If you’ve ever done any fire photography, you may have already noticed how difficult it is to get a good image. One of the first things to think about is what is burning, and what is fuelling the fire. Certain flammable elements, such as chemicals or alcohol can be nearly, if not completely invisible. Even a wood or paper fuelled fire is difficult to see in photographs if shot during daylight hours outdoors.
One example of this is racing cars that use alcohol as their main fuel supply, the fire cannot be seen. That is why some race car drivers and their pit crew members have been seriously burned, because even they themselves don’t realize they are on fire until it is too late, because it isn’t visible. They don’t even know they are on fire, until they either feel the heat from the flames, or they start inhaling the heat from the fire, or their clothing starts to melt. That is why drivers now wear protective suits that help resist the flames, and keep much of the heat from their bodies.
Before you start lighting things up its important to consider what you will do if things go wrong. Safety is critical with anything involving naked flames and people. Knowing what fire extinguisher to use and having a fire blanket handy will help.
Aside from that, unless the fire is pretty intense, even a structure fire or brush fire doesn’t show up very well in daylight. The sun is just too bright, and the fire is not bright enough. So be aware that photographing a fire during daylight hours will require a longer exposure. A neutral density filter may help some, by darkening the area around and in back of the fire, making the flames stand out a little more.
Your best bet for shooting fire therefore improves as darkness approaches. I found dusk to work well, when photographing something like a California brush fire. Although I did get shots that were satisfactory during the daylight hours, the subdued lighting of dusk, allowed me to shoot as if I were shooting a daylight scene, but allowed the flames to stand out some. Dark smoke behind the flames also helps to intensify the flames in the image.
Undoubtedly the easiest and best shots were obtained after darkness fell. With the darker sky making the flames stand out, it was much easier to get a good shot. Automatic cameras will work, but, if you have an adjustable camera I recommend changing the settings from daylight to overexpose the image slightly. I like to use a shutter speed of above 1/60 of a second. That means you will likely have to open your aperture a stop or two. There is no hard and fast rule here, but if you can over expose by anywhere from +1/2 to 2 whole stops, as well as shooting at or near a daylight setting, you will likely obtain at least one good shot.
Luckily digital cameras make shooting fire much easier than roll film cameras. Digital cameras allow you to shoot with multiple settings, and then adjust you images once they have been uploaded to your computer. That way you can enhance your images to make the flames stand out, and have more color to them.
Of course a lot depends upon the fire you are shooting. A candle flame, can be shot at or near daylight speed, if the background is dark, and you are fairly close to your candle. You may want to open your aperture some to overexpose slightly, but keep your speed at 1/60 or faster, to prevent the flame from flickering and giving you a ghost image of the flame, unless that is what you want. Then a slower shutter speed is OK.
No matter what type of fire you are shooting, I strongly encourage you to bracket your shots up to a full stop, or even 2, and take a number of shots. That way you insure that at least one of the images will be close to what you want to see. Fire has a different Kelvin temperature than sunlight. So be aware of that when shooting, and give yourself some leeway by bracketing. Shooting fire scenes are something where practice doesn’t make perfect.