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