Tutorial: Shooting Smoke

I’ve been asked before about how I shoot photos of incense smoke so I thought I’d throw up some directions for any interested parties.

What you will need:

1. Camera with manual controls
2. Incense/Incense Holder
3. Lighter
4. Dark room
5. Dark backdrop
6. Off camera strobe w/- snoot
7. Tripod

The Process

So you’ve accumulated all the necessary tools and you want to shoot some smoke. First things first, you need to get your environment setup. You don’t need a lot of space, it just needs to be dark and you need to be able to manipulate your gear comfortably. I used the bedroom at night with the windows blocked off to darken things a bit more. A dark sheet, jacket, towel, etc. can be used as your backdrop, you just need something non-distracting to shoot the smoke plume against. Set up your camera on its tripod facing your backdrop. I then used some small boxes to set up a place to put the burning incense. You want the burning tip of the incense to be just below what you can see with your camera viewfinder. For the shoot I use a D300 with a 50mm f1.8. Using manual focus dial your lens in to about where your smoke plume will be (you can place a stick of incense out on your makeshift stand as a reference). I stopped down to f8 for the shoot as it yields good sharpness and the smaller aperture negated any remaining ambient light.

The final thing to prep is your strobe. I use a old/cheap flash I found on eBay for $10. You may be asking what a “snoot” is after reading the equipment list. A snoot is anything that you can use to channel the light output from your flash a little bit more. A snoot is really just a simple tube that fits on the head of your flash. I made one out of a piece of cardboard. The reason you want a snoot is to make sure the light from the flash hits only smoke and doesn’t bounce around to unwanted places like the front of your camera lens.

With all this ready its time to turn the lights off and burn some incense. I personally use Nag Champa for incense, its cheap, comes in stick form, and I happen to like the smell. With your incense now burning set your camera to do a one second exposure. When you hit the shutter fire off your flash at the smoke plume before your shutter closes again. If one second isn’t enough for you, increase it. It really doesn’t matter since the only time any visual data will be recorded is when you pop your strobe. You can hold the strobe just about anywhere in relation to the smoke column (just make sure to keep it out of the camera’s frame). I tend to prefer lighting it from the side parallel to the camera’s view plane. If you have access to the gear you could also use a PC Sync cord to use your camera to trip your flash. This will let you shoot up to camera’s flash sync speed (usually in the ballpark of 1/250s). The effect will come out the same either way, so use whatever gear you have access too.

Hopefully you are shooting digital and can keep reviewing your shots as you take them. Check how your focus is and adjust as you progress (they really only look good if you can get them tack sharp). You’ll likely be taking A LOT of frames because you will notice that the smoke hardly ever does what you want it to and you really don’t have much control. Try doing little things to disturb the smoke so that it rises in strange patterns instead of just straight up.

When you’re done shooting you can have all sorts of fun in post process. You can invert the photo to get a really cool abstract looking image as well as adding color to the smoke. If anyone ends up trying this out you should throw up your images in the comments when you’re done. Let me know if there are any other questions.

Thanks for reading.


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