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Smoke and mirrors

This blog post details how I take and post process smoke images. Taking this kind of shot is pretty frustrating at first, capturing the small ethereal wisps can be quite tricky and it takes a bit of fiddling to get the correct light setup where you just illuminate the smoke and not the background. As always with photography blog posts, this is just a guide and a starting point for you to try your own ideas, your own mileage may vary with the set-up and processing.

What you’ll need

There are a few things you will need for this, most of them can be cheap\free however.

  • An off camera flash unit
  • A wireless trigger system for the above
  • A Snoot(Barn doors work as well)
  • A large(ish) reflector
  • A lamp or other permanently on light source
  • A black background (I use a king size flat bed sheet – don’t get a fitted one!)
  • Incense sticks + something to hold them vertical
  • A DSLR with a lens (I use a Canon 50D and a Canon 24-105)
  • a draft free room that can be easily ventilated

To tether or not tether and tripod or handheld

I’ve seen plenty of conflicting opinions on both of these subjects. Some people like to be tethered to a PC\Laptop so they can instantly see the results of the shot, some like to shoot from a tripod so they have the advantage of stability. My personal preference is to shoot without being tethered and handheld. I like the freedom of movement this gives me around the smoke, this movement is usually also enough to generate the interesting patterns and whirls that make smoke photography such a fun subject. I also like to shoot with a zoom rather than prime as I can change my focal length quicker than I can move!

The Equipment setup

The shot below is an example of how I will usually setup. Clicking the image will take you off to flickr where it is annotated with key features.

Smoke setup

As you will see, I don’t have an expensive studio or even a dedicated room for photography, this is actually my living room! The black background is just visible on the left, the flash on a stand is in the foreground and the reflector in the background on another flash stand. The small green item on top of the footstool is a vitamin bottle lid full of small marbles, I poke the incense stick into this and it does a pretty good job of holding it up straight and not being obtrusively in shot. Heath Robinson had nothing on me! I would be shooting from just out of the edge of the right of the frame. You can also use two incense sticks at once, the combined heat they give off will create interesting whirls in the smoke, I usually only shoot one and gentle waft the smoke around however

The flash is normally set to 1/2 power to start with and  has a snoot fitted to keep the light concentrated in a beam aimed roughly across the top of the incense stick, the reflector is positioned so that it angled slightly away from the background as well. The idea is to keep the background as black as possible by not allowing any light from either to  fall upon it. I use a building site light to illuminate the smoke, they are relatively cheap, widely available from DIY stores  and produce A LOT of light, although the do get hot enough to burn skin and care should be taken around them, as with the flash and reflector the light from this needs to be carefully directed to ensure none is hitting the lens or the background. You could also use a desk lamp or anglepoise, as long it is bright enough to allow the camera’s AF to focus on the smoke, it will do the job.

Because smoke is an off-grey colour shooting against black will help both you and your cameras AF to see it, we’ll come to how we change the background to white later on in this post.

Ready, aim, shoot

Once I get everything in position, but before lighting the incense, I normally take a couple of test shots to get the light right and to adjust positions if any is hitting the background. I try and shoot at ISO 100, 1/200 @ f8, it may take a bit of “chimping” to get the exposure correct. I know some people recommend shooting totally in the dark, I’ve never found this to be strictly necessary if you get your f-stop correct and your light(s) in the right place the background will be more than dark enough. I’ll then light the stick and take a few shots making sure that the smoke is exposed properly and that the AF is getting the majority of the smoke in focus, if the camera is having difficulty in obtaining focus you will need to look at moving your constant light source so that it illuminates the smoke more, remembering to keep it away from the background and the lens. This is usually the trickiest and most frustrating part of the shoot by far. With everything in position start shooting and wafting, I like to throw the kitchen sink at this, you’re not shooting film and paying for the exposures, you probably have a large enough memory card that taking over a 100 shots isn’t going to put a dent in it. I’d rather have 150 shots in Lightroom to look at than miss a good formation of swirls. I’ll easily get to “more than enough shots” long before the incense stick has burned down, so don’t worry about taking your time about the lighting positions either.

Heigh-ho it’s off to PP we go

Once I’ve finished shooting I’ll import all the pictures into Lightroom and start sorting through them. Be ruthless at this point, if you’ve taken my advice about not skimping on the shots you take you can afford to be, as a rule of thumb I generally keep one in ten of the images on the first pass through, the rest go straight into the reject bin. I’ll then do a second pass and eliminate any where the smoke is drifting out of frame or is otherwise not a “Stand out” shot, again you can afford to be tough here, I usually end up with four or five shots left by now.

Occasionally you will be able to see little specks in the shot, these are normally dust particles that have been caught in the flash beam, you can clean these up with the spot removal took in LR or using a black brush in CS5. Do this before proceeding with the PP.

I’ll then pick one of the shots and take it over into CS5, the image below is the original for the shot at the top of this page, as you can see it’s pretty drab and not very exciting, but it does have a nice swirl and the pattern of light is quite nicely defined. I already had an idea for an end result and this was the perfect starting place.So that’s white\grey smoke on a black background, how do we get to coloured smoke on a white background. Well, it’s actually pretty easy, but first the image could use a bit more cleaning up, I like to keep a bit of breathing room around the top of the shot, so get the paint brush and set it to black and about 700px and 50% hardness then “dab” it around the top of the smoke to take any smoke that is disappearing out of the top of the frame away, it’s also worth tidying up any stray smoke that isn’t integral to the main column away at this point by just painting black over the top of it. Now for the white background we need to Invert the image, you can do this by pressing CTRL+I on a PC(Command +I on a Mac), if you want to do this in a non destructive way, you can duplicate the background layer and invert that. You should now have some grey-ish smoke on a white background, which is still relatively unexciting, so lets add some colour. To do that we are going to use the Hue\Saturation adjustment layer, clicking it will give you a new layer and options to tweak the hue, saturation and lightness, but won’t appear to do a lot else, the magic button is near the bottom and is a tick box marked “Colorize”(don’t get me started on the missing “u”!) . When you click this you’ll notice your smoke goes a nice shade of red, adjust the Hue slider will change the colour and the Saturation will make it more vivid, I don’t touch the slider marked Lightness. Below is the tweaked version of the initial shot.You can increase the effect of the colour shift by duplicating the layer, you can also play with masking off areas of the adjustment layer using the black paintbrush, this has the effect of “punching through” the adjustment. Because you have a white background you can blend multiple images using the Blend mode “multiply”. The final incarnation of smoke shot can be seen below and is made up of multiple versions of the same smoke blended together.