Alluring and evanescent, smoke is an unusual subject that, with some practice, produces utterly unique photographs. While there are countless ways to get creative with smoke art photography, it is best to begin with a solid understanding of both photography and post-processing principles in order to create successful smoke art imagery.
At its core, smoke art is producing photographic imagery or other art using smoke. While smoke appears as a subject in other types of photos, for example historical photography or nature disaster photography, smoke art photography refers specifically to a more contemporary evolution of the art form that is created within a studio environment. Modern smoke art photography is a type of abstract photography, since smoke is inherently aleatoric (meaning random), and ends after significant post-processing, usually in Photoshop. Much like deciphering the shape of a cloud or reading dried coffee grounds in a cup, smoke photography relies on the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
Unlike many other types of photography, which allow a photographer to wander into the world armed with just a camera and a basic understanding of how to compose an image, smoke art photography relies almost exclusively on creating in a tightly-controlled environment. It is imperative to have a well-ventilated studio in which to make and capture smoke on camera. Factoring in the aleatory nature of smoke, most photographers block out several hours to experiment with getting the right shot. Thus, even ten minutes in a poorly ventilated room will cause smoke to thicken the air, creating breathing issues and a potential fire hazard.
Next, you will need a plain background, which can be a tarp, a board, a sheet hung against a wall, or any other household or craft item that is large enough to fill the frame. Two popular color choices are black or white. Similar to the concept of a green screen, these clean backgrounds make it easier to capture the wispy smoke then manipulate the color during post-processing. Some photographers will argue that smoke pops most against a black background, but a white background will also yield interesting, beautiful results. Smoke art is a very subjective art form; experiment with both backgrounds before deciding on which you like best.
Since smoke is quick to fade and relatively translucent, a mirrorless DSLR camera with manual control over shutter speed and focus is the best camera to use. Keep a flash, strobe, and reflector on hand to play with lighting the smoke for varying intervals of time. A tripod is a helpful tool to stabilize the camera so that shaky hands don’t end up distorting the natural flow of smoke on film.
Anything that smokes, like a cigarette or a campfire, can be photographed, but the best sources of smoke for smoke art photography are those that are easily contained, that stem from a single point or small surface area, and that burn the longest. Incense and dry ice are the top choices for photographers of the medium, since they emit a steady stream of smoke for up to ten minutes.
Dry ice, which is simply compressed carbon dioxide, is an easy smoke to create and photograph. Beginners only need to introduce water to some dry ice and let the thick, fog-like smoke emerge. Equal parts spooky and surreal, the smoke from dry ice produces gorgeous imagery without risk of fire.
Incense sticks, however, are the most commonly-used sources of smoke. Incense sticks are both long-burning and easy to manipulate; you can place several sticks in one holder for a thicker tendril of smoke, or place multiple individual sticks across your background to create interesting layers and effects. Just remember to keep an ashtray nearby to collect the burned remains.
Darkness is an important part of smoke art photography, but light plays a huge role, too. While a single spotlight in an otherwise darkened area ensures a proper capture, there are no rules against introducing different light sources into the equation. Once you’re comfortable with photographing smoke, try playing with various levels and directions of ambient light in the form of reflectors, flashlights, strobe lights, or even traditional flashes. The built-in camera flash will most likely overexpose the smoke (meaning the smoke will disappear into the brightness of the image). If you’re struggling with losing the subject in the background, try placing reflectors in a triangle around the source of smoke; you might be able to bounce enough light around to get a really interesting image.
Once you have gathered all your components, place the camera seven feet from the background, and set the source of smoke in the middle. Look through the viewfinder of your DSLR and position the center of the lens a few inches above the edge of your source of smoke (so, if you’re lighting incense, a few inches above the top of the tip). The unpredictability of smoke renders the autofocus button useless; opt to manually focus instead. Locate the manual button, usually abbreviated as MF, and gently twist the ring of your lens until the subject is clear.
Set your ISO, which controls brightness, to low to avoid grainy or blown-out imagery. Since smoke moves quickly, set your shutter speed to as fast as your camera will allow in order to document each small motion. A smaller aperture is also helpful in maximizing the camera’s capture of the ever-changing smoke. These three settings minimize the amount of light that enters through the camera’s sensor, however, so you will need to play around with the level of additional light to make sure the smoke appears on film.
Smoke art photography relies heavily on trial and error; your primary goal is to underexpose the background while properly exposing smoke (easier said than done!). Don’t be discouraged if it takes several dozen test shots and seemingly endless adjustments to photograph one clear, well-lit, and interesting tendril of smoke.
Unedited smoke art photography is interesting and unique on its own, but a world of possibility emerges when you import those raw images into photo editing software. Photoshop is the best option since it features a comprehensive list of tools to fine tune details and bring your vision to life. Adjusting brightness and contrast allows the smoke to pop against the background, while the brush and blend modes can help refine tiny details. It is also possible to create a new layer on top of your edits to experiment with transformation tools, like flipping an image horizontally to create a mirrored effect.
Smoke art photography is truly a medium which pushes the boundaries of possibility. Between the wispy, wavering nature of smoke and the starkness of setting a subject against a blank background, there is boundless opportunity to flex your creativity, starting with just a small flame.
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