Final hogshead barrel being carried through the Square to mark Bonfire Night, 5 November, at the Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary, Devon, England

The Burning Barrels festival is one of the craziest festivals I have ever attended: and who would believe that it is is held in England. Normally such a risk averse country, the celebration involves people running through the town carrying burning tar barrels on their shoulders.

Photographically the burning barrels presents a number of potential problems. Low light, contrast, crowds and movement all combine to make it a very tricky subject. As with all situations, planning is the key. I had a good idea of what I wanted to achieve in advance, and also considered some of the technical issues. I knew that I needed to use fill-in flash, but also realised that I needed to balance it with the colour balance of the ambient light: if this wasn't done then the flash light would have a sickly blue cast. To avoid this, I fitted an orange gel on to the flash head. This is a part of all quality, external flash heads. If you don't have one of these then a standard gel can be fitted over the flash head.

When actually shooting I wanted a slowish speed to allow for a blur in the background. I set a relatively fast ISO to allow for a narrow aperture for more depth of field, and set the exposure mode to Program. I also set a wide pattern autofocus mode as there was no way that I would be able to set the focus myself. Exposure wise, it was just a case of adjusting the exposure compensation on the flash and the camera to get the result I wanted. This usually involved slight underexposure on the camera to maintain definition in the flames, and then a corresponding over-exposure with the flash to balance. Using the Nikon Matrix meter pattern meant that the exposure was fairly accurate to start off with.

All I had to do was judge what path through crowd that the barrel runners were going to take, and then stand there, and wait for everyone else to jump out of the way! I then had a brief few seconds to shoot myself, before having to duck to avoid the flames! As I was shooting with a very wideangle lens, which meant that I could stand closer to the action than most people. As long as I was braver than them too, then I managed to have a clear view, although I often got a little warm and on a couple of occasions even got the camera hit by the barrel!

Nikon D800 @ ISO 3200
Nikon 14-24 mm lens @ 15mm
seconds @ f 10
Flash with orange gel

Words and image Steve Davey/ 2017

better travel photography•COM

The Story Behind the Picture...

Website, Images and text Steve Davey/ 1990 - 2021

Click on one of the links below to see the feature:

Travel Photography

A Lesson In Copyright

Shooting the perfect Selfie


Story Behind the Picture

01 - Marrakech Snakes

02 - Hanoi Moto Taxi

03 - Carnaval de Binche

04 - Petra Star trails

05 - Laos Alms Round

06 - Madagascar Chameleon

07 - Delhi Spice Market

08 - Lalibela Rainbow

09 - Burning Barrels

10 Sugarloaf Mountain

501 tips
photo tours
photo courses