How To Photograph Fire Performers Like a Soldier

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U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathan Goldstein uses the scope on his rifle to survey the surrounding area during an operation in Al Naumyah in the Al Anbar province of Iraq on Dec. 15, 2006. Goldstein is attached to the Army's 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment. DoD photo by Sgt. Cooper Evans, U.S. Marine Corps. (Released)
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Q – How do you photograph fire performers like a solder?

A – Learn US Army Basic Rifle Marksmanship


  • candid photo of photographer silhouetted against outdoor night time row of vendors and tents

In Part One of this series of blog posts on How to Photograph Fire Performers, we covered how three compositional and conceptual elements help photojournalists and sports photographers create powerful images by depicting the human being, interacting with an object and struggling against adversity. In Part Two, we looked at always getting consent and “Safety Third” because fire-performers are not props, they are people. There is nothing wrong with actually working with them, and the other people around them — photography becomes a dance, as a result.

Which brings us to this post. You’ve now got the consent of the venue/promoter to photograph on location, and consent of the performer(s) to take pics of them from within the safety circle doing some really cool things with fire during a free-form performance, you’ve even asked if it is okay to use flash during some shots, and everyone is cool with it, and you’ve grabbed yourself a great spot, but holy hell, they move fast! How are you supposed to take a good shot if they’re constantly moving?

You can either wait until they line back up, at some point, with you and your position or you can say screw waiting and begin moving with them. You can be a passive marksman, or a kinetic shooter. Both have their advantages, and disadvantages.

But, first…


BASIC RIFLE MARKSMANSHIP:

When I was in the Army, soldiers were taught the Four Fundamentals of Basic Rifle Marksmanship

  1. Steady Position – Your stance, grip, body position, orientation, all combine to give a relaxed and steady platform to shoot from.
  2. Proper Aim – You’re looking down the barrel, through your sights, to your target and your sight picture is consistent.
  3. Breath Control – Your breathing is relaxed and steady, not elevated and erratic.
  4. Trigger Squeeze – You aren’t pulling the trigger, you’re gently squeezing it, so that the act of actuating the trigger itself does not throw off your aim.

What does any of this have to do with shooting a camera?

Everything.


WARNING – DO NOT ATTEMPT

I shouldn’t have to say this, but here we are. I am an experienced fire performer photographer. Photos taken with fire involved professional fire performers with proper fire safety training, equipment, and procedures in place.

The use of fire comes with inherent risks to life, limb, or property. Any action you take based on any information on this website is strictly at your own risk and I will not be held liable for any loss or damages you cause to yourself or others because you chose to use fire in any way.

Don’t be a bogan wook. Leave the siiiiiiiiick fire trails and fire plumes to the professionals and support them by cheering their performances in person!


  • long exposure blurry image of man breathing fire with wall of fire behind him copyright adrian feliciano adrianfeliciano.com

When you’re a dark environment, using much slower shutter speeds and relying longer focal lengths can all combine to cause any minor unsteady movement by the camera to be greatly magnified which will increase motion blur. Add to that the use of much wider apertures (with the right lenses, you’ll be between 2.8 all the way to 1.4 and fiddling with ISO in order to raise those shutter speeds faster) and your depth of field gets razor thin.

In my experience, shooting a camera is no different from shooting a rifle and the basics of hitting a target are no different than getting a sharper, well composed photograph: 

  1. Steady Position – Hold the camera with both hands, one on the camera body and the other steadying the lens and acting as the support for the camera, lens and possibly an external flash.
  2. Proper Aim – Look through the viewfinder, held to your dominant eye, pulled in lightly against your face for additional steadying. I shoot with both eyes open. It helps greatly with my situational awareness as I am weaving in and among active fire performers.
  3. Breath Control – Steady breathing helps to lower your heartbeat, and muscles to relax, reducing a tense/anxious grip, and camera sway as a result.
  4. Trigger Squeeze – I keep my finger lightly on the shutter release button, half-pressing to lock focus, and re half-pressing to re-lock focus (I tend to shoot in single focus mode, rather than servo focus, preferring to control autofocus myself). When I actually release the shutter to take a photo, it’s a matter of a very light twitch. When the camera fires, I do not fully remove my finger from the shutter button. I reduce pressure until the internal spring resets — you can feel it reset, it’s subtle — it me to helps take follow up shots quickly, with the same focus.

Continuing with the idea of tacti-cool photography, in the next post on fire performer photography tips, we’ll look the pros and cons of Passive Shooting, Kinetic Shooting, and how Shoot-Move-and-Communicate helps you not trip up multiple performers, accidentally block the fire safety, or step on people in the audience. In other words, “Safety Third.”

It also can help to prevent this:

(Sorry, Wiggles!)

Want to see more of my photography?

My portfolio features the best of my headshot, portrait, event, and boudoir photography.

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. Adrian also runs a shop over at Americanbogan.com for non-photography related things and makes one hell of a delicious Filipino adobo. You can always ask him for the recipe whenever you're ready to try something new for dinner.

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