Forests are beautiful. They are an integral part of the nature’s support system for us to be able to live. How do we pay back? Cutting trees, destroying everything that supports us and wasting away these precious gifts of nature. Why am I writing about this in a site related to photography? I witnessed a forest fire and photographed it. I’ll be writing about the photography aspect too but first let me express how I felt while I photographed the incident.
(Forest Fire – ISO 800 with f/8 and 4 sec exposure)
It was late in the evening and I was traveling back to my home. The weather was fine but dry. It had not rained for many days and a spell of dry months is usual in the region. The sun had already set. I had planned on capturing some sunsets but the luck was not with me. There were no clouds in sight and the sky appeared characterless. As I traveled on, the sky further darkened and soon it was night. A little distance away I could see a golden glow. Some kind of light! It was a forest fire.
Dry grass, broken branches, organic matter, dry leaves… all are very prone to fires. In this case most probably a stray cigarette butt was all that was needed to light them up. The flames roared and rose high up. Some young trees were also on fire. Old tall pines were still out of the reach of the flames but for how long? The fire spread quickly to engulf a large area as I helplessly gazed at it. There was a valley between me and the hill which was on fire.
One part of the fire had formed a ring and was fast closing in on to the grass and trees in the middle. I shuddered to think of the critters and other small animals who might have been trapped with no way out. The fire closed in and within a matter of minutes the central patch was gone.The fire had formed a long wall which was now moving towards the back of the hill, as it ran out of dry vegetation to burn on the front. Few more minutes and the fire was out of my view. It was scary at the speed with which it had destroyed that patch of the forest and moved on.
(Ring formed by forest fire – The upper edge of the fire is just behind the hill top, completing the ring which surrounded the area in the center.)
Photographing the forest fire
Coming to the photography part, I used an inexpensive telephoto zoom lens and captured some photographs using evaluative metering, Auto ISO and aperture priority. Evaluative metering did a good job of preventing any over or under exposure of the scenes. I did have to dial in a little bit of exposure compensation based on what I felt was required. Auto-ISO functionality is very useful in such scenarios. Long lenses which are prone to movement and coupled with lack of light in the night time makes exposure difficult. There was no tripod available and so resting the camera on a stone wall was the only option that I had. This meant that even at average open apertures, for shutter speeds to avoid any camera movement, a fairly high ISO was required. Auto ISO boosted the ISO to the maximum available value. Noise also increased proportionately.
After some captures using Auto ISO, I shifted to manual ISO control and tried some captures at mid ISO range. The noise performance improved tremendously but the shutter speed too became very slow. The challenges with a slow shutter speed were – the camera movement and subject blur (flames and trees). For stabilizing the camera, I placed the camera with the lens on the thick stone wall. Next I used a hand towel to gather up some pebbles. This was my makeshift bean-bag and provided my lens further support. I did not have a cable release so timer was the next best option. Using the timer function, I was able to reduce the camera movement due to shutter release.Liveview functionality is another aid that can help in such situations. It lifts the mirror out of the way and thereby avoids mirror slap. I did try some captures using this mode too but later I changed back to the old viewfinder method. Using liveview for night scenes can be counterproductive since it can heat up the sensor and produce long exposure noise.
Late night exposures such as these present some more difficulties. The darkness can be frightening especially if one happens to be in the wild. The same place which looks beautiful and full of nature turns scary. If you are planning on any night photography, take a friend along. The experience becomes less scary. Another very important recommendation – carry a flash-light. Even if your phone has a built in torch, carry a separate flashlight. In fact, I usually have one in my camera bag. This can be a valuable aid to see the camera and hit the right buttons in the dark and for finding that dropped lens cap or memory card.
I encourage photographers to go out and take photographs but the incident which I photographed, I pray that it stops happening, even if we loose out this subject of photography. Forest fires are terrible.
(Smoking Forest – Captured at another location sometime back on a phone camera. Notice the bare ground and trees which are still giving out smoke. Over the coming days they would further weaken and die away)
The following day
Next morning, the fire was gone. Thick smoke was still rising but no more flames. The tall pines stood all charred and the ground was all black. I could see some forest officials trying to salvage whatever they could.
On discussion with one of them, this is what I came to know that causes forest fires –
- Most of the forest fires are caused by humans. What else was expected? The reasons for these fires are thrown away burning cigarettes, partially extinguished campfires and sometimes fires that are started to clear away some part of the forest and gets out of hand. The maximum fires are the result of those cigarette butts
- Glass bottles. This was new to me. It seems that people discard bottles in the forest while traveling. These bottles can sometimes act as magnifying glass and start a forest fire.
- Lightening. This is a natural phenomenon but does not usually cause widespread fires. Trees do burn up but not forest fires. The reason is simple. Lightening usually happens in the rainy season and the grass is all wet at that time of the year. The fire does not spread.
(I can’t get this image out of my mind.
Compare it with the photograph below showing how the forests in this region appear after just a couple of showers.)
With a heavy heart and a terrible memory of the yesterday’s forest fire, my request to all my readers and fellow photographers, if you happen to walk around in such forests ensure that neither you nor your friends end up being the cause of any such forest fire.
(This is an old photograph of the same region from some time back. The forest that burnt down appeared similar to this)
Edit (29 May 2018) : While traveling on the road above, I was shocked to see a recent fire that had burnt down a substantial amount of the forest on the right side of the photograph. My heart sank on seeing the terrible fate that the forest had to face. The reason for the fire is not yet clear but the chances are that it was a stray cigarette butt.
(The smoke that rose from the burning forest, covered the sky, turning it orange and also hid the bright sun. Photographed on iphone 5s and edited on Affinity Photo.)
EDIT (8 June 2018) : After many days of such random fires, I took my camera and planned a walk in such a forest. Walking down the burnt forest, with camera in my hand, I had thought of photographing some dark soot-covered rocks. A few steps into the forest and I was overwhelmed with emotions. There was anger and sadness which took over me. Captured just a few images and returned back.
(Burnt Rhododendron and Oak trees. All the greenery is gone and left behind are these dead trees, half converted to coal and still smoking at places)