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Photographing Circus Performers

Updated on June 21, 2017
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years.

CC BY-ND 2.0
CC BY-ND 2.0 | Source

"Fire breathing is the act of creating a fireball by breathing a fine mist of fuel over an open flame. The proper technique and the correct fuel create the illusion of danger to enhance the novelty of fire breathing, while reducing the risk to health and safety. When using the correct fuel, it will only light when sprayed into a fine mist increasing the surface area of the fuel so that the fuel/oxygen/heat ratio is balanced enough to cause combustion." Wikipedia

I have always been fascinated with circus performers, especially the ones that performed really odd routines like swallowing swords and the fire breathers.

I could not help but wonder how were they able to do these feats without suffering any injuries and how amazed the onlookers were with wide open mouths and eyes which screamed of disbelief.

So eventually I found a circus that was briefly stopping by my hometown and approached some of these performers and asked to take their pictures. To my surprise many were not that shy about doing a pose while they did their routine since they were very accustomed to having their picture taken.

Off course I had to pay for the performance but overall it was not that expensive. I cannot blame them since they make a living from doing exactly what I was asking them to do.

Since fire seems to be like a magnet for people and a circus has its own interesting points I thought that it would be a good project to choose one particular type of act that had always caught my attention and fire breathing was just the thing.

CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

Would you dare to do this project?

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Photographing these performers is not hard, making the photos stand out can be. It is not as simple as asking for a demonstration and snapping a photograph.

A lot depends on the performer itself. Things like what the actor is wearing, the location, the background elements which can be distracting and the time of day.

Since this involves flames, it is well worth it to capture this bright yellow glow against a dark backdrop and because this creates a large fireball it should be enough to illuminate the image without you needing to use a flash unit although you will need to calibrate your camera to achieve a faster than usual shutter speed in order to freeze the flames as they spread out from the mouth.

The best scenario would be to hire a performer to do the shoot at a location pre-selected by the photographer for maximizing effect such as a dark part of the woods or large warehouse or any other similar location where the presentation can take place in relative safety.

Make sure to bring along the right equipment such as the camera off course, a zoom lens that allows you to crop on the spot and zoom in and out. A solid tripod, a flash unit, just in case, and a triggering mechanism for the shutter.

The triggering mechanism is useful so that you can concentrate on watching the action and simply pressing the release trigger instead of looking through the viewfinder. For this you should pre-focus on the performer and give the scene a little bit of extra margin which you can crop anyway later with a digital editing program.

Have the performer perform the routine several times so that you have enough images from which to make suitable selections, but do not abuse the privilege. This takes effort and the actor may only be willing to give you a few tries before he or she gets tired.


Your images can be used by publications that focus on odd lifestyles and jobs, fun facts, circus life, for posters, greeting cards and for a book publishing purpose.

You can also use them to show in a fine art galleries but usually if the images form part of a well designed presentation and the images are technically perfect and pleasantly composed.

These are odd subject matter and not that many viewers may tend to appreciate the photographs but like any other photo project, if the images a pleasant and well composed they will have an audience.

Being creative with this project like with any other photographic project is paramount since hardly any subject out there remains that has not been overly photographed already, therefore great images is what is in demand.

CC BY-SA 2.0
CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

Research the best locations in and out of the shows venue, research local attractions where these performers may be found, ask permission, be ready to pay for the presentation, take plenty of images and think safety.

Once this is done, get shots that satisfy your expectations if possible and get ready for a photographic project unlike many others which is sure to bring back memories once you're done.

Remember not to ask for more than is required and keep the performers in mind. They are not models used to working long hours and they take their craft seriously so learning about the art and showing respect are two things that you should remember before approaching any of these artists for a chance to photographing them.

Keep in mind that it is likely that if they belong to a traveling show they will probably not travel to any other location other than where they are so be prepared to do the shoot on location.

© 2013 Luis E Gonzalez


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