Photographing Fire Spinners

Above: Jen and Chris silhouetted while spinning poi together.

I had the opportunity ten days ago to travel up to Connecticut to go to a party and photograph some people spinning fire. I really enjoyed photographing John Walsh spinning fire for the Collegian last winter, so I immediately jumped on this opportunity and headed north. I had a great time meeting new people, hanging out, relaxing, and making photos. (By the way, the people featured in these photos made a version of Guitar Hero called Rock Inferno that shoots fire whenever the correct notes are hit. Check it out!)

Due to some unforeseen events, the fire spinners only did one burn, so I only got one set of photos that night. The ones in this post are my favorites from the shoot. After shooting I sat down with the spinners and we looked at my photos on the TV. I got some great feedback from them on what to look for, how to direct them, the duration of some of the shapes, etc.

Here is what I learned:
First, the settings:
-Low ISO, 100-200. A little higher if the flame is not that bright.
-Relatively closed down aperture, 8-16 was the range I used. You need to open it up depending on how much ambient light you want in the shot and how bright the flame is
-1/2 second to 2.5 seconds shutter speed for most moves is plenty. Any longer and the trails will start looking messy.

Next, the lighting:
-Get your flash off-camera.
-I used between 1/4 power and 1/2 power depending on the distance the flash was fired and what aperture I was using. Lower power is better, though. If you can manage it, stay in the 1/8-1/4 range. It is much easier on your recycle times and your flash has less of a chance of overheating.
-Diffuse the light. I used a softbox. You want to light the performer up, but just enough to see them, not make them look like a ghost.
-Gel your flash with a 1/4 or 1/2 cut CTO to preserve the skin tones. The white (and slightly blue) light the flash puts out looks unnatural when there is orange fire around.
-Don’t light the ground like I did. Aim your light source up and blow most of the light out above the fire spinner if you are using a softbox. If you are using a bare flash or just a cap diffuser, you can also use a gobo or a snoot to prevent light from flooding the ground. I didn’t notice this until reviewing afterwards.
-Trigger the flash(es) manually instead of letting them automatically fire at the beginning or end of the frame. This way you can watch when the spinner is facing your direction, striking a pose, or generally looking awesome and light them up then. Some of these photos were fired in the middle of the exposure, some at the end. I had a VALS (voice-activated light stand) holding my softbox and I fired the flash using a Cactus V5, which I held in my hand.

General tips:
-Use a tripod. Some people say you can hand-hold the camera when shooting fire spinners, but trust me, you will be disappointed.
-The fire starts out very bright when it is first lit. Your aperture should be pretty shut down because of this. Gradually open it up as the fuel on the wick starts to burn out and the flame gets gradually dimmer.
-Be mindful of the background. Anything reflective WILL show up. Crank down the aperture to control the ambient if that is an issue. Try to shoot somewhere where the background is dark and far off.
-Talk to the spinners and see how long the rotation for each design lasts. They will know. Set your shutter speed accordingly.
-Give the spinners directions if there is something else you want. They are generally receptive to feedback. They want good photos, too!
-Orange power cords are visually distracting. We were pretty confined as to where they spinning could occur and I didn’t have time to move it, so it is in most of my photos. Oh well. I will keep it in mind for next time.
-Turn the flashes off and crank down the aperture if you want to get silhouettes like in my top photo
-Try to capture people’s expressions. It will add another feel to your photos. My general rule is that people make photos more interesting.
-Keep your frame in mind. If you get in too tight, sometimes the throws or full revolutions that the performers do go will go out of your frame. Again, work with the performer.
-If the spinner is moving around a lot, especially towards or away from the camera, close your aperture down to keep most of the shot in focus. If you need more light from the fire when you do this, compensate with the ISO, but don’t push it through the roof. Keep the ISO as low as possible.

If you have any questions, email me at: cagrimmett [at] gmail [dot] com

Ray spinning a double fire staff:

Jen doing an outward spiral:

Dennis with nunchucks:

Chris and Jen spinning poi together:


Chris with the staff. Click on the photo to view it larger. I love the way the fire looks in this one!

More to come. I plan to do at least one more shoot later this summer, hopefully more.

3 responses to “Photographing Fire Spinners”

  1. William Avatar

    Awesome shots, Chuck!

  2. Joel Avatar


  3. […] out for more tips and tricks on how to photograph fire […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: