How to take photos of smoke effects

How to take photos of smoke effects
How to take photos of smoke effects
Smoke may not seem like the most obvious subject for your photography, but it can produce some
beautiful, ethereal results. Here is how to take photos of smoke.
The best time to experiment with smoke photography is at night, when ambient light is at its lowest.
Find a dark room without any drafts to get the best results. You can block out any extra ambient light
using curtains if need be. As with any activity involving smoke, make sure you take regular breaks
and ventilate the room every few minutes.
What you need
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Digital SLR or interchangeable lens camera (ILC)
Tripod
Backdrop, preferably black. This can be black cardboard or a black cloth to hang on the wall
Off-camera flash
Reflector. If you don't have a reflector you can easily use a reflective surface to bounce the light from
the flash, like tinfoil
Incense sticks and holder
Step one: Set up the scene
Attach the black cardboard or fabric to the wall. This will be your backdrop.
Find a stable surface or table to place your incense stick. Remember that it will drop ash, so lay down
a non-flammable cover to protect the surface.
Make sure the incense stick is a fair distance away from the backdrop. Approximately 1 metre is a
good distance to start with.
Step two: Get the flash in position
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The key to illuminating smoke is to have light passing through it or across the stream at an angle,
without having light fall on the backdrop.
To do this, set your off-camera flash so it is pointing across the incense stick like in the image above.
The flash can either be wirelessly triggered by your dSLR or attached with a cable to the camera.
Check your manual if you are unsure if your camera has wireless flash control.
You may need to place the flash on another surface to keep it in position, or you can handhold it if
needed.
Directly opposite the flash, place your reflector or tinfoil to bounce the light for even illumination.
Step three: Camera settings
Set your dSLR lens to manual focus and enter into live view. Use expanded focus to make sure the
base of the incense stick is sharp.
Once focus has been acquired, enter into manual exposure mode. A good starting point for smoke
photography is to keep your ISO around 100 or 200. The aperture should be around f/8 to f/11 and
the shutter speed should be 1/125 or 1/160, enough to freeze the smoke in action when illuminated
by the flash.
Step four: Light it up
Once the scene has been set up, light the incense. As with anything involving smoke in confined
conditions, ensure you take breaks and ventilate the room regularly.
Turn out any overhead lights and start to take photos with your dSLR. This should trigger the flash to
fire.
Review your images as you go in order to adjust the exposure accordingly. There are no right or
wrong settings as the exact exposure will depend on your particular setup. Ideally you want to make
sure that no light from the flash is falling onto the background so it is as close to pure black as
possible. Review your histogram to check and adjust if needed.
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You also may need to adjust the power of your flash and its position through the smoke. If images
are a bit too washed out, you can dial down the power to something weaker.
In this example, most of the images were taken between -2EV and -3EV.
If you find that too much light is still falling on the background, consider adding a snoot over the flash
which controls the direction and fall of the light.
Step five: Create shapes
When the room is blocked from drafts, smoke plumes from the incense will generally go straight up.
To make things more interesting from a photographic perspective, consider creating some shapes in
the smoke.
To do so you could gently fan the smoke with a piece of paper. Another option is to coax shapes from
the smoke by manipulating the tip of the incense stick with a non-flammable object.
Remember that the longer you leave the incense burning, the more ambient smoke will build up.
This can make your photos look hazy, so it is important to keep ventilating the room.
Step six: Editing /Post-Processing
When you've finished shooting, you can upload all your images to the computer for post-processing.
If the shoot went to plan, this shouldn't take too long. A good place to start might be by adjusting the
image contrast (Image> Adjustments> Brightness / Contrast).
Even without any additional processing, the smoke has a blue hue and it looks very impressive at a
deep black background.
Photos of smoke often have defects in the form of bright spots - these are ash particles, which rise
with the smoke. Unfortunately, you cannot avoid this completely while shooting, so you have to fix it
later with Clone Stamp Tool.
Coloured Smoke on Black
The next possibility to explore is the creation of colored smoke on a black background. Load the file
in Photoshop. Copy the image to the new Layer. With the help of Gradient Tool, fill the Background
with triple gradient from purple through red to yellow (R156 G0 B216> R255 G32 B0> R255 G255 B0).
Apply the Multiply blend mode.
Coloured Smoke on White
Another possibility is to change the background, and have colored smoke on white background. Load
the file in Photoshop. Copy the image to the new Layer. Make the image negative by clicking Image >
Adjastments> Invert.
With the help of Gradient Tool fill the Background with a complex gradient from purple through red
and yellow to orange. (R78 G0 B129> R255 G0 B0> R255 G255 B0> R198 G101 B31). Apply the
Luminosity blend mode.
Natural Smoke on White
Finally, we'll consider how to get your natural smoke colour, but on a white background rather than
the black one we shot on. Load the file in Photoshop.
Invert the image as before, then go to Image > Adjustments > Hue / Saturation and set the values to
the same as those in the screenshot below. Hopefully, you'll have a natural blue smoke colour on a
white background (you can experiment until the colour is just as you'd like it).
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