I wanted to pass on some advice to new photogrphers. Something I learned that applies to sales in general, whether it’s screening applicants as a corporate recruiter or selling digital cameras at CompUSA, Best Buy, or Ritz Camera absolutely is advice that applies to you as well:
I’ll be blunt here:
As a photographer, people don’t buy your photos because you’re “the best!” photographer in the world. There will always be another photographer who is better or cheaper. Suck it up, hero.
In retail, people don’t buy the camera you’re selling because you work at Best Buy when they can get that exact model at Amazon, probably for cheaper and without getting hounded about that stupid extended warranty all retailers try to push on you.
As a job applicant, people don’t actually hire you for your “unique” skill-set. I say this as a former staffing specialist at a global staffing firm: there are a thousand other products applicants with the same skills, same generic resume, same blasé personality, and they’re probably wearing the same tie that you are wearing.
The simple truth is that a randomly generated 64 character ASCII string is statistically unique. Your “skills” are not. Seriously, according to the GRC Haystack, the fastest it would take to crack the following randomly generated 64 character string as a password is an estimated 12.06 million, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, centuries or 1.206 x 10^105 (120,600 googol?) years, according to a more mathematically-learned buddy of mine:
In reality, we are all just selling the same crap and there is nothing unique about your products, your skills, and your rates. There will always be someone else selling the same camera, taking the same types of photos that you do, or who has a similar skill set. Someone else will always will be better, cheaper, hungrier, luckier, or more connected than you are. It is a frustratingly difficult lesson to learn and a brutally humbling truth to accept.
If that is true, then what actually differentiates you from any another sales person, new hire, or photographer trying to stand out from the huge crowd of your competitors? You do.
You stand out because they are not you and they will never be you.
Here’s a little secret advice:
The only reason why people buy from you or decide to hire you is because they like you. That’s it. That’s all.
If you want to play in the ‘commodity’ lane and be compared on your prices, yeah, you’re gonna be made (sic) when someone comes out who is cheaper than you […] But if you manage to step out of that lane and sell yourself based on value and experience, then you never have to worry. Never once […]
In the end, I, you, they — anyone with a camera really — can take a photo. Most will be god awful. Some will be much better than you. A lot better. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can photograph poi spinning culturally-appropriative dready-haired spunion wooks and hoop spinning burner yoga goddesses at a festival. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can do a half priced, fifteen minute, mini portrait session weekend flash sale at a park. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can be an independent ‘tog who specializes in newborn, family, maternity, wedding, social media, product, influencer, mom-blogging, solopreneuer, boss-babe photography. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can be a creepy GWC neckbearded fedora-tipping milady incel master-rigger with a sketchy modeling contract who trawls for “open minded” talent on Model Mayhem and FetLife for nude shibari “art” collabs. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Anyone with a camera can always be cheaper, more expensive, less skilled, have better equipment, use retro cheap gear, specialize in natural light, be a Strobist snob with a 3 pointed lighting kit and run an assembly line headshot boudoir business as they masturbate endlessly in photography oriented comments sections about off-camera flash, LED video lights, Sony ruleZ, laughs in EOS, Nikon 4 Lyfe, M4/3 cultism (RIP Olympus) while getting more likes on their vlog about photography (hit that Subscribe button!) than you ever will, all while hating on the latest Peter Lik abomination. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
Do what you will. Create your own market how ever you decide. Fill it with fanatics who love you and love your work. Market yourself as the best experience for your clients. Charge what you feel you are worth, charge the average for your market, overcharge, or give away the store. None of those options are sustainable in the wrong market, anyway. So what? Do you, and keep taking photos.
The photographer who is stalking your posts on Facebook and complaining about your choice to charge a fee or not? They don’t have a market that actually supports their photography. They haven’t differentiated themselves enough on anything but price simply because, as they’re unconsciously realizing, that anyone with a camera can be a photographer, and it terrifies them. So what? That’s entirely their problem to figure out. It’s never your problem. Do you, and keep taking photos.
Realize that you differentiate yourself from all those other people. You are not any of your “competitors,” and that is your greatest asset. Run your shit up the nearest flag-pole as high as it can go, and see who salutes it.
