Friday, November 30, 2012

DIY Photography's "How I Took It 2012" Contest

Playing with Fire Doesn't Mean Getting Burned
DIY Photography's "How I Took It 2012" Contest 

Burn, Baby, Burn.

"Ale zemsta, choć leniwa, nagnała cię w nasze sieci;
                                           Ta karczma 'Rzym' się nazywa; kładę areszt na waszeci."
                                                                                     - Pan Twardowski
Why be a bookworm when you can be a firefly?
"You was hot as hell, until hell froze over."
                            -Down With Webster

Well, hi there, everybody! My name’s Basia, and today I’ll be giving you a few tips, tricks, and ideas for how to get the most striking photographs with the least amount of danger. The theme we’ll be focusing on today is fire photography. In the above shots I used time, depth, proximity, and camera angle to make these pyro displays as safe as possible, while still having a striking effect. I realize that a lot of this could be done much easier in post-pro, but where’s the challenge in that? My motto is to do as little in post-production as possible. Let’s take a look!

The best part about still photography is that everything is captured as an instant in time, so it looks like it happened all at once. I begin by coming up with an overall concept, then individual representations of said idea, and finally planning how to safely make those representations a reality. I got inspired for this first shot by seeing all the steel wool, long-exposure shots, and thinking, “it would be really cool if we could turn that fire circle into a fire funnel, and have someone rising out of it.” So I did exactly that; made a long exposure of a fire tornado, then stuck someone in it, so it looked like they were rising out of the flames. In the final shot I opted out of using steel wool for two reasons: the first being that I wanted a close, low-angle shot, and was afraid of the damage the sparks might do to my camera. The second reason was that the steel wool, although cool, didn't look very much like fire, and to get the right brightness of the streaks, I’d have to go over the same path a few times. So, actual fire, with its powerful flames leaping up erratically, seemed like a better option. I managed to get the fire around myself by making a fireball (jeans sewn into a ball and soaked in lighter fuel), attaching it to the end of a metal (we destroyed one plastic broomstick) broomstick via hairpins, setting a 12 second delay, a 30s long exposure, lighting up the fireball, and spinning with the flaming broomstick as soon as the shutter clicked, slowly lowering it. Make sure you have a few fireballs and extra lighter fuel on hand, as shots may need to be taken more than once (we ended up going through 3 of them). This allowed me to make more precise circles than I would on a chain, tighten them as the flame descended, and control it at a safe distance from people and equipment.

My broomstick after the fireball and Ajay's wrath.
In total it took us three hours to get this shot, and we ran into a number of problems along the way. First off, it was shot with a Pentax K100D, 18mm focal length, 30 second exposure, ISO 200, f/8. The lighting setup was really rudimentary as well; two incandescent bulbs in 8” silver dishes on either side of the model, powered by a car battery (student budget means LOTS of improv!). These were left off while making the fire tornado to minimize ghosting, and turned on in the last two seconds, with the model posed, to make sure they appeared completely still. The little ghosting that did happen due to the fireball I decided to keep, as it added to the surrealism of the shot. The low ISO meant that, when we tried to light our model after the tornado, 2s was not long enough to properly expose our model. In the final shot, as seen below, we spent 15s making the tornado; I dropped the broom between my feet, then stood still for 15s, in the light. It certainly helped that my assistant Ajay was there to count the exposure out loud, and turn on the lights after 15s.

Another problem we ran into was the light from behind me (streetlights two soccer fields away) shone through while I was spinning. This made my belly invisible in the final shot (One way to make yourself invisible!). We ended up clamping 4m of black matte cloth onto the fence. Having a low camera angle meant that the spiral was more defined as well, and gave the model a sense of power. Lastly, we took this on a frigid November night, and the ice-cold condensation provided further protection against accidentally starting a fire (it also meant frequent sittings in the car to warm up and stop shaking). The final shot turned out better than we expected. Post-production, all it needed was the shoulder restored, and some colour and clarity correction, to make it look like I was rising out of the fires of hell. Instead of darkening and cropping out the background as first planned, I chose to leave it in for the shock factor. It gives the impression that such a nightmarish, “here -to-collect-your-soul” reckoning can happen in the most down-to-earth of places, at anytime, anywhere. Using long exposure and camera angles, you can make someone look like they’re emerging from flames, when, in fact, they flames were gone long before they got there. This surreal image of fire in motion looks dangerous, but, in reality, posed very little actual danger.

