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.
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.
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?