Photographing Fire Dancers – Part 3

Tressa Spinning Staff

Continuing from Photographing Fire Dancers – Part 1 and
Photographing Fire Dancing – Part 2.

Once you’ve got the basics of taking a long exposure of the fire trail, you just need a few tricks to make the picture really shine.

    Kapiolani Park - Hoopers and Fire Dancers

  1. Set your shutter speed to bulb mode and set your flash to rear curtain sync. Generally, you will not know ahead of time how long the shutter needs to be open to make your photo. It could be 1/4 of a second or several seconds. The only way I’ve gotten the photo to capture the face of performer is by using bulb mode and manually opening and closing the shutter.
  2. Kakaako Fire Jam

  3. Rear curtain sync will fire the flash just before the shutter closes and will make the fire trails appear to follow the performer. Front, or first curtain, sync will make the fire trails appear ahead of the performer. The flash should also be timed to freeze the image of the performer at the end of a move.
  4. Kakaako Fire Jam

  5. Take the flash off of your camera. Angle the light to fall on the performer from above and to the side. This will illuminate the performer while not lighting up the background directly behind the performer. The fire trails will stand out more prominently against a dark background.
  6. When you shoot in bulb mode, take your eye away from the viewfinder, you will not be able to see through the viewfinder anyway while the shutter is open. You should get into the habit of composing your photo and then moving aside to see the action so that you can release and close the shutter at just the right moments.
  7. Radio triggers work the best for synchronizing the flash with your camera since cables are just not practical in this situation. Nikon CLS (and presumably Canon’s IR based trigger or old fashioned optical slave triggers) will work if you set it up properly. But, the IR sensor on the flash must be pointed towards the camera or master flash. The CLS commander’s signal is usually too weak to bounce off of the subject and trigger the slaved flash. Radio triggers, however, have no problem in this situation.
  8. Learn to pre-focus on either the hyperfocal distance or on infinity. Your aperture will be small (f/8 – f/16) anyway because of the fire trails. You may as well lock in the focus to a known, good distance. It is usually really difficult for auto-focus to lock on to anything when the fire dancers are spinning.
  9. Hawaii Fire Artists - Chinese New Year 2013

  10. Watch for a big burn off move at the start of a performer’s routine. Performers will do a big opening move both to impress the crowd and to safely burn off the excess fuel on their prop. This practice is very popular with the staff and poi balls. Staff performers will usually roll the staff while tossing it in mid-air to let centrifugal force squeeze the excess fuel out of the wick. Poi balls will often be dragged on the ground to smear fuel or whipped in circles low to the ground. These burn off moves are much brighter than the rest of their routine and you need to stop down as tight as you can to avoid blowing out the highlights. Some fuels will simply burn too brightly to be photographed and you may have to wait for the fire to burn down to a more tolerable level.
  11. Yes, you will get splashed with fuel at some point if you want to get good photos. It usually evaporates quickly and should not be too hazardous unless it gets in your eyes. Try to stay back until after the burn off move.
  12. Kakaako Fire Jam

  13. Ghosting is a big issue if you want a clean portrait of the performer. Often you will just have to wait until the fire burns down a bit. But if you wait too long, the fire trail will be too faint to show up on your photos. It’s a delicate balance and you should expect to adjust your aperture on the fly to match the brightness of the fire. As the fuel burns down the fire gets weaker, but when the fire spins quickly the flames get bigger.
  14. Expect to do a fair amount of cleanup work in post to remove ghosting and smeared images. If the fire casts enough light to reflect off of the skin or clothing of the performer, ghosting will occur. That’s why you should stop down the aperture to f/8 – f/16. The ghosting is not so bad if you can limit the amount of reflected light entering your camera. But some dodging and spot healing will probably be necessary even on the relatively clean shots.

Photographing Fire Dancers – Part 2

Hawaii Fire Artists - Practice 2013-01-31

Following up on the basic tips from Part 1, the tricks to making fire photographs involve a fair amount of knowledge of fire dancing itself.

