Photography - Knowledge

Photography Basics: Smoke Photography Hacks that You Must Know!

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The effects captured by smoke photography are difficult to describe in words. The surreal forms created by smoke as it mingles and travels in the air offer a treat to the eyes. The different patterns of smoke from different sources add the element of variety in this kind of photography. Normal photography involves the subject sitting or standing still in front of the camera. On the contrary, smoke moves in a random fashion. The fact that smoke is not under our control is the biggest challenge to a photographer.

smoke photography introduction
Weather Forecast: Aesthetic with a Chance of Smoke

However, if the photographers fine tune their skill, they can capture smoke and fog textures in the most amazing ways. In fact, smoke photography, or smoke art, is so addictive that many photographers are venturing into this area. This kind of photography lets you freely create unique and intriguing photos. Many photographers find this kind of photography to be a medium of charging up their creativity and bringing out their best.

One of the most prominent features of photographing smoke is that you can really play around with it. You may use various other objects in conjunction with smoke to create an illusion or highlight a particular feature that cannot otherwise be discerned. This gives the photographer the ability to see something that others cannot see. What must be kept in mind is that there is no defined way of taking pictures of smoke. Smoke Photography gives you the freedom to choose what works best for you.

smoke photography flare
Add a Little Flare to Your Photos

To pull off smoke photography successfully, you need to know all about the equipment, the set-up, basic do's and don'ts and post processing techniques. But before these details, it is worthwhile to mention here that you need to be very patient when it comes to taking pictures of smoke. Also, you should click lots and lots of pictures because when you sit with the image files in the processing room, you will find that the ratio of good photographs to bad ones is pretty low.

Equipment Required for Smoke Photography

smoke photography equipment
Creating Magic: Things Needed

Let us now start with what all equipment would you require before you start photographing glorious photos of smoke.

  • Camera

This is the most obvious equipment on our list. It is better to have a camera that allows you to modify the shutter speed, aperture and focus manually according to your needs. You don’t have to buy a very expensive DSLR for this purpose because many digital camera companies offer these features in low-end models too.

  • Additional Source of Light

You should not rely on the flash of your camera to capture smoke in its most glorious form. Have a source of light, like a strobe, at hand in order to bring out the best in your images. Before buying the strobe, you should compare the lighting between different strobes, like pocket strobe and studio strobe. It is important to have an even lighting effect without any hot spots or dark regions.

  • Source of Smoke

In order to capture a good picture of smoke, you will need to create smoke from any of the sources like incense stick or cigarettes. Incense sticks are the most preferred sources of smoke because they last long, create a fragrant atmosphere and are not hazardous to any one in any way. Don’t forget the incense stick holder otherwise, you will have a hard time trying to balance the incense stick. Also, keep a lighter with you because you will need it to start the smoke.

cigarette smoke photography
A Level Above

Cigarette smoke photography is a little harder to do, since you not only have to make sure the smoke is right, you also have to focus on the subject. So, it's better to get into this once you've got some practice.

  • Black Background

This is a very important component of smoke photography because black background tends to give the best contrast to the white smoke. You need a sharp picture of smoke in order to highlight the best features of that photograph. Having a background in any other colour will most likely diffuse the sharpness and create problems in photographing and post processing. You may use a thick black fabric, cardboard or a black board for this purpose.

Livingit Tip
If you're planning to do smoke photography portraits, it's better to tell your model to wear darker coloured clothes.

  • Equipment to Focus the Light

It is desirable that the light from the strobe is focused directly on the source of the smoke. This focusing can be achieved by equipment like a snoot or a barn door. Including these in your set up will give you sharper and better-quality pictures.

  • Reflector

Although not an absolute requirement, it is desirable to have a reflector because it gives a uniform spread of light, especially on the smoke trail. This adds to the sharpness and beauty of smoke photography.

  • Tripod

It is entirely up to the photographer to use the tripod or not. Many people prefer using it because they don’t have to alter the focus every time they click. On the contrary, some people do not use the tripod because they feel that a hand-held camera gives them more freedom to experiment with different angles.

