Smoke Photography 101

Smoke Photography 101

Written by: Justin Tedford

Is the cold not your thing? In the winter months I tend to go dormant to shooting any photographs. Two years ago I decided to look into a few projects to occupy myself indoors for the long Iowa winter. I dove in to shooting water droplets and smoke.  You always have the same setup but two photographs are never the same! This time around I am going to show you my set up to photograph smoke and a few photographs from it.

Recommended Gear

  1. DSLR
  2. Lens ( I prefer to shoot with 100mm macro)
  3. Black Back Ground or Black Foam Core
  4. One Speed light
  5. Light stand
  6. Tripod
  7. Incense
  8. Flash/Umbrella holder

Photographing smoke is a fairly simple and rewarding shoot. Your images are never the same each time you set up and shoot. Thought it takes some time and space to shoot, it can be a fun thing to do on a cold winter’s day.

I first start off by setting up my flash on a Promaster LS-6 Light stand and use a Phottix  Varos II BG umbrella holder to place my flash on.  Secondly, I use one piece of black foam core as my background. Using a black background helps make your smoke pop in the final image.

Flash Settings

Flash is key in making the translucent smoke show up in your image. I recommend placing the flash to the left or right even with the smoke. When the flash fires it will shoot the light through the smoke making it appear in the image.

I fire the flash wirelessly in this situation with Nikon’s CLS system so I do not have to worry about cords since I work in a tighter space. You can use wireless trigger such as Pocket wizard or Phottix I set the power on my Speedlight to roughly 1/32 power in manual flash mode. We do not want too much power because it will cause your smoke to overexpose. On occasion I will place my flash roughly six inches from the smoke. Having a lower flash power reduces the chances of over exposing my image highlights in the smoke.

Camera Settings

My standard settings I usually use are:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/200th
  • Aperture: F/16
  • ISO: 100-200

I keep my shutter fast because smoke is constantly moving and it helps with the movement. Since smoke floats around it is very unpredictable, so I keep my apertures pretty small to achieve a greater depth of field for my images. I keep my ISO around 100-200 so I can keep the noise in the image down in case I want to make enlargements of my final images.

 I try to get my exposure right in camera as much as I can. I do very little post processing in my images; I use Lightroom 5 for 99% of my post processing needs. After my shoot I tend to adjust my shadows, highlights, contrast and clarity. On occasion I will go in and change the white balance which will allow for me to change the color of the smoke.  Out off all the things I tend to shoot this is where I do the least post processing. I may flip my images around on occasion to produce a different effect so the smoke may look like it is coming from the bottom up through the fame.

Please feel free to call Justin at 319-395-9121 or email with questions.

smoke 2 smoke1

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