Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How to Photograph Matches and Fire

Winter is often the time when photographers begin to seek around indoors for inspiration. Well, seek no farther than a box of matches for a rip-roaring good time. This post will provide the basics for capturing incredible photographs of burning matches. The second post in this series will focus on photographing smoke.

Equipment for Photographing Matches

The supplies for photographing matches are fairly straight-forward: matches, a tripod and remote, a black backdrop, and some basic fire safety. For the matches, I recommend purchasing a box of wooden matches, rather than using the slim and flimsy matches that come in a matchbook. Wooden matches are a little more sturdy and will burn longer. Try your local sporting goods or camping store; our local REI had several varieties of inexpensive boxed matches.

A sturdy tripod and a remote release are not required for photographing lit matches, but they will make your job much easier. The tripod allows you keep your camera stable, so you can set the focus beforehand and so that you can use longer shutter speeds. The remote release allows you to take photographs without shaking your camera and allows you to hold down the shutter to take bursts of multiples photographs in a row. (Details on how to focus with a tripod and about backdrops are below.)

Finally, you want to make sure you are set up with some basic fire safety precautions. You want something that can hold a lit match safely. For my set up, I used a photography light stand and clipped the match into the holder normally used to attach to a flash unit. You also want something underneath to catch any possible falling ash or debris. I used a metal cooking sheet lined with tin foil for easier clean-up. You might also want to have a glass of water handy for emergencies. Now that you have your supplies, let's get set up and get your settings set!

Set-Up for Photographing Matches

The photograph above shows the set-up that I used for all of the match photographs in this article. The black backdrop is hanging from a backdrop stand. I highly recommend investing in a backdrop stand kit if you are planning to do a lot of studio or portrait photography, but if not, you can get the same effect here by just draping a black cloth or blanket over a couch or a few chairs.

Set-up the light stand (or other match-holding device) at leasat few feet away from the backdrop, and place your cooking sheet underneath to catch anything that might fall. You are going to be composing your shot for shooting just the top of the match, so you can place your cooking sheet fairly close underneath.

Choose a lens to use that will allow you to keep your camera at least a few feet away from any burning matches. I used my 50 mm lens in this case. Once you have your lens and tripod set up, I recommend setting the focus first. Use the unlit head of the match for your camera to focus on. Then, once it has found that focusing distance, switch your lens to manual focus mode (MF). Now your camera will stay focused throughout.

Settings for Photographing Lit Matches

Your settings will vary for photographing lit matches, based on what you are trying to capture. The initial ignition of the match is going to be much brighter than if you are capturing a steadily burning match a few moments later. You can either shoot in Aperture Priority and allow you camera to adjust the exposure while shooting, or you can shoot in Manual mode and adjust it yourself.

If you shoot in Aperture Priority mode, dial in a mid-range aperture like f/8 to keep your entire flame and match in focus. (Read more about Aperture Priority mode here.) Setting your exposure compensation around -1 to help keep your backdrop black and lend a darker mood to your images. (Read more about exposure compensation here.) Start with your ISO at 100, but if your shutter speeds are too long and your flames are blurring, you can increase the ISO as necessary. (Read more about ISO here.)

The main downside to shooting this type of shot in Aperture Priority mode is that it will slow down your camera's response time. Since your camera will be calculating the exposure and choosing the shutter speed each shot, it will not take the quickest bursts of shot that it is capable of. For that, you need to use Manual mode. (Read more about Manual mode here.)

If you really want to capture the most shots in a row in burst mode, you should also consider shooting in only JPEG (not RAW). I like the flexibility for editing in RAW, so I did some shots just JPEG for speed and others in RAW for flexibility and post-processing.

My recommendation would be to try shooting a match or two in Aperture Priority mode first. Then, look back at your settings and see which looked the best for the effect that you want. Dial those settings in for Manual mode and start from there. For me, I started with ISO 200, f/7.1, and 1/15th. Some of the initial ignition shots were still too bright and the flame too blurred, so I speed up the shutter speed to 1/60th. Your best settings will vary, depending on how much ambient light there is as well.

One last tip - keep a lit candle burning nearby. I found that it was much easier to use a steady-burning candle to ignite a single match and then use that match to ignite the stationary match for the photographs. It was much easier for me to light the match from a candle with one hand and keep my remote ready in the other.

Have Fun and Get Creative!

Now that you have the basics down, get ready to have some fun! Remember to use proper ventilation or turn a fan on after your are done shooting so that you do not make the room too smoky. Once you have gotten good results from one match, try more or try different settings for different effects.

Just like with clouds, you might suddenly start seeing shapes as you stare into the flames. As soon as I saw the flame shape in the original shot above, I knew it would make an amazing butterfly. I simply duplicated the image, flipped it, and rotated it slightly for the final version on the right.

Or, you can set up your own shapes beforehand and set them alight! (Be sure to keep the water handy for this style. I immediately extinguished the heart a few seconds after the final shot above, and it had already burned through the tin foil and scorched the cooking sheet underneath.) You also definitely want to shoot in burst mode to get the maximum number of different exposures.

Have fun, be safe, and share your results below!

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
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