How To Photograph Smoke: 5 Easy Steps To Help You Learn

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If the title did intrigue you enough, the content below will definitely blow your mind. As fellow photographers, we are constantly looking for inspiration from the world around us. From an old shoe to a newly bought piano, from a street spectacle to a phenomenal sky-event, everything becomes a source. Our imagination sparks after just a glance at a subject and we begin composing the image in our head.

One such wonderful example would be smoke photography. The procedure on how to photograph smoke flawlessly is surprisingly easy. The setup is an indoor one and therefore very fulfilling in case you’re stuck inside. It does involve a few unique techniques, but they’ll be a piece of cake once you try them.

5 Easy Steps On How To Photograph Smoke:

1. Gather Your Equipment

A good set of equipment makes the whole process easy and puts together a crisp and remarkably clear image. You’ll need the following set of equipment for a perfect shot.

  • A good quality DSLR camera: for clicking the picture.
  • A sturdy tripod: to establish a stable position for your camera.
  • A black cloth or board: to use as background.
  • A lamp or another light source: to light up the smoke so it’s visible.
  • External light source or flash with a trigger : to lighten up the smoke from all sides.
  • Reflectors: to even out the light.
  • An incense stick or matchstick: to create smoke.

2. Set Up Your Apparatus

The next important step after gathering all your equipment is setting up all of it in the right way. Follow the steps below correctly and you’ll be done with the hard part.

  • Take the black cloth and place it along a wall or a board to use as background. We need a dark background so the smoke can be visible against it easily. Make sure it is as flat as possible.
  • Set up your tripod and camera on it, right in front of the dark background you just put up.
  • Put the incense stick or the matchstick just between the black background and the camera. About a distance of 1 foot from the background.
  • Now place the lamp in such a way that the light falls on the tip of the incense and the best way to do that is adjust your lamp somewhere on the top of the stick.
  • Otherwise, the light will fall on the background as well and reflect back.
  • Use the external flash light with the reflectors to provide even lighting to the tip of the stick. Position it opposite the lamp such that its light is pointed directly at the tip of the incense. Adjust it to 1/16 to start and make sure it is synced to your camera. Both the light sources should point the light at the incense tip not at the background.
  • You should place the reflectors opposite to the external flash so that the light reflects away when triggered.
  • Turn off all the lights in the room and make sure no light enters from outside.
  • Turn off all the fans and windows but make sure there is some ventilation present to let the smoke out of the room. Otherwise, it can disrupt your process and cause a blurry effect to the photograph as it settles around the room.

3. Set Up Your Camera

After you’ve set up all your apparatus, there are a few adjustments you need to make to your camera settings. To learn how to photograph smoke, you need not learn all the small details of photography, just basic knowledge of the components is enough.

  • Always shoot the photograph in RAW format as it comes out with extensive details enabling you to make post processing edits easily. If you are not planning on post processing then you can shoot it in PNG or JPEG formats. The RAW photographs will occupy more memory than an auto-edited JPEG image but it will provide you with better details and more room to make edits.
  • The next step is to adjust the exposure. Your aperture should be set at a higher F stop setting such as f/8 or f/6 in order to allow more light into the lens for this dark image.
  • Your shutter speed should be very low and synced to your flash. Around 1/ 200 or 1/250 is good enough.
  • Your ISO setting should be at a normal level, around 100, to ensure less noise and to prevent a grainy image. More the ISO, more will be the noise and the grains in the photograph.
  • You can set the white balance as auto because it doesn’t matter greatly for such dark images. Also you can tweak it later in post processing.
  • Make sure the focus ring is set to manual and focus your camera on the incense tip for the time being.

4. Click The Image

Now, finally after all the preparations, it’s time to click the picture.

Light up the incense using a lighter and put out the flame so that the smoke starts arising.

Adjust your camera a bit towards the top and the viewfinder to focus on the smoke just above the incense and prevent the stick showing in the image. Look through your viewfinder and make sure the smoke is seen throughout the frame.

Now, click as many pictures as you want until you’re satisfied. You can blow on the smoke from time to time to create intricate designs.

5. Post Processing

Now, after you’ve taken multiple shots, go for the post processing. Use softwares like Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop and adjust the contrast, layers and curves. Keep tweaking those shadows and highlights until you get an acceptable final image.

In case you have some smoke in places you do not like, brush them over using the paintbrush tool. You can create coloured smoke using the gradient tool and set the layer mode to multiply, this will show the gradient only where the smoke is.

You can explore different methods to get different kinds of smoke, using a different sized incense or coloured smoke bombs can produce very creative results.

Get Creative

While playing around with smoke, there are endless possibilities for exploring by adding various elements to the image, be they colour, layers, objects, background, etc. All you have to do is imagine beyond any limits and you’ll find your inspiration.

Not the ‘dangerous-for-health’ method. Unless you’re shooting a scene where such an event is required, we do not condone smoking in any way. Using it as an excuse for photography expresses an immature and irresponsible approach and it is ultimately a huge disrespect towards this art.

So now that we’ve discussed transgression and the basics as well, it’s time to get up, bring out your tripod and your camera and get clicking!

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Marco Downs

Marco Downs

Marco Downs is our second founder and he is the creative head of this website. Marco stumbled upon photography only in college when he joined the photography club. His parents could never afford a camera for him as a child and it was in college that he saved up and bought his first camera. He now writes in-depth buyer guides and informational articles to assist the buyers. 
Marco Downs

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