A couple of months ago I was reminded of how important it is to keep your gear ready and your skills up when it comes to fire photography.
For many reasons, 2010 was a slow year for me fire-wise. I shot just 12 actual incidents during the year. Of those, only five were at night. As all of us know, shooting an incident at night is a whole different animal than shooting one during the day. You need to know your equipment, you need to know your baseline camera and flash settings and, you need to be able to recall them at a moment’s notice. For me, the last 2010 ‘after dark’ incident I shot was a FAIL in all three regards. Let me run it down for you…
In the late afternoon of November 7th, I heard companies from my local department acknowledging a VocAlarm dispatch for a building fire. It was clear from the audio (and a blatant radio tip from a certain lieutenant on the first-due engine company) that they were going to have work. Here’s where things started to go wrong for me…
I was completely unprepared. You could say I was “caught with my pants down”… no, really… I had just gotten out of the shower after a trip to the gym. I uttered a few expletives and started scrambling to get myself together and out the door. The reported address was just four blocks from fire headquarters and so they were on scene fast. The 2nd alarm was transmitted as I was jogging to my car. My drive to the scene was quick but the 3rd Alarm was transmitted when I was less than 2 minutes out. It was lifting pretty good as I came down the block. I parked and bailed out and was met with….
My photo gear was not set up. I had been shooting a lot of day time foliage, etc. in the weeks prior and had left my camera set up for that. My flash was detached and not plugged in to the pain-in-the-ass-to-open sync cord port and my primary lens had the lens hood on. The lens hood is no good for night photos for me as it casts a shadow at wider settings when the strobe fires. I had to stop to strip the lens hood off, screw in and secure the flash unit to the camera body, and open the aforementioned P.I.T.A. sync port and attach that cable. Pissing away time because I wasn’t set up. Grrrr! Ok. I finally get my “stuff” together and make my way a half a block down to the scene.
As I walked up I could see what had been heavy overlapping fire on the rear porches getting hit from the side by an exterior line in an effort to protect exposures. So much for that. Most of the exterior work was being done in the driveway on the Delta side of the building and with a pretty decent glow visible from that area, I headed there. A ground ladder was being set up by Ladder 1’s crew and there was a decent fire condition venting from a 2nd floor window behind them. I got into position and started shooting. Whoops…
I had not checked my camera settings. Normally I leave my camera set up for night work. I figure at night, it is likely I have bailed from bed in the ‘wee small hours’ and I’m not thinking particularly clearly when I first arrive on scene. As the more dramatic pictures are often very early in the incident, I believe its always best to have the camera set up with the flash attached and ready to go. The camera is left set to Manual with baseline ISO, shutter and aperature set to make the most of both available light and the light from the flash.
So, I usually make it a practice to reset to my “defaults” as I am putting away the camera after each shoot. That way I can “run & gun” at night without delay and make exposure adjustments (manual flash output power, shutter, aperature, ISO) on the fly as the lighting situation warrants. For me, that “default” means an ISO of 200 or so, a shutter speed of 1/60th sec (compromise for available light shots if ambient light from visible fire, etc. allows) and an aperature of f/5.6 (wide open enough to compromise between decent depth of field and allowing enough light in).
Let me also point out that I shoot with a Sunpak 544 grip flash (”potato masher”) that I use in full manual mode. Essentially, the camera doesn’t know that there is a flash unit attached and so makes no adjustments in the metering process to factor in light emitted from it. I control the flash output manually on the fly using a dial on the side set to anything from 1/64th power up to full power.
The point here is that my brain was thinking, “just shoot! Get the shots!”. Yeah well that would work if I had done what I was supposed to do the last time I stowed the camera away. You guessed it! NOPE! I had apparently left the camera in “Shutter Priority” mode and my selected speed was 1/320th sec. There are two problems with that.
The lesser of the two is that in that mode the camera chooses the aperature. At this incident in a dark narrow driveway – lit only by the fire venting from the aforementioned window and, with a selected shutter speed of 1/320 – was f/2.8. Not awful but it does narrow down the depth of field considerably thus risking that what I want to be in sharp focus might not be. It also caused a few images to be way over exposed when the big Sunpak flash blasted the scene with light.
The greater of the two problems was presented by the shutter speed of 1/320, as my camera’s sync speed is 1/125. So I ended up with a dark, “unflashed” band on one side of the first couple of photos until I realized what was going on. Not good. Sooo, reacting to what I was seeing from the camera, I fumbled with the dial to set it back to manual and my “default settings”. However, in doing so I apparently missed that notch on the dial and selected “Aperature Priority” instead.
The aperature here had apparently last been set to f/8. Normally a great aperature to choose except for fire photography at night in a dark driveway! For the two frames I shot at this setting (I may have shot a few more but ‘chimped’/deleted them on scene on the spot) the camera decides, based on the selected f/8 aperature, to use a shutter speed of 0.8 and 2.0 seconds respectively. Honestly, these photos came out just “ok” to me, but would have been a complete mess had the light emitted from the flash not frozen some of the action without as much of the motion blur. In actuality, given more time to think about it, I may try and use similar settings to add drama to fast moving evolutions on scenes in the future.
Anyway, at this point I finally took a moment to step back and get my camera’s affairs in order. I selected Manual mode, confirmed my shutter, aperature and ISO selections and went back to work. Total time from my first shot with the “wrong” settings to my first shot with the “correct” settings was 1 minute and 30 seconds. I had seven images that were ‘keepers’ during the time my camera was set “wrong”.
- Don’t be caught with your pants down. Well, sort of. Basically, have your “kit” together (clothes, gear, camera bag, etc.) ready to go, to cut your “out-the-door” time down.
- Have a plan for setting up your gear with “run-and-gun” default settings and follow it. And then check it every once in a while if you haven’t been to an incident recently.
- Don’t get complacent. Review your own procedures and gear and make sure YOU and IT are ready for that next incident that could happen at any time.
- Know your “first alarm/first due district” (the area around you that you can get to FAST to get those early shots) and be ready to GO! Don’t hesitate. You can always turn around if its “nuthin”.
- Program YOURSELF to pause upon arrival at the scene, camera inhand, and take a moment to check your settings! If this had been the pre-digital era, I could have potentially shot an entire roll or more before I looked at my settings and realized my mistakes.
- I love having EXIF data to review and critique what I’d done right or wrong after a shoot. There is alot to learn from it!