Daytime Photography

Taking photos during the day can be easy and a lot of fun but before discussing daytime fire scene photography, we must review a few photographic terms.

Aperture. The lens opening formed by the iris diaphragm inside the lens. The size is adjusted by the aperture control. Measured in F-stops.

Aperture Control. Adjusts aperture size. On older cameras, it is a dial attached to the lens. On newer style cameras, it is digital and controlled by a knob or dial.

Exposure. The act of allowing light to strike a light sensitive surface (film). It is controlled by the combination of aperture and shutter speed.

Shutter. A device in a camera opens and closes to expose the film to light for a measured length of time.

Shutter Speed. The time the shutter remains open. Measured in 1,000ths of a second to 30 seconds.

Depth of Field (DOF). The distance between the nearest and farthest points that appears in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph. DOF varies with lens aperture, focal length and camera to subject distance.

Photography is all about light. We need to know how to properly set the aperture and shutter speed for a given film. With a newer camera this can be as easy as setting the camera to "P" and allowing the camera to make the settings for you. The camera has a built-in exposure meter and is able to make adjustments according to the amount of light. Owners of older cameras need to rely on a hand held exposure meter or experience. There is a basic guide for determining exposure on a bright day. It is called the "F/16 Rule-of-Thumb" and is as follows: Set the aperture to F/16 and set the shutter speed to the setting that is closest to the ISO speed of the film. So, if you are using 100 speed film, the aperture would be F/16 and the shutter speed 1/125.

Why do we need to know about aperture and shutter speed if our camera will set them for us? In basic terms, aperture controls the depth of field and shutter speed allows us to stop action or blur a photo. A lower aperture setting, F/2 will keep things in the foreground in sharp focus while the background appears blurry. Higher aperture settings will keep the entire photo in varying levels of sharpness. Many photojournalists will use the aperture priority mode on their cameras, set the aperture themselves and let the camera determine the shutter speed.

Shutter speeds will affect motion. In order to stop action, we need to use a faster shutter speed, 1/350th of a second or faster. In order to blur action or take a long exposure shot of a cityscape at night, we need to use a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second or slower. A monopod or tripod is recommended anytime you will be shooting with shutter speeds of 1/30th of a second or slower.

Now that we can properly expose the film, let's take some pictures. I would suggest that you become proficient in daytime photography before attempting nighttime shots. It will be bright and you will be able to see the controls on the camera and make any adjustments you may need. Every photographer has his or her own style. Some like to take photos of apparatus, some like taking photos of the fire itself and others like to shoot the firefighters at work. Here are a few things to think about:

1. Before going out, find your favorite type of photos on and try to think of those shots when you go out shooting the fire.

2. Having a background in firefighting helps greatly. A firefighter can recognize smoke pushing from an opening and determine if the fire is soon to follow. You will know when and where something is going to happen. Follow your firefighting instincts.

3. Stay mobile. I see many photographers standing in the same place they were as when I arrived. You have to move around, check conditions in the rear, maybe there is a rescue being made around the side. For safety's sake, remain behind police and fire lines. Taking photographs is not worth getting arrested over.

4. Change the angle of the camera. Take both horizontal and vertical shots. Get down on one knee and take shots looking up.

5. Take a photo of the entire scene as you walk up and then, as you get closer, take shots of varying lengths. Use a zoom lens to photograph roof operations, lines being stretched and anything that catches your eye.

6. Take plenty of pictures. Professional photographers will shoot 2 rolls of film and hope to get one or two great shots.

7. Above all, always be aware of your surroundings. This means the fire scene itself and the neighborhood. Looking through the lens of a camera can cause tunnel-vision. Fires don't always occur in upscale neighborhoods. If you are in a city that you are unfamiliar with, be very careful. There are many areas that should be avoided. I once had the pleasure of riding with Squad One in Chicago. When leaving, I asked for directions to the firehouse that Backdraft was taped in. I was given strict directions to follow and told not to stray from that path. They were serious when they told me that if I became lost in some neighborhoods, there was a chance that I would never be seen again. People have been assaulted and robbed for their sneakers; imagine how they would feel about a $500 camera.

Finally, don't get discouraged. Go to as many fires as you can and not just the big ones. Small one room fires can turn into three alarm fires in no time and can provide as many great photos as the large mill fires. Listen to the radio in your area, many dispatchers give clues as to whether a particular call is going to be a working fire. It may be the sound of their voice or the sound of the phones ringing off of the hook in the background. If you plan on taking photos at a fire, head in that direction as soon as the call comes in; don't wait for the first units to arrive and give a report before you leave. By the time that you get there, the fire may be knocked down and all of the great photo opportunities will have been lost.


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