Smoke art is a photographic technique that lies between pure art and abstract photography. It can help beginner photographers understand a thing or two about artificial lighting and how it affects a photograph.
This photographic style uses the fading effect of smoke. It’s fascinating, especially if you’re looking to produce something different from the usual. If you want to have fun learning something similar, I’ve recently posted a guide about smoke bomb photography. But, smoke art is more about the abstract forms you can create with smoke.
In photography, the smoke element offers a wide range of creative options, and it’s often a source of great learning. I’m going to introduce you to smoke art, and in this article, we’re going to see what’s needed to include some cool smoke effect in your photos and what are the best ways to do so. And I’m also going to show you some great examples along the way.
So let’s begin.
What is Smoke Art
The goal of smoke art photography is to capture stunning photographs using smoke as the main subject. It is a form of art that holds the attention of those interested in intricate and mysterious visuals.
Formless smoke flies through the air like a ghost, and by creating abstract images with it, photographers can convey that sense of a nonpermanent and random state that captures the viewer’s attention.
Smoke can take on varying intricate forms and sizes. With the fiery filaments connecting and the countless unusual little patterns spiraling in many ways, it is pretty much impossible to recreate twice the same smoke art photograph.
This technique’s uncertainty and waiting for the right moment to capture an almost impossible photo to visualize beforehand attract many photographers to this genre.
Video Tutorial: Smoke Art
Before we move ahead, if you prefer to watch a video instead of reading, this section is for you.
Sometimes I like to include in my articles cool and interesting videos related to the topic. Yesterday, I watched this smoke art photography tutorial by professional photographer Kit Fanner, and I thought you might find it interesting and useful.
I’ve also included timestamps below so you can skip ahead to the video section you want.
- 00:48 – Equipment
Don’t forget to scroll down in the article for the links to my recommended equipment.
- 03:38 – Camera Settings
- 04:53 – Setting up the scene
- 05:52 – Flashgun trick
- 06:24 – Lighting
- 08:23 – Shooting
- 11:28 – Post processing
Smoke Art Equipment
In smoke art photography you’ll focus on capturing intricate details for which specific camera and lighting equipment is necessary.
The most critical piece of equipment needed is a DSLR or mirrorless camera. You will need to control many settings, such as focus, aperture, and shutter speed, but it’s not necessary to break the bank and buy a professional camera.
In fact, an APS-C sensor camera like the Canon EOS Rebel T7 is what you need and it already comes with an 18-55mm lens. It’s selling on Amazon for an unbelievable price right now, and if I were to buy a new budget camera this is the one I’d get.
- Camera Sensor: APS-C 24.1 Megapixels. Great for smoke art.
- ISO: 100-6400
- Autofocus System: 9-Point AF
- Comes With Kit Lens 18-55mm EF-S Mount
- Great Low Light Performance
- User friendly
Even though a kit lens will take you far in your photography journey, if it’s not enough for you and you want to upgrade I’ve got something here. For smoke art you can get a macro lens, the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro is excellent for this task.
- Max Aperture: f/2.8 for shallow depth of field
- Focal Length: 60mm
- Focusing Distance: 0.65feet (closest)
- Autofocus: Silent UltraSonic Motor (USM)
- Zoomable: no
Source of Smoke – Incense sticks
Incense sticks are perfect for creating smoke without the danger of causing a fire. Additionally, the pleasant smell is a much better alternative to other types of smoke like smoke grenades.
A plain black background is a must to be able to capture photographs of smoke.
It reduces light bouncing off, giving you sharper and better shots. Additionally, post-processing on Photoshop is also made uncomplicated with a pitch-black background, saving you a great deal of time.
A portable light is a must-have in smoke art photography since you have to illuminate the smoke for long enough to focus and capture a photo. A small torch or lamp may be enough for this purpose.
You can use your iPhone’s torch or you can get a Lume Cube to have more control over the brightness levels and more quality of light. With the Lume Cube you can also create colored lights thanks to the included gels.
|Lume Cube 2.0 Portable Lighting Kit | 16-Piece Accessory Bundle | for Photo and Video, Content...||$189.00||Find it on Amazon|
While using a tripod is not a rule, having one eliminates the shaky shots and the chance of losing a great photo due to image blur. You can check these amazing tripods under $200 I’ve reviewed.
