11/19/11 852 W, 6 I - + 18 - 8 How To Take Photos of Fires at Night

This posting will be updated multiple times. First, with Mike's thoughts. Second, with Lee's input. Third, with revisions. Four, with more revisions. It's Saturday, so we can do this sort of thing. Check back often!

Sources are Canterbury Road incident photos by Mike Legeros and Lee Wilson.

How to Take Photos of Fires at Night

That's the magic question, isn't. There's this building on fire at night and the flames are as bright as all get-out. The scene is just glowing with light and should be no problem for photos, right? Then you take a picture and get something like this:

1/100 Tv, 7.1 Av, 2500 IS0, Spot Meter, P Mode, Canon 50D
No Flash / Mike Legeros photo

But what you really wanted something like this:

1/13 Tv, 4.0 Av, 2500 IS0, Spot Meter, P Mode, Canon 50D
No Flash / Mike Legeros photo

But wait! The top photo is still useful the flames and photos are better defined. The top is photo is thus more accurate with the depiction of the amount of the fire. The bottom photo can give the impression of more fire than there really was. Why? What's happening?

Exposure. Not the kind related to proximity and what might also start burning beside a burning structure. This type of exposure is the total amount of light that enters the camera to make the picture. The bottom photo is a longer exposure than the top photo. There is more light entering the camera. This is a mixed blessing. The greater light allows the camera to capture more than just the flames. We see the building, the lawn, the firefighters. The greater light also causes the flames to get washed out. They become just a bright blurry spot.1

1Does that mean that anyone with any camera can produce these pictures? As long as there's a big, bright fire, as show above? And without any blur? Yes and no. Digital SLR cameras can do this easier than harder. Point-and-shoot digital cameras require more finesse. More later.


(By the way, those better-versed in both the language and technique discussed are welcome to clarify and outright correct!  My experience taking pictures is extensive. My experience explaining and understanding what's happening with that process is considerably less-so!)

How do you control the exposure? Well, that gets into camera settings and camera modes. More on that later. But let's talk about light. Mike's personal preference is something that blends the best of worlds. A picture shows more defined and more accurate flames, but also shows the entirety of the scene. Were we shooting during the day, this wouldn't be a problem. That Lucky Old Sun would take care of the additional light. If this particular incident at that particular moment had more scene lighting, the halogen spotlights would absolute augment. But what might a photographer have in their bag of tricks to add light? Why, the flash!

Here are three views from the right-rear of the structure, back behind the house to the right. Mike's over there with the neighbors, who are watching from the line of trees that splits the properties to the rear. These three views show, left to right: no flash (called existing or ambient light), the in-camera (or pop-up) flash on a low output setting, and the in-camera flash on a medium output setting. (Relative term there, more later on that.)

1/20 Tv, 4.0 Av, 3200 IS0, Spot Meter, P Mode, Canon 50D
No Flash / Mike Legeros photo

1/100 Tv, 5.6 Av, 3200 IS0, Spot Meter, P Mode, Canon 50D
Flash, Pop-Up, Exposure Compensation -2 / Mike Legeros photo

1/250 Tv, 10 Av, 3200 IS0, Spot Meter, P Mode, Canon 50D
Flash, Pop-Up, Exposure Compensation -2 / Mike Legeros photo

Look at the flames. Three levels of exposure. Three bears, minus a blonde girl tasting their food. The last photo is getting closer to where we want to be. The flames are very well-defined, and the building and surroundings have light. Some light. Minimal light. Not bad for a pop-up flash, but we can do better. We can use an external flash.

November 20

Here's a photo from Lee Wilson, using an external flash. There's a better definition of the area burning, as well as enough light to see the building and its surrounds. But there's also those pesky reflective stripes, which are glowing. (That's a personal preference of mine, and why my choice where possible is ambient light.)

1/60 Tv, 5.6Av, 640 IS0, Multi Meter, Nikon D5000
External Flash / Lee Wilson photo


Most cameras have control over the output of the flash. You can manually adjust the flash exposure compensation, so it produces more or less light with each shot. On an external flash, this can be super-easy control, especially if the control is a dial. You can quickly "dial down" the flash, and see the results after a quick snap. Between reduced flash exposure and enough scene light, and a good balance can be struck. You can minimize the amount of reflective striping glow, for example.

November 27

Tried an external flash and off-camera. Results in this second posting.

Good examples, and thanks for the image stats. A couple thoughts from a fire buff who has resided in the states on either side of you:
— Thank goodness for digital cameras with image review capabilities! (That said, I can still do a pretty good job at blowing things out.)
— Camera sensors are getting better and better at capturing images that contain lots of darks and lots of brights. Shot some night fire photos last month with my iPhone 4 (after killing two DSLR batteries) and was amazed at how well it did (flash was off). As a PIO, I actually distributed an iPhone 4 pic (5 megapixels) that media ran. I think it was printed in a newspaper.
— My preference is to go as natural as possible. So, I try to use the fire’s ambient light as much as I can and avoid flash … Silhouetted FFs in foreground, etc. Then, as the flames die down, scene lighting picks up for it.
— Low-hanging smoke is one reason I avoid flash. Even the smallest amount of flash on smoke bounces back and renders a photo near useless. I encounter those conditions more often than not.
— All that said, I’ve shot in the past with a Stroboframe (check the Googles for that). Makes a world of difference to get the light source up away from the lens. Reflective material on rigs and turnouts is no longer a problem, and somehow the lighting just has a more natural feel. It’s been years since I had a Stroboframe as part of a work gig, but it’s on my wishlist again. If at all possible, give one a try and let me know how it goes.
jcollins - 11/20/11 - 23:58

Thanks for the tips, JC. That’s interesting about the Stroboframe. I have never used a bracket, so it would be good to try. Or even just experimenting with my hot shoe cord, and holding my flash above the lens.
Legeros - 11/21/11 - 21:32

Hey, pal! I agree with the use of the Stroboframe. I use one and it really is the difference sometimes. Holding the flash up is sort of a love/hate thing, because while you can get some cool effects by being able to custom angle the flash and bounce it, you give up that second hand that helps you get the all important steady, level shot. Here is where a monopod could help, but there again…limitations. As always, it has more to do with what you are going for. I do alot of bracketing because I like both light and dark shots. Sometimes the flame is a cooler shot than the action (or lack of) taking place at the moment.
Lloyd J. (Email) - 11/22/11 - 21:37

Lloyd, thanks for the input. I was at Southeastern yesterday, picking up a repaired body (40D) and eying a couple brackets they had on hand. That could be interesting, toting my two cameras on scene (50D, 40D) and if one of them was inside a Stroboframe. Guess I need to test the flash improvement first and foremost.

This posting still needs a few more musings as well. I haven’t (yet) talked about metering, for example. So there’s still some stuff to add to the top of the post. Maybe on Turkey Day.
Legeros - 11/23/11 - 08:30

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