Jenna Caplette migrated from California to Montana in the early 1970s, first living on the Crow Indian reservation, then moving to Bozeman where she owned a downtown retail anchor for eighteen years. These days she owns Bozeman BodyTalk & Energetic Healthcare, hosts a monthly movie night, teaches and writes about many topics.
I just returned from a few days in Red Lodge, where the Rock Creek Fire burns just north of the scars from the Willie Fire. My daughter and I attended the Willie Nelson concert in August, 2000 and watched that fire blow up. Seems like most years since, fire has been a staple late-summer presence in Montana and the Rocky Mountain West.
Fire makes a compelling photographic subject, one of eerie beauty. To photograph wildfire:
- Photograph at a distance. You’ll need to because fire zones are protected both because you need to stay out of the way of fire fighters and because your safety is essential.
- Use the sports mode or a similar setting that uses a fast shutter speed to produce sharp, detailed images. Slow speeds give softer looking images. Experiment.
- Fire is particularly dramatic contrasted against an evening or night sky. Avoid distracting artificial lights like yard lights and headlights.
- To help get clear, sharp photographs, use a tripod to stabilize your camera. Or hand-hold using a lens with built-in vibration control. Why? Vibration kills sharpness as surely as a bad lens or bad focusing. If you plan to take long exposures, be sure to use your tripod and turn off your vibration control.
To photograph smoke, isolate a particular cloud of smoke, thinking of it as if you were photographing a person. Frame the photograph to best express the smoke plume’s presence. To create an effective image of a wider smoke pattern, consider what you should exclude from it rather than what to include. Taking several photographs may be the best way to train your eye. Study each to learn what you do or don’t like about your results. Make notes. Try again.
Perhaps the safest and best way to practice photographing fire is with your safely-contained backyard campfire. And you’ll still get some dramatic results.
By the way, where are most of your photos right now? Stockpiled on your camera’s memory card? Stored in a box or boxes stacked in a closet? Any emergency, flood or fire, reminds you to consider where and how to safely store your photographs.