Should smoke bomb photography be banned?

Should smoke bomb photography be banned?
(Image credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Smoke bomb photography has become pretty popular over the past decade, with lots of photographers incorporating the effect into their work. However, as a niche idea grows more popular, so do the risks. Smoke bombs have gone from being used mainly by photographers and paintball enthusiasts to making regular appearances in 'gender reveal' parties.

This is where expecting parents will reveal their unborn baby's gender through unveiling an object that's either pink or blue. Popular items have included cupcakes, balloons and confetti poppers. However, smoke bombs have also become a mainstay of the gender reveal party – and it's becoming a problem.

One of the latest California wildfires has been revealed to have been caused by a 'smoke generating pyrotechnic device, used during a gender reveal party'. According to Global News, "the fire has prompted several cities to issue evacuations orders." Meanwhile, the Cal Fire website reports that the fire has spread over two counties and 13,592 acres. Even worse, as of yesterday, only 31% of the fire has been contained.

CNN reports, "surveillance video from the party showed a couple with several children walking into the grass at the edge of the El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa. Another person is seen in the video appearing to light the device. Soon after, the family can be seen on video scrambling and grabbing water bottles as the flames grow."

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time a smoke bomb has caused a wildfire. In 2018, a teenage boy was ordered to pay $36.6 million in restitution for throwing an activated smoke bomb into Oregon's Columbia River Gorge. This caused a wildfire that destroyed nearly 47,000 acres. 

While, as far as we know, photographers weren't involved in either of these instances, it does raise the question of whether it's now worth the risk to involve smoke bomb photography in a shoot. Generally, most professional photographers will be aware of the precautions you should take with smoke bombs and will ensure that any smoke bomb photography is done safely. 

However, exciting stunts such as using smoke bombs will grab the attention of less experienced photographers, or even just ordinary families looking to take a quick snap with their phone for social media. Is every single one of these people going to take the time to look up how to safely use a smoke bomb? Sadly, the wildfire currently raging through El Dorado Ranch Park proves that this isn't the case. 

So, should photographers retire smoke bomb photography in the hopes that this will dissuade others from trying it themselves? It's difficult to say. Having to stop something because of the irresponsible actions of other people rather feels like the entire class being kept behind because a couple of kids can't stop talking. However, when the consequences include thousands of acres worth of damage to the environment and wildlife, it might be worth considering. 

At the end of the day, it's unlikely that the entire photography community will collectively decide to stop using smoke bombs. Especially since the damage is likely already done, with the general population well acclimatized to seeing smoke bomb photos. However, what we can do is ensure that not only are our smoke bomb shoots conducted safely, but that we spread awareness on how others can do the same. 

Can you safely use a smoke bomb?

While smoke bomb photography can be dangerous if done incorrectly, it is possible to use smoke bombs safely. If you're considering using a smoke bomb in a shoot, you might want to think about who it could influence. You might even want to consider adding a disclaimer to any images published, stating the safety precautions that you undertook.

To capture a safe smoke bomb photo, the first and foremost requirement is to remember that a smoke bomb is a pyrotechnic device and that there's always the chance that it might be temperamental and accidentally cause a fire. To ensure that you're using one safely, there should always be a source of water nearby that can be used to douse any unfortunate sparks.

It's also helpful to use a 'cool-burning' smoke bomb. Slightly misleadingly, this doesn't mean that the smoke bomb won't get hot. However, it does mean that you'll be able to hold the smoke bomb the entire time (make sure to hold it at the non-burning end!). Non cool-burning smoke bombs will get so hot that they cannot be held, which means they could be accidentally dropped onto the floor.

Another useful tip is to immediately place your used smoke bomb into a bucket of water after the smoke has finished. In addition, if you activate a smoke bomb and no smoke emerges, you should also place it into the bucket of water as well, just in case it malfunctions unexpectedly while you're holding it. 

However, prevention is always better than cure. One of the most important things to consider when doing a smoke bomb shoot is your location. Are you shooting in a field with long grasses where it hasn't rained for two weeks? Or a wooded area with lots of dry kindling underfoot? Then you probably don't want to break out a smoke bomb. 

The best place to use a smoke bomb is a wide open space with nothing flammable nearby. If you're on private property, you should seek the permission of the landowner. Alternatively, if you're on public land then you should ensure that you're not doing anything to cause a panic or disturbance. However, the law will vary from country to country, so make sure you look up the legislation in your own area before you plan a smoke bomb photography shoot.

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Louise Carey

With over a decade of photographic experience, Louise arms Digital Camera World with a wealth of knowledge on photographic technique and know-how – something at which she is so adept that she's delivered workshops for the likes of ITV and Sue Ryder. Louise also brings years of experience as both a web and print journalist, having served as features editor for Practical Photography magazine and contributing photography tutorials and camera analysis to titles including Digital Camera Magazine and  Digital Photographer. Louise currently shoots with the Fujifilm X-T200 and the Nikon D800, capturing self-portraits and still life images, and is DCW's ecommerce editor, meaning that she knows good camera, lens and laptop deals when she sees them.