Like most uncontrollable subjects, smoke can be difficult to master and capture in a photograph. Smoke has a mind of its own, and its environment changes its behavior immensely. But the effort that goes into these kind of photos is worthwhile when the conditions all come together and you get an exciting image.
Smoke is very three-dimensional. It tends to drift upward, and depending on the breeze, left to right as well as forward and backward. It also expands. Because you are photographing a moving target, you need a somewhat fast shutter speed (around 1/250 of a second) and a somewhat wide depth of field (around f/8) so that all the smoke stays in focus. You also should keep your ISO as low as possible to keep detail in wisps of smoke.
Lighting off camera
In general, it’s difficult to photograph smoke using natural light. This is because it is best seen with a backlight. That’s not to say it can’t be done—sometimes the lighting works in your favor. Most of the time, though, you will backlight the smoke yourself with a speedlight.
Position the light camera-left or camera-right, with the light pointing back toward the camera, as shown in the illustration below. If you can get the angle right, the light will not be in the frame and you won’t get a flare from the flash. You can use a snoot or some sort of gobo to block the light from hitting the camera or your backdrop. Aim it right toward the smoke. Adjust the flash settings based on the distance, your camera settings and how much smoke you are working with.
Moving, translucent smoke can be difficult to focus on. The camera can struggle to find contrast areas to work with. For this reason, it’s easiest to prefocus it manually and to turn the autofocus off. Since your focus is locked, using a tripod so your focusing distance doesn’t change is a good idea.
Environment and safety
If you are working indoors, it is, of course, very important to keep your room well ventilated. However, ventilation also causes the smoke to move, which makes taking its photograph harder. It may take some patience working in a smoky room for a minute or two and then clearing out the smoke and trying again. Keeping windows and doors closed will help you control the smoke’s movement. Opening them periodically will help you stay healthy!
Of course, when something is burning, there is a fire hazard. Make sure that you don’t have flammable objects nearby and that you keep a fire extinguisher handy.
Many people practice smoke photography with incense sticks. They are fairly safe to use indoors and give off a nice, constant smoke. This is a great place to start if you want to begin experimenting with smoke photography. For weddings and event photography, it is popular for some of our clients to have celebratory cigars. The same principles apply here with the settings and the backlight. If you or someone you know smokes cigarettes, those work the same way with a little less smoke.
The techniques for photographing smoke work in other situations as well. I use these methods for photographing brides getting hairsprayed. The mist of hair product looks and acts a lot like smoke. You can also replicate the look of smoke using dry ice or a fog machine. This can be fun for a more cinematic look, like you would see in a dramatic scene in a scary movie.
With some practice, you can add a new layer of awesome to your photography. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.