Saturday, November 24, 2012

Taking Smoke Photos - Updated

I spent a lot of time admiring images of smoke from a lot of great photographers as I was intrigued by the randomness of the beautiful curves and shapes formed by the smoke.  Most people I’ve met like to look at abstract photos of smoke and, like me, are drawn to the random smooth flowing shapes with the wide range of shades that are captured in each photo.

As my own interest for off-camera flash photography grew, it was a natural choice to try to shoot some smoke images for myself. It seemed a popular topic to try and with a bit of research and quite a bit of practice I was finally able to put together a portfolio of images.

As you will see from my final images I ended up using one of three different post-processes techniques in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop:
  1. Natural Colors: Contrast or Curve Adjustments
  2. Coloring: hue or photo filter adjustment layer
  3. Creating an image: masking and coloring with a hue or photo filter adjustment layer

The photos of smoke I typically saw on the web used the first two post-processing techniques above.  During the post processing of the photos I started to see certain shapes that seemed to stand out in each image and that’s when I started to use the last post-processing technique to create some of my more interesting “art”.

Lighting Setup

The diagram below was my starting setup which was typical of what I had read about on the web for taking photos of smoke.

I used 2 x Canon 580EXII flashes with Pocket Wizards, one either side of where I would place the smoke device. These were set at 24mm @1/8 power.  I placed a black felt cloth on the background to create contrast between the white smoke.  The gobos placed in front of the flash units blocked out the light from getting into my lens.   I also placed a black cloth on the table where the incense was placed.

After a few initial shots I saw I was getting unwanted light spilling onto the background. I then realized that the room was fairly small (it was my spare bedroom) which meant that I wouldn’t be able to separate the lights from the background enough to get rid of the unwanted light.

To counter the spilling light I added additional gobos behind the flash units to separate them from the background.

A few more test shots showed I was still getting some unwanted light spilling into the photo.  The problem here was that the walls in the small room were all white and were acting as large reflectors from the flash units creating the unwanted light.

I then added two large black flags behind each flash unit to stop the light reflecting off the walls.  Below is the final setup that I used for the smoke images.


The above setup diagrams were created in Photoshop using a file created by Kevin Kertz (  The file contains multiple layers with different light modifiers, cameras, backgrounds and models.  It’s an excellent tool for illustrating setups like those above.

You can download the file from

Creating The Smoke

There are several ways to create smoke and the safest and easiest way is to use joss sticks (incense), which is specifically engineered to create smoke.  There are a few things to note about smoke:
  • Smoke is affected by wind, no matter how weak, so having a draft free room is critical.  This includes minimizing the amount of people movement in the room (not really a good group activity!), switching off any device that creates winds, including fans and air conditioning as well as closing doors and windows.  Just the heat from the incense stick itself is enough to generate the necessary movement to create the patterns that I captured.
  • Smoke, in a draft free environment as described above, can become overwhelming (even if it does smell good).  You need to take breaks to get some fresh air and clear the room of the smoke
  • Smoke can annoy people.  Be sensitive to others in the place that you are taking the photos.
  • Burning incense creates a lot of ash, put the incense on something that will catch the ash so it’s easier to clean up afterwards
  • Burning incense can cause fires. Please be careful and take precautions to keep the incense from falling onto anything that could potentially cause a fire.  NEVER leave the incense burning unattended.

Another aspect to take into consideration is the size of the incense. A thinner device will create a thinner stream of smoke and a fatter device will create more smoke.  Try different types of incense and see which one you prefer.

In the end I chose cone shaped incense as it created the right amount of smoke for me.  It was also easy to place on a metal dish and didn’t fall over easily.  Below shows the setup of the incense on the metal dish.

Taking the shots

I did not have any particular expectations or concepts in mind when I started taking the photos of the smoke.  All I knew is that I wanted to create similar images that I had been drawn to on the internet.

After I had lit the incense and started to take a few photos I soon discovered that I was not able to focus on the smoke which forced me to switch manual focus and to consider what aperture I should shoot at to get the maximum depth of focus whilst allowing the flash units to recycle fairly quickly.

Using a tripod I focused on the tip of the incense using auto focus and then switch to manual.  I originally set the aperture to F7.1 but then switch to F5.6 which gave me a good depth of focus but also created some pleasant soft areas when the smoke drifted out of the focus plain.

I initially used a Stofen filter to ensure the whole area was covered, but I ended up using just bare flash which gave a stronger contrast and brighter smoke.

Once I had got the setup that I wanted I started to take photos at random, which didn’t create any exciting images. After a while though, I started to recognize when patterns were starting to form towards the middle on the area and to take a few shots.   I realize that this sounds obvious, but it was harder than I initially had thought.

Once I had the settings right and started to shoot I didn’t have time to really review any shots as the smoke continuously shifted and shaped and I was focused on capturing images at the right time.

