Photo ideas: photographing smoke and smoke photo art

Photo ideas: photographing smoke and smoke photo art

Photo ideas: photographing smoke and smoke photo art

The creative possibilities of photographing smoke trails are endless; after all, each one is as individual and original as your own fingerprint. It’s easy, fun and the results are mind-blowing. In this photography project, we’ll show you a simple smoke photography set up, and give you the tips and settings you need to get the best shots. We’ll also show you a quick smoke photo tutorial for Photoshop which explains how to turn your smoke pictures into awesome art. Follow our tips and delve into a whole new genre of still life photography.

Smoke photography step-by-step

Step 1: Get the following equipment
As well as digital SLR and standard zoom lens, you’ll need this gear…

Black backdrop
To intensify the backlit smoke, black is essential. Cheap and cheerful card will be fine.

Incense sticks
Better for your health than cigarettes and they smoulder constantly and predictably.

Your camera’s built-in flash won’t do, as you’ll need to manually backlight the smoke to make it come alive. You don’t need to worry about attaching the flash to the camera though.

The outdoor photographer’s essential item is just crucial indoors, especially in this low-light scenario.


Step 2: Use these settings on your DSLR
Here are our recommended camera settings for taking a smoke photo…
● ISO – keep it as low as possible for best image quality
● File format – shoot RAW
● Focal length – around 50mm looks natural and works best
● Exposure mode – manual
● Aperture – shoot between f/8 and f/16 for sharp results
● Shutter speed – set this for a one-second exposure
● Off-camera Flash – set it to Manual and select 1/8 of full power
● Metering – ignore your camera’s meter
● Shutter release – use a remote release or your self-timer

Step 3: Smoke photo set-up and technique

First of all, you’ll need a dark room. To make sure ambient light doesn’t affect the flash exposure you’ll be using, block out light from windows and doors by draping sheets or towels over them.

Leave the light on while you clear a table top and place some black card against the wall to use as your backdrop. Position an incense holder and stick 12 inches in front of this. Now put your camera on a tripod around three feet from the incense (the actual distance will depend on the close-focusing ability of your lens).

To retain a good degree of sharpness in your smoke photos, use autofocus to lock on to the tip of the incense stick. Now switch your lens to manual focus to prevent the camera hunting for focus later. Recompose the shot so that the incense is just out of the bottom of the viewfinder.

Not all viewfinders offer a 100% view of the scene, so allow for this when recomposing the shot (otherwise the tip of the incense stick is likely to creep, unseen into the frame).

When you’re ready to shoot, light the incense and turn the lights off. Use a remote shutter release or use the camera’s self timer. Position a flashgun underneath and behind the incense and when the shutter opens during the 1-second exposure, fire the flash manually by pressing its pilot button.

Check your results after each exposure to make sure the composition and sharpness are acceptable.

Experimenting with the position of the incense stick at the bottom of the frame and gently wafting the smoke can throw up some spectacular results. However, remember that you’re photographing smouldering incense, which has the potential to cause fire or injury.

How to get the best results – and avoid mistakes…

The ideal set-up: keep the flash low and facing up towards the tip of the stick. Hold the flash slightly back from the smoke for the best backlit effect.
Flash in shot: take care not to let the flash creep into the frame. Turn on your camera’s automatic review feature and keep an eye on the LCD screen.
Flash pointing at lens: trying to backlight too much and pointing your flash towards the lens will create horrible flare. A lens hood will help.
Exposed background: if you want a black background, keep the flash angled away from it. Any light spill towards it will create muddy tones.
Too much airflow: too much air flowing around the room will cause the smoke to billow and deviate out of the frame. Keep doors and windows shut.
Not enough interest: if the air’s very still the smoke will rise straight up without disrupting. The best remedy is to tap the incense stick.