Smoke Art Photography – An Introduction – Digital Photography School

A Post By: Chas Elliott

smoke-art-photography-1.jpgHere at DPS we are always on the look out for photographic techniques that are pushing the boundaries of the medium. This week I’m excited to highlight Stoffel De Roover as he gives us a window into the amazing world of “Smoke Art Photography”.

If you read our last photographer highlight article, you remember that one key to advancing your skill set is to be able to look at a well executed photo and be able to dissect it in terms of lighting, angles, filters etc. When I first came across Stoffel’s site lumendipity.com I had absolutely no clue where to even begin. It was so far out of my experience set as a photographer I decided to get some behind the scenes info and share it with DPS readers. Enjoy!

Q: What is “Smoke Art” and when where you first exposed to it?

A: Smoke art, in its simplest definition is art that features smoke. The smoke can be considered the subject or the medium to create something else. Some focus on its own beauty and pureness, others use it as ‘paint’ to create stunning artwork. I think my work lies somewhere in the middle: For the images in my gallery with the exception of a few, each image has the smoke of just one capture (in some cases duplicated or mirrored).

My first exposure to this technique from was in an online article about Graham Jeffery’s smoke art. The article made me curious and it didn’t take me long to give it a try. One of the attractions for me was how beautiful smoke is in itself, the way it’s so aleatoric. Every time I shoot smoke I’m in awe at the shapes and forms I see. No two twirls are the same. Another fascinating aspect of smoke photography, especially when mirrored, is the different reactions and interpretations it can evoke. Like with the ink blot test or cloud watching, different people will spot very different things. I’m not sure whether the images they see really give us insights into their personality, though Freud and possibly Rorschach himself would probably disagree.

Q: I love how you give every image a name reflecting your personal interpretations and then let the viewers discover for themselves. Can you share some of your favorite or most popular images and their names?

A: It’s so hard to say which are my favorites, I have spent a lot of time on many of them and many are special to me in their own way. I’ll mention some:

  • Smoke-Induced Halucination : this figure of a woman with long hair was one I discovered in the first batch of smoke I shot. It’s the one that made me look for more.
  • Smoke Creature: this form of a dancing creature came up in the same shoot, and I like it for its elegance and composition
  • Scary Smoke: a shot of a predator-like creature, probably one of the most popular ones
  • Boy with new Balloon, Queen of Hearts, Gemini, Friends console each other, The Warrior-Prophet, Schwarzenegger and his Bond girls, and one of my latest ‘Homage to Magritte’ [LINK]
  • the more abstract ones I like as well, but the names are less interesting

It is probably best for people to look at the picture first, think about it, and then look at the title I gave it. My interpretation of the smoke is not the only one possible. In some pictures I see many things, and I’m sure other people will see yet others or none at all.

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Q: The photos on your website all look worthy of hanging in a gallery. Have you had buyers approach you to buy or license your work?

A: Actually my work hasn’t been shown in a gallery yet. A restaurant in Manhattan, called Smokin’ Q, had 12 of my pieces on the wall ranging up to 20×30, but the Q had to close doors about a year later. Fortunately I was able to visit the restaurant on a trip to New York before it closed. I hope to have an official exhibition some day to get some more exposure. Last year I was contacted by the American band Widespread Panic, they had seen my work and wanted to use one of my pictures on a t-shirt for their tour. We worked out a license deal on the Gemini picture and they have printed and have been selling t-shirts to their fans. Others have contacted me for book covers, CD-cover images, company logos, event posters etc. One advertising agency is interested as well, but the right client/product opportunity hasn’t come along yet.

For those interested, I do sell prints of my work, usually printed on metallic paper, which seems to give the smoke added dimension. As I try to print from an online printing house in the country of the buyer to reduce shipping cost, other paper may be used, and different options are available.

Q: Is there an online community of smoke shooters you can bounce ideas off of and learn more about your techniques?

A: There are some really good smoke photographers, and some have their own style or niche. There are some forums that discuss smoke photography from time to time in a thread, and flickr has a couple of smoke photography groups. I’ve come across a few article about smoke photography and it’s always interesting to see how things are explained. I have even been featured a few times, online and in print.

Q: Ok, now out with the secrets. How is this done? I guess the first obvious question is how do you get the smoke? I assume it’s more delicate than having your assistant lie down on the studio floor with a stogie puffing in your direction?

A: Not quite the way it’s done, although that would probably result in some interesting pictures as well. The smoke I shoot is from incense sticks. The nice thing about incense is that it’s cheap, smells nice and it produces smoke for a very long time. Even if you have to make some adjusments to your setup, no need to be in a rush, the smoke will still be there when you’re done.

Q: How do you handle the problem of fire-detectors sounding off every 5 min? Earplugs?

A: My previous apartment had a very sensitive fire-detector and it was located less than half a mile from the fire station… at least twice I had fire trucks in front of my place and a handful of firemen in my place before I got the chance to turn off the alarm. That was just due to my poor cooking skills, though it did make me very cautious about not triggering the alarm during a smoke shoot. Now I shoot the smoke in a room without a smoke detector, one less thing to worry about.

Q: I noticed some of them were shot on white and others on black backgrounds. Is one easier than the other?

A: There is no difference while shooting, it is all done in post-processing. I find not all pictures look good on black, and not all look good on white and I usually only decide late in the process which I’ll take. Basically it’s a matter of personal taste as well. I find that my images usually look better on black, but I also love some of the white background pictures by other artists.

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Q: Can you break down the bare essentials for us in terms of equipment and lighting. What do we need to have in order to experiment?

