I’ve learned a few lessons about photographing fire by now. This is the second time I’ve followed a big fire — the first was the Basin Complex Fire — and I’m starting to get the hang of the rhythms of wildfire and firefighting. This time, I spent a week on the La Brea Fire in the Las Padres National Forest. Here’s what I learned:
- Wildland firefighters work during the heat of the day, for the most part. That is, they get up before dawn, eat, then show up on the line after the morning golden light. Often, they’ll return before the evening golden light. So, you’re stuck shooting with bright, flat light that sucks. However, if you can get below the plume, the smoke will filter the sun into a soft, reddish light that works great.
- You have to work with Hotshot crews for a few hours, at least, before they’ll let you shoot portraits. The problem is, they are super-tough, so you’d better be ready to carry a lot of water over rough terrain, and bear with bad light, to get anything from them. Nice guys, however.
- You can shoot the fire fast, or slow — it’s a different animal either way. Fast gives fantastic shapes, slow gives painting. Something not to forget when you’re there.
- Consider a split filter. I wish I’d had one.
- Work through the PIOs. They have the power to get rid of you as a danger to their people, and they will. I didn’t feel limited by them, and the more I learn about fire, the happier I am to have people watching out for me.