“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” ~ Ernst Haas
Why the smoke photography? It’s a fair question and I’ve been asked it in various ways. Mixed with that question are questions about how the photos are made. The answers to the questions are intertwined. The challenge for this post is to try and explain without getting overly technical and try to keep your attention at the same time. Actually that’s pretty much the same challenge with every blog post I write.
Before I say anything about what’s involved with making smoke photographs, I want to say a little about the end result. Create something visually stimulating. If the image isn’t visually stimulating then I’ve missed the mark as a photographer. Melissa Rodwell is a photographer that I respect a lot. She and I shoot very different subject matter and she’s a very successful fashion photographer. I read her blog on a regular basis (I’m a subscriber). When I was trying to get my feet underneath me with photography, I asked Melissa a lot of questions. She’s a wonderful person as well as being very talented and she took the time to endure my questions and give me some great feedback. One of the things she told me about what I photograph is something that I try to remember every time I shoot. She told me, “Find what you are passionate about and photograph that. Try to capture that passion with your camera. It doesn’t work the other way around.”
Side bar: Don’t think you can just start asking Melissa for free advice, subscribe to her blog, she is a busy working professional.
You’re looking for a tangent alert here. Surprise!! I’m still on topic. A list of things that fascinate me and that I’m passionate about could go here but that isn’t what’s important. Think about the word “passionate” for a minute. To me, passion involves fascination, imagination, spontaneity, emotion, and some magic. Not magic in the sense of a card trick, magic in the sense of a phenomenon that is beyond my ability to explain. That brings us almost back to smoke. Didn’t think I could circle back did you? Clouds have been like puffs of smoke in the sky. Looking at clouds has interested me since I was very young. They are often changing before your eyes, morphing from one thing to another. Smoke has a similar property but I can manipulate smoke, clouds…not so much.
If you search the Internet, I’m sure you can find a number of articles about smoke photography. The bottom line for me is that photography is painting with light over time. Maybe you don’t want to spend time figuring out how to shoot smoke, I understand the “work smarter not harder” philosophy. To be honest, I peeked at a few articles myself, why reinvent the wheel. Different people have shot smoke different ways, my methodology is still a work in progress. As I write this post, I’ve had three sessions where I have photographed smoke and they’ve all been in the last week. Each session has involved multiple ideas and subsequent sessions have involved tweaking and trying to improve from the previous shoot. That could be said for almost every shoot I’ve been on since I started to pursue photography with any degree of seriousness. We can skip the “photography as a metaphor for life” discussion. That would require a big tangent alert.
Side bar: In no way is my interpretation of smoke photography definitive except with respect to my own vision for the images.
Here’s what I’m trying to do when I photograph smoke. Capture something that’s constantly moving in very low light conditions. If you have deep pockets and/or great studio lighting equipment then you will likely approach this very differently. For me it’s a tight budget and limited resources. In some cases I think that’s actually to my benefit. The next part is going to be a bit about my thoughts on the setup and the process. Some people will stop reading about here. Before you stop reading, consider that you may learn something new, it happens.
Equipment and setup:
- DSLR (Nikon D700 in this case)
- Lens (needs to be fast, in other words one that can go down to something close to 2.8 for the aperture.) My choice so far has been the Nikkor 105mm Micro lens. Your mileage may vary.
- Cable release
- Manual camera settings (focus, shutter, and aperture)
- Low ISO (for my shots, I’ve been shooting at ISO 200)
- Camera RAW format (gives you more latitude for adjustment later)
- Shutter speed needs to be fast (I’ve been shooting at 1/160, 1/125, and 1/100) For the photographs I’ve made so far, I’ve been trying to freeze the movement of the smoke.
- Smoke – incense (I realize there are a lot of choices). I recommend that you shoot in a fairly well ventilated area, not specifically for health/safety reasons but to keep the smoke from filling up the area and making the shots “muddy”.
- TV tray – they are inexpensive, portable, and sturdy. You need somewhere to place the incense and the lighting.
- Lighting – this is an area that continues to evolve. Currently it includes a four-pack of book lights from Costco (about $10), a three-pack of small LED flashlights (also inexpensive, also from Costco).
- Dark background (well the whole area is dark for my shots but the background being dark is to provide contrast for the smoke).
- Folding chair – I learned the hard way (think about the height of a TV tray, imagine shooting a little above it to clear the lights, it will kill your back).
- An assistant (invaluable) – I am operating the camera, I need help with directing the light and another head for ideas helps a lot.
- Relatively still air (smoke moves around)
A few extra things to consider:
- The smoke is constantly moving (not always in the direction that you want).
- Shooting at such a wide aperture means a shallow DoF (depth of field) so focus was an issue and I was constantly adjusting.
- The smoke and the light seem to be in different places (because the smoke moves, assistant adjusts the lighting for the movement, the smoke moves again, assistant adjusts the lighting, you get the idea).
- Leave a few feet between the TV tray and the background (it gives your assistant room to work and cuts down on light hitting your background)
What about the color? No problem. You have a black background and essentially a light subject, color is open to your interpretation in the processing.
Is that everything? Did I leave anything out? Of course I left stuff out and no that’s not everything. Your environment will vary from mine and my technique is always changing.
I should have mentioned, I’m shooting on a screened patio with a blanket blocking the air flow near the smoke. That’s a lot of details isn’t it?
You will develop your own technique. This was just a description of what I’m doing at the moment. I reserve the right to change constantly and not say anything about it. I encourage you to visit my photography site (Gerry Daniel Photography) and my Smoke Photography gallery. It would also make me happy if you would subscribe to my blog (this one, the one you are reading right now) and encourage others to subscribe, I need more people looking at my work. Thanks in advance for subscribing (I know you want to make me happy).