Starting with safety, you the photographer have to be aware of how close you can get to the performers. Professional fire artists will mark their performance area with a Do Not Cross line that is usually a strip of warning tape or a row of traffic cones. Then there is another restricted area where they keep their fuel and do all of their preparations. If there’s no security people watching the crowd, you have to be aware of these boundaries because the fire safety staff are watching the performers waiting to intercept that stray fireball from hitting the either the fuel or the public. When you get too close…and you will…just back away and reset for the next shot.

It also helps to know what kind of fuel the performers are working with because that will affect your exposure settings. The most common fuel is “white gas” or Coleman’s camping fuel. It is very bright, burns without much smoke, and makes the usual yellow-orange fire you expect to see from a camp fire. Less common is lamp oil, which also burns pretty brightly, but makes a lot more smoke and burns longer than white gas does. And even less common is any high-proof alcohol solution. Alcohol burns less brightly compared to white gas and burns out quicker too. I hear burners joke about using unleaded gasoline in the “old days” but I don’t really expect to see anyone use that anymore.

Next you should learn what props or tools the artists use. Here are the ones I see most often:

    Kakaako Fire Jam

  1. Poi Balls. Fire spinning uses wicks on the end of a chain. The lengths of rope / chain are fairly short, about 2′ or less. Spinning poi is mostly close to the body of the artist and the glow from the fire will cause ghosting in your image. Poi spinners will often spin the poi right across or in front of their face. In a long exposure, if the fire crosses in front of the face of the performer the image in almost certainly unusable. The fire is too bright and obscures the face. I often stand to the side of the performer to get a clear shot of their face and the fire. But if you want to get a cool shot of the fire trail, you have to stand directly in front of the performer and just hope that the performer’s face will be in a clear spot when you trigger the flash.
  2. Sans Souci State Park - Hoopers and Fire Dancers

  3. Rope Dart. A wick on the end of a rope of varying length. The artist whips the wick around a lot and makes the biggest patterns I’ve seen. There’s often a lot of space within the pattern to get a clean photo of the artist. Of all the tools, the rope dart is the one I think should look best on video. The fire trails captured in a long exposure do not the artist justice since most of their performance will not be captured by the still image.
  4. Kakaako Fire Jam

  5. Staff. Sometimes one big staff or two smaller batons. Wicks at both ends of the staff or baton. Fire artists love to throw these staffs and catch them in the air. The wicks on staffs are also one of the largest found on any tools and artists like to spin these staffs faster than the typical poi ball or hula hoop. Consequently the fire coming from a staff will be brighter than pretty much anything else. You may want to stop down to the smallest aperture of your lens when the staff spinner first comes on stage.
  6. Kakaako Fire Jam

  7. Hoop. With four or six wicks on the hoop, these hula hoops are the most eye-catching of the fire artists’ tools. The hoop artist is rather difficult to photograph. The fire obscures the artist so easily that the good photos of fire hooping tend to have shorter trails and shorter exposures.
  8. Kakaako Fire Jam

  9. Fire Fingers. Long dowels with wicks at the tips. Looks a bit like Freddy Krueger’s hardware but less menacing…until they are lit up. They really are extensions of the artist’s hands and the patterns they make are like painted brush strokes. Anticipate when the artist will draw something and the camera becomes the canvas.
  10. That’s enough for now. Next time I’ll go into how to make the photo.

Photographing Fire Dancers – Part 1

Fire dancers and fire spinning has been my favorite subject to shoot recently. The catch is that fire is a really difficult to photograph. Fire can be really bright (sometimes brighter than fireworks) and blow out the highlights. Tthen the light levels varies up and down throughout the performance. But, the picture would look so much cooler if the fire trails made long, arcing sweeps so lets keep that shutter open just a bit longer. And finally you still want to see the performer’s face right? Here’s some tips on how to make your fire dancer photos look amazing.

