Guest post: Smoke Photography

Smoke #14 copy
Smoke #34 copy
Smoke #69 copy
This guest post on smoke photography is by Paul Bonnichsen:

Fall photography brings photographers out in droves, but as winter approaches the majority of photographers pack their cameras away until spring. I somewhat fell into this pattern for many years except that my commercial photography continues year around. My life and photography changed two years ago when I viewed my first smoke photo on the internet. The beauty I saw in smoke reminded me of my first glimpse inside lower Antelope Canyon.

Smoke #01 copy
Smoke photography remains somewhat new as the first smoke photos hit the internet around 2007 by photographer Graham Jeffery of the UK. Smoke photography of portfolio quality is strictly a numbers game... on average I can expect one keeper for every one hundred clicks of the shutter. After approximately fourteen thousand photos of smoke over the last two and a half years, I now seek only the most unique images and find myself keeping only one or two images for every three hundred plus shots.

Smoke #39 copy
One might ask how the number of keepers could be so low. For those who have worked with macro photography, I dare say you have cursed the wind more than once in your life. Now imagine that successful smoke photography relies on wind turbulence to create stunning images... on the downside, the air movement pushes the smoke in and out of focus and nothing gets rejected faster than an out of focus smoke photo.

Smoke #45 copy
Lets get down to what is really needed for smoke photography. Two strobes or monolights are required... three in my opinion work even better. Smoke needs to be backlit just a tad and flags come in handy for keeping stray light from reaching the black background or light reaching the lens of your camera. A small pin light is required to shine on the smoke because you’ll want to shoot in total darkness... remember it is vital to keep light from reaching the black background. A tripod and cable release are required, and of course a digital camera... do not under any circumstances consider film.

#3 #7
I use a Nikon D700 with a 105 micro lens for my smoke photography. I light the smoke from the sides using soft boxes and then direct a beam of light hitting the smoke from floor level which seems to work best. For the 105 micro, I prefocus on the incense sticks at approximately twenty inches before lighting them and I shoot vertically with the incense sticks being about one inch outside the framed area. Place the incense sticks (usually two for best results) in a self made holder and in a horizontal position... as they burn shorter you can easily pan your camera while keeping the smoke in the frame. For best results, I find that f/22 at 250th of a second gives good depth of field as long as the smoke stays within the prefocused area.

#56 #57
Once images have been selected, adjust in Photoshop as you would any other image. Smoke usually retains a blueish gray color... Photoshop can be used to enhance or give additional color; however, I prefer to use colored gels when shooting to give a more natural look. Keep backgrounds as black as possible by blocking stray light and air out the room after every one hundred shots or so which will also help in a rich black background.

#7 #90
Remember that air movement is crucial for successful smoke photography. Play with the smoke to disrupt its upward movement and fire away... smoke is like a snow

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

This entry was posted in Other Nikon stuff and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Obtusa

    This is beautiful work. Thank you very much for sharing it with us.

  • JosengSisiw1


  • Matt

    I like it! But I would also like a “behind-the-scenes” shot, showing your setup 😉

  • Gordon Stöver

    Looks really brilliant!

  • jr

    Excellent guest post! thank you.

  • Alex

    Can he explain why “under no circumstances consider film” when people have been doing these same kind of images of smoke for almost a 100 years. You might as well have a guest writer come on to tell us how to take a snapshots as well.

    • EAJ

      I believe the point is that the success rate is so low the cost would be forbidding, but the author’s warning is perhaps overstated. As with cameratoss photography and lensless refractography, although the keeper rate is very low, there are people who successfully use film.

      • J. Dennis Thomas

        I’ve been doing this for years. It’s not hard and if your keeper rate is less than 90% you’re not doing it right.

    • Pat Mann

      It was pretty self-evident to me, at about $1.00 per shot for using film. I don’t think any explanation is really required. If you want to use film for this, you go for it.

      On the other hand, never say never. I’d say the challenge is to you to think of a really good reason to use film for this instead of digital – that would be more useful to the rest of us than just criticizing the poster and making snide remarks.

      I found the post quite interesting and appreciated having it posted.

  • Robin

    Actually I enjoy the guest posts just as much as the rumours themselves. Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work.

  • Aldo

    True art.

    • Reality Check

      Hardly… even if the threshold of art is lowered to merely the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, taking snapshots of random smoke patterns barely qualifies as novel. We might as well consider pictures of clouds in the sky as art. Fundamentally nothing was created here, no artistic expression is evident. The OP is a technically skilled artisan, not an artist. Big difference.

      • ~fishguy

        OR: The art is in the post-processing and knowing which images to keep and which to toss – a true artist in my book.

        • Reality Check

          Right, so then cooks and food tasters are true artists too! It’s a wonderful world of mediocrity we create when no one is allowed to fail and everyone is called a winner.

          • David Kasman

            Interesting POV, I might even partially agree with you, but I recommend caution when attempting to define art.

          • Neopulse

            I get your POV. Although you say that no one fails, but in fact art is subjective. Kinda like the phrase, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Just because something isn’t your cup of tea, doesn’t mean it isn’t for everyone. I like what this photographer has done. Yes, smoke is smoke, but the tools and ideas he chose to exhibit his vision are well done in my book. Just as there are many oil paintings and marble sculptures in the world, what you do with it, is what counts. He did light the incense himself and waited for the right shots. And on the comment of the clouds, one has to wait to take the photo for the right one on the right day.

