Smoke Photography requires more or less the same setup as Water Photography (please see my previous post), the only difference is that it gives the photographer more control over the whole process, as it is not as fast paces as Water Splash Photography.
You will need a DSLR camera, a Macro Lens (provided you want to get really close to get as much details as possible, if not an ordinary kit lens should be enough), a speedlight (preferably mid to professional range such as Nikon SB-600, 700, 800 or 900), a TTL flash remote cord (again, the longer the better), a camera tripod, a remote shutter cord (not necessary but makes the whole process much easier), a source of smoke (we will discuss this later) and, most importantly, a great deal of patience.
Note again that if your camera’s built-in flash has a ‘Command’ mode and can be used to trigger the speedlight wirelessly, then you do not need the TTL Flash Remote Cord. In Nikon cameras go to ‘Menu’ then ‘Custom Settings Menu’ next ‘Bracketing/Flash’ and finally ‘Flash cntrl for build in flash’. If the ‘CMD’ mode is displayed set the following:
Build-in Flash: ‘–‘ (that means that only a brief pre-flash will fire but, due to small aperture and fast shutter speed, this will not affect exposure)
Group A: ‘M'(Manual) and the appropriate FP (flash power)
Then, switch your speedlight to ‘Remote’ and make sure that the group and channel displayed on your speedlight agree with the settings in your camera’s ‘CMD’ menu.
Place your camera on a tripod and compose your picture. Whether you choose portrait or landscape orientation remember that the smoke often changes direction unexpectedly. Therefore, it is advisable to step back to capture more space and always keep your smoke source in the centre of your image. Next, focus your camera on the tip of your smoke producing source (e.g. a match or an incense stick) and switch it to ‘Manual’. The reason for this is simple. Due to the nature of this sort of photography, limited light conditions and the movement and consistency of the smoke, your camera focus will simply not be able to focus automatically at all. Then, place your speedlight ether on the left, right or behind your object. Don’t attach it to your camera or place in front of it, shooting straight at the object, as you will lit the background against which you are shooting. Once you have found the best position for your strobe, switch it to ‘Manual’ and adjust the FP (Flash Power). The recommended power is usually 1/8 10 /16 but this depends mostly on the distance of the strobe from your object and the aperture. If you choose to trigger the speedlight wirelessly with your built-in flash, you will need to set the FP in your camera’s ‘CMD’ menu as explained above. Remember, you just want to fire enough light to lit the smoke but not enough to fill the room with light. By little experimentation you will be able to find the right position, distance and power to get the desired effect. Finally, connect your remote shutter cord and set your camera to ‘High Burst Mode’.
Then, switch your speedlight to ‘Remote’ and make sure that the group and channel displayed on your speedlight agree with the settings in your camera’s ‘CMD’ menu. However, if you choose to use your built-in flash in commander mode you will not be able to shoot in ‘High Burst’ which makes capturing the right moment more difficult.
Just as with Water Splash Photography, Smoke Photography also requires fast shutter speed and small apertures. The sample images above were shot with a typical shutter speed of 1/200 to 1/300s, aperture f/8 to f/10, ISO 800 and auto white balance.
So, set fire to your match and start shooting. If you are using matches, you will have to use the remote shutter cord and shoot in ‘High Burst Mode’ due to the fact that matches burn very fast. You can set fire to the a match and start shooting immediately in order to capture both the bursting flame and the smoke. Incense sticks, on the other hand, produce more constant smoke so you can get behind the camera and shoot whenever you notice the smoke forming interesting shapes. You can also slightly move your camera horizontally and vertically in order to follow the smoke. Remember, while moving your camera do not move it closer of further away from the smoke as your pictures will be out of focus. You can also gently blow some air towards the incense stick to disturb the smoke and create different shapes. It’s best to shoot this kind of photography against a black background in a dark room to bring the smoke out. Just keep a small desk lamp on in the distance to produce enough light for you to see the smoke but not enough for the camera to pick it up.
Editing is a big part of this kind of photography. In order to boost my pictures, I edited them in Abobe Lightroom 3 to work on the curve (especially important to darken the background) increase exposure (brings the smoke to life) and improve clarity. You can also invert the pictures in Photoshop to present the smoke against a white background and work on Hue and Saturation to bring out different colours or completely colorise your smoke. Also, if part of your smoke pattern was cut due to bad composition, you can always crop the image and mirror it to achieve different shapes. Anyway, simply let your imagination go!
For inspiration please visit the following Flickr groups:
Thanks for reading and good luck with your photography.
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