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Smoke & Incense

hawkjh [deleted] 2:07pm, 26 August 2006
I've seen a couple of questions on this and some brief answers but I thought something I posted to another group a while back might be of interest here ... apologies if I've missed a better description that's already been posted!!


- Tripod
- A black background (pref. non reflective - an old shirt, jumper, sheet, black card, etc)
- A joss stick, incense stick,etc
- Off camera flash (for the best results ... simple flash gun and hot-shoe remote cable is great) - (if not, try with any strong directional light source, e.g. projector, desk lamp, etc).

A bit of darkness helps with this - so pull the curtains or wait until night. Put the camera on the tripod and aim the camera a distance back from your background - ensure it is the only thing in shot.

Place the incence stick in a jar on a plate (to avoid the ash dropping on anything that could burn - ) - place it between the camera and the background. Focus on the end of the incense stick and then move the camera up so the stick is not in shot - once focused, set the camera to manual focus. Light the stick and wait for the smoke trails to start.

Hold the flash so that it fires upwards (or through) into the smoke - not at the background and (of course) not at the camera. f5.6 and shutter speed of around 1/100th sec are good settings to use and just snap away. Holding the flash will allow you to find the best angle to illuminate the smoke trails. Getting the flash as close to the smoke is key as it really makes it shine.

Finally - in photoshop or anything else with a levels histogram ... take a look - you'll normally see a big spike at the black end (all the blacks and greys from the background). If you move the black point to cut off this part or all of this spike you will end up with a nice jet black background and a smoke trail that really shines.

Perfect for a rainy day when nothing much else is jumping out to be snapped - if you try it feel free to drop me a line to let me know how you get on.


Some examples:


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RNEVES Posted 10 years ago. Edited by RNEVES (member) 10 years ago
I tried this technique a week ago and one of the instructions hawkjh posted is particularly important: manual focus at the incense stick and then shooting as many pictures you may want.
Also, if you have Photoshop or other good post processing tool, you may also want to invert the image and colorize parts of the smoke or, if you are shooting RAW and want to use the regular smoke picture without conversion, I found out that playing with the white balance setting can enhance the images.
Here are my first attempts from last week:
[ Dancer in Red ] [ After the Wine ] [ Tourbillion ]
|| Leontien || [deleted] Posted 10 years ago. Edited by || Leontien || (member) 10 years ago
Thanks for your instructions hawkjh!

I think I'm going to try again tonight, I tried a week ago but nothing but out of focus shots... Great levels tip by the way! I used to get really grey-ish backgrounds. I'm pleased that at least that one is solved...
hawkjh [deleted] 10 years ago
Aiming the flash upwards (if you can get it off camera) might help, but the benefit with smoke is the high contrast between foreground and background ... this allows you to use the levels setting in photoshop to a nice black easily.

The only other thing you could do is put distance between the subject and the black background so that the flash doesn't reach it ... relies on you having a large black background though.

Love the idea of bubbles though ... will give it a go !

@rneves: Wow !! Fantastic shots and great idea !

felix.h PRO 10 years ago
No need for a sofa, if you've got a joss stick. I first tried it with candles (bad idea), but joss sticks are perfect.

smoke lines

smoke body
Beausmiley PRO 10 years ago
wow those are great
SuniL. 10 years ago
awsome - am gona try it
indian nomad 10 years ago
Great post! Thanks for these pointers... Am definitely gonna try it. Don't have an external flash though. Will make use of something else :)
*sax 10 years ago

Thanks for the tips, I love the effect!
brnpttmn 10 years ago
I used this technique awhile ago and got these on my first couple of tries:PlumeCurve
Ms Ladyred 10 years ago
Thank you for this tutorial...Can hardly wait to try some
Ryan Yam 10 years ago
Wow, this is really interesting. I've wondered how people do those kind of shots before. Can't wait to try this out too. Great tutorial!
djKianoosh PRO 10 years ago
very cool stuff.. i wonder if i can use this photo here to do something like that:

Integrated Air Conditioning
Exposure: 0.013 sec (1/80)
Aperture: f/4.8
Focal Length: 38 mm
no flash.
Everaldo & Dara PRO 10 years ago
Thanks hawkjh, I will try that...
preritkumarmathur 10 years ago
I tried it for something different...here r the results..thanx

Rodrigo Perez 10 years ago
thank you.
RottieLover♥ 10 years ago
Thank you for the great tutorial!

hawkjh [deleted] 10 years ago
Thanks for the replies everyone ... it's really nice to see people getting some amazing results !!

aubergene 10 years ago
I sort of came across this technique by trial and error, wish I had done a search first, great tutorial. Thanks

héctor* 10 years ago
Thanks for the tutorial, I'll try it son
Erika Almeida Posted 10 years ago. Edited by Erika Almeida (member) 10 years ago
Hi ppl this is my first try but i still have some problemes with the light, can any one help me and give me some tips?! this is some that i cought right

thanks guys for your great tips
mw987 10 years ago
thanks for posting this! i definately want to give this a try, the results look so amazing!
martinnicholls 10 years ago
Any idea how this might work without an external flash?
aitek Posted 10 years ago. Edited by aitek (member) 10 years ago
prolly not too well, flash is most likely the key ingredient, heres my attempt:

Vincént 10 years ago
It's vital to have a good lighting. i.e. flash.
Might be alright with a strong light too, but I'm not very sure.

My first day's attempt.
No post-colorisation, just a fine level adjustment.

Magician's Spike
K-1000 Posted 10 years ago. Edited by K-1000 (member) 10 years ago
Good success here, this was fun.
doctian Posted 10 years ago. Edited by doctian (member) 10 years ago
such a great tip but I'm having a hard time getting a good one with my point and shoot. can someone please tell me what i'm doing wrong? thanks.

What you need to make sure that your camera is shooting at a faster speed since it is a point and shoot. Try having it take a picture at around 1/200s and it will look a lot better.
doctian 10 years ago
thanks inSepsis. i'll try that.
Carla Finley PRO 10 years ago
Vega, what did you use for your black background? I have tried this over and over and do not get a good result. Kudos to all of you that have such great photos!
hawkjh [deleted] Posted 10 years ago. Edited by hawkjh (member) 10 years ago

Anything black and non-reflective will generally be okay ... if you can shoot in a darkened room, placing some distance between your subject and the background will help as well (the drop off in light from the flash is very quick).

However - it's unlikely you'll get the jet-black backgrounds you see here straight out of the camera. That's where a levels adjustment comes in ... if you look at the histogram you'll see a big spike towards the left end ... moving the black marker into that spike will turn everything beyond that point black and give you the nice background you are seeing here.

Redhead Cobweb 10 years ago
Thank you for the tutorial I got really excited when some of my pics came out :)

This was a montage:
Dragon Smoke
bunbon 10 years ago
I'm excited to try this. How do you do the colored smoke?
spacepleb 10 years ago

Thanks for this, I had to have a go at this with my two young lads Harry and Nat who both enjoyed the challenge. It has inspired me to keep the flash OFF the camera - I need to get a remote triggering lead. I achieved this by having a 4 second exposure in the dark then hand-firing the flash.
freakdog 10 years ago
Turbulence I
Excellent - lit this with a desk lamp.
My dining room still smells of sandalwood and patchouly though Yuck!
aubergene Posted 10 years ago. Edited by aubergene (member) 10 years ago
smoke 6 colours
I find it hard to get *really* high quality images, there is always quite a lot of grain/noise, even with noise reduction on, any tips?
Gert van Duinen Posted 10 years ago. Edited by Gert van Duinen (member) 10 years ago
Pink Smoke

Haven't read any 'how'to's' yet, but I did my first super fast expirimentation today. It's fun, but I'm far from satisfied yet. I'll read this tread a bit more toroughly to get better results.

