Your Shot Blog

#wildfire2014: Burning Bright

2nd September 2014

Mark Thiessen is a staff photographer for National Geographic. He manages the photo studio and regularly goes out on assignment for National Geographic magazine. He has been shooting wildfires for the past twenty years and is our expert and editor for our #wildfire2014 Hashtag Challenge

One of the reasons I’m drawn to photographing wildfires is the chance for dramatic lighting situations. It could be fire at night or sun rays beaming through backlit smoke, or a thick smoke column blocking out the sun. These are all situations that can turn an ordinary subject into something very special. I want to talk about lighting by using five photos sent in by firefighters for the #wildfire2014 hashtag challenge


Robert Rathjen’s photograph of the Roosevelt Hotshots hiking off the Rocky Point Fire is a nice example of light creating a mood. The golden, afternoon sun rays are back lighting the scene of hotshots as they leave the walk away from the camera. Underexposing slightly accentuates the sun rim-lighting each person. And detailed rim-light on the far right hotshot really makes the shot. It looks like Robert shot this from the shade of a tree to keep the sun from flaring into his lens which can be a problem with this type of picture. I also like the composition where you don’t see their faces, it makes it more mysterious and representational of hotshot crews instead of a specific person.


Ben Mouser was in a similar situation when he photographed a sawyer in a nuked forest, except he exposed for the shadows. He blew out most of the sun rays but that’s ok because it makes a bright clean background to help define the sawyer’s shape. The mood is quiet and calm with evidence in the background of the fury that came before him. His Nomex, as faded as it is, is the only hint of color in the grey moonscape. 


Fire at night is always dramatic, but my camera can be fooled by easily. Getting proper exposures can be hard. Patrick Ryan shows us South African fire at night but with an interesting twist. It’s an eery portrait of a firefighter in silhouette except for his headlamp with fire in the background. I like that he framed the firefighter off center with his arm lit by what I think is Patrick’s head lamp just to give enough definition. 


Kristen Honig photographed a cabin by firelight. The fire in the distance and is reflected in the windows. I like fire pictures that show you more than just the fire. The mood and composition is about the threat the fire poses to the cabin. It’s easy to overexpose a situation like this because your camera meter wants to over expose it to compensate for so much darkness. There is a nice balance between the subdued light on the cabin and bright flames in the background.


Kristen also has a dramatic shot of boiling smoke over Los Alamos, New Mexico. The thick smoke has blocked out the sun except for some sunlight penetrating the smoke as an orange glow.  The only light reaching the smoke billows is indirect light coming from the side helping to define it’s texture. The tiny trucks in the foreground lets you know how big this fire is. 

Follow the blog as we feature more #wildfire2014 photos. 

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    Love national geographic, very poetic
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