How would you like to learn a little “photo magic?” A magician not wanting to reveal his secrets might tell you his trick was all done with “smoke and mirrors.” The expression speaks of a kind of deception used to fool the viewer. No fooling here though, as you’ll learn the technique. You really will photograph smoke and later, mirror your image to add even more interest. So it really is smoke and mirrors. Shall we begin?
Tools for the trick
Here’s what you will need to create your photo:
Most cameras will work for this kind of photography. Being able to use manual control and manual focus will make things easier. You will also need to be able to fire a flash mounted off-camera using either a wired or wireless method. A lens which will allow you to focus on an object a few feet away will be best. The shots shown here were done with the Canon “nifty fifty”, a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens mounted on a Canon 50D camera. For a relatively inexpensive lens, it is very sharp.
You will want an external flash you can mount off-camera. The pop-up flash on the camera won’t work for this. You will be mounting the flash off to the side of your shot so it illuminates the column of smoke pointing perpendicular to the direction you’re pointing the camera. Having a light stand on which you can mount it will be helpful. You also don’t want any of the light to hit the background or flare into the camera, so a snoot which will direct the beam of the flash at the smoke column works well. You may also be able to fashion a “barn-door” arrangement with cardboard (or even tape). Whatever works to keep the light only on what you want – the smoke column.
The flash will provide plenty of light and also freeze the action, so you really aren’t concerned about motion blur. The advantage of a tripod is simply to help you compose and frame the shot and provide some consistency. If you don’t have a tripod or simply prefer to handhold your camera, that’s okay too.
To better see the smoke and also give you more flexibility later in editing, a black or very dark background will work best. Black posterboard, black cloth, the black side of a reflector, or whatever you have should work. Because the column of smoke you’ll be photographing will be relatively small, you won’t need anything very large.
Incense, the kind that comes in stick form, works very well for this kind of smoke photography. It’s cheap, burns for a long time, and produces just the kind of smoke needed.
Unless you have an absolutely calm day with no wind, shooting outdoors probably isn’t going to work. Even the slightest air currents will affect your smoke pattern. Shooting indoors, particularly in a modern home, might be a good way to test your smoke detectors but having the alarm go off just as you’re getting started with your work is rather disruptive. I found shooting in the garage to be a good option. It was dark, the air was still, and after the session, it was easy to open the door and clear the smoke. Just be aware of the requirements needed; still air, no smoke detectors, (or at least temporarily disarmed ones), the ability to make the room dark, and a door or window you can open afterward to clear the smoke afterward, and you’ll be set.
The diagram above shows a basic setup. Put your camera on a tripod a couple of feet from where you will place the incense stick. Taping the stick to light stand may allow you more flexibility in positioning it in the frame, but whatever you use, you will want to frame the shot so you put just the tip of the stick at the bottom of the frame, leaving a couple of feet above for the column of smoke. Whether you use a portrait or landscape orientation with your camera is up to you, just remember the smoke will drift around. Being a little loose with the framing isn’t a bad idea, you can always crop later.
The background should be a couple of feet behind the incense stick. If you light properly, it won’t show anyway so this isn’t crucial.
Position the flash on a light stand so it’s to the side of the camera and points perpendicularly to the camera angle. You will be side-lighting the smoke. Some photographers also put a reflector on the opposite side to bounce a little light on the other side of the smoke. You can experiment and see if you like that. The shots here use only the one flash. As mentioned above, what is crucial is that no light fall on the background nor flare into the camera lens. A snoot is the easiest means of achieving this.
Camera and flash settings
In the darkened room where you’re working, use a flashlight or other dim lighting so you can still see the incense stick and do your framing. Focus on the tip of the stick, then turn off the autofocus so the focus stays locked. Leaving on autofocus will almost guarantee frustration, as while shooting, the camera lens may hunt, trying to find and focus on the drifting smoke.
Shoot in Raw mode, (which you usually do, yes?) Doing so will allow greater editing flexibility later.
Set your camera around ISO 200, f/8 and about 1/60th of a second for starters.
