A Different Experience for a Landscape Photographer: Fires at Night

A Different Experience for a Landscape Photographer: Fires at Night

I'm mainly an Arizona based golden time landscape photographer, and I also mix in Milky Way and telescope based astronomical photography of galaxies and nebulas. On June 5th, a lightning storm struck the Catalina Mountains near Tucson, and almost literally, all hell broke loose.

Thankfully, so far, there has been almost no home or property damage, but more than a 1,000 firefighters from several Western states are trying to keep the fire in check.

With great views from my backyard, I wanted to try to document the fire. I used my Sony A7 III and a tripod, along with a couple of different lenses, mostly a Tamron 70-180mm f/2.8. I also used a Sony wireless Remote Commander so I could take my exposures without touching the camera and jiggling my setup during time exposures. I got a lot from the experience, so I wanted to share what I learned. I think these techniques would work for a lot of non-typical night events, like volcanoes and urban fires.

Trial and Error

Night fire photography was something new to me, and the first night out I made a lot of mistakes. I tried very high ISO settings, like 8,000, but the highlights in the flames blew out quickly. 

I settled for settings of 1,200-3,200 ISO and 1/80 to 15 second exposures. When I used short time exposures I could minimize moving and blurring of the flames. When I went longer, I gathered a lot of light from the surrounding terrain but the motion of the flames spoiled the shot. My images were generally shot at f/14 and f/16. I wanted a good depth of field, and it reduced my focus worries a bit. Of course that required longer time exposures.

Time exposures varied depending on what I wanted to capture. In the image below, this is a 15 second f/9 exposure at ISO 1,600 because I wanted to capture more smoke. It blurred the flames a little, but that's part of the trade off.

Focusing

Focusing is tough. The light is low, and auto focusing often failed. I opted for manual focusing, and that worked well, although I found I had to reset focus a few times during the night, perhaps because temperatures drop rapidly in the desert at night. 

I could have — and would love to have — used an external monitor for focusing, but I was trying to keep my equipment load light as I was changing locations often.

My Evolving Methodology

If I had composition I liked, I generally took 4 or 5 of each one, all at the same settings, to make sure vibrations from my movements near the camera did not mess up an image. Although using the Remote Commander, I finally wound up moving 15-20 feet away to make sure I wasn't causing any vibrations while moving. I also increased and decreased my exposure times, and took multiples of those images as well. 

I wanted to try some panoramas, so tried 3-5 overlapping side by side images that I hoped to assemble later, and tried those at multiple exposure times.  Here's one example, a 1/80 second exposure at 1,600 ISO at f/13. This time I had a bit more light because it was just after sunset. This is three images stitched together in Photoshop.

Preserving Stars

I really wanted to get some stars in these images, and I thought my experience shooting the Milky Way could help. I got the best results keeping the exposure time down and the ISO up to minimize star trails. This image is a good example. I was shooting with my Tamron 70-180 mm lens, zoomed out to 70 mm, at f/2.8 for 10 seconds. And lo, above the smoke, were some nice stars. Had I gone longer, the stars would have been elongated.

Processing

I shot everything raw, really a requirement to get the most out of the dynamic range the Sony offered. As I opened each image in Camera Raw, I usually increased the exposure slightly, decreased the shadows, and often decreased highlights. That was to keep the flames from blowing out, even at shorter time exposures. It was trickier when I had panoramas, as I wanted to keep the settings the same, so I highlighted the multiple images and adjusted them as one. Camera Raw or Lightroom makes that easy. Even with my best efforts, a lot of the flames were blown out, but I still think they are a decent representation of what I saw.

With a single image in Photoshop, I often was not happy with the result, and wanted to push the images a bit further to get more shadow detail, otherwise I'd just see flames emerging from a deep black background. I found Luminar 4 very helpful here, using their AI Accent adjustment I could begin to see the landscape. I wound up using the AI Accent tool on almost every photo I did.

Shooting at high ISOs resulted in some visible noise in the smoke and the sky. I used Topaz Denoise AI plug-in. It's the best tool I've seen for noise removal, and they recently added a night mode that worked well. I reduced any color or mono noise quite easily, then was back in Photoshop and often used a light unsharp mask. 

Panoramas came out quite well, and Photoshop provide a terrific tool to create them with little effort. I would take my 3 or 4 images, use Adobe Photomerge under the automate command, and the clever software algorithms made creating a large pano easy. Sometimes the software had trouble matching frames because they were so dark. I found it worked much better if I raised the exposure and the shadows on images before expecting Photoshop to merge them. When I did that, every pano succeeded. 

Final Thoughts

I was hardly an expert on this kind of night photography, and over several nights taking photos I learned a lot. Some of this will be old hat to photographers who do a lot of this. Here are my main lessons:

  • Use a tripod. It's almost impossible to capture anything worthwhile without a steady platform
  • Since long exposures are used on almost every photo, it's essential to have some kind of remote trigger. Some are corded. Some are wireless. I really prefer wireless models because they won't tug on your camera gear. I bought a little lanyard for the Sony Remote Commander at a local hardware store and wore it around my neck. I got a bright yellow lanyard so if I dropped it in the dark I'd have a good chance of finding it again.
  • You won't need to be really high in ISO. There's plenty of light from the fire.
  • You will need to push shadows if you want to see some of the terrain.
  • The better the dynamic range of the camera, the better you can do under these conditions. My Sony was exemplary, but my shooting partner had an old Canon 5D and it got excellent photos too.
  • Panoramas worked quite well, but before stitching them you may have to push the exposure up to let Photomerge do its magic. Then you can lower the exposure when you have your panorama assembled.

It would be great to hear your own tips and methods, so feel free to leave comments below.

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1 Comment

Thanks for that last tip about the exposure before merge, I might have to use that some day.