Abstractions in Smoke


Smoking is now Art. It’s official.

Ok. Reality check. I’m not advocating the use of the evil weed as some sort of culturally important device but rather as a photo technique for rainy days.With the intro sorted, now onto confessions. Whilst I have a method for achieving the effect shown above, it’s not the technically correct version. So I suggest purists (and those who have wired or wireless syncable flash units at their disposal) head over to the art smoke group at Flickr or be amazed by the info at the Strobist Blog and also here and a very in depth form here.

References over… onto to the cheap and fast way of doing it!


You will need the following:
Camera, Tripod, remote release
Something that can create a flash other than the onboard flash on your camera – either use another camera, mobile phone (if it has a flash), cheap disposable cameras e.t.c.

A black background – something large-ish. I couldn’t find anything and used a suit bag (!).
Incense – either in stick or oil form – as long as it produces smoke.

Whilst mentioning smoke I have to mention the public health and safety warning – try not to burn yoour house down and make sure your room has adequate ventilation (whilst maintaining darkness – best to try it at night with the window open!).

Setup the background up and position the incense stick away from the background (I used about 0.5 metres). Next set the camera another metre or so away from the stick, depending on your lens.. I leave it to your experimentation…!

Shooting Technique

Basically the method I used was to set a long exposure (20secs at f/5.6), Focus on the top of the incense stick and then reframe to get the smoke plume in, switch off all the lights and do a bit of ‘wafting’.
Next trigger the camera with the remote cord and then from the side use the other camera as a flash to side light the smoke. How much light you need is also down to experimentation. Mine came out best with two flashes per long exposure, although I never got as far as three! One flash was not enough to separate the smoke from the background. Another tip I used a piece of card over the second camera flash to shield the effects of the flash from your main camera, if you don’t you might get lens flare.

Post Production

You gonna want to crop. Simple as. Find the nicest bit and crop down. Then invert the image. Apple+I on a Mac and probably CRTL+I on PC (If you’re in PS). Then everything that once was black goes white e.t.c.

The only other tweaks I have made is to use solid color adjustment layers set to Color blending mode. The use the mask on the layer and the gradient tool to grad out the color on the mask layer. I know that sentence is PS jargon heavy… but you’re gonna have to figure it out.. I’m not doing PS tutorials!

Experimentation is the key.. Its never the same thing twice and it may take many shots to get the right effect. But that’s the beauty of nature and its inherent chaos!

Peace out!


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