Smoke photographs beautifully under the right conditions. It can look almost ghost-like with its translucent twists, curls and long wisps. Creating great smoke photos requires controlling a few key environmental factors, so it’s easiest to shoot in a studio setting. But you can shoot smoke at home with your own small setup and a little technical know-how.
Photographing smoke is challenging, but once you get the hang of it, it can be quite addicting! Read on to learn the fundamentals of smoke photography and a few fun ideas on how to enhance your photos.
First, here’s a basic list of everything you’ll need:
- Dark, well ventilated room
- Camera with manual settings, and flash (or external flash)
- Black, non-reflective background
- Incense sticks
- Incense holder (anything to keep the sticks in place and catch ash)
Items that will make shooting a little easier, but aren’t absolutely necessary:
- Wireless shutter release
The primary challenge in smoke photography lies in capturing sharp images, in the dark, of a subject that is constantly moving and changing shape. Smoke moves very quickly, so a low ISO, fast shutter speed and bright light are all crucial for getting sharp photos.
We stayed close to the following camera settings:
- ISO: 100
- Shutter speed: 1/200 sec–1/400 sec
- Aperture: f/5.6–f/7.1
First, set up your backdrop in a dark room. The darker the better, in order to maximize the contrast between the smoke and your background. Make sure your backdrop is non-reflective — we found that velveteen fabric works best, but you can also use felt or cotton.
Shooting in a room with ventilation is also important for a few reasons — too much smoke creates a haze, resulting in fuzzy pictures; your incense will burn more consistently with free-flowing oxygen; and better air flow will benefit your health, as it can take up to a couple hours to get the shots you want.
Place your first stick in the holder, about three feet away from the backdrop. Set up your camera on a tripod (if you are using one) and take a few test shots, focusing on the tip of the incense.
Choosing the right depth of field can be a bit tricky — too narrow and you could miss the smoke completely and only capture white blurs. Too wide, and you will catch unwanted details in your background, distracting from the smoke. This makes it harder to edit later on if you feel like doing more advanced post-processing. A non-reflective background is important for the same reasons — if light from your flash bounces off the background it will look textured like the photo below:
Once you’ve lit the incense, test shoot and adjust your settings to get some clear shots.
Once that’s done, get started and have some fun with it!
Experiment with different angles, close-up shots, or even change patterns in airflow to your incense by blowing at the smoke, fanning it with a piece of paper, blocking the flow of any wind, or even moving the incense stick. These techniques will all create different smoke streak effects.
If your incense is making the same smoke patterns more rapidly than you want for your photos, you might have a draft hitting the smoke — try blocking it from the direction it is coming from. If your smoke seems to fall flat, you might not have enough oxygen flowing in the room for your desired effect. Be patient, and try to change airflow so that it’s consistently creating the smoke streaks you’re looking to capture.
When you have some quality photos, you can edit them to enhance your smoke. Sometimes the black background comes out looking a little grey because of the flash. The Curves Tool is great for changing light and dark elements in photos. To darken your background, shift the lower end of the curve below the straight line to your desired level. To brighten the lighter areas, drag the upper part of the curve above the straight line.
You can sharpen your photos, invert the colors, change up the hue, and even make a collage. The creative possibilities are endless, and totally up to you.
Now that you have a guide to basic smoke photography, try it for yourself! Show us your favorite smoke photos using the PicsArt photo editor and how you choose to be creative with them! Tag them with the hashtag #SmokePhotos.