How to Photograph Smoke

If you type ‘smoke photos’ in online search engines, you’ll come up with millions of photographs of smoke. There seems to be something fundamentally appealing about them, from their ethereal wispiness to the various ways they curl and curve in the air. They can appear as abstract shapes or in relation to another object. Just like all images beautiful and seemingly simple, photographing smoke takes some preparation.

You’ll need a few things to get your smoke shot:

Incense sticks – they give off a beautiful gray smoke, they smell good and they are easy to control. They also have a small burning area so the smoke is concentrated as it wafts from the stick. A bigger burning area would mean less defined smoke curls. You can use other smoke sources but just stay away from open flame since it will cause hot air to rise and disturb those smoke shapes. Plus, there’s less chances you will burn the house down while playing with fire.

Black backdrop – since smoke is grayish and transparent, the background has to look uncluttered and dark to fully show it off. You can use a black cloth (velvet is advised since it does not reflect light) or black cardboard. If you have neither, try shooting at night but make sure there are no nearby objects that might become illuminated by the flash.

Flash – an external and portable light source is best since you will be positioning it to light up the smoke. The camera’s built-in flash will illuminate the smoke straight on but that might not be the best angle since it can also light up the background. The stronger the light, the better. You will be using a small aperture for a greater depth of field, a low ISO to make the smoke looking as fine and smooth as possible and a fast shutter speed (1/250 at least) to freeze the rising plumes of smoke. Since the exposure settings will allow very little light to get through to the sensor, this is the reason why you will have to compensate with the strength of the flash.

Position the light source to the side or almost to the back of where your smoke will be. Take care not to shine the light on your lens or on the background. Smoke usually rises straight up in a line and to break this by forming curls or other shapes, you can try wafting the air (a hand fan, a piece of paper or even just your hand will do).  Another thing to remember is to have good ventilation in the room. The air will sooner or later start to thicken with smoke, and not only will this be bad for your health but also for the shot since it can lessen the contrast and definition of your smoke pattern.

When you’re done taking pictures, you can post process them and make them look even more striking. One way is to invert the image which will make the background white instead of black. Another is to change the hue and saturation of the smoke. Still another, if your photo editing savvy, is to colorize only certain parts of the smoke and make it look multi-colored.

Creating good smoke shots take lots of practice and patience but the results are often very rewarding and worth the effort. 

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