5 Tips to Photograph Fire

With the Sant Joan summer solstice festivities coming up, it’s best to prepare for the heat. The tradition includes big bonfires by the beach and late night partying with friends. Taking pictures of fire is not easy because it is generally surrounded by darkness to be fully appreciated and this makes for a very contrasted setting. Also, fire moves a lot, and, obviously it heats, so it is difficult to get up close. At Foto Ruta we decided that this year we want to see good Sant Joan party pictures, bonfires and all, and so here we share 5 tips to photograph fire.

1- Choose Your Subject

When photographing fire, you can obviously focus on the element itself, but also, you can shoot the smoke, whatever is burning, the ritual surrounding it, the spatial elements that are illuminated by the fire, its remains, etc. Having a clear idea of what you want to shoot will allow you to make the necessary aesthetic and technical decisions to create the picture you want.

2- Colour

Fire isn’t just one colour, its colour depends on the fuel being burned. Probably in an uncontrolled natural setting such as a Sant Joan bonfire you will find that most fires burn orange because they are generally made with wood and other organic elements. These type of fires also usually generate a lot of smoke which can affect the texture of the image. If you are photographing people, you should keep in mind that orange flames will tend to bring out reddish hues in the skin, and also, that if it is hot, the skin might appear shiny.

The best way to optimize the colour of your images under this particular light setting is to use the manual settings rather than automatic, especially when it comes to the white balance. To do this, you will need to set your camera's white balance to Kelvin temperatures, which is a measure of colour temperature, and then set it to a low temp. on the scale. There is a great and more detailed explanation of shooting with Kelvin here to go further in depth on this topic. If you want to leave the automatic settings, you can also retouch afterwards in a photo editor.

Check out how Stanley Kubric did it in this amazing scene, lit only with candles: 


There are a few things to consider about smoke. One is that it irritates people’s eyes, so make sure that the smoke isn’t coming at you, or at the eyes of your subjects. For this you will have to position yourself in terms of how the wind is blowing. Another thing to consider is that smoke is like a thin veil, so expect it to affect the definition of your images, and to soften them- something you can combine aesthetically with ISO sensitivity (for more definition and less light, less ISO, for less definition, higher grain and more light, more ISO).  Finally, if you want to photograph smoke as your subject, you can find some great explanations and tips here

4- Camera Settings

To get good fire pictures, you will probably need to play quite a lot with the camera settings to find something that pleases you. Generally, the variables that work best to increase the light are slow shutter speed and a high aperture to let more light in. This means that you will probably benefit from a tripod to avoid unwanted blurs, and/or that you will have to keep in mind that the depth of field will be affected. If you want to increase your ISO sensitivity settings, then you will get grainier pictures with less contrast. Also keep in mind that you can create great backlit images, and play with foreground and background focus to make your pictures unique.

5- Safety

When shooting fire it is essential that you be safe. Keep straps, belts and hair away from the flames, and careful with sparks or heat if you get close. Remember that equipment can be damaged by heat, but most of all, that you don’t want to get burnt. And, take some eye drops if you plan on intensive fire shooting, to keep you safe from that pesky dry-eye itch.


National Geographic- Playing with fire: Tips to photograph fire

Beautiful #bonfire pictures for inspiration here.  

Sant Joan 2016 Barcelona information here