Straight out of the camera

The second shot follows the theme of controlling fire, by portraying someone breathing a fireball into the palm of their hand. This was a little trickier to do. The original concept was to have the flame actually coming out of someone’s mouth. Ajay kept trying to convince me that such an act would surely result in burn, but I wanted to push the limit and try it anyway (boy am I glad I didn’t!). He finally convinced me not to try it with the argument that there was no way the flame would rise enough out of my mouth to be noticeable. We brainstormed on bettering the concept, and eventually came up with the idea of breathing through a mask. Having slits in the mouth though, would still burn the wearer. So, closed mask and fire on top of it, coming out at the fireball. Now we’re good, right? Wrong. There’s a risk of heating up the mask, or it melting or burning on the wearer’s face. Although you can’t tell from the picture, we actually tilted he mask so that the bottom was two centimetres away from the wearer’s lips, and put a damp paper towel over the bottom half of their face. The shot was also instantaneous, so we could fire off a few quick ones and quickly put out the fire before the wearer or the mask became damaged. To shape the fire on the mask, we used ethanol warming gel (also known as Ecoflame); it burns for a long time and produces a nicely-sized flame. Lastly, to get the fire to point in the direction of the fireball, I had to lie on my back with my head facing up, and position the camera above me in such a way that it looked like I was standing and looking up at it (it was elevated slightly above my head, tilted down). This also minimized the damage to the mask, because the heat from the fire was now rising up and away from it, and not heating it as much as if I were to take the shot standing, tilted up. To get the fireball to stay on my almost vertical hand, Ajay poked hairpins through the fireball and wrapped it around the base of my middle finger and around the back of my hand, so it stood off of my hand. He designed it in such a way that I could control the height of the fireball just by pressing on the wire with one finger. 
The fireball levitating mechanism of glory.
This helped me get the fireball the right distance away from my hand for safety, while still looking like it’s levitating in my palm (pictures of the unlit fireball above). I also soaked my hand in water first, as an extra precaution. Ajay posed in place while I set the exposure and controls, then a 12s timer, and quickly took his place. I lit the fireball with a lighter, then used the fireball to try to light my mask. Unfortunately the gel on the mask refused to light, so we took another shot without the mask completely. Although not what we wanted, the final image still looked interesting, and kept with the idea of blowing life into the fireball. Ajay peeked through the viewfinder and helped me angle my head and hand, and the camera did the rest. The fireball mechanism worked so well that I could balance the ball for a long time without it heating up. Final result and post-pro below. Again, being on a student budget posed some problems (like a cheap tripod where the plate that attached to the camera would not give a straight, 90º portrait, my K100D’s autofocus seized up and, with no diopter, the images came out a little blurry, hardware lights substituting strobes), but hey, DIY is about working around that right? Another important element of fire photography is knowing how your flames will move, and playing to those advantages. So, since we couldn’t adjust gravity to suit our needs, we changed our perspective and let gravity do the work for us.
Finished photo

Straight from camera
Lastly, the flaming glasses shot. If you’re going to be a bookworm, why not be a firefly instead? I really enjoyed taking this one because it comically expressed everything this tutorial is meant to teach you; do your research, plan, and perfect the theory before you move on to the practical. In a paparazzi-esque style, it depicts a bookworm looking up from her studying (because, let's be honest, real bookworms even have books with them at the bus stop), surprised, but instead of studying math or language, she’s reading a pyrotechnics manual, and her glasses are made of fire to show her passion for pyro. Now, I like my eyebrows as they are. I don’t think burnt would be an improvement on them at all. So, instead of having fiery frames sitting on my nose, I looked directly at the camera and used its amazing ability to compress depth to my advantage. The glasses were actually 3D movie glasses lined with cardboard, and stuck about 3cm off of my face (any less and I’d burn myself, any more and you’d be able to see the tubes).
Ajay, clearly proud of his five-minute improv masterpiece.

