A week ago I decided to light up some incense and give some smoke photography a go. I’d only done it once before….many many years ago. You can see a couple of the images from my initial shoot here. Whilst I was happy with my first attempt, I learnt a few lessons which if done differently would improve the end result dramatically. These were:
1. Shutter Speed
Keep the shutter speed at or above 1/160 of a second. The purpose here is to freeze the moving smoke. In my first attempt some of my pictures were captured as low as 1/80 of a second – at this shutter I found that the smoke was sharp(ish) but not pin sharp. I’m using Canon speedlite’s to light up the smoke, so I am limited to a shutter speed of 1/200 os a second (unless I switch to high sync mode….which is an option), but 1/200 of a second is fast enough. If your using constant lights then you can lift your shutter speed as you won’t have sync issues, but don’t go too fast at the expense of your ISO or you will introduce grain
2. Find The Right Angle
On my first shoot I experiments with various angles. Straight on. From low down. From up above the smoke looking down (on a 45 degree angle). I’ve found that its best to photograph the smoke straight on. This is to do with keep the smoke pin sharp from the top to the bottom of the image. If you add angles you increase the depth of the image and will need a smaller aperture keep everything in focus. As you reduce thew aperture you will need to increase your lighting output or (more likely) you ISO to keep your shutter speed around the desired level, and as you increase your ISO you will add grain. So shoot straight on and you should get away with an aperture of around f5.6.
3. Keep The Distance
The first time around I didn’t have enough separation between my light sources and my black backdrop. Whilst it looked good on my camera’s LCD screen, the backdrop had too much light spilling on it which made the post processing a little difficult. And I already used grids on my soft boxes to prevent light spilling to the backdrop. On the second time around my lights were about 1 meter infront of my backdrop – this was enough to ensure the black backdrop remained dark.
4. Manual Focus
I opted for manual focus this time around. Given the low ambient light the autofocus spent a lot of time searching for the focus (and often missed the focus point). I focused on the tip of the insent and then re-composed the image (just slightly above the incense). I used a tripod (see next point) so it made it easy to keep the smoke in focus (as long as it was rising straight up and not horizontally).
5. Use A Tripod
I’ve read other posts advising against a tripod. I beg to differ. Using a tripod allowed me to keep the smoke in focus whilst in manual focus mode. It also made the shoot more comfortable. I use a Really Right Stuff ball head (RRS ballheads are amazing – If you haven’t used their gear give it a go!) – the trick here is to keep the ballhead loose which will allow you to move you camera around to compose the shot, without doing any of the heavy lifting.
I hope some of these tips help you out the next time you give smoke photography a go. I’ll post a detailed ‘how-to’ post soon.
Here are two images from my most recent shoot.