Since Juli and I started light painting with fire and sharing our techniques a few years back, people from all over have been inspired to try this uniquely beautiful but dangerous method for themselves. While I’ve made a point to occasionally include safety tips in my videos, I hadn’t taken the time to concisely spell out the proper precautions needed to make every shoot as safe as possible, and I now regret it.
Recently in Canada, a model named Robyn Lee Jansen was burned over 25% of her legs by a distracted and unprepared photographer, leading to a trip to the hospital and potentially life altering scars. The burns were caused by the photographer dousing an already lit torch with more fuel, causing a massive flare up which caught her on fire. Dousing a lit torch is a terrible idea and should never be attempted. In light of this, let’s take a close look at some real, common sense ways to prevent another completely avoidable tragedy like this from occurring again. Below, in no particular order, are 12 rules to keep you safe, including a video on the subject. This is not an exhaustive list, and I’ll link at the bottom of this post to other resources that go deeper into the subject.
Rule #1: Is it legal?
This is a big concern for myself and many city dwellers, as the Fire Marshall’s department has the ultimate say on whether I can use fire painting anywhere in my city. In Houston, you must buy a permit AND have a member of the Fire Marshall’s department on hand to keep an eye on the proceedings, which makes things much more difficult. Luckily enough for me, there’s a nearby beach where anything goes, and the risk of catching anything on fire other than the errant dolphin is next to nil.
You also need to research whether or not your area is experiencing a drought. During drought conditions you absolutely cannot use any sort of fire whatsoever, as you could easily cause a natural disaster to occur.
Rule #2: Wear natural fibers
This one is crucially important. Be sure to clothe both yourself and your subject in garments with natural fibers such as cotton. Synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic contain high levels of plastics which melt when ignited, causing a flaming mass of molten pain that is more likely to disfigure a person, should something go wrong.
Rule #3: Wear protective equipment
This rule is for the light painter. Gloves are essential, especially on a windless day. Many of the shapes I make require me to hold the torch downward, with the flames racing up towards my arms. When I first started out, I figured I’d just see what happened if I tried doing this with bare arms. Five minutes later, my arms were now hairless, and my pride wounded (not to mention the burns on my fingers). In a pinch, heavy kitchen gloves will suffice, but for proper protection I recommend picking up some proper welding gloves from your local hardware store. I also keep a heavy leather coat on hand for activities that create lots of sparks.
Rule #4: Always have a spotter
Always make sure to have a third party on hand with proper fire safety equipment for every shoot. Having a proper fire extinguisher and a purpose made fire safety blanket made of Duvetyne or other sturdy materials is paramount. The spotter serves as a second set of eyes, always ready and within close proximity should something go awry, ready to swoop in and put out any fires in an emergency, and to keep the light painter informed of any potential dangers.
Rule #5: Be mindful of the wind
Be sure to check wind conditions before even leaving the house to go shoot. It’s crucial to never place your subject down wind from the flames. You always want any wind to be blowing your direction since you’ll be the one wearing the proper flame resistant gear. If it’s going to be gusty, and the tools you’re using may cause sparks to travel longer distances than usual in wind, you may want to postpone the shoot due to risk of starting an unintentional brush fire.
Rule #6: Use the proper fuel
Never use Gasoline or Diesel fuel when light painting! Not only are these dangerously reactive, they also give off powerful noxious fumes. I generally use BBQ starter fluid as it’s easy to light and burns brightly, but other alternatives like Naptha, Lamp Oil, and White Gas work as well, and some tend to burn more slowly, giving you more time before having to refuel or switch tools.
Rule #7: Keep fuel at a safe distance
Always be sure to keep your fuel containers fifteen feet away from where you’ll be working at all times. This is a simple way to keep from having to have a meet and greet with your local fire department.
Rule #8: Keep a torch extinguisher handy
I always keep something on hand that can quickly put out any tool that I may be working with. It’s a single use torch I’ll generally douse it in a bucket or body of water. For multi use tools that you may need to refuel, a damp towel, a section of PVC pipe with a cap on one end, or fire blanket can be used to douse the flames.
Rule #9: Sobriety matters
Fire is unpredictable. A human without their full mental focus can be even more so. It’s important to be able to keenly focus on what you’re doing when fire painting, and anything that diminishes your abilities is outright dangerous in a situation that requires you to keep someone safe from harm.
Rule #10: Practice alone first
First time trying this? Practice without a model first to see just how the tools and different types of fuel react. Once you know what to expect, you’ll be better prepared and less likely to make a serious mistake.
Rule #11: Light away from your face
This one is important. Sometimes it’s hard to ascertain just how much fuel is still soaked into a tool, and sometimes you can get a much bigger than expected flame. I also like to let some of the excess fuel burn off before beginning to fire paint, as the very hottest flames are too bright for my desired aperture setting of f/10.
Rule#12: Get to know your photographer
In light of recent events, this might be one of the most important aspects of working safely with fire. If you’re a model that wants to work with someone who fire paints, make sure they are someone with a good reputation. Look up their work. Have they done this before? Will there be a spotter? If you even feel a little unsafe, just walk away. Working with the wrong people can end a modeling career in an instant.
That’s it! These rules and tips should go a long way towards keeping yourself and your subject safe from harm when fire painting. Jules and I created the above photo not too long ago in a single exposure not too long ago, something I’ll be covering here soon!
Below are some direct links to tips from fire performers, whose methods may differ slightly or may even be more relevant for what you want to accomplish. Thanks for reading, and please stop setting models on fire, people.
About the Author
Zach Alan is a Houston, Texas-based photographer specializing in light painting, portraits and commercial photography. Zach is probably most well for light painting with fire. You can find out more about Zach on his website and follow his work on Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.