Shreelesh Kumar Posted 10 years ago. Edited by Shreelesh Kumar (member) 10 years ago
Thanks for the technique... I've tried just 2 shots and this is the second one... Never got the time to try after that...

"Love Is A Smoke Made With The Fume Of Sighs." - William Shakespeare
"Love Is A Smoke Made With The Fume Of Sighs.” - William Shakespeare
Do view it larger.
lilcrazyfuzzy 10 years ago
Just had a try, that was fun
(Although the position was a bit uncomfortable!)

kiko1703 10 years ago
I tried doing it but I’m having a problem with the light. Did you guys use a regular flashlight or the camera flash? I used a flashlight but i can't get good smoke shots. Any tips on lighting and distance between camera-incense-background would be great.

Thanks guys!!!
spacepleb 10 years ago
kiko1703, I used a camera flash, off camera. I hand fired the flash - mostly as I don't have any means to remote fire it. I held the flash close underneath the smoke, but so it cannot be seen by the camera. As I was hand firing it I used a pitch black room and a fairly long exposure then looked at the histogram on the camera to check the exposure - adjusting the aperture accordingly. The smoke was not far in front of a dark background. Once happy with the result in camera I adjusted the levels inwards (software) - especially the black end until the background vanished. I was very happy with the result.
howangcturtle 10 years ago
Yeah same, i don't understand flash"fires upwards (or through) into the smoke " . i got it half worked out....... also i couldn't find a black background =(
kiko1703 10 years ago
Thanks SPACE;
How do flash the light into the smoke without being seen by camera? Do you have your insense far away from the camera?
Redhead Cobweb 10 years ago
Shoot the smoke from the side with the flash.

Set your incense stick on the table. Put the camera where you want it and then stick the flash to one side of another. You'll need to e able to trigger your flash off camera.
**Paul_Benjamin** 10 years ago
Time to Burn

It's just a case of lighting it properly, no need to do anything to crazy in photoshop to be honest...
HyPer CloUdS 10 years ago
how are u people gettin all these crazy colours!!??:O
Steve.Haigh [deleted] 10 years ago
That's pretty cool. Here's my first attempt:


I got the colour by inverting the photograph and then using the Hue/Saturation tool to colorize the smoke in Photoshop.

Thanks for the tutorial.
KVBPhotos PRO 10 years ago
...I'm glad to find this topic!

I was trying to come up with a similar effect, only with milk...

This is what I came up with.


But reading this technique discussion is very inspirational, especially since I used a good bit of this technique in my milk photo... the dark background the underlighting through the swirls and such.

....now i'm going to have to try the smoke. Cool!
Don Giovanní 10 years ago
This technique was so difficult to replicate, but i finally got it to rahtid...

Unfortunately i dont have those fancy lights and thing, so i used a bright flashlight and covered it with hand-towel to diffuse the light, but it still wasnt bright enuff... so i had to use the camera flash and covered that with piece of paper, so the light wasnt that intense to show the background
blaecmann 10 years ago
here are some shots I've done over this spring.




and if you don't mind me posting this, here is a step by step tutorial I made on how I make my smoke pictures.
Aisha Adam 10 years ago
amzing idea i will try it and i hope i will make something
come near this beauty ...
jah~ 9 years ago
Instead of PSing I tried applying colored lights:

-- from jahdakine - (?)
This was just my first attempt. I played with the same shot a bit, just to get a feel for it. I will DEFINITELY be playing with it some more!! I had fun!

smoke 3

smoke 2

played with the color levels a bit
smoke 1
Lindenhouse/Linda Martin Posted 9 years ago. Edited by Lindenhouse/Linda Martin (member) 9 years ago
Those are great Laura! The shape reminds me of a calla lily. This is a fun technique also using water ... www.flickr.com/groups/technique/discuss/72157600025287113/
sometimessway 9 years ago
i got a new camera yesterday (fujifilm finepix s5700) and i decided to try out taking pictures of smoke for my first adventure with it. my best picture is below. i need to find better lighting and a better background to use, but i'm pretty pleased with it for my first attempt.