Kakaako Fire Jam

Basic tips

  1. Exposure. In a lot of ways, photographing fire artists is like photographing a fire works show. You meter for the brightest part of the image so that you keep the detail in the highlights. Then keep the shutter open for a long exposure to build a long trail of light while also brightening the shadows and dark areas. The typical settings are ISO 100, a variable aperture between f8 to f16, and a shutter speed to suit your situation.
  2. Honolulu Night Market - February 2013

  3. Tripod or handheld? Most people would expect this one to be a no brainer but there are two ways to go with this. Because fire is so bright, and you can stop down to a really stop down to a small aperture, and since fire artists perform at night so the background is naturally dark. This combination allows you to get away with slightly longer handheld shots. And by slightly longer, I mean 1/15 to 1/8 of a second like the above photo of the poi spinner. It’s long enough to get a slight trail of fire and the background should be dark enough to not show any ghosting if you’re careful to avoid putting a street light in the frame. That said, using a tripod is still the best practice.
  4. Fill flash. When the ISO is low and aperture is small, the subject is going to be underexposed in your photo. BTW, the subject of the photo should be the fire artist and not the fire. To balance the exposure of the subject with the fire, you need to add light from a strobe. Unfortunately, you need a lot of light. Typically full power pops from a Nikon SB-900 / Canon 580EX. I’ve also tried zooming in the head of the flash to tighten up the beam as much as possible so that I could use 1/2 power. The distance to the subject is also a big variable for the amount of fill light needed. It’s going to take a bit of trial and error to balance the fill flash. Just don’t use TTL, this is the kind of lighting situation that confuses a camera’s light meter.

Next time I’ll dig into the advanced tips.

Mokuleia Star Trails

Star trails are more fun than time lapse photography in my opinion. Mostly because I like to show the effect of time passing in a single frame. There is something about long exposures and capturing a pattern. When images are strung together into a time lapse video it is easy to appreciate the motion, but it is just as easy to forget it a second later. Here are a few tips To make a memorable star trail photo.

Mokuleia Star Trails

Mokuleia Star Trails 2

    Basic Tips

  1. All of the tips from Night Photography apply to shooting star trails.
  2. When choosing your spot to shoot star trails, you want to have as little light pollution as possible. But, it is not really practical to go far enough away from civilization to eliminate all light pollution. You will inevitably get some glow from a city somewhere on the horizon. Don’t worry so much about that, just concentrate on how many stars you can see with your naked eye. If you can see the milky haze of the Milky Way, your view is more than good enough for star trails.
  3. Shoot your star trails during or around the nights of a new moon. Moonlight is basically light pollution and there’s no where you can go to get away from this source of light pollution.
  4. Wider is better. Capture as large of a pattern as you can with a wide angle lens. Fisheye lenses are especially trippy for these type of photos since you are primarily angling the lens upwards. The distortion enhances the trails.
  5. The north star (Polaris) is practically stationary in star trails since it is almost perfectly aligned with the rotational axis of the Earth. The other stars loop around Polaris and you can use that to your advantage when composing your shot.
  6. Invest in a camera body that has a built-in intervalometer. Or get a remote trigger that has one. And yes, the cheap Chinese ones on Ebay are good enough. One way or another the camera should be set to take the shots on auto-pilot.
  7. Mokuleia Star Trails 3

      Advanced Tips

    1. Cloud cover. So long as passing clouds keep moving through your frame they don’t ruin your star trails photo. Or not as much as you might fear when you are out in the field. The long exposure needed to capture star light thins out the clouds and you still have a largely useful frame. Now if the whole sky stays cloudy, your outing is pretty much a lost cause, but don’t give up after the first big wave of clouds pass by. Now this star trail above had only one thick set of clouds that concerned me. It rolled right through the scene and it looks like a solid cloud bank, but that is just the stitching process smudging the cloud across the frame.
    2. Move and recompose after you’ve gotten about 50 – 75 shots. I know it would be epic to shoot a single sequence spanning the whole night. Then stitch the photos together to make some really long trails. But, if you can’t make this kind of a trip every night, you should make the most of your time by shooting just enough frames to make a decent size trail then move on to the next scene.
    3. The star trails should be the background of your photo, not the subject. If you can find an awesome landscape (or nightscape) that has star trails in it, that will be at least a dozen times better than pointing a lens straight up at the stars.
    4. Learn to focus manually, in the dark, and possibly without live view. You may have heard of the trick where you focus using live view and magnifying the image on the LCD to dial in your focus. But, if the stars are faint, you won’t see them well enough to focus even with live view. Instead look on your lens’s focus ring and find the mark for infinity. Use that as a starting point to fine tune focus if the stars are bright enough to show up on live view.
    5. Be mindful of the wind and the vibration it can cause on your camera & tripod. The lower your camera is to the ground, the better your shots will come out. That, and you can sit on the ground and look through the viewfinder to compose your pics. It’s better than crouching if you had set up the tripod to your standing eye level.
    6. A lot of the finishing touches, not to mention the star trail stacking, is done in post production. Edit your photos before running them through the star trail stacking software. Adjust your exposure, noise reduction, contrast and sharpening prior to processing the star trails.
    7. Once you have the stacked star trails, take the photo back into Photoshop and do some more cleanup. You may possibly want to use just one of the foreground shots from the series to replace the blended foreground that came out of the star trails stack. Composite the foreground on top of the trails and mask away whatever you don’t want to see.

