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


in which we play with fire

Spinurn 5/10/17

My therapist makes the point that spinning fire is elemental, speaking to a deep human yearning to control the uncontrollable. It’s primeval, it’s caveman days, it’s…

Me, I say it’s just bad ass. Plus, hey, you look like a wizard as an added bonus.

And cathartic. And peaceful. And sometimes I come home tired off my ass, arm hair singed, fingers covered in soot and ready to crash after kicking my own ass. It’s great.

About a year and a half ago I stumbled on this informal group who got together on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at Gas Works to spin fire and practice. One cold February night I lugged my camera down thinking I’d get a couple good pictures. I didn’t think it’d be my next Thing.

But after a month I parlayed my presence into a group shoot, picked up a prop shortly thereafter (I am a journeyman badass with a leviwand) and now I’m a regular and offering tips to new photographers and spinners alike.

Spinurn 1/11/17

I really feel like this, more than anything else I’ve done since moving to Seattle, really fits my particularly finicky Venn Diagram of Doing Stuff. I like going out, but I don’t like feeling obligated to go out. I love sharing my passions with others but find it frustrating when it can only be expressed in a group, like my time playing samba. One drum does not a samba make. I like being appreciated for a talent but I don’t like being pigeon-holed for that same talent. And oh please don’t tell me that, yes, we could go forward and learn or try something different but we have to wait for everyone else when I’m bored.

Spinurn 03/23

Here the challenges are my own. I can come and go as I please. Hell, I can go and make it clear that, really, I just want to be left alone in the crowd. I can take pictures when I want, flow when I want and never be pinned down with any one thing.

And always the chance to take the next, best picture.

Spinurn 4/26/17

Don’t mind me, I’m just going to be happy as a clam here.