Saturday, September 4, 2010

Week 7 - Holy SMOKE!!! | SMOKE Photography

I recently became fascinated with one light and an off-camera flash set up. The one light set up is a simple set up but could result in various images. On the other hand, the off-camera flash had a different effect comparing to the regular built-in flash from our DSLR. I’ve tried attempting for a smoke photography months ago when I’m still in my basic class (Lightform Filipino Photographer, Abu Dhabi – Batch 2). The images that result from that was totally rubbish since I use a wrong set up. I didn’t even get a good look of any smoke. It was totally black. However, finishing that class has somehow added my interests in photography. As months go, I thought of going back to re-do the smoke photography. Now with one light source and an off-camera flash set up, the random patterns of smoke are quite amazing and mesmerizing (at least in my eyes).

The images look difficult to create. Those multiple colors and patterns are actually quite simple. In this week’s photo project, I’m going to show you exactly how I did it, from start to finish.

First, gather all the equipment I need in order to take smoke photos.

  1. SMOKE – Since I don’t use cigar and would need a lasting smoke, I used incense sticks. I also used a holder so that I could get a steady stream. And of corz, a lighter!
  2. BACKDROP – Anything black is best when taking this shot. You can use black poster board or a black sheet. I used what’s available in the closet, a black shirt.
  3. LIGHT – Although I’ve tried a couple of different setups, with a flashlight on hand and a speedlight, I find the speedlight off to the side worked for me. Since I shut off all main lighting, I find the flashlight useful moving around the dark space.
  4. TRIPOD – I use this to put my camera for a steady support. I used my old point & shoot tripod however does not recommend it since it’s not stable enough to carry on a heavy DSLR. I’m just lucky enough I didn’t have accidents on a poorly lighted room.
  5. LIGHT STAND – This is to hold my speedlight.
  6. CAMERA W/ LENS – Self-explanatory. I used a Nikon D90 where I have full manual control. I used no special lens, just the kit lens.
  7. SPEEDLIGHT – I used this Nikon SB-25, set in manual mode.
  8. SNOOT – I don’t have this but I had to be creative. Luckily, I have a calendar board – black colored. I just wrapped it in my SPEEDLIGHT. A DIY snoot comes in handy.
  9. FLASH TRIGGER WITH RECEIVER – Since I’m using an old school SLR speedlight where its TTL mode isn’t compatible with those new DSLRs. This becomes a necessary gadget on hand. Otherwise, if you have the latest high-end speedlight (say NIKON SB-600 up to SB-900 models), I guess this won’t be necessary.
  10. REMOTE SHUTTER RELEASE – I didn’t have this on hand. This will help but isn’t necessary.

Now that I have my equipment, I have to look for a good location for this. I chose our toilet room. Since I deal with smoke, I prefer it as it is a well-ventilated and with a good access of water just in case accidents could occur. It’s not bad to be prepared for such mishaps. I have a good control of the light, an exhaust fan where there’s air circulation and an easy access to water. The only thing difficult with it is to move around. I was careful not to bump on the light stand or the tripod. I don’t want anything falling on the floor. And ooops, I assure that the tiles are dry. I don’t want anything slippery.

You may have noticed that I never said that I shot in total darkness. Some people might say this is important, to be able to concentrate the light on the smoke. However, I did found it difficult to move in total darkness. Since the speedlight can be powerful at my choice, I found no problem having a handy flashlight. It actually helped me be able to see the smoke.

A pretty simple setup. I have a black shirt as the backdrop that’s hanged to the wall and draped over the lavatory. The smoke source approximately 1 – 2 feet away from the backdrop. The speedlight attached with a snoot are set to the left fairly close and focusing on the smoke. The camera setup and tripod are directly in front of the smoke. Here is a diagram how. Sorry for such an ugly sketch.

Now that I have equipments set, settings is next. This is what I used:
  • ISO – 100
  • Shutter Speed – 1/200
  • Aperture – f/11 (to get a good depth of field focus)
  • Lens Focus –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.
  • Flash Power – I used 1/4.  
I gave it a go on playing around with the settings to get the effect that I look for. I started with f/5.6 up to f/22. I settled in f/11. I used the snoot to give me enough light focusing on the smoke. I assure no light was aiming to my backdrop. Although this could be post processed, I kept it as dark as possible.

I have said how to set up the lighting, collected all the things necessary, my incense burning, and smoke manipulation device is now ready.

For quite sometime, I was just standing and watching the smoke. I wait to capture the cool patterns rising up from the incense stick. Sometimes I missed, sometimes I got it. What I did notice, however, was that the speedlight was actually disturbing the some smoke. Since it was so close to the smoke, every time it fired I could see the smoke move. This was never really a problem but probably gave me more varieties to shoot at. And what’s even more interesting is when I put something solid that would disrupt the smoke.

To give everyone an idea of how the hit and miss shots I did, it took me more than 50 shots and kept only 10 of it. So you know the percentage that was usable. Anyway, I only chose 2 of those to post for this project and delete the “uninteresting” ones.

After taking the shot, it’s a good thing to have it post processed. And honestly, I have zero experience with photoshop (but would love to learn it). I only did the basic non-destructive retouching with LR2. Did it with color command on ADJUSTMENT BRUSH, deleted some imperfect strand of smoke with the SPOT REMOVER and clone/heal for the dark spots.


Thanks for reading. I hope you like what you see and if you don’t mind writing on some comments or any criticism in my project, that would be most love.


  1. Nice! Major major like!

    Thanks Paps for doing my requests and in detailed pa. I think I have to learn Lightroom. I didn't know you could do this in LR.

  2. Bernie... thanks. good thing may youtube. I only got ideas from that.

  3. Paps, ganda ng smoke mo. I like how you demonstrated your settings. You do give efforts. Although I'm guilty not reading every bit of your post and just looking at your shots. But you do explain it best sa mga na-research kong smoke photography. Sana next time may video ka na.

  4. Mike, ayos si paps nu.. parang pang professional ang kuha... hindi pa rin ako convince.... wala sa aura mo maging photographer.

    haha.. love you friend!

  5. @Mike - video? hindi pa kaya ng powers ko yun.
    @Mye - naman!

  6. I am totally blown away.

  7. Thanks for the information. Great shot! As a beginner and hobbiest, you are very good at what you do.

  8. This makes me want to try this kind of photography. Nice blog.

  9. Inspiring and informative.

  10. I appreciate your comments a lot. Get your gears ready, they're a lot of fun!

  11. I love that they are so sharp and detailed. I tried earlier this year and definitely want to try again.

    By the way, these are great!

  12. Paps,,,, I tried this just moments ago... pero it didn't turn out like this. why?

  13. Paps, just to describe on my outcome.... my backdrop didn't came out as black as yours. And with my smoke, I know I had enough smoke to be seen. But when i click my shutter release, less appears. Why why why?

  14. @Cris - thanks. this is a good indoor photo exercise. It's still hot for an outdoor shoot.

    @Jason - pards.. try using a black cloth as a backdrop and try not to aim your flash on it. Make sure the distance from your smoke source and backdrop are a few feet away so it won't catch some of the light from the flash.

    set your focus also properly. adjust it first in autofocus and remember to put on manual before clicking. not doing this could blur your image as the lens automatically looks for your subject when you click the shutter release.

    for the colors, this has been post processed. For an unedited image, a very black backdrop and a clear white smoke should appear.

  15. I definitely miss that out. I think I had my flash partly aimed at my backdrop plus, I forgot to focus on it properly.

    I'll try it again later. Thanks for the tip! Two thumbs up for you!!!

  16. Pards,,, DONE! photos sent to your mail...

  17. @Jason,,, I knew you could do it!

    Everyone,,, I've again re-posted my week7 on the NEM's forum for criticism... Here is what they say:

    "Nice Job. Have a K. I like the second one the best (I'm a sucker for diagonal composition)." - DOC

    "Looks Great against that solid Blk Background , now how did we get the color?? Don't look like Beginner material to me" - New England Moments

    "Very well done! K from me, too!" - Patrish

    Having those comments from them, I really feel honored. Thanks a lot for that, I awe them a lot!

    copy paste the link to your browser to see actual comments:

  18. wow. thanks for the in-depth background to the shot.

  19. @Guess the Lighting... man! I love your blog. I just discovered it lately and you're the main reason why I'm starting to love flashes. Thanks for the stop.