Professionally taken smoke photographs look very surreal. An amateur looking at smoke photographs for the first time will be discouraged thinking that that level of expertise used to take them is way beyond their capability. The world of smoke photography is a mystical one; combining the conceptual and the abstract to create magic to the eyes. It’s a world that is created by nothing more than patience, creativity and proper equipment.
Photographing smoke is rewarding, fun, but challenging. The greatest challenge is due to the fact that you are photographing an element you don’t have much control over. Smoke is always moving and it can easily move out of focus or create ugly forms contrary to what you intended to get. However, with a little tutoring and getting the equipment and set up right, you can get great smoke photographs. Here is a step by step tutorial on how to photograph smoke.
One ingredient to success in smoke photography is having the right equipment. By right equipment we don’t mean expensive equipment. You can easily improvise a set up from home made equipment or cheaply available items. The only expensive piece of equipment is your camera, which of course is what gives you the title of a photographer! Here is a list of what you will need.
- Camera and lenses: the most preferred camera is a DSLR since you have more control of focus using the lenses. As for the lenses, standard kit lenses may not work so well but anything that can control depth of field without much coaxing is ideal. If you can get macro lenses, you will hit the jackpot sooner!
- Flash: External flash or a flash whose power can be controlled is preferred. The flash need to have a wireless flash trigger or a flash cable.
- Smoke source: There are many sources of smoke but for the sake of simplicity and great result, incense sticks are more preferred.
- A black background: Thought in very rare cases other colour backgrounds can be used, black is more ideal.
- Tripod: a tripod is needed here to keep the camera sturdy and to make sure that you don’t keep refocusing each time the camera moves.
- A matchbox or a light to light the incense sticks
- A well ventilated room or a studio if you can afford.
- A table lamp to help in focusing.
- Reflectors to ensure that there is uniform trail of light hitting from all sides.
You can convert your bedroom to a temporary studio for your smoke photography. The room should be well ventilated so that excess smoke does not ruin the quality of your images. The background should be void of streaking light so that the focus should remain on the smoke and not the background.
Start by setting up the background. A black cloth that is not satin is preferred. You should then place your incense sticks in front of the background around 2-3 feet away. The incense should not be lit until you are done setting up the place.
Place the table lamp on the left or right of the incense sticks, aiming the light on the tip of the sticks. Place the flash on the opposite side of the table lamp and adjust it to 1/16th of power or as per the output demands of your image. The reflector should be placed on the opposite side of the flash.
Lastly, set up the camera around 2-3 feet away from the incense sticks. The camera should be set on manual with an ISO of 100. Shutter speed should be fast, something like 1/250 seconds since the smoke will be in constant motion. To get good depth of field, you will need a small aperture, which means you need to set the aperture at higher values like f/8 – f/16. The white balance should be set at auto. After all is done, it’s time to light up the incense stick and start clicking.
Make sure that there is no wind blowing into the room. Don’t also try moving the incense sticks around in order to create shapes; smoke will do so by itself. Since it’s hard to focus on the smoke, you should focus on the tip of the incense stick and then tilt the camera to the smoke. Try various camera angles and you may be amazed at the results you get. Capture as many photos as possible; many of the photos taken may not be the best and only a few will really capture the attention of your viewers. Make it a point to shoot in the RAW format.
The colours and the shapes you sometime see in smoke photography are not taken on the set but manipulated later using software. In Photoshop, you can use the paint brush to paint out the unwanted spots and smoke on the background. You can create various shapes by painting the unwanted smoke out. For colour, use the Hue & Saturation adjustment layer and/or the colorize option under the same layer. To make the background white, you need to do this: Go to Image > Adjustments > Inverse; bingo, the background will turn white!
Graham Jefferey, a famous abstract photographer once said that in smoke photography, you are not trying to create pictures of smoke; you are trying to create pictures by using smoke. Never embark on smoke photography with an aim of photographing images of smoke but you should aim at photographing smoke in order to create mesmerizing images with it.