Cold Nights: Shutter Speed, Flash, and Flames

Last night was cold. Not insanely cold, by North Country standards, but cold enough that I spent the entire evening nesting on the floor next to the wood stove. I have the flu! Some mopiness is to be expected. Anyway, I didn’t regret my choice of location as frost formed on the windows, and, when I got bored (as I frequently do) I was in the perfect location for a mini shoot . After crafting my brilliant plan, I braved my arctic bedroom to grab my gear, and set up for a bit of an experiment.

My primary goal was to create a nice image of my wood stove. Despite my mild fear of fire, I’ve always been  enchanted by the concept of wood stoves; a raging inferno hides inside a simple black box. The juxtaposition between the wild, powerful fire and the constraining, geometric stove appeals to me, and I hoped to create a shot clearly illustrating this .I started by focusing on wide shots, to feature the “black box” as well as the flames, but they lacked the impact I was hoping for. Hoping to create a more powerful image, I decided to get closer. I took two shots; this is the first. It’s  a 13 second exposure, and I fired my flash at its lowest power setting. It’s not a bad shot, but it still didn’t portray the concept of an “inferno in a box” that I was attempting to capture. The second shot is this posts’featured image.

Log on fire in wood stove

Although I managed to get my shot quickly this time around, I decided that it might be fun to experiment with my flash. I’m familiar enough with my camera that it acts as an extension of my body, and I can instinctively adjust my settings to rapidly changing conditions; I’m not really cognizant of my actions  – it’s pretty much muscle memory. This is decidedly not the case with my speedlite. I glare at it. Mutter at it. Hit it against my light strand while glaring and muttering. I have a mildly defective unit that will sometimes refuse to fire – even once – for several shoots (no, not “shots” – I’m definitely referring to entire shoots) but will work beautifully when it finally decides make itself useful. Even when it is working, I struggle to use it to match my vision. So, when my flash is being agreeable, I try to sneak in some practice shots – a lot of them, if possible.

If the lighting situation is simple, and I’m not looking for a highly specific effect, I can generally get the shot I want – even with the speedlite – within a few exposures. That’s what (fortunately) happened this time around, and since I was dealing with only one other light source, I had prime conditions to do a few flash tests. I turned off the light in the living room where my stove lives. It was night, so there was negligible light from the windows, and the only other source of light was a lamp about thirty feet to my left, in the adjoining room. Then I practiced. I have five notebook pages full of practice, to be exact. I would fire my flash in one of three directions (45 degrees to the left, straight ahead, 45 degrees to the right), at one of two angles (direct/straight ahead, or bounced of the ceiling), at each of my speedlite’s power settings (full power to 1/16 power).  I repeated this process with various shutter speeds and aperture settings, so I now have a sizable collection of identical images with subtle lighting differences. Hurray?

In all seriousness, it was a worthwhile endeavor. I think that my little lighting catalogue will be a handy reference when I’m trying to balance my flash with the ambient light, which I generally have a horrible time doing. Well, I can do it, but it takes me several attempts – it’s still not as intuitive as the rest of my photography skill set. I could bore you even further by posting the hundreds of images that I took, but I’ll be kind share just two examples. The image below shows the door of my wood stove. Yes, I just took a screenshot in Lightroom, and yes, I am way too lazy to put a similar but shinier image together in Photoshop. All of the camera settings and processing is identical, so the only difference is the direction in which I pointed the flash. On the left, the flash was angled 45 degrees to my left – in the same general direction as the only other light source – and was bounced off the ceiling. On the right, the flash was pointed 45 degrees to the fight, and therefore works against the ambient light as fill light – this is particularly noticeable in the drafts; the shadows are much less severe in the second image.

Screen Shot 2013-01-02 at 3.39.14 AM

I’m also aware that nobody cares about this other than for me, so I appreciate your continued attention. The second set of images is more relevant to the final images presented in this post. For example, there’s a reason that my initial attempts at getting the shot (not experimentation) included only one piece of wood. With three pieces, the flame produced was much brighter and difficult to capture without overexposure.  The image on left was taken at f22 with a shutter speed of one second, and no flash was fired. It’s a horrendous shot. There is no detail in or outside of the stove, white balance is atrocious and was essentially impossible to correct, and the majority of the image is alarmingly underexposed. I also increased the exposure by ten stops in Lightroom to produce the final image.

This was set up, of course, as a way to test the capabilities of my flash, so the unfortunate shot on the left was meant to be a bit, ah, underwhelming. The image on the right, however, looks significantly better, although it is still lacking in image quality. After another round of methodical exposures, I discovered that the only way to come close to balancing the light in this scene was to fire my flash (at full power) directly into the wood stove. The image shown below still had to be heavily processed, notably including a four stop exposure increase in Lightroom. It’s still a dramatic difference, and helps demonstrate the utility of an off-camera flash.

No Flash v. Flash

And so we finally reach the “final” image. In this case, “final” refers to the fulfillment of my goal: a shot that captures the stark contrast of the warm and wild fire inside of a wood stove with the cool rigidity of the stove’s exterior. As my ruminations on my experiments should clarify, a lot of individual factors had to be perfectly in place for this shot to be successful: I had to choose the framing that would best convey my concept, I had to decide whether or not flash was appropriate (it was) and also had to decide which angle and settings would work best once I concluded that flash would be beneficial. The final shot was taken with my flash at 1/2 of its full power, with a shutter speed of ten seconds.


Also, this post comes with an added bonus! After my adventures with my speedlite, I decided that it might be interesting shoot a quick series of images that isolated the effect of various shutter speeds. The gallery below is the result of that experiment; the lighting was consistent, and I made a slight change in aperture half-way through to prevent the fire from being too blown out. It also serves as an interesting demonstration on the balance of ambient light vs. flash (counterintuitively, the images get darker as the shutter speed decreases, because the ambient light has more time to counter the light provided by my speedlite). Captions display the shutter speed used for each shot; it’s cool to quickly cycle through the shots in the gallery – it looks like the birth of a fire.


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