Smoke art is a wonder of the imagination. Yes, it is an actual artistic technique that many photographers use. The whimsical movement of the smoke caught by the camera is captivating. When you think about photography, one might assume that it is about taking pictures. Of course, it is! But it’s also more than that.
Photography pushes the boundaries of what is realistic and what you see in a photo. I’m not saying that the camera is playing tricks with what you see. It is stated that it’s up to the photographer to showcase the beauty and wonder within the photo. There is so much meaning in a photo of smoke. It’s up to you to master the technique of it and blow the minds of your viewers.
Smoke art is a technique that is both pure art and abstract photography. Smoke art photography is an excellent way for any photographer to learn and build skills. Photographers can use smoke art to experiment with lighting and how it affects an image.
This photographic style uses the fading effect of smoke. You can get creative with your images and how you produce them. Cultivating something different will set you apart from the rest. Smoke art is more about the abstract forms you can create with smoke. There are so many other ideas and opportunities that you can learn about Smoke art. I recently posted a guide about smoke bomb photography that is similar and another fun way to wow.
Smoke is a beautiful element that 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. This article will discuss what smoke art is, how to create it, and what tools you will need to do so. I will also show you some great examples along the way.
What is Smoke Art
Smoke art photography is what the name suggests. This photography technique uses smoke as the main subject to capture stunning photographs. It is a form of art that holds the attention of those interested in intricate and mysterious visuals. Often, smoke isn’t the normal subject that is front and center. Think about situations in nature, like a wildfire or a natural disaster. A subject is a person or the object that the fire or smoke is affecting. In smoke photography, smoke gets to be the main focus and within a studio environment.
Formless smoke flies through the air like a ghost. It floats upwards into nothing but endlessness, conveying a sense of free spirit. Smoke can take on varying intricate forms and sizes. With the fiery filaments connecting and the countless unusual little patterns spiraling. It is impossible to recreate twice the same smoke art photograph.
Due to the uncertainty of the smoke, waiting for the right moment to snap that shot is exciting! You can’t guess or know what will come to fruition with this type of photography. Many photographers dabble in this genre for the sheer mystery of the subject. There are so many things in the world around us. So many things are such a mystery, but there is something about smoke art. There is almost this mid-evil, timeless feeling that one can have. It’s pretty incredible.
Video Tutorial: Smoke Art
Before we continue, I have included a fantastic video speaking about smoke photography. Professional Photographer Kit Fanner is front and center; it is pretty interesting. I hope you find it helpful.
I have included timestamps below to highlight some critical sections in the video. You can skip ahead or watch in its entirety.
- 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
Best Equipment for Smoke Art
I would go as far as to say that smoke photography is simple. It can be one of the most intuitive. There isn’t anything in photography that is “simple.” It is a profession or hobby that is a learned skill. You want to be sure that you have the right tools to go along. You will be capturing intricate detail, and preparation is key to your success.
The most critical piece of equipment needed is your camera. A DSLR mirrorless camera is a recommendation here. Because smoke is elusive and translucent, control is a must. You will need to manage the shutter speed by a manual setting. Some genres of photography might be best with a more robust, expensive camera. The most costly high-tech camera isn’t required.
You can find some pretty decent camera options that don’t break the bank.
An APS-C sensor camera like the Canon EOS Rebel T7 is a great option, and it already comes with an 18-55mm lens. It’s selling on Amazon for an unbelievable price right now.
- 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
As mentioned above, some cameras will come in a kit. A kit includes the camera, lens, SD card, and other items. Photography kits are fantastic and will take you far in your journey, but an upgrade is excellent too. For smoke art you a macro lens is perfect. The Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro is ideal 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
Smoke Art: Sources of the Smoke
I’m sure the first question that came to mind when you started reading this article was, “how can I make smoke?” The clear option is fire, right? That isn’t the only option. As stated before, this type of photography in an enclosed environment like a studio. Fire and indoors don’t mix, in most cases.
Some of the other options that work perfectly and are inexpensive are incense sticks and dry ice. You want a steady stream of smoke that lasts. These are your go-to.
Incense sticks are the most common tool. They burn for long periods, and you can control how much smoke you want. Creating layers with incense makes for an exciting image. Place several sticks in individual holders and start shooting. Watch the magic happen! Don’t forget the pleasant smell you will also experience.
Smoke grenades are another option for using smoke art, but the smell isn’t as pleasant. You also should use these outdoors.
Don’t forget about dry ice! Remember at Halloween when mom would make her witch’s brew? Dry ice was center stage, creating the smoky effect.
