By Ed Harvey for Fire Service Photography

I would like to share why I find this side hobby so much darn FUN! The history of the American Fire Service dates back to the early days of the country. As the country grew so did the fire companies and their social impact on the community. Firemen’s Parades, Musters and Firemen’s Balls were common affairs starting in the mid-1800’s. These events were held to show off the fire company’s engines, prove the company’s worth in competitions or have an elegant event to raise funds to support the company and related causes. Firefighting is a battle and one of huge highs and equal lows. Local departments can go long periods of time without a call only to having 2 CPR calls and a structure fire in the same day. These stresses are often written about, and a common theme is to have an outlet and means to let off some steam. Exercise, mediation, and other social activities are often at the top of the list. One of my coping tools is photography and I love the fire service so what better subject to photograph! Shooting fireground images has a certain romance to it for sure, but there is also a sigma that comes with it and firefighters know we are so much more than just a bunch of nozzle jockeys. This leads us to the fun side of firefighting and hence fire photography! Firematic events provide a wide array of opportunities for the fire photographer. Subjects are varied as the blazing action of a muster team flying down the track and the intricate details of an antique parade truck. Documenting the traditions and efforts of the firefighters when not battling the red beast is a natural fit. Types of events: there are many social and fundraising events that beg to be shot. The following is a list of events and my guidelines for shooting them.



Parades are often annual events often held with carnivals or fireworks displays. There are many resources for obtaining the dates and times of parades, community calendars, online message boards and the host company website are just a few. With a bit of luck and good planning a fire photographer may be able to hit as many as three or four parades in one day. Parades generally have two key times that are published, line up and step off. Line up is when the participants can start to gather in the line up area and prepare for the parade. During the lineup of a parade members of the fire departments put the finishing touches on their apparatus for the parade, also videographers may get a chance to record the musical units warming up for the parade. Step off is the actual start time of the parade. In some regions an inspection/judging of the apparatus is held prior to the parade. This is an excellent time to get posed shots of the apparatus. Shooting during the parade can be fun and challenging, try to find a good background and don’t be surprised if people cut in front of you while you are shooting, just try to be polite and civil about the matter. The parade ends in a fall out area these can be parking lots or fields with enough space for the apparatus to be parked. These locations are good for poses or detailed shots of the rigs, and candid shots of members and their families. Note that after a parade alcoholic beverages maybe around the rigs or in the beer garden. Unless specifically asked to do so I personally shy away from taking photos that highlight this activity, photos which may be taken out of context by the mutts of society.


The night before attending a parade, be sure to charge up all batteries and have clear memory cards. In summer be sure to wear light clothing and water bottles and a light snack is not a bad idea. In winter, of course dress appropriately. Be sure to pack any press or other credentials that might help gain access into restricted areas. Arriving about 20 minutes before the line up allows time to find parking. Being this early also allows an opportunity to take candid shots of members preparing for the parade, polishing the rigs, getting uniforms in order or generally socializing. Once these shots are complete the challenge of locating a shoot location for the duration of the parade comes next. As with most photography, having the light source, usually the sun at your back and shining on the subject is very helpful. This comes into play important when picking a side of the road to shoot from knowing the parade route and direction of the parade also will help in planning your shots. Experience has shown that a short way down the line of march from the step off location or shortly before the fall out works well. Places to avoid include the step off location, the judging area (unless the judges are of interest to you) and the initial fall out area as the unit’s decorum may be waning at these locations. After the units have fallen out there another chance at candid, group, and posed apparatus shots presents itself. Having a scanner and/or notification network set to page you with action in the area will be helpful in navigating around traffic problems and may lead to shots of should a working job come in while you are in the area.


