There’s something about smoke that is just so… cool. The way it moves through the air of its own volition, seemingly with a mind of its own. The way the light catches the particles, creating body transparent, translucent, and opaque. It could be argued that this is part of the appeal of cigarette smoking—the image of a person leaning against the wall, a cigarette slack between the first two fingers, with smoke trailing, wisping into nothingness.
This strange relationship that smoke has with light and its other surroundings is what makes it tricky to photograph. How do you capture something that is so fleeting, and can only be shot well in optimal lighting? That’s what we’re here to find out.
1. Use the right equipment
In order to shoot smoke, you are going to need everything necessary to make it happen, not just the photography tools required.
Naturally, a camera that has manual settings, like a DSLR, is a must-have—you’ll need fine control over aperture, zoom, and shutter speed. A source of smoke is also needed—usually a stick of incense, because they’re slow-burning—though a candle or a cigarette could suffice.
You’ll also need tools to control your lighting, so an external flash, a reflector, and a handheld strobe light should be considered as well. Don’t forget your tripod to stabilize your shots.
2. Set up your stage
Here’s the most important thing: you’ll be dealing with smoke, you’ll need the room to be well-ventilated. Too much smoke will degrade the quality of your image, making the overall picture foggy and unclear. After each set, air out the room to clear it out for the next session.
You can also use your ventilation system to create a slight current in the room. This will make the smoke move in different directions, creating a more organic photograph.
To further highlight the presence of the smoke, you can also experiment with differently colored backdrops. Because the smoke you use should be white or light grey, you should choose slightly darker colors so that the smoke stands out in your photograph. Smoke photography is striking because of the sharp contrast between the smoke itself and the background.
3. Manage your lighting setup
We touched upon this above, but getting the smoke cleanly in your shot takes an adequate amount of lighting, which is why you’ll need the flash, the reflector, and the handheld light.
Take a few test shots using a combination of these lighting tools to see which effects are more in line with the image you’re going for. Your subject should be roughly 90 to 120 cm from your background, with the light source 60 to 90 cm to the side of the subject (the reflector is on the opposite side of your light source. Finally, the camera should be around 60 to 90 cm away from the subject.
For added experimental shots, you can include a second light to see how the play between the stark light source plays with the shadows created by the smoke. See how the position of your light, in all planes, affects the appearance of the smoke in the photograph.
Lighting is also a convenient way to create differently-colored smoke, and saves you from having to track down different materials that produce different-colored smoke. Apply gels to your lights to change their color, and you might come up with pleasingly unique colors of smoke.
4. Adjust your camera settings.
Here is where the power of the DSLR comes into play. Because smoke is not a static subject, you’ll need to be able to capture its image throughout all of its dynamic movements.
The smoke will probably move faster than you can react to it, so you need to anticipate it by using a fast shutter speed. A small aperture will enable your photographs to have a much larger depth of field, and a low ISO means that your images will be much less grainy. A good place to start is by activating manual focus, with an aperture at f8.0 and a 1/200 sec shutter speed.
Here are some samples of amazing smoke photography
Follow these tips and you’ll soon graduate to creating amazing photographs with smoke in the most exotic shapes. With enough practice, you’ll be able to manipulate the smoke at will making for beautiful images. How do you go about photographing smoke? Let us know in the comments below!