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Smoke trails - creative photography technique

Smoke trails - creative photography technique - ePHOTOzine user, Jason Bennett, explains how to create fantastic smoke trails using a simple indoor set-up.

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ePHOTOzine member, Jason Bennett, explains how to create fantastic smoke trails using a simple indoor set-up.

Items needed
  • Incense sticks
    If this is the first time you've bought some find a pack that includes a wooden holder to keep the stick in position. You can use Blu Tack if you don't have a purpose-built holder.
  • A black background
    Material works fine, but preferably choose a material that absorbs light such as black velvet. Avoid highly inflamable material.
  • Light source
    Use an off-camera flash or other source of off camera lighting. I've only tried it with the portable flash so can't comment on anything else. Other members on the site have used studio flash. Both will work fine. If you use a continuous light source it need to be powerful to allow a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the smoke.
  • Lightbox
    I use a lightbox as a underlight, although this is optional.

1 If you're using a lightbox place the incense on top of it so the light shines up through the smoke.

2 Place the black background behind the incense stick in holder. The background in my set up is roughly 6in away, but it can be further.

3 Attach the camera to a tripod or suitable support approx 12 -18in away from the incense stick. The narrow depth-of-field of some lenses means focusing needs to be very acurrate so to help make sure the camera is at a similar level and parallel to the rising smoke.


4 Place the off camera flash to the side of the background so it's facing through the smoke. This will ensure the smoke gets lit up when the flash is fired and not the background.

5 Set the lens to an aperture of around f/4. Trial and error will help here. The idea is to make sure the background is pure black and the smoke has detail in it.

6 Light the stick and wait for the smoke to rise. You may have to blow on the insense stick's tip and then wait for a decent swirl/pattern to build up, then snap away, check your view to see sharpness/background exposure on the camera.


Left shows what happens when you focus in the wrong place. Right shows the smoke trail drifting to far out of the photo.

7 Set the lens to manual focus and adjust to get a sharp result. A piece of card with detail on it positioned in the centre of the smoke for a moment will help you focus. If your camera only has autofocus you may need to pre focus and use the focus lock.


8 When the photos have been taken upload to your PC and open in your image editing program. I've used Photoshop CS.

9 Rotate if necessary, then go to Image> Adjustments>Invert. The background becomes white and the smoke black.

10 Go to Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and modify to your hearts content. Sharpen if you want on the Lab Lightness channel with, smart sharpen.

11 Then perform a few more steps to your preference such as cropping, resizing, adding a border and text etc to suit.

Check out Jason's ePHOTOzine portfolio for more smoke examples here.

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