Smoke Photography

Project 365: Day 20
Well, from looking at my flickr account, you’ll probably have noticed that I have recently dabbled with a bit of smoke photography. I went into this completely blind, with only a knowledge of other smoke shots and a vague, guessed idea of how they were lit, so everything I did was completely unplanned and done ‘on the fly’.
To produce images like the ones you see here, you’ll need the following (or a similar variant)

– Incense or Joss sticks- These are non-negotiable, the only way to get the smoke you want and need is with these, and the cheap ones are REALLY cheap (try eBay, 50 sticks for £2!!!)
– Off-camera lighting- Or a clever way to achieve it, This will help freeze the motion and give the smoke a cleaner look without exposing the backdrop
– A black backdrop- Use the blackest material you have (velvet is perfect, but I dont have any and most people don’t either). I used simple A3 black paper, which isn’t that black anyway.
– A camera that will allow full manual (M) exposure and focus- Speed is not too important on this, so a decent compact could easily do the job
– A computer with access to either Photoshop, GimpShop or any other similar piece of software
– (Optional) Graphics tablet- I used and LOVED my Wacom Bamboo Pen + Touch to clean up and refine my smoke pics and also make layer masking a lot easier. But this can all be done with a mouse.

The first step is to establish a location where you can shoot. A few points to consider when choosing your location are:
– Its size- You’ll need adequate space between the incense and the backdrop, to prevent exposing your black material.
– Time availability- Setting up and packing away take time, make sure you can use the space for at least 1-2hrs as at least 30 minutes of this wil be setting up, exposure correcting and packing away.
– Ambient light- You’ll want to keep this to an absolute minimum in order to ensure your backdrop is left unexposed in your images. A darkened room or even a patio at night work perfectly
– Wind and movements in the air- Don’t shot somewhere where people will be walking past the smoke or where wind and opening/closing doors is regularly occurring, this will agitate the smoke and cause unnatural behavior.

With your location established you’ll need to begin setting up. The first thing I like to do is get my backdrop sorted and work around that. Your backdrop will need to be black, as smoke will not show up on a white wall (we can inverse the colours later to achieve the effect of a white backing). For my backdrop I used an A3 sheet of black craft paper and taped it to my back wall and floor, creating an infinity sweep and minimizing the chances of it catching light and appearing in the exposure.

Next setup your Joss/incense sticks offset quite a bit from the backdrop to reduce light leak onto your backing. Mine was setup approximately 2 1/2 ft from my ghetto black infiniti drop (roll of black paper).

Now we can begin shooting. Ideally (and relatively lazily) You could set your camera up on a tripod and sit back with a cable release. Well unfortunately I dont have a cable or remote release of any kind and Aperture was being a bit picky with its remote capture function, so I decided to do the next best thing and sit next to the camera, on a tripod and shoot. Being able to see the smoke without looking through the viewfinder is a really useful feature of this setup as you are able to shoot only when the smoke is looking its best.

These aren’t really all that flexible. To get this right, settings are vital so I highly recommend shooting tethered to the largest, most accurate display you have access to.
On a D90 and most consumer/entry-level pro cameras these are the settings you’ll want to use (roughly, adjust as you see correct)

  • 1/160 – This is as fast as i like to shoot when using strobes. Although the D90 and most cameras are rated at 1/250 flash curtain sync speed I have seen it start showing at 1/200, so shooting at 1/160 ensures this won’t happen
  • F/8 – On an 18-105 and most lenses you’ll find that this is the optimum aperture for sharpness and clarity. Any lower and you’ll get a shallow depth-of-field (not good as you’ll be shooting manual focus without focusing) and soft images. Any higher and diffraction starts taking effect, not very flattering on the fine details of smoke.
  • ISO200 – The lowest non-digital ISO on the D90 and similar cameras. This will maximize the quality in the detail and minimize noise. If your camera goes lower, by all means push it lower and adjust on the fly.
  • Manual focus – Focus on the incense stick, put it in manual focus and compose. When you are shooting, dont touch the focus ring, the aperture will allow for a good hyper focal distance, ample for the movement of smoke.
  • Two off-camera strobes – I used two strobes shooting from just behind the smoke, but not pointing at the camera lens as this would cause glare. I used a softbox on one side and another shooting bare bulb onto a white wall for diffusion.

Now shoot! Just watch the smoke and snap away. You can be liberal when doing this (and you probably will be) as in post its easy to see which ones stand out and deserve editing.


If you’ve shot tethered then skip the import bit.

Import your images into your chosen image handling software. I’ve chosen to work in Aperture but Lightroom and other similar products are easily applicable to the following steps.

Scan through your shots, and just pick one at random. Your first attempt will never be your best. Once you’ve got one chosen you need to correct the colors in the background and the smoke.

  1. Play with the black/white point sliders. Just ensure your background is completely black, no gradations or variations.
  2. Open your image in Photoshop.
    Go to Image>Mode>Lab color.

    Then Image>Adjustments>Curves (cmd+M)

    Make sure lightness is selected in the drop down box( )and select the black point eye dropper(). Click on the brightest point of your background (not your smoke). Adjust the curve manually if you want. Click OK and switch back to RGB or CMYK (Image>Mode>…)

Now you have corrected your colors you can now start the fun bit. If you intend on outputting an image with a white background I recommend inverting the colors now (cmd+i) and tweaking the curve again to bring out the most information in the smoke itself.

Adding Color

The first step is to duplicate your layer, this will ensure anything you do is Non-destructive.

Now go to Image>Adjustments>Color Balance (Make sure your not still working in Lab Color or this wont work properly) and pul the sliders round till you get the color you want (make sure the preview option is selected)

If you want your smoke to be just one color then your done! If not do the following and repeat until you get what you want

Make another layer from the original background layer and place it on top of your first color

Do the same Color Balance adjustments as before.

Now apply a layer mask to this layer

Select the Brush tool (B) and hit ‘D’ to reset your brushes color palette and ‘X’ till black becomes the foreground color.

Select a large brush with a hardness of 0% and begin painting the areas where you want the first color.

If you go wrong, hit ‘X’ (brings white to the foreground) again and repaint the area you didn’t mean to.

repeat this process ( from duplicate background layer onward) until you have a pleasing composition. If your like me you’ll have a LOT of layers by the end but this doesn’t really matter.

You can try merging al your layers, duplicaiting the resulting layer and flipping it round and making a symmetrical pattern like this:

Project 365: Day 19, The Devil Within

Now just export it as a JPEG and upload it for all (including myself) to see!

Leave a link in the comments to your smoke pictures.


3 responses to “Smoke Photography

  1. MejiaPhotograph

    Nice, very well done thanks, keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for this. I’ll give it a go next week.

  3. Nice one. I’ll never get round to doing it but it’s nice to see how it’s done!

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