Fire Photography 101: How to Master Fire Background Shots

March 15

20 min. to read

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Follow these basic rules of capturing fire backgrounds and gift yourself a chance to become a professional in fire photography

Since ancient times, humans have been close friends with fire. As we learn from the history books, our ancestors worshiped fire as a spirit of warmth and protection. And with the years, this bond has become stronger and stronger. Medieval people used flames to cleanse sins, and in the coming centuries fire was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

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The whole history of humanity developed on the background of fire. And now, after all these millenia of close friendship and mutual respect, how is it possible to avoid the temptation to capture it with your camera? Especially when fireplace pictures provide so much opportunity to reveal your love and creativity! And, of course, the presence of flames always adds a magical atmosphere to shots. 

So don’t resist the temptation: try fire photography! There are some classic flame background images you can start practicing with right away. People love seeing romantic couples sitting in front of a bonfire, a bunch of friends laughing and sharing a late night barbeque, and lonely dreamers peacefully resting near the campfire after hiking in the woods. All these plots (and many more!) can be put in the center of your fire photography. 

To capture these inspiring plots as beautifully as they deserve, check out this guide to fire background photos. You’ll find numerous tips, ideas, and recommended tools to make the best of your attempts at fire photography.

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Fire background photography — what’s it all about? Isn’t it too dangerous?

Starting from amateur attempts to capture a fiery background with a candle, fire photography can turn into a profession you’ll master for the rest of your life. After that, you can join other professionals passionate about fire images — so-called fire photographers. These people know how to capture various types of flames; they work at sites of firefighting operations, take professional portraits against flame background, capture pictures of fire for any purpose, and even know how to create a fire animation.

By the way, photographing firefighting operations is the only true type of fire photography according to Wikipedia. So if you’re interested in working with a fiery background in a way that is approved by Wikipedia, you should aim at entering this sphere. And on your way to becoming a professional fire photographer, this guide will surely be helpful. It tells you how to get a proper start at making awesome fire backgrounds and contains tips relevant for professionals.

But what if your goal is just to learn how to make nice fire images without the ambition to participate in high-scale operations or turn fire photography into the love of your life? Don’t worry — this overview will be great for you too. You’ll find many useful tips on taking fireplace pictures like a pro without actually being a professional fire photographer. 

So let’s start with the ground rules for fire background photography.

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Above all, be aware of your safety!

Since childhood, we’ve been instructed that playing with fire is dangerous enough to cause severe damage to health and even take your life. And that’s true for fire photography too. To prevent tragedy at any scale, follow these basic safety rules that will help you safely get a fire background photograph:

1. Be attentive to your equipment: the most expensive gear is frequently the main victim of heat, smoke, and flames.

2. Check that there is proper ventilation in a room and open a window if it isn’t good enough.
3. Prepare an emergency plan in advance of the photoshoot (in case something unpredictable happens while shooting fire images).

4. Create a fire photography plan (what to capture, how long to wait, how close to come, etc.).

5. No matter what, ALWAYS maintain a safe distance from the flames.

6. While working with a big open fire, wear protective equipment.

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Why long exposure is the best choice for capturing flame background moments

After you’ve ensured your physical well-being, let’s proceed to preparing your camera for working in long exposure mode. 

If you choose to shoot long exposures, any fire image will contain amazing details in addition to an overall balanced representation of the fiery background. Sparks, the gradations of a flame’s color, and sharp contours of objects and subjects near the fire will appear clearer than in reality. Sounds awesome enough to understand long exposure concept a little better, doesn’t it?

In long exposure mode, your shutter is open for a long period of time (from eight seconds to several hours) to capture all the hidden details. As a photographer, this gives you an opportunity to reveal routine things from a different perspective. In terms of fire photography, this means catching the mood, atmosphere, and scale of what’s happening — while simultaneously showing details like sparks and patterns of lighting that weren’t obvious at first sight. And, of course, it means searching for the proper balance between these two elements in a fire image.

To sharpen the effect of long exposure photography of any type, try Luminar as your post-processing software. This photo color editor will give your fire background and fire animation images the wanted effects with AI-adjusted temperature tones and color accents!

How to manage settings on your camera for fire photography

Your main task is to create all the necessary conditions for long-exposure shots. Keep in mind that problems with low light are the greatest enemy of flame background photography. The lack of ambient light makes the fire backgrounds overexposed and ruins the composition — and you should be attentive to avoid this

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Auto mode surely won’t work for fire photography purposes. Putting your camera in manual mode is a must (along with a proper understanding of shutter speed). To adjust your camera settings correctly, use the rules for capturing a fiery background listed below:

1. Before capturing a flame background, make sure you know the basics of shutter speed photography, the guiding properties of light, and how to take good pictures

2. Switch off the flash. Nothing spoils the beauty of a fire background as much as flash. Simply turn it off and make sure it won’t appear at any time during your photoshoot.

3. Focus manually. This trick will help you overcome the poor performance of autofocus in the dark. Alternatively, you can try to back button focus. Digital Photography School recently published a great guide to using this option correctly.

4. Choose the slowest shutter speed. This enables you to blur distracting motion and light from your image, letting you focus on the marvelous detail in front of the fiery background. Moreover, some fire backgrounds appear so beautiful that you’ll want to turn them into the main light source for the photoshoot. The closer you get to the fire image, the slower the shutter speed you’ll need. So all the warm highlights and soft shadows on a fire image reveal their best.