A: On the photography equipment side:

  • Camera with manual settings, and manual focusing
  • Off-camera light, preferably flash with synch cord, though a continuous light source may work as long as it can be directed and is strong enough
  • Snoot. I use the little box the off-camera cord came in, as it slides nicely over the flash).
  • Remote for shutter, not essential, but handy
  • Tripod for camera, and maybe one for flash though that’s not required. Sometimes I shoot with the flash and remote shutter in one hand, and the incense stick in the other

Other:

  • Incense sticks
  • Lighter or matches. This is obvious of course, but I have wasted a lot of time once trying to find a way to light the stick when everything was set up and ready to shoot.
  • Dark background. When I started I just used a black sweater hung over a chair, now I use a wall painted with blackboard paint (for the kids)
  • Dark and dustfree environment. I usually shoot at night, or in dark room with just a little bit of light to make sure I don’t bump into things. The room should be well ventilated, or at least large so you won’t find the scent too uncomfortable and also to keep unwanted smoke out of your picture: you only want to capture the smoke that is ‘just leaving’ the incense stick, not clouds of accumulated smoke. Well ventilated doesn’t mean you need to turn on a ventilator, as that would actually disturb the way the smoke flows, as would any draft.

Q: Can you walk us through the typical setup. We’ll need some hand holding, so start from the beginning.

A: The best advice I can give is control your light. Lighting is essential in photography in general, and is pivotal with smoke photography. Think about two aspects of the light, its direction and its strength.

Light direction: One of the basics is to light the smoke, not the background. This is why you can’t use your on-camera flash or natural/ambient light as it would make the background in the picture apparent. The solid background is more reflective than the smoke itself, so we would lose the contrast we are trying to create. So the key is to light the smoke and nothing (or hardly anything) else. I set up, or hold the flash at a 90 degree angle from the camera and as mentioned above I use a snoot to direct the light so it won’t spill on the background. You can experiment with distances and angles, some photographers light from above or below. There aren’t many hard rules, as long as the basic principles are understood. Most importantly enjoy the experimentation process.

Light strength: As we typically want to create sharp detailed smoke trails, we need to shoot with a high shutter speed (to freeze the smoke with out any motion blur), small aperture (to increase sharpness and DoF) and low ISO (to limit any noise and loss of detail). All of these settings essentially reduce the light that is captured by the sensor, and for this reason you will need a strong and powerful light source to compensate.

Which lens you use, and how far you place it from the smoke is up to you. I would suggest you use the sharpest and highest quality lens you have. Mine happens to be a zoom, which can be handy to rapidly change the composition during the shot. While you could try to set your focus while snapping off the first few shots, I usually focus even before lighting the stick with the lights still on. I hold something where the smoke will likely be, focus on it, and then make sure that the lens is set to manual focus for the rest of the shoot.

Ready to shoot! I use a manual shutter and even don’t even bother watching the smoke through the small viewfinder. Sometimes I will be stand behind the camera to check the composition and exposure of the resulting picture, but most of the time I will be next to the camera and flash, on my knees observing the smoke and capturing moments I think will look great, always ready to make some small adjustments when necessary. Throughout the shoot you may have to adjust your tripod as the incense stick gets shorter and the smoke filling your frame will no longer have the same quality. It’s very similar to capturing a living thing constantly in movement. Look for the sweet spot and direct your attention there.

Q: Ok, so we have some decent shots, now on to post production work. Is this where you spend most of your time? How long does it take to colorize a single image? Do we have to be an expert in Photoshop?

A: While you don’t have to be an expert, it will certainly help to be fairly proficient with your photo editing software.

Editing the shots actually takes longer than the shooting. First of all, just going through all the shots takes time. I usually end up with a couple of hundred after each shoot to sort through. The time you spend on that will depend on what you’re trying to get as end result. Bear in mind that you’re looking for “potentials” at this point, not for a gorgeous end result. I usually make a couple of passes through all the pictures, sometimes again long after the shoot as you may not notice the same things you did that day. The next steps usually follow this basic order.

First, adjust the background. If you find a picture you like, open it up in your photo editing software and rotate it the way that looks most appealing to you. It is important to have a black background. You can use levels to adjust fine tune this, but too much adjustment will start affecting your smoke as well. I usually do a combination of levels and actually painting over the black with a black brush (on a new layer) so there are no obvious traces of where you painted (or where you didn’t). You can add an ‘invert’ adjustment layer to see what it looks like on a white background, and you may find some more spots to fix. You can also decide which of the backgrounds looks better, or use both as I did here in “Old & New”.

OLD-NEW-PIC.jpg

Next up is the crop tool. You may want to focus in on a particular area of the smoke to get the composition you want. You can also increase your canvas size with a black background and then crop to your original pixel values if you want to change the composition without losing the picture size or ratio.

Stylize it. You may already have a great picture ready to show off. If you decide to sharpen the smoke, I suggest not sharpening it too much, as it will increase the grain and if the lines are too sharp it just isn’t so pleasing to the eye (imho). You want colors? There are a couple of ways to do it. I usually use hue/saturation adjustment layers with masks, but you could also color on a new layer and play with blending modes. The time it takes to color the smoke depends on how you want it to look. All the smoke in blue, or in a gradient from blue to yellow could be fairly quick. It took me quite a bit more time to color ‘Queen of Hearts’.

Mirror it. If you want to create some symmetrical figures, you can mirror the smoke, which was what I did on many of the ‘creatures’ in my work. Usually I do this just after opening the picture: I copy the layer and flip it horizontally, then set blending mode to ‘lighten’. A good example of this is my “Homage to Magritte”. Looking at the break down here gives you an idea of the direction I took with this image.

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There are many parts of the process you can experiment with, both during shooting and while doing the post production, so have fun!

Q: Last question. Do you smoke?

A: It’s a question I get often and some ask me what I smoke as well, to come up with such visions. I don’t smoke. Anything.

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