Leave the flash off.
Make a shot before lighting the incense in the darkened room.
You should get a totally black frame and that’s what you want with no flash.
Now put the flash in manual mode and set it to about half power. You should have already connected it to the camera with a cord or perhaps set up a radio trigger so it will fire when the shutter is tripped.
Make a shot with the flash on and you should be able to just see the tip incense stick. If so, you’re now ready to get smokin’.
Making your photos
Light the incense stick, blow out the flame and a thin column of smoke will rise from the tip.
Make a shot and check it. Is it focused?
Be sure, as you don’t want to make a whole series only to later find out they aren’t sharp. If you need to adjust your focus or perhaps go to a smaller f/stop for more depth of field, do so now.
Also, check the exposure. If things are too bright, drop the flash power or reduce the ISO. If the smoke is too dim, do the opposite. You want to clearly see the smoke, but nothing else.
If all looks good, keep making shots. Occasionally wave your hand near the smoke column or gently blow on it to vary the smoke pattern. You will want some variety so you can later choose your favorite shots.
What program you want to edit with is up to you. You will want to adjust the blacks so as to leave only the white smoke details. Then adjust the whites, highlights, shadows, exposure, and contrast by eye, tuning the shot to your liking.
If there are elements you wish to eliminate, paint them out with a black adjustment brush or use layers and masks in Photoshop if that is your preferred technique.
Mirrors and colors and abstracts, oh my!
You got the smoke, now what about the mirrors? Yes, the white smoke patterns on a black background are interesting but you can take this much further. I used Corel Paintshop Pro, but Photoshop would work too. Or for that matter, any photo editor that supports layers will work. (Keep in mind Lightroom does not support layers so while you can edit, colorize, and do other things with it, the mirroring part is beyond its capabilities).
Here are the basic steps:
- Open in your basic edited smoke image. Select the entire image and copy it.
- Paste the copied image on top of itself as a new layer.
- Mirror (flip) the upper layer horizontally or vertically. (In Photoshop, Edit, Transform, and Flip Horizontally or Vertically).
- Change the blending mode on the upper layer to Lighten. You will now see the upper layer mirrored and superimposed over the lower layer and some interesting patterns will be created.
You can move the layers so they overlap each other in various ways and change the pattern. You might want to make the canvas larger and put the mirrored image next to itself or even have multiple layers with the image flipped both horizontally and vertically.
You’ve now entered the realm of abstract art and anything goes.
Maybe you’d like to add some color?
Create another layer at the top of the stack and fill it with a gradient. Now use the Overlay or Soft Light blending mode and watch your smoke take on the colors of the gradient.
If you’d like to hand-paint the smoke, create a blank layer at the top. Turn the blending mode to Overlay, and using the Brush tool (and a color of your choice) to paint the smoke, watching the white smoke take on that color while the black is left untouched.
Try putting a photo on the upper layer and switching the blending mode on that layer to Overlay.
Something I find fascinating with these abstract smoke compositions is that they resemble Rorschach InkBlots. Everyone interprets them differently and can see different images in what are, after all, just random patterns of drifting smoke. The titles on these shots are what I interpret.
What do you see?
Smoke in other photos
You may have reasons to want to include smoke in your photos that is not an abstract interpretation. The same basic technique can work with side lighting.
The “Smokin’ Hot Peppers” was lit with two flashes, one on either side of the vase and an incense stick placed in and behind the peppers in the vase.
Here’s one last trick that could work for you when you want something that looks like smoke but you’re in a no-smoking workspace.
Get some dental floss, fray it a bit, and tie it to a penlight or small flashlight letting the light shine down the length of the floss and onto your subject.
Now make a long exposure during which you keep the floss constantly moving. Smokeless smoke, just another option to have in your bag of photo tricks.
You’ll find that photographing smoke is all about the lighting. Side or backlighting will work best and a dark background helps the smoke show up better. Beyond that, it’s simply a matter of experimenting.
Give it a try and make a little photo magic. And share with us in the comments below!
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