I've always loved bonfires. They are primal and evocative - beautiful pillars of light and movement shining bright in darkness. So what does that mean for photography? Taking a picture of a bonfire is both an interesting technical challenge and an exercise in trying to capture the emotion of the moment.
Breaking down the requirements in photographic terms, what do we have? The fire is moving so you need a fast shutter speed to capture the tongues of flame. The scene is dark, but with a bright light source so you need to control white balance. A fast shutter means a higher ISO, to make the camera more responsive to the available light. A wider aperture allows more light in, but also restricts the telephoto options. So a first guess leads to something like:
- High shutter speed
- High ISO
- Wide aperture
So something like this:
Nice and warm, but the body of the fire is over-exposed.
What happens if we drop close the aperture and rely on a crazy-high ISO to capture the available light?
Loses the warmth, but now we can see into the body of the fire.
I wonder how important the ISO is in practice? What is we keep a wide aperture and fast shutter and drop the ISO?
There is more definition on the tongues of flame here when we zoom right in. Pushing the ISO distorts the image so this is a good change.
I started taking these pictures trying to logically get to some decent manual settings. Out of interest I brought out my phone and took a photo then looked at the results:
Huh. Seems nice. Settings?
- Medium shutter speed
- Tiny ISO
- Wide aperture
So the phone decided aperture was the key to sorting out the light capture, and didn't think the movement of the fire was too much of a big deal. Next step was to try this collection of settings on my big camera:
Different again. More warmth, losing definition on the tongues of flame.
And for a last hurrah, how about a different framing - adding some zoom (which narrows the aperture) and correcting a bit with ISO and shutter:
I have my favourites. It's very interesting seeing the same fire depicted so differently just by fiddling with some settings. I'm still calibrating my mind - looking at the subject and trying to imagine the different photos possible with different settings. The first few here I can say I thought through logically but I'm not sure I'd have got to the settings chosen by the automatic mode on my phone. I suppose I'll have to go to more bonfires and keep practising. Such a shame.
All the photographs taken that evening, including some different attempts at fireworks, are in this album: