I'll Teach You to Learn

Working on a photo project, I ran into a need for a picture of fire. Since it was secondary to my photo project, I thought I'd look around for an existing picture, to save time. I needed a picture of a flame on white, but I was unable to find what I was looking for, as there seems to be a lack of good flames on white: Google Images shows a sample of what's out there. Shooting on black and altering it in Photoshop doesn't look right, sometimes it really doesn't. Illustrating the flames from scratch is also off, somehow.

So, ok, I'm a talented studio photographer, I'll just do it myself. Flames on white.


I started by revisiting my adolescence: flaming WD-40. I quickly realized it's not as easy as I thought it would be. With strobe, on the left, and without, on the right. And yeah, there's fire in the left-hand picture.


I looked around for methods, found this tutorial, and gasoline seemed like a lot more fun than WD-40.

Shot on black, with gasoline, I realized I really like the flames frozen. Of course, to freeze it, I need a very fast shutter speed. If I wanted to get the flame frozen on a white background, I'd need a tremendous volume of light. On the left, a frozen torch flame, on the right, a fireball in an undesirable combination of motion blur and shallow depth-of-field.

Tried with Hasselblad and strobe, because the leaf shutter can sync at a higher speed, which looked pretty good, but still too much motion blur. Overly bright background on the left, good background on the right, but the flame is not frozen enough.

Hunter Freeman suggested daylight, which I tried in the back yard, with full sun and mirrors. Learned a lot more about explosion delivery methods and how to wrangle flame, which is so much faster than smoke and thus much harder to control. Since it's continuous light, sync speed is irrelevant, but the background on each of this is underexposed. But it's getting closer.

Tried the strobe delay method as described by Ian Hylands. It was so erratic it drove me crazy. But I did manage to freeze a flame on a whiter background. This revealed a new problem: the tiki torch flame I was using disappears against white. I tried shooting a fireball, but the delay method is so inconsistent, most of the frames were unusable. The flame in each of these pictures is about the same, it's just invisible against the white background, on the left.

Finally, I learned from Ralph Paonessa that the Canon system (5D, 380 EX, and IR transmitter) will support any sync speed, so I tried that. This method is much more reliable than the delay method, but I need a lot of 380 EXs to get the background white, and even. And a much more dense flame, like the gasoline fireball. Again, in each of these photos, the flame is about the same.

Through all this experimentation, I've discovered that what I really want is tack sharp frozen flames, deep, rich colors, with enough depth-of-field that most of the fireball is sharp, on a white background. And I know now what that should look like (hint: it doesn't look like flame shot on black and cut out).

It's turned into a kind of holy grail for me.

I'll continue refining these processes, but it's time to start wondering what to do with this material. Is it art? Embellishments to other images? Can I tie it into the smoke? Special effects?

After many hours experimenting in Photoshop, this is where I'm at. With the material I've shot thus far, it's better to use a grey background. For now, light grey is white enough for me. Special thanks to Tim and Anne at ProCamera, Brian and Perry at Calumet, Ian Hylands, Hunter Freeman, and there's got to be somebody I'm forgetting.