5. Always aim for the lowest ISO (around 100–200). 

6. Set a mid-range aperture for a fiery background — something between f/8 and f/11. The last two steps become critical if you face problems changing the shutter speed manually.
In addition to the ground principles of this guide, it often happens that you should change the camera settings for different pictures of fire. For example, some nice foreground fire images need the fastest shutter speed, which contradicts step 4 of the principles for capturing fire pictures mentioned above. Consequently, you’ll already need a higher ISO and the widest aperture. In this situation, to overcome a narrow depth of field, focus on sharp contrasting edges. 
In some cameras, the flash can be adjusted, in which case you can avoid switching the flash completely off. Alternatively, choose a more accurate flash level (from -3 to +3, commonly) for your needs.  

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In addition, there are two basic ways of getting the desired shutter speed. With Shutter Priority mode, you can achieve full control over the amount of time your camera will let in light. As a result, you can finely tune the shutter speed for your fire images for interesting experiments, while ISO and aperture are left to the camera’s automatic settings. In the opposite situation, capturing fire background images in Aperture Priority mode requires choosing the aperture and proper ISO, while the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed for this combination to work.  Feel free to increase the ISO if the result in this mode doesn’t satisfy your needs.

Finally, consider the patience of the person whose portrait you’re taking in front of the fire background. For some people, it’s simply impossible to sit still for five seconds, no matter what your camera wants!

In short, be creative and flexible while working with a fiery background – and be as unpredictable as a flame!

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What is the most helpful equipment for making flame background pictures?

Among all the available gear for making fire images, a tripod is the top pick. For the purpose of capturing an awesome fire background, avoid the slightest sign of shaking. This will make your pictures sharp and engaging. And since you’re working in long exposure mode, the slow shutter speed will always require a longer time to concentrate on the subject. Due to all these factors, a tripod is a must for fire photography practices of any type. 

Another piece of useful equipment is a remote shutter release. It will eliminate the problem of shaking that inevitably happens when you press the shutter button manually. As a result, your fire backgrounds won’t be blurry, and you’ll gain additional sharpness.

If you want to include fire as part of a general scene, you’ll surely need an extra lighting source (along with advanced skills in choosing the appropriate angles for shooting). For this type of fire background, dark surroundings work best. The additional lighting will create an awesomely sharp contrast. 

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How to work with props for fiery photography

The short answer is: don’t hesitate to adopt a creative approach. 

One inspirational idea is to turn your props into characters. Matches, candles, firewood, the surrounding forest — all these things can serve as tools to represent your creative ideas. 
Also, you can craft the props you need by yourself. For example, a combination of a spray deodorant and a lighter can create a small controlled splash of fire for use as a flame background. But of course, be attentive to safety while doing this! Sometimes, it’s better not to risk and make pictures of fire of more tender forms. As an example, capture a portrait of a person carrying a candle.

In any case, always search for interesting angles and aim at telling a story through the photograph.    

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How to start taking fireplace pictures and have fun

The best start to become a pro at fireplace pictures is practicing near a campfire. It’s truly worth trying, especially if you gather with friends who don’t mind having some nice portraits in front of a flame background and you have a really big long-living fire. Another nice beginning to fire background photography is playing with a candle. Both these exercises will enhance your skills not only working with the fiery background but also capturing flame as a main character.

For experiments with fire pictures, make sure that the flame background appears in a dark place and start shooting it at different angles using a tripod (or simply by putting the camera on a surface). For proper camera settings, use the guide on basic rules for fire background photography. But also, try to experiment with overexposing and changing the shutter speed. In the end, capturing fire images is an art, revealing your own style and creativity.  

After gaining confidence in these two types of fire photography, you can proceed to capturing large fires. Here, you’ll need to strike a balance between your safety as a photographer and the dramatic effect of the fire image. For example, smoke adds a sense of volume to the shot but puts your gear at risk. So start shooting fire backgrounds by prioritizing safety, steadily and attentively shortening the distance.

In the end, the art of working with a fire background has two components. First, the ability to adjust camera settings to your idea. Second, the knowledge of proper distance between the subject and the flame for a great shot. To reach mastery in both of these dimensions, you should practice a lot. So just start — and don’t stop searching for perfection!

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How to create a fire animation

Watching fire is a truly meditative activity. Many photographers try to represent a fire background in motion. That’s why we couldn’t omit this aspect in this guide.

In fact, making a fire animation isn’t that hard. All you need is the proper software and several images of the same fire. For a classic way to make an animated flame background, you can use this simple guide for Photoshop:

1. In the Timeline menu, select Create Frame Animation.

2. Create several layers, then choose Make Frames from Layers.

3. Decide on the duration for each frame separately.

4. Decide on the number of loops at the bottom of the toolbar.

5. After previewing, save and export a GIF. 

For a more detailed and enhanced transformation of images into a fire animation, check out these instructions on Creative Cow.

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In Luminar, you can blend photos to create a marvelous fire animation. Specifically, it allows you to mix photo layers in different ways (with 13 blending modes) to create a sequence of harmonized images with fire backgrounds. Moreover, Luminar contains a set of filters to beautify all your images. With these enhancements, you’ll get an outstanding fiery background result!

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