If you’ve ever sat around a campfire as the sun sets, you know that firelight casts beautiful warm tones on a person’s face. As a photographer, you also probably know that it can be difficult to come anywhere close to capturing those colors and details with a camera. The dynamic range of even the best camera in the world pales in comparison to the amazing dynamic range of the human eye—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t create great fire-lit images.
In the following tutorial, photographer Corey Rich explains his methods for capturing beautiful fireside photos in the great outdoors:
Tips for Firelight Photography
1. Scout before the shoot. Arrive early, figure out where the campfire will be located, and identify background elements that you could bring into your frame.
2. Observe the direction of the wind. Once you know which way the wind is blowing, make sure to position your model out of the smoke so that they can enjoy modeling for you.
3. Shoot during “campfire magic hour.” The short window of time after the sun moves below the horizon and before you lose all natural light is “campfire magic hour,” though it’s only a few minutes in reality. Shooting at dawn before the sunrise also provides a similar aesthetic.
“You’re waiting for that moment in time… when [the sky] goes purple and blue and it’s glowing in the background and the ambient exposure of the fire is comparable to the ambient exposure of the sky.”
4. Have your settings, composition, and focus perfected beforehand. You should have everything ready for those few minutes of optimal lighting when you’ll create the best images. Start when the sun goes down and keep shooting and practicing into campfire magic hour.
“I’ll spend time composing and practicing my shot, checking my focus, looking for the best composition while the light’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s only 5-10 minutes where everything comes together… that’s when you make the best photographs.”
5. Bring equipment with excellent low-light performance. You need a camera that can function with little-to-no noise at higher ISO levels and a few fast lenses with low fixed apertures, such as f/1.4. For his tutorial, Rich used the Nikon D4S and three Nikkor lenses: the 50mm f/1.4G, the 24mm f/1.4G, and the 85mm f/1.4G.
6. Leave your tripod at home… Tripods are excellent for image stabilization, but Rich believes that using tripods can reduce creativity by almost 50 percent.
“You need to be able to move around fluidly, move quickly, make minor adjustments right and left, up and down. Sometimes it’s just that minor adjustment that’s the difference between a good photo and a great photo.”
7. … but learn the right way to hold your camera. From 3:34 to 3:58 in his video, Rich demonstrates the proper way to self-steady a camera while shooting. Using this technique allows him to shoot hand-held even at 1/15 of a second.
8. Shoot bursts of images. Another technique that enables Rich to hand-hold his camera at slower shutter speeds is shooting bursts of images. Most professional-grade DSLRs contain a burst mode feature; the Nikon D4S allows Rich to capture 10-11 frames per second. This feature ensures that at least one of Rich’s frames will be tack sharp.
9. Switch to manual focus if necessary. Sometimes the camera’s sensor may become confused and insist on focusing on the flames instead of on your subject. When that happens, you’ll need to be able to switch over to manual mode and use it proficiently.
10. Ask your subject to be as still as possible in their pose. This will also help to ensure that your images are crisply focused.
“It’s really about shooting lots of frames and checking your focus. If you’re having a hard time getting a sharp image, don’t be afraid to ask your subject to sit still. They’re just staring into the fire. They’re just staring into the hippie television.” — Corey Rich
For further training: The Understanding Light Photography Guide
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