How to Photograph the Perfect Campfire Scene

As an outdoor and nature photographer you may also be a camper, pulling off the road somewhere at the end of the day and setting up camp. If you are camping when out photographing your nature or adventure subjects, you may want to look at your camp as another set for photographing marketable images including the campfire scene.

However, building a fire and sitting some people around it and then shooting, may get some great shots, but I have found more success creating marketable images by waiting for the peak window of outdoor light and adding additional light from a flash. Here is the problem: if you build the campfire and use it as the light source to light the peoples face, the fire often blows out and becomes white, rather than the orange of dancing campfire flames. Here are a couple considerations for getting the best shots.

The longer your shutter speed the higher likelihood that the flames becomes washed out or white so time of day is also important. If it is bright out or rather not dark enough, the flames will be short and fires with big flames often look and sell better. If you wait to long and it gets too dark your exposure gets longer so if you expose for the perfect fire your background goes to dark. You don’t want that either because images that have detail around give a sense of place to the scene and often sell better.

campfire photograpgh

To contrasty

Here is an old image that is poor but a great example of my point. The fire is blowing out white and banding while the color on their faces looks dark but okay. Here the exposure is set more between what’s perfect for the fire and what’s perfect for the face. If I based my exposure on what’s best for the fire then the people become to dark. If I set my exposure for the faces then the fire is totally white.

The other problem is I waited too long after sunset and the background has no detail. One thought however, is if they had been sitting on logs or rocks they would have been half as close to the fire and that would have lowered the contrast range between fire and face and brought the exposure closer together.

campfire grand canyon

Grand Canyon to dark also

In this image from a Grand Canyon rafting trip, you can see I again waited to long to shoot. The fire is great but there is not enough detail elsewhere.

The perfect campfire shot is a balance between nice light on the faces, nicely exposed flames, and some detail in the background.

camping campfiore photograph If you look at this image it has nice exposure on the face and in the flames and the reason is that I used a flash to light their faces. This technique brings the exposure for the face and the fire closer together. The flash brings the brightness level on the face up closer to the fire.

camping campfire photograph roast marshmellow

Flash in lower left corner

Here is the horizontal and if you look in the lower left you can see the reflector from my Norman 400B strobe. It is sitting on the ground opposite the fireplace from the models. Attached to it is a Rosco 3407 lighting gel which is amber in color and close to the color temperature of the fire.

Attaching this gel to the strobe makes the flash the same color of light on their faces as the fire. It looks believable! So the strategy here is to setup up your shot before sunset. If you place your flash in the stand shoe that many come with you set it on the ground. If you are using a newer dedicated Nikon Flash or Canon Flash you do not need a wireless setup like a Pocket Wizard.

For the 3407 gel you can buy the Rosco gel kit or you can get the Strobist gel kit from with the gels already cut to fit the flash. Another company selling pre-cut gels is Photogel.

The Steps to Taking The Picture

First, I take a test shot and then determine if it’s the best time to start shooting. If the scene is too bright I wait a few minutes. Once you have a good balance between the strobe exposure and the ambient light you can start shooting. As it gets darker this makes the camp more believable for lighting.

I start shooting after sunset and continue to ‘shoot through’ the event so to speak which means I keep shooting until it gets too dark and your pictures are losing background detail. I bracket my shutter speed as well to get more fire and less as well as make the background darker and brighter. The flash exposure remains constant while the ambient light slowly fades until it’s to dark to see the background. Then its time to stop!

camping campfire roast marshmellows photograph

Perfect Balance

Here is the perfect balanced image. Good light on their faces, good flames, and just enough detail in the background.

And here is how a client used the image.

Have a campfire technique you wish to share? Leave a comment.

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