Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels

Saturday 4 November 2017

Although I've not lived in Devon since 2006, I try to make it back for bonfire night. After experiencing the incredible tar barrels at Ottery St Mary, fireworks just seem so inadequate. I think this my ninth visit - there are photos from 2016 and 2015 on my website. Of course, photos don't really capture what it's like to be there. The intense heat as a barrels speeds past your face can only be experienced in person, not on a screen. This year, as it was a Saturday night, it was extremely busy, but as ever the organisers and barrel rollers did an excellent job keeping everybody safe and entertained. Long may it continue - it really it an amazing tradition!

As with last year, I took photos without flash. I explain my approach after the photos. As ever, my top photography tip is to stay safe - watch and learn how the barrels move before even attempting to photograph them. It may appear uncontrolled madness, but there's a tremendous amount of teamwork by the barrel rollers to keep this safe. Don't get in the way and cause an accident for a photo.

It begins! The Half Moon intermediate barrel

It begins! The Half Moon intermediate barrel

Nearly ready

Nearly ready

Many hands (with sack cloth gloves)

Many hands (with sack cloth gloves)

Getting the Plume of Feathers barrel ready

Getting the Plume of Feathers barrel ready

A pause to let an ambulance through

A pause to let an ambulance through

Paraffin flare

Paraffin flare

In the crowd

In the crowd

Running at great speed

Running at great speed

Ready to help

Ready to help

Up close and personal with a flaming barrel

Up close and personal with a flaming barrel

A barrel for a head

A barrel for a head

Not much left now

Not much left now

But they keep it going

But they keep it going

A taste of the very busy square (London Inn barrel)

A taste of the very busy square (London Inn barrel)

Mill Street is packed for the Factory Barrel

Mill Street is packed for the Factory Barrel

A close encounter

A close encounter

Head down and going for it

Head down and going for it

Sparks fly

Sparks fly

The Factory Barrel extinguished

The Factory Barrel extinguished

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. As last year, I took my DSLR instead of a compact camera. If you've not been before, I'd definitely think hard about taking an expensive and bulky camera to the barrels. I was equipped with fast prime lenses (24mm and 58mm), 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:

It's hard 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 made me favour actively focusing.

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