Smoke is a mobile, unpredictable substance that constantly changes shape and volume. Therefore, when taking pictures, specific difficulties may arise. The result of such photography will almost always be surprising. The very process of photographing smoke is not very difficult. At the same time, the requirements for the equipment will be moderate. It should be noted that you only need to know some of the intricacies of photography to be a master of smoke photography.
In this post, I’ll try to cover all the aspects of smoke photography, from camera and equipment selection to background and some cool smoke photography ideas.
Required Camera and Equipment for Smoke Photography
It doesn’t matter which camera or lens to use. Although for the lens, it must be sure to focus at close range, be sharp, and fast. You need an external flash with side curtains and a matte black background for this kind of photography.
In addition, you will need to use in this process – everything that smokes. It can be incense, some oriental incense, etc. As a last resort, you can use regular cigarettes.
Lighting and Background for Smoke Photography
Correctly lighting the smoke is your main task. In this case, the background should remain black to the maximum. Black cloth, paper, or cardboard is suitable for the background. It should be placed at a certain distance from the smoke, two to three times farther than the same distance from the smoke to the camera.
Custom flash curtains can be made from a couple of sheets of black paper. Then place them on the sides of the flash to not illuminate the background and the camera. The light should be lateral, hard, always directed at the jet of smoke while maintaining a right angle from the optical axis of the photo lens.
The distance from the flash unit to the subject of photography should be no more than 60 cm. You can set this distance as accurately as possible with some experience; of course, a lot also depends on the exposure parameters.
Be sure to shoot in bursts using the RAW format. White balance should be set in manual mode. It is better to choose the one that will match the flash (used light source). Tracking autofocus is the best option. That will allow you to react very quickly to a change in the flow of smoke, and your eyes will not be so tired.
If photography conditions permit, the aperture will need to be closed down to f11-f16. Using this technique, you can increase the depth of field. In this case, the shutter speed should be set to 1/100, but the lower, the better, 100 or 200. This way you can reduce noise.
The clarity and sharpness of the frame can be checked by the curls of smoke or along the side edges of its jet.
- Light can be safely set quite hard and almost at right angles to the optical axis of the lens, additionally ensuring that it does not fall into the background;
- The background is set 2-3 times farther than the subject from the camera; it should be black;
- Set the aperture to a small one; this way, the smoke will be clear, and the background will be blurred. The main requirement for the lens is to be very sharp;
- In the photo quality settings, set RAW and then open with low contrast and moderate saturation settings (16 bit is possible) or set JPEG fine with similar settings, manual white balance (flash or white sheet);
- Often shoot while watching at the same time that the flash has time to charge;
- Make sure that the light does not hit the background;
- The smoke is monotonous in a room without a draft, so you either have to blow on it from time to time or find cardboard that you could fan.
However, this is not all. In addition to being low-contrast, the photo in its original form also has many disadvantages. The spectrum of the colors involved is exceptionally narrow and is concentrated in a heap of grayscale, mainly in one channel – blue (the smoke is bluish from the color of the flash).
On the histogram, this picture is represented by the peak on the left, while the rest of the histogram is zero. We need to increase the contrast, taking this peak as a basis, and somehow diversify the colors of the smoke.
10 Best Methods of Shooting Smoke and Steam
At the initial stage of photographing smoke, you should connect the flash to the synchronizer. If there is no synchronizer, set the camera to trigger on the timer. In this case, you will need an assistant to press the button on the flash in time.
After that, you need to fix the incense sticks or other smoke source and wait until the smoke calms down. Then playback several pilot flashes. This way, you can make sure that the smoke is visible. If so, aim at the burning tip of the incense stick and then move the frame up a bit. Next, start shooting in bursts.
Don’t be on the lookout for a beautiful curl. You should not try to capture the beautiful shape of the smoke. The specificity of such photography in 99% of cases is randomness, and only 1% is that you can intuitively catch a spectacular frame.
When reviewing the results, a large number of frames will be discarded. Although something figurative, interesting, filled with some special meaning will undoubtedly be found in your arsenal. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Practice.
