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Photography

How to Capture a Stylish Smoke Photograph

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:ShortLanguages:

In this tutorial you'll learn about smoke photography. We'll look at the post-processing techniques you need to make smoke photos look great, as well as a few bonus methods for special effects.

1. Equipment Selection

While photographing smoke, you can get spectacular images using minimal equipment. I used the following kit in today's tutorial:

  • a cheap flash released in the '80s (power range: 35 W)
  • a small halogen floodlight with the power of 100 W (sold in home improvement stores)
  • two tripods for holding the lights
  • an optical flash trigger
  • a photo sensor
  • a black fabric background (1.5m square)
  • a Pentax K-m (crop format) DSLR camera with a DA 18-55 mm lens

2. Illumination Settings

Ensure that your flash is installed so that it illuminates the subject from the side. The most important point is that the light from the flash shouldn't illuminate the background. My flash has an angle of illumination horizontally (about 55 degrees), so positioning the background around 27.5 inches from the flash means that it is in shadow. If your flash has a wider angle of illumination, you will have to install an angle of illumination limiter.

Position your halogen lamp opposite the flash. It performs an auxiliary function: smoke illumination for the focusing system. The lamp gives much less light than the flash, and it doesn't affect the final image.

The room in which the picture is taken should be more or less devoid of any other light. Complete darkness is not necessary, but it is better when the curtains or blinds on the windows are closed.

diagram showing the layout of the camera flash lighting and background

3. Background Setup

For the background, I used a piece of black synthetic lining around 5 feet square. In fact, you could do without the background if the room where the photo is taken is darkened, and the walls or furnishings are not very bright and located at a distance of more than 10 feet from the smoke.


4. Incense Sticks

For the source of the smoke, I used incense sticks. They provide an even stream of smoke throughout the time of burning. A stick burns for about 45 minutes, which is quite enough time to shoot 300 to 400 frames.

To fix the sticks, I used a 'third hand' device, used for welding electronic components. It allows me to bend the stick at any angle, and also to lift it up while it's burning. If you do not have such a device, a stick can be put into any stand (or at a push, into a piece of plasticine).

Just don't forget to put a sheet of thick cardboard or plastic under the stick, so that any ash falls onto that rather than your expensive dining table!

incense sticks and a a third hand device on a plastic base

5. Camera Settings

All images in this tutorial are made with the following parameters: ISO (100), Shutter Speed 1/160 seconds (the minimum shutter speed of my camera's synchronization), an aperture of f9, and a white balance of "Daylight".

You should be very careful to get the exposure correct in-camera, because any subsequent exposure correction in post-processing can lead to the loss of a large amount of detail. Choose the exposure so that the background is completely black (no more than 10 in each RGB channel).


6. Shooting Techniques

Throughout this shoot, the camera was handheld without a tripod. The duration of a flash is sufficiently small in order to avoid blurring. The autofocus of modern DSLR cameras is fast enough, and it manages to focus on the smoke stream.

The most important point is that there should be no draughts or flows of air from air conditioners, fans, or anything else in the room where you take photos. Even after you set fire to a stick, you should sit quietly for a few minutes before you start shooting, so that the movement of air calms down and the smoke starts rising vertically.

the incense smoke between the light and flash

7. Playing With Smoke

Although the smoke plume seems to rise at random, its behavior is subject to certain patterns. Up to a certain height, the smoke rises very smoothly. At a particular point, the smoke starts taking bizarre forms as it mixes with the air. This is the most interesting area for shooting.

Any deliberate movement of air disrupts the smooth flow of the stream, causing interesting effects that can add a new angle to your photograph.

After shooting a few frames, you will learn to understand the behavior of the smoke plume and manage it, causing certain effects.

image of a plume of smoke

8. Post-Processing

When you've finished shooting, you can upload all your images to the computer for post-processing. If the shoot went to plan, this shouldn't take too long. A good place to start might be by adjusting the image contrast (Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast).

Even without any additional processing, the smoke has a blue hue, and it looks very impressive against a deep black background.

Photos of smoke often have defects in the form of bright spots—these are ash particles, which rise with the smoke. Unfortunately, you cannot avoid this completely while shooting, so you have to fix it later with Clone Stamp Tool.

smoke image after post-processing

9. Coloured Smoke on Black

The next possibility to explore is the creation of coloured smoke on a black background. Load the file in Photoshop. Copy the image to a new layer. With the help of the Gradient Tool, fill the background with a triple gradient from purple through red to yellow (R156 G0 B216 > R255 G32 B0 > R255 G255 B0). Apply the Multiply blend mode.

image of coloured smoke on a black background

10. Coloured Smoke on White

Another possibility is to change the background and have coloured smoke on a white background. Load the file in Photoshop. Copy the image to a new layer. Make the image negative by clicking Image > Adjustments > Invert.

With the help of the Gradient Tool, fill the background with a complex gradient from purple through red and yellow to orange. (R78 G0 B129 > R255 G0 B0 > R255 G255 B0 > R198 G101 B31). Apply the Luminosity blend mode.

Image of coloured smoke on a white background

11. Natural Smoke on White

Finally, we'll consider how to get your natural smoke colour, but on a white background rather than the black one we shot on. 

Load the file in Photoshop. Invert the image as before, and then go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and set the values to the same as those in the screenshot below. Hopefully, you'll have a natural blue smoke colour on a white background (you can experiment until the colour is just as you'd like it).

image of natural smoke on a white background
smoke photography tutorial

Conclusion

As you can see, it's fairly easy to shoot spectacular smoke images using a minimal set of simple equipment and available materials. This is a fascinating area of photography, and it gives you a broad scope for experimenting with different effects in post-processing.

If you do decide to give it a go, be sure to share your results in the comments below!

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