Fire photography: how to capture flames

Whether you want to photograph a flickering candle, the dancing flames of a bonfire or fizzing sparklers, the right techniques, settings and kit make all the difference.
A long exposure of a child standing beside a bonfire, with floating embers creating long light trails.

Fire is a wonderful subject to photograph, offering endless creative opportunities. Not only can beauty be found in the flames themselves, they also bathe the surroundings in wonderful warm light. That means fire can provide not only an eye-catching subject but also an atmospheric light source for portraiture.

Fire can also be a challenge to photograph. The problem photographers face is that the source is very bright, while the surroundings are often very dim. This high level of contrast can make it tricky to record detail in both the brightest and darkest parts of the scene. However, with the right camera settings and a few simple skills, anyone can take beautiful fireside photos.

While photographing flames is a great skill to learn all year round, it'll particularly come in handy if you want to get creative during the festive months. Here's how to take beautiful fire photography images this winter holiday season.

1. Be safe

An adult holding a child's hand near a fire pit.

If shooting with children present, it's best to have another adult on hand to watch them while you're taking photos. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO4000.

Like photography, fire can be entrancing – although not always in a good way. It's all too easy to get caught up in shooting, but safety should always be priority number one. It's important not just to prevent ourselves and others from getting hurt, but also to keep the fire under control. Place a bucket of water or extinguisher nearby to douse fires and use a head torch to find your way in the dark. It's also a good idea to check the weather conditions as strong wind can make flames unpredictable.

2. Choose the right kit

A Canon camera, tripod, orange gel and portable lamp at the edge of a fire pit.

As well as a camera and tripod, a torch can help to add extra light into the scene and balance out the bright flames with the environment. A small piece of orange gel can warm the torch light to match the flames.

The light produced by fire is usually rather dim, so it helps to use gear that performs well in low light if you're using fire as a light source to capture nearby subjects. A camera such as the Canon EOS R6 is ideal – its ultra-sensitive 20.1MP full-frame sensor is designed specifically to handle high dynamic range scenarios with ease, as well as low-light situations in general.

A fast prime lens such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM is also a great help, as primes tend to have wider maximum apertures than zooms. This allows for faster shutter speeds and lower ISOs in low light, which means sharper, less noisy shots.

While not essential, a tripod can also be very handy for bonfire and candle photos, as it gives you the option to shoot longer exposures and blur the flickering movement of the flames.

3. Capturing candlelight

A row of candles exposed so that only the flames are visible against a black background.

If we expose for the fire, the rest of the scene becomes very dark, which makes it look as if the candle flames are floating in the air. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

A row of candles exposed so that the candlesticks are visible, while the flames are blown out and blurred.

If we adjust the exposure for the surroundings, the creative effect is very different: the candles are visible, while the flames appear blown out and blurred. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/20 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

Candles can enable highly atmospheric shots, but they can also be a challenge to capture, as they have bright flames yet don't emit much ambient light. That means if we expose for the flames then the rest of the scene will be near-dark, but if we expose for the surroundings then the flames will be blown out. Choosing which to prioritise will depend on what effect you'd like to achieve.

It is often better to expose for the brighter element in frame, as it's easier to lift shadows in post-production than to rectify blown-out highlights. In addition, see if you can lift your exposure very slightly to give a small boost to your shadows without blowing out the highlights. If your camera has it, try using Zebra mode when filming video, which highlights overexposed parts of a frame in a zebra-print pattern, enabling you to maximise your shadows while ensuring you haven't pushed your highlights too far. For stills, the highlight alert can help in playback mode to check if the taken image has any burned out areas. Shooting in RAW format will also give you much greater flexibility when it comes to post-production using image editing software such as Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP).

Set your camera to Manual (M) mode to override your camera's automatic pop-up flash. This will avoid overpowering the delicate light of the candle flame. Set your aperture to f/4 and ISO100, then vary your shutter speed between 1/20 and 1/2000 sec to see how different shutter speeds affect the look of the candles. You can also use fill-in flash, also known as Daylight flash, which is a burst of light which adds light to shadow areas and brings out detail in your subject. The Canon Photo Companion app includes an article about taking portraits in candlelight, which explores this technique in a more professional setting.

4. Candle-lit cake portraits

A young child leaning in to blow out the candles on a birthday cake. The child's face is illuminated by the flames.

