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Photographing Smoke Patterns

Make unique abstract images using nothing more than a few sticks of incense and a few minutes in Photoshop. Not only that, but it will make your room smell nice too.

| Specialist Photographic Subjects
Article updated May 2012.

Here's a little project that will occupy a few hours. It is fun and can produce abstract pictures that can be used as interior décor.

Photographing Smoke Patterns:

Gear Needed:

  • Incense sticks (longer ones work best) and a pot, incense holder to stand them in.
  • Matches/ lighter.
  • Black background which can be a sheet of card, a piece of cloth or improvise with a black jacket, skirt. You will be working close in, so a massive backdrop is not needed.
  • Flashgun.
  • A couple of pieces of card to direct light. Gaffer tape to hold card in position if required.
  • Some method of triggering the flash.
  • Tripod. Any model will work from Pro tripods such as those found in Manfrotto's 190 Series to more light-weight models such as Manfrotto's Compact Travel Tripods.


Where To Set Up?

A large draught-free room is a perfect place for smoke photography. Minimal air currents helps avoid the smoke being disturbed too much while a large space will be more comfortable and you won't end up choking on smoke.

Setting Up

Set up the camera on a tripod, roughly at the right height, in the correct position in relation to the background. The height will change slightly as the incense stick burns down.

To capture the smoke you need to use a black background and make sure no light from the flashgun spills onto it – or onto the front of your lens. To do this, have your flashgun on a stand to the right or left of your set-up facing the incense stick. You may find a table top tripod is useful for keeping your flashgun in place, however you can just prop it up if you don't own one.

To stop light spillage try using some dark card and gaffer tape to fashion your own gobo, flag, or even barn doors.

A separate flashgun with TTL control used with a suitable extension lead is the easiest lighting source, but any half-decent flashgun will do used in manual or in auto aperture mode. In the latter, just set the flashgun to give an output to match the camera's set aperture.

You obviously need to fire the flashgun to synchronise with the camera. How you do this depends on what you own as well as your camera/flashgun. It can be a simple extension lead, which is a cheap solution, but you lose TTL flash control. For a TTL lead, check with your camera/flashgun to see what you need. Other options are more expensive, ie investing in a wireless trigger – some allow TTL metering while others fire the flash but there is only auto aperture or manual operation. Another option is to use a totally dark room, use a long shutter speed and manually fire the flash while the shutter is open.

Some cameras enable off the camera wireless control of a dedicated flashgun via infrared. This is user selectable in the camera's menu system.

Create Smoke

Once you are ready light up the incense stick. You will have plenty of time so no rush, but now check that your light is falling directly on the area above the glowing tip and that the power of the flash is right, giving light-toned smoke and against a black backdrop.

Camera Settings

Have your camera set to manual focus, pick a low ISO (100 or 200 is good) and start with a mid aperture (f/8) making sure the lens is set to the same value as the flashgun if you are using auto aperture mode. Even a low-powered gun will give f/8 or more because the flash to subject distance is quite short. Shutter speed should be the camera's recommended sync speed – usually 1/125sec or 1/200sec.

The original image (left) is turned into two colourful abstracts with the help of Photoshop.

Capturing The Smoke Patterns

There's no right or wrong way to capture smoke. You just need to look for interesting patterns and keep shooting until the card's full or you're bored!

You do need to make sure the brightest part of the smoke is almost white, but not so much that it overexposes. You don't want it underexposed either as the smoke will blend in with the background. You can very gently waft or bloke the smoke to change an even plume into something more interesting and using an object such as a spoon can help direct the smoke and change the shape.

You will find the smoke constantly changing and sometimes you will get straight lines; other times you get nice patterns. Just be ready to capture the action.

Manual focus avoids the camera searching for focus – moving smoke is a challenge for any system. Place something with a defined edge in the plane of the smoke and focus on that. You may still have to tweak focus but you are in the right area.

Photographing Smoke Patterns: Win A Manfrotto Pocket Support

Photographing Smoke Patterns: Win A Manfrotto Photo Tripod And Bag

Photographing Smoke Patterns:

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Ilachina Avatar
12 May 2012 4:35PM
Great advice!

An alternative (of sorts Wink is to photograph fire and present the inverse:
airfreq Avatar
airfreq Plus
14 462 United Kingdom
14 Dec 2020 2:11PM

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