How To Photograph Fire Performers Like a Photojournalist

Q – Hi Adrian! If you could give just one tip on how to photograph fire performers, what would it be?

A – Learn photojournalism and sports photography

What makes a photo amazing?

As photojournalists, we are taught that powerful images revolve around the human element and their struggle within the environment around them. In those images, the human expends energy to overcome an obstacle. Success or failure is is irrelevant — what matters is the emotion captured in that moment. 

So, in photojournalism, what makes a great photo? It takes just three simple elements:

  • Effort – A human being struggling
  • With Something – A ball, a baby, a partner, an animal, themselves, whatever
  • Against Adversity – An opponent, a sidewalk, rain, Donald Trump, racism, you get the idea

That’s all.

In the case of a great sports photograph, the most memorable images capture, in an single instant, a three-way marriage of:

  • The athlete’s EFFORT
  • WITH SOMETHING (typically, a ball)
  • While “overcoming ADVERSITY
2011-03-12 Western Mass Div I High School Basketball Finals at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: Amherst vs Longmeadow

In the example photograph, those elements are demonstrated by the combination of the basketball player taking a shot for Amherst High School, off-balance, while nearly triple-teamed as her teammate and the crowd behind her anxiously watches. The photograph also leaves you with potential unanswered questions:

Does her effort achieve the implied goal by making the basket or does she miss? (Nailed it)

Did her team’s effort achieve a win or loss? (They won)

Finally, images from both the winning and losing side(s) help to frame the story. To hijack something the narrator for “Wide World of Sports” once described, the best images capture “…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Conceptually, there is absolutely no difference in elements when photographing fire-performers in action than when photographing a basketball player. A powerful photograph is created, in an instant, when the performer is caught in a three-way dance combining:

  • The performer’s EFFORT
  • WITH SOMETHING (their prop)
  • in the face of ADVERSITY (the inherent danger, performance failure, a photographer getting too close, heckling crowd, etc)
Julie Dion in a backbend buzzsaw at the Quincy Quarry, Quincy, MA.

In the case of this photograph, those elements are depicted in the effort it takes for Julie to:

  • Bend backwards
  • Spin a prop on fire
  • Maintain balance, and composure, while in an unnatural position in the dead of winter

What are some possible unanswered questions that you could consider as a result of Julie’s photo?

Finally, what about the three-way challenge that exists when a photographer:

  • Makes EFFORT
  • WITH SOMETHING (their gear)
  • against ADVERSITY (their own level of experience, technical limitations, environmental challenges, performers, other people, etc)?

Finally, photojournalists thrive in chaotic environments through a near psychic ability to use their equipment under difficult conditions. Flames don’t ignite, your camera settings are way off, batteries die, lens focusing motors fail, and people get in your way.

Shit happens. So what?

What matters is nailing the shot.

Here’s some questions to think about before your next photography event:

  • How quickly can you adjust settings without looking away from the viewfinder?
  • How many batteries do you have charged and ready to go?
  • Do you know where they are?
  • If, for some incredibly irresponsible reason, you decided to partake in intoxicants at a weekend festival, could you still use your camera through sheer muscle memory?

Have you ever heard of the concept of “Safety Third?”

Embracing it can separate you from the rest of the photographers hovering around the fire performer‘s circle.

Adrian Feliciano

View posts 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.

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