Do not follow the typical guidelines too literally. By changing the direction of the light and some camera settings, you can get some bizarre patterns and, at the same time, take unique photographs. Use a graphics editor. Tweak the contrast, remove the excess, and paint the smoke swirls in different colors.
Many photographers use smoke for various types of photography, from portraits to still life. Depending on what you want to achieve, there are many ways to capture smoke in your shot. I will start with simple techniques that can be successfully used in food photography and show you more advanced techniques for conceptual projects.
1. Observe Different Types of Smoke to Recreate Them
The steam from a hot drink is different from the smoke of an extinguished candle. Sometimes you have to cheat to get the smoke in your photo – to recreate the desired effect for anything from hot food to burning candles.
Candles often create thin wisps of smoke. Meanwhile, scorching foods and drinks often produce thicker waves. The subtleties of creating smoke for photographs should also be taken into account. For example, freshly brewed coffee can make wide and dense waves. Meanwhile, the cup, which has stood for some time on the table, has already thin and translucent waves.
2. Choose A Darker Background to Add Contrast
Since the smoke is white, it won’t be noticeable enough if what’s behind it is also light in color. If possible, try to get a dark background that provides the necessary contrast.
The best background for photographing smoke is black, although other shades may work. If you only use a white wall as the background, try to block some light from falling on it, making the surface gray.
3. Add Light to Accentuate the Smoke
When you light up the smoke, you reveal its details. But, of course, it’s not just about flooding the scene with light. You want a concentrated beam that only focuses on the smoke and nothing else. This way, you can make the background dark and maintain the desired contrast.
If you’re using natural light, focusing on it can be tricky. But you can try using an off-camera flash. To avoid illuminating the wall, place the flash behind your subject at an angle so that it does not enter the frame.
4. Light the Incense Stick to Add Subtle Curls
When you see smoky photos of hot coffee, you might think that it is coffee smoke. But there is a good chance that this effect tampered with an incense stick.
Commercial photography takes hours. After few minutes, the steam will stop coming out of the hot cup of coffee. If you value authenticity, you can always warm up your coffee. But if you are wiser, you can use incense sticks instead – they create thin wisps of smoke that resemble steam coming out of a cup.
Feel free to trim the wood handle so that the tip of the incense stick is not visible in the frame. You can also use simple plasticine to hold the sticks securely above the surface, so nothing catches on fire.
5. Adjust Shutter Speed to Change Smoke
You can use any shutter speed setting when shooting smoke. If you use a fast shutter speed, there will be clear marks in the picture.
Any value between 1/30 and 1/8000 will help preserve the detail of the smoke. But if you move slower than 1/30, you will begin to notice that the details gradually disappear.
If you keep the shutter open for a few seconds, you will get subtle trails, regardless of the type of subject you are photographing.
Slow shutter speeds increase the volume of smoke – the camera records every movement and blurs it as long as the shutter remains open. So if your smoke or steam trail looks too thin, blow on it while the shutter is open.
6. Use A Spoon to Create Patterns
The truth is that most of the time, you will encounter thin smoke heading straight up. The simplest solution is to use a spoon. You have to place the scoop on the edge of the cup – this will break the straight column and create patterns.
Remove the spoon every few seconds if you want to create a regular consistency. But you can also leave it on top so that you get stormy mushroom clouds in the photo.
7. Soak Tea Bags in Water
When it comes to food photography, incense sticks are not enough to create realistic smoke. I do not recommend using them for cooking hot food because the smoke they produce is too thin and unstable.
For a lasting effect, you can soak the tea bags in hot water. Since water remains in the teabag, steam will flow within a few minutes. As soon as the bag stops smoking, you can always dip it in boiling water again and start over.
Putting tea bags in hot water every few minutes can seem tedious. But this is much better than putting food back in the microwave to reheat and waiting even longer.
Plus, the tea bags are so small they can be placed anywhere. You can put them between the food on the plate without worrying about the bags showing up in the frame because they are tiny and can be neatly hidden.
