Photographing a subject like fire, that has so many intrinsic qualities and behaviors, can be a test to the photographer. Fire can be: raging, smoldering, destructive, essential, and so much more. As the photographer, your biggest challenge becomes figuring out what quality(s) you want to portray, and setting up your camera to capture the best shot.
Here's a list of tips I take into consideration when capturing campfire images:
Slow It Down
Use a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of the flames, the smoke, and the rising of embers as light streaks in the image. Experiment with shutter speed starting with 1-2 seconds, then go from there based on the conditions at your campsite.
The longer your shutter speed, the more the flames at the base of your campfire will blend together and singularly glow like a fireball from your dad’s old Coleman lantern. Be mindful though, that if your time is too short it may not be enough to capture the motion intended.
Pro Tip: I like to use a shutter release remote to prevent camera shake during longer exposures.
Speed it Up
Flames are hot and contain energy. They move fast when it’s calm, and faster when it’s windy. In most situations, you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed to freeze the action of flames.
Since your campfire is generally going to be burning at dusk or night, you’ll likely be shooting when light is limited. If you don’t have a fast lens, I recommend setting your lens to a small F-Stop number (producing larger aperture), and/or using a high ISO number (producing a faster response to light) . Play around with different combinations of these two to figure out what you like best.
Pro Tip: These features will allow you to use a higher shutter speed to freeze the motion of the flames. If light allows, try 1/50 sec as the sun is setting, and play around from there.
Consider the whole image
What else do you want in the frame of your photograph? If you only want to capture the campfire, then you’ll focus mostly on my first two tips. However, if you have your compadres, stars, trees or other subjects planned for your final image, then you'll need to consider those aspects. When I’m shooting people around campfires, I want my compadres staying still so they don’t blur in the image.
Pro Tip: Consider the flow of the fire - the longer you expose your image, the brighter the glow will be on faces, and surrounding trees, rocks, and other features. If the glow is too bright, it can wash out the detail.
I love shooting the stars whenever I go camping, but incorporating the night sky with a campfire can be a challenge that generally involves blending a minimum of two exposures: one for the campfire (using the tips I’ve included), and one for the stars (at a much longer exposure to capture their brightness).
Pro Tip: When I shoot at night, I reach for my fastest lenses that are capable of shooting at least f/2.8. Once I’ve got my images, I blend them in Photoshop for the best of both worlds.
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