?

  • black white image and colored flame of man and woman breathing fire together at CoSM summer solstice celebration copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
    Corey Glover and Cait Merks breathing fire together at a performance for The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors’ annual Summer Solstice Celebration 2018. 1/3200″ at F4.5, ISO800
  • man wearing red shirt breathing fire copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com
    William breathing fire at Petrified Forest III, Autumn 2017 – 1/1250 @ f9, ISO 200, 50m, eTTL flash.

Contest time!

Remember I asked if you could figure out what the difference was between Amanda’s photo and the group fire breathing photo, even though camera and flash settings were identical, earlier in this blog post? Have you figured it out, yet? If you have, please tell me in the comments because the first person to get it right will win an “I Play With Fire” t-shirt from the merch shop!

By Adrian Feliciano

Adrian Feliciano specializes in on-location portrait and boudoir photography, documenting events for Boston's thriving nightlife scene, and fire performer photography. He also makes one hell of a delicious Filipino adobo. Feel free to ask him for the recipe! You can reach out to Adrian here, at anytime.

8 comments

  1. Only one option at that point: move the flash. Inverse square law makes a big difference. It does look like the _camera_ was a little further away in the group shot, though that could be cropping, and doesn’t necessarily say anything about where the flash was located. If the flash were not already at minimum power it would be compensating based on the distance between camera and subject, but at minimum power it will just add more illumination as you move closer.

  2. Ah, for the white balance it’s all about the color temperatures of the light sources, the flash and the flame. In the individual shot, the light from the flame is low color temperature (warm), which can be seen on her shirt and body, below the cone of the flash; the flash itself is much cooler (high color temperature), and is illuminating her face and the unignited spray, and since the flash is comparatively bright the image is white balanced on that.

    Meanwhile, in the group shot, the flame itself is probably a little higher color temperature than in the individual (because it’s literally hotter), but still much lower color temperature than the flash. But now the flame is providing most of the illumination, so white balancing based on that makes the whole image cooler (and much more tonally even, without the very different zones of illumination), hence the greenish highlights within the flame itself. If you had pushed the white balance even cooler in the group shot to get closer to the same balance you have on her face in the individual shot, I suspect it would have created some strange effects within the flame, so instead you have a tone that’s comparatively warmer than her flash-illuminated face in the individual shot, but cooler than her flame-illuminated body.

    1. Yes! And, all other factors being equal, if nothing else changes and assuming the flash consistently firing at the bare minimum power level of X for both images (unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility if eTTL calculations resulted in the same decision on power level), what can be done to increase or decrease the brightness of flash exposure to alter ratios between the flash and the plume without +/- EV Comp? This is what ties together what you noticed between flash being a cooler color temperature than the light from a small fuel air explosion and how it had influence in one frame but not the other.

  3. The difference is the amount of fire. 🙂 With fuel from three breathers at once, the flame is correspondingly brighter, which is why there are more overexposed areas in the center of the flame. The flash would have reduced brightness in compensation thanks to eTTL, but that only keeps the exposure on the breathers similar, not the flame itself.

    1. Hi BDan!

      I love your answer and I am very close to declaring you the winner. 😀

      I had a simpler explanation in mind, however.

      The brighter luminosity was absolutely a major factor in that the brighter plume could have reduced flash output by fooling eTTL metering. A human timing the shutter release to happen at the exact moment of peak luminosity consistently is impossible and there’s a statistical certainty that I released the shutter a split second before or after peak luminosity in both images. Another way to tell the plume was brighter is by how much more was lit up in the frame: the fence and other people in the background, specifically, and the additional brighter tones caused by the fence, more reflective skin, and the brighter white of Amanda’s shirt all affected the tonal balance of the image, throwing off eTTL. Regardless, though, the flash should have fired brighter from it’s base eTTL calculations due to +EV flash-compensation.

      But does a brighter flame, alone, explain why Amanda’s face was able to be white-balanced correctly rather than keeping an overall warm(ish) cast in the group image that remained even after correcting for it?

      I’ll allow the brighter plume as the prime factor to the differences between both images if you can also explain how it contributed to the differences in white balance shown between Amanda’s photo and the group photo, even though the flash fired, because it ties neatly into the factor I had in mind.

      All the pieces are there: (i) identical settings for ambient exposure means the brighter plume illuminated more within the frame, (ii) the resulting increased brightness and brighter tonal range reduced flash output, and (iii) the white balance is much warmer in the group shot than in Amanda’s image even after color correcting on her white shirt in the group shot.

      You’re 95% there! 😀

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