  • Ventilated Room

It is important to include this in this list because most people overlook the fact that smoke build-up might eventually get uncomfortable. A well-ventilated room will ensure a healthy circulation of air and minimise any suffocation due to the smoke.

The above-mentioned list should be a sufficient for any kind of smoke photography. Our next section deals with the ideal camera and flash settings for photographing smoke.

Camera and Flash Settings for Smoke Photography

dmoke photography camera settings
Play around with It (Source)

It must always be kept in mind that there is no magic setting for capturing photographs of smoke. The settings recommended here are just starting points that you can improvise according to the situation and your needs. The photographer is encouraged to experiment a bit with these settings and find out the ones that work best for their set-up.

  1. Aperture: A larger f-stop number indicates a smaller aperture and is ideal for capturing the fine details in the shot. Hence it is a good idea to start with a small aperture and alter it as you go along.
  2. Shutter Speed: One has to keep in mind that smoke will rapidly move in all directions. Therefore, if we want to capture smoke in our frames, we should have a fast shutter speed. This will avoid blurring of the photograph and yield sharp pictures that will be easy to process later.
  3. ISO: Ideally, smoke photography is carried out in a room with minimal external light. The idea is to focus the entire light only on the smoke and generate sharp pictures. In such low lighting conditions, it is normal for smoke to increase the grain and a high ISO will make it worse. Therefore, starting with a low ISO is recommended.
  4. Light: Given the above settings of low ISO, fast shutter speed and small aperture, a strong light is required. Therefore, adjust the strobe or flash light to its maximum power, at least in the beginning.

Once you have adjusted the camera and the light source for optimal performance, it is time to set-up the remaining equipment before proceeding with the photo shoot.

Types of Shots in Smoke Photography

The set-up will depend on the kind of shots you are planning to take.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of shots that you can take in smoke photography:

wide shot for smoke photography
From Far, Far Away...

1. Wide Shots

These shots include the smoke along with the source of the smoke and are generally clicked from a distance. If you intend to take this type of shot, you would have to ensure that the background is big enough to cover the shot and the light source and reflector are at an optimal distance from the incense stick.

close up shots for smoke photography
...To Up Close and Personal

2. Close Up Shots:

These shots entail image capturing very close to the object. These shots often focus on the pattern of smoke- its curves, bends and swirls. These shots do not require a very big background.

Using these two types, you can create and capture other variants of smoke photography like smoke silhouettes, smoke bomb photography, cigarette smoke photography, smoke photography portraits, fog texture, etc. Once you have made up your mind regarding the kinds of shots you want, you can set up the equipment accordingly.

Set Up for Smoke Photography

Smoke photography setting up
Setting Up for Magic

Firstly, Create a Flat Background

The black background should be as flat as possible. This will ensure that no light scatters in random directions and the smoke is captured in the best possible way. If you are using a black board, card board or any other solid surface as background, then keeping it flat is not an issue. However, if you are using a fabric, it is imperative that your iron it to remove and crease or wrinkles before mounting it up.

Secondly, Create Ample Lighting on the Smoke

Place the incense stick on the holder without lighting it. Now adjust the strobe to light the incense stick evenly. Make sure that the light is not directly pointing at the background because this will be counterproductive for smoke photography. If using a reflector, now is a good time to place it just opposite the light. Turn off all extra lights, and close the curtains or blinds of the windows.

Finally, Start the Smoke

This step has to be done only when everything else is ready. Ensure that there is no air current from the fan or open windows to disturb the pattern of smoke. Light the incense stick. Once the flame is pea-sized and the tip of the incense stick is red, gently blow it off.

How to Capture Smoke

smoke photography how to capture
Capturing Creativity

Now that you have everything you need, start clicking!