So, if I could pass on just one piece of advice, from one photographer to another, it is this:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
You ARE adjusting your shutter speeds to maintain exposure while the flames dim, right?..
Be wary of thinner and thinner depths of field as you push your apertures wider.
Focus becomes critical. If your camera has subject tracking auto-focus, use it. If you have Ai Servo focus or something similar, use it.
Since you’re shooting fast action, use Servo mode and make use of the fast frames per second rates your camera is capable of.
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.
Speaking of auto-focus, I only use a single focus point. The center one.
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.
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!
Q – What’s a surprisingly good technique I can use to photograph fire performers?
A – Thinking.
In Part One of this series on improving your fire performer photography, we looked at using concepts from photojournalism to keep the focus on the human performer. In Part Two we looked at Always Getting Consent and Safety Third. Fire performers are not props. They’re human. Treat them that way. For Part Three, we looked at Basic Rifle Marksmanship. A camera is no different, conceptually, from a rifle. In Part Four, combat shooting, er, improving photography with Shoot, Move, Communicate. In Part Five, even boredom and creative ruts can be effective photography tools.
Today, we’ll take a fairly high level look at how camera settings interact with each other, and what happens when you don’t fully think through what you’re trying to do. This is not a tutorial on how your camera works.
Generally speaking, shutter speed will control the size of the plume or length of the trail. The longer duration your shutter is open then the flame that gets recorded will be larger. Because light from the flames will also be, in most cases, your key-light, the slower the shutter the more you risk overall motion blur as well.
Aperture and ISO will control exposure. The smaller the aperture, and the lower the ISO, less details will get blown-out to white in the flames and the darker the photo will become at a given shutter speed.
This is, usually, where I see most people stop. Once they record super detail in the flames they feel that they nailed the shot, regardless of how badly they under exposed the photo to actually get there. The flame, and lust to capture “SIIIIICK” texture overrides all other considerations, including the human element.
Think of it this way: Imagine a photograph of, say, Thomas Edison, standing next to a brightly lit light-bulb with his hand holding the lamp, and the exposure on the light-bulb is SO good that you can see all the details of the tungsten coil wire, even as it is glowing yellow-hot. You can also see the texture to the glass bulb, but you can barely see Edison. Sure, you can see his hand holding the lamp but his arm is really dark and maybe, just maybe, you can see a hint of his face, but only if you squint.
Maybe he is a little brighter in frame but, at best, he looks muddied and muted compared to the bulb, and the details you see in the bulb are so much clearer than than the half smile he has or the texture in his exhausted brow.
Could you connect, emotionally, with that image?
For me, the flame is not the subject; the performer is. I’d rather nail the exposure, and action, with the emphasis squarely on the human being manipulating the flame than on any other element in the frame. I want to see the human, the effort made, countered with the inherent element of danger from the flames. The dance, to me, is more important than the costume. When present, the human element will always be the most important factor over anything else because people will visually connect more readily with people in an image.
Let’s take these concepts a little farther, and I am going to grossly oversimplify things to do it:
The primary effect of altering shutter speeds is the amount of motion that gets recorded. Faster shutter, less motion; slower shutter, more motion. The secondary effect of changing the shutter speed is altering exposure. A given amount of light (via the aperture setting) is dumped onto the camera sensor/film for a particular duration. Faster shutter, darker image; slower shutter, brighter image.
The primary effect of altering aperture is controlling the light for a given shutter speed. The iris of the lens opens more, or less. Wider aperture, brighter image; smaller aperture, darker image. Note: This is just like the pupils of an animal’s eyes in daylight or nighttime. The pupils of certain animals open wider than others. Cat’s pupils open far wider than those of humans. Think of them as having “faster lenses.” The secondary effect of altering aperture is controlling depth-of-field, the zone of focus (acceptable sharpness) from your subject. The wider the aperture, the narrower the zone of sharpness; the narrower the aperture, the wider the zone of sharpness.
ISO’s primary effect is amplifying the signal that is recorded by the sensor. The higher the ISO, the brighter the pixels become. The lower the ISO, the dimmer the pixels are. ISO’s secondary effect is a direct result of the first: everything is amplified, including the noise contained within the signal, especially in darker areas of the image where the camera may or may not have recorded much light data, but still recorded the noise present within that area. The higher the ISO, the brighter the noise becomes; the lower the ISO, the dimmer the noise gets.
