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Catch the Smoke

Photographing smoke can be simple and funny in spite of everything you think. Trying to catch moving smoke is all about your patience and creative mind. Following the next easy steps of the photo tutorial will give you amazing professional low cost homemade shots.

Idea and Equipment

Every beginner wants their photographs looks amazing and professional made. However professional stuff as external flash or studio lightning are very expensive. So there is always another way to make photos you want, just finding some as-a-pro-tricks. I promised to be simple so it will be and the equipment. All you need are 5-6 things that you can find at home or buy them for under 30$. Follow the list below and enjoy:

  • A camera with a manual mode “M” to take control over all settings as aperture, shutter speed an ISO
  • A tripod is essential, even shutter speed isn’t slow. It helps you not holding all the time you camera but experimenting with the smoke.
  • Two sources of light – you can use reading lamps (I prefer one garden lamp and one reading lamp, because light is stronger). You should choose a source light as strong as you can because you need low ISO and fast shutter speed.
  • The most important thing – a source of smoke. I recommend incense sticks because of their dense smoke. Flavor of your choice.
  • Black background – I use paper, but even a black T-shirt works for you.
  • Two old shoes-boxes, two pieces of cardboard and tape, I use boxes of wineglasses (later why you need this stuff)
  • A little patience and imagination are essential !

At the beginning of shooting you may think that you really can’t cope with this, but you just need some practice to get use to the constantly changing smoke. Don’t give up on the first photo.

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Camera settings for great results

First you should turn camera to “M”- manual mode to be sure that you have full control over settings. Keep in mind some essential tips to take images you want as a result :

  • Keep ISO values low (100-200) to avoid grainy photos at the end. They may look ideal on the LCD screen of the camera but seeing them on the computer may be a complete disappointment.
  • Shutter speed – should be fast enough to freeze the motion of smoke. I recommend 1/200 and up, depends on how strong is the light. Feel free to try to understand what suits you best.
  • An extra trick for shutter speed – shoot in a small room ( even bathroom is ok ) and make sure that all doors and windows are closed. So that you prevent hassle of air and the room will get warmer– the result is almost still smoke. It’s all about physics!
  • Aperture – better to be wide (around f8-f9) because you don’t need a shallow depth of field.
  • Another advice of mine is to set white balance to Lamp – to avoid yellow color of shots. However you may want to achieve some interesting results by experimenting with White Balance.

As mentioned nothing is difficult. Now, how to setup all these things to catch the moment.

Shoot it !

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Photo Tutorial Setup

The whole setup can be arranged just for six to ten minutes even if you haven’t done it before. The only trick here is to put barriers (I use pieces of cardboard) between the lamps and the black background, so as not to illuminate it. Keeping the black behind helps in post-processing work after. Another important note is to make sure that whole the light is pointed to the smoke itself. The rest of the setup can be seen in the picture below.

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Setting up the scene

Set the camera to continues shooting, because every minute smoke changes shapes and every shape is a unique. Be careful with focus – it can shift at any time. You should keep as much as you can sharp. There are two options :

  •   With tripod
  •   .. and without tripod

On the one hand shooting with tripod will be easier to navigate the light to control the exposure. On the other hand for taking photographs of smoke is essential to choose high shutter speed, so you can not use a tripod. So if not using it, you can be more mobile – to crop parts of the smoke you like most and to change point of view easily. If not sure about tripod, try both ways.

Important note is to keep shooting and not giving up after 15 photos. Sometimes it takes time to set the proper exposure, to catch the right shape of the smoke, so be patient. The more photos you have, the more you increase the chance of at least one good picture.

A lot of efforts are about to catch beautiful shapes and to lighten them well. The most difficult thing in the scene is to keep the light on the smoke properly. There were some tricks mentioned above about light setup, but I would like to generalize all the things that should be remembered:

  • The stronger the light is, the crisper photos will be;
  • Close windows and doors to avoid disperse smoke;
  • Warm up ! – for slow movements of the smoke;
  • Choose incense stick, not a cigarette (Smoking kills!);
  • Keep the proper focus all the time – you can close up or get further in the name of the great photos;
  • Most important – be patient and have fun !

Processing the pictures

I do not prefer processing photos a lot. Nevertheless shooting smoke can be assigned to abstract photography and noboy can criticize the pictures are like portraits or landscapes. So, let the inner feeling and imagination.

There are two main ways of processing:

  • Black background and white or grey smoke
  • White background and smoke in any color

The first one is more basic version, whilst the second is more a matter of taste.

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There is nothing special about the photos with white smoke, so I’ll show how to make it colorful only for four minutes in Photoshop.

Open one photo in Photoshop and copy the layer. Make sure the background is as black as it can be. If not, use from the Drop down menu – Image / Adjustments / Levels. Once finished, decide what will be the background. If it will be white, you should choose Image / Adjustments / Invert (Ctrl+I) – and that is all about making white background and black smoke.

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Want a colorful smoke ( both on black or white background) ? Just make other new layer and choose gradient tool to fill the layer with. Then go to Layers and make this one Overlay the other layers (from Drop-down menu). You can crop if you want and that is all.

Now you can make amazing homemade low cost photos of smoke. Get started! Below you can find some of my last shots on the topic.

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If you liked the tutorial, you can find out more “How-To” articles on Take Photos section


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