shooting fire

Spinurn 05/24/17

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.

Spinurn 03/22/17

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.

Spinurn 08/24

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.

Spinurn 03/08/17

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?

Spinurn 03/22/17


thanks that was fun…

Brolly Shoot

I had four shoots in four days last week. I can’t speak for anyone else out there but it’s a record for me, anyway. Not only am I pleased with the results, not only am I pleased that nothing went especially wrong but I was paid a huge compliment by a new-to-me makeup artist who thanked me for “making photo shoots fun again.”

I’ll take that. Though I can’t imagine what the hell their previous experiences had been. I can imagine creepy, sadly enough. Cliched, sure. Possibly flat out incompetent or workmanlike. Beyond that… ew.

Shoots should be fun. Even if they’re serious or creepy or somber or whatever emotion I’m working towards, I like having a soundtrack of laughter. It’s real and it shows if we are working towards genuine emotion and pleasure. Not because I said “cheese” but because I just told the world’s worst knock knock joke ever and it just dawned on the model that… yeah, I just asked her what was brown and sticky*. Or started talking like the most stereotypical photographer this side of an Austin Powers movie.

Potentially immature? Damn straight. Work with what you’ve got.

But this should be fun, full stop. If you’re not, I think you’re doing it wrong.

And I made it fun. More than that, I have some repeat collaborators on other odd ideas I have and they have and who knows what else we dream up. I can’t wait.

This was a big shoot for me not only because it was more involved than anything I’ve done in a long time (burlesque performers tend to be so self-contained, I’m spoiled) but because it got an idea that I’ve had for the past three or four years out of my head. Finally! No, it’s not exactly what I imagined. No, it’s not precisely right. Yes, I can see room for improvement and finesse.

Like, you know, the next time I work with this model and makeup artist again, which may be… next week?

I’ll take that too.

*- A Stick!

we need to talk about your camera…

the new beast

The first step in becoming a better photographer is learning that for all the bells and whistles, your camera is stupid.

This isn’t about brand loyalty. This isn’t about gimmicks. This isn’t going to be a curmudgeonly rant about how film is just better and “back in my day” because while I’ve been using a camera since I was in first grade, I only really started digging in to photography when digital cameras became affordable and I could futz around with settings and dig deep. I dabble in film, I work in digital.

But your camera and the computer that runs it, is stupid. And most of the time, that’s perfectly fine. That’s more than enough.

And then you’ll find yourself reaching for that shot that’s just beyond the camera’s understanding and you’ll be left staring at the resulting image with impotent frustration. Really? Now? The moment that really mattered? Why I oughtta….

That, I think, is when you start to learn. The camera is great, it’s got all the best settings, but you need to do more to get the best shot.

For me, it was shooting a burlesque show in a dark club with a long catwalk. I was still letting the camera do the bulk of the thinking so most of the pictures were fine except for one bit where a pale blonde performer took to the catwalk wearing nothing but white feather fans. Those pictures were so badly exposed that no amount of bashing it in Lightroom could redeem them. I posted some, they weren’t awful but I was frustrated.

The problem? The camera was metering for the entire image and figured (incorrectly) that I was as interested in the shadowy crowd in the background as the leggy blonde on the stage. The lesson? Find out how to meter on the fly or at least fiddle with the aperture when I recognized that the camera would be stupid and I wanted something different. Hell of a learning curve, took a lot of time, but by the end of my tenure, I was handling everything except for the focus as I shot the shows.

This is what throws people. This is what scares some folk off. I know, I once saw a friend hit this roadblock. He had a new camera, he wanted to take a picture of a neon sign but it kept being fuzzy or inconsistently sharp. He muttered about how he had to figure out the aperture or a tripod or something and… bah.

First lesson: your camera is stupid.