There’s just something about a fire. Throughout human history, we have harnessed the power of the flame for comfort, warmth, safety, and communion—as well as warfare, destruction, and punishment. Our connection with fire reaches back deep into human prehistory, so it is no wonder that gathering around a night fire continues to be such a cherished activity around the world.
On my recent assignment to shoot outdoor adventures in Florida, one of my tasks was to photograph a beach bonfire. I had some lighting ideas I wanted to try out, so the night before I left on the assignment I did some tests in my backyard with some friends. Pre-paving a shoot like this is essential to ironing out any kinks or unforeseen issues (or equipment problems) that might arise while you are in the thick of it. It also allows you to experiment playfully in a less pressured situation than the one you will find yourself in at the time of the shoot.
Freezing the motion of a good flame requires an extremely high shutter speed (anywhere from 1/1000 to 1/4000 and higher), but a shutter speed as low as 1/200 will yield a fairly realistic-looking flame, depending on the size and intensity of the fire. The difficulty of shooting people around a fire is that unless they are very close to it, the contrast between the light on their faces and the light of the flames is greater than it appears to the human eye. If you expose for the people, the fire will burn out almost completely to white; and if you expose for the fire, the people will disappear into the darkness. So in order to balance the two light levels, supplemental light on the subjects is often necessary.
My strategy for the shoot, or at least my starting strategy, was to use speedlights to enhance the glow from the fire on the people standing and playing around it. In order to match the color temperature of the flame, I wrapped the heads of two Canon 580 EX flashes with CTO gel and placed them close to the fire, pointing out at my subjects, to be fired via wireless transmitter. I kept the flash power low, just to add a little extra kick but not enough to overpower the light coming from the flame.
Additionally, to provide a bit of rim light to enhance the look of moonlight on my subjects and separate them from the darkness, I set up a Lowel Pro Light on a stand with a Vagabond Mini power pack. The Lowel has a cooler color temperature than the gelled flashes, closer to the cool light coming down from the moon and faintly reminiscent of classic cinema lighting.
The photo to the left is the result of this lighting setup. It’s an altogether useable shot: It showcases the fire, it’s perfectly descriptive of the situation, and it’s a nice lifestyle photo, but to my mind it lacks a certain intrigue. I could have kept shooting from this angle with this setup and gotten something a little better in terms of subject movement and interaction, but I decided instead to change things up a bit. The kids weren’t going to be there long—it was close to their bedtime—so I had to act fast and make quick decisions. So, the first thing I did was turn off the flashes.
Taking the key light out of a lit shot can yield instant drama. What you are left with is just pure ambient light and whatever kind of accent light is left over. Allowing the ambient light to work as your key source gives the shot a much more natural feel, while having an accent light with a slightly cooler color temperature adds shape and color. From that point on it’s just a matter of framing and following your subjects and giving them room to play.
I ditched all concerns for the shape and texture of the fire and focused on the scene itself, looking for some kind of narrative and compositional interest within the assembled group. I moved around a bit more, got a little bit looser, and immediately felt myself stepping into the zone.
The photo to the right, while nearly eclipsing the fire behind the boy’s pointing finger, carries, to my mind, more narrative impact than the previous setup. There is the boy on the far left, staring straight at the viewer like a figure in a classical Dutch painting, the boy to the right of the fire whose laughing face is rimmed by the light of the fire, and the girl sitting back on her arms whose hair is shining under the accent light. We can’t see her face, but we can perceive a sense of relaxation in her posture.
A slower shutter speed gives some length to the sparks flying off the fire, and Ross, the tender of the fire, appears to lord over the whole scene, his figure forming the top of a compositional triangle. The fire itself is more suggested than showcased, and what we do see of it is fairly blown out, but somehow we don’t need to see it to get a feeling for it.
From here I went one step further and turned off the accent light, using the fire itself as a backlight and framing silhouettes around it. This made for some moody, more abstract shots, such as the one at the top.
This subtractive approach to lighting is generally the opposite of a normal studio approach, but in my experience it’s a lot easier to turn a light off and continue shooting than it is to add another light, dial in the proper settings, and factor that extra variable into all your exposures and compositions. All while trying to keep your subjects relaxed and entertained.
All of the different lighting options I tried out on this shoot have their merits, but for my money the second setup, with the fire and the one accent light, hits the sweet spot. Depending on the intended use of the photo, an editor may prefer one of the other setups. But that decision is ultimately out of my hands. My only hope is that whichever photo they choose, they really, really like it.
See more photos by Chris Bickford on Instagram at @chrisbickford.