07/26/15 7353 W - + 13 - 7 How to Become a Fire Photographer

By Mike Legeros

Version 1.1 – July 24, 2015

So you want to become a fire photographer? Meaning, someone who takes pictures of firefighters in action, at structure fires and other incidents. Basically, a combination fire buff and photojournalist.

For the purposes of this document, we’re presuming that these are civilians. They might have prior experience as a responder—or agency affiliation therein—but they’re not presently active as one.

What about active responders who are taking pictures on- or off-duty? Much of this information is applicable, but there are probable gaps. Such as the policy and legal considerations for someone taking pictures of their own department in action, and how they use or share those photos.

Also worth asking, is anyone with a camera at a fire automatically a “fire photographer?” Of course not. The label applies to someone with a set of demonstrated skills and practiced standards. They’re adept at getting good shots, telling a good story, and sharing appropriate imagery. They’re agile on scene and know where to stand and where not to stand. They work with the responders and their community and not against them.

Does that still sound interesting and exciting? Then let’s proceed with what we’ll call a direct download of Mike’s brain.

You have been warned.

Short Version

How to become a fire photographer

Three easy steps:

  1. Visit fire scenes.
  2.  Take pictures
  3.  Post pictures.

Or with slightly more explanation:

  1. Visit fire scenes.
  2.  Take pictures from public perspective.
  3.  Post pictures/share pictures with fire department.
  4.  Develop relationship(s) with firefighters and fire department.
  5.  Develop mastery of technical skills for photojournalistic techniques required for shooting fires.
  6.  Learn about fires and fire departments, to better choose what you’re photographing.
  7.  Learn and demonstrate how to edit and parse pictures, to respect privacy of victims and promote positive image/actions of firefighters.
  8.  Learn and demonstrate how to conduct yourself at a fire scene, to minimize impact on operations.
  9.  Earn permission to take pictures from “inside the tape.”


Very Long Version


  • About this document
  • Minimum requirements
  • Technical camera skills
  • Compositional skills
  • Photojournalism skills
  • Fire photography skills
  • Processing and posting skills
  • Picking and choosing photos
  • Familiarity with emergency services
  • Radio monitoring
  • Responding
  • On scene
  • Agency affiliation
  • Social media
  • Other thoughts
  • Contributor tips
  • Acknowledgements

About This Document

There are other types of fire photographers, of course. They include:

Mike’s tools and techniques?

Mike has presented or participated in workshops on this topic twice, for the North Carolina State Firemen's Association annual convention. See his slides.

Minimum requirements

These things are probably are the minimum that’s required, to get you started or ensure a good path that’s followed:

Technical camera skills

Compositional skills

Photojournalism skills

Fire photography skills

There are also some technical issues specific to photographing fire and flames. They include:

Processing and posting skills

Picking and choosing photos

From snapping to posting, that's the entire life cycle. Soup to nuts.

Part I

Part II

Next, let's talk about the content of your pictures. Some questions to ask yourself:

Other considerations:

Familiarity with emergency services

Another piece of the puzzle is understanding what happens at emergency scenes.

Radio monitoring

How do you learn about emergency calls, so you can respond and take pictures?


On scene

Some of this was covered in the prior Familiarity section.

Part I - Arriving

Part II - Conduct

Agency affiliation

As you develop your skills and practice your craft, you may have the opportunity to become affiliated with one or more fire departments.

Social media


Part I - Photos as they happen

Part II – Photos after posted in albums

Part III – Before you post that fire photo to Facebook

Read blog posting of mine from March 2015.

Other thoughts

Notification Services

Apparatus photography

Drone photography

Posing people

Storing Pictures

Legal Issues



Policy Issues


Contributor Tips


Thanks to these reviewers for feedback. This document wasn’t created in a vacuum, and your input is appreciated:

Thank you the these and SO MANY others, for the many earlier conversations and knowledge sharing that we’ve done of the years. You all have helped me become a better fire photographer.

