Smoke Gets In Your Eyes…
When I first started taking photos I was all about realism and making documentary type photos. I didn’t care for abstract or overly processed images. But the more photos I’ve taken and seen the more I think “Why not?” It’s fun! I enjoy seeing what I can make and what I can do with photoshop. One of the best exercises I’ve done for trying to get the creative juices flowing is smoke photography. You can’t really pose the smoke like you could a human so you have to try and work with it the best you can. This can provide for some interesting and surprising results. It also takes some pressure off in a sit back and enjoy the ride kind of way.
The setup is pretty easy and shouldn’t cost more than a few bucks for the supplies. First you’ll need a smoke source and a nice incense stick works just perfectly. Just make sure you can stand the scent as these fumes will be assaulting your nasal passages. I chose the intoxicating scent of “Night Rain”. As for a holder I used a plastic magnetic clip that I had on my fridge (a potato or clay could work too). To catch the ashes I just used a paper plate. No need for a fancy incense holder and this setup keeps the smoke in basically the same place. You’ll want a black background for this photo shoot. Doesn’t have to be too big and a sheet of black poster board should work nicely. I have a large sheet of black fabric that I use for backgrounds that I propped up against the wall. Now the key to getting great smoke shots is the flash. You want the flash shooting perpendicular to you and the background and a few feet away from the smoke. You’ll need some way of remotely firing the flash whether it be a TTL cable or wireless flash trigger like the Yunguo RF-602 which I love. To make the smoke ‘pop’ in your photos you want to make sure you don’t get any light spilling onto the background. Placing a snoot on the flash aims the light on just the smoke and lets you keep a nice black background. If you don’t have a snoot you can make one out of a cereal box and duct tape like mine. Light up the incense stick and you’re ready to go.
The actual shooting is pretty easy. I found the easiest way is to set up the camera on a tripod and get the smoke in frame. Now it’s pretty hard to focus on the smoke so it makes it a million times easier if you pre-focus. Set the lens to autofocus and focus on the tip of the incense stick. Switch the lens back to manual focus, tilt the camera back up to the smoke and make sure you don’t move the the tripod or zoom. If you want to zoom in or out to get a different view just repeat the focusing process. I found my life was easier using a remote cable shutter release so that I could manipulate the smoke and take photos easily. For actual camera settings I used f8 to keep the smoke in focus especially since it’s dancing around. Shutter speed was my max sync speed of 1/200, ISO was 100 and the flash was on manual at 1/2 power and about 2 feet from the smoke. To help save on battery and recycle time make sure the flash is zoomed in all the way. Pop off a few shots and check the results on the back of the camera. Focus on the exposure of the smoke and adjust the flash output until you get well exposed smoke without blown highlights. Keep an eye on the background and make sure there’s not much light hitting it. You should have a smiley face histogram with majority of the data touching the ends. Make sure you’re shooting in RAW as this will make your life so much better when it comes time to post process.
Now just enjoy the wonder and beauty of nice smelling smoke. If the smoke gets boring give it a gentle push to spice things up. Try different objects to move the path of the smoke like a spoon or some other household object. Take a bunch of photos! Zoom in to get close up details and zoom out to get bigger and more complex patterns. The smoke has a mind of it’s own and there is quite a bit of luck in getting an interesting pattern. Experiment with the number of incense sticks you burn. I found two at once gives even more cool patterns and thicker smoke. Try to do this in a well ventilated room so you don’t get smoke build up that will show up in your photos.
Post processing is the really fun part of these photos. If you shot in RAW this part will be a breeze. Open up the RAW image in photoshop which will bring up the adjustment sliders. Look at the background in the photo and see if it’s truly black by checking the histogram. You’ll need to adjust the ‘blacks’ slider until the backdrop turns completely black. This is VERY important for when we add color to the smoke. Doing this however will cause you to lose some details in the shadows of the smoke so do some adjustments to bring them back. Move the ‘contrast’ slider way down and go to the curves and turn up the ‘shadows’ and ‘darks’ sliders some. When you have that done open up the image.
Now is the time to let your colorful imagination run free. White smoke is pretty boring so adding a bright dash of color really livens things up. The unicorn filled possibilities are endless from here. You can invert the image by pressing Ctrl+I which makes the background white and the smoke black. To add color simply click on the adjustment layer button in the layers panel and choose ‘Hue/Saturation’. Now this is why we made the background completely black to start with. The parts that are completely black or white will stay that color, but the smoke will change color. Click on the colorize box and the magic happens. Bring up the saturation to the amount that you like (not so much that the color start to bleed though) and change the color by adjusting the ‘Hue’ slider. To add multiple colors all you need to do is use the ‘Lasso Tool’ to select a part of the image. Once you have the part selected click on the same button in the adjustment layers to create another ‘Hue/Saturation’ layer. Just change the hue of this layer until you get the color you want. Later, rinse and repeat with this until you have all the colors of the rainbow if you like. There is another method for adding multiple colors with a ‘gradient fill layer’ instead of a ‘Hue/Saturation’ layer. Click on the same adjustment layer button in the layers panel and choose ‘gradient’. This brings up the dialog box where you can make some adjustments. You can change the angle of the gradient to match the angle of the smoke. Click on the gradient box to choose what kind of gradient you want (how many colors it has) and to choose the colors you want to use. Changing the colors is done by clicking on the arrows on the bottom of the big bar in the gradient editor followed by clicking on the ‘color’ box just below. Once you have the gradient to your liking simply change the blending mode of the gradient layer to ‘overlay’ and you have unicorn smoke.
There really is no right or wrong way to edit these. I find it a fun challenge to come up something new and different with each smoke photo. My favorite is trying to find shapes in the smoke and then coloring it to bring out the object. My best result so far has been ‘The Rose’ that I did. I just painted out a bit of smoke in one corner and colored it to bring out the flower part I saw.
There’s also the Rorschach method that can turn some mundane smoke pictures into works of psycho analytical art. This works best if you have smoke touching the edge of the image. Just color and edit the photo as normal. Then make a duplicate layer of the image and flip it 180 degrees. Now go to Image->Canvas Size to adjust the size of the photo. Change the drop down menu to percent and the width to 200 percent. Once the canvas is doubled simply select the duplicate layer and move it over to the empty space. This creates one of those Rorschach tests to see if you’re crazy or a serial killer (is it wrong if in mine all I see are evil bunnies?).
The possibilities are pretty much endless. This was a great photoshop challenge for me to come up with something new for each smoke image. It’s fun to play around with such intense colors and it creates such beautiful images yet they’re so easy to do. Your friends will be amazed at how amazing they look, but only you will know how easy it is to do (ancient Chinese secret my foot 🙂 ). It’s a great break from more traditional photography and the stuff I usually take. Definitely worth the time and one of the best smelling photo projects I’ve undertaken.