If you spend a lot of time on Flickr or just browsing through photography books in search of artsy, eye-popping images, chances are you’ve seen some really cool pictures of smoke – pictures that you aren’t quite sure how to duplicate. While it has its place in scenic photography, I don’t mean the smoke from a campfire or the stuff that comes out of a chimney. The photos I’m referring to are studio shots of smoke. You know the sort of thing I mean: those ethereal images of wispy, swirling smoke shot against a black backdrop–the ones that look like they were created by a computer or an artist rather than a photographer.
[Top image: Ethereal Dancer by Pensiero]
Photographing smoke in a studio is challenging, but the good news is you don’t need much special equipment to do it. Here’s what you do need:
- A stick of incense. This will give you a long-burning source of smoke that shouldn’t – probably – set off the smoke detectors or worse, the sprinkler system. Because nothing says failed photo shoot like a soggy DSLR.
- An off camera flash or a strong directional lamp.
- A black backdrop with a matte surface (glossy won’t work here). You can use black cardboard, foam core or a piece of cloth (velvet works great).
- A tripod.
- A reflector.
- A snoot or just a couple of pieces of cardboard you can use to focus the light on the smoke and away from the backdrop.
- A big memory card. Because you’re going to shoot a lot of frames.
Your basic studio setup
Ideally, you will want to shoot smoke in a cool room with a high ceiling. This will give the smoke a place to go; otherwise it will quickly create a haze in the room that will make your photos look flat. (It’s also a good idea to take a break every 20 minutes or so and open all the doors and windows to let out the excess smoke. Your photos will benefit from this and you’ll be able to breathe easier, too.) And make sure there are no drafts in the room–you want the smoke to go where you tell it to go, not where the draft tells it to go.
Safety is important too, of course. Avoid setting up your studio in a garage or other location where chemicals are stored. And keep flammable materials away from your setup. It’s obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people are so eager to get shooting that they neglect those kinds of details.
You don’t need a huge area for your setup, but you will need to put at least five feet between your camera and your backdrop, so keep this in mind when choosing a workspace. Once you have your gear assembled, one important thing to keep in mind when setting everything up is that you need to prevent your light source from hitting your backdrop. This means you need to place your flash to the right or left of the backdrop rather than in front of it, angled 30 to 45 degrees away from the backdrop with the reflector directly opposite. Use the snoot to focus the light from your flash so that it passes directly through the smoke (if you don’t have a snoot, you can use a couple of pieces of cardboard). Your camera should be pointed directly at the backdrop, with the smoke source in the middle.
You don’t want any of your equipment to be too close to the smoke itself, so start by placing your smoke source about three feet from the backdrop, with the flash one or two feet away and your camera two or three feet in front of the smoke.
To get in the right ballpark, start by setting your camera to a 1/250 shutter speed, an f stop somewhere in the neighborhood of f/5.6 to f/16 and the lowest ISO your camera offers. Because smoke is always in motion, autofocus is not going to work very well for this kind of shoot. Switch to manual focus and use the tip of the incense stick as your focal point. Now dim or extinguish the ambient light and start experimenting. Keep fine tuning the position of your camera, flash and reflector until you are consistently getting images with a deep black background and a subject that has a broad tonal range with a bright highlight.
Smoke is a great subject because it is constantly changing and easy to manipulate. To get some variation in your photos, you can hold an object over the smoke to change its trajectory, you can blow on it gently, you can draw shapes with the incense stick or you can burn multiple sticks of incense to add multiple plumes to the image. You can add props, too – a candle, for example, can give the smoke some context and make it more than just an abstract shape (a just-extinguished candle can also be a temporary source of smoke). And don’t be discouraged if you don’t get very many usable shots. Most people who photograph smoke don’t – it’s a tough subject. You will likely only get a few usable images, but those you do get are going to be worth the wasted frames.
Chances are you’ll need to tweak some or most of your images in post processing. Fortunately this is pretty easy to do; if you got the exposure right your background will already be a true black, and then you can just adjust for the smoke itself. This is where you go to create colored smoke – that’s right, you don’t need to purchase some sort of magic colored incense to get those shots, you just play with channels, color balance or the hue/saturation. As with pretty much everything to do with smoke photography, experimentation will get you the best results.
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.