This post discusses images from the shoot Fire in the Factory. Visit the gallery to view all finished images.
One of the people I’d met through rope and photography let me know that she was also a fire performer and would like to work with me to make some images of her art. She had a few friends who were also performers and would be willing to be safety monitors for the shoot. I’d never worked with fire performers before, so I was excited for the opportunity.
Choosing the Location
I knew I wanted to take my usual “environmental portrait” approach to the images and thought that our favorite abandoned factory would be a great setting for the images. We scoped out a few different spots in the factory and settled on three: an area with a lot of depth and yellow poles that I thought would complement the fire; an area with cool demon graffiti that, again, seemed like a good fit; and an area with a raised platform that would allow for one of her friends to also perform on the upper level while she performed below.
Flash & Camera Settings
I knew I would need to use flash to light the performer and some of the background. I also knew I would need a long shutter speed because I wanted to capture the light trails from the fire in order to convey the sense of the movement and motion of the performance. To achieve both, I knew I would need to set the flash to rear-curtain sync. This would allow the camera to capture the light trails from the fire while the shutter was open, then fire the flash just before the shutter closed in order to capture the environment and freeze the performer at the moment of the flash.
I used a two flash setup. One flash was positioned to illuminate the performer. The second was used to illuminate the environment: either by positioning it further back in the columns to show depth in the first location; to illuminate the graffiti in the second location; or to illuminate the second performer in the third location.
Lighting Test Shots for Environment and Performer
While the factory itself was fairly dark in many places, I still wanted to make sure I only captured some of the ambient light, and wanted to control most of that based on the flash. I also knew there would be a lot of movement in the shot over a long shutter speed, so I knew I wanted to avoid a shallow depth of field in order to ensure the performer was in focus when the flash fired regardless of where she had moved in the frame.
Putting all that together, these are the settings I used:
Nikon D750 24-70mm f/2.8 shot at f/11 ISO 100 for 1 second
- Flash: rear-curtain sync to capture the light trails while the shutter was open, but light and “freeze” the performer just before the shutter closed
- ISO: 100 for image quality, which gives me more latitude in making changes in post-production, and to reduce ambient light
- Aperture: around f/11 to control the ambient light … the actual aperture varied some between f/11 and f/18 depending on the amount of ambient light; mainly to ensure sharp focus through a wide depth of field
- Shutter Speed: 1 second to capture the light trails of the moving fire; this took a little trial-and-error to catch just the right amount of motion without getting too much—resulting in a big, bright blur—or too little—resulting in short and unimpressive light trails
If you’d like to know more about rear-curtain sync, this video may help:
If you’d like to know more about balancing ambient light with flash, this video is very helpful and introduces the handy concept of the “exposure diamond.”
For the actual shoot, my process was to first get the framing and angles set the way I wanted them, then to add flash and make a few test shots to confirm the light was balancing well in camera. Once that was set, the performer would do a quick test with the fire so that I could tweak any shutter speed or aperture adjustments. When everything looked good, we gave her a general “box” of movement she should try to stay within, turned on her music of choice, and then just let her do her thing.
Because these were 1 second exposures, I didn’t really try to capture any specific moment. I basically just kept shooting as quickly as my flash units would recycle and hoped to catch some images where the performer was in a good position or pose and not too obscured by the light trails.
We would occasionally give some direction on positioning, but for the most part, we just let the performers perform while we captured as much as we could. You can see that in action in the videos below.
You can get a good sense of what the ambient light was actually like from the images below. The small aperture and low ISO brought some of that down to allow for the slow shutter speed and flash without letting anything get too bright.
You can also get a sense of how I was framing and my actual distance from the performer. (There’s also a shot of one of her friends with a fire safety blanket ready to go in case anything went bad. A fire extinguisher was also ready at his feet.)
I always start by culling my images to identify the best before I start editing:
- Load the images into Lightroom and build 1:1 previews.
- Make a first pass, “Flagging” images that I like.
- Make a second pass, finding the “best of” from the flagged images. This usually involves finding all of the flagged images that are similar in pose, framing, and/or “look” and comparing them closely to select the best. In this case, finding the best included taking a close look at the performer to make sure they weren’t too obscured by the fire trails, weren’t too blurry from the movement, and had a good expression.
Once I’d selected the images I planned to use, my priorities for the editing itself were:
- Highlight the texture and intensity of the fire
- Make minor edits to the performer
- Add depth and texture to the environment
With that in mind, and given the grungy setting of the abandoned factory, I knew I would be adding a good amount of contrast, clarity, and texture to the edits. I also knew I’d be adding some layer masks to add more exposure and “punch” to the fire trails specifically.
Below is a basic back-to-back before/after comparison:
And this progression shows you the major editing steps I took on each image:
Here’s a direct before/after comparison for that image:
I had a really great time with this shoot. Fire performance is definitely fun to shoot and edit, and the results are eye-catching. I hope to do more of this type of photography sometime in the future.