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