CharlieRedding 9 years ago
RottieLover♥ 9 years ago
nomkcalb: That's a fantastic tutorial! Thank you!
jeet_sen 9 years ago
Thank you all for the technique hints. Here are some of my results:

Vortex Pschyedelia
Maiden Rock n Roll
alfastino8 PRO 9 years ago
Thanks for the lesson! Here's my fav result:

Dayve Rampas 9 years ago
This is awesome...
Like a Bird Studios 9 years ago
I've tried these several times and i cnat get the lighting right. I don't have an off camera flash or anything like that. The first time I used a flood light pointed at the smoke and had some tracing paper over it to diffuse the light a bit. then the second time i tried a flashlight pointing right at the smoke.
Both gave too much extra light onto the black background. I also tried changing hte ISO but that didn't help much (i usually have it set at 200).
Any suggestions please! Mainly with just flood lights/flashlights/desk lamps cause atm i cnat afford to buy something. maybe in a month or so tho.
Bart Reardon 9 years ago
I did some smoke a while back...but the other day I tried with water and food dye :)

Water Mushrooms
Like a Bird Studios 9 years ago
anyone have any advice for me? (question is 3 posts up)
__Dominique__ Posted 9 years ago. Edited by __Dominique__ (member) 9 years ago
Here is my first attempt...

Smoke variation
hpebley3 Posted 9 years ago. Edited by hpebley3 (member) 9 years ago
Kendra_J_K asked:
I've tried these several times and i can't get the lighting right. I don't have an off camera flash or anything like that. The first time I used a flood light pointed at the smoke and had some tracing paper over it to diffuse the light a bit. Then the second time I tried a flashlight pointing right at the smoke.
Both gave too much extra light onto the black background. I also tried changing the ISO but that didn't help much (i usually have it set at 200).

So, as I understand the problem, you're getting too much light from your light source on your background?

Four things come to mind (can all be used in any combination as needed):

1) Limit the light at the source. First make sure the light illuminating the smoke is the only light available; turn off the other lights in the room. Second, mask the light source so the light only goes where you want it. For example, take some black paper and wrap it around the flashlight/floodlight so you have a much narrower beam of light. Or take a piece of flat cardboard and tape it to the side closest to the background; this will put the background in the shadow cast by the cardboard.

2) Move the light closer to the smoke so its dispersion pattern ends up being out of frame on the other side.

3) Move the background further away from the smoke. Force the light to have to go farther (out of frame) before it hits the background.

4) Handle it in post processing. Pull up the histogram adjustment tool and push the black side closer towards the middle so the dark greys, which end up almost black in the background, are made really black.

Hope this helps.
Like a Bird Studios 9 years ago
thanks for the tips :) i think ill try putting some black cardboard around the flashlight/trying to block it better that way.
maybe ill get the chance to try some out tomorrow and see how it goes
thanks again :)
ksquires 9 years ago
Here's a slightly different take on this topic (for cross-eyed viewing):

A set of them.
ayashok photography PRO Posted 9 years ago. Edited by ayashok photography (member) 9 years ago
my first try on smoke

Inverted colored smoke
al-noof 9 years ago
here's mine :

جُمْعَةٌ مُبَارَكَة


[ click for a better view ]
Sarah Ann Wright 9 years ago
Thanks so much for this tutorial, I found it took me a fair while to be able to get any good pictures, but I ended up with a pretty spooky one which turned into a nice bit of illustration work. Oddly enough, only her hair has been added and her face defined!

smoky lady
catherinelove 9 years ago
I set up a black backdrop, a stool with the incense on it about 4 feet in front of the backdrop and the camera about the same distance from the stool. For the light I used one of my strobes on a floor stand. This was my first attempt and I was pleased.