Again, for most people, this is good enough. Fiddle with Aperture, Shutter, and ISO, and you’re golden.
What about distance, though? Just like Aperture, Shutter, and ISO, distance can affect the compositional side of the image. It can also have an enormous effect on exposure at the same time.
Distance, in particular, affects composition and exposure both by what exactly is visible within the frame (and the overall brightness and darkness of the frame as a result) and specifically it affects exposure due to the Inverse Square Law of Light. In the simplest of terms it means the intensity of light gets less as distance increases both from the observer and from the object being illuminated. Light from you is dimmer with distance from you. An illuminated face is dimmer with distance from you. A face is also illuminated more weakly the farther the light source is from it.
Finally, the last factor to consider is focal length. For the purposes of simplicity, more focal length will equal more reach. At a given camera-subject distance a longer focal length will magnify the subject more. When objects are in the frame the distance between them will appear to be much less at higher focal lengths. At wider focal lengths the distance between objects will appear to expand. Focal length will also affect depth of field as well as motion blur. More focal length narrows depth of field and increases motion blur from camera/lens shake. Less focal length deepens depth of field as well as reduces motion blur from camera/lens shake.
Here’s a couple of scenarios to consider:
A photo of Finlay is well exposed and bright because you balanced aperture at f2.8 on a 50mm lens with an ISO of 1600 and set a shutter of1/800th of a second to really freeze motion and bring out some flame texture. He is well exposed and the noise in the image is very low but when you look at it more closely, the closer torch heads are super sharp but his face is ever so slightly out of focus. What happened?
How about a shot of a Kendra where flame trails are long enough at a 1.3 second exposure to have recorded an interesting spiral pattern, flame textures are reasonable with detail because you waited until most of the fuel burnt off and the flame brightness died down, even at yet still have decent exposure at f5.6 because your ISO was at 800 and you were far but framed tight at about 60mm on a zoom lens and but the she is a fuzzy blob and everything else in the background looks like a wiggly mess?
How about LED flow props? (Yes, yes, LED poi is not fire performer photography, but the concepts are completely the same. The advantage to LED props is they are much dimmer and their brightness does not change much at all. Lock in exposure and you’re good from the beginning to the end of the performance)
How would you fix them?
(Mind you there are no right or wrong fixes to these particular scenarios)
For Finlay’s dragon staff photo, you could have been too close for the given aperture and angle, therefore narrowing the depth of field. Only the front most torches at that depth of field would have been in focus. Standing a little farther away or changing to a higher F stop would have increased the depth of field and made the angle somewhat irrelevant since DOF would have encompassed a wider area, but could also affect the exposure. Do you, then, lower shutter speed a little to compensate or reduce ISO? What if you reduce shutter speed it enough that even at 50mm, motion blur gets introduced? What if decide to avoid risking motion blur by changing the shutter speed after changing the aperture to increase depth of field but now your subject is even darker because of the aperture change? You could increase ISO, but that would push noise into obnoxious levels. Also, keep in mind the brightness of the fire prop is always getting lower and lower and that no prop will ever the same exact brightness as before. What about changing your auto-focus setting to AI-Servo and, using backbutton auto focus, prefocusing on the face, thus locking focus away from the torches? The face will be sharper, but not the torches. Would that work?
For Kendra’s photo, you could make a choice: either record trails or freeze motion. If you opt to record trails the only thing you COULD possibly do is freeze motion with flash (a powerful enough flash will freeze motion at a 1 second exposure simply because the duration of the flash can be something along the lines of 1/10000th of a second at low power). Or you could change your priority here, and opt to freeze motion — faster shutter, wider aperture (at 28mm, are you using a kit zoom lens at a max range of F3.5-5.6, another zoom lens with a 2.8-4.0 aperture, or do you have a 35mm lens at 1.4?), and higher ISO. What if F3.5 does not give you a fast enough shutter to freeze motion while keeping a decent exposure on your subject? What if an ISO above 400 is too noisy but you need 1600 at your given shutter and aperture combination to properly expose your image?
