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Monday, November 8, 2010

Photography By Firelight—11/08/10

The flicker of a dancing flame offers beautiful illumination

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One of my favorite things to do on a cool autumn evening is to sit around a campfire with friends. I’m often struck by how beautiful the light cast from the flickering flames can be. Not only is it interesting to photograph subjects illuminated by firelight, flames themselves create interesting abstract images. Here’s how to approach photographing by firelight the next time you find yourself fireside, or with a flickering Bic in hand for illumination.

A campfire can be the ideal flaming illumination for portraits. To start, chose a high-ISO setting on your camera—say ISO 3200 or 6400 for starters if you’ve got a new D-LR camera capable of producing low-noise images at high ISOs. If not, consider a slightly lower ISO setting of, say, 1000 or 1600 to minimize noise.

Start shooting at dusk when there’s still light in the sky. Using campfire illumination is much easier and more effective when it’s not pitch black in the middle of the night. Plus, warm campfires contrast nicely with the cool blue hues of fading sunlight, making for a more colorful composition.

Manually set your white balance to daylight in order to take advantage of the natural warm glow created by the firelight. If it looks too warm, set a custom white balance to take out some of the warmth and create a more neutral tone. I avoid auto white balance because it can eliminate all of the warmth, which is what makes firelight so special.

Shoot RAW. Not only will the exposure latitude come in handy in this tricky low-light situation, chances are you’ll want to run noise-reduction on the image files. That’s easiest and most successfully accomplished with the added image data of a RAW file in Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop.

Next, open up to the maximum aperture your lens is capable of—hopefully something fast like ƒ/2 or ƒ/1.4. (If you’re not sure which lens to use, chose the one with the wider maximum aperture—reflected by a smaller number.) You can then use manual exposure settings and set your shutter speed by hand, or select aperture priority to let the camera pair the appropriate shutter speed with your wide-open aperture.

To make the most of the warm firelight, position your subject as close as possible—not to mention as close as is comfortable and safe—to the flames. In most cases, this takes the shape of just ensuring they’re not too far away from the campfire. Be careful when working around flames, and don’t do anything dangerous just to get a shot.

Position your camera on a tripod, or be sure to take extra precautions to handhold your camera as steadily as possible. If you’ve got a vibration-reducing lens, this is the ideal time to use it. If not, position your camera on a rock, bench or other solid surface and use the self timer to minimize camera shake.

Fire away, taking care to ask your subject to remain as motionless as possible. You’re working in a low-light situation, and every stability advantage you create will go a long way toward sharp—and beautifully illuminated—firelight images.

Consider incorporating the flames themselves to add interest as well as context to the photograph. They’re bound to be overexposed when compared to your subject. After all, they’re the actual light source. But flickering flames can look amazing in photographs, and in the case of a portrait image illuminated by flame, understanding the context goes a long way toward the readability of the image. Failing that, focus on the flames themselves to create abstract images of the dancing light.

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