billowy health [deleted] 10:17pm, 7 July 2005
Okay, Myla - I just spent an hour trying to do what you've done. I set up my camera - locked my focus, burned incense (the big stick kind) and still, mine came out utter crap. Your secrets please?
you really need strobes to backlight the smoke on a black backgrnd.
To turn the backgrnd white you just invert the image.
macca 16 years ago
When are we going to see some of your master pieces up there Sean? (I'm off to buy some strobes...)
blushing haircut [deleted]
OK boys, first, you've got to go read what Graham wrote -- start here and then continue here.

He's the expert, clearly.

But me? hmmm, I think dumb luck to be honest :)

1. You have to have a black background. I'm using a long black velvet skirt up against a wall.

2. I'm on the floor in the kitchen, crouched about 1' from the velvet.

3. The only lighting I'm using is the overhead in the kitchen.

4. Camera (Canon EOS Rebel 300D), set to tv of 4000 and on macro mode -- AF and f/8.

5. Flash is activated.

6. Right hand holds camera.

7. Left hand twirls incense and fends off the huas (w/o incense in hand, of course)

8. Sticking your tongue out also helps.

9. I'd have to say 90% of the photos come out like crap (b/c once again, I'm not Graham ;)

10. In photoshop I invert the image so that the black velvet becomes white and the smoke becomes black -- and then play with different layers and color tools to get the coloured smoke.

11. I'd like to mention that these shots are extremely cropped -- real zoom ins on a small part of the overall shot.

12. I also tried it tonight on automatic mode -- and in the viewfinder they appeared to come out.

Will post an update shortly. . . :)
Mute* 16 years ago
I have got to try this, your smoke set is beautiful, as are graham's.
traceytakesphotos 16 years ago
step 8 sounds too hard, Myla :(

blushing haircut [deleted] 16 years ago
Miles, you're the sweetest.

Tracey, you're too funny. =)
seanhfoto 16 years ago
For some reason I can't add photo's, the organizer doesn't recognize my groups.
seanhfoto 16 years ago
Off to try again ( not to mention myy blue tootth is actting up) soounds like a studder.
seanhfoto 16 years ago
Oh to add to the step by step smoke shows up better when you backlight it.
seanhfoto 16 years ago
It seems they fixed the bug... off to work.
blushing haircut [deleted] 16 years ago
thanks sean :)
Sensitive Light 16 years ago
There is of course no right way to photograph smoke, it is more a matter of experimentation with the resources to hand.

As Myla has been kind enough to ‘big me up’ on the subject of smoke pictures I thought I’d write a line or two about my approach to the subject. I took my first smoke pictures about two years ago, and have returned to the subject twice since, both times trying to create something new.

In my opinion the key technical factor is to adequately light the smoke so that it stands out from the background. Before I describe my own contrived method let me sketch out a very simple approach to photographing smoke.

Imagine a darkly appointed room with no shiny surfaces to encourage reflection. See it is lit by one small, high, single pane window, facing towards the sun. If the air in the room is dusty or smoky you will be able to see the whole ray of light from window to floor. If the air in the room is clean the ray will be invisible and just the patch of light on the floor will reflect the sunshine.

In the clean air version set a smoke column to pass through the sunbeam and photograph the smoke against the dark walls of the room. With any camera, and no tricks, simple effective smoke pictures can be taken ready for post processing.

I have not found the right room yet, but I know some people have, and it saves an awful lot of messing about.

What I am looking for in my own work is clearly defined line and shape. I am not trying to create pictures of smoke; I am trying to create pictures by using smoke. I have tried various backgrounds but have only been happy with plain white or plain black backgrounds. To my eye a black or white background more easily disappears to show only the shapes in the smoke.

The smoke source I use is incense sticks; they give off about the same volume of smoke as a cigarette and are cheaper to burn. I have often wondered if a fat cigar would give off denser smoke, but been put off because they need puffing on to keep them alight.

Ventilation is important, and not for the first reason that might come to mind; I am not your nanny. It is true that without ventilation smoke will eventually get in your eyes causing them to sting and stream with tears making picture taking impossible. It is also true that you might run the risk of some terminal lung disease if you inhale too much smoke. Far more important is that, as the air fills up with the fog of dissipated smoke your pictures will be robbed of light, contrast and sharpness.