As far as the LED poi shot is concerned, using flash is no help when it is poorly bounced around a venue that is primarily black and eTTL is fooled because, well, black absorbs light. Also, optical lens stabilization makes zero difference to a moving subject. The overall exposure is fine; however, the image is awful. No one is sharp, no one is clearly visible. Just a couple of vaguely human shapes surrounded by squiggly lines but hey, siiiiiiiiiiiick patterns, and the room is bright…
What is the point to all of this? A good photograph is composed well and relies on effective use of one or two of these elements and is well supported by the rest, in order to show emotion and connect with the viewer. In order to use these different elements effectively, it takes a strong understanding of what each can do in relation to the others under fast changing conditions, incredibly variable lighting, and very little time to reach. A poor photograph, well composed or not, uses one or two of these elements and ignores the others, while failing to connect with the viewer.
Q – How can you improve your photography of fire performers?
A – Believe it or not, get bored. It helps.
In Part One of this series on Fire Performer Photography, we looked at how the discipline of photojournalism brings the focus back to the human being behind the fire prop. In Part Two we covered Consent Always and Safety Third. Performers are people, first. Not props. Treat them with respect. In Part Three, we looked at how learning to shoot a camera is essentially the same as Basic Rifle Marksmanship. In Part Four, we took the rifle concept a step further and looked at how the combat-shooting techniques of Shoot, Move, and Communicate can improve your photography.
Photographing fire performers and flow artists has become a specialty of mine over the years. Obviously not every prop is fire based and not every prop is represented but every event that I have been to since 2010 has had its share of some combination of fire eaters, fire breathers, poi spinners, hoopers, dragon-staff spinners, fan dancers, pixel whips, levitation wands, palm torches, glovers, and so on, and they are inevitably surrounded by the folks and photographers who love them. More often than not I end up seeing the same people, regularly, with the same props at all the semi regular events, weeklies, monthlies, and outdoor festivals I’ve been to whether or not they are jam band based events, Christmas themed raves, or psytrance oriented festivals.
Are you bored, yet? I hope so. That’s exactly the point of this post. I’ll let you a big secret. As a photographer, I find it all to be very boring. Often.
You know what, though? Boredom is perfectly okay. In fact, boredom is an incredible creative asset.
My Very First Photos of Fire Performers
“I did not say I, personally, find festivals, flow artists, nightlife events, or the people who attend them to be boring. Quite the contrary. I’ve made wonderful friends, met incredibly talented and creative artists, passionate crews, and interesting personalities in all the various ‘scenes’ I’ve been blessed to be a part of. ”
–Totally Necessary Disclaimer
Art and artistic expression is necessary and healthy and very human. It’s easy to fall into a routine, a creative rut, without even realizing it. It’s normal and it will happen. Same with boredom. It, too, is normal, will happen, and is perfectly okay. As an artist, photographer, musician, fire performer, flow artist, author, welder, banker, real estate agent, partner, spouse, parent — as a human being — recognizing when boredom strikes, understanding why you feel stagnant, and using it as motivation to change, is absolutely necessary in order to grow.
Can you imagine how a photographer who specializes in, say, weddings feels at having to take the same types of shots from a set list of must-haves, with the same general flow of activity, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year?
Let’s take this even farther. Can you imagine growing bored with photographing fine art nudes? Maybe you just cannot stand people at all and prefer landscapes?
Maybe, though, photography is your life’s blood and you really enjoy the energy and warmth and genuine compassion from flow artists? Have you considered that you could put the camera down and mingle? Get out from behind the lens and really put yourself out there. You could always pick up a set of poi and try your hand at spinning. One photographer I know is currently trying his hand at at last year’s Fractalfest I made the choice to let others concentrate on the glory shots of the stage, the different DJs, producers, and the various bigger-perspective moments that always get the attention. I wanted to experience Fractalfest differently from the past incarnations that I attended so I chose to primarily stalk the dance floors, photograph The Firefly Caravan, the art projects, and interact more with the attendees, strange creatures, masked characters, and live blog about the experience whenever possible. When photographing fire spinners at Petrified Forest III in Maine, I set up a spot to do portraits of people with a wall of fire behind them.