Mix water with the dry ice and let the thick smoke float. One note, don’t handle dry ice with your bare hands. Be sure you have thick rubber gloves on. The freezing temperature dry ice is at, touching with your bare hands will cause severe burns.
Background Options for Smoke Photography
Unlike nature photography, smoke art is best with a white or black background. In nature photography, trees, water, the sun are typical subjects in your image. In smoke art, a black or white background and the smoke is your muse.
It reduces light bouncing in your image, giving you a sharper, focused photo. Light is essential, don’t get me wrong. We will discuss light in a few minutes. The dark area ensures you will have proper capture of the smoke. Additionally, post-processing won’t be as time-consuming due to solid background.
A portable light is a must-have in smoke art photography. Illuminating the smoke and experimenting with different levels of light changes the outcome. Other types of light sources are also fun to experiment with as well. A small torch or lamp may be enough for this purpose.
You can use your iPhone flashlight, or you can get a Lume Cube. This cube gives you more control over the brightness levels and quality of light. With the Lume Cube, you can also create colored light thanks to the included gels. So exciting!
What about using the flash from your camera? This isn’t the best option as it can overexpose the smoke. It can make it disappear as the image will be too bright.
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While using a tripod is not a rule, having one eliminates shaky images. You don’t chance of losing a great photo due to image blur. You can check these fantastic tripods under $200 I’ve reviewed.
Reflectors are not a must either. It does allow for more light to hit the smoke, leading to some special effects. If you need to add more light, you can set reflectors in a triangle shape around the smoke. Doing so can bounce light around and give you an exciting image.
One vital aspect of smoke photography is to make sure you have good ventilation. Not only is this important for the quality of your images, but it’s also a safety concern. 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
Ambient light in smoke photography is as important as the smoke! Don’t forget the black background.
Lighting can make or break smoke art photography. If you don’t set up your lights in such a flattering way, viewers might not perceive smoke by itself. It is possible to diffuse various hues with appropriate lighting. This adds a sense of character to the smoke that can be wild!
Place the source of light from the side or underneath. Directing light towards the front may cause the black background to wash out. This will lead to suboptimal photos. You can also use a table lamp for lighting since it is easy to move.
Don’t forget to use a shutter release if you want the perfect setup. It will allow you to position your camera and prevent any shake from your hands. This is why a tripod is also helpful. Between the shutter release and a tripod, the chance of blurred photos is minimal.
Time to Shoot: Smoke Art
Now it’s time! It’s time to take everything we discussed and put it into action. Think about using some of the equipment suggested. Take time to set up your space and decide your source of the smoke. Come in with a plan to execute and will leave with some fantastic images. 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 scene ready to go in one section of the room. You must have enough space to walk around and make adjustments if necessary.
Place the incense sticks or whichever smoke source you choose about 3 or 4 feet away from the black background. The off-camera flash should be around 2 or 3 feet to the right or left of the incense sticks.
If you are using a reflector, place it on the side opposite of the flash. Be sure to point it towards 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 setup 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.
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. You will want to add some depth and color to the images to give them a more vibrate feel. Remember, this is the final stage. After this, your viewers get to see your work. You want to leave them with a captivated, wonderous thought. Give them something that makes them say, “Wow! These photos are amazing!”
Adobe Photoshop is the most popular photo editing tool out there. Many photographers use it, 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. Photoshop can be a little complicated when starting. It isn’t the most intuitive if you haven’t experienced post-processing software before. There are a ton of helpful tutorials online to help.
Start With Lightroom
Here’s what to do. Process the RAW file in Lightroom. This software works well to make adjustments to the contrast, curves, and color tones. Using Lightroom allows you to take advantage of all the RAW file capabilities.
Once completing the first stage of processing with Lightroom, move to Photoshop.
Create a duplicate backup layer to start over in case you make mistakes. Sometimes during this stage in processing, an edit to an image may not work well. That’s okay! That’s why a backup is always a great idea.
From here, you can highlight hidden blemishes and remove them. Add color to the images by adjusting the hue/saturation. You may even change the background color to white for some variety.
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
Aren’t you excited to get started! Smoke art is one of my favorite topics to talk about as it allows any photographer so much versatility. If there is a day, you don’t feel like being out in the world, stay in the studio. Grab some dry ice or incense, and let your creativity flow. You can manipulate and cultivate some incredible images with the simplest of tools.
Smoke art photography only requires essential and artistic ability to let the smoke flow. Let the camera do the rest.
By now, you’ve become an expert on how to “manipulate” smoke to create unique effects. This medium could become the primary artistic expression of many photographers.
I love to have fun experimenting with creative photography techniques. 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.