If you’re truly committed to and passionate about digital photography, then you should always be able to find interesting subject matter. Some of the best are common objects in your home or natural phenomenon that too many of us take for granted. One of these is smoke. It seems to exist, but only briefly; and when visible exhibits a fundamental concept of all life: both chaos and order. Smoke rings and other temporary shapes it takes can be very geometric, or orderly. Smoke can also appear chaotic, without any pattern to its shape or movement. If you are patient with your camera, however, then occasionally the randomness of smoke will “organize” itself into the suggestion of a familiar form or shape, which will only last an instant. That’s when you want to trip the shutter.
Photographing smoke is not particularly difficult and doesn’t require any more than your camera, flash and rather common objects. It’s important that your camera has a manual exposure mode, so you can select shutter speed, aperture and ISO. You also want to maintain control of the zoom function of the lens. You’ll use a flash unit off camera, so it must be able to operate independent of the hot shoe. Control of the flash will be with a wireless remote device or cable. To create even light around the smoke trail, you’ll also need a reflector. It’s best to use a tripod to steady your camera, and a black background, either a board or drop.
Since photographing smoke is an indoor project, you don’t want an actual open flame as the source of the smoke. Incense is your best choice because the tip just smolders. Plus, an incense stick or cone produces a substantial, steady column of smoke and it smells much nicer than other substance you could burn. For safety purposes, use an appropriate incense burner and a large fireproof plate on which to set it. You should also pick a room or space that is ventilated. Incense will cloud the entire room with a haze that could distract from your smoke photos. With a well-ventilated room, the air space around the smoke is kept clean and the background will remain dark, or black.
To create your little smoke photo studio, use a small tabletop or other surface for the incense container. Position the dark background approximately 3 to 5 feet behind it. Your lighting set-up is easy: Place the off-camera flash unit 2 to 3 feet to the right or left of where the smoke will rise from the incense. The reflector is positioned 180 degrees to the flash, on the opposite side of the incense burner. Start with your camera and tripod approximately 2 to 4 feet in front of the smoke source. Don’t hesitate to try various set-ups, but the best will not allow light to illumination the background or cause lens flare.
Before you start creating smoke photos, you must select the correct settings on your camera and flash. As a newcomer to smoke photography, it’s best to shoot images with the movement of the smoke frozen; therefore, a fast shutter speed is required. Select a narrow aperture for more depth of field, so the three-dimensional nature of a smoke column is clear and totally in focus. You also want to select a low ISO number to eliminate any graininess, or digital noise. The combination of fast shutter speed, narrow aperture and low ISO means the flash should be set to full power.
Before beginning your smoke photography shoot, make sure any doors or windows are closed, so strong air currents don’t blow the smoke almost horizontal. Light one incense stick for thinner smoke trails, or use two for thicker or dual trails “dancing” around each other.
Disengage auto-focus and focus the lens manually. Your optimum focus point is approximately 1.5 to 2.0” above the burning end of the incense stick.
Try straightforward exposures first, with the background as dark as possible and the flash and reflector providing the right balance of light. Once you understand the process and see good results in your first images, you can then start to experiment with the position of your camera, in terms of distance and angles, and trying various techniques to direct or manipulate the smoke. Introduce a subtle bit of air movement, a breath from your mouth or movement of your hand. Position objects in the smoke column to cause it to split into separate trails or gather against the bottom of the object.
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Photo by Gary Belton's