Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels

Saturday 5 November 2016

There's nowhere I'd rather be on bonfire night than Ottery St Mary. It's home to one of the most unique and wonderful traditions I've had the pleasure to witness. Every year many barrels, soaked in tar, are lit on fire and carried at surprising speed through the very crowded streets. I've been going for many years and have found that nobody really believes this description until they see for themselves. It's become a huge spectacle - I dearly hope it continues for years to come. A big thank you to all the organisers and the brave barrel rollers.

Last year I wrote some tips to photograph the Ottery Tar Barrels. This year, I tried something different, which I explain after the photos. As always, photos can't really capture the full experience of being there. Video might be a little better, but will be even harder to take and still won't capture the heat in your face, the smoke in your lungs and the push of the crowd that are all part of the experience.

The Square, Children's barrel

The Square, Children's barrel

Getting warm, King's Arms Hotel Barrl, Junior Ladies

Getting warm, King's Arms Hotel Barrl, Junior Ladies

Tar barrel and sack glove

Tar barrel and sack glove

So brave to pick this up

So brave to pick this up

Lighting the Plume of Feathers Barrel, Junior Ladies

Lighting the Plume of Feathers Barrel, Junior Ladies

Getting the barrel ready

Getting the barrel ready

Which way to go?

Which way to go?

A little help when the flames get low

A little help when the flames get low

10-Ottery-St-Mary-Burning-Barrels Pickup after more

Pickup after more "juice"

The end of a barrel

The end of a barrel

The Factory Barrel

The Factory Barrel

14-Ottery-St-Mary-Burning-Barrels The Volunteer Barrel, in the Square

The Volunteer Barrel, in the Square

A very close photo opportunity

A very close photo opportunity

17-Ottery-St-Mary-Burning-Barrels 18-Ottery-St-Mary-Burning-Barrels Smoking glove

Smoking glove

Big crowds in the Square for the final barrel

Big crowds in the Square for the final barrel

21-Ottery-St-Mary-Burning-Barrels The barrel rollers after the last barrel

The barrel rollers after the last barrel

Photographing the Ottery Barrels without flash

The Ottery barrels have got to be one of the hardest things I ever try to photograph. The action is fast, in dim street light, yet with bright flames that sometimes get very close indeed, all among big crowds. This year, I thought I'd try something new photographically. For the first time, I decided to take my DSLR instead of a compact camera. I've always been a little worried about taking an expensive and bulky camera to the barrels, but as I knew exactly what to expect I thought I'd give it a try. I was equipped with fast prime lenses, but deliberately chose not to use a flash. Given the barrels take place at night, not taking a flash might seem strange, but I had my reasons:

How did it work? I'm pleased with what I've captured. It has the different feel I was after. As I anticipated, it's harder to take photos without flash - the difference in exposure between the flames and everything else is much bigger, so everything else appears dark. I used a large negative exposure compensation (normally between - 2 and - 4 stops) to keep some detail in the flames, then post-processed the images to lift the dark shadows. With the camera on shutter priority (around 1/250s to freeze some motion), I set auto ISO to deal with the wildly varying light levels. Normally the lens was wide open - when very close to the barrel, there was sometimes enough light for the shutter priority mode to close the aperture down a little. Of course wide open apertures with fast prime lenses mean focusing is critical. I didn't use the viewfinder, except occasionally when the barrel was far away - it's potentially dangerous as you lose track of the surroundings and my priority was about staying out of the way and safe. Instead I used (back-button /af-on) autofocus locked on the central point and aimed the camera blind*. Of course, with this technique, there are going to be plenty of poor shots. So I took plenty and just show my favourites here.

* Alternatively, it's worth playing with prefocusing the lens and waiting for the barrel to be about this distance away. This is what I did last year with my compact camera, but with the better low light focusing performance of a DSLR coupled with smaller depth of field I tried active focusing this time.

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