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An Introduction to Smoke Photography

In this post Amar Ramesh introduces us to the mystical world of smoke photography.

After I got hooked to smoke photography, the one question that has been constantly running through my mind these past few months has been ‘What else can I do with smoke?’. Smoke, otherwise an unwanted by-product of combustion, is actually a great subject for photography.

smoke-photography-4.jpg

The fact that the subject is not totally under your control is what makes smoke photography such a challenging job but at the same time, the challenges posed have only fueled my creativity. Finding subjects that fit the smoke pattern or trying to come up with a smoke pattern that matches the subject that you already have is a fascinating challenge.

smoke-photography-3.jpg

This limitation to create a combination improves the creativity to a larger extent. You can almost call it ‘the art of seeing hidden images’. 

On a very high level the idea behind these pictures is very simple. It is made of two pictures.

First, a picture of the smoke. Depending on the shape and form of the smoke, find an object that would fit the shape and form of the smoke.

Now merge these two pictures in photoshop. I’ll not go in detail on how to shoot the objects here as there are hundreds of tutorials out there online. From a small box setup to a studio setup there are so many ways to do that. You can select what fits your style.

Below I’m going to concentrate on the taking of smoke pictures. 

smoke-photography-1.jpg

Smoke Photography: Setup

The setup for smoke photography is relatively simple. Here’s what you need:

  • a power controllable flash (in my case, it was an 580 EX II)
  • a DSLR with any good lens, though a macro lens would make things a lot easier.
  • Although you can get smoke from various sources, I feel incense sticks fit our needs best because they not only give out smoke with a good form and texture, they are also harmless.
  • A tripod is required if you are not comfortable at setting the focus and changing the composition. I always focus on the edge of the incense stick and recompose my frame for the smoke.
  • A table lamp pointed on the smoke helps in focussing.
  • A black cloth for the backdrop. Two small black sheets that can form a rectangular snoot and last but not least, a wireless trigger. 

smoke-photography-2.jpg

Smoke Photography: Procedure

Start by fixing the black back drop to the wall. Place the incense stick a foot away from the back drop. Do not light it yet.

Now position the table lamp such that it points at the tip of the incense stick. It can be placed either to the left or right side (at either the 3’o clock or the 9’o clock angle) of the incense stick.

Now place the strobe on the opposite side (of the table lamp) at half a foot distance from the incense stick. Adjust the flash to 1/16th of the power and depending on the output image, you can reduce or increase it.

Now you can place the black cards on either side of the strobe so that light from the strobe does not spill out to the back drop.

Now light the incense stick and start the smoke. If possible place the entire setup in a place where you have good ventilation so that your room is not smoked out.

Switch on the table lamp.

Set your camera to manual focus and start the aperture at f8.0 and shutter speed at 1/200th of a second (below your sync speed).

Shoot in RAW format. Start clicking and get some great smoke pictures.

Gently blow the smoke to get different forms and shapes. Once you are done with this, you can let your imagination run wild by placing 2 or 3 incense sticks that in turn should produce smoke of completely different shapes.

Once you are done with shooting the smoke pictures, it is time to proceed to the post-processing part of this fun exercise.

smoke-photography-5.jpg

Smoke Photography: Post Processing

Open the picture in adobe RAW. You increase the black a little bit if you feel there is some spill light in the picture. Adjust contrast and exposure until you are satisfied.

Open the image in photoshop and make a duplicate layer. Select paintbrush and set your foreground to black and paint out the unwanted smoke in the picture.

That’s it. You have a smoke picture. If you want to color it try Hue & Saturation adjustment layer.

Also try to play with colorize option under the same adjustment layer.

If you want to make the background white, Go to Image > Adjustments > Inverse. This will make the background white.

Again like any other photography, you can always break the rules and still come up with extraordinary pictures. Play around until you are satisfied.

