Nature is extraordinarily complex and beautiful. It is easy to forget in our modern world just how powerful its forces are. Being a nature photographer presents constant, humbling reminders of this fact! A large part of what drives me is wanting to experience every facet of nature, then create and share images of these forces at work. In doing so, I am often going into potentially dangerous situations for me and my gear.
In my part of the world, wildfires are a necessity to the health of our ecosystems. But, they are, to put it bluntly, scary as <bleep>! They are dangerous, fast, and unpredictable. Shooting them requires gear and techniques that let you react quickly to the situation to keep yourself out of harm’s way and out-of-the-way of the responders managing the scene. Here is how I capture images and video of one of nature’s most beautifully dangerous forces, wildfire.
Capturing photos of these events can be extremely dangerous, do not attempt to just go out and photograph a wildfire because you’ve read this article. This is merely a starting point for you to decide if you want to get the proper education, precautions, and permissions. The most important thing about a photo adventure is coming home safe at the end of it. Do not let your thirst for photos put you, or anyone else, in harm’s way. In other words, do not become a cautionary tale by winning a Darwin award!
Understanding the Subject, Wildfire
Think of fire as nature’s clean-up tool. It removes dead brush and debris that build up which choke out the understory of a forest and prevent new trees and plants from emerging. Many of our mature trees are naturally fire resistant, or at least tolerant.
Fire clears out the understory (space between the ground and the overhead tree canopy), leaving the older healthy trees intact, and making it open so that new life can spring forth. Some of our pine trees actually need fire to reproduce*, the heat causes the pine cones on the ground to burst and spread their seeds over the burned area where there is no competition from other plants. Without wildfire, our forests become overloaded with brush and debris, which fuels a much hotter fire. When this happens, the hotter fire will extremely damage or destroy the ecosystem, killing the more mature trees.
*The science word of the day for this characteristic is “Serotiny” or “Serotinous”, which is an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants, where seed release occurs in response to an environmental trigger, fire being one of the more common causes. Now go be the life of the party with that knowledge!
Fire in Big Cypress in the Everglades. Sadly, this was due to an arsonist. The good news is he was later caught and is now spending a lot of jail time.
Getting the Shot – Anclote Branch Fire
This wildfire erupted about 5 miles from my house, sparked by drought, high winds, and low humidity. Named the Anclote Branch fire, it grew rapidly from a few acres to over 2,200 in a matter of hours. The high winds pushed the smoke plume far inland, sometimes reducing visibility to zero, miles away from the fire itself. Ash lofted high into the sky by these same winds fell steadily on my home for days until the wind finally subsided.
As fires go, this was not a huge one, and its site made it relatively accessible to photograph. Located just north of the Tampa metropolitan area, the fire had erupted in a preserve flanked by well-paved roads. More remote fires are often inaccessible. Trying to get to them is dangerous if not impossible, and often prohibited.
For situations like this, I keep two cameras set up and ready if possible. Here, one camera was used to capture video or photos to later create a time-lapse. Meanwhile, I shot only photos from a second camera. Having both cameras gave a good balance of photos and video that more fully told the story of this event.
- Canon 7D
- Tamron 18-270mm
- Platypod Ultra
- Oben Ball Head
- Vello Shutterboss II Remote, on interval shooting mode, capturing one still image per second
- Canon EOS 5D Mark III
- Tamron 15-30mm, 70-200mm f2.8, and 150-600mm, depending on the situation
- Support varied; handheld, a Platypod Max, or Gitzo GT4543LS Tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head
- Mobility is key, being able to quickly change locations in response to what the fire is doing, to get different angles, or by direction of the emergency personnel on scene.
- When photographing events like this, your vehicle becomes an indispensable tool for positioning and staying out of danger. Because it was near a high population area, traffic and road closures became an issue. Stay tuned to local news, traffic, and emergency response for closures and evacuation announcements. I find staying off main roads often gives the best photo opportunities, and is much safer.
- Camera 1 was continually mounted to the Platypod and sat on top of my truck, so all I had to do was grab it and put it on my front seat when I needed to move. Once I got to the next place this made set-up extremely fast, as well as having it ready to shoot from the truck using my DIY Platypod “Sling Mount” if opportunities presented themselves.
- Camera 2 was set up so it could be quickly detached and put on the front seat with Camera 1 (I use a RRS ball head with a lever lock). I then put the tripod on my back seat, the key is don’t fully extend your tripod when setting it up! Make it no taller than the width of your vehicle, so you can put it in and still close the door without having to take time to collapse it. I usually keep my back window open so it can be put directly in without opening the door.
- Once on site, the first thing was to get Camera 1 on the Platypod positioned and start shooting. This guaranteed I would have still footage and video, as I had it preset to shoot stills on an interval for time-lapse.
- Initially, I placed the Platypod directly on the truck, but the wind gusts were strong enough to cause it to slide slightly each time. Using the included non-slip mat was an easy fix.
- The high winds that fueled this fire were also strong enough to rock my truck, causing the occasional shake and some big jumps in the frames in the time-lapse video. When processing the video in Adobe Premiere, the Warp Stabilizer effect did a pretty amazing job smoothing this out, using subspace warp and the default settings.
A little B-reel footage I shot while setting up the Platypod mounted camera. Not sure what to blame for this particular bit of crazy, but at least the Platypod helped make sure the video was steady!
Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus