Photographing smoke can be difficult because of its unpredictable nature. However, the same characteristics that make smoke difficult to photograph also make it beautiful and unique. The good news is you can use specific techniques to light and shape smoke for consistent results. Once you realize how easy it is, you’ll probably look for ways to start incorporating it into your photography. To help you learn how to photograph smoke and fog, we’ve put together 10 easy-to-follow tips.
Before We Begin, A Shortcut
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10 Tips on How to Photograph Smoke and Fog
- Use a Telephoto Lens to Photograph Smoke
- Go with a Pure Black Background
- Light with a Studio Strobe when Photographing Smoke
- Know Your Flash Duration
- Edge Light the Smoke
- Modify the Light with a Strip Box and Grid
- Go Outdoors for Environmental Smoke Effects and Indoors for Fine Smoke Effects
- Use a Variety of Tools to Create Your Smoke and Fog
- Have Plenty of Grip Gear when Photographing Smoke and Fog
- Post-Process Your Images
Tip 1: Use a Telephoto Lens to Photograph Smoke
We recommend using a telephoto zoom lens to help control your composition with the zoom. For the sample shots in this article, we used a Canon 5D Mark IV and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II lens. If we wanted to capture the entirety the smoke, we simply zoomed out. Adversely, if we wanted the details of the smoke, we zoomed in. Of course, you can always physically move to control what stays in the frame, but a quick zoom simplifies the process. As a result, you miss fewer shots of cool smoke shapes.
Tip 2: Go with a Pure Black Background
As you learn how to photograph smoke and fog, don’t confuse a pure black background with a not-so-pure black background. Using a pure black background makes blending the smoke into your images exponentially easier. We learned this the hard way through trial and error. With a pure black background, the smoke textures easily be added into images in post. Using anything else will require extra work on the backend. Do yourself a favor and make sure the background is pure black.
Tip 3: Light with a Studio Strobe when Photographing Smoke
The biggest reason why we recommend using a studio strobe over a pocket strobe is to get even lighting. We want the light to be even from top to bottom without getting “hot spots” in the middle of the smoke. With a studio strobe, you’ll get even lighting along the entirety of the smoke. However, you can still get amazing results with pocket strobes, so this is definitely not an absolute requirement.
Tip 4: Know Your Flash Duration
Lighting plays a key role when learning how to photograph smoke and fog. One important element of flash photography you need to learn involves flash duration. A flash duration is the time it takes for a flash to power up, emit a flash, then completely die. When you’re shooting a flash at 1/16 power, the flash is activated for a much shorter duration than a flash shooting at 1/1 power. This is important to note because smoke is a quick moving subject. If your flash duration is too long, then your smoke can look blurry.
Tip 5: Edge Light the Smoke
When you’re shooting smoke, you don’t want to light from the front. Lighting from the front will create a flat look and you’ll kill all of the detail in the smoke. What you want to do is light the smoke from the sides so that you can illuminate the smoke and preserve all the details.
Tip 6: Modify the Light with a Strip Box and Grid
A strip box with a grid is another tool that will help give us even lighting from top to bottom. The grid, in particular, helps minimize light spill. If the light spills out on the sides, it can change the color of the background or even hit your lens, creating unwanted flares.
Tip 7: Go Outdoors for Environmental Smoke Effects and Indoors for Fine Smoke Effects
When shooting environmental smoke, you’re most likely using fog machines or other heavy smoke or mist-creating machines. The reason we shoot these outdoors is because we want the fog to appear, get our shot, then dissipate quickly so we can set up the next shot. If we photograph fog textures indoors, then the fog will settle and affect the next shot.
When shooting smaller and detailed smoke textures, you want to be indoors. This is because smaller smoke effects are easily influenced by wind and movement. As a result, it’s important to be in a place that eliminates those variables.
Tip 8: Use a Variety of Tools to Create Your Smoke and Fog
One thing you’ll discover when learning how to photograph smoke and fog is that smoke, fog, and mist comes in a variety of shapes, forms, and textures. In order to match the specific look you want to blend into your image, consider using different tools to create your smoke. Fog machines, cigarettes, cigars, matches, and incense all create different looks and smoke textures. Be sure to play around (safely) to find what you like.
[Related Reading: Smoke Bombs for Photography and How to Use Them]
Tip 9: Have Plenty of Grip Gear when Photographing Smoke and Fog
The accessories we find most useful on shoots like include A Clamps, Matthews Apple Boxes, and Blowers.
A Clamps – The A-Clamps for a studio are a must-have because they’re so versatile. Whether you need to clamp diffusion sheets, backdrops, or even your smoke modifiers, these A-Clamps get the job done.
Matthews Apple Boxes – Matthews Apple Boxes are incredibly useful when you need to prop up the object that’s creating the smoke. We wet the apple box with water so it did not catch on fire if the smoking object fell. Do not use dry or flammable surfaces.
Dust Blowers – When modifying a smoke trail we like to use our blowers, typically used for blowing out dust from lenses and sensors. It gives us incredibly accurate wisps of wind as well as control of where we want our smoke to go.
Tip 10: Post-Process Your Images
We have already mentioned that we need a completely black background to easily and accurately blend the smoke into our images. Part of this is using the lighting and shooting techniques mentioned above. The other part is in post production. Increasing the blacks, color correcting, cropping, removing undesirable aspects of the image are all important. Beyond creating a pure black background, you’ll also want to post produce your smoke to have a neutral tone. Doing these two things will guarantee that your smoke blends well and has a natural look.
We hope you enjoyed these tips on how to photograph smoke and fog. As you can see, it’s fairly easy to capture quality shots for adding cool textures to your photos. If you would like to learn more about SLR Lounge Smoke Textures, be sure to check them out in our store.