Smoke Photography – A how to guide

Recently after a load of ‘Smoke Photography’ images I said I would write a blog post of a guide to what I had done and how I had done it.  Below is an image of the whole set up and I will discuss this in detail.


My set up is possibly overkill but it’s kit that I own and use so why the heck not.  One of the most important parts (apart from the incense stick to make the smoke) is the black backdrop.  Creating the negative space behind the image enables use to be very flexible in post production.  All I use is a black piece of material bought from a fabric store and then tailored to hang from a backdrop stand kit.

The incense I have used is very cheap, 60 sticks for £1 at Poundland, and does the trick perfectly!

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I used my camera on a tripod, this isn’t essential as the settings used can make fast speed shooting very easy and dramatically reduce shake and blur. However I found it very useful for having a spare hand to manipulate the smoke.

A light source is very important, I used a Nikon SB700 speedlight but a simple desk lamp can be sufficient.  This was fired using a basic radio remote trigger.

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I used a reflector to balance out the light in the image, this isn’t needed but it’s what I wanted.

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The settings:

For my images I used the flashgun at 1/16th power and had the camera set to:


f 8

ISO 100

The f 8 helped to keep the depth of field enough to not get massively out of focus areas of the smoke.  Focussing can be a big issue, I framed the shot so the tip of the incense was just visible in the bottom of the viewfinder and manually focused on that.  Cropping this out in post is simple.

To take it a step up I added coloured filters to the flashgun to change the cast of the light.  This colours the smoke and gives us more possibilities when we edit.

The Editing:

The editing I’ve kept really simple for the most part where I’ve cropped out the tip of the incense stick, deepened the black and raised the shadows on the a tonal curve.  With a colour filter over the flashgun we can also adjust the hue to create entirely different sets of colours!  If we wanted to take it a step further we could invert the colours to make the background white, the smoke negative and adjust the hue.  Below are a couple of my examples…


Shooting a time-lapse

Set is key:

Set up your camera on a tripod and frame the shot you would like, just as if you were setting up for a single photograph.  Set the camera to Aperture Priority (A on a Nikon or Av on a Canon), this will mean the camera sets the shutter speed depending on the lighting conditions at the time, accounting for changes in light from cloud cover or other factors.  Choose a point in the frame to focus on, focus the camera and turn any AutoFocus functions ‘Off’, last thing we want is images with a disparity of focuses.  Finally ensure your camera is set to ‘Fine’ or ‘JPEG’, what! No RAW? That’s right, shoot JPEG.  With the final result being 30fps, the edited video is going to show 30 images every second! The file sizes for processing RAW files, combined with their short screen time, means that shooting RAW is an unnecessary approach.


The intervals:

For my examples I took a photograph once every 10 seconds for an hour, this will give us a total of 360 images from one hour of shooting and will make a nice smooth 30fps edit at the end.  For timing the intervals a lot of cameras come with an ‘Interval Shooting’ mode (most Nikons do), but if yours doesn’t have one it just means you will need to time and release the shutter every 10 seconds, laborious I know!  An alternative could be to tether your camera to a laptop where many programmes such as Lightroom enable you to shoot at intervals, this does start to depend on other factors though, like needing a fully charged laptop or one that’s going to last a full hour!

Creating the Time-lapse

So what we have so far is a ton of image but no time-lapse, so let’s build!  Different people have different approaches but this is how I do mine.  First every image has to be sharpened and secondly every image needs to be cropped to a ratio of 16:9.  16:9 because that’s a widescreen ratio which is the standard screen ratio of the vast majority of TV’s, Monitors and Screens.  Sharpening because we must always sharpen an image, but how do we do this to 360 images without wanting to pull our eyes out?  Again this is how I do it, open the folder with our images in Adobe Bridge, select all of them, then access File > Open in Camera Raw. 

Next we’re going to select all the images as in the second screenshot.  From here, while all images are selected, anything and everything we do will be applied to all of the images.  We also need to change our cropping ratio to 16:9 and apply the crop to an image. As we shot with a tripod, the parameters of every image are the same anyway so this will easily apply the crop to all 360 images.  Now simply save out the images to a destination of your choosing, keep the file name the same just for ease.  This may take some time depending on how fast your computer is.