8. Use Light Smoke Bombs to Add Color
There are many other creative uses for smoke, and one of them is smoke bombs. They are not only colorful but also add dynamism to the picture.
You can use smoke bomb photography from portraits to sports photography. When it comes to portraits, most photographers often ask models to hold a grenade while posing, and it is also common to place a few smoke bombs around the person.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to portrait and sports photography. Feel free to experiment with smoke bombs in other genres, be it landscape or concept photography.
9. Experiment with A Smoke Machine to Add Drama
Smoke machines are ideal for simulating the thick smoke we see in large fires. It can also be used to create a mysterious and even creepy mood. I use a smoke machine to create a fake fireball without a flamethrower. Using gel color filters, you can take photographs similar to the one below.
To work with this technique, you need two flashes, gels, and, of course, a smoke machine. You will also need a remote to fire your flashes wirelessly.
First, place the orange gel on one flash and the darker orange gel on the other. Then, place one flash behind the subject on the left side and the other on the right. Once they are in the right place, press the smoke machine button and take a photo when a white ball forms behind the object.
10. Use Lightroom To Create Colorful Smoke
First, you need to photograph the smoke paths from the incense sticks against a dark background. Once you have multiple images, upload them to Lightroom. Increase the contrast, shadow, and black to make the smoke come out of the background.
After finishing the basic settings, click on the brush tool. Now select the color you want using the eyedropper. At this point, all you have to do is paint the smoke with the chosen color. Click the New button under the Brush tool and choose a different shade if you want a different color.
Photographing smoke is much more complex than you might think. It entails a lot of trial and error. Using the methods outlined above will help solve the problems you may encounter.
Some Cool Smoke Photography Ideas
Here are few cool smoke photography ideas that may be of interest to you.
Urban Style with Colored Smoke
In any city, you can find many beautiful, exciting places, even if there is no ancient architecture in it. Concrete and graffiti are the perfect combinations for a youth photo shoot. They are very cool combined with bright youth clothes, and of course, with acidic shades of colored smoke.
If you are far from youthful style, calm shooting in some beautiful square or a city park will suit you. It can be a family shoot or a solo walk photo session. Both are very beautiful.
Fabulous Photo Session with Smoke
For this shoot, you will need a specific image and props. You can start with fabulous illustrations or photographs from the Internet. Or maybe you can come up with and implement something of your own.
Standard images are often used for fabulous photo shoots a witch, fairies, anime, and red riding hood. In this case, usually, all photos are used by young women and girls, and as a result, the heroine turns out to be very beautiful and sexy.
Men are less likely to participate in photoshoots of this kind, except perhaps those interested in fantasy. But in children’s photoshoots, fabulous images are used quite often. And what child would refuse to feel like a character in a fairy tale? It will be a real adventure for any kid. If you add a checker of colored smoke here, then absolute children’s delight is guaranteed!
Car Photo Session with Smoke
For those who are crazy about their iron horse, by the way, it can be not only a car but also a motorcycle (I already wrote a separate article about bike photoshoot ideas). Such pictures can often be seen on the pages of magazines with expensive luxury cars.
It is an excellent idea for a male photoshoot, too; what kind of man would not want to take a photo with his trusty iron horse? The main thing is not to forget to polish both the car and the man before shooting.
You may also like to read: 25 Great Car Photoshoot Ideas: How to Take Good Pictures with Your Car?
Sports Photo Session with Smoke
If you and sport are inseparable concepts, then such a photoshoot is exactly what you need. For example, if you are actively involved in snowboarding or downhill skiing, attach a smoke bomb to them and ask someone to film your descent from the mountain.
You never had such shots. Even if you ride a bike without performing any tricks, then, in this case, you can get great photos. Of course, the leading role in a sports photoshoot is not played by colored smoke but by your sports skills. But special effects also play an essential role.
You may also like to read: Smoke Bomb Photography Ideas: How to Use Smoke Bomb in A Photo Shoot?