Smoke Photography

Smoke Phototography

This article is written for those who participated in the table top workshop and wanted instruction on how to do smoke photography.


The Hollywood actors and actresses made smoking glamorous.  Audrey Hepburn with her elongated cigarette holders and elbow length gloves looked particularly attractive.  Unfortunately smoking is not good for your health.  The photographers however were apt at capturing the artistic curves of the smoke flickering around the actors faces.  This era of glamour is part of the inspiration for me to try smoke photography.


The concept is simple.  We want to isolate the smoke so that it makes a striking image.  We want bright smoke against a black background.  The smoke actually has quite sharp edges and subtle tones and textures.  Unfortunately it moves quickly and all of this detail can be lost.  The short answer is we need a strong flash.  The flash will freeze the motion of the smoke and give it strong contrast against the background.

The background I selected was a black velvet.  This absorbs most of the ambient light .  It is important to move it sufficiently back from the smoke, so that you don’t end up with the texture of the cloth in sharp focus.

I used incense as my smoke source.  I have also used candles, after I snuffed the flame.  Unfortunately the smoking tends to burn and shorten the wick.  This makes it hard to subsequently light the candle.  The smoke is very sensitive to air movements in the room.  You may need to close doors and windows to control excess turbulence.  You might find the smoke is easier to control when it is on the leeward side of a windbreak.

Refer to the camera clips article on controlling the off camera flash.  It is just not going to work with on camera flash, or with external lights.  For those who have a Nikon camera, I use the Nikon Flash control system.  The camera is set to commander mode (TTL) with the on camera flash triggering the flash, but not contributing to the lighting of the smoke.  For those who have cables or radio frequency flash controllers, these will work perfectly well.  I find that this exercise uses a lot of flash power and the batteries become exhausted quickly.


The camera settings I use are full manual exposure, ISO 200, f 16 and s1/250.  The “through the lens” metering (TTL) setting of the flash will ensure a good exposure regardless of my manual settings.

I use manual focus so that the camera is not seeking for a focal point as the smoke drifts in and out of the view finder.  I might focus on a pencil in the plane of focus that I expect the smoke to be drifting through.  Then I switch to manual to lock in this setting.

It is important to control stray light.  If the flash shines on the backdrop it may end up quite bright and compete with the smoke.  If the flash shines on the lens you will get flare patterns like white rain drops in your image.  I often use small black cards on either side of the flash to prevent stray light from falling where it shouldn’t.  A snoot is the name of the light modifier designed for this purpose.

Post processing can be used to tidy up the image.  I do some contrast enhancement with curves, some sharpening.  Clarification filters are quite useful to strengthen lines in the pattern.  Occasionally the smoke may have brown of blue colours in different parts.  This can be enhanced by turning up the saturation.

It is interesting how the smoke folds over itself .  The negative image is often quite striking and shows the details in another light.  I was struck that the curves used extensively in Art Nouveau design are very similar to the shape of curves in the smoke pattern.

Rolling Smoke 1.jpg

I hope that is enough information for you to have a crack at it.  Best of luck.