Most cameras should be able to shoot a parade in automatic mode, or you may choose aperture priority set at F 8, depending on your experience level adjust accordingly. A parade may only be traveling a few miles an hour, but remember your subject will be moving. Parades are a great place to practice panning techniques, noting where the subject is and where it is going to be. Pick a starting point and shoot in bursts of up to three shots, far, mid-range, and close up as your subject approaches, gives different levels of detail and will ensure at least one good shot if the pace of the parade picks up. Pick your background carefully avoiding the crowds will be difficult at best, good composition using the rule of thirds or filling the frame with subject may help eliminate background distractions.


Wetdowns are an activity that is held to welcome a new piece of apparatus. These events are also sometimes called “housing” a new rig. Tradition holds that the old apparatus washes down the new piece and then sometimes it is pushed by hand into the station as would have been done in days of the hand drawn engines. In modern times apparatus from the host company are joined by nearby departments and the activity varies widely from the new rig running a gauntlet of hose streams to an all out water fight using fire apparatus (squirt guns be damned!). Wetdowns usually have a family picnic or carnival feel to them so expect a light and happy mood. Don’t forget to bring some cash, there are there are often t-shirts and food for sale to help support the department.

Scheduling: Invitations are normally sent out nearby fire companies for wetdowns. Fire Department websites and fire buff message boards are good sources for these events. Local media on occasion reports wetdowns in their event calendars.


Unless you intend to shoot from a considerable distance away from the action with long zoom expect to get WET and expect your camera will get wet. Prepare accordingly, with a rain cover for your camera or consider using a waterproof point and shoot or single use camera. Where there is water there are many interesting effects to photograph, be alert for reflections, rainbows, and soaking wet firefighters and kids. These elements provide color, depth and interest in the photos.


Musters Firemen’s Musters as politically incorrect as that may sound are still alive and well, of course women’s teams are participating and oftentimes giving the men a run for their money! Musters can vary from static displays of fire apparatus to the intense fire department racing events. Most musters do have some form of competition associated with them so expect a ton of action and fun!


Muster Associations and Leagues often have websites or message boards that can be accessed to find out their schedules. Musters are oftentimes part of larger events such as parades or carnivals. Some fire companies use them as fund raisers as well. Shooting: A muster will provide plenty of action to try out your camera’s automatic sports setting, a fast shutter speed starting at 1/800, panning or burst photography. Like any sporting event there is much pride and emotion invested in the event. Seek out close ups of the celebration of victory, the anguish of defeat and the kindness of sportsmanship. A zoom lens will be very helpful in catching the teams as they race down the track. Intermissions between events are great times to get shots of the racing trucks or team group shots.


As was mentioned with parades, having your camera and gear ready to go will make the day much more enjoyable. With permission of the event organizers and/or the judges shooting from or near the track will give you shots above and beyond the snap shots quality, another good location is just past the finish line, all the while keeping safety in mind.


Fund Raisers and Fire Prevention Week. Attending and shooting fundraisers such as firemen’s balls, bingo nights, steak bakes, pig roasts helps support the area fire companies. Working with the fire companies public relations and the local media your photos can help spread the word regarding how successful the event was or how much more support is still needed. Fire Prevention Week sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association is held the first week of October in conjunction with the October 7th anniversary of the 1872 Great Chicago Fire. Many fire departments hold open houses or visit the local schools to spread the word on smoke alarms, how to call 9-1-1, stop, drop and roll. Kids and firefighters are always great subjects. Again working with the appropriate people your photos can help educate the public.


The shooting is done and as soon as possible download the photos, process them as you see fit. Then the possibilities of what to do next are up to you. Publish them online, social networking sites, submit them to any number of online message boards, and local media outlets often accept viewer/reader submissions. Providing prints of good times to local stations that you shoot regularly on the fire ground can create goodwill that has the potential to pay off in the future. No matter where and how you choose to publish your work you should be clear about compensation (yes, you can get paid for your photographic work), copyrights, and the terms of use for your photographs. Be sure to provide your contact information should there be any questions. One last tidbit on your rights, you have a right to photograph in a public venue. If someone is asking you not to take photos please use some common sense and decency.

Now get back out there and get shooting!