During my second festival, ever, at Tir Na Nog in Saratoga Springs, NY, I ran into my friend Kaitlyn after putting my camera away, and nearly quitting photography all together, who asked to do some portraits. Under the conditions that we were under, giving explanations while photographing was particularly difficult, so I asked her to just do whatever came to mind and I would try to take some shots. After about fifteen minutes, I was distracted by someone who decided to nearly set himself on fire next to me while pouring Kaitlyn’s fuel onto a dying fire pit (no, seriously, dude was that fucked up), so after making sure no one was injured or killed, I shouted back over, “KAITLYNNNNN, I don’t care what you do, just keep moving, PLEASE?..”
Kaitlyn at Tir Na Nog in Saratoga Springs, NY
My photography has completely changed, forever, as a result of these images of Kaitlyn.
I am forever grateful.
For me, I hit that boredom point long ago. At some point, every photographer ends up dazzled by the pretty lights and challenged into recording mesmerizing textures and patterns to the detriment of a good shot of the performer behind the lights. I don’t really focus on that anymore. Rather than photographing light trails, I aim for faces and the try to photograph performer. Light trails are just a secondary element in the shot, they’re just another prop.
If you’ve been following this series on improving fire performer photography at all, none of this should be a total surprise, or shocking advice, and is applicable to any kind of people-centered photography.
To take it one step further as a photographer, try any or all of the following:
Get away from Auto settings.
Try change modes on the P/A/S/M dial. (P/Av/Tv/M if you use Canon)
Change shutter speeds.
Vary the size of the heads in your photos.
If you think you are close, get closer.
Get even closer. (If you’re careful, there is no such thing as too close)
Remember Consent Always and Safety Third.
Be okay with happy mistakes. I made friends with fire faeries entirely by accident.
Make eye contact, and try silent communication. Direct with your hands.
Stop trying to photograph the fire and start photographing the performer. It will absolutely change your entire photography technique, I promise.
Are you ready to learn how to photograph specific types of fire performers?
I hope so. In the next post we will start taking a high level look at camera settings for fire performers and how those settings interact with each other.
Q – How do you photograph fire performers like a combat shooter?
A – Shoot, move, and communicate.
In Part One of this series of tips to help improve your photography of fire performers, we looked at seeing fire performer photography through the lens of a photojournalist as a way to create stronger, more impactful images. After all, the human element is what draws us into any performance. In Part Two, we looked at Always Getting Consent and Safety Third to remind you that a performer is not just a sparkly prop who happens to be spinning pretty fire — there are many factors to be aware of, especially the importance of everyone else’s agency. In Part Three, we began to delve into how to more effectively use the camera by using techniques taught to soldiers as Basic Rifle Marksmanship. You are, after all, shooting people with a camera.
In this post, I wanted to pick up where I ended off with the idea of Kinetic Shooting vs Static Shooting and which is better, as well as how Shoot, Move, Communicate helps to reinforce Consent Always and Safety Third. Ready?..
How and Why to Shoot, Move, and Communicate
TL; DR – Don’t stay in one place. Once you start moving around, don’t be an asshole.
Always keep moving. Staying in one spot is boring for you, and does not help you make a picture interesting, especially one you realize that you happened to pick a bad spot to begin with. That’s it.
Once you start moving and shooting, but you are not communicating with people around you your intentions and gaining their consent as you move around (“S’cuse me, may I take a shot from here?”), being aware of possibly getting in someone’s way (“Am I in your way?”), to apologizing for getting in someone’s way (“Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll get out of your way — my bad!”) then you risk becoming the dreaded Uncle Bob that wedding photographers love to make fun of amongst themselves who is always in the way of a good view. At best.
At worst, you become like the Naked Guy who risks impacting the performance itself, and the safety of everyone around them. Imagine you are spinning a rope-dart, originally a weapon, requiring great concentration and awareness due to its sudden strikes and long reach. Now set the business end of it on fire. Along comes a Naked Guy who suddenly gets well within 10 feet and ends up between you and your safety, who is responsible for quickly putting you out should you somehow set yourself on fire, preventing them from moving our of your way JUST as you’re about to fire off a quick strike in that direction.
Simple, right? That is all I wanted to go over for Moving around and Communicating, and all I will cover when it comes to the boring stuff.
