Creating Smoke Trail images

Posted on February 29, 2012


One of the things that are fun to create after work at night are smoke trails. They are fairly easy to create and fun to edit in post processing. This entry explains how they are created and the post processing that you need to do.

The first step is purchasing some incense sticks. I highly recommend getting the big sticks about a foot long (25cm). I haven’t had a chance to use the chunks, and if the small, thin sticks are the only ones you can find, then use them. The bigger sticks provide a bigger and more solid smoke trail. The smaller ones give off less smoke and can be more difficult to get a good image. If you have sticks that are sealed in a plastic bag, be sure to open the bag and wait a day or two before using them. This lets them dry out completely before using.

Next is to find a safe place to shoot these images. Do this only in a well ventilated room that you can clear the smoke fairly quickly, but not a place that is drafty where you can’t control the smoke stream. Part of this is finding a dark background (black) that can hang at least five feet behind the smoke (you can do less, but it may show up in the flash if it isn’t flagged properly). You should be between five and ten feet from the smoke trail with your camera on a tripod. Focus the lens on the tip of the incense stick, then flip it to manual focus so it doesn’t change. You will move the camera angle to be above the stick. The flash should be flagged and pointing at the smoke approximately at 90 degrees from the smoke and about three to five feet away. The flash must be a digital flash to stop the smoke. This means it must be a portable flash from the manufacturer of your camera or studio flash with a quick discharge (ie-Alien Bee Einstein, or one of the really expensive flash systems). You will want to set the aperture of the camera to the value on the chart on the back of the camera for five feet away. This should be F4 to F5.6. If not, adjust the power to have it within this range. You will need to put a snoot, grid, barn door, or flag the flash so that the light doesn’t spill onto the background or your lens. If you remember, even black reflects approximately 10% of light back. This also means you need to be able to trigger the flash remotely (I use Pocket Wizards) or with a really long cable. The other part is finding a safe stand to hold the incense stick and for the ashes to fall into. This is important as the incense stick will be on fire as it creates smoke. When done, be sure to douse the stick in water before putting in the trash. Some people put an under light under the smoke. I don’t, but have been told this helps. This can be a light box or small florescent light.

Finally, once this is set up, light the incense stick and let it burn for a short bit. Then blow it out. Blow on the stick until a solid stream of smoke is created from the stick. Set your camera to shoot RAW. It should be set to ISO 100 or lower. Your shutter speed should be set to the maximum sync speed for your camera. I have been told some people shoot in a dark room (just like in a studio for greater contrast), but I don’t. Ambient light shouldn’t have any effect on this as long as you are shooting at night and as long as you aren’t in a gym. Start shooting. Shoot for about 15 minutes, then clear the room of smoke, then shoot again. This will keep the smoke from building up a haze that will lower contrast of the image and glare from the light being shot through that haze. Experiment with what different things do to the smoke and how it creates different trails. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Just play and have some fun. When you are done, extinguish the incense so you won’t have to worry about it.

Ok, now you have several images of smoke. Upload to your computer. Choose the software you want to edit the images. I am most familiar with Photoshop, so the rest of the instructions will be for Photoshop.

Open the image in Camera RAW – adjust the black and contrast so that that background is solid black (if you set up the grid, snoot, barn door, or flags correctly, you won’t need to do this step). The first thing to consider is if the image will be better inverted or left as is. Inverting the image makes the smoke black and background white (see the last two images below). Next is to decide to color it. To color it, create a new layer, fill it with a solid color you want to use and set the layer blending mode to “color”. Create a layer mask, then paint the layer mask either black or white to reveal or cover the colors you want. Put each color on its own layer and paint it in individually. Sharpen, blur, crop, resize, flip, and do any other editing you want to do (experiment!).

Remember to play and have fun. This is meant to be fun. Don’t be afraid to try different things. As with all things dealing with photography, it is this kind of playing that you learn things that you can put in your tool box as a photographer.

Below are the same image. One is inverted, and the other isn’t so you can see how inverting changes the image.

All information and images are ©2012 Don Krajewski on this post.

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