Everything’s better with sparkles! This is not only a good life motto but a solid piece of advice for a creative still life photographer.
And sparklers are cheap, easy to find and extremely beautiful. They bring a magical and festive feeling to your photos.
It’s like having a little fireball or a tiny tamed comet in your still life. That’s why this article is about using sparklers for out of this world still life photos.
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1. What Props and Gear Do You Need
The list of things you need to get a nice sparkler image is incredibly short:
- items for your still life;
- a light source;
- a camera and a tripod.
That’s the essentials. You can also use a pair of tweezers if your scene is small and you’re going to use short sparklers.
As a light source, you can use anything you like. Used to working with natural light? Great! Prefer studio lights? Perfect!
My go-to lights are two speedlights SB-910, so I used them.
The thing we are going to talk in more detail is a set of still life items. But first.
Sparklers are great fun. But they are still dangerous to use indoor. Keep a container of water handy, put any flammable items away and don’t wear flammable clothes. If you have soft skin, use gloves.
You might want to wear safety goggles to cover your eyes too.
Keep children and pets away from the open fire.
Treat fire as a serious business — even a small one. And stay safe.
2. How to Create a Still Life Story
The important thing in still life photography in general, is to think about your concept in advance. In shooting sparklers it’s twice as significant because you’re going to work with a dynamic image.
It means after you light a sparkler there won’t be a lot of opportunities to change your composition. Unless you want to light and shoot it again.
That’s why we need to think about our idea first. What story are you going to tell? Sure, fire photography is a great subject all by itself, but try to add a narrative to it.
Do you imagine an alchemist workplace full of laboratory flasks and beakers with burning fire? Or your sparkler is a secret ingredient to a fiery potion?
Imagine a wizard who caught a fallen star and sealed it in a jar. Think about a writer who’s so emerged in their inspiration that their pencil produces a sheaf of sparks.
The space theme is my thing, so I decided that my photo is going to be about a stargazer and a treasure of starlight. He keeps it in a box and locks it with a golden key. The scene should be filled with star imagery.
I also added other space-related objects. Namely, a meteor I made from polymer clay, a couple of scrolls and notes with constellations, and some star-shaped glitter.
Here’s another sparkler shot I made for New Year. I didn’t want it to look too Christmassy but it needed some seasonal hint. I just added a couple of fir tree branches and a garland in the background.
2. How to Test the Sparklers Before Shooting
Before lighting up your narrative driven still life, conduct a small test. Just to see how the sparkler would look like at your chosen angle. I wanted to shoot from above and put sparkles inside a wooden box.
How would the sparkler behave in these circumstances? Which box do I need to choose? It turned out, that, first, a top view of a sparkler looks fantastic. It means we can use it in a flat lay!
Second, I needed to use a smaller box since the sparks can fill its insides entirely. And it looks way cooler than empty corners.
Test the sparkler in your scene, with the background and props you’re going to use. That will give you greater control while working with a major composition.
3. What’s the Easiest Composition for Sparkler Photography
The easiest way to work on composition is to start with the relatively big objects and to move to the smaller ones. I started with a wooden coaster and a box — the most massive object and my main hero.
After that, I added a leather notebook and a couple of notes with constellations. The next step was to add little details like a tiny magnifying glass, potion bottles and a pinch of stardust.
You can keep the background dark. It will make sparks more prominent. But no one is saying you can’t use light and colourful or even white background.
You’ll still be able to see the sparks, but they won’t be so evidently bright and fiery.
Remember to let your composition breathe, avoid clutter and leave some space for sparks!
4. Lighting Setup for Sparkler Photography
The lighting here is very simple. In my case, the scene is lit with two speedlights. One inside of a small stripbox on the right top corner and another behind a large diffuser on the left.
You can use one light source and a reflector. It’s as simple as that.
Natural light would also work perfectly well. It is harder to control, but if you’re used to it, go ahead! Place black flags (pieces of black cardboard will do) between a window and the scene to cut some excessive light if you need to.
Keep in mind that the sparkler will give its own light to the scene, so be careful to not overexpose the image. It’s even better to underexpose it a little, letting the sparkler shine and cast reflections and flares on other items.
5. What Camera Settings Should You Use for Sparkler Photos
The key setting here is the shutter speed. You can vary it in a fairly large scale between 1/100 and 0,5 sec (or even 1,5 second in some cases).
The longer the shutter speed, the longer the fiery tails of sparks and the more light from the sparkler.
In my case shutter speed about 0,5 second practically burnt out every detail in my scene, it was definitely too much. At a shorter shutter speed, you won’t be able to get beautiful glares of sparkler’s light on other objects and the fiery trails will be too short.
