How To Photograph Fire Fans and Palm Torches

Fire Fan and Palm Torch Photography

In my last post, before I covered how to photograph fire breathers, I made several assumptions about your photography, some of which I will repeat here:

  1. You have access to a camera with manual settings.
  2. You know how to change those settings relatively quickly.
  3. You’re familiar with how Aperture, Shutter, and ISO interact with each other both with exposure and with each individual setting’s other effects.
  4. You’ve read other parts of this series on photographing fire performers. In particular, you have read this one.
  5. Your performer has a safety and you, yourself, are comfortable with being a safety if needed.
  6. You and everyone involved are clearheaded, sober, have safety equipment and procedures in place.
  7. You have read through Section X and Section XI of my 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 do you photograph fire fans:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. You ARE adjusting your shutter speeds to maintain exposure while the flames dim, right?..
  4. Be wary of thinner and thinner depths of field as you push your apertures wider.
  5. Focus becomes critical. If your camera has subject tracking auto-focus, use it. If you have Ai Servo focus or something similar, use it.
  6. Since you’re shooting fast action, use Servo mode and make use of the fast frames per second rates your camera is capable of.
  7. 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.
  8. Speaking of auto-focus, I only use a single focus point. The center one.
  9. 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.

Additional Photo Gallery

How To Photograph Fire Breathers

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!