Smoke is a malleable and exciting object to work with. It looks cryptic, mystical and a bit creepy.
Creating amazing still life with smoke photography is a wonderful and easy way to set up a mysterious and enigmatic atmosphere. Here’s a quick tutorial with photography tips for smokey images.
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Why We Like Creating Still Life With Smoke Photography
Sure, you can always add smokey effect later in post-processing, but it’s so much fun creating it on set! Especially if you want to combine smoke photography with silhouettes and use it to tell a story.
It could be something dark and spooky with vampires, bats, and graveyard tombs. Or it could be something charming with unicorns, dragons, and fairies.
Either way, smoke in photography brings magic to any still life scene! Let’s see how to add real smokey effects for pictures. Then you’ll be able to tell a dark fairy tale or an exciting Halloween story in your next still life photography experiment.
7. Gather a Few Simple Props
The list of props for this project is pretty simple. You will only need the below items.
- A glass jar or bottle (not very big and without a very narrow neck);
- Incense sticks to make smoke (or other means you find suitable);
- Paper silhouettes (we’ll talk about them in more detail);
- Dark or black background;
- Items for your still life;
- A light source (for example a flash);
- A camera and a tripod.
As complementary still life items you can use autumn leaves, crooked tree branches, wooden boxes, scrolls, all that dark magic stuff.
I decided to make a picture about carnivorous plants and a gardener’s nightmares. So I got some mushrooms made from polymer clay, potion bottles, moss and dried leaves.
That difference in scale helps to create diversity. It makes the image look more lively and natural.
6. Add Some Smoke for Mysterious Results
First of all, we need some smoke or steam. There’s plenty of ways to achieve smoke for photography. But my favourite one is using a simple incense stick.
Machines are expensive and produce too much smoke for a small scene. Liquid nitrogen is practically impossible to find if you live in a small town as I do. Besides, liquid nitrogen must be stored in special containers. If you just pour it into a thermos, it can burst.
Dry ice is a pretty good solution. If you manage to get some, that’s great! Also, there’s a variety of aerosols like ‘Smoke Spray in a Can‘. That might work too. I know a couple of photographers who use a hand steamer (usually used for clothes) for that purpose.
But for a start, a bunch of common incense sticks would be the best choice. They are cheaper than a fog machine, more accessible than dry ice and more stable than an open flame. You just have to be careful with ashes.
And last but not least, an incense stick is rather safe to use indoors. Still, make sure you work in a well-ventilated room. Don’t wear any easily flammable clothes just to be on the safe side.
5. Use Silhouettes to Tell Your Story
Another important feature is silhouetting. You need to decide what story you’re about to tell. Is it about All Hallows’ Eve? Then you need silhouettes of witches, bats, haunted castles or spiders. Is it classical ‘Sealed Evil in a Can’ trope? Well, you obviously need a monster!
More lighthearted stuff works too! Windmills and country landscape in a jar surrounded by daisies and strawberries may look very charming.
Usually, I cut silhouettes for my stories myself. Dark thick paper, a layout knife, and patience are a great combo!
If you’re not used to cutting tiny figures out of paper, just buy some pre-cut paper silhouettes in a local scrapbook store.
If you want to try something different, use thick tracing paper or vellum to create silhouettes. This way you’ll get a shape that is brighter than smoke and glows in your images.
Of course, glowing zombies or a haunted mansion would look out of place. But a shining white dragon or unicorn is perfect! These shapes would look like you have captured glowing creatures in your jar.
4. Experiment to Get the Right Composition
Start from the largest objects and move onto little details when arranging your still life.
Try to keep the scene simple, but add some details to create a mystical atmosphere. A minimalist approach is good, but a lonely jar would look a bit boring even with a zombie inside.
Add some scattered leaves here and there, draw runes on craft paper and use it like a scroll, pour some coloured liquid in a small bottle and call it a potion. Make the viewer stay with your image a bit longer.
I started with two main lab bottles and then moved to the background. Then I put a wooden case with potions in the background, added some moss and mushrooms.
I bought this moss at the same local craft store and made mushrooms myself from polymer clay thanks to one of many tutorials on YouTube (try it some time, it’s very easy!).
I wish that my carnivorous plants would be a couple of tones darker and stand out more. But they will get darker in the backlight, so it’s fine.
Consider your jars and bottles as a central element of the composition. Put paper figures in jars and fix them with double-sided tape if they won’t stand on their own.
If you have a flying figure inside a jar (like a dragon or a fairy), fix it steadily with transparent scotch tape. It will be visible, but it won’t be hard to fix in post-processing.
3. Set Up the Perfect Lighting
The secret is the backlight when you photograph smoke. Coming from behind, it makes the smoke effects not only visible for the camera, but practically glowing. No backlight means no glow. The smoke trail will look dull and barely noticeable.
Also, backlight outlines dark paper silhouettes making them more prominent.
This light shouldn’t be too soft. Use a narrow strip-box or snoot on your main light source to centre the flow on the jars.
Aside from that, you can use any lighting scheme you like.
In my case, the scene is lit with two speedlights. I set the first flash in a small strip-box behind the scene. I adjusted this flash a bit to the right. This is my key light.
I placed another flash behind a large diffuser on the left side. This one is working as a fill light. You can use a reflector instead of the second flash.
If you need to cut some light from the background and make it darker, use a black flag. I put a piece of black cardboard between my strip box and the scene to cast a shadow on the boxes and books on my background.
Making these items a bit darker concentrates the viewer’s attention on the bottles.
If you’re using a flash, set it on low power. This allows using an open aperture and keeps the background a bit blurry. Set synchronization shutter speed (it’s about 1/125). Adjust the ISO to get a well-exposed image.
If you’re using natural light and no flash, a longer shutter speed (about 1/60) will make the smoke blurry. But it will still look beautiful. And faster shutter speed (about 1/400) will make swirls more prominent. The flash helps you to freeze the motion of the smokey curls.
Choose the camera settings you like best. Take a few test shots to see if you like your setup.
2. Add Some Action
It’s time to set something on fire! For the smokey images only, don’t worry!
Light the incense sticks and put them in a jar. Let the smoke condense at the bottom. If you want the fire to burn stronger, blow on the tip of the incense stick.
If your bottle has a narrow neck, plug it with a cork. My first lab jar is too wide, so I have to cover it with my hand to let it condense.
Fill the jars one by one and take a sequence of shots watching the smokey swirls and curls.
You can also move one incense stick along lower parts of the scene. This way, your foreground areas can get smokey too. This is photography of smoke, after all. Let the smokey swirls spread around the frame.
Since your camera is fixed on a tripod, you can try different approaches and see what works best for your dark magical, still life.
Keep in mind that glowing jars can be a lot brighter than the rest of the scene. It’s easy to get them overexposed. That’s why you may want to underexpose the image a bit. Details in the dark parts are easier to recover in post-process.
1. Enhance Your Images in Post-Processing
Get the shot that looks most spooky and magical for your taste. Give it a little polish. I adjusted the contrast a bit and made my predatory plants even darker. I also added a green tinge to my too yellow moss and made the smoke a bit bluer.
Add some contrast to make jars glow even more. Delete all annoying dust and ash particles. Enjoy your spooky image!
As you can see, there’s not much post-processing involved. That’s why I love creating this effect on set. The editing is quick, and setting up the scene is fun.
I hope you enjoyed the process and are ready to try it too with another story!
Experiment with materials, creating glowing shapes, not only dark ones. Gather a collection of ships and lighthouses. Or place a corner of a distant fantasy land on your workplace. Tell your own stories and have fun!
Examples of Smoke Photography
Smoke photography is one of the topics we cover in our creative photography course, Wow Factor Photography. Below are some of the photos taken by our students. If you’d like to learn more, check out the course here.