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Zen And The Art Of Smoking

Posted by Caz on Sunday, 12th June 2011

Today I wanted to have a go at photographing smoke again. I have not done it since 2008, and have since read Rob Webb’s excellent tutorial which gave me some great pointers for my setup. Here’s how I started off:

First setup - white card at 90° to background

First setup - white card at 90° to background

Too much spill on background

Too much spill on background

The joss stick was taped on top of a heavy little glass jar (the sort which is used for jam in hotels!). One YN560 Speedlight with DIY snoot @ 1/8 placed at camera right, mounted on my Gorillapod. Background was a large A2 sheet of black foamcore board, and a similar sheet of white as a reflector on LHS of camera.

Unfortunately, after taking a few shots, I realised that although my snoot was doing a good job of concentrating the light from the right, because the white board was at right angles to the backing, it was bouncing back rather a lot of light which spilled onto the black card. The results were disappointing – as you can see from the shot on the right – although the patterns were interesting, I could not get the background dark enough even after a bit of post production.

The solution was to angle the white board away from 90° to about 110°:

Reflector board angled at 110°

Reflector board angled at 110°

This proved to be a lot better, with minimal spill onto the background.

In Rob’s blog post, he mentions using a flood light which is on permanently to aid AF on the smoke. Well I don’t have one of those, so I decided to improvise.

My camera settings were ISO 100, 1/200s @ f/14. This gave a completely black frame exposure if the flash was not fired. With the flash set to 1/8 power, the smoke was sufficiently illuminated to get good definition to freeze the billowing smoke, and the recycle time was quite short (about 1.5s with NiMH batteries).

I was using the 7D with 24-105mm EF f/4 L IS USM in manual focus mode, not on a tripod. You have to react to the smoke’s movement to get the best shots, and I think it would be hopeless if you were static. As I had set up on the cooker in the kitchen with the extractor hood running, the smoke eddied about quite a lot to give some good patterns. I pre-focussed on the burning end of the joss stick, then made sure I was moving the camera up to be level with the snoot before taking some shots. It was pretty dark through the viewfinder, so a lot of shots were guesses. However, that’s half the fun!

Rinse and repeat… I took over 300 images, here are the best 10 or so:

Abstract Swirls

Abstract Swirls

The Lily

The Lily

Alien Head

Alien Head

Three Scrolls

Three Scrolls

Jumping Jack

Jumping Jack

X-Ray Cranium

X-Ray Cranium

Eddy Trio

Eddy Trio

Peacock Feather

Peacock Feather

Smokey Bouquet

Smokey Bouquet

Rib cage

Rib cage

Pick Of The Crop

The best shot of the day was hard to choose, but in the end I went with Smoke Signals. I had a lot of fun, and it’s good to know I can get reproducible results, at least in terms of exposure. You never know what you’re going to get as far as composition goes – that’s the nature of chaos!

1 Comment

  • […] Speedlite on camera right through DIY snoot @ 1/8, bounced off white cardboard at camera left. Read more info on the setup. Notes: I had great fun photographing tendrils of smoke from a joss stick this afternoon. Now my […]