Smoke Photography 101: With a DIY Light source! [PART 1]

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In this post, Beyond Megapixels reader Devanshu Jain guides us through the process of Smoke Photography, from start, to the finished product. This is the first of 2 posts.

Let me begin by saying that there’s no right or wrong way to shoot and process abstract smoke photographs. What I will share with you is, my own workflow and techniques, which I have developed during the last few months. My technique is based on the capability of my camera – Panasonic DMC-FZ50. I encourage you to make changes and take your own decisions to suit your shooting style and preferences, based on your equipment’s capability. I have also included pictures of my, lighting setup (100% DIY), and screenshots of my workflow, while I process my photographs in Photoshop.
Part 1 – Shooting smoke.

Before any explanation, here is a shot of my lightening setup.

The most important element in smoke photography (as in all genres of photography) is without doubt “lighting”. Most smoke photography tutorials will tell you that you need an off camera flash, to get good smoke photographs, however I have never used an off camera flash, and all my shots are lighted with my DIY lightbox, which is nothing more than a shoebox, with 4 CFL lamps, fixed into it and a white chart paper lining on the insides of the box. You can make your own similar lightbox just by looking at the shot of my lightbox, below. (no rocket science involved here).


DIY lightbox with 4 CFL’s

Here you need to be careful and not put in more powerful lights (more wattage) than necessary. In my opinion CFL’s with a combined power of 100-120 watts are enough. Extra light might spill over and fall on the background, (which is bad thing, here). Positioning the lightbox is also important, I place mine at a 90degree angle to my camera. Left or right makes no difference. Some people place the lightbox right underneath the burning incense. A white paper/silver foil, placed on the opposite side of the lightbox makes a pretty good reflector, however you can also use a smaller DIY lightbox, instead of a reflector.

I use a black chart paper hung on a wall, for my background, however any, black or a dark colored piece of clothing can also be used. As I mentioned earlier you need to take care, that there should not be any light falling directly on the background. You might have seen some smoke photographs with a white background, don’t worry, you don’t need to switch the black chart paper with a white one. The white background is achieved by inverting the image, during post processing. (more on this technique, in the 2nd part of this tutorial.)

The Smoke Source – Incense:
There is no one particular kind of incense that works best for smoke photography. Depending on the availability and variety, in the market, you can buy 3-4 different kinds of incense, experiment with them, and figure out which one works best for you. I use incense called “dhoop”, which is the most common variety of incense available, here in India. In the picture below, notice that I have 3 sticks of incense burning together, and also notice there are 3 different columns of smoke. You can use this technique to give your photographs a multiple layer effect.

Burning dhoop (left) and Multiple layer effect (right)

Burning incense will obviously, make hot ashes and occasionally you might also get glowing embers falling off along with ashes. I suggest you use a piece of ply board as a base, below the burning incense, (as shown in the picture above), to avoid any damage to you working table, and keep everything else, away from the burning incense.

After 15-20 minutes of shooting, the room will inevitably get full of smoke. Although incense smoke is not very toxic and harmful to your health, but you should still take a break and let the room get clear of smoke, because excessive smoke will reduce the contrast of your photographs. It’s also important, that there are no drafts of wind, entering the room, even the slightest wind will disturb the smoke. Make sure, all doors and windows are closed.

Smoke manipulation:
A smooth white column of smoke, rising straight up, does not make a very interesting smoke photograph. Here are some tricks to add texture and “interestingness”, to your photographs.

Interesting – Uninteresting

Being a DIY, kind of a photographer, I have developed a few “devices” to manipulate the straight rising smoke columns, and put in some texture and patterns into them.

Everything I have used, are common household items, and can be made in a less than a minute.

1: Business card/piece of paper-


As shown above gently fan the base of the incense with a piece of paper. This will make smooth curls in the smoke column.

2: Spoon-


A spoon is perhaps the best tool to manipulate smoke. Holding it in different positions and tilting it on different angles will form different patterns, as you can see in the picture above, the spoon is causing the smoke column to look like a human backbone. Its important to cover up the base of the spoon’s handle (I use duct tape), because after a while it will get hot and you don’t want to burn your fingers. Make sure that after the shooting, you clean up the spoon and put it back in the kitchen (or throw it away), if your wifehusband sees the dirty spoon, they’re gonna think that you’ve been using it for heroin ;) .

3: Metal ring on a stick-


This one is a simple contraption. It’s a metal ring from an old key chain, which I have stuck on a stick. Position the ring at the base of the smoke column and roll the stick between you index finger and your thumb. The rotating ring will form different patterns.

4: Wire mesh/net and a cardboard tube-

thumb-wire-mesh thumb-2-wire-mesh

Here I have used a piece of wire mesh (used in screen doors), folded it up a few times, and then placed in on top of a inner tube of a toilet paper roll. The incense has been placed inside the tube and a notch has been cut out at the bottom of the tube to ensure the flow of air to sustain the burning incense. As you can see in the picture the smoke column is now very dense.

5: Light bulb and a cardboard tube-


Like in the previous contraption, this one too is set up on a toilet paper tube, here I have taped 4 matchsticks to the upper end of the tube, and these matchsticks are holding up a small tungsten lightbulb. You can see in the above (right) picture, there is a slight gap between the edge of the tube and the surface of the bulb, this gap is where the smoke comes out from. Here also, the incense is placed inside the tube and a notch has been cut to ensure proper airflow.

These are the 5 techniques that I use the most. If there are any other similar neat tricks that you know of, please share them in the comments below.

Shooting the smoke:

You have setup the lighting, collected all the things necessary, your incense is burning, and your “smoke manipulation device” is now ready. Lets start shooting.

Let me remind you once again, that my technique is based on the tech-specs. and the capability of my camera, (Panasonic DMC-FZ50) so consider all my explanations, only as guidelines. Unless off course you are using the same camera as mine.

Raw or Jpeg:
I personally never shoot smoke in RAW, the only reason being that, my camera takes too much time to save a RAW image onto the mem-card. If your camera is capable of shooting and saving RAW files in burst mode, and if you are comfortable in editing and adjusting RAW images, then I suggest you shoot in RAW mode. Shooting in burst mode (unlimited) is also very useful, because you can use one hand to hold down the shutter release button and the other hand to hold and move around the “spoon”.

I have my camera setup on the tripod, so neither the camera nor the burning incense ever changes position, this allows me to preset the focus of my camera to the approximate area, where the smoke column would rise. You can do this by using the AF lock of your camera, however I personally find the manual focus option to be more accurate.

Shutter speed and Aperture and ISO:
My camera is set on the manual mode, with aperture ranging from f8 to f11 and shutter speed set between 1/400 and 1/800 at ISO 100. If your camera gives great results (very low noise) at higher ISO (200-400), then you can adjust the shutter and aperture, accordingly. Now, let me share with you, some of my observations on the co-relation, of the amount of lighting, the aperture, the shutter speed and the speed of the rising smoke column.

The hotter the temperature of the burning incense, the faster the smoke will rise, and the faster your shutter speed needs to be, if you want your photographs to be sharp. The faster your shutter speed is, the larger (smaller
f-number) your aperture needs to be, if you want your photographs to be bright and, properly exposed. Larger your aperture is, the more accurate you need to be while locking your focus. As long as the smoke column moves left and right, your focus should work just fine, however if the smoke starts swaying towards and away from the camera, then you might get out of focus shots. If this happens, just stop and wait till the smoke gets stable.

Some random thoughts, observations and suggestions:

The white balance setting is irrelevant here, because during post processing, the image will be completely desaturated. (more on this technique, in the 2nd part of this tutorial.)

There is no way to determine when, the smoke will make an interesting form or pattern, so I suggest you set you camera to its burst mode, and keep the shutter button pressed for 10-12 shots (or whatever is the upper limit of your camera’s burst mode), in a single burst.

Set your camera to its maximum resolution(highest megapixel) at 4:3 aspect ratio. This is because, the final image would always be a crop of the original shot, so its better to have the largest image possible, to start with.

The file size (in Mb.) of smoke photographs will always be almost half the size (in Mb.) of other regular photographs, so the number of smoke images that your mem-card can hold will almost be double, than other regular photographs.

Keep the ISO as low as possible, because noise is enemy number one, of smoke photographs. Removing excess noise during post processing will soften the entire image, and it will loose its impact.

In the 2nd part of this tutorial I will be explaining all my post processing tips, tricks and techniques. In the meantime go ahead shoot as many smoke photographs as you can, review them and keep the ones which you think have the potential to be processed into smoke art, and delete the “uninteresting” ones.

A small example of what you can achieve..

Please use the comments sections below, to share your, thoughts, ideas and suggestions, regarding “smoke art”

You can see more of Devanshu’s smoke art here.

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