How to Get Started –
If you are attracted to the natural curves and curls of smoke and want to have a neat activity for a rainy day, read on to discover one way to photograph smoke and create some “Smoke Art”. I’m still in the “just having fun” stage of this process and am inspired by the works of photographers like Graham Jefferey, Stoffel De Roover and Mehmet Ozgur.
First, we’ll look at how to capture and process some smoke images and later installments will cover tips and tricks and various compositing ideas. These ideas and techniques are what work for me and leave a lot of room for experimentation by you. What you might find unique, is that I use a “disco” strobe light for some of my images because of the unusual, multiple exposure effect it produces.
A Typical Setup
Here are a few items you will need for photographing smoke:
– a draft-free darkened room
– black background placed 3 or more feet behind the incense
– incense stick and holder
– remote flash, tripod, camera and remote camera release
For Advanced Work – The Chauvet Techno Strobe 2000S ($50) allows me to record multiple exposers on one image. I have tried using a flash with a strobe effect setting, but find it is easier for me to work with the variable speed Chauvet strobe.
The setup picture shows the arrangement of these items and it is very important to add black flats (or “barn doors”) between the light and the background to stop the light from hitting the background. It is also a good idea to use a lens hood to shield your camera lens. I fashioned a “hoody” out of black paper for this strobe. More contrast between the white/blue smoke and the background, will help when processing the image later.
Images are captured in RAW format and my initial manual settings are f16, 1 second and ISO 400. If you shoot wide open, the depth of field (area in focus) at low f-stops is very limited in these close-up images. Using f11-f22 will help keep more of the smoke in focus. If you need to lighten/increase your exposure, try shortening your light to subject distance or raising your ISO. Set your focus to manual and focus on the tip of the incense stick. Reframe for the smoke and you are ready to go. Be prepared to take a lot of pictures as the “keeper” rate is fairly low due to the smoke’s nature to wander around in every direction. However, any image with a crisp, defined shape or interesting curve may be useful in creating composites.
The left image is made with the strobe firing at a rate of 1 per second and it captured just one flash from the strobe. In the second image, the strobe’s firing rate is increased to about 6 per second to get the multiple exposure effect showing the flow and changing positions of the rising smoke.
Basic Image Editing
When processing your images, the first step is to carefully set the black and white points using levels or curves adjustment layers (or Lightroom sliders). A completely black background will make it easier to blend or combine different images together in composites. The images may have some bright bits of floating ash or stray wisps of smoke that need to be cloned out or painted over in Photoshop.
Working with smoke is a nice way to learn cloning and masking skills because the resulting image is more abstract/artistic rather than precise/realistic. Free up your inhabitations and try some different blend modes and flips and turns. The surprising results are half the fun!
It took many tries to get this one to work. I panned the tripod mounted camera with the shutter open for a 1 second single exposure while the strobe fired many times. The image was inverted in Photoshop to put the smoke on a white background.
Smoke Photography – Part 2
…and beyond … will highlight some simple techniques for combining and shaping these smoke images into a composite image.
Check the Archives on Denise Ippolito’s Site
This article was first published in Denise Ippolito’s Creative Photography eMiniMagazine.
While the e-Mag is no longer published you can still find the archives for the articles at: Denise Ippolito – A Creative Adventure
This RefineEdge Photography Blog contains more articles I wrote for the eMiniMagazine. Just look in the sidebar for the eMag category.