A blaze anywhere can be a horrendous affair and photo journalists regularly risk their lives for the perfect shot. What escapes attention is that fires are a challenge to photograph – fire in any form, be it a lighted candle on a birthday cake, a lantern or a hurricane or a simple flaring matchstick. It is a challenge because unlike other innate objects fire has a light of its own. And this has to be taken into account while shooting fire related scenes. Strike a match in a room and try and photograph the whole ambience. Your exposure, shutter speeds and light metre readings will go for a toss unless you make manual adjustments on your own.
When taking fire photographs, the first thing that you should ensure is your own safety – forget photography for some time. It is as important as taking the perfect shot. Those who click oil field fires are as protected as the fire fighters and use special equipment and casings that protect the lens and the body of the camera from the searing heat. Normal fire photography is of course quite different. Clicking a lighted birthday cake candle is not risky but definitely requires special skills and knowledge.
Now to come to the all important matter of light required for fire photography. To highlight fire, the background must be dark against the bright yellow and orange of fire. Having a light background will only mellow the intensity. If that is not possible, move to a position or take a top angle shot so that the fire is silhouetted against the dark ground. Another problem is when you depend solely on the light metre to take a fire shot. Because of the darkness surrounding a fire, the flash will be forcibly triggered. This will make the picture flat and lifeless. Manual corrections only can bring the frame to life.
While on this subject, it will be relevant to know what will be the ideal aperture for a fire scene. Take the case of clicking a fire fighter training programme. The intensity of the fire will remain constant over a period of time so an f/8 setting will be just fine. Same too for a campfire shot with people sitting around it. But if you are filming a birthday party, the light of the candle will begin to decrease rapidly as it starts to go out. Hence an aperture of f/5.6 should be preferred. But such scenes do not have adequate background light and the scene might be under exposed. To get around it, use fill-flash, that is intentionally setting off the flash to make the people in the background clearer.
A very important part of fire photography is the smoke that is generated. Wisps of blue green smoke spiralling up into odd shapes make a very pretty sight. But you have to ensure that you take adequate steps to show it off. If you want smoke to blend into your fire photograph, use material that burns inefficiently such as wood or paper. Then light up the smoke. Focus a light source on it to clearly show up the lines of the smoke. Finally, use a fast shutter speed so that the smoke is stopped in its tracks in the photo resulting in clear edges. A slow shutter speed will only make the picture hazy because of the movement of the smoke.
Follow these simple tips and have a great time photographing fire.