Typically I will shoot from 2 to 6 feet away from the smoke and include about 10 to 20 inches of the plume. I have the camera mounted on a tripod and use a remote release. It is a lot easier to react to a developing shape if you can see the whole scene than it is looking at a small section through the viewfinder. The camera is pre-focused to the place where the smoke is expected to rise.

Because I have said that I want clear lines and shapes I do my best to achieve a depth of field deep enough to encompass all the smoke in the frame. This is very much easier to do if the smoke is allowed to rise naturally. Wafting by hand has to be done gently to create turbulence without sending the smoke off at an angle from the vertical. Blowing is an alternative method, but like wafting you have to be quite near to the subject. When standing further away I have found a can of compressed air a good way to disturb the smoke. Shoot a jet off to the side or below the smoke and wait for the air disturbance to hit the plume. Recently I have been experimenting with items placed in the smoke column to interfere with the natural flow, upturned spoons I found the best.

As the smoke is constantly moving a fast shutter speed is required to freeze the smoke if sharpness is the desired aim. To achieve a decent depth of field and a reasonably fast shutter speed requires a good amount of light. I work in a converted attic room with only enough ambient light to save me from tripping over something and plummeting through the loft hatch.

For all practical purposes the light used to expose the image comes from one studio flash unit fitted with a snoot and placed at the side or behind the smoke. I realise that not everyone has one of these units, but an off camera flash gun fitted with or placed beside a baffle to protect the background from direct light works just as well.

The exposure or flash setting is adjusted to give just enough light for the brightest part of the smoke to be almost white. Over exposure will lose some detail and will also cause the inverted image to show a lot of black in the smoke, and that does not look natural. Under exposure will make it difficult to see the difference between the smoke and the background.

I use Photoshop for most of my editing; I hope my descriptions translate understandably into your tool of choice.

In post processing the first job is to crop the picture to a pleasing composition. This is the stage where 90 something % get trashed. Then I use levels or curves or both to achieve a true black in the background whilst trying not to lose any detail in the smoke. There will be dust, and there may be stray wisps of smoke, these are removed from the background, generally I use a black paintbrush, sometimes a clone tool. Where the dust or distracting wisps are near on in the smoke careful cloning at 100% magnification or more is required.

At this point I make the decision between black or white background by using the invert tool to flip back and forth between the two. I don’t know how I come to a decision; it’s whichever seems most appropriate.

I mostly use the Hue/Saturation tool to adjust the colour. For a single colour the adjustment can be applied to the whole image as white and black are unaffected by this type of colour change. Multiple colours are applied in the same way on loosely selected parts of the smoke.

I hope this is of some help.
seanhfoto 16 years ago
Honoured to have you here sir!
Magnificent work you have achieved!!!
blushing haircut [deleted] 16 years ago
Graham you are truly an inspiration, thank you so much for your insight.

Sean is right, magnificent indeed. :)
wiccked 16 years ago
I'm inspired by all of these photos, and especially yours, Graham.

I need a dark space and a black background! But I just loved the shape of smoke in the photo I posted, even if it's not quite right ;)
seanhfoto 16 years ago
I shot probably 50 to 60 shots per stick, and each and every one was unique and wonderful.
happy river [deleted] 16 years ago
i'm looking around for some sticks to burn!! i need smoke.. off to try that.. thanks guys the tutorial was helpful :)
Coolnamestaken 16 years ago
I just folded some paper and used that to burn.
blushing haircut [deleted] 16 years ago
I just use incense -- regular incense you can find in most supermarkets (although I get mine at Tenzing Momo down at Pike Place Market).

Favorite flavors: Amber & Sandalwood -- and Patchouli ;)
ShutterbugF 16 years ago
A photography student in town was selling prints of smoke art for $400 a piece.
OldhaMedia 16 years ago
yes, but was this student making any sales?

I've always been fascinated by the undulating curls of smoke... now I'm going to have to try and catch some with my poor little crap camera.
ShutterbugF 15 years ago
I have a dorky question. What type of film you use? Or are you guys digital people?
photobonnie 15 years ago
I use digital.
ShutterbugF 15 years ago
Ah. I am not into digtial. Anyone do it with film?
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