Smoke is a malleable and interesting object to work with. It looks cryptic, mystical and a bit creepy. Using smoke in still life photography is a wonderful and easy way to create a mysterious and enigmatic atmosphere. Here’s a quick tutorial on smoke photography.
Sure, you can always add smoke 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 brings magic to any still life scene! Let’s see how to add real smoke 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.
1. Gathering Props
The list of props for this project is pretty simple. You will need:
- a glass jar or bottle (not very big and without a very narrow neck);
- aroma sticks to make smoke (or other means you find suitable);
- paper silhouettes (we’ll talk about them in more detail);
- dark background;
- items for your still life;
- a light source;
- 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.
For Halloween scenes I’m happy to use tiny pumpkins or persimmons and maple leaves. Find something suitable for your own visual narrative.
Also, make sure you have objects of different scale. Say, take a couple of large objects like bottles with smoke and silhouettes. And add some relatively small objects like scattered dried berries.
That difference in scale helps to create diversity. It makes the image look more lively and natural.
2. Add Some Smoke
First of all, we need some smoke or steam. There’s plenty of ways to achieve smoke photography. But my favourite one is using simple aroma sticks.
Smoke 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 like I do. Besides, liquid nitrogen must be stored in special containers. If you just pour it into a thermos, the container 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 getting smoke with a bunch of common aroma 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, aroma sticks are rather safe to use indoors. Still, work in a well-ventilated room and don’t wear any easily flammable clothes just to be on the safe side.
3. Use Silhouettes to Tell Your Story
Another important thing is silhouettes. 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 with daisies and strawberries may look really 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. They must have some suitable designs. Craft shops in my town are not particularly well-stocked. But even I can always find a Santa’s sled at Christmas.
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 lighter than smoke and looks practically glowing.
Of course, glowing zombies or a haunted mansion would look out of place. But a shining white dragon or unicorn is perfect! These glowing shapes would look like you have captured creatures of light in your jar.
4. How to Get the Right Composition
Start from the largest objects and move to little details when arranging your magical still life.
Try to keep the scene simple, but add some details to create a mystical atmosphere. A minimalist approach is well and 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 as 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 on a 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.
5. Set Up the Lights
The secret to shooting smoke is the backlight. Coming from behind, the light makes smoke not only visible for the camera, but practically glowing. No backlight means no glow, smoke looks dull and barely visible.
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 light flow on the jars.
Aside from that, you can use any light scheme you like.
In my case, the scene is lit with two speedlights. I set the first one in a small strip-box behind the scene and slightly to the right. This is my key light. Another one is placed behind a large diffuser on the left side and working as a fill light. You can use a reflector instead.
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 speedlights, set them on a low power to allow using open aperture and keep the background a bit blurry. Set synchronization shutter speed (it’s usually about 1/125) and adjust the ISO to get a well-exposed image.
If you’re using natural light, longer shutter speed (about 1/60) will make the smoke blurry, but still look beautiful. And faster shutter speed (about 1/400) will make swirls more prominent. Choose what you like best.
6. Add Some Action
It’s time to set something on fire!
Just to get some smoke, no worries.
Ignite a couple of aroma sticks, put them in a jar, let the smoke condense at the bottom. 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 the smoke condense.
Fill the jars one by one and take a sequence of shots watching smoke swirl and curl.
You can also move your bundle of aroma sticks along lower parts of the scene, letting smoke cover foreground areas. This is smoke photography, after all, so let the smoke 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 lighter than the rest of the scene. It’s easy to get them overexposed. That’s why you may want to slightly underexpose the image. Details in the dark parts are easier to recover in post-process.
7. Final touches
Get the shot that looks most spooky and magical for your taste and give it a little polish. I adjusted the contrast slightly, made my predatory plants even darker, 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 and enjoy your spooky image!
As you can see, there’s not much post-processing involved. That’s why I love creating this smoke effect on set. You can edit very quickly and get to the really fun stuff. And to shoot another scene, of course!
I hope you enjoyed the process and are ready to try it too with another story! Try not to keep the smoke in a jar and let your silhouetted creatures run wild like this unicorn.
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!
Looking for some more unique still life tutorials? Check out our posts on water splash photography or how about learning how to photograph levitating coffee splashes with two speedlights and a glue gun.