Reflectors are not a must either. But they allow for a lot more light to hit the smoke, leading to some special effects.
Finally, ensure that your room is well-ventilated. Smoke can fill up space in a few minutes, and the more smoke there is in the room, the lower the quality of the photograph. Airing the room out from time to time works wonders.
Lighting in Smoke Art Photography
As I said, having a black background will help to get the perfect smoke art photo.
But you need to pay close attention to lighting.
Lighting can make or break smoke art photography. If you don’t correctly set up your lights, viewers might not perceive smoke by itself. However, it is possible to diffuse various hues with appropriate lighting and allow a sense of character to the smoke.
Place the source of light from the side or underneath. If you place it towards the front, it may cause the black background to get washed out, leading to suboptimal photos. You can also use a table lamp for lighting since it is easy to move and can be adjusted quickly.
Using the camera flash with synch cable, while not always recommended, can sometimes work very well and highlight the smoke appropriately.
Don’t forget to use a shutter release if you want the perfect setup. It will allow you to position your camera and take off your hands from it.
How to Do Smoke Art
Setting Up the Shot
Set up the equipment in such a way as to avoid all the light from reaching the camera lens or black background. Ensure that the background up in one section of the room. You must have enough space to walk around and make adjustments if necessary.
Place the incense sticks about 3 or 4 feet away from the black background. The off-camera flash can be placed around 2 or 3 feet to the right or left of the incense sticks.
If you are using a reflector, it must place it on the side opposite the flash, and you have to point it to the sticks. Place the camera on a tripod 2 or 3 feet away and in front of the incense sticks.
The final part of the set up involves avoiding glare in your photos. Once you fire the flash, ensure that no light reaches the lens. If there is any glare, find where the light is coming from and adjust all the equipment’s positions as you need.
Post-Processing Smoke Art Photos
Once you have captured your photographs, you’re ready for post-processing. In many scenarios, most of the photos you have taken will look similar in tone, and you will want to add some depth and color to the images.
Adobe Photoshop is the most popular photo editing tool, especially when it comes to smoke art photography. Photoshop has a multitude of useful tools that can help highlight the smoke. A few simple steps can go a long way in adding character to your photos.
Start With Lightroom
Here’s what to do. Process the RAW file in Lightroom. I use it to make the essential adjustments to the contrast, curves, and color tones. Using Lightroom, you will take advantage of all the RAW file’s capabilities and the entire color gamut.
Then jump to Photoshop.
Create a duplicate backup layer to start over in case you make mistakes during the process or are unhappy with the results. Then you can highlight hidden blemishes and remove them. Add color to the images by adjusting the hue/saturation. Optionally, you may even change the background color to white for some variety, even though I rarely do it.
These simple steps can help elevate the quality of your photos and make them look stunning.
Smoke Art Ideas and Examples
Here are some ideas and examples for your inspiration from artists on 500px.com.
Purple Smoke by Sanford Tullis
- Camera: Canon EOS 7D
- Lens: Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM
- Settings: 109mm f/9 1/10s ISO 100
Match Flame Art by Hamza Sheikh
- Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
- Lens: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
- Settings: 70mm f/3.5 1/8000s ISO 100
Smoke Trail by Alexandru Stoian
- Camera: Nikon D7100
- Lens: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G
- Settings: 50mm f/8 1/250s ISO 800
Smoke by Darren Greaves
- Camera: Nikon D700
- Lens: Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED
- Settings: 85mm f/20 1/100s ISO 200
Smoke Ram-Purple and White on Black by Steve Stephenson
- Camera: Canon EOS 6D
- Lens: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
- Settings: 100mm f/14 1/100s ISO 250
You can also check Pinterest for more examples of smoke art photos here.
Smoke Art | Conclusion
Producing smoke art photography means knowing what gear to use and the possible actions needed to deliver these artistic compositions.
By now, you’ve become an expert on how to “manipulate” smoke to create unique effects and take great pictures to show your friends. This medium could become the primary artistic expression of many photographers.
I love to have fun experimenting with creative photography techniques when stuck or in a rut. What about you? Have you ever experimented with smoke art photography? What type of smoke photos are you going to take?
Let me know by leaving a comment down below.
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Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.