          • Aldo

            Sorry but there is no mediocrity here… You went off topic. Whether you decide to call it art or not… these works are professional none the less, and it takes various skills to produce these images.

          • captaindash

            You are very clearly demonstrating that people are indeed allowed to fail.

      • Clubber Lang

        As a series I think these images work.This person spent time thinking of a project and experimented with an idea. I honor that whether I like it or not. Also, I do believe that a photo of a cloud can still be art. That’s like saying a basic blues pattern that has been done over and over again can’t evolve into a new song. That’s like saying there will never be another great landscape painter because the same palette has been used for the last 200 years.
        The list goes on. Art pushes on as long as someone is willing to take chances and explore and that is what this person has done.

      • Aldo

        I guess it all depends on how you look at it. I would buy one of these prints and hang it on my wall instead of an actual painting of some clouds. This is art though, for many, many reasons I don’t feel like typing right now.

      • Pat Mann

        Pictures of clouds in the sky, trees in the forest, mountains in the landscape, people in the city, abandoned buildings with nature and graffiti taking over, buildings on the horizon, insects on a flower – all can be art.
        Does something have to be novel to be art? I think novelty is somewhat overrated as a criterion for quality of artistic endeavor. The artist that creates a new movement or technique or way of looking at things may not be the greatest exponent of that new area of expression, though she should get credit for creating it. I find depth of understanding and expression more important when I view this sort of expression and decide whether or not I consider it art.
        Or is no photography art? Is that your argument, or is it only art if the photographer sets up the scene completely, rather than takes photos of something already happening in the world without her intervention? The photographer did create these scenes, after all, setting up the smoke source, the lighting, and creating the turbulence that resulted in the patterns. Clearly there is a history of experimentation and selection in setting up the air currents that create the various patterns of the smoke seen in these photographs.

      • paintitwhite

        What is art? Baby don’t hurt me… don’t hurt me, no more…

        Philosophers have struggled to define art, but they have not been able to reach any consensus on it.

        You can have your own definition of what is art and not, but whatever your definition is, others will and will not agree 🙂

      • Superfly

        Then one can only assume that you alone are the judge of what is and isn’t art. Should we email you examples to request your blessing on potential works? I’d love to see what you consider to be art, though I’d imagine that it’s only something that you’ve produced…

  • Dixie

    I have to slightly correct the author’s statement “Smoke photography remains somewhat new as the first smoke photos hit the internet around 2007…” While it might be the case from pure artistic point of view, the technique itself, which was (and still is) used for decades in various fluid mechanics experiments, is not new by any means. The author might want to take a look at 1982 “Album of Fluid Motion” by Milton Van Dyke, pg. 24, 46, 97 etc. and some of the works by Alexandr Smits from Princeton engineering, it might provide some insights on how to control flow instabilities.

    • Superfly

      The cover itself proves the point.

  • js200022

    Very nice. You did a great job.

  • Are we there yet?

    How about a D400?

  • Jeff Hunter

    Cool idea!

  • Funduro

    Mesmerizing images. Incense, several Speedlights with gel and patience. Lots of us will try to replicate them. Cool raining day project.

  • fjfjjj

    “My life and photography changed two years ago when I viewed my first smoke photo on the internet… Smoke photography remains somewhat new as the first smoke photos hit the internet around 2007.”

    You’d think the whole world was invented on the Internet in the last few years. Heard of Étienne-Jules Marey? Here are some of his smoke photos below. He died before the computer was invented. Get out from behind that screen and explore the real art world!

    Pretty photographs. Keep going!

    • BernhardAS

      That has no emotional content for you?

      • fjfjjj

        The color ones, no. They look to me like Windows desktop backgrounds, designed to fall into the background. The Marey pictures in contrast feel like heavy dream land to me.

      • fjfjjj

        Is that you, ASLvB?

        • BernhardAS

          While it is indeed me. I do not recall being identified as ASLvB. At least not to my face.

    • JorPet

      Cool, air flow diagrams are now “cool”. I guess all the auto and plane manufacturers should start selling their “art” when they do these repeatable images.

      • fjfjjj

        Look up “repeatable” and “diagram”

    • Superfly

      Personally, I find the same amount of emotion in both, which is to say none at all. However, I do agree on your other points – this is not a new art form by far, but an art form nonetheless.

  • BernhardAS

    Great post. 55 and 82 and 57 are my favorites.

  • RichMonster

    Another interesting slant on smoke images is to invert the image to make a negative of the shot. It gives an even more delicate feel to the image. This works particularly well if you process as mono. Another thing I do is to turn the image 90˚ for an even more abstract look.

  • CC

    You note 1 of 100 smoke keepers, which is great for digital, and you say not to consider film. I shoot candid portraits,which are as elusive as smoke, and consider 1 of 100 great, but I used to shoot film, which forced me to be better. When I shot film, I regularly got a show worthy shot on every second roll or less.

  • suri

    wow… very nice post. thank you.

    i tried fake smoke photos

  • Back to top