Mike, thank you for all of this very valuable information! I will adopt this is as our Fire Buff Bible or Operations Manual.
Evan Caulfield (Web Site) - 07/26/15 - 13:16

This is a fantastic guide – I will have to refer back to it often as I develop my skills. Thank you!
Andrew Pang (Email) (Web Site) - 07/29/15 - 19:46

Great resource. Glad it’s out there now but would have loved to see this years ago. (I may still share with people as a resource.)

I’ve got a few additional thoughts that I hope will be helpful, but first a little of my background:
• I’m a lifelong fire buff who started taking fire photos as a kid with my father.
• I spent 2+ years in NYC doing freelance work and buffing FDNY fires.
• After NYC, I moved to Virginia and into journalism full-time for 5-ish years and covered many fires and emergency responses and built some good relationships with responders.
• While I loved journalism, it wasn’t a sustainable career for me, so I switched careers to the tech world and took on the role as the PIO for my rural Virginia county fire/rescue department in my spare time. I did this for more than 6 years until this past spring when my tech career took me to Texas.
– Some of my photos: http://thatis.me/~YAiPj
• Since I recently moved, I’m currently taking some time away from actively buffing or working with emergency services, but intend to get back into it in the future.

Accessing the scene:
• Urban (based on my time buffing the FDNY)
– Traffic and parking is a huge challenge.
– I often biked to scene or took subway and walked.
– More likely to have authorities (police) limiting scene access. The more onlookers they have to deal with, the greater their need to restrict for safety.
• Rural
– You’ve got to think about emergency vehicle access, probably more so than urban/suburban incidents. In a rural setting, there’s a higher likelihood of narrow single-lane roads and dead-end roads. Expect water supply shuttles to be coming and going. Pulling into a side drive? That might be the spot the engines/tankers/tenders back into to turn around instead of backing down the lane. Expect to walk. Don’t be the person that causes access problems.
– Think about weather and drivability. Can you get there and back safely in mud, snow, ice? Will you be able to get out of your parking place when it’s over? Is it on a hill or is it level?Is it wet, muddy, snowy, or icy? I’ve seen some benign-looking parking spots turn tricky when it came time to leave.
– Don’t overlook the walk back to your parking place. In the winter, it can be cold and dark, especially compared to a well-lit, fire-warmed fire scene.
• Freeway: My personal rule was to avoid the interstate unless an entire direction was shut down and there was a compelling reason to go. It’s dangerous, and traffic is a pain. If possible, I looked for a nearby overpass to shoot from with a telephoto lens.

Stand a good chance of beating the first-due units on a call? Think about staging to let them in first, especially if you’re unaffiliated with a department. I’ve been first-in and that can bring good pictures, but it can also make things dicey.
• You’ll be the first to encounter hazards. (See below: “Your safety and comfort on the scene.”)
• You could be the first to encounter the displaced or victims. Are you ready for that?
• You could block access for responders.
• You could get parked in.
• You risk appearing like someone glorying in other’s distress. “Man, that guy was here before the fire department and all he wanted was pictures."

