Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Making of the Fire Dancing Shot

As I alluded in my previous post, I would explain how I made the firedancing photo which I entered in Okiten this year.  The idea began as simply a desire to photograph Zamami's fire dancer for the Zamami People Project.  But I had all summer to think about it and as time passed, I began to want to make it an epic shot - something beyond just a simple long exposure of flames.  I wanted to include an element that made it Zamami.  But darkness complicates this.  I had ideas to have him do the dance at the port while I took the shot from the end of a jetty, placing the village in the background, but I think this would've just ended in a big washout of hotel lights with a small, indistinguishable fire pattern at the bottom.  I don't remember how the thought process jumped to a beach and star trails, but it did.  I scouted three different beaches, photographing all three of them at night.  Eventually I settled on one of the most remote beaches on the island because it offered multiple opportunities at dramatic shots with minimal outside light pollution, yet still containined recognizable Zamami elements.

[One of five 'rare' coconut crabs I came across during my numerous night rendezvous to Nita Beach]

With the location set, I contacted my good friend Yoshio who owns a local guest house.  He helped me form a letter to write to Kiwamu, the fire dancer.  We met with Kiwamu the next day and worked through a misunderstanding of the purpose of the photo shoot (he didn't realize it was for a Zamami photo project) and eventually we settled on a price I would pay to cover his fuel costs and some of his time, which I thought was more than fair.

Next, since I was paying real money for this one shot, I needed to practice.  So when my friends Hazel and Setsuko were out for Sabani in September, I talked them into walking to this beach and using flashlights I'd tied onto strings as mock 'pois' (to imitate the fire on a rope). I set up my camera in the three places I'd previously scouted and had the two ladies walk along the beach swinging their flashlights.  They were great sports and helped me out immensely with my exposure settings and framing ideas.  I think all-in-all it took us over four hours to do the practice shoot and we didn't return until after 1am.

[flashlight practice]

Now I was ready for the fire dancing shot.  We met on a weekend night with Yoshio and his girlfriend, who drove us to the path that leads down a treacherous mountain trail to the beach.

[Yoshio and Kiwamu]

At the beach we did some warm-ups before I was set.  I explained the first shot and what I wanted him to do (i.e. how important it was that he kept moving in one direction because if he spent too much time in one spot the light would overexpose that section of the photo).  It ended up that he was fantastic at understanding what I needed and I got usable shots from all three of my planned points plus a bonus (which ended up being the shot I used).  I was proud of how efficient I was with everything and how I nailed the shots I needed - in retrospect I can't think of anything I would do differently.  :)

I still would like to complete each of the best photos from the three shoot locations so I will not post those flames here, but you can see a sample of the different angles and patterns we did above.

So the most exciting portion of the shoot was done, but that was still only about 33% of the completed shot.  Next I needed the startrails and lastly, I needed Photoshop.

There no clear skies good enough for a two-hour exposure before I left to America in October, so I paid attention every night in November and December until finally a starry night opened up around December 20th.  The next four nights found me at the beach, either fighting with clouds or actually taking photos.  On the night that I got the usable star trails, I was at the beach for seven hours (7pm-2am) completing the three shots.

[A sample shot taken just to get my framing correct.  I know it's beautiful and maybe nicer than the star trails photo, but this is taken at the highest ISO setting my camera offers and the quality is awful.  Taking shots of stars that are not trailing is hard (while maintaining usable quality)]

One of the few things that film is still good at is long, single exposures (i.e. star trails).  When shooting in digital, too much noise develops as the sensor heats up so the best way to shoot star trails is as a composite of many short exposures.  I chose a shutter speed of 30 seconds and put my camera on continuous shoot mode for two hours.  Then I moved to the next spot and repeated.  And again.  Fortunately I brought my computer and watched a couple movies then fell asleep.  But I couldn't see what exactly I was produced until I got home and stacked the 120 exposures together to see the final product.  Here is what I got:

The first exposure of the series for each of those three was about 4-5 minutes.  I did that to make sure and develop some ambient light in the sky and foreground so I could tweak it later (i.e. add contrast).  Without that long exposure the photo would just be black and white - you wouldn't be able to see the island outlines, the beach in the foreground, or the colored sky.

Those shots were not what I had in mind, but the second shot was passable so I went with it as winter once again clouded over the skies.  The last portion of the photo was putting the fire dancing shot together with the star trails shot (taken in the same location) in Photoshop.  That is boring so I won't detail it, but it took a long time and I learned a lot along the way.

Once I finished the composite we once again got a clear, starry night (the Wednesday of the week I was to turn in the photo to the art show), so I ran back to the beach to try to get better star trails.  This is an example of what happens when you forget to do one extra long exposure at the beginning to bring out the detail of the foreground and sky: 

[nothing can be done with this photo so it was a three-hour lesson in what not to do]

[another huge coconut crab]

Lastly I had to print.  At the same time I had to learn to print.  This means adjusting exposure to account for the fact that things look brighter on a computer screen than on paper.  It also means getting the printer and paper profiles matched up until everything is perfect.  In the meantime each of those prints costs me about $8 between the paper and ink.

But I'm happy with the final (for now) fire dancing photo and am excited to get going on the remaining images for the Zamami People Project.

1 comment:

Dad said...

You sure put a lot of work in to this project with terrific results. I like the flower looking fire dance shot.