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Capturing Fire Dancers Under the Milky Way, on a Deserted Island

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At the beginning of this year, I started the photography trip of a lifetime, planning to travel to all 7 continents in a single trip. Currently I’m at Siargao in the Philippines, a paradise location surrounded by beautiful white sand islands.

Photographing the milky way is one of the highlights of my travels, as we barely get to do that back home in The Netherlands thanks to all the light pollution.

Recently there was a performance at Viento del Mar with 2 fire dancers. Instantly, I thought of doing some long exposure experimenting with the dancers, trying out 3 to 10 second exposures with some interesting results.

Fire dancers at Viento Del Mar, april 8 2016, Siargao Philippines. The first couple are performance artists Vatra & Connie, followed by a Filipino guy whose name I don't know.  The bar Viento Del Mar does art nights every friday, theme of this night was Hippies, prize for best dressed, making bamboo rain sticks and tie-dying t-shirts. It's a cool trendy bar, good music and good vibe, one of my favourite places to go out here in Siargao.
Fire dancers at Viento Del Mar, April 8 2016, Siargao Philippines.
The first couple are performance artists Vatra & Connie, followed by a Filipino guy whose name I don’t know.
The bar Viento Del Mar does art nights every friday, theme of this night was Hippies, prize for best dressed, making bamboo rain sticks and tie-dying t-shirts. It’s a cool trendy bar, good music and good vibe, one of my favourite places to go out here in Siargao.

From my resort at the beach, I look out onto Guyam island: a small deserted island just 2.5km away. A beautiful and perfect little island.

Guyam is visited daily by tourists and locals during their boat trips or just to chill for a while. The island has no facilities except for a toilet and 2 shelters. At sunset, everyone leaves and the island is completely empty. It is owned by someone, but for a small fee you can actually spend the night here—your own private island for the night!

It seemed the perfect location to get my long awaited milky way shot.

When the time was right—the weather forecast finally looking good and milky way would rise above the horizon at 11:30pm with the moon going down at the same time—I made my way to the island for an overnight stay to capture my milky way photos and some time-lapses.

Guyam island, Siargo, Philippines About 2 miles from Siargao is this gorgous little island, Guyam. With a friend I went here overnight to capture it from sunset to sunrise, timing it right with the rise of the milky way, while the moon went down. It was an incredible night, first time ever I've been able to see (and finally capture!) the milky way like this.
Guyam island, Siargo, Philippines
About 2 miles from Siargao is this gorgous little island, Guyam. With a friend I went here overnight to capture it from sunset to sunrise, timing it right with the rise of the milky way, while the moon went down. It was an incredible night, first time ever I’ve been able to see (and finally capture!) the milky way like this.

Looking at both the fire dance photos and the Guyam shot, I thought of ways to further improve the shots. I wanted the fire dancer in a special location, and I wanted the Guyam shot to be clearer… to somehow light up the trees.

What better way to combine both and have the fire dancer light up the island and add an extra dimension to the scene? So a few weeks later, when there was barely any moon light, I went back with the fire dancer Jay Rama to get my new shot.

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As expected, it turned out to be an impossible shot to capture in a single exposure—the difference in light between the fire and the milky way was simply too much to get the exposure right on both in-camera. So the images above are composites of 2 images.

For my first milky way shot I used a 15 second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 1600 (shooting with a D800 and 14-24mm), but it turned out a bit too underexposed. 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 2000 got me the shot I needed.

For the shot with all the circles at the top, I used a 19 second exposure (bulb) at f/18 and ISO 800. The ‘butterfly’ was shot in 3 seconds at f/8 and ISO 50. I’m not suggesting that these are the perfect settings, it’s just what worked for me at the time.

I didn’t really have that much time to experiment with settings—the act would last only a minute or 2 and we were fairly limited on fuel. We had to work quick.

5a-Guyam-firedance-01a

5b-Guyam-firedance-01b

5c-Guyam-firedance-02b

I went on to further experiment on the fire dancing captures. It turned out hard to get any background showing in the image because the fiery foreground was so bright.

We tried some locations on the water and on the beach to capture some reflections and, thus, more light. I also tried using the flash of my compact camera and smartphone to freeze the dancer several times within the frames, but without great results. Finally, for a few shots I tried using my flashlight.

I really wanted the dancer to be visible in the shot, usually he’s all walking around and barely visible, so I asked him to stay at the same spot and work on simpler actions, trying to create some butterfly-like images. That worked really well and led to some really nice photos.

6a Guyam-firedance-04

6b Jay collage


About the author: Martien Janssen is a designer and photographer based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. He’s currently traveling the world with the goal of hitting all 7 continents on a single trip. You can follow his travels and see more of the beautiful photos he’s capturing through his website, Facebook, and Instagram.

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