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.
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:
- I wanted to capture a truer atmosphere of the barrels, lit as the crowd sees them
- To avoid distracting the barrel rollers with a bright flash - it must be annoying and could be dangerous
- Flashes mounted on a camera are pretty delicate and the barrels are a rough environment
- Nearly all the photos I've seen of Ottery use flash, so I wanted to try something different
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.
I'd like to hear what you think...
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