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A Complete Guide to Controlling Your Smoke Photos

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Photographing smoke can be simple, easy and funny. When trying to catch moving smoke is all about your patience and creative mind. Follow these few steps for eye-catching shots and you can make photos at home without expensive gear.


1. Choosing Your Simple Gear

The main idea is that every beginner wants their photographs looks amazing and professional made. However professional items, such as external flashes or studio lightning are very expensive.

So there is always another way to make photos you want, just finding some as-a-pro-tricks. I promised to be simple so it will be. All you need are 5-6 things that you can find at home or buy them for under 30$. Here they are:

  • A camera with a manual mode “M" to take control over all settings as aperture, shutter speed an ISO
  • A tripod is essential, even if your shutter speed isn’t slow. It helps you keep your hands free to experiment with the smoke.
  • Two sources of light. You can use reading lamps (I prefer one garden lamp and one reading lamp, because the light is stronger). You should choose a source light as strong as you can because you need a low ISO and fast shutter speed.
  • The most important thing is a source of smoke. I recommend incense sticks because of their dense smoke. Flavor of your choice.
  • Black background. I use paper, but even a black T-shirt works for you.
  • Two old shoes-boxes, two pieces of cardboard and tape. I use boxes of wineglasses
  • A little patience and imagination are essential!

At the beginning of shooting you may think that you really can’t cope with this, and you'll need some practice to capture the constantly changing smoke. Don’t give up on the first photo.

Your equipment


2. Get Camera Settings for Great Results

First you should turn camera to “M"- manual mode to be sure that you have full control over the settings. Keep in mind some essential tips to take images you want as a result :

  • Keep ISO values low (100-200) to avoid grainy photos at the end. They may look ideal on the LCD screen of the camera, but seeing them on the computer may be a complete disappointment.
  • Your shutter speed should be fast enough to freeze the motion of smoke. I recommend 1/200 and up. But you need a lot of light for that, so feel free to try what suits you best.
  • An extra trick for shutter speed is to shoot in a small room (even bathroom is ok) and make sure that all doors and windows are closed. So that you prevent hassle of air and the room will get warmer. The result is almost still smoke. It’s all about physics!
  • The aperture should be small (f/8 or higher) because you don’t need a shallow depth of field.
  • Another trick of mine is to set your white balance to the lamp symbol, tungsten, to avoid a yellow cast in the shots. However you may want to achieve some interesting results by experimenting with White Balance.

As mentioned before, none of this is too difficult. Now, how to setup all these things to catch the moment.

Shoot it !


3. Keep it Easy and Simple

The whole setup can be arranged in six to ten minutes, even if you haven’t done it before. The only trick here is to put barriers (I use pieces of cardboard) between the lamps and the black background, so as not to illuminate it.

Keeping the black behind helps in post-processing work after. Another important note is to make sure that whole the light is pointed to the smoke itself. The rest of the setup can be seen in the picture below.

Setting up the scene


4. Start shooting

Set the camera to continuous mode because every minute smoke changes shapes quickly and every image will be unique. Be careful with focus. Shooting with manual focus could be your best choice, but your deep depth of field will help.

An important note is to keep shooting. Sometimes it takes time to set the proper exposure or to catch the right shape of the smoke, so be patient. The more photos you have, the more you increase the chance of at least one good picture.


5. Process Your Pictures

I do not prefer processing photos a lot. Nevertheless shooting smoke can be classified as abstract photography, so the possibilities are endless.

Black background / white smoke

White background / black smoke

Now, I’d like show you how to add color or shift the color of your images in just a few minutes in Photoshop.

Open one photo in Photoshop and copy the layer. Make sure the background is as black as it can be. If not, use from the Drop down menu – Image / Adjustments / Levels. Once finished, decide what color the background will be. If it will be white, you should choose Image / Adjustments / Invert (Ctrl+I) – and that is all about making white background and black smoke.


White background / black smoke

Want a colorful smoke? Just make other new layer and choose gradient tool to fill the layer with. Then go to Layers and make this one Overlay the other layers (from Drop-down menu). You can crop if you want and that is all.

You can take amazing photos of smoke at home on a budget. Here are some final results.

A curly rainbow

In a perfect shape

A red devil


A Final Checklist

  • The stronger the light is, the crisper photos will be.
  • Close windows and doors to avoid dispersing the smoke
  • The warmer the temperatures, the slower the smoke will move
  • Keep the proper focus all the time
  • Most importantly, be patient and have fun!
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