I hope this post has been helpful and good luck with your smoke photography.

smoke-photography-6.jpg

smoke-photography-7.jpg

smoke-photography-8.jpg

Amar Ramesh is an emerging photographer from Redmond WA, USA. Photography, to him is a passion with infinite opportunities and he loves to share the lessons and tips that he learned with others. Portfolio | Twitter | Facebook Fan Page | Flickr

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  • suri

    these pictures are awesome… i shot fake smoke http://suriphoto.blogspot.in/2013/11/fake-smoke-photography.html

  • Dan Girard

    After seeing your pictures, these were my first attempts at smoke photography.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/10480077@N06/sets/72157642481160514/

  • http://www.tyleringram.com TylerIngram

    Too bad there aren’t any behind the scene shots. I’ve always liked seeing those when people talk about their setup etc. Though it is neat how you’ve added the other elements such as James the Train to the image.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    This isn’t real smoke photography, but I was taking pictures of my neighbor welding and what caught my eye the most was the smoke curling up with the sparks flying and the arcs coming out .

  • Christopher Stone

    Holy crap! Nice photos man!

  • http://www.dynamiceyephotography.com Anna

    I have been wanting to take smoke shots for a while and Here is a picture that I made out of 3 pics. I also colourized them.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/116863158@N08/15193039221/

Some older comments

  • Swati Chauhan

    March 4, 2013 02:56 am

    Loved the above photographs! Tried smoke photography today here's the result:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/swati1205/8523894675/in/photostream

    It looks like like a women's portrait from my point of view.

  • Marc G.C.

    January 30, 2012 01:22 am

    This is trully amazing, really creative photograph with a great care for the lit and composition. A fantastic work indeed!

  • Anthony

    July 30, 2011 11:48 pm

    I tried this last night after wanting to do it for a while.
    Here is my result

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/60516945@N07/5990632614/in/photostream

  • Sabine?BusyBee

    April 17, 2011 10:32 am

    This tutorial is awesome! I gave it a go and here are some results:

    http://www.busybee.at/portfolio160560.html

    [eimg url='http://www.busybee.at/portfolio160560.html' title='portfolio160560.html']

  • Abhay Patny

    February 15, 2011 10:42 pm

    Nice one. I loved the cups shot

    Here is how I did it
    http://abhaypatny.com/blog/how-i-took-it-smoke-photography/

  • Al Gburi

    October 5, 2010 08:22 pm

    Hi

    That's great = )

    Check this one ^^

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/9821575@N06/5052241325/

    Regards

  • donini

    July 24, 2010 05:32 am

    Just saw this effect used on a box of Kroger branded "neon food coloring" just a couple days ago.

  • Wesley

    June 24, 2010 12:02 am

    I tried this out. Fun stuff. Thanks for the instructions, especially the photoshop ones.

  • ecphoteaux

    May 6, 2010 01:35 pm

    Thanks for the tutorials. I don't have much by way of equipment other than a dslr and the onboard flash; but here is my favorite. http://www.flickr.com/photos/45329235@N06/4583274130/
    Other smoke art pics on my site www.wix.com/ecphoteaux/ecphoteaux in the abstract set

    STE95- I moved the incense stick until the majority of smoke trails were where I wanted them to appear in the frame(straight up or otherwise). Also, it seemed like the very start of the smoke was the straightest.

  • Mark

    April 21, 2010 06:44 am

    great article, i will try this its a new one for me

  • beautyme101

    April 18, 2010 04:55 pm

    how to color the smoke?

  • Rina Minca

    April 8, 2010 05:46 am

    It makes me want to try this out!

  • Augphoto

    April 8, 2010 12:58 am

    Inspiring and informative. Great, great post.

  • Gash Froz

    April 7, 2010 10:20 pm

    Almost every body knows and have experimented the smoke photography, but here i got the use of smoke photography. this is really very creative, and can add images in your stock photography.

    1. This creative way can bring business for photographers, Add all these images in your stock and try to approch different kind of companies to put innovation in their adds.

