Get Lit: How to Shoot Candles, Bonfires and More

Fire is the ultimate photo op, as anyone who's ever had a birthday cake with even a single candle on it will tell you.

But getting a good fire photograph can be tricky, as the hugely varied lighting conditions — the darkness of the background, the brightness of the flame — can really confuse your camera.

I've shot fireworks, bonfires, more candles than I can count, and the firefest that is  Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations , and I've picked up a few lessons along the way.

My best tips for getting incredible fire photos

Don't get burned!

Sorry for being Captain Obvious, but please remember that fire is dangerous. Don't ever put yourself or others at risk in order to get a shot.

Use the right gear

Depending on the type of photo you want, you may need a tripod. Also, you might find that a fast lens with an aperture of f/4 or wider will give you more versatility.

Be smart about your settings

You're going to want to disable your flash. The idea is to capture the ambient light of the flame, and your flash will wipe that out straight away.

Also: Get used to using your camera's exposure meter. Fire is a bright source of light, and your camera will try to expose the scene for it, which may result in the rest of the scene being very dark. If that happens, you can either start shooting in manual mode and exposing the scene correctly yourself, or you can use your camera's exposure compensation feature to under- or over-expose the scene to your needs.

How to shoot your favorite fiery subjects

How to photograph candles

Candles are actually one of the harder things to photograph, because they don't give out very much light on their own.

Solution: more candles!

Shooting candles will require careful exposure management, as the contrast between the flame and its surroundings can be high. I'd suggest not exposing directly from the candle, but instead from the scenery. You might even consider leaving the candle out of the shot entirely and shooting the scene using candlelight instead.

In terms of your camera settings, if the candle flame is still and there is no other movement in the shot, you can use longer shutter speeds and a tripod to capture the moment. If there are people in the scene, you can't lower the shutter speed too much or you'll end up with motion blur, so compensate with a higher ISO and open up the aperture as wide as it will go to let all that light in.

Candles produce a beautiful warm glow that makes everyone exponentially better-looking, so consider using them as a natural light source for portrait photography.

How to photograph fire twirlers

Fire twirlers are ridiculously fun to shoot. I love a longer exposure shot — up to a second in length — capturing the glowing trails as they move through the air. You can even do this without a tripod, although a tripod will, of course, help to reduce background blur from your hand movement.

Alternatively, you can shoot at higher shutter speeds and "freeze" the action. This will probably require you to take a number of shots in order to get the one that you want. If your camera has the option to shoot multiple frames as you hold down the shutter button, try using that.

How to photograph bonfires

Larger fires are easier to shoot than candles because they illuminate their surroundings relatively well.

I like to shoot crowd scenes at bonfires, because isn't that the whole point of a bonfire? Really long exposures, such as my 30-second shot of the Hogmanay celebration, create a nice, soft fire effect.

Alternatively, you can focus on the flames and shoot at really high shutter speeds to try and capture interesting and unusual shapes, like this shot below at 1/4000th of a second. There is usually plenty of light available when shooting directly into a fire, so you can use high shutter speeds to freeze the moment quite easily.

How to photograph fireworks

Firework photos involve a lot of hit-and-miss when it comes to getting everything you want in the shot. Always shoot at a wider angle than you think you'll need and then crop afterwards.

You're also going to need a tripod and a good spot with a clear view of the sky — preferably with something interesting on the horizon for perspective and scale.

The tripod will let you take longer exposures — between 1 and 5 seconds will likely suffice, depending on the volume of fireworks going up. You don't want to expose for too long or you'll end up with a confusing mess of lines. There should be sufficient light to shoot with lower ISO ratings, in the 100-400 range, and you might even have to close your aperture a bit to compensate if there is too much light.

Once you've focused the first time, switch to manual focus and leave it set. You don't want to lose the shot because the camera suddenly decides to start hunting for focus again.

How to photograph sparks

If you are so inclined, you can twirl hot iron wool around to create huge spark trails. Or you can get that look by taking a photo of a fire that is giving off a lot of sparks. Use a slow shutter speed and a tripod and maybe close up the aperture a little bit to compensate if there too much light.

All photos in this post via Laurence Norah.

September 29, 2018
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Get Lit: How to Shoot Candles, Bonfires and More