Your safety and comfort on the scene
• Be aware of the weather. Be prepared.
– If it’s hot, have drinking water or access to it. You don’t want the EMTs having to treat you. If you’re affiliated with a fire department, you should be able to get water from the rehab section.
– If it’s cold, do you have sufficient warm gear?
— Do you have gloves which offer both warmth and dexterity?
— Will you stay dry?
—- Keep some chemical warming packs in your gear.
—- Use them to keep you warm. Be familiar with how they work and how/where to put them.
—- Use them to keep your spare batteries from getting drained. At the least keep spare batteries in an inner pocket close to your body heat, but that may not be enough if it’s really cold. Keep extra batteries handy on colder calls. (You may be able to revive them by warming them.)
– If it’s stormy, what are your concerns?
— Lightning: I was on scene of a lightning-caused house fire once and lightning struck nearby again during the firefighting efforts. It was close enough that it made my Nikon DSLR go crazy until I did a complicated reset to discharge the static electricity. I’m glad it wasn’t worse.
— Wind: Does the wind present hazards of falling trees/branches or flying debris? Might there be downed power lines? What about downed poles/trees in the road as you respond?
• Check in with the Incident Commander when you arrive. Mike mentioned something like this. (It may not always be easy to tell early on who the IC is.)
– Let them know you’re on scene.
– Ask if there’s any safety or other concerns you should know about. (Power lines, propane tanks, holes, etc. More below in a bit.)
– Let them know you’re leaving.
• Maintain situational awareness.
– Don’t get tunnel vision. This can happen when pulling up at an active scene as your adrenaline pumps. It can also happen as you spend too much time gazing through a long lens.
– Watch for downed power lines, leaking fuel, hazardous materials, etc. Assume downed lines have live electricity.
– As Mike alluded to, watch bystanders. They could be emotionally disturbed because of the incident or they may be part of the reason for the incident.

Familiarity with emergency services:
Take the free FEMA classes online to learn about the Incident Command System and the National Incident Management System. Hopefully your emergency services are NIMS compliant. Sure, there will likely be some regional quirks, but having the ICS/NIMS background will help you understand some of what you might hear on the radio.

NIMS/ICS courses
• Introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS-100)
ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incident (IS-200)
• Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents (ICS-300)
• National Incident Management System (NIMS), An Introduction (IS-700)

Further, if you can get the SOGs/SOPs for your department, you’ll know more how they operate and what may be “bad form” on the scene.

Legal Issues:
If you’re a credentialed member of the media, your state may have laws that give you inside-the-tape access, as long as the incident commander deems it safe or non-impeding to response. For example,
• California Penal Code 409.5(d): http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displa..
• Code of Virginia 27-15.1: http://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title..

• Shoot what you see. Cut later. (Photojournalist hat on here: Don’t self-censor as it happens. You can choose not to share sensitive images, but you can never go back and take the next iconic hero photo that you chose not to take.)
• Firefighters are probably more interested in photos of themselves making entry than working a defensive “surround and drown.” Of course, you may not have the luxury of being there early enough for photos of making entry.
• Think of unique vantage points to shoot from. In New York City, I talked my way onto at least one rooftop and into an adjacent apartment to shoot the action from above.
• Mike suggests having clothing/gear in the car for use on scene. I’d also suggest having something for after the scene, depending on the weather. A change of shoes is nice, and sometimes clean, dry clothes are good too.
• Hopefully goes without saying, but carry a high-quality flashlight with good batteries, especially for evening and night-time fires. As a journalist, I usually went with a Petzl headlamp that allowed for hands-free illumination. As a fire PIO, I had the department issue Streetlight Survivor LED on my turnout coat.
• More thoughts as soon as I post my comment.

Now you’ve got me thinking of the website/blog posts I would make on this and related topics.
John Collins (Web Site) - 08/01/15 - 20:10

AWESOME additions, John! Thank you for taking the time.
Legeros - 08/02/15 - 08:36

Both Fire Engineering and Firefighter Nation publish occasional profiles of fire photographers. Google to find them.

One of them recently contained this advice, which is also good (and which I had forgotten that I had learned so long ago): Don’t try to interact with crews as they’re working a scene. They’re busy, they’re focused, and they’re thinking (and need to be thinking) about other things than a photographer. Meet ‘n’ greet at the station. Or away from scenes. When they’re working, you should be working. e.g., focused on taking pictures.
Legeros - 08/05/15 - 08:18

Made a new page to this posting, and other related content. And with an easy peasy address: http://legeros.com/photos/#fire

Fire Photography Resource Guide. Single page for everything, blog postings and conference slides.
Legeros - 08/10/15 - 22:38

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