Match Flare Photography

Or How to Ruin a UV Filter (Without Really Trying)

I was at a loose end this weekend, so settled upon taking some match flare images. I’ve not tried this before, but how difficult could it be? I purchased a few bits and bobs to help, including some long barbecue matches from the supermarket, some small spring clips (to fasten them on to the post) and a cheap toilet roll holder, again from the supermarket. The toilet roll holder didn’t look like it would be brilliant for its intended task because the stem was very thin, but it did look spectacularly handy for my intended task i.e. holding barbecue matches steady whilst I photographed them. My final purchase was a gas hob lighter. You use this to heat the match-head from beneath until it starts to flame. You quickly move it away (you don’t want two flames in the shot) and take a picture.

The Setup and Camera Settings

The beauty of a match flare is the combination of flame and smoke. In order to be able to see the smoke clearly you will need to back-light it with a strobe. Obviously you do not want to see the strobe in the shot, so it really helps if you shoot upwards at about 45 degrees from a position both beneath and behind the match assembly. In my case this meant raising up the aforementioned toilet roll holder a little because it wasn’t tall enough on its own.

You will need a black background, I used my trusty black-velvet Lastolite panel, and it’s a good idea to take a few test shots to make sure that the ambient light in the studio does not cause the background to show. You will want plenty of depth of field so try f11 or smaller if you have to. Next take a test shot or two of a flaring match without the flash. This enables you to get a feel for how much you might need to adjust your ISO and aperture combination to avoid burnout in the flame. This then allows you to get the flash settings right as you will have the correct aperture setting already so you just adjust the power to suit.

As usual I used an SB900 with Flex TT5 controller set to manual. This works well as the lower power settings will usually be enough, and this means that you can take several shots using continuous high speed shooting without the problem of the flash refusing to fire. After the flare, you can blow out the match, and fire off a few more shots to show the smoke trails. I’m not one for excessive anthropomorphization, but they often do look like something (watch out for a witch on a broomstick!!).

The UV Filter Disaster

If you try this, there are two things not to do. Firstly, don’t burn your house or studio down. Secondly, don’t shoot too close. You really need a 200mm Macro lens, or perhaps use a 2x teleconverter on a 105mm Macro. Sadly I shot with my 105mm and did not use the teleconverter. The end result of this was that hot sulphur particles stuck to the front of the filter and could not be wiped off without marking the coating. Thank goodness it was a cheap UV filter rather than the front lens element!! Don’t make the same mistake that I did. Fortunately, Premier Ink and Photographic to the rescue again, they have a great selection of filters at a range of price points.

The Results

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