    One last part I almost forgot to mention. The software I used to create the star trails is StarStaX and Startrails. Either of these programs will automatically stack your photos and create the star trails. They are both free programs and do not need Photoshop or any other image editing software to run. StarStaX is cross platform and runs on Windows, Mac & Linux. StarTrails is Windows only.

Bytemarks Lunch at the Pacific Aviation Museum

The fine folks at the Pacific Aviation Museum treated the Bytemarks gang to a lunch and tour of their Ford Island Control Tower as well as the aircraft museum. The Control Tower was used in certain scenes in the movie Pearl Harbor to recreate the attack on December 7th, 1941. The tower itself is a real historic building from World War II and is in the middle of an ongoing restoration effort.

The aircraft in the museum are the real gems of the place. If you happen to be an aviation geek or history buff, I can guarantee that you will not want to pass up a trip to this slice of American history.

Bytemarks Lunch - Pacific Aviation Museum

Bytemarks Lunch - Pacific Aviation Museum

Bytemarks Lunch - Pacific Aviation Museum

Bytemarks Lunch - Pacific Aviation Museum

Full photo set on Flickr.

New Year’s Eve 2012

This past New Year’s Eve was more fun than I’ve had in years. Firstly, Eat the Street was the perfect fit for a super block party. Kakaako Waterfront Park is the ideal location for a party that size in town. And last but not least, the weather remained dry even when it didn’t look so promising in the afternoon.

New Year’s Eve 2012 photo set on Flickr

DragonCon 2012

Still haven’t quite recovered from DragonCon, but I’ve started processing some photos. I brought home 2000+ pics so it’ll be a while yet before I get them all posted, but here are a couple cosplay pics that I got out over the weekend. Eventually I’ll have all my pics posted to my DragonCon 2012 photo collection

DragonCon 2012 cosplay - Yaya Han Veronica's Demon Hunter Cosplay

Public Parking Lots in Honolulu

Last week I went to a meetup sponsored by Code for America. They were unveiling the new data portal for the City & County of Honolulu, that they developed as part of the Code for America program. It’s still very new and under construction, but there are several very useful data sets already published or linked from that site. For example, here is the most comprehensive map I’ve seen of all public parking lots on Oahu. It lists free parking lots like the big one in Ala Moana Park as well as the municipal metered lots in Chinatown. Even the little known municipal metered lot in the middle of Waikiki. Gotta keep that last one a secret, or else I’ll never find cheap parking when I go to the Genius Lounge.

Map of all public parking lots (both free and metered lots).
Map of all public parking lots (both free and metered lots).

Map of public parking lots on Oahu

The link above goes directly to the map hosted by ESRI. But there many more data sets on The site is mostly geared towards software developers at this point, but I can see how it will eventually supplement or replace other City web sites. Open data is an important policy for any government. For the most part, government administrators are very much in favor of distributing public information in the most accessible way possible. The problem is educating the public. Most people can’t imagine why accessing information is important. Those people need to see how open data applies to their lives before they see the value in it. I hope this post shows the possibilities that an open data policy promotes.

First Friday – August 2012

Once again the Hawaii Institute of Hair Design put on one helluva fashion show for First Friday. Afterwards, I took a different perspective to street photography with my monopod on Hotel St.

First Friday - August 2012 - Chinatown First Friday - August 2012 - Fashion Show First Friday - August 2012 - Fashion Show First Friday - August 2012 - Fashion Show