Smoke Photography – Cheap and fun

The weather here in Ireland can make it tough to practice your photography so having side projects you can complete at home is always a good idea.

Yesterday I decided to give Smoke Photography a shot but didn’t want to have to go out to get any extra equipment. Here’s what I used:

  • Speedlight
  • Xpro-1 Camera
  • 35mm lens. (Any lens will do)
  • Speedlight stand (could have used a chair instead)
  • Remote cable for the speedlight
  • Tripod
  • Black Jacket for backdrop
  • Black reflector to control light (could use another jacket)
  • 2 chairs to prop up the backdrop
  • One chair to place your source of smoke
  • Cardboard and elastic band (or hairband) to control flash direction.
  • Various books and boxes to control height of things and cover wind.

Here’s the whole set-up in all its glory:

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It is really important to end up with a black background so you need to make sure no light falls on the jacket. That’s why I used a piece of cardboard. With the cardboard and a fast shutter speed the background was completely underexposed and appeared to be a seamless black background. I used a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second and an aperture of f/8. The flash was set on manual at 1/4 power.

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Once you have everything set up, you need to set the camera at a distance that allows you to cover the greatest amount of black background while keeping the flash out of frame. This isn’t critical as you can always crop it out but smoke is unpredictable and can move around a lot so giving yourself extra space will make sure you get the smoke in frame.

Last but not least you will need to manually focus in the area where the smoke is. I set up another piece of cardboard to focus on but you can also use your hand or anything else.

As a source of smoke I used cigarettes. While this is a disgusting habit, for once it came in useful. I would just roll one, give a few puffs and set it in the ashtray. I would have loved to have incense sticks as they are perfect for this but cigarettes are a good second option.

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Don’t be afraid to take plenty of pictures. Smoke can be unpredictable but after a while you start to understand how it reacts and can start playing with creating air currents to add chaos to the smoke plumes.

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After you’re done, it’s time to process the pictures. I used Lightroom to process all these images. One fun thing you can do is invert the color curve to make the image a negative and then play with the colour balance to get some interesting effects. Increasing clarity and decreasing contrast a tad can also help.

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Hope this has been useful. Remember to subscribe and let me know in the comments if you decide to give this a shot. If there is any type of photography you’d like me to try next, please let me know.