Ah fire. If there’s anything that comes close to the fun of playing with fire, it’s photographing it. But it’s not that close. I mean, close, sure, but… c’mon! There’s pushing a button and there’s commanding the elements. Tough call?
I didn’t think so.
And now that I’ve been going there for about a year and a half, I get questions about it, whether about the bare bone basics or the relative esoterica of apertures and noise reduction. So with that in mind, here are my notes for shooting fire spinners. These are basics pointers that should be fairly universal regardless of camera make. You’re on your own when it comes to which buttons to push.
1) Think for yourself
As I wrote before, your camera is stupid and it is particularly stupid in the dark. In bright sunlight, it can suss out the situation with speed and grace. Put it in a dark room with a light source that is inconstant and/or moving and it will turn into the equivalent of a thousand dollar moth, albeit a moth with none of the natural instincts inherent to the little beasties. Or the ability of flight, now that I think about it.
In my experience, the autofocus tends to try to hunt for likely points of focus in the dark, often deciding that the brightest part of the frame is the most important, whether that’s your point of interest or not. As a result, I limit the autofocus to one point of focus usually at the center of the frame, dialing out as I feel the need to change the composition. No more hunting, the camera is (ideally!) locked in on the center and you’re left to fiddle with, oh, say, everything else.
2) Start high and wide (and fast)
Shooting at Spinurn, I’m out to stop the motion and capture the moment as much as possible. I’m still figuring out the finesse of that, but as a starting point, shoot with a high ISO, a wide aperture and a fast shutter speed and go from there. I’ll shoot an ISO of 3200 (the highest my camera manages and it works fine) with my f/2.8 lens with a shutter speed around 1/100th of a second.
This is my starting point, you’re going to have to find your own by mixing and matching, but start high and wide and fast and figure out the finesse you need. You’ll do that by fiddling. A lot.
3) Fiddle while poi burn (sorry!)
Fire is an awful light source, especially in this setting. Not only is the fire being thrown around (tricky as it is), but it’s burning down from the moment the wick is first lit. This light starts as an inferno and ends in embers, which requires finesse. That wide open aperture I recommended works great with a fast or dim light source, but that same setting leaves me with grossly overexposed images when someone burns the excess fuel from their poi on the ground or pulls off an impressive light show with a staff.
So you fiddle. You’ll have to. I had to when I shot burlesque and I’m doing it again down at Gas Works, opening the aperture as the fires burn out and resetting a bit when someone new takes the performance area.
Also, I’ve figured out when to not try for a shot. Some performers simply spin too fast to bother. They’re amazing to watch, this isn’t personal, it’s just that the flames are so dim and so fast that even shooting with some high speed burst mode, I’m lucky to catch anything. Or the flame isn’t in a position to provide good or dramatic lighting so I don’t bother trying to shoot a dark figure in a dark space only to have to delete the photos when I get home.
I definitely have some preferences as far as props go. Fire fans and poi are pretty easy to shoot. Staff isn’t too bad until the performer starts spinning really fast. Leviwand is challenging as it tends to move quickly and be in less than advantageous places as far as lighting is concerned and long string leviwand is currently making me up my game. Hoops vary from performer to performer, depending on their speed. The two props I tend to disregard are nunchucks (too close and too fast) and fire swords (the light is too dim while in motion) but once in a while I surprise myself and catch something when I least expected it. Everything else you’ll figure out on your own, just as I am. I’m thinking I can step down the ISO a bit, especially early in the burn, but I won’t know until I get to the next spin session, which is also the next time I get to play with fire. Which I am totally patient for. Absolutely. Are we there yet?