  • Ste_95

    April 6, 2010 07:04 pm

    Thanks, I'll try it again and I'll let you know. :)

  • Tunde

    April 6, 2010 06:48 pm

    Did you tried different sticks maybe they smoke in a different way. The truth is no matter what, the smoke will linger from left to right. I must do some air turbolent what alter the direction of the column. Try to be still much as you can.

  • Ste_95

    April 6, 2010 04:16 pm

    @Tunde
    The the curly whirly pattern would be fine, but not going “out of the frame” to the side, otherwise, I actually don't now how to get it.

  • Tunde

    April 6, 2010 09:59 am

    @ Ste 95

    What do you mean straight? You want one single column what is coming up straight or the curly whirly pattern of the smoke but straight and not going "out of the frame" to the side?

  • B M Osgood

    April 6, 2010 08:35 am

    Wow. Thanks for introducing me to a great creative project. I will certainly give it a go. :)

  • Ste_95

    April 5, 2010 07:55 pm

    Can't understand WHY my smoke is not coming up straight!! Does anyone have advice?

  • Tunde

    April 5, 2010 03:18 pm

    Once you know what to do quite addictive. Thanks!

  • Rachel

    April 5, 2010 09:33 am

    Took me a couple of shots to get the hang of my flash placement, but once I did, I got a ton of great shots my first day. I can't wait to experiment more! Thanks for the post and awesome photos.

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelm1981/4490737431/' title='Smoking Orange' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2772/4490737431_d2ce75a9ee.jpg']

  • Nikrometer

    April 4, 2010 07:08 am

    Very interesting!

  • Scott

    April 3, 2010 02:00 pm

    Well now you've done it. I'm going to have to try this for the Phun Phriday! feature on my blog. Thanks for all the tips, I can't wait to try it.

  • Darin House

    April 2, 2010 02:43 pm

    I love some of the images you get by accident. Sometimes the image presents itself. In this one I did very little touch up around the edges. And of course colored it red.[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/momilkman/4312154863/' title='An Early Valentine' url='http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4014/4312154863_3e73ec280c_o.jpg']

  • jack govaert s

    April 2, 2010 08:31 am

    this is great, I wonder if you could use clear tubes to run the smoke through to make it longer, then spill out at the end? This is my next project

  • Selina

    April 2, 2010 05:22 am

    I'm so glad you recommend incense stick because i thought the only way i could get smoke was with Cigs,
    I'm Positive I'm going to try it out :)

  • D S E kar

    April 2, 2010 03:31 am

    everyone can do like this, 'if have fully loaded studio'. it is not difficult thing.

    i shoot shape of goddesses from scented stick smoke and also in flame. ( no colour like this )

    and one more thing you cannot catch second one in the same shape.

  • Major Bokeh

    April 1, 2010 10:44 am

    Sorry for the double post all. The first time didn't appear to take.

    Admin, feel free to drop the first one.

  • Michael Grijalva

    April 1, 2010 04:52 am

    Wow these are some awesome photos. I definitely need to try this out!

  • DPCT

    April 1, 2010 04:50 am

    I love these pictures. They offer so much room to experiment. Here is one I did. There was no photoshop used for this. The set up was a compleatly dark room and a black backdrop. The Camera was set to "b" while different color strobes were fired one after the other.
    [eimg url='http://dougphillipsphotography.smugmug.com/Art/Smoke-get-in-your-eyes/3569594_ybQmE#202506618_GxLQo-A-LB' title='3569594_ybQmE#202506618_GxLQo-A-LB']

  • Major Bokeh

    April 1, 2010 03:25 am

    Great post and really good pics.

    The first thing I did when I bought my Pocket Wizard flash remotes was shoot smoke. I was amazed how well it went for a first try. I used a snoot to focus the beam of light from the flash and keep it from spilling on to the background. I set the flash and incense on separate tripods and hand held the camera.

    It's really fun. Try it!

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/39916185@N02/4478955105/' title='IMG_2741' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2788/4478955105_09527fdeb9.jpg']

  • Major Bokeh

    April 1, 2010 03:12 am

    Great post and really good pics.