Okay, well, not exactly.
In the next post, I’ll explain just how boring fire performer photography can be.
Q – How do you photograph fire performers like a solder?
A – Learn US Army Basic Rifle Marksmanship
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.
Steady Position – Your stance, grip, body position, orientation, all combine to give a relaxed and steady platform to shoot from.
Proper Aim – You’re looking down the barrel, through your sights, to your target and your sight picture is consistent.
Breath Control – Your breathing is relaxed and steady, not elevated and erratic.
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?
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 razorthin.
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:
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.
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.
Breath Control – Steady breathing helps to lower your heartbeat, and muscles to relax, reducing a tense/anxious grip, and camera sway as a result.
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.”
Q – How do you photograph fire performers without killing yourself and everyone around you?
A – Learn about “Safety Third” and “Consent Always.”
RECAP OF PART ONE
In the first part of How To Photograph Fire Performers and Flow Artists, we started with a very broad level topic and looked at how to improve your fire performer photography by trying to see through the lens as a photojournalist. Those elements involved capturing the effort made by a human being with something against adversity. As a sports photojournalist, that “something” is usually a ball, puck, shuttlecock, a javelin, their fists, or even themselves. As a fire-performer, that “something” is their prop: poi, dragon staff, fire fans, hula hoop, sword, scythe, or whatever else has been modified with appropriate wicking.
I’ll start by going out on a limb here. Camera settings, and the the type of camera, at this stage are mostly irrelevant. The most important element to be aware of, at all times, is not the flames, not all the cool tricks, flashy tech, the fire trails, burn offs, and dragon breaths. When photographing a fire performer, it is not the fire that matters. It’s the performer.
In this next segment we’ll touch upon three things that will, hopefully, help keep your awareness squarely on the fire-performer where it belongs. We’ll look at safety third, and how to help them maintain safety third via consent.
No, seriously. Safety Third.
Everyone is familiar with the idea of safety first. Protect yourself because your life and safety are your responsibility, so always do things with your safety in mind. That mindset is obsolete once other people are involved.
Performers, artists, photographers, contractors, and business operators use a slightly different set of safety protocols because of liability reasons. In the multiple layers of liability involved, your safety must not come first. It is third. Your duty to protect always lies, in order, with:
As a photographer trying to take good pictures of fire spinners, how does safety third apply to you?
The Audience. Don’t kill anyone, remember? You are part of their Safety First layer and they are part of your Safety First layer.
The Venue. Don’t burn the fucking place to the ground. Don’t interfere with the performance. Don’t knock shit over. Don’t risk bumping into the performers.
Yourself. Don’t Die. Don’t get high. Don’t get drunk. Don’t be like The Naked Guy, above, and take too much 2C-I.
Your equipment. Better to drop a lens than trip onto a performer. Better to fall on to your camera than knock fuel everywhere. Equipment can be replaced. People can’t.
How do you help each other to maintain each other’s Safety Third? You start with realizing that you and the performer(s) are both now a part of a dance together. How do you properly begin any dance? You ask for consent from everyone.
While most fire performances are outdoors, some are indoors. Unless you are clearly on any publicly owned way, you are most likely on private property, even if it is at an outdoor space. Photography of any public event, any person in a public way, and any person reasonably visible from a public location does not require consent to photograph as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.
That does not matter.
How many problems are caused by photographers who do not gain consent? From paparazzi to sexual predators, photographers already have questionable reputations in some people’s perception. You can help change that perception with three simple words: always get consent.
bUt AdRiAn WuT iF tHe VeNuE SeZ PeOpLe aRe Ok WiTh PiCtUrEs So I dOn’T HAVE tO AsK tHeRe pErMiSSiOn?
It does not matter.
From the venue, from the performers, from anyone you point your camera towards to photograph. There is really nothing more I need to write about on the topic.
Think about this: is it really that difficult to ask for permission, or are you just lazy, entitled, and possibly predatory? Always. Get. Consent.
Coming up, I’ll start giving my favorite tips and techniques on how to take better photos of fire performers. Have you ever fired a rifle before? It helps.
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
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”
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)
In the case of this photograph, those elements are depicted in the effort it takes for Julie to:
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:
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.