FRIENDLY WARNING: being so completely focused on taking great images like this has the side affect of ending up with lots of images, which ultimately you will spend a lot of time sorting through and turning into works of art.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Post Processing

I use Adobe Lightroom for all my image processing and I also shoot in RAW to ensure maximum flexible in post processing.  When I need to use masking and layers I switch to Adobe Photoshop.  The explanations use these programs but can be replicated in any other image editing software that have the same capabilities.

I have a normal post processing routine that I go through in Adobe Lightroom after photo shoot.  This is:
  • Review each photo and mark the out of focus ones as rejected.  After reviewing all photos I delete those marked as rejected.  I used to just remove from them the library, but I don’t do that anymore.
  • Straighten and crop photos as necessary.  I use frequently use the “Sync…” function here.
  • Enhance each photo individually.  I always start with a few customized presets that I have created in Lightroom.  In this particular case there was not a lot of work to be done due to the controlled manner in which the photos were taken.
  • Use Adobe Photoshop to further enhance the image that can’t be done in Lightroom, e.g. masking, stamping, etc.

It was during post processing that I started to realize that post-processing was not going to be a simple task of minor adjustments but each image needed to be studied and appropriately manipulated.  These basically fell into three categories:
  1. Images that were naturally pleasant and needed little work
  2. Images that had a natural predisposition to being in color
  3. Images that had been created by the patterns and shapes created by the smoke that were enhanced by using multiple colors to enhance the image created.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the techniques used within each of the categories were very similar and are described in detail below.

Natural Images

These were images that are naturally pleasant and needed little work

This is the original shot that I took.  The patterns that I was looking for generally tended to form in the center of the photo.

After playing with the cropping I landed with this image.

Using the Highlights, Whites and Blacks I adjusted the contrast of the image..

...until I found what I was looking for.

You can do something similar in Photoshop by creating a “levels” adjustment layer and playing with the white and black levels.

Another area I tend to look at adjusting is the tone curve. 

In this case I used the strong contrast, which I didn’t like.

The final two adjustments that will look at are Clarity and Vibrance. 

Here I have adjusted the clarity to created a very soft focused image, which, in this case, is over the top.

Here’s final settings that I landed on. 

I have adjusted the Clarity and added some Vibrance to the image to enhance the natural blue of the smoke (I thought that it would be grey and was surprised by the natural soothing blue).

Images with predisposition for color

These were images that seemed to have a natural predisposition to being in color

This is the original shot taken and I was drawn to the smooth shapes from the bottom to almost the top.

I started with the same settings as the first images...

...which gave me a pleasing looking image and used a standard 8x10 crop. 

However the notch like shapes on the image made me feel that it would look even better in a wood like brown / orange. 

To do this I opened it in Photoshop as a “Copy with Lightroom adjustments”

I first added a “Hue/Saturation” adjustment layer and played with the Hue and Saturation sliders to get the color I wanted. 

Adding saturation meant that the black also had a slight orange hue, so I added a “Levels” adjustment layer and changed the black and white levels to get rid of the orange cast on the black background.


Images created by the patterns and shapes created by the smoke.

These were images that had been created by the patterns and shapes created by the smoke that were enhanced by using multiple colors to enhance the image created.

This was the starting image...

Naturally drawn to the shapes in the middle which reminded me of people.  Once cropped it looked like a cartoon picture I had seen from Beauty and the beast.  I applied similar changes to the images in Lightroom, except I increased clarity to better define the shapes.

Problem was that the beast shape was a lot darker than the beauty shape... I needed to balance them out in Photoshop using masks, levels and curves.

The Beast side was adjusted brighter using Levels and Curves, while the Beauty side toned down slightly using levels. The black background was added to get rid of the slight color cast seen on the above image.

Once balanced I decided to color in Beauty in yellow which is the color of her dress in the cartoon and then deepen the blue of the beast to add to the contrast.

After all the adjustments were made the final result was great...

Inversing the image

One of the other things to try is to inverse the image in Photoshop to create a white background.  This creates an unusual twist to smoke photos that makes them look very similar to color dye in water.

A simple inversed image with a purple hue added.

A colored inversed image to make it look like an Alien with bad breath.


The shots below are some more of my favorite images.


Angry Snake


Grandfather giving grandchild a piggyback

Goat blowing smoke rings

Alien with big lips

Dancing Girl

In the end I really enjoyed doing this and seeing the results. However be warned sorting through over 300 photos to find the few good ones and then manipulating them takes a lot of time!

Things I would next time

Although pleased with the results I have decided that next time there are a few things that I would do different or in addition to what I have done here:
  1. Use a smaller aperture to create more depth of focus - I have battery packs for my flashes now and using bare light flash would still allow me quick recycle times on one set of batteries.
  2. Separate the distance between the background and the smoke - I had to modify each image to get the true black background I was looking for.  Creating a bigger gap between the lights and the background will mean less work to be done in Lightroom or Photoshop.
  3. Use different size incense and mixture in one image - I'm intrigued with what different patterns and shapes would be produced by using multiple types of smoke in a single photo.
  4. Use "shape shifting" devices - I would play with utensils that would change the shape of the smoke, such as spoons and sieves

You can see more of my images here:

Please feel free to leave comments or questions below or email them to me.