Before the rush

Before the rush
by evan-pak

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I have been trying to get images of smoke against a black background. Does anyone have any advice on the best way to do this and a good lens choice and lighting set up for the job?

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up vote 25 down vote accepted

Taking the pictures

  • Use a joss stick: there's plenty of smoke and it lasts a while. When the room gets smokey, open the windows to get rid of the smoke, which will increase contrast in your pictures.
  • I use a telephoto; it minimises the size of the backdrop needed.
  • Make sure the backdrop is black.
  • Use a flash camera left or right, and use a snoot to ensure the flash doesn't fall on the lens / backdrop. I used 2 cereal boxes to block the light
  • Use a desk lamp to light the smoke for autofocus.
  • Recommended camera settings to start: ISO 100/200, shutter speed 1/250, aperture f/8.
  • Don't use a tripod; the patterns in the smoke will move and a tripod will hinder you.
    • Alternatively, if you do use a tripod, just autofocus on the tip of the joss stick, switch to manual focus and crop the pictures later.

Post Processing

  • Use levels to make the background is completely black.
  • Use the healing brush tool to remove any stubborn non-black areas in the background.
  • Use a black brush to trim any unwanted areas of smoke.
  • Load a channel as selection (try all of them to see what's best)
    • Create a new layer from the selection, then fill white. After that you can paint colours or use a gradient

Links that i found useful:

P.S. I'm no expert, but the above seems to get decent pics:

Smoke 1

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Great tutorial and example. – ysap Sep 27 '11 at 17:35
Exactly what I was looking for for, thanks. – Paul Round Sep 28 '11 at 15:33
terrific sample! Did you do anything special to get the "hard" edges on the blue section of the smoke? – Stephen Lead Sep 29 '11 at 2:57
not much editing apart from the colours and levels and a slight crop, original here - – rapscalli Sep 29 '11 at 3:13

Like in many other technical situation, the key is the right lighting setup (the lens has a very small importance). You should flash the smoke from the side, making sure you don't illuminate the black background.

YouTube has many video tutorials on that (search "smoke photography"). Here's a random one.

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It depends how serious you want to get with it, but if you just want to try it, I recommend using an incense stick for the smoke source as it gives a constant stream, and shine a torch through the smoke at an angle.

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