The art of smoke photography is an ethereal technique, through which exquisite strands of mysteriously swirling smoke are captured against a largely black or white colored backdrop, and it is a feat which is pretty easy to accomplish.
The best time to attempt smoke photography is at night, when ambient light is at its lowest. Find a dark room without any drafts to get the best results. You can also block out any extra lighting using drapery and such, if the need arises.
As with any activity involving smoke, make sure you take regular breaks and ventilate the room every few minutes. Make sure that any smoke alarms are turned off, so as to avoid a good soaking from the sprinklers. You do not want to end your smoke photography endeavors dripping wet, sans camera.
What you need:
- One Digital SLR with any within the focal length of 35-150mm.
- A dark backdrop. This can be a sheet of black cardboard or a black cloth, hanging from the wall
- Off-camera flash and a support for the flash (either a tripod, table or a light stand)
- You need a remote flash trigger or an offline cable to connect camera to the flash
- Table lamp with low wattage bulb
- Incense sticks and holder
- Two dark cardboard cut outs and a rubber band to hold them in place.
Find a stable surface like a table to place your incense stick. As it will drop ash, make sure to lay down a non-flammable cover to protect the surface of the table from damage.
Arrange the flash & the table lamp, directly opposite each other, as shown in the picture above. I placed the dark background against the wall and about 70 cm away, placed an incense stick using a holder. The flash was on the right side of the camera and the table lamp was on left 30 cm apart from squared with the background as well as my camera. These distances can be varied depending on your convenience.
The flash can either be wirelessly triggered by your dSLR or attached using an off-camera cable. I used the remote trigger (Yongnuo RF-603 C3) to trigger cheap Yongnuo 560 EX III manual mode flash which was put at ½ power setting. I placed two dark cardboard cut outs which are also known as Gobo, like a barn door to prevent the flash spilling its light towards the background as well into the camera. You can also use a snoot, made out of rolled up dark paper to do the same connected to the head of the flash. I also adjusted the zoom setting inside the flash to 85mm so as to narrow the beam and not spread it out.
Table lamp is an important tool here. It should not be very bright. Low wattage bulb is sufficient. You might be thinking that table lamp is to light the smoke and you are partially right. Lamp light makes smoke visible to your eyes so that you can focus on it. Camera with settings used for capture using flash will not show any details of this light on the smoke.
We need to overpower the ambient light which is present in the room. That include any external light spilling into the room as well as the light from the table lamp. Here are the settings I used. I used Canon EOS 70D with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens in manual mode using ISO 100, Shutter Speed 1/160 seconds (minimum shutter speed of my camera’s synchronization), and an aperture of f/8.
At that exposure if I take a picture without switching on the flash, the picture will come out pitch dark, showing that all my ambient light is killed off and whatever I am going record later will be from the illumination of the flash only. You should be very careful to get exposure correct in-camera, because the subsequent exposure correction in post-processing can lead to the loss of a large amount of detail. Exposure should be chosen so that the background is completely black. Adjust your flash intensity setting and get proper exposure before you begin the smoke capture.
As I lit the incense stick on a stand it started producing the smoke. Stick burns for about 45 minutes, which is quite enough time to capture 300-400 frames. With the help of the table lamp I could easily focus on the stream of the smoke raising above and could capture it with ease. Since I was not using tripod I could recompose the smoke as it drifted in various direction. Now make sure that you capture the smoke in fairly decent focus and in its entirety.
When the room is blocked from drafts, smoke plumes from the incense will generally go straight up. To make things more interesting from a photographic perspective, consider creating some shapes in the smoke.To do so you could gently fan the smoke with wave of your hand. Another option is to coax shapes from the smoke by manipulating the tip of the incense stick with a non-flammable object like a spoon. When the smoke starts moving around you need to refocus and that is where table lamp becomes invaluable.
Remember that the longer you leave the incense burning, the more ambient smoke will build up. This can make your photos look hazy, and also lead injury to your health. So it is important to keep ventilating the room.
As with many photographic techniques, the key to perfecting your smoke effect photos is to keep practicing. You may end up taking hundreds of frames in order to find a few with a desirable look.
Once you have finished taking photos, it’s time to edit. This can give the photos an interesting look that’s difficult to achieve in-camera. In Photoshop or an image editor of your choice, you can boost the contrast of the scene to make the smoke pop even more against the background.
To give photos more of an ethereal look, try inverting the colours. In Photoshop this can be found through Image > Adjustments > Invert.
From here, you can add colored effects to the smoke as well. Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue & Saturation to play around with the color of the smoke. By changing the white balance slider in Lightroom also you can get various hues and shades in your smoke capture.
Smoke photography is a lot of fun, and it’s one of those art forms that has the potential to really wow people when you get it right. Getting a great smoke photo may be hit or miss, but those hits are going to be really cool and are more than worth the trouble it takes to get there.