Smoke Photography Tutorial: How to Photograph and Edit Smoke
In this step-by-step tutorial, I will show you how to photograph smoke indoors. It’s split into two sections and then the final images at the end. The second part is a guide on how to edit smoke in Photoshop. Feel free to jump to the relevant sections using the links below.
- How to Photograph Smoke
- How to Edit Smoke Photos
- End Results: Surreal Smoke Art
The Hidden Beauty Of Smoke
Smoke photography fascinates me. To the naked eye, smoke is dull and irritating. But, if you look at it through the lens of a camera, you will see an almost entirely different substance. The silky texture and smooth flow make it look almost celestial.
Out of the many different techniques, I find taking pictures of smoke to be challenging and fun. Not only because of the beauty and surreal shapes it creates, but also because of the challenges it brings due to its unpredictable nature.
If you have spare time and stuck indoors on a rainy day, then it’s the perfect opportunity to try it out. If it’s not wet outside, you can try a bit of smoke bomb photography. A portrait session using smoke bombs can add a bit of surrealism to your images.
If you’re a beginner, photographing smoke is an excellent project for you. It will challenge your understanding of the basic technicalities of photography.
How to Photograph Smoke
In this section, I’ll show you how to photograph smoke in an indoor setting. If you’re interested in using smoke bombs for outdoor shooting, check out this post on diyphotography.net.
For this tutorial, there is no need for expensive equipment. Your camera, flash and a few household products will do the job. All you need is a basic understanding of the relationship between the subject, lighting and background.
Aside from a camera, a flash and some smoke, the one vital thing you will need is, PATIENCE!
There is no right or wrong way to achieve the perfect smoke trail. I used a mixture of my own methods as well as techniques I picked up from others. The idea is to experiment and use whatever process you are comfortable with. You may even find a better way to do it. The important thing is that you try different things and get the results you are happy with.
Ok, so let’s begin!
STEP 1 – Equipment Needed
Besides the camera and flash, you can improvise with almost everything else. I will be making suggestions during the tutorial so don’t panic if you are missing some items.
The basic equipment you will need is:
- Camera – One that allows you to adjust the shutter speed, aperture and focus. With digital photography so affordable these days, you shouldn’t have an issue finding an entry level DSLR within your budget.
- Off camera Flash or Strobe – Or any light source that emits enough light to expose the smoke.
- Snoot or Barn Doors – You need this to flag and direct the light onto the smoke. It will stop it from spreading everywhere and spilling onto your background or lens. Don’t worry if you don’t have these. You can use anything that is slightly larger than your light source. I used a homemade Snoot which I made with a cereal box and some black art paper. I could’ve used the same card to create Barn Doors, but I preferred a more narrow and focused light source so decided on the snoot. :-)
- Incense stick and holder – Incense sticks are the best source of the smoke. They have a pleasant smell and provide a longer lasting continuous plume of smoke. If you don’t have a proper holder, you can use anything from play dough to a potato. As long as it holds the incense in place, it doesn’t matter what you use. You might also want to use something to catch the ash.
- Black background and surface – You can use any dark coloured non-reflective background. Black is best if you want to capture perfect contrast and details of the smoke. You will also avoid lengthy post-processing in Photoshop afterwards.If you don’t have a studio background you can use the black side of a reflector. Paper, cardboard or even a bedsheet. The black surface is not vital but it helps to retain the contrast in case any stray light hits the background or the camera lens.
- Tripod – This is not a necessity, but for this tutorial, we will use one. I took all my smoke photos handheld. It’s a little more difficult, but you get some unique shots. Experiment with both methods and see which is best for you.
- Reflector – This is optional if you want to reflect more light onto the smoke. Or, if it has it, you can use the black side of the reflector as your background.
- Portable light – A torch or something to light up the smoke so you can lock focus…and see where you’re going in the dark. The light on your mobile phone will do.