 Again, lining the edges with ethanol warming gel, I set adjusted the settings, raised my aperture, set the 12s timer, and sat in front of the camera. Ajay peered through the viewfinder to help me position myself, and in the last two seconds I lit the glasses. The timing was very challenging and took a few tries, but eventually we got the shot we wanted. By compressing the depth with a narrower aperture, and using the thickness of the flames to obscure any visible tube, we managed to get a nice candid shot of a true firefly.
"Huh? Sorry, I didn't see you there." (processed)

"Hurry up and take the picture; my face is on fire!" (original photo)

Remember, the same safety rules apply for pyrotechnics performances as they do for pyro photography; protect yourself by wearing non-artificial materials, minimize any loose clothing or hair, and always have something on hand to put out any fire that can potentially spread. By the end of the tornado shot, the end of my broomstick, although metal, was completely flattened from Ajay jumping on it to put out the fireballs. Having someone around to help not only can better your images, but they’re also another pair of eyes watching for any hazards. Each pyro activity requires you to completely rethink the safety precautions. Of course, it also helped to be a certified pyrotechnician. Depending on where you live, it can take anywhere from a year to a day to get your licence. In Ontario, there is a crash course that goes across the country every few months put on by Natural Resources Canada, and for a minimal fee, a day out of your time, and a short exam, you can get a licence valid for five years. The course teaches you basic pyrotechnic safety and logistics. Not only does the extra knowledge help keep you and your models safe, but it gives you greater legal privileges when working with pyro (police don’t question your shenanigans when you flash a licence and permit at them), as well as access to industry-grade pyrotechnics (throughout the course, they kept telling us we could now legally blow up a car, but they never told us how...).

When you’re planning your fire photography, unless you are photographing injuries specifically (and even sometimes then), it’s always possible to minimize risk while still achieving a great effect.

If you are not 100% confident that nothing can possibly go wrong, DON’T DO IT. You are putting more than yourself at risk. Yes, we could have had another model for these shots, but I knew it required a level head and some previous experience with fire and these substances, and I didn’t know anyone in my city with that kind of experience. It’s important to understand that, as the photographer, it is YOUR concept and YOUR responsibility. I would never encourage anyone to try anything that could potentially be a risk to them, unless first testing it myself, and ensuring that they are well prepared to emulate. Some crazy ideas may take a little compromise, and some photo editing magic, but it’s never a requirement to endanger someone’s life. Bottom line is, you can never be too safe.

How to stay safe:
-          Time – can you use a long/short exposure to get the same (or a better) effect?
-          Depth – Can you put the subject in front of/behind/on top/under/next to the fire instead of in front of him?
-          Proximity – can you change the distance of the model/environment/props/equipment to the fire to make it safer, and still get the shot you want?
-          Camera Angle – Can I angle this in a way to better control the fire/model’s hair/clothes/the background?
-          Extra defenses – can your model be shielded in any further way from the flames? Can they wear something or have a prop/glass/ lake in between them and the danger?
-          Learn from others’ mistakes – research, see what others had trouble with, what can you do differently to be original/improve on their shots? (Here’s a big one: don’t do this on a f-fr-freezing November night. Getting long exposures is much more challenging when everyone is shivering like a leaf. You’re better off soaking your surroundings than relying on icy condensation, too!)

If you would like further info about the lighting setup or the settings, shoot me a comment or message =]. I hope you enjoyed the tutorial and are inspired to take your fire photography to the next level. Until next time; stay safe and stay crazy!

-Basia =]