So you like taking pictures of fire apparatus, but are looking to improve the quality of your shots? Maybe we can offer a few suggestion that have worked for us over the years. We don’t want to insult your intelligence with any of these suggestions, as some of these may be very obvious to experienced photographers. However, having taken well over 24,000 photos of apparatus (I usually take 4-10 shots of each truck so that at least one is great), you do learn a few things. There are plenty of pictures I wish I could go back and retake now that I know more. As someone who is continuing to learn and improve my own photography and camera techniques, here are some of most common mistakes that I typically see with those who send pictures to us:

1) Bad Angles: Shooting too sharp of an angle (not using the ¾ view). Admittedly, this is a lot tougher with longer rigs and when you don’t have as much room to shoot. However, photographing a 3/4 shot allows the viewer the best overall idea of a rig from a single photo. This is best (and usually required) for publishing photos in magazines, journals or books. About 1/4-1/3 should include the front of the truck and 3/4 the remainder of the rig. If you see the front or the photo is mostly the front, the reposition.

2) Positioning Shadows: Having only the side and not the front of the truck in the sun together can cause the front to be shadowed and lose detail. Angle the trucks so that the sun fully lights the side and front.

3) External Shadows: Objects like wires, trees, the firehouse (not pulling rigs far enough out of the stations) can cause unattractive or distracting shadows. A lot of times you will miss the fact that a power line is shadowing right through the middle of your truck unless you are really looking for those kinds of things. Look at the back end of rigs that could be pulled out just a little further from the apparatus garage to avoid unnecessary shadows. Finally, avoid any shots with a mix of shadows and sunlight (go with one or the other) as the filtered effect from trees can be a significant distraction and detraction from your photo.

4) Reflections/Glare – This tends to be worst in winter from snow and wet pavement. As you are framing your picture, look at the larger panels on the truck to see if there is anything reflecting (the side of a nearby car, the apparatus bay doors, wet pavement, etc.). Sometimes taking 1-2 steps forward/backward/sideways can eliminate this tricky detractor.

5) Depth of Field: Back away from the rig far enough to get a good ¾ view and leave some room for cropping or editing if necessary. With current photo editing software, it's easy enough to crop something smaller, but you can never make it larger. Leave space on either end of the rig to crop and rotate as necessary. Sometimes a building or fence behind you will limit this and cause you to use a more severe 2/3 or less angle. If that’s all you have to work with, then you have to go for it. It’s always better to take SOME shot rather than none at all. However, if you have a crew/engineer willing to work with you, this can easily be avoided. I see this mostly with new photographers from various departments that want to send me their pictures from their snapshot camera – WAAAAAY too close and sometimes even cutting off part of the rig! Also, if you're using your phone camera, turn it sideways so you get the widest angle possible.

6) Distracting Background – Neutral backgrounds like open sky, a grove of trees or the firehouse, can all be excellent backdrops. Other items kind of depend on experience and your level of anal retentiveness. Me – I can’t stand large groups of wires or telephone poles in the background. If I can find a way to get those at least to the edges of the picture (if not out), then I do. Occasionally, photo editing is my only way to avoid a poorly positioned light pole. Other photographers like to take rig shots in front of the station (assuming they are facing the sunlight), but always want the bay doors down for an even and non-distracting background. Makes sense to me, although I’ve done with and without.

7) Distracting Background Options: Do you really want a random parked car, a dumpster or some store sign in your picture? Moving the rig just a little or alter your position can overcome this. Oftentimes by taking a step or moving up or down a little, you can use the rig itself to block out that odd object. You can't always avoid these backgrounds, However, these are the kinds of things that I take into consideration when posing (and thus my higher level of anal-retentiveness.)

8) The true ”photography” part: For most photos, I like the rigs to pop out at me like a “calendar shot.” It’s all about the rig and the background is just backdrop. However, this doesn’t necessarily offer the most interesting photography because it focuses solely on the subject. This is also why I don’t like shooting during the winter months, as I find neutral backgrounds harder to find and distractions harder to avoid. There are also plenty of opportunities when you want to include the background as part of the photos interest (a station, tower, fire scene, landmark, etc. in the background makes the photo more interesting). This is what will make your photos special to you and a little more of an artistic endeavor instead of just the picture of some random fire truck. I always like the apron shots - all of the rigs together (either in or out of the house). This is great for capturing a time capsule of a particular station or department as well.

9) Scout out your locations: I’ve found that if you check out your shooting area ahead of time and ask the drivers if they can do something specific from the start, they are almost always accommodating. If they can see your vision of the picture, they will try to make it happen. If you can minimize the time that they are moving rigs around, then fire personnel are usually more open to pulling out multiple rigs. Also, many station aprons face the wrong way or are too small/cramped for good shots. See if there is a large parking lot very close by (schools and churches work great) where there's more room to position a rig for the best shot. 

10) Be polite!: Sometimes the most obvious things are the most important. Yes, fire apparatus are paid for with tax dollars. However, that does not offer you the automatic right to interrupt fire personnel and demand photos. Introduce yourself, let them know why you want to take photos (maybe just for your personal collection). Ask if someone might have a few minutes to pull one or more rigs out into the sunlight for a better photo, then see item #9 about talking with the driver. It's not uncommon for the FF who answers the door to seek permission to do this. If the station is in the middle of a meal, training or resting after a large incident, simply be considerate and ask if you can come back later.

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