- A well-ventilated room – This is crucial! Do not try it in a small room with only one small window! The smoke will fill a large room within 10-15mins, so you will need to air the room out from time to time. Ventilation is important because the smoke in the room will decrease the quality of your photo. And, even if though it smells good, breathing in all that smoke is not good for your health.
- A lighter – you have to light the incense… :-)
- PATIENCE! Lots of it!
STEP 2 -The Smoke Photography Set Up
Now that you got all your gear, you will need to set them up in a way that will prevent any light spilling onto the black background or into your camera lens. I have included images below to illustrate the setup I use. The first image is the basic set up.
- Put up your black background
- Place the incense stick about 3-4ft away from the background
- Set the flash/strobe to the right (or left) of the incense about 1-2ft away
- If using a reflector, place it on the opposite side, facing directly at the incense stick
- Put the camera on a tripod in front of the incense about 2-3ft away
You can also arrange the equipment at an angle to the background (fig.2). Make sure that you avoid any light reflecting onto the background. This is important! Smoke has a natural grey colour, so you need a pure black background to give it contrast. You also need to make sure that when you fire the flash, no light hits the camera lens. This will create glare in your picture (example below). It’s not entirely a bad thing as sometimes the image works. But you wouldn’t want glare in all your photos.
STEP 3 – Camera and Flash Settings
To photograph smoke, you need to remember four important factors:
- Fast shutter speed – because it is always moving, you need to catch the motion of the smoke
- Small aperture – for a greater depth of field. Smoke is unpredictable so setting a small aperture allows you to capture more of it in the case of sudden changes in shape.
- Low ISO – This is because the smoke will show up on a photograph as grainy. A higher ISO will make this worse
- Light – You need lots of it. With a combination of fast shutter speed, small aperture and low ISO, there is not enough light to expose the shot.
With all that in mind, set your camera accordingly based on its capabilities.
As guidance, below are the settings I used with my Nikon D300 and a Nikon SB-900 Speedlight:
- Camera Mode – Manual
- Shutter Speed – 1/250
- Aperture – between f/8 – f/16
- ISO – 100 (or the lowest your camera allows)
- Manual focus
- White Balance – Auto or Flash
- Focal length – This is your choice depending on how close you want to get to the smoke.
- Flash output should be set to half power or above. Adjust according to your preference.
Ideally, you should use a flash or strobe that you can trigger remotely. But, you can connect the flash to your camera with a sync cord. Be careful not to trip over it in the dark.
You also need to channel as much light onto the smoke as possible. This is when a snoot or barn doors come in useful. If you don’t have either of these, use some card and secure it around the edge of the flash or strobe. Make sure the card extends out by about 2-3 inches.
STEP 4 – Taking the shot
Now that you have everything in place, you’re ready to start shooting. Here are a few things to remember before you start photographing the smoke:
- Create a still environment – You need to ensure that all doors and windows are closed. Smoke is very delicate, so the slightest breeze will disturb it and create thin, unstable plumes. This will make it difficult to focus and capture detail. The air in the room needs to be still.
- Create thicker smoke – If you want thicker and unique swirls of smoke, try lighting 2-3 sticks and placing them in the same holder.
- Use manual focus – Turn off your camera’s auto-focus feature, as it won’t help at all. The smoke will always be moving, and once the lights are turned off, it will struggle to find a focal point. Watch the smoke to see where it goes and manually focus on where you think the smoke will end up when you release the shutter. I would suggest focusing on the part just 2-3cm above the tip of the incense stick. If you need to, use the torch to light up the smoke so you can adjust the focus accurately.
- Create a dark environment – Once done, grab your torch and switch off all the lights in the room. It doesn’t matter if you shoot with the lights on or off. But for best results, it’s good to shoot in a darkened room to avoid any ambient light reducing the contrast.
- Take test shots – Take some test shot’s to check the exposure and adjust the settings accordingly. The idea is to get the background underexposed to a pure black (RGB 0, 0, 0) and the brightest part of the smoke should be white.
