Smoke Photography Tutorial

In order to beat the winter blues, I have been delving into more abstract photography using a basic DIY home studio setup. Smoke photography is a unique and creative form of photography that is quite easy to conduct with the right equipment. First, we will begin with our final photograph:


What I used:

  • Canon 5D Mark II with EF 24-70 f/2.8L lens
  • Tripod to ensure stability while shooting a series of images
  • Canon Speedlite 430 EXII set remotely off camera
  • Flash trigger
  • Incense to generate smoke
  • Black piece of bristol board for backdrop
  • Table lamp
  • Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6 for post-processing


  1. Set up the bristol board on a wall so that it will cover the background where the smoke is emitted.
  2. Place the incense about one foot away from the wall (don’t light the incense immediately unless you want to risk being smoked out of your apartment).
  3. Set up the lamp about a foot away (depending on the amount of light, this can be adjusted as you go) at either the 3:00 or 9:00 position relative to the incense.
  4. Set up the flash on the opposite side of the incense from the light source (remember that you need a way to trigger it remotely, either wireless or wired like mine). Put black flaps onto the sides of the flash so that no light is spilled onto the backdrop (this is not depicted in the photo below, but I used scotch tape to attach sections of bristol board onto the side of my flash, no one said it had to look pretty).
  5. Set up the camera on a tripod so that the top of the incense is in the lower part of your frame. This will allow you to focus on capturing the smoke, as the incