The fi­nal word

It’s a burn­ing ques­tion: how do you ex­pose for a knife fire dancer?

NPhoto - - Contents - Joe McNally WWW.JOEMCNALLY.COM

Shoot­ing flam­ing ob­jects in mo­tion – that’s an ex­po­sure chal­lenge Joe can’t re­sist!

Re­cently I was in Hawaii, which is al­ways a treat. It was even more so in that my wife An­nie and I were in­vited to teach a work­shop at the Four Sea­sons Hualalai Re­sort.

A pho­to­graphic sta­ple of vis­it­ing Hawaii is a ses­sion with a fire knife dancer. Al­ways hard, play­ing with fire, pho­to­graph­i­cally. It’s tough, some­times, to know what to do when a big part of what you are try­ing to ex­pose for is whirling like a dervish. You need a mea­sure of dark­ness and sim­plic­ity in the back­ground, not to men­tion pic­to­rial elo­quence. A dark­en­ing sun­set sky is per­fect. You need to ex­pose for the flames, but not too much; fire goes from orange to white in the blink of an over­long shut­ter speed. And you need to have a de­gree of sharp­ness in the dancer. That’s tough to do when you use the ac­tual fire knife as your prin­ci­pal source of light. The fire and the dancer are mov­ing, and you need some­thing to freeze the ac­tion. En­ter flash.

White-light flash, thrown from the hot­shoe of the cam­era, ain’t gonna cut it. White light is an in­truder here, out of colour sync with the ro­man­tic colour pal­ette of fire and Pa­cific sun­set you are paint­ing with. Frontal light also means flat light, gen­er­ally, and you want some shad­ows to en­hance di­men­sion­al­ity and mys­tery. Hence, a light from the side, gelled warm, is called for. The photo above was shot with a sin­gle Nikon SB-5000 Speed­light, off to cam­era left, on a sim­ple Man­frotto stand, and I con­trolled it with a WRR-10 ra­dio trans­ceiver. Pretty sim­ple, re­ally. It was shot at 1/60 sec, f/2.8, and ISO400 on a Nikon D5.

How to get the shot

Ob­serve the dancer. Fig­ure out which is his bet­ter hand. Most of these guys are so good, they can put the fire knife ex­actly where you want it.

Get near some wa­ter. This will give you some tiny bit of high­light in the back­ground, and not ab­so­lute dark­ness. It will also as­sure you of a clear throw to the western sky.

Po­si­tion your light, gel it, and do some test­ing. You will be shoot­ing rel­a­tively slow shut­ter speeds, and the flash will help you re­tain sharp­ness.

Start be­fore the sky gets too dark! That was my is­sue with this par­tic­u­lar pic­ture. If you have to use a se­ri­ously slow shut­ter speed to get de­tail in the sky, the fire will be­come white. It is quite bright and needs to be man­aged with care.

Shoot a lot of pic­tures! Give the dancer a break and let them rest, but once they start twirling, go for it. If you can po­si­tion your flash rel­a­tively close to your sub­ject, you will drain less power with each ex­po­sure, thus hyp­ing your re­cy­cle rate. That way you can rat-a-tat, shoot­ing lots of frames in se­ries. You never can tell when the fly­ing flame might ob­scure the dancers’s face, or be oth­er­wise un­con­trolled. So, shoot a lot. And, be care­ful play­ing with fire.

The work­shop was a hit, so we will hope­fully do another. The dates will be on my blog.

It’s tough, some­times, to know what to do when a big part of what you are try­ing to ex­pose for is whirling like a dervish

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