Smoke photography is very tedious but also extremely rewarding if successful. It can be done very easily with a camera and a few basic household items. All you need for this is an understanding of lighting, camera settings, and the medium you want to work with, which in this case is smoke. A key factor of smoke photography is PATIENCE. This kind of photography is time consuming, ideal pictures are achieved through trial and error. Smoke, being a very unpredictable medium, if practically impossible to control or predict, but it makes for beautiful photography. Despite this, through practice, one can create beautiful and creative pieces of photography.
I personally chose to do smoke photography rather than light, or any other medium for that, because I like the effect that is produced when the pictures are edited to be monochromatic. Theres a fluidity and lightness to smoke that is unique to it alone. Light photography does have interesting results and you can have complete control of the outcome, but I like the fact that there is no control over smoke, it makes capturing photography very opportunistic.
Step 1: Materials
For this kind of photography you will need the following materials:
Camera - must have manual control over shooting modes, including shutter speed and aperture
Incense sticks - these give off thick smoke which is visible and easy to capture in photography. They give off a long continuous stream of smoke (they also have a very pleasant smell!) You may also want to have a incense stick holder or tray to stabilize the stick and catch falling ashes to keep from ma king a mess.
Tripod - its good for stabilizing and focusing the shot, to keep from shaky, out of focus pictures. If a tripod is unavailable to you, a flat stable surface is also good. In order to try different angles, a tripod may not always be necessary, so you can try with or without one and see which method works best for you.
Ventilated room - this, or a means to ventilate the room in which you wish to do the photography. the smoke will accumulate in the room very quickly and will decrease the quality of the photographs, also inhaling the smoke at great quantities is unhealthy.
Light source - an area with a good amount of direct sunlight, or even an artificial source of light, such as a lamp.
Black or dark background - allows the smoke to be seen most clearly, creates the best final effect. non reflective sheets or even bristol board work well for this.
Matches - or a lighter to light the incense sticks
Step 2: Settings
The following camera settings should be used to ensure the best results for your photography:
Fast Shutter Speed: 1/200
Small Aperture:f /5.6
High ISO: 6400
You want to be able to capture the fast moving smoke with enough light to be seen. Therefore you must use a high shutter speed and ISO, and optionally, if you wish to compensate for the lack of light that may occur due to the fast speed of the pictures being take, you may use flash to balance the exposure.
Step 3: Position and Adjustments
Follow these steps to begin the set up for the smoke photography!
- Set up the dark background
- Place incense stick 2-3 feet from the background
- Place tripod and camera 2-3 feet away from the incense stick.
Position and setting adjustments should be made according to the results that you wish to achieve. This may include adjusting positions according to your light source, especially is working with natural light.
Position the tripod higher than the position of the incense stick and holder. Then adjust and lower the angle of the camera so that it it frames above the source of the smoke. this will create and capture more interesting shapes from the smoke.
Step 4: Taking the Picture
Once the camera settings, position and adjustments are ready, you may begin shooting!
Make sure the light source is strong and as desired. Natural light is always changing and unpredictable. Feel free to position and readjust the photo setup according to the light.
After lighting the incense sticks, manually focus the camera at which point you wish to take the pictures. Focusing the camera closer to the tip of the incense stick will give a thicker more solid stream of the smoke, while focusing further away from the tip will have more of a wispy outcome. When you feel that you have focused the camera well, release the shutter and take a few shots. Be sure to take many pictures and review them in order to check exposure and adjust settings accordingly.
Try! You might want to try capturing smoke from different angles to try getting the different shapes and swirls that form.
Another tip is to be sure that the room or area where the pictures are being taken is still, meaning there are no drafts or sources of moving air. This may disrupt the smoke, as it is very delicate and can be very easily blown into certain directions.
The process may have to be repeated many times to achieve desired results. The results of each shot will vary as smoke is an unpredictable medium.
Make sure to periodically ventilate the room to ensure that there is clean air, not only for your breathing but also because the residual smoke causes a grey haze against the dark background and will show up in the photographs.
(The pictures featured are a few test shots that were taken)
Step 5: Editing
If you want you can edit the photographs that you took using a photo editing software, such as Photoshop.
After opening the picture, create a "New Adjustment Layer" under the layer tab in the Menu bar. This will allow you to edit and try different adjustments on the picture without it affecting the original. This is also helpful if you create different adjustments on multiple layers as you can choose which layer you wish to see, which is good for comparing different effects.
Under the new adjustment layer tab, select channel mixer. This will allow you to edit and customize the RGB levels in the pictures. As shown in the examples above, editing the picture to be monochromatic puts the emphasis on the smoke, which is also useful if you do not have a plain black background.
Try to keep the percent total, as seen above, at or near 100% for optimal balance