In my experiments, the ideal shutter speed for still life photos lies between 1/100 to 1/10 second.
The exact shutter speed settings will depend on the quality of sparklers you use and the size of the area you want to light.
It’s okay if you don’t get it right the first time. Just change your shutter speed and try again! You can make a couple of test shots and then decide which one you like most.
Another important thing is high-speed continuous shooting mode (or burst mode). Make sure that your camera will shoot several photos in a row, it will make the process a lot easier.
Here’s the technical information for the shot I took, broken down.
Exposure details: manual mode, 50 mm, 1/10 s, f/6.3, ISO 160
Gear: Nikon D800, 50 mm, speedlight SB-910, Westcott Strip Box (10×24″).
6. How to Keep the Sparkler Steady
Usually, I’d simply put my sparkler in a glass jar and let it burn. But if you want it to be a tiny star in a box, you’ll need a way to keep it stable.
Cut a sparkler in half, you probably won’t need it to be long. Stick it in a cork, a piece of Plasticine or even a chewing gum. Or curve its end so it will be able to stay still on its own.
7. What You Need to Do During Shooting
Now, the best part! Place the sparkler inside a box, lit it up and take a sequence of shots. Look at all these pretty sparks!
They look especially beautiful if they bounce from other objects. So if sparks in your shot are not as long as you want them to be, try shooting with a longer shutter speed.
If you have several objects you want to make „sparkly“, shoot them separately, one by one. Say, you can have two glowing boxes. Just photograph them one after another and merge two shots during post-processing.
8. How to Post-Process Sparkler Photography
Usually, there’s not much post-processing to do. Sparkler’s fire looks great, so it’s just a matter of choosing the best shot.
I generally just decrease the saturation of the orange colours during the conversion from RAW, so the fire looks whiter (and hotter!).
And after that I just go through my usual process of adjusting tone and contrast.
Another way you can approach post-processing is to merge a couple of shots into one picture. Using a tripod during shooting should make this very simple. Use Layer Mask and a soft brush to conceal the parts you don’t want visible.
Add some sparks here and there and give the image a little polish in general. Ta-da!
9. How to Photograph Sparklers Inside Jars and Paper Stars
There are other interesting ways to use sparkles in creative still life photography. For example, you can create a fire collection of a sort by shooting sparkling fire inside glass jars.
To do that you need some preparation first.
a) Cut the Sparkler
For this trick, we are not going to use the entire sparkler, but burning bits of them. So peel off the pieces of combustible mixture from the stem. Keep them relatively big and try not to turn them into dust.
Get a pair of very long tweezers. I use dental tweezers with bent tips for practically everything and can highly recommend them for this shooting too.
b) Prepare the Jars
After that find a glass jar with thick walls. For most of my works I just use jars for spices, they are pretty cheap but look nice once you removed a plastic cap. They could last till the end of shooting and if they nonetheless crack, it wouldn’t be an expensive loss.
Laboratory glassware like flasks and test tubes is ideal, but these guys are pricier and more fragile. I’m always trying to be very careful with them.
Not all glass is heat-resistant glass. Sparkles are really hot and thin glass can crack from the heat right in the middle of shooting and ruin the image. So choose jars with strong walls and don’t use objects you’re afraid to break.
I lost only one jar from six, but still, it’s good to be on the safe side.
c) Lit It Up
After arranging your jars into a nice composition, prepare to add some fire to it! Light a candle. Take the piece of a peeled sparkler with tweezers, hold it above the candle and right after it burns, drop it into the jar.
Take a few shots in a row. Try to act quickly and be careful with sparks.
If you have several jars, shoot fire inside them one after another, and combine these shots together later.
Another thing you can do is to hold a piece of peeled burning substance with tweezers above the surface of a drink. Looks like a magical potion!
And one more trick before the end. Hold burning sparklers behind a figure cut from tracing paper and make it glow! I tried this focus a couple of times, it looks the most beautiful if the figure has some volume to it.
For example, I was shooting an image with a sparkler behind a star. When this star was just a flat figure from tracing paper, it looked nice, but not very interesting. But then I added stiffening ribs and turned it into a 3D object.
The light created a beautiful play of highlights and shadows. So pleasant to look at!
Here are some other photos I made with the same technique.
Now, over to you!
I strongly encourage you to experiment with sparkler photography. Find the tricks of your own and explore the endless possibilities of sparklers and fire in creative still life photography.
Bring to life all the magical potions and paper dragons! Burn your tracing paper castles! Brew a fiery mixture! Long exposure can help you create some really magical pictures, so find your own way to be creative.
Best of luck with your sparkling experiments!
Looking for some more creative still life ideas? Check out our posts on shooting amazing coffee photography or experimenting with scanography.