focal length: 50 mm
shutter speed: 1/160
aperture: f/9
ISO: 320
flash: fired off-camera to the right

Last night, our photo club set out to photograph smoke. You have probably seen beautiful images of the wispy subject before and perhaps even wondered how to do that yourself. Well, it’s pretty simple actually.

Materials needed:

  • a few incense sticks
  • incense holder - eg. a jar of rice, playdough
  • black backdrop
  • external flash for use off-camera
  • trigger for flash - eg. pc sync cord, pocket wizards
  • black paper to flag your flash and prevent light spill
  • desk lamp
  • camera with manual controls
  • 50mm lens or longer
  • a well ventilated room

We set up our station as depicted above. I had a small, black fleece blanket that I taped to the wall. The desk lamp on the left served to light the smoke so we were able to focus on it. It might be best to focus manually in this case. The external flash was set to the right of the smoke. We had two systems going - one (SB-800) rigged with pocket wizards and one using (SB-600) to be triggered by my Nikon D300’s built-in flash (set at zero power - set only to act as a commander).

The SB-800 had two black pieces of paper attached by rubber band on both sides of the flash head to prevent any light splashing onto the background and onto our lenses. The SB-600 had a very ghetto snoot(a black tube around the flash head) to do basically the same thing but the cone of light was more restricted.

Here’s a shot of the SB-600 going off. You can see the light was well contained and aiming at the smoke slightly from behind and to the right.

Suggested Settings:

  • low ISO (eg. ISO 200) - for clean images
  • small aperture (eg. f/8 or smaller) - greater depth of field
  • fast shutter speed (eg. 1/160 or faster but below your high speed sync speed) - to freeze smoke
  • high flash power (eg. 1/4 or more powerful)

You can use that as a starting point and adjust your settings and flash power as you shoot.

Sometimes the simple wisps of smoke can be most striking.

Capture the tip of the incense stick for another focal point and wait for the smoke to rise like mini cyclones.

Add a human subject while still bringing focus to the smoke.

The great thing about flash photography is that your images probably need very little processing. The only changes I’ve made in Lightroom on most of my smoke images is a little boost in exposure and spot healing some bright spots of dust and ash to clean up the background. You can adjust your white balance in-camera or by using your editing program to change the colour of the smoke.

To get a completely different photo, invert the image (In Photoshop, Image > Adjustments > Invert) and then adjust the hue/saturation to get the colour you want.

From this:

To this:

So, what do you think? Isn’t it worth giving it a try?

You may also be interested in:
How to photograph water drops

Laura is a Vancouver wedding and portrait photographer. Visit