smoke Question ? Blue
Wow - this is very COOL
I will have to try this
knightwolf8877 9 years ago
Check it out .. taken with a Canon PS a710is and a 30 year old flash (my mothers old flash) fired by hand

Blue Flute

A Wisp of Gold
Damodharan M 9 years ago
Well these are a few of my smoke photographs shot with the nikon D70


Mikeleus 9 years ago
Check this out:

Not Smoke
-Nicole- PRO 9 years ago
Smoke [4] (by -Nicole-)

The instructions were really helpful for getting the settings right :-)
funghifella [deleted] 9 years ago
some of my first.
first smoke 2
toti :-) Posted 9 years ago. Edited by toti :-) (member) 9 years ago
how to shoot with white background like the others?
Kaidohmaru* 9 years ago
I like to keep the original colours (even de-saturated a bit here):

Smoke Knot
the mister sam 9 years ago
mine ;-)
jennmiller15 9 years ago
snb#1 9 years ago
My Artwork interior NYLO Hotel
I won second place in the NYLO hotel's contest for artwork. I submitted my smoke pictures for their "nightlife" category. This is hanging in all their suites!
cool! congrats, snbagley!
Eric Gaddy 9 years ago
Congrats on the second place.

Plasma Fire

You can also get some cool coloring effects without the use of PS if you put colored gels on your flashes. In the photo above I used a C.T.O. (color temperature orange) on one flash to the right and no gel on a flash to the left. I put a grid spot on the flash to the left to make it a narrow beam and shot it through the middle of the smoke. Notice that it appears bluish. I had the camera set to WB daylight which makes the orange look really orange and the flash appear slightly blue. No photoshop colors added.
Rabinito 9 years ago
My take

Vende humo
c0mancheman 9 years ago
Heres on I have done not bad for a first try I think

catherinelove 9 years ago
For Michael
vj coresnfx PRO 9 years ago
totally inspired thank you everyone!!!! im off to play hahaha!
~fran~ 9 years ago
Thanks for the tutorial - here's the one photo I got out of about 50 shots!

Mr McHaddock 9 years ago
after reading this, I had to have a go too, my nightmare was a whole bunch of small white spots on the image - in the dark of my cellar I couldn't see they were tiny pieces of ash being wafted up in to view ... my advice is - as far as possible dust free, and DON'T MOVE !!
smoke three
smoke two
smoke one
Daniel Armengol Altayó Posted 9 years ago. Edited by Daniel Armengol Altayó (member) 9 years ago
2 takes

Scotti D 9 years ago
i like to mirror image mine the ad some color
this is a wonderful group, today only i joined here..... let me post some old stuff, which was my first and last experiments with smoke
The Smoke - ഞാനും പൊഹയായി...!
the same one thru ps
Smoke series - 1
Subharnab Posted 8 years ago. Edited by Subharnab (member) 8 years ago
Here are some I tried handheld in the late afternoon sunlight ...



Got a few more ,,,

Smoke-Rainbow Gradient

Blue Smoke
vjsaxena 8 years ago
Here is one, no post processing...
20D, exposure 1second
Flash- off the camera -manually fired, Red Gel
At night
And incense stick ofcourse
I took about 100shots and I got about 20 shots which or not that bad.. here is one. In future I need to try to eliminate the color from the background... i.e. only the colored smoke without post processing

straylightfascination 8 years ago
Gosh, there are some beautiful images here!!! Great tutorial, to have spawned such a host of art. I shall have to try it myself at some stage.
mr.beaver PRO 8 years ago
This is my attempt at this technique.

I took about 50 shots, this is the one that ok.

f l o w . . . . .
Zeninho 8 years ago
Fun technique. Here are mine from this weekend.

Rebecca Miller 8 years ago
twin 2
BZHGeek Posted 8 years ago. Edited by BZHGeek (member) 8 years ago
Here are my first attempts :

Smoke art attempt

Smoke art attempt 2
(1 to 100 of 118 replies)
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