When you’re happy with the exposure settings, its time to get creative and start shooting!
STEP 5 – Get Creative
When photographing smoke, I aim to capture smooth shapes and swirls in perfect detail. And from different angles. All the images you see here were taken without a tripod. I got in close to the smoke and moved around it to capture a different perspective.
You can try the same if you get bored with standard smoke swirls. You can even alter the transition of the smoke to create different shapes by placing a spoon, or any other object, above the incense stick. Also, try gently wafting the smoke to get different patterns.
And don’t forget, ventilate the room every 10-15mins. The build up of smoke will create a grey haze that will deprive your picture of light and contrast. It is also very uncomfortable to work in a room full of smoke no matter how rosy it smells.
That’s all there is to it!
As I said at the start of this tutorial, there is no standard or “correct” way to photograph smoke. It’s all about experimenting and developing your own techniques. You may end up taking hundreds of photos and keeping only a fraction of them, don’t let that put you off.
Smoke is an unpredictable subject to shoot. And with the counter-intuitive settings required to capture it, it’s hard to get it right every time. But hopefully, this guide will help reduce the number of attempts you make.
Have you tried any smoke photography yet? How did it go? I’d love to hear how you got on, so share your thoughts, questions and tips in the comments.
How to Edit Smoke Photos – Photoshop Tutorial
Once you’ve finishing photographing smoke and downloaded them, you’ll see that they all look similar in tone. If you like them as they are, then happy days! But in most cases, you’ll probably want to add colour and depth to the images. In this section, I will show you how to edit smoke images in Photoshop.
The aim is to bring out the smoke and make it pop by cleaning up imperfections and adding some colour. I will be showing you my own methods that I learnt through trial and error. Photoshop has a myriad of tools so don’t be afraid to experiment.
I’ve written this tutorial with the novice Photoshop user in mind and hope it’s easy enough to follow. To avoid confusion, I won’t be using any Photoshop shortcuts, unless there’s no other way to perform an action. If you know the shortcuts to the tasks I mention throughout the tutorial, then, by all means use them.
I used Adobe Photoshop CS4. There shouldn’t be any confusion with control options as I’ll be using the most common tools which exist in all versions of Photoshop.
If you don’t understand some parts or have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.
Demo RAW Image
I’ll be using the image below as the demonstration for this tutorial. It’s the original RAW photo with no editing involved at this stage. As you can see, it has a few blemishes and does not stand out so much. We are about to change that in a few simple steps.
EDIT STEP 1 – Process RAW File
NOTE: If you didn’t shoot in Raw format, then ignore this part and start from Edit Step 2.
Open the RAW file in Camera Raw (opening the file in Photoshop will automatically launch Camera Raw) and adjust the settings you need.
When I process my smoke photos, I tend to adjust only the basic settings. Usually, it’s the Temperature, Blacks, Contrast, Brightness and Clarity. I find it easier to do everything in Photoshop as it provides greater flexibility for isolating parts of the image.
I adjusted the following settings only:
- Temperature: from 6000 to 5500
- Exposure: +0.50
- Blacks: +10 (5 to 15)
- Contrast: +15 (25 to 40)
- Clarity: +15
The results of these adjustments can be seen below. The circled areas are blemishes that I wasn’t happy with.
EDIT STEP 2 – Create Backup Layer
Once you have opened your image in Photoshop, it’s best practice to create a backup copy of the image. This is so that you have the option of starting over if you make any mistakes or don’t like the results.
Here’s how you create a duplicate layer:
- Open the image in Photoshop
- From the Menu Bar select the following: Layer > Duplicate Layer
- Name the duplicate layer if you prefer. I tend to leave it as the default title “Background Copy”
- Once you have created the duplicate layer, you need to hide the original image. You do this by first selecting the image by clicking on it. If you did not rename the image when you opened it, then it should still be labelled as “Background”
- Now go to the Menu Bar and select: Layer > Hide Layers
Your layer should now be missing the ‘eye’ located to the left of the image.
