Photographing smoke is a great exercise in creativity, since there is no wrong way to do it and a bazillion ways to do it right.
That being said, there are a few guidelines that make it easier.
I like to use incense sticks (or "joss" sticks) as my smoke source. It provides a steady source of smoke, and you can take many different images using one stick.
Candles can also be used, but the best smoke comes just as you blow out the flame.
This image was taken with an ordinary red taper candle. I had a black velvet background about two feet behind the candle, and an on-camera flash set to minimum. I lit the candle, pre-focused and composed (this is highly cropped), blew out the candle and made several exposures. Be careful not to create too many air currents when you blow out the candle. Or, deliberately create them and see what you get!
With a joss stick, I used the same black velvet background. This time, however, I used a studio flash with a grid below and to the left of the smoke. To get the cleanest lines of smoke, you need a small aperture (for a large depth of field) and a lot of light.
Be sure to ventilate the room every once in a while. Not only do you want to clear the room so you can breathe, but the halfway dissipated smoke can interfere with the light, contrast, sharpness and detail in your images.
You want to keep the air movement in the room to a minimum, and controlled deliberately. See what happens if you just let the smoke rise, then try slowly waving your hand near the smoke. Very small air currents work better than large ones. Also try letting the smoke curl up under a spoon or other object.
Once you have an image you like, you can try and turn it into a work of art with Photoshop. Here’s how I created this image.
First, I captured the left part of this image on its own. I brought it into Photoshop and adjusted levels to get a higher contrast and completely blacken the background. Then, I inverted the image to turn the background white.
Next, I extended the canvas to the right. I duplicated the layer, selected free transform, and dragged to the right to create a mirror image.
Then I created two hue/saturation adjustment layers; one masked on the right and one masked on the left. By adjusting the hue on each, I was able to create some colors that I liked, roughly opposite to each other.
Here is another version we created during this session. Julie explains her process of editing this on our After & Before photoblog, where we post before and after images along with our techniques for creating them.
Here’s the original with the black background.
Smoke photography can be lots of fun, but it can get a little frustrating, too. You can take many, many images before you end up with one you like; I know I did. Keep at it, and have fun!
Think differently. See differently. Create art.