Ottery Tar Barrel night - a guide to photographing the flaming barrels
Updated: May 13
This is a helpful guide for photographers who want to capture pictures of Ottery's flaming tar barrels on bonfire night. It provides some useful hints and tips for those who have never been before and what to expect on the night.
All pictures in this blog were taken by Alex Walton - those taken for the Sidmouth Herald are watermarked and copyrighted to Archant Publishing.
I grew up in Ottery St. Mary and have been fortunate enough to photograph this ancient tradition many times for the Sidmouth Herald. I hope you find this guide helpful. This is by no means and exhaustive list of what to expect/bring/camera techniques to try out, it's just some tips I thought I'd share.
What is it all about?
Ottery St Mary is a small town in East Devon. Each year an illuminated carnival is held and precedes the main Tar Barrel event on November 5th (or November 4th if Guy Fawkes night falls on a Sunday).
The tradition is centuries old and the exact origins unknown but are likely to have started following the gun powder plot in 1605. Other possible reasons include fumigation of thatch cottages and warnings of the approach of the Spanish armada.
Many West Country towns and villages have a history of torch lit processions and rolling burning barrels in the streets on November 5th each year. At some point the townsfolk decided barrel rolling was not dangerous enough and that carrying the barrels was a much better idea! Ottery has kept this tradition alive and is now the only place in the country where you will find full-sized flaming tar barrels carried through the streets.
Well, essentially there are about a dozen wooden barrels of varying sizes lined with tar, which are set alight one at a time (usually every half an hour) and carried through the town on the backs of the infamous barrel rollers. These men, women and indeed children, charge through the streets of the town, which are packed with thousands of spectators.
The event culminates with the lighting of the monstrous midnight barrel - a truly awesome sight once lit and held aloft.
Other things to see on Tar Barrel night
From early in the morning around 5.30am and again throughout the day, you will hear the booming sound of rock cannons (These are hand-held minature cannons - they look just like a bent pipe and are triggered by a hammer strike). These are fired by a group of hi-vis jacket wearing cannoneers at different locations across the town. Ask a marshal or buy a program to find out where they will be fired.
There is a fairground with a number of brilliant rides located on the bank of the River Otter. Be aware though, on Tar Barrel night you can expect to pay in excess of £5 for a single ride, which usually lasts for a very short time compared to other evenings.
From 4pm the children's barrels take place, usually near the fire station and the entrance to the Land of Canaan park (check your program for any variations on this location). The crowds are usually small for this as people will only just be arriving in the town for the evening's events. This might be an ideal one to catch if you have youngsters with you and you are worried about taking them to the bigger barrels.
At 6.30pm the lighting of the giant bonfire begins, which is very welcome on a cold November evening. You can find the bonfire at the Millenium Green on the riverbank opposite the fairground by St Saviour's bridge.
The main barrels start from around 7.30pm and are lit one after the other until the final barrel at midnight, which marks the end of this remarkable spectacle.
It goes without saying that flaming barrels of tar charging through narrow streets packed with thousands of people can be dangerous! You are reminded regularly by road signs that 'You are here at your own risk', also many spectators will have consumed a fair bit of alcohol as they enjoy the event. So here is a list of essential things you should know before going so you are prepared for the barrels.
Firstly, be safe. Read up about the event and decide for yourself whether or not it's for you. Don't be pressured in to going by others as not everyone likes huge crowds and fire. Don't forget to tell your family where you are and what time you will be back or if you are staying with friends.
Take a fully charged phone with you - reception is patchy in the town centre but better around the outskirts. Most camera-phones also double as torches, which is a great idea to have when trying to find your car in a poorly lit field at midnight.
Wear old clothing that you don't mind getting smokey, and possibly damaged from flying sparks. Try to find something lightly coloured so you can be easily spotted by your friends/family/event marshals/barrel rollers.
Wear a hat or hoody and tie long hair back - you will be thankful as you wouldn't want singed hair (this happened to my sister once).
Don't take a bag, not even a handbag or a rucksack. The crowds can be extremely tight and you wouldn't want to lose your bag or risk having anything stolen.
Wear sturdy shoes such as walking boots - people will stand on your feet and you may well be walking on burnt out tar from extinguished barrels. There is also a lot of litter to contend with.
I'd personally wear contact lenses instead of glasses as these can easily get knocked - my friend had his smashed once from the tight crowds. Also if it rains then you won't need to worry about wiping them to look through a camera viewfinder.
Take some change - Car parking charges are compulsory and cost £10 per vehicle. The main car park is about half a mile away from the town centre, located on Exeter Road. Otter Nurseries usually offers parking too.
Buy a program to establish the locations of each barrel lighting and be there early - the area will soon fill up and you may find it difficult to see, especially if you have children with you. The profits from the program sales and car parking charges will go towards the organising of next year's event.
Top tips for photographing the barrels
Every photographer has his/her own style and photographic preferences - not everyone likes to carry an expensive DSLR with them in to crowds and potentially dangerous situations. Go with whatever you are happy with - cheap point and shoots will probably do the job nicely and you can achieve some great pics so long as you know what you want and how to use your camera to the best of your ability to achieve it. If in doubt, take a look at your instructions.
I always take my DSLR as I'm comfortable with it and prefer to use full manual settings to get the pictures I want. These tips are designed for photographers that want to get close to the action and come away with decent pictures. I use a Nikon D610 myself but have often taken a Canon 7D with me too. Some of the tips may not be applicable to you but they can generally be adapted to whatever camera you use.
What to take with you
Take the least amount of gear that you need. I usually bring just a body and a wide zoom lens - my trusty 24mm - 120mm does the job nicely. A wide lens allows you to get close enough to the action and the zoom will be great for those portrait and detail shots.
