Photographing smoke


Abstract photography is nothing new, and people constantly come up with new — or re-invent old — versions of photography techniques. One of the ones that is going like wild-fire (excuse the pun) around the interwebs at the moment is the art of photographing coloured smoke.

The trend started with the highly talented Graham Jefferey, of Sensitive Light fame, whose phenomenal photographs went around the world via blogs,

We’ve managed to talk to Graham, and find out how he does his smoke photos… 

Getting the smoke right

Before anything, Graham points out that there is no ‘right’ way to photograph smoke. His technique has developed over a long period of time, and Graham admits to learning and discovering new things every time he sets out to take the photos.

Smoke photo by Graham JeffereyThe two key secrets to smoke photography is inverting the image, and using gray smoke. Say what now? How does that work? Well, Graham explains: “It’s quite a simple technique, really. All you need to concentrate on when you are taking the photos themselves, is getting good images of the smoke. The colours are generated digitally at a later stage.”

To get the best possible smoke to work with, Graham uses simple incense sticks known as Joss sticks, which can be purchased from most Chinese supermarkets and in every Chinatown anywhere in the world. Alternatively, any reasonably large incense stick should do the trick.

Once you’ve got the smoke, the rest is all down to freezing the motion, and getting the lighting right. “In my opinion,” explains Graham, “the key technical factor is to adequately light the smoke so that it stands out from the background.”

Smoke photo by Graham JeffereyWhile smoke in itself can be an interesting subject matter, Graham points out that in his photos, the smoke itself isn’t the subject matter, it is merely the tool used to create unusual photographs: “I am not trying to create pictures of smoke; I am trying to create pictures by using smoke”. This approach means that you have full creative licence to do what you want to manipulate the smoke as much as necessary — the only thing you have to worry about is getting an impressive final result.

Lighting and exposure

The best way to get ‘cleanly’ lit smoke photos is to use a clean environment with controllable light. A studio would be ideal, but anywhere you can hang up a black background is perfectly usable. The most important thing when photographing smoke is getting enough light to freeze the motion of the smoke in mid-air. You can do this by using a lot of light (think direct sunlight falling through a window) or by using one or more flashes. When you’re photographing the smoke, you’ll want to make sure that no stray light hits the front of your camera lens (this will cause glare or solar-flare type effects), nor on your blackened background (because that will bring out definition in the background, which you don’t want either).

Smoke photo by Graham JeffereyWhen you are photographing, it is easiest to let the smoke rise on its own volition. Instead of trying to manipulate the incense stick, try wafting some motion into the air to disturb the even plume. Alternatively, you can try to create interesting shapes by making the plume turbulent: try introducing a ruler, an upturned spoon, or a sheet of paper into the plume to alter its shape and ‘feel’.

“I want clean lines and shapes”, Graham explains. To do this, he shoots with a lot of light at a small aperture (and thereby a deeper depth of field). “This is very much easier to do if the smoke is allowed to rise naturally.”

With the smaller aperture needed to capture the plumes of smoke properly, you obviously lose quite a bit of light. This is a problem, because in order to freeze the motion of the constantly-moving smoke, you need quite a fast shutter time. In practical terms, this means 1/250 or faster. Simultaneously, you can’t reduce the ISO value on your camera either, because the purile plumes of smokes would be ruined by significant amounts of noise. Needless to say, a coinciding need of low ISO, small apertures and high apertures means that you need a vast amount of light.

Smoke photo by Graham JeffereyPersonally, my best smoke photos were taken with a 2000W Bowen studio flash light with a humongous soft-box fitted on the front. I prefer this solution because the softbox gives even lighting, but it can be difficult to limit where the light goes, so the above-mentioned limitations of “no light on your background or camera lens” can get tricky. I find that if you put the soft box really close to the smoke, you can get excellent results. Having said that, my smoke photos aren’t nearly as good as Graham’s, and he uses a different approach: “For all practical purposes the light used to expose the image comes from one studio flash unit fitted with a snoot and placed at the side or behind the smoke. I realise that not everyone has one of these units, but an off camera flash gun fitted with or placed beside a baffle to protect the background from direct light works just as well.”

If you’re going to be working with external flashes anyway, you probably need to shoot in fully manual mode: Your internal light meter is unlikely to give you a lot of joy on this one. In addition, it’s absolutely vital to get it right. You’ll need to set your flash output and aperture so the brightest part of the smoke is almost completely white, but not quite. Overexposure means that you will lose detail, and the inverted image will have a lot of black in the smoke, which just looks unnatural. Under-exposure, on the other hand, will make it difficult to see the difference between the smoke and the background.

Once you’re taking photos, it’s worth keeping in mind that you need to keep the room well-ventilated. Not because the smoke will harm you (although it probably will, if you breathe in and get enough in your eyes, etc), but, as Graham puts it: “as the air fills up with the fog of dissipated smoke your pictures will be robbed of light, contrast and sharpness” — never mind your health, think of the photos!

Digital manipulation

Smoke photo by Graham JeffereyNow that you’ve captured the photos, it’s time to take it to your digital darkroom. Crop your image to a composition that works for you, and then use levels or curves to adjust the contrast of your photos. You’ll want to make sure that the background is completely black (hold the alt key while adjusting the black-point levels slider in Photoshop, it gives you a preview of what you’re actually doing), so it turns into a pure white when you invert the image.

Once you’re happy with the background, invert your image, and decide if you like the black or white background best — stick with whatever you prefer, but often the white backgrounded images have a lot higher impact. If you have stray smoke, dust, or details in the background you’re unhappy with, use a brush with the same colour as the background (i.e white or black) or clone tool to get rid of them.

To colourise the smoke, use the hue and saturation tool. You can apply the colour to the whole image in one go easily, because your pure white or black background will be unaffected by this tool (if it does make changes, then your background needs some work first). Alternatively, you can colorise part of the image, or use multiple colours, by making a selection of a part of the smoke, and use the ‘feather selection’ command to create a gradient. Using the Hue and Saturation tool now results in colorising parts of the smoke image only. Nifty, yes?

Some inspiration

Smoke photo by Graham JeffereyThe best place to go for some inspiration are Graham’s own images, available on his website. My personal favourites are these: -1- -2- -3-.

Apart from Graham, there are quite a few other people who have taken smoke photography under their wing. Myla Kent’s work (also inspired by Graham’s images) is worth a look, and there’s a Flickr group titled Artsmoke which takes the artform to a new level.

The only way you can get further, though, is to have a go yourself… What are you waiting for?

Article in co-operation with Graham Jefferey. All photographs © Graham Jefferey. To see the bigger versions, hit the Sensitive Light Smoke Gallery.