How to take photos of Shetland Fire Festivals

Photographer Charles Tait offered some valuable advice for taking photos of Shetland Fire Festivals. These can be particularly difficult subjects to take good pictures of as they take place during the winter on dark nights and feature lots of movement, as Jarl Squads march quickly with bright flaming torches.

As well as washing out and ruining the atmosphere of your photos, a flashing camera will blind the marching Vikings and make them angry – which is always ill-advised!

However we have some tips that may help you!

Throwing flaming torches into the galley during Up Helly Aa, Shetland

Wrap up warm and protect your gear

As you’ll note from the dates above, most Shetland Fire Festivals take place between January and March. As a result, many of the Shetland Fire Festivals take place in rainy or windy conditions. Make sure you are wrapped warm in rainproof gear (that will smell of smoke by the end of the night) and that your camera equipment is protected from the elements. Most importantly, watch your surroundings when taking photos; flaming torches are dangerous!

Up Helly Aa galley burning

Get into a good position

Make you go well in advance to a good view of the burning site. Though a tripod is always recommended, the large number of people attending a Shetland Fire Festival means this isn’t always easy. Instead, find a good spot and stick to it.

Guizers at Up Helly Aa, Shetland

Turn up the ISO setting

Turn up the ISO on your camera to a high setting like 3200 when taking photos of Shetland Fire Festivals. This will increase the camera’s sensitivity to light. You will be able to get sharp pictures of marching Vikings and guizers due to the high shutter speeds.

A Viking at a Shetland fire Festival

Turn your Flash off

As well as washing out and ruining the atmosphere of your photos, a flashing camera will blind the marching Vikings and make them angry – which is always ill-advised! Make sure your flash is switched off.

Galley burning during a Shetland Fire Festival

Leave automatic focus on

As there is plenty of light from the burning torches and then from the burning galley, it’s fine to leave the automatic focus on. We would generally advise leaving all of the automatic settings on, apart from turning your ISO up and switching your flash off, and enjoying the event!

Lighting up during a Shetland Fire Festival

Take lots of photos

There’s lots of space on your memory card. As each Shetland Fire Festival only takes place once a year, make sure you take plenty of images. You may need to delete a large percentage but there will be a few gems amongst them.

Up Helly Aa is a Shetland Fire Festival

One piece of advice is that it’s quite nice to capture the movement of the Vikings marching. Though you don’t want to over-expose your images, it’s quite nice to have a little bit of blur. So if you set your shutter speeds to a 15th or 30th of a second that can give quite nice results; especially of the lens of your camera has got image stabilisation. Image stabilisation allows you to shoot at a lower speed without too much blur.

Guizers lighting up during Up Helly Aa

For iphones or mobile phones

Switch off your flash and select ISO 1600 or 3200. Get in a good position and snap away!

Charles Tait is an Orcadian photographer and author. His Orkney Guide Book, Shetland Guide Book and North Coast 500 Guide Book are essential purchases for those wishing to visit the Northern Isles and North of Scotland. Visit www.charles-tait.co.uk for more information.

Magnus DixonBy Magnus Dixon
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, enjoys films and audiobooks, eats a little too much for his own good.

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