Plugged In: Hot shots — fire photos done right (safely)

Photo by Joe Kashi. Smoke from the Funny River Horse Trail Fire creates an eerie scene at Skilak Lake on Monday.

Photo by Joe Kashi. Smoke from the Funny River Horse Trail Fire creates an eerie scene at Skilak Lake on Monday.

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

A frequent reader urged a discussion about taking wildfire photos. That’s certainly an apt topic this week.

There are both practical and technical points to bear in mind if you plan to take photos of this historically large and threatening fire. Your photos may well be long-term memories for yourselves and your children, so it’s sensible to do the job right while staying safe.

Practical points are by far the most important in a potential community catastrophe like this, to this point thankfully averted through the heroic efforts of local, state and federal crews.

  • Find a good vantage point but stay well out of the way. Crews need to work unimpeded by bystanders and undistracted by worries about their safety. Stay out of evacuation zones and out of active firefighting areas. No photo, regardless of its apparent drama, is worth a high risk to anyone’s safety, nor interfering with firefighters and police. The best vantage seems to be north of the fire front and at an angle of about 90 degrees to the direction in which the wind is blowing the smoke column.
  • If you are in the active fire zone, be sure that you have two safe ways out. One of the first things that new pilots are taught is to always, always “have an out.”

  • Demonstrate responsible behavior. Even as strong, dry winds buffeted the central Kenai Peninsula last week and giant smoke plumes rose in the background, more than a few people were observed burning trash and throwing lit cigarettes out of moving vehicles. Alert the applicable fire department if you see dangerous activity, and use your cellphone or camera to document that danger in case it’s needed as evidence by law enforcement. Remember, the home you save may be your own.
  • Attend to your family’s own needs. Photographically document your home, business and all valuable contents in case you might need that data later to prove an insurance claim. Keep digital copies of those photos with you on a memory card or flash drive. You realistically need to do that in any event, should your home be burglarized, vandalized or burned at some other time. Where possible, use a better camera than whatever’s found in your cellphone for this purpose. Over the past year or two, I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of legal evidence when cellphone photos and texting are relied upon for legal purposes. A decent camera and traditional email programs, whether web-based email or stored in a program such as Outlook, are quite a bit more usable should legal evidence be needed. In good daylight conditions, technical requirements are not very demanding for images intended for posting on the Internet, but some gear protection precautions are definitely in order, even if you’re not near the fire front or ash fall. They’re also useful in the event of a volcanic ash fall.
  • Cellphone cameras definitely have their place in this situation, especially in good daylight conditions, although there are a few inherent disadvantages. Smartphone cameras have the additional advantage of being able to post images almost immediately to the Internet. Not only does this keep your friends and relatives informed and reassured, but prompt posting may help firefighters evaluate potentially dangerous situations more quickly without the time lost in physically driving or flying to distant parts of a large wildfire. Use GPS geotagging for such images if you have that capability. A suggestion for Central Emergency Services and the media — establish a well-publicized Facebook page where people can post geotagged images that might be helpful in these sorts of situations. This can provide unfiltered, near real-time, crowd-sourced fire information for your evaluation.
  • Cellphone and other camera units that allow touch-screen selection of focus and exposure points can be very handy. In fact, by first selecting and exposing a darker area and then the bright smoke column, you’ll have rudimentary exposure bracketing. At the moment, iPhone 5s and the latest Nokia Lumia smartphones have the best image quality, but every cellphone camera has major limitations compared to even compact and superzoom consumer cameras. No cellphone camera units have good low-light or optical zoom capabilities. It’s just not feasible to fit those larger sensors and lenses into a small, thin smartphone.
  • Although I generally prefer single-magnification prime lenses for their compact size and better image quality, zoom lenses should be used in fire zones. Quite obviously, there’s a lot of ash and particulate matter in the air wherever there’s smoke. A good wide-angle-to-medium-telephoto zoom lens provides reasonable versatility and avoids changing lenses and exposing the innards of your camera and lens to damaging ash and dirt.
  • An environmentally sealed camera and zoom lens combination is obviously desirable under these conditions and minimizes the intrusion of dirt and ash into your camera and lens. Even if you don’t take the obvious risk of changing lenses under such conditions, the mere act of zooming most lenses will suck dust into nonsealed lenses and cameras when the zooming action causes the lenses to lengthen and contract, in effect, to breathe. Lenses that zoom and focus using internal mechanisms rather than moving in and out are best. In this situation, I’d prefer my sealed, Olympus OM-D E-M5 and its sealed, 12- to 50-mm kit lens, which doesn’t lengthen as it zooms and focuses. Even though the image quality of this lens is basically decent rather than exceptional, I’ll trade some image quality for gear protection any day.
  • Keep your gear in a protective camera bag whenever it is not being used. Clean ash and dirt regularly from cameras, lenses and camera bags. Blow ash off your lens and camera before cleaning them. Ash and grit are abrasive and can damage lens coatings. Make any necessary lens changes out of the wind, preferably inside your car, in order to reduce the chance of ash and grit getting into your gear.
  • For the same reason, use a protective case for your smartphone. That’s a good idea in any event, because smartphones tend to be rather fragile.Go as light as possible, taking only the minimum gear necessary. This isn’t a studio job.
  • Photo by Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Horse Trail Fire burning on the south side of the Kenai River near the mouth of Skilak Lake intensifies due to gusty winds Monday afternoon.

    Photo by Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Horse Trail Fire burning on the south side of the Kenai River near the mouth of Skilak Lake intensifies due to gusty winds Monday afternoon.

    If you’re ahead of the fire and under the smoke plume, notice the unusual, almost eerie and alien, orange-yellow light when blue and green light is blocked by smoke particles. Such lighting can result in some very dramatic photos if you know how to handle it. Because cameras expect a default neutral color balance for the light striking the sensor, and this situation is anything but neutral, you’ll need to make a few adjustments. If at all possible, use an RAW image file format. You will definitely need its added correction capabilities. Set your white balance to “daylight” rather than “auto white balance.” Although not completely accurate, a daylight balance will be closer to the true scene than auto white balance. Later, when post-processing the images in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom, tone down the orange and yellow a bit to most closely match what you saw and intended to capture. It’s actually rather dark under the smoke plume, so you’ll also need to use a higher ISO setting and then just deal with the resulting digital noise later. With my Pentax K-5, I used ISO 800 rather than my usual ISO 200 base setting. There’s more image noise but that can be handled in post-processing with good noise-reduction software. DXO Optics Pro 9 is probably the most effective.

  • Finally, think about future long-term projects, such as showing the immediate aftermath and the natural regeneration of burned areas.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,


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Filed under photography, Plugged in, wildfire

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