    The first thing I did when I bought my Pocket Wizard remotes for off-camera flash was shoot smoke. I was blown away how easy it was. I used a snoot to focus the strobe and avoid the light spilling onto the background. I mounted the incense and the flash on separate tripods and hand held the camera.

    It's great fun. Try it!

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/39916185@N02/4479553528/' title='IMG_2741' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2763/4479553528_850cb5b4b8.jpg']

  • banana ketchup

    April 1, 2010 01:06 am

    Tried it out last night, it was a lot of FUN![eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/bananaketchup/4478427986/' title='Smokin!' url='http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4022/4478427986_22cd1e055a.jpg']

  • Shaun Fisher

    March 31, 2010 11:43 pm

    Thanks alot for this! Is jotted down for weekend fun happy time.

  • Paddy

    March 31, 2010 10:03 pm

    Excellent article. This makes me wanna try this kind of photography.
    Thanks a lot for this, cheers :)

  • hfng

    March 31, 2010 06:14 pm

    Very nice. One of the best tuts in DSP in a very long while. Thanks!

    Also if you use weed instead of incense, you can get those colors without post processing.

  • Frank Worth

    March 31, 2010 12:57 pm

    Great Shots and thanks for the information you are very good at what you do.

  • Bjorn

    March 31, 2010 05:35 am

    Thanks for the writeup and for the folks who posed links to the setup.

    A picture, as they say, is worth 1000 words ;)

  • Devansh

    March 31, 2010 03:44 am

    I am totally blown away with these smoke shots. Now this is what I call, "taking the smoke photography, a step further". Looking at the same kind of smoke shots on Flickr (or elsewhere), gets pretty boring after a while. A while ago I decided to make smoke shots, but not the regular kind, I used the mirroring technique and the warp tool, to carve out shapes and forms which can be easily recognized. The examples above are truly unique, I wonder why I myself did not think of such an idea. Excellent work Amar.

    To help those who do not have an off-camera flash, I wrote an article on how to shoot smoke, with DIY (home made) lighting setup. Here you can find detailed instructions on how to make the lighting setup, from scratch. The link is below. If the link does not work, try copying and pasting it in your address bar.

    You can find my smoke art by visiting my Flickrstream, (click my name on the top of this post). Or the link below to directly reach the index page of the smoke shots.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dynastyphotoinc/sets/72157594486434876/detail

  • Aimee Greeblemonkey

    March 31, 2010 03:15 am

    Thank you! I have been wanting to try this!

  • Jon McGovern

    March 31, 2010 02:11 am

    A very original and striking use of smoke in photography - browsing through thousands of identical colourful smoke photos can be very boring

  • Arun

    March 31, 2010 02:00 am

    Great tutorial!
    I guess quicoto is right when they said - less photos with the final result! You could have managed to post just two with the final result and atleast one with the setup!
    Brilliant nevertheless!

  • Amar

    March 31, 2010 01:14 am

    For set up shot, Please visit http://www.anrbphotography.com/2010/01/16/recipe-smoke-photography/

  • Enduring Promise

    March 31, 2010 01:13 am

    Fantastic Job, Amar!!!

  • Shannon

    March 31, 2010 12:58 am

    Wow, pretty cool. I've never even thought about trying this, but it looks awesome.

  • 365 Photography Tips

    March 31, 2010 12:30 am

    This is one of my pending challenges: a smoke photography that looks different from the rest of smoke photos you can find usually.
    I agree with quicoto. A picture of the final set up would help a lot.

  • Kevin

    March 31, 2010 12:30 am

    The setup is on his blog for Jan 16th. http://www.anrbphotography.com/blog/

  • David

    March 31, 2010 12:24 am

    I have always marvelled at these photos on flickr. Thanks for the tutorial, this is definitely an exercise for the Easter Hols.

  • quicoto

    March 31, 2010 12:18 am

    We need at least 1 photo with the set up (PLEASE!) and less photos with the final result.

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