This has made the original image invisible while you work with the duplicate copy above it. Now select the duplicate layer, and you are ready to start editing.
EDIT STEP 3 – Highlight Hidden Blemishes
Now you have your duplicate layer selected you need to check for any imperfections. Remember, the black background of the smoke photo must be 100% black – RGB 0, 0, 0.
If you adjusted the blacks in Camera RAW, then it may seem as though it’s already pure black. But, due to differences in screen calibrations, if there are any flaws, they may not be visible to the naked eye. The last thing you want is for hidden imperfections to appear on other screens.
To accurately check for invisible blemishes, spots, glare, etc, do the following:
- From the Menu Bar create a Levels Layer: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels. For easy reference later, leave the name of the new layer as Levels 1.”
Also, make sure that the levels layer is located above the image layer you are editing, in this case, the ‘Background Copy’. If it isn’t, then just click and drag the levels layer above it.
- Move over to the white levels slider and drag it all the way across to the left. This will highlight all the light colours of your image.
As you can see, the picture on the left looks workable without any major blemishes. But, after highlighting the bright colours, you can see how much of the image needs cleaning up.
EDIT STEP 4 – Remove Blemishes
Removing the unwanted blemishes is a very quick and straightforward task.
- On the layer palette select the ‘Background Copy.’
- On the Tools Panel, choose the default foreground and background colours by clicking the small black and white icon. Make sure the Black is on top (Foreground)
- Then select the “Brush Tool”
- Go up to the Options Bar and set both the Opacity and Flow to 100%
- Now brush over the blemishes making sure you don’t go over the edges of the main smoke photo. You can make it easier to clean around the smoke by zooming into the image and selecting a smaller brush.
- To zoom into the image go to the Menu Bar and select: View > Zoom In (shortcuts are displayed on the right)
- Once you have finished cleaning up the background, you need to delete the levels layer. If you need to adjust the levels then obviously keep it, but remember to bring the white slider back to its original position on the right.
There are many other ways to be more precise with this task, but this demo image has a simple shape and not much intricate work is required. So I won’t confuse you by suggesting more on this tutorial. If you would like to know other methods, then leave a comment below.
EDIT STEP 5 – Add Colour to the Smoke
There are many ways to add colour to your smoke photo. But if you have a lot of smoke images to process, there is a very quick but effective method you can use. All you need to do is adjust the “Hue”
- Go to the Menu Bar and select: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation
- Move over to the Adjustment Palette and play around with the Hue adjustment slider until you find the colour you like.
And voilà! Your smoke has now got some colour, giving it a bit of character and beauty. I told you it was quick and simple… :-)
If you want to get more creative, you can use the Brush tool and manually add the colour and gradient. Though this will require more skill and patience. You can also create a gradient layer with two different colours and use Blending Modes like Overlay or Soft Light etc.
EDIT STEP 6 – Change Background Colour to White
To add a bit of variety you can invert some of the images to make the background colour white. This gives the look of a negative photo. This is my favourite and I think looks much better than a black background. It draws more attention to the details of the smoke and makes it stand out better.
To invert the smoke photo, go to the Menu Bar and select: Image > Adjustments > Invert
The image below is what the inverted smoke image looks like. You can then follow Edit Step 5 to add colour to the smoke. Or leave it as it is if you like the look.
What Photoshop edits have you tried that worked for you?
End Results: Surreal Smoke Art
The smoke photography gallery below shows examples of what you can create by following the steps in this tutorial. I hope they inspire you.
All the shapes formed by the smoke are exactly as shot. The only Photoshop editing I applied was adding colour, adjusting contrast, cropping and cleaning up any blemishes.
Enjoy the images and see if you can pick out any recognisable shapes and figures in the smoke. I see a seashell, a Disney princess, Skeletor from He-Man, a rabbit and even a bone. See if you can spot them.
If you found this post interesting and helpful, please share it with others.