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Photo tips for amazing fire dancers

For 20 years, I had the privilege of photographing fire dancers at Burning Man. This annual event, held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, celebrates art, community, and self-expression, and fire dancing has become a central part of the festival’s culture. I witnessed countless breathtaking performances, each one a unique expression of the beauty and power of this mesmerizing art form. I will give photo tips for photographing amazing  fire dancers in this blog post.

When I started photographing fire dancers at Burning Man, the community was still relatively small, and the performances were often impromptu and informal. As the festival grew, so did the fire-dancing community. Thanks in part to the Fire Conclave run by Crimson Rose, Tabasco, Wrangler, and Scorch, there were dedicated performance areas where fire dancers could showcase their skills to large audiences. I worked for the Fire Conclave and was honored to be one of four photographers to document the fire troupes that performed during the night of the Burn and at various events during the festival.

Amazing fire dancing at Burning Man is not without its risks. Fire is a powerful and unpredictable force. Even the most skilled and experienced performers must take precautions to ensure their safety. This is something that I have always been keenly aware of as a photographer. It’s also one of my attractions to photographing this art.

burning man fire photographer

Photo tips for Amazing Fire Dancers

Photographing a fire dancer can be an exciting and challenging experience. Fire dancing is a performance art that combines dance with manipulating flames with different fire tools. It can produce stunning visuals that make for great photographs. However, capturing the beauty and energy of a fire dance requires some specific techniques and equipment.

Choose the Right Equipment and ISO

When photographing fire dancers, the right equipment is critical. You’ll need a camera that can handle low light conditions and fast movement and a lens that can capture the intricacies of the performance.

Use high ISO when you photograph fire dancers. ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. A higher ISO means the sensor will be more light-sensitive, allowing for better exposure in low-light conditions.

One of the main benefits of using a high ISO is that it allows you to capture photos in situations with limited available light. A high ISO can also help to freeze fast-moving subjects, allowing for a faster shutter speed.

They keep improving the ISO in cameras. But even with newer cameras, a high ISO also introduces noise, which can degrade the quality of your photos. A high ISO can decrease the dynamic range of your photos, making it more difficult to capture details in both the highlights and shadows. Based on the fire’s light, I am constantly adjusting my ISO down or up.

If your camera can do this accurately, I recommend auto ISO. One of the main benefits of using auto ISO is that it allows the camera to adjust the ISO as needed based on the available light. This can be particularly useful in situations where the lighting conditions are constantly changing. Fire dancing is an excellent example of fast-changing lighting.

With auto-ISO, I use manual settings for the shutter and F-stop.

burring man fire photographer
Use a fast lens

A fast lens with a wide aperture (between f/1.2 and f/2.8) is ideal. It will allow you to capture sharp images even in low-light conditions. A prime lens, such as a 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm, is also an excellent choice, as it permits you to capture the details of the performance without any distortion.

If you’re photographing a fire performance, using several fast lenses and an extra camera is a good idea. Sometimes you’re not able to “zoom with your feet.” A 24mm-70mm 2.8 zoom lens is a good option in this case.

Unless you’re shooting video, I don’t recommend using a tripod for fire photography. You’re not as mobile, and the blur of the fire dancer will usually come from their movement, not the shake of your camera.

Use a fast shutter speed

The shutter speed you choose will depend on the effect you want to achieve. A fast shutter speed can freeze the action and create sharp images. A slower shutter speed can create blur effects and light trails using a fire tool like Poi. I prefer sharp images that capture emotion and movement with minimal image blur.

You need a lot of light, a fast lens, or a high ISO to use a high shutter speed.

Photo tips for photographing fire dancers
Fire Performance versus Portrait Photography

If you photograph a fire show, you can only use what the performers give you. I like to establish relationships with performers and remind them that my job is to get beautiful photos of them. The more they can even fleetingly interact with the camera, the more options we have to co-create an excellent photograph.

While photographing 27 fire troupes in front of 80,000 people is exciting, my favorite type of fire dancing photography is portrait photography. This is where I get my best photos because I can direct the dancers and have more control of the background and lighting. Most of the photos in this blog post are from photo shoots.

Find a good location and use props

The first step to photographing a fire dancer is to find a good location. Look for a spot away from other people and objects that could be distracting. Rock and water are a nice contrast to the fire. So are deserts and forests.

My favorite time of day to photograph fire is from twenty to about sixty minutes after sunset, AKA nautical twilight. This, to me, is the magic hour for fire photography. It should be dark enough to see the fire clearly, but not so dark that you can’t see the distant background.

You can continue shooting once it’s completely dark (astronomical twilight), but you’ll only capture the near area near your model.

There are so many excellent fire tools out there to mention. Get creative with props such as smoke and titanium powder. Use other fire tools to illuminate your subject.

fire photography California
Experiment with different angles and use auto-focus

Experiment with different angles to create dynamic and exciting shots as with all photography. Try shooting from low or high angles, or move around the dancer to capture different perspectives. Try also shooting from different distances to create a sense of depth and scale. I like to include other fire performers in the background and out of focus during a fire performance.

Use auto-focus. Cameras keep improving at auto-focus in low light, but even the most advanced system will find fire dance photography challenging. Take many photos because most of them will turn out poorly. Either there wasn’t enough light, the dancer moved away or towards the camera too quickly, or you didn’t shoot with a fast enough shutter relative to their movement.

Photo tips for amazing Fire Dancers: be mindful of safety

When photographing fire dancers, it is essential to be mindful of safety. Make sure you are at a safe distance from the dancer. Additionally, be aware of your surroundings and any potential hazards that could pose a danger. Ideally, you should have at least one fire safety present. I have seen a lot of burnt hair, skin, and clothing in my many years as a fire-dancing photographer.

Santa Cruz fire photography
Edit your photos

After you have taken your photos, it is essential to edit them to bring out the full potential of your shots. Adjust the exposure, contrast, and color balance to create the desired effect, and experiment with different presents in Lightroom to create a beautiful look.

Remember that you can underexpose a shot and bring out the dark details in post-production, especially if you don’t shoot with a high ISO. As an experienced portrait photographer, one of the mistakes I have often made is prioritizing skin tones for correct exposure. This is what you want to do in portrait photography. In fire photography, it’s generally better to expose the fire.

Work with people you enjoy creating with

Fire photography is a co-creative process. It should be fun for you and the fire dancer. Work with people you have a good rapport with. I prefer to work with a dancer who takes good direction and is excited to work with me. I prefer to create with people who know how to dance with fire. They are embodied dancers first and fire dancers second.