Smoke Photography Tutorial – Step by Step

What if we told you that all you need to make a cool photo is a good DSLR camera, an off-camera flash and some smoke? Smoke may not seem like one of the most popular things to take photos of, but it can be used to try some different effects that may eventually helped you create a master piece. If you haven’t taken photos of smoke before, then keep on reading, because in this post we’ll explain this technique and details, and hopefully we’ll help you create some pretty cool images.

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We highly recommend finding a dark room in which to take these photos, because smoke photos always look better when there is as less ambient light as possible. So let’s start with the list of things you’ll need to start shooting:

  • A DSLR camera or at least one with an interchangeable lens
  • A tripod
  • A suitable dark backdrop – the best choice is naturally black, but any dark color will work well.
  • An off-camera flash
  • A reflector – if you don’t have a professional one, then you can use tinfoil to create a home-made reflector
  • A holder and some sticks to fire up

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If you’ve got everything ready, then follow this Step by Step Smoke Photography Tutorial and in 20-30 minutes you’ll be able to capture smoke photographs to show to your friends and colleagues!

1. Prepare the Scene

The first thing you need to do is prepare the backdrop. If you don’t have a professional one then a black cardboard or piece of fabric will work just fine. Take it and attach it to the wall. The sticks you’ll fire up must be placed on a stable surface – for example a table or a chair. Keep in mind that the surface mustn’t be flammable because there will be some hot ashes dropping from the sticks.

Don’t put the sticks too near to the backdrop – make sure to keep a distance of at least one meter in order to prevent an accidental fire and to get a better effect.

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2. Position the Flash

Positioning the flash can be a bit tricky, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right from the first attempt. The key to illuminating smoke is to put the flash in such a position that the light will pass through the smoke, but won’t directly fall on the backdrop. The quickest and most convenient way to achieve this is to place the flash across the sticks. This way no light will fall on the backdrop and you’ll be able to illuminate the smoke properly. Position the reflector against the flash so that the stick falls between the flash and the reflector. Keep in mind that the flash should be positioned on relatively the same height as the sticks, so you’ll probably need an even surface for it too. The reflector will help you to evenly illuminate the scene.

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3. Configure the Camera’s Settings

Configuring your camera is very easy, but you may need to try several different settings in order to achieve the desired effect. Make sure you set your dSLR lens to manual focus and afterwards open live view. Select expanded focus in order to keep the base of the sticks as sharper as possible.

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When the camera focuses properly select manual exposure and set your ISO to 100 or 200. The aperture should be between f/8 and f/11 while the shutter speed should be configured to 1/125 or 1/160. Of course, you may need to play around with the settings in order to achieve the best effect for your setup.

4. Light the Sticks

When you’ve prepared everything you can light up the sticks. Keep in mind that if the room you are shooting in is small you’ll have to ventilate the place regularly and take short breaks. If you’ve lit up the sticks, then it is time to turn off any lights and start shooting with your camera.

While shooting review your images in order to fine tune your settings. Usually, the setting that needs to be played with a lot is exposure, so try several different presets in order to get the best images. If the backdrop is visible on your images, then adjust the flash in order to make sure that none of its light is falling on the backdrop.

Reducing the flash’s power may be needed in certain situations as well, so don’t hesitate to play around with the set-up if you are not happy with the images you are seeing. If you can’t keep the backdrop dark, then consider putting a snoot over the flash in order to further reduce the light that falls onto the dark surface.

5. Creating Shapes with Smoke

The room you are using will probably be completely closed, so the smoke will go straight up and the images you shoot will be pretty much the same. If you want to change the way the smoke plumes go up, then consider using a piece of paper to create some wind. You can also use an inflammable object like a needle to slightly press the top of the burning stick in order to change the direction in which the smoke goes.

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Don’t forget that the more you keep smoking the room, the hazier you photographs will look. This is why you need to regularly ventilate the room.

6. Edit Smoke Photographs

Photographing smoke may seem simple, but you’ll need to take hundreds of shots in order to find several that look well. Of course, your photos will get better with time, so don’t stop practicing this technique. When you have a couple of frames that look well, then it is time to open your favorite image-editing program and add some effects.

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If you want to make the smoke more visible and sharp, then increase the image’s contrast. Inverting the colors of the image can also produce some pretty interesting results, so don’t be afraid to play around with this effect as well.

Colored smoke looks pretty cool, so if you are using Photoshop go to Image > Adjustments > Hue & Saturation and play around with the sliders until you get a satisfying result.

Rainbow smoke seems to be quite popular on the web and you’ll be glad to know that creating this effect is incredibly easy. All you need to do is select the gradient fill tool in Adobe Photoshop and pick the colors that you’ll want to use. Create a new layer, use the gradient tool to fill the layer and then set its blending mode to multiply.