Capturing swirls of smoke on camera is a fast track way to put photographic images with an ephemeral feel in your portfolio; and creating the right setting is easier than you might think!

What you will need

  • Camera

  • Tripod (optional)

  • Incense stick, a holder and something to light it with

  • Black card or fabric and something to hang it with

  • External Flash with remote, or friend willing to push the button

  • Free standing reflector or halogen light

The set up

Make sure you choose a draft free room, the larger the better, but also one with a window that you can open to clear the space of smoke once in a while for super impressive shots.

Set the black card up against the wall
About 1.5m metres away set up the incense stick in the holder
Either side of this set up a flash and the reflector or secondary light facing each other

Camera settings
Put your camera in manual mode and start with the following settings:

  • Low ISO –100 to avoid a grainy shot

  • Small Aperture – f/8 for a good depth of field

  • Fast shutter speed – 1/250 to ‘freeze’ the motion of the smoke

All of these combined means that you will have to use lots of light to compensate, hence the need for a flash.

To make sure that your focus is correct – get someone to hold an object a few centimetres above the incense stick before you begin. By focussing on that you won’t have much adjusting to do after your test shots.

Top Tip: Make sure that your light sources shine across your shoot to avoid illuminating the black backdrop or the front of your camera – one will define the setting rather than the subject and the other creates lens flare.

Aim and Fire!

Your aim will either be to photograph smoke, maybe as part of a scene, or to create a picture using smoke – an abstract shot maybe.

If you are using smoke to create a picture try a few of these ideas for interrupting the flow of the smoke without losing clarity:

  • Slowly swipe a ruler through the plume

  • Disturb the air nearby gently to create indirect movement

  • Hold and object over the incense stick to disrupt the flow of the smoke such as a spoon or a hand for example

Remember: to get a good image, you need to create contrast. Try turning off the room lights and shutting curtains to cut out ambient light pollution – the aim is to have the backdrop as black as possible whilst getting the smoke as white as possible.

Top Tip: Every so often, extinguish the incense stick, open the windows and clear the room of smoke, because after a while the space fills up with smoke particles, making it difficult to get a crisp shot.

Post Production

For truly abstract images, use postproduction software such as Photoshop to invert the image and add dynamic streaks of colour.

Many people find that by creating a white background, you add an instant element of abstract to the image. The use of hue and saturation tools can be used on any image to colour the smoke and create some interesting effects.

September 13th, 2012
Fantastic advice :D thanks.
September 14th, 2012
Wonderful, thank you x
September 14th, 2012
I did most of what is listed here for a shot I took a few months back. My only difference is I did a long exposure, instead of short. I'm very pleased with the result! And the setup isn't too hard. I'd definitely recommend this technique to anyone.

September 16th, 2012
Is there a cheat's way to do it without the external flash?
September 17th, 2012
@amyamoeba You really need the flash to "freeze" the smoke, and it really needs to be off to the side, otherwise it throws too much light on the black background. If there IS a cheat, I don't know it. :-( Sorry!
September 19th, 2012

Awesome tutorial! I went to a hookah house with some friends and just took some pictures and then did color correction last night. I was able to get awesome shots with the built in flash but I could imagine the external flash might make it more interesting.
September 19th, 2012
I am soooo gonna try this out! Fab ideas! Thank you :)
September 19th, 2012
Will have a go at this but any ideas how to make the smoke coloured
September 19th, 2012
Thank you!

September 20th, 2012
@amyamoeba Here is my setup for the shot I posted.

The incense is raised on a basket, and I have a lamp slightly behind and underneath the incense shining upwards, and off the black cloth. No external flash needed.

@stanners72 Color of the smoke depends on what you are burning. Otherwise, there is Photoshop. :-)
September 22nd, 2012
wonderful information. thanks for sharing.
September 23rd, 2012
wow thanks for the tips, i got some holiday soon, must try this
September 25th, 2012
thank you so much for this. i thought i was going to have to take up smoking!
November 29th, 2012
I will give it a go thanks for showing me how..:-)
December 26th, 2012
@amyamoeba Maybe try it with a lamp, spotlight or a large flashlight?
January 7th, 2013
wonderful tips, will try it !
May 27th, 2013
same here, thanks for this informative blog,.. I just found a new great info about at Nag Champa Incense Sticks
June 8th, 2013
I am going to give it a try, seeing your setup really helps :-). Thanks for the detailed info
January 24th, 2015
Here is one that I got when I did smoke photography. I set up a bunch of flashlights around the room and aimed them through the smoke. That seemed to help a lot.
July 11th, 2015
Great info. Thanks heaps.
January 2nd, 2024
It makes me remind to this smoke dash subzero-golden-incense-stick They are both beautiful.
May 20th, 2024
Though it's not a good idea to play games like these too often and ignore other responsibilities, I think it's good to occasionally spend time doing so because they help to release tension.
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