I also take an external flash, some spare batteries, a lens cloth and that's it. I don't take a camera bag as it just gets in the way and is not practical in tight crowds.
You won't be able to use a long lens simply because the crowds will get in the way and the action is very quick so you will need to be quick yourself and not weighed down by excessive amounts of equipment.
Don't take a tripod or a monopod (unless you are just interested in the bonfire and fairground lights) - you will never get to use it for the barrels and you'll just end up ditching it back in your car (it's a bit of a trek from the town centre back to the carparks!).
Wear a coat/jacket - a slightly larger one is best with plenty of pockets for your accessories. I always wear a coat - not just because it often rains on barrel night for some reason - but it also offers some protection against the heat of a close barrel encounter and you can hide your camera somewhat and limit any unwanted attention from rowdy people. It can sometimes get hot if it's mild weather so perhaps just wear a shirt underneath.
You will most likely benefit from an external flash if using a DSLR - an inbuilt one probably won't cut it. The charging barrel rollers will run as fast as they can and a flash is essential to freeze the shot.
All cameras are different so I will just share what I know about mine and hope you can adapt yours accordingly.
Flash settings: Unless you are deliberately after slow-sync shots, a shutter speed of around 1/200 second will probably be the minimum you will get away with to capture sharp images of the running barrelers. Your flash ideally needs to be capable of high-sync speeds (my SB700 speedlite will sync with the shutter at any speed). For slow-sync shots, don't forget to put your flash in to 'Rear Curtain Sync' mode – this means that your camera's shutter will open and allow light to be captured before the flash fires to freeze the main subject i.e. the person carrying a barrel. This means that the light trail will be behind the passing barrel and not in front if the barrel is passing from left to right, say. A flash is also needed to balance the exposure - by this I mean that you have to appreciate you are in a dark environment trying to capture a very bright portion of the scene (the burning barrels). These are tricky lighting conditions and most point and shoot cameras will try to average it out, leaving you with either a correctly lit image but with a white overexposed area where the burning barrel is or a pitch black photo with just the flaming barrel correctly exposed. Using fill flash correctly you can achieve a much more pleasing picture with correct exposure throughout the photo.
Use a wide aperture to give you the fastest possible shutter speeds but watch your focusing - if you are very close to the subject then depth of field will fall away. Best to use a lens hood as you are dealing with bright lights and flames so lens flare can be an issue. Also steer clear of very cheap UV lens attachments as these can sometimes increase flare issues.
I use fully manual settings but you may prefer shutter or aperture priority modes. There is no right or wrong modes to use, just so long as you know the benefits and limitations of each setting. I won't elaborate anymore on this as there are plenty of YouTube tutorials out there and probably one specific to your camera. Just bear in mind that Tar Barrels is a fast-paced event incorporating brightly burning objects in the middle of the night. Shutter speed will probably be your biggest concern as all too often I have seen correctly exposed shots using AP mode but nine times out of ten they are blurred.
ISO settings will again be down to choice (some photographers will go for super grainy, grungy-style shots, others prefer clean noise free pictures) and camera limitations. More modern cameras are getting better and better and limiting the effects of noise from high ISO settings. Generally, I will set my camera to at least 1600 and regularly check what exposures I can come away with and change the setting accordingly. But bear in mind that if using flash-fill you can probably get away with lower ISO settings as your flash will take care of the exposure not the sensor sensitivity.
Cards - my camera is capable of 6fps, which I will take advantage of on barrel night, simply because it can be hit and miss getting the pics you want. So a card that can read and write data quickly is critical. Mine are Sandisk cards with a U3 and class 10 rating, which can read at 80mb/s and record at something like 40mb/s (read the small print on the back of the pack, which gives the true record ratings - the one on the front of the pack is usually the read speed).
Focusing - You may find that you can't achieve your camera's full frames per second capability if you are using a flash and in 3D AF mode. This is to do with your camera's focusing modes - try switching the AF modes or be brave and have a go at manual focus. If you are in the centre of the action you will find it pretty tricky to focus correctly anyway and your lens may well hunt to try and lock focus due tot he poor lighting conditions. By going manual you can set your lens to the nearest focusing position and generally this will be good enough if you position yourself at the right distance to the tar barrel. This also usually means that you can achieve your camera's full fps rate too.
Holding technique - If you are right in the thick of it and at the centre with just you facing down a flaming barrel, your first reaction will be to run - DON'T - this can cause a crowd surge and confuse the person carrying the barrel. Just quickly move out of the way and back to the rest of the crowd and turn your back to the barrel. If you have time and it's safe enough to do so, then grab a picture but don't be too concerned with looking through the view finder and composing the shot, this is pretty dangerous (remember, if you are using a wide angle lens then the subject will seem further away than it really is). Either try and get a shot by free holding the camera low down and aiming upwards (the barrel rollers are bent double so you may well want a low angle view point to see their faces). Or you can try out live view mode but beware of the slight capture delay if you have a mirror reflex lens.
I hope you enjoyed this post and can find some useful tips to try out, please drop me a line if you think I've missed anything major and I'll look to include your suggestion. If you are going to go down to the Tar Barrels for the first time with a view to capturing some great pictures then please do take care and read up on what to expect on the night. It's always a good idea to take a look at a map of the area before hand, figure out First Aid locations and make contact with an event marshal if in doubt or if you need advice. Don't forget to pick up a souvenir program, which also helps fund future barrel nights and remember that no picture is worth putting yourself in harms way for. Most importantly though have fun and enjoy this unique and amazing tradition!
The Sidmouth Herald also provides good coverage of the event on the lead up to the barrels and a rundown on the event afterwards.
Here are some more photos to give you a flavour of the evening.