Fire is a difficult thing to properly expose for, to deal with large
variations in brightness whilst keeping the exposure balanced with the
surroundings. This is particularly difficult during night-time shoots.
I have practised a lot over the years, trying to understand the effect
of a flame's varying intensities, often using my own open fire at home.
For larger scale fires I practised creating firewalls in the garden,
honing the technique to eventually shoot my first firewall (as part
of a band portrait) when I photographed the Metalcore band Kings...
So how do you create a firewall to make this effect? Well, it's a long
exposure shot with the fire 'painted' in, the same principle as with
light painting photography or drawing in the air with sparklers on Bonfire
Night. The key is making the tool to paint the fire with.
As mentioned before,
you will need a long fire-proof pole. For the Kings shoot the pole I
used was 3 metres long and made of metal. I then attached a metal chain
to the end of it a little shorter in length (about 2.5 metres long).
Attached from the pole and along the length of the chain (although not
quite all the way to the chain end) was some ripped up cotton sheeting.
I then soaked the sheeting with white spirit and lit it. The fire-proof
pole ensures you remain a safe distance from the fire running the length
of the chain while carefully walking through the scene to 'paint' the
fire into the image. The chain is vitally important as it adds weight
to the sheet to hold it down and make it controlable. Without the chain
the sheet is likely to flap around and burn everything within distance
(I know from experience!).
As you can see the Kings shoot was quite a simple set-up with a single
wall of fire behind the band but for the shoot with Mammothfest's Steve
Dickson I wanted the fire to look all consuming.
Above are some unprocessed test shots to get a feel for how the fire
could be manipulated on the fire-proof pole... these ones were with
35mm film. The first 3 shots test movement, the 4th shot is a double
exposure and the 5th shot is where areas of the ground are lit separately
for brightness comparison.
It isn't the easiest of lighting sources to work with, especially if
there is a breeze, and the light varies as the flames move. Also, when
working outdoors in a wide space at night the light intensity drops
over distance at a great rate (see Inverse
Square Law). So although the fire itself is incredibly bright the
light from it that falls on the actual subject becomes very dim only
a short relative distance away - as seen in the top left photo. This
creates difficulties achieving a good balanced exposure as it is very
easy to have an image with fire that is overexposed and a subject underexposed.
Therefore, a fill flash burst on Steve would be necessary to help balance
the shot, to kill any underexposed blur and create a sharp focus on
So after tests, I decided the image would be done in two stages as shown
in the two images above... firstly the firewall would be worked around
Steve standing in position as still as possible, with an additional
coloured flash burst from either side to balance the exposure and light
his body and face, then with Steve out of the shot the floor would be
painted with fire to approximately waist height. For this another long
chain was needed with a fire-proof pole attached to either end. This
was so that the chain could be held between two people (one either side),
to 'walk' the chain low across the floor. Working under pitch black
conditions, the shutter could remain open the whole time until all steps
I used a three camera set-up, all shooting from the same place at the
same time, for maximum options in post processing... a TLR Seagull 4a
for medium format film, a Canon iiD rangefinder with Jupiter 8 lens
for 35mm film, and the Canon 40D with 50mm lens for digital capture.
I wanted to use Portra 400 film to capture the fire because it would
render it in a much more pleasing way than the 40D could, especially
regarding the tonal graduation to the highlights. However, I also wanted
to capture digitally with the 40D for two reasons, mainly so I could
immediately check after the exposure for any movement from Steve that
might make the image unusable, but also to have a shot of him that was
'cleaner' than that from the analogue cameras, if required, as he would
be relatively small in the frame. Incidentally, focusing with the two
film cameras was made by measurement with a tape measure.
So, to the sequence for this shoot...
Firstly, mark out 'on-set' where the edges of the image will be so you
know when you are in frame and when you are not. Then...
1 : Shutter open (bulb/timed setting)
2 : Light the sheeting on the long firepole (out of camera view).
3 : 20 seconds walk with firepole starting in front of Steve on the
left side, walking around the back and to the right side to the front
and back again, walking out of shot to the left extinguishing the fire
in a firebucket.
4 : Lens cap on but keep shutter open while you set up the next stage.
5 : Lens cap off.
6 : With an assistant (Steve in this case) light the sheeting on the
two handled firepole (out of camera view).
7 : 20 seconds dragging the fire across the floor and up to waist height,
starting out of shot close to the camera and returning to the start
point to extinguish the fire in a firebucket.
8 : Close shutter.
Note that so long as you wear dark clothes and move constantly you will
not be exposed enough to show up on the image while walking around creating
the firewall effects.
The final image at the top of the page had a Mammothfest logo burnt
in to the fire in Photoshop.
Below is how the image looked when published in Stencil Magazine to
accompany an interview.
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