Friday, June 11, 2021
Welcome back! I just finished writing about my trek yesterday through Wilkes and Yadkin Counties and shared with you the resulting four images from that trip. At the end I teased this entry a little bit. I have been sitting on these images for a couple of days now as I have been working on fresh edits of them. They were all originally shot back in the Winter of 2017 when I wanted to do some photography but the weather wasn’t conducive to me getting out. What you are going to be looking at here are a series of images where I captured abstract forms through the capture of smoke. It is a technique that I learned about 10 years before that and it is a lot of fun to do. The problem is, it gets to be really frustrating rather quickly because most of the frames that you capture are worthless. Add to that the fact that you can only go for about 30 minutes at a time before the air is filled with smoke and you lose the ability to really capture the structure.
I’ve only done this type of photography a couple of times and am starting to consider doing it again with some new lighting equipment that I have on the way. The concept is pretty simple with how to capture the images. You just simply freeze the smoke with your flash. The difficult part comes from creating the shapes which is done with a gentle breeze either from your hand or from your mouth. Without this addition, the smoke will just stream straight up in a line. The second concern is focus because you have to lock the focus on the area where you expect the smoke to be traveling while being blown around. There is no time to get an auto focus lock before the image is captured. All that is left is hoping that the action will remain in the frame of the camera so you can record the motion.
The basic setup goes a little something like this. You get a black background that will absorb, not reflect light. Situate an incense cone, not a stick about 12 inches or so in front of the backdrop. You want the cone because it will continue burning in the same location while the stick will gradually change location relative to the camera. You will then set a single flash to one side and flag the light so it doesn’t come back to the camera. The flash will be aimed 90 degrees to the camera shooting across the field of view. For added contrast, you can use a secondary flash on the opposite side with a slightly underexposed pop of light in comparison to the primary flash. Both should be flagged so that they don’t create glare on the lens.
The camera will then be set up on a tripod close to the line of smoke that will develop from the burning incense. Ideally you will have a macro lens which is capable of focusing in close so you can fill your frame with the smoke. You will need a remote trigger for your flash(es) mounted to the hotshoe of the camera and then you will need a remote shutter release. You can’t use the self timer here because you have to time the exposure just right or you will miss the designs that are created. The light levels need to be dim for this so that the only visible part of the exposure is the smoke itself, and only during the pop of the flash.
With everything set up, take a ruler and place it over the incense cone so you can focus on the plane that the smoke will be rising. Get the focus locked manually so that it won’t change and light the cone. The smoke will settle down quickly. Make sure that you don’t have the A/C or heat running as any drafts will disrupt the smoke and cause issues. Once everything has calmed down and the stream of smoke is well formed, you can take a test exposure to make sure that you have everything correct. For these, I went with f/8 for a decent depth of field, ISO 100 for a clean image, and 1/250 of a second which was the fastest sync speed for my 5D Mk3. I can’t remember the power that my flash was set at, but I’m thinking it was 1/4 power for this. The idea is that you don’t get much clipping in the highlights due to the flash. You will see most of the image histogram stacked up on the left as the majority of the image will be solid black. You should be able to tell what you have pretty quickly in the image review.
Now that you have the exposure set and the equipment ready to go, use your hand and wave gently just below the line of the lens which will cause a disruption in the stream of smoke. It is this disruption that causes the shapes and designs to develop. After each exposure, you have to wait for a few seconds until the smoke calms down before trying a new exposure. Obviously, the compositions can’t be planned or even considered. You just have to hope that the action is captured in the frame you have selected. The higher the resolution camera you have the better able you will be to crop in after the fact and to use a wider field of view. When I was shooting these, I didn’t want to lose any more resolution than was absolutely necessary so I was shooting to fill the frame correctly. There was very little cropping that happened after the fact with this 24-70mm lens which has a mild macro capability.
The longer you shoot, the more the room will fill with smoke which will then get captured by the flash causing the contrasts to ultimately fade which is where the image comes from. Depending on the size of your room, you will only be able to do this technique for about a half hour before the room becomes too smoky to continue. Of course, if you are like me, the smell from the incense will get to you long before that. This is a type of photography that gives me a serious headache and I usually feel a bit sick on my stomach afterwards. Granted, I was doing this in a 12×13′ room with the door closed to keep any drafts at bay. I’m actually looking forward to trying it in my 900sqft studio space because there is a lot of area for the smoke to dissipate in while I am working.
The real fun part comes after the image capture. Unlike much of the photography that I do, this is where post processing becomes the image rather than just an enhancement of what was already captured. This was where this particular attempt fell a bit short. I was still learning Lightroom and I had very little understanding of Photoshop. In one of the earlier versions of Photoshop that I had used, I could figure out how to inverse the colors by clicking a button, but hadn’t figured that trick out in Lightroom just yet. I ended up editing all of my images with a black background which is fine, but you end up losing so much potential because this type of photography looks great when done as a high key image.
It was my current understanding of Lightroom that prompted me to run these through the editing process once again. I wasn’t quite sure what I would get, but I figured it would be good practice for me in preparation of trying this technique out again in the future. I’m hoping that having dual flashes will help add contrast to the image and give me more information to work with. As I put these images through Lightroom again, I was able to handle the subtle colors much better than I had previously. It was still an odd workflow for me as this type of photography lends itself better to global edits than local which goes against how I typically edit my images these days. The biggest benefit that I had this time around was I had figured out how to swap the channels in the tone curve to allow for a color negative effect to be seen. This gave me that high key look to the images and allowed for different colors to be brought into the frame. I still liked the “original” low key presentations on a few of them and they came across as quite interesting after the edits were done.
The fun with using smoke as a subject is that it becomes almost like cloud gazing. When you look at the totally random shapes you are left thinking about what recognizable shapes you are actually seeing. They each say something different to me, and the more I look, the more visions I start to have. Maybe it is the smell of the incense coming back and haunting my memory. I’m just not one who likes strong smells and to be working in that close a proximity to incense is not pleasurable for me. I do like the images that result though, and I think that they are all rather unique. They also show a different side of my photography which I need to explore more.
I hope you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane for me, and possibly learned how this type of image is created. I hope to be doing more of it in the near future so stay tuned. Of course, if any of these spark your interest and you could see them mounted on your wall, I would be thrilled to help you get matched up to your very own print.
Until next time….