Sunday, October 19, 2008

Photographing Fire Performers: Part 1 of 3

Last month I photographed three members of the Santa Cruz fire performance troupe Nocturnal Sunshine. The term "fire performers" includes fire spinners, fire dancers, fire swallowers and a host of other fire-based performance arts. Fire performance photography is be a great way to combine night photography with the chance to photograph people and take advantage of the beautiful ambient light from the fire performers' props. The fact that very few people seem to have seriously pursued fire performance photography is also a plus.

The California Bay Area is home to many fire performance groups. This may be because the Bay Area is also home to the annual Burning Man Festival, which features many professional and impromptu fire spinning events. Earlier this year I came across the work of two local fire performance photographers: Wildermar Horwart and Tristan Savatier. I soon started photographing some friends and co-workers who spun fire, then I worked up to public events, such as the Crucible Fire Festival, and eventually to private shoots with local professional troupes.

So, back to Nocturnal Sunshine... the photograph below was taken near the beach. For all of my shots, I used the ambient light from the poi for stationary shots, and added an off-camera flash covered with an amber gel for motion shots (the burning poi rarely give off enough light to shoot faster than about 1/30th of second). Below is an example of a stationary shot using only the light from the fire hoop.

(Rebecca with a Fire Hoop, by Andy Frazer)

I was able to pull this one off at 1/60th at f/1.8 at ISO 200. Below is more of a posed portrait shot of Briana using only the light from the caterpiller on her arms, which I shot at ISO 1600:

(Briana with the Fire Caterpiller, by Andy Frazer)

Below is a shot Julie with a fire umbrella (yeah, I'd never heard of a fire umbrella, either...). Like the earlier shot with the fire hoop, I was able to shoot this at ISO 200 because the umbrella gave off so much light (just count how many burning poi are on her umbrella), although I also added an off-camera flash to open up some of the shadows from the poi.

(Julie with the Fire Umbrella, by Andy Frazer)

The ladies of Nocturnal Sunshine were thoughtful enough to use a special mixture of fuel which burns brighter than normal fire spinning fuel, although it also burns out faster. Since the fuel burns out after about one minute, I found it necessary to shoot with auto exposure and continually check the viewfinder readout and the histogram while I was shooting (neither of which I normally do). When you're photographing people holding fast-burning fuel, you only have a few second to set-up, meter and fiddle with your exposure. Shooting the motion shots with the help of an off-camera flash was, in some ways, even more challenging.

If you enjoy the slow, peaceful pace of night photography, you might want to stick with abandoned buildings under a full moon, or even urban locations. But if you want to try something different, and if you're willing to run yourself ragged after one hour, take a stab at fire performance photography.

In my next blog post, I'll talk about shooting motion shots of fire spinners using an off-camera flash.


Blogger Angel said...

Very nice shots!

6:10 PM  
Blogger KLPhotography said...

Great shots using different elements and lighting. Would love to see some some urban landscape shots at night.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Hello. I learned some useful things from this. Just trying to get the hang of photographing fire performers now because I've been asked to do photography for performers at a fire performance training camp in August. I can't find that you ever completed the post on fire-spinning. I'd love to see that if it ever comes to pass.

7:23 PM  

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