Fire poi photography: the balance of thirds

When photography's done right, it looks like you're doing nothing at all. But this image is the result of balancing three separate light sources, two of which I had no control over. My assignment was to photograph a fire poi performer with off-camera flash. Now, I decided to up the stakes a bit. Not happy with simply capturing a slither of fire as my performer Ember did his thing, I wanted to capture the full swings of the poi as he moved. However, I wanted to freeze the motion in his body, and, I also wanted to underexpose the ambient light by -1 stop. Easy, right? Well it turns out balancing the sun, the fire and an off-camera flash can give you a pretty bad headache.

Fire Poi Photography

I took a few test shots around sunset to check how the maximum power output of my cheap old speedlight would stack up against the sun. Needless to say, it didn't do squat. Even with the sun being 93 million miles away, it was still much brighter than my little flashgun. So I knew that I had to wait until after dusk to get the sky dark enough to make Ember stand out. I wanted him to stand out by about 1 stop, so that meant taking a reading on the background first. Once I had that nailed I needed to extend my shutter speed to capture the circles of flame I'd envisaged. I experimented with around 3-4 seconds but the fire overexposed to a white blur. So I reduced it to 1 sec shutter speed which seemed to retain detail int he flames, but the sky was still too bright. So while I waited for the light levels to drop I put a warming gel on my speedlight, and a small amount of green, too. This was to correct the white balance in post, aiming for a tungsten white balance with a bias towards magenta. That way Ember would have a natural skin tone but the sky behind would be deep blue and magenta.

I waited patiently for the light levels to drop knowing I only had a five minute window where the ambient light was just dark enough. I turned on my speedlight at 1/2 power but it was too dark. Up on full power the speedlight didn't recycle for 2-3 seconds, not good since we already only had a small window of opportunity. I was getting some good shots for the first couple of minutes before disaster. The flame ran out prematurely. With a poof of smoke I could see my image getting away from me. Ember though, had anticipated this and had another set of poi already soaking in a pan. He whipped them out, lit them and spun off the excess paraffin. I had just enough light left in the sky light to get the shot I wanted and I came home a happy bunny.