Now it’s time to start building the actual time-lapse, a lot of what we’ve done until now has been essential ground work to help it succeed.  To build my time-lapse I’m going to use GoPro Studio which is a free software available from the GoPro website and I find that it works very well.  I’ve tried various softwares in the past, mostly video editing ones, and find them to just be too processor hungry and overly complicated for what we need.

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First we’re going to import the images to our project, followed by selecting the imported set, then ‘add clip to conversion list’, then hit ‘Convert’.  From here the software will convert all the images into a single video piece which operates at 29.97 Frames Per Second (fps).  From here ‘Proceed to Step 2’.

When in the edit step we’re not going to make any changes or faffing, this is just if you’re using GoPro studio to apply filters or type or any other video editing tools.  We’re simply going to drag our project on to the timeline and move on to Step 3.

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Step 3 is simple, give your time-lapse a name and a saving destination and voila! You have your time-lapse video.

As I said before, this is my approach, you might have your own.  Check out the video below, Happy shooting! 

Eastney Harbour Mouth

The Ghosts in an Image

One of the key importances of photography is its ability to show evidence that we were here.  Yes buildings could probably last longer but it is the photographs that document anthropological existence most extensively.  I’m quite a fan of long exposure images, the ability to capture time with what is both there and not there is still fascinating to me.

One of the first images to show a human being was captured in Paris by Louis Daguerre, one of the early pioneers of photography.  This was at a time when ‘film speeds’ were incredibly slow and the instantaneous photography we have become used to today was a long way away.  The reason this particular image is the first to contain a human is purely because of the gentleman stopping in the bottom left corner to have his shoes shined.  The reality is that this street would have been packed and bustling, yet all bar two of those people are mere invisible ghosts in this image.


To photograph long exposures in the day time can require special equipment and particular conditions.  However in a world of Photoshop we can create images that eliminate other people with just a few clicks turning the three images below in to the image beneath them.


But how?

The first step is to set up in a location and photograph multiple images of a scene, a tripod is highly recommended to keep the parameters the same in each image.  I also recommend using an interval setting on your camera, or simply control it yourself, either way you should shoot one image every ten seconds until you have a collection of around 20 images.  In this particular example I was in the process of shooting a timelapse so the composition contains 120 photographs! I don’t necessarily recommend this as if you’re computer isn’t up to it then you will struggle.  Next, using Photoshop, we simple go to File > Scripts > Statistics, as shown in the screenshot below. (You may not have this feature, it depends on the version of PS you have).

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In the next window we select Browse and load out images into the dialogue.  Ensure that the ‘Stack Mode’ at the top is set to ‘Median’ and click OK.  Depending on the specification of your machine, the number of images and their file type, this could take around 10 minutes to process.

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From here Photoshop identifies what’s different with each image and what’s the same then creates a median of the collection. Then, hey presto, you have an image with no people on show.


The Power of Filters

I love a good filter, whether it’s doing something fancy like extending your exposure or serving a purpose like a UV filter to protect the front element of your lens.  One of my particular favourite filters is a Circular Polar.  They serve a whole range of purposes which include helping to remove a shine from a surface like a glass cabinet (below) or to help pull some definition out in your landscape photographs.

The particular example, below, is from a recent and ongoing project photographing clouds but that’s a whole other series of posts.

You can buy ‘Polarising’ filters which serve the purpose of a Circular Polar filter when fully applied however I feel that the Circular variety allow for a lot more flexibility.  The image on the left of the above pair is an example of a Circular Polar filter being rotated to a position where it is not serving a purpose.  The clouds are softened and the blue of the sky is dulled slightly.

The example on the right of the above pair shows the filter fully rotated in to position.  The clouds are more defined and the blue is a lot richer. The image ‘pops’ a lot more.  The principle of a polarising filter could be compared to wearing a pair of sunglasses.  Next time you are outside on a sunny day, try taking your sunglasses off and on repeatedly while looking at some clouds.  You’ll notice a very similar affect to what we are doing here, but why do it?

In the image below I used a Circular Polar filter to add loads more drama to the sky while shooting this wedding.  The results are superb!Watermark-48

As with many filters, the type you buy is crucial! Although cheap filters can be desirable if you’re on a tight budget, you can never replicate the capabilities that can be obtained by a more expensive ‘branded’ filter.  I use a combination of Hoya and Cokin filters.  Hoya for ‘screw-in’ filters such as UVs or Circular Polars and then the Cokin square system for Neutral Density and a whole host of others to be covered in future posts!