As your subject leans in close to the candles, the flickering flames will cast a wonderful warm glow on their face. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2 and ISO1600.

The rear view of a Canon camera photographing a child with their birthday cake.

When shooting with the lens wide open, the depth of field is very shallow, so precise focusing is essential. A camera with Eye Detect Autofocus, such as the Canon EOS R6, makes this easy, even when shooting people in profile.

What better time to get the camera out than at a birthday party? When it's time to blow out the candles, you can capture wonderful portraits by using the warm candle light to lift your subject's gleeful face. Try setting the camera to Manual (M) mode with aperture f/1.8 (or your lens's widest aperture), shutter speed 1/200 sec and Auto ISO. This way the ISO will adapt to give you the correct exposure.

A fast prime lens such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM is ideal for this kind of portrait, as the wide maximum aperture lets you capture portraits in dim interiors. At wide apertures it also gives smooth bokeh for beautifully blurred backdrops.

5. Photographing bonfires

A long exposure of a bonfire, with floating embers creating long light trails.

A long exposure blurs the movement of the flames and transforms any flying sparks into eye-catching trails of light. Stoking the fire can lead to amazing lighting effects, but be safe: make sure you do this cautiously! Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

The rear view of a Canon camera photographing a child beside a bonfire.

Use a tripod and set a one second exposure to capture spark trails in bonfires. Remember to ask any people in shot to keep still during the long exposure, so you can avoid motion blur in your frame. Alternatively, do the opposite and create a ghostly image with intentional blur, like in the top image here, with sparks captured as glowing streaks of light.

Is there anything more inviting than a bonfire on a cold, dark night? The dancing flames can make for a bold subject against the surrounding darkness. There will be a moment after the sun sets when the ambient light is low enough that the bonfire stands out against the gloom, but still light enough to show the surroundings and detail in the sky. This is a great time to capture a twilight shot and show the bonfire in context, as when night comes the surroundings will be completely black. Try shooting this in manual mode with shutter speed at 1/100 sec, aperture f/1.8 (or whatever is the widest aperture of your lens) and ISO Auto. Use Exposure Compensation to make the shot brighter or darker, and choose a low angle to frame the fire against the twilight sky.

6. Taking portraits by firelight

A photographer taking a close-up portrait of a child beside a bonfire.

When shooting fireside portraits, try setting the camera to Manual (M) mode with aperture f/1.8 (or your lens's widest aperture), shutter speed 1/200 sec and Auto ISO to freeze motion as much as possible in the limited light.

Two children face-to-face in front of a bonfire, the outline of their profiles illuminated by the light from the flames.

Capture portraits by firelight for wonderful warm lighting or interesting silhouettes. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/1.8 and ISO25600.

Bonfires and fire pits create a unique atmosphere that lends itself to great portraiture. Fireside chats, couples huddled together and children mesmerised by the flames all make for good subjects to capture with your Canon camera. Be sure to stoke the fire before you start snapping, as the amount of flame can make a big difference to the ambient light. The light often fades very quickly away from the flames, so bring your subjects as close to the fire as is possible (and safe) in order to take advantage of the glow.

7. Shooting sparklers

Sparks fizzing from two sparklers, the faces of the two children holding them just visible in the background.

To capture sparklers, set your camera to Manual (M) mode. Use an aperture of about f/3.5-f/5.6, a shutter speed of 1/125 sec and Auto ISO. You can also play with the exposure compensation which can give slightly different results.
Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.5 and ISO640.

The crackling light from a sparkler can look fantastic in photographs – and it's also a safer way to explore creative light effects with smaller children or in poor weather. Flying sparks explode outwards in all directions at tremendous speed, so they're captured as streaks of light even when using a fairly fast shutter speed. If you're comfortable shooting and editing in RAW then this can be a huge help, as you can pull extra detail out of the highlights and shadows afterwards. Or slow your shutter speed, and the sparkler will leave clearly visible trails across your frame – it's up to you!

You could also try capturing the light trails from celebratory fireworks – check out our tips and techniques for creative firework photography for more ideas and inspiration.

And when the fire is out, you can explore the Smoke photography with skills exercise on the Canon Photo Companion app.

Written by James Paterson

Related Products

Related articles