Ottery Tar Barrels

Thursday 5 November 2015

I've been going to the Ottery Tar Barrels for well over ten years. I think this was my seventh visit. It's a simple idea, but hard to believe. Some residents of Ottery St Mary carry barrels - soaked with tar and lit on fire - on their backs and run through the large watching crowds. It is crazy, but in a very good way. We live in a world where many people are quick to condemn any activity that sounds dangerous, on the grounds of "health and safety". Having watched the barrels so many times, it's obvious that what initially appears to be uncontrolled madness is anything but. The barrel rollers are very skilled and work brilliantly as a team - there are many of them in the crowd, with marshals too. Clearly a lot of careful planning and experience goes into keeping this tradition alive.

We all need to think about the risks we take. The tar barrels show that it's possible to do what first appears incredibly dangerous, yet make it safe enough that thousands of people come and watch it every year. Long may it continue!

See below the photos for some photography tips

Lighting the barrel

Lighting the barrel

The sign doesn't lie

The sign doesn't lie

The last ladies barrel

The last ladies barrel "Plume of Feathers"

Amongst the crowd

Amongst the crowd

Starting to burn through the barrel

Starting to burn through the barrel

Not much barrel left

Not much barrel left

But they kept the barrel going for ages

But they kept the barrel going for ages

The end of a barrel - one of the best I've ever seen and a huge cheer at the end

The end of a barrel - one of the best I've ever seen and a huge cheer at the end

Men's burning tar barrel

Men's burning tar barrel

The experience with the barrel further away in the crowd

The experience with the barrel further away in the crowd

Up close again

Up close again

The men did a great job keeping the London Hotel barrel going too

The men did a great job keeping the London Hotel barrel going too

The remains of the Ottery bonfire, fairground behind

The remains of the Ottery bonfire, fairground behind

Tips for photographing the Ottery burning barrels

I've been taking photos at Ottery for years, starting with a film camera*. Back then there were few cameras to be seen. Nowadays of course many people try and take photos with their phone and there are quite a few high end DSLR cameras and flashes. It's a hard place to take good photos for sure. Really your first priority has to be safety and not causing an accident by getting in the way. Personally I would strongly recommend that photographers watch a barrel or two without taking a photo, to learn how the barrel moves and how to approach it safely.

For these photos, I used a compact camera (Canon S95) rather than my DSLR and shot without looking at the display, so that I was always aware of where the barrel and other people were. To stand a chance of getting the action in the photo without looking at the display, I kept the lens at the wide end (28mm equivalent) and got close. The light is too dim and the barrel moves too fast for reliable autofocus with this camera, so I prefocused (in manual focus mode) at around 1.5m or so. I used large (~1.5 stops) negative exposure compensation to keep detail in the flames, with the small built in flash which I often turned down a little. A final tip - make sure you are in a safe place before reviewing your photos. I saw many people checking their photos as the barrel came speeding back towards them.

*Actually negative film works really well for fire, as the highlights don't end up overexposed and featureless white like with digital.

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