The following tips will help you to capture the smoke in a fine way:

  • Be very slow in moving around the incense stick with your camera. Even the slightest movement will disrupt the natural flow of smoke and affect the quality of your photographs. This will take a few minutes, but eventually, you will find the right way to move around.
  • Once you have discovered the way to move around, the next thing you have to practice is to be able to move the smoke a bit. You will realise after taking a few shots that, if the smoke keeps moving in a straight line, you won’t be able to capture its different movements, swirls, curves and bends. Keep little pieces of paper handy for generating gentle air currents that will swivel the smoke just right.
  • Don’t forget to take smoke pictures in different filters so that you can play around with the coloured smoke during post processing. This will give you a myriad of pictures of the same smoke and bring out a new facet of smoke photography.
  • Make sure that you take a break every 15 minutes or so and ventilate the room before proceeding. In the absence of ventilation, the smoke will accumulate in the room and result in hazy pictures.

Post Processing of Smoke Photography Images

smoke photography editing
Making the Perfect Mix

Once you have captured different photographs, the next step is to edit and process these images. This is really the most creative part of smoke photography because you will be able to create magic with the right settings of contrast and colour using an appropriate software like Adobe Photoshop. The primary aim of post processing is to highlight the best features of the photograph and clean up the blemishes if any.

  1. Typically, your RAW image will look like a normal photograph, with the smoke flowing in through space. Upon careful examination of this image, you will be able to locate areas with blemishes. Overall, this image will not be standing out per se and will require some editing and processing to make it polished and more striking.
  2. The next step is to create a backup layer. You can do this by clicking the ‘Layer’ option and then choosing ‘Duplicate layer’. All processing should be done on this duplicate only, and the original image must be hidden by using the ‘hide layer’ function of the software.
  3. Once you have created the duplicate copy and hidden the original version, it is time to target and remove the blemishes. Ideally, the background in smoke photography is assumed to be 100% black, meaning that the RGB coordinates of the background are 0,0,0. Choose the ‘Layer” option and click ‘New adjustment layer’ and then ‘Levels’. Now you can drag the white levels slider to the left end to reveal the hidden blemishes in your image.
  4. Hiding the blemishes can be done by choosing the default foreground and background colours and then selecting the ‘Brush Tool’ and brushing it over the blemishes. One has to keep in mind that the opacity should be set to 100% for this step. After finishing this step, you should not forget to bring the white levels slider back to its original position.
  5. The final step in post processing is to add colours to smoke photography. This can be done by altering the ‘Hue Adjustment’ slider until you see the right colour on your image. Another option is to manually add colour using the Brush Tool, but this requires more skill and practice. You may also try changing the background colour to obtain a completely different image.

Livingit Tip
Editing a RAW image file is easy and would require modification of parameters like contrast, clarity, exposure, temperature, and blacks. With these simple modifications, you will find that the image becomes more crisp and clear.

Smoke Photography: Some Tips to Help You Along

extra tips for smoke photography
Add Color to Your Photos

Post processing can be made very simple and you can create stunning images of smoke photography if you keep the following tips in mind:

  • Feel Free to Adjust Settings: You cannot predict the outcome of image editing unless you try various settings. Experiment with the contrast levels, color options, levels and curves until you find the one that appeals to you.
  • Remove the Smoke Pattern You Don’t Like: Thanks to image processing software, it is easy to get rid of the unwanted sections of the photograph. Make sure to fully exploit this feature.
  • Experiment with Inversion: You will be amazed at the result of image inversion. Go ahead and try it.
  • Add Color to Smoke: Make your photographs even more interesting by adding colors to the smoke. Add gradients and layers till you achieve that perfect look.

There is no set limit to the number of ways you can edit or tweak the pictures to get the desired effect. Don’t hesitate to experiment and you will find uncover hidden facets of smoke photography.

Summing Up

smoke photography summing up
Go Ahead, Make Magic!

If you have been stopping yourself from trying out smoke photography because it looked complicated, you need not do so anymore. With the above tips and tricks, you will be able to give smoke photography a kick start and get some really awesome photographs.

Once you're good at the basics, you can look for some smoke photography ideas on the internet and try to recreate them. Do let us know if this article answered any of your questions.

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