Smoke Photography Tips

If you have a camera and external flash that can be fired remotely then you can make photographs of smoke. You will back light the smoke with an external flash and you can add the colour seen in some of photos below using Photoshop.

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Required Gear

  • Camera – Needs to have option that allows you to set shutter speed and aperture
  • External Flash – Needs to be able to be controlled remotely or with a flash sync cable
  • Tripod – Keeps your camera steady and allows you to only have focus once.
  • Reflector (optional) – You can use a piece of white foam core for this. If it’s not reflecting enough light, you can wrap it it in tinfoil.
  • Black Background – You can find black foam core or black poster paper at a store like Walmart
  • Incense Stick
  • Lighter

Gear Used

Setup

The included diagram is just a guide and I recommend you experiment with the distances and placement of everything until you find what works best for you. Lets pretend in this case that the microphone in the middle is… not a microphone and is an incense stick.

Lighting Diagram

  • If you get light spilling onto the background try placing it further back from the camera. You may need a bigger background to fill the frame if you do this.
  • If your still getting light spillage, then try placing something along the side of the flash closest to the background. This will act as a block, preventing light from hitting the background. I have showed in the diagram above where you this should be placed on the flash.
  • Place your flash on either the left or right side and point it towards the smoke. You can try angling it towards the camera a bit, but be careful not to angle to close, or you will run into lens flare issues.
  • Optionally you can place a reflector opposite of the flash; this will help provide more even lighting. Using a reflector may not even produce an effect you like, so don’t feel that you need this.
  • Turn off all your room lights to prevent ambient light leaking into your image. You will see orange coloured light on your background or smoke if you leave these lights on.

Instead of a reflector I’ve used a 2nd flash on the right side. I have also used two pieces of foam as blocks on each flash to prevent light spilling onto the background and/or causing lens flare.
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Camera and Flash Setup

  • Aperture – Setting this around f/9.0 should provide enough of depth of field, while still providing you with enough light.
  • Shutter Speed – Set this to the fastest shutter speed your camera will allow with a flash. This is called flash sync speed and most cameras this ranges from 1/100s to 1/250s. The faster you set this, the less ambient light in the room will leak into your photograph.
  • ISO – Try to keep this low as a higher ISO will introduce noise into your image. The lower you set your iso the higher your flash power will have to be, so if you want to take many photos in succession and not wait for the flash to recharge, then you can set this higher. Something like ISO 200 or 400 is a good number.
  • Flash Power – Once you have all the above set you can adjust your flash power until you get the right exposure. Something like 1/4 or 1/2 should work but may be different for you depending on your setup.

Taking the Shot

Once you have everything setup you can light the incense and take your shots. I suggest taking at least 100 photos if not more, you can then go through them later looking for interesting shapes. You can use a small spoon to help disrupt the flow of smoke. It’s a good idea to vent out the room every 10 minutes or the buildup of smoke will cause the photos to eventually appear hazy.

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Post Processing

Using Photoshop

  • Use the eye dropper to select the background and then paint over any distracting elements, such the incense stick or stray smoke.
  • Then crop the image to how you would like it.
  • At this point create a colour balance adjustment layer and change the sliders until you’ve reached a colour you like.
  • If you want to use two colours such as the image below, then create two colour balance adjustment layers and paint in the areas of each layer you want coloured.

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Don’t be afraid to turn a photo 90 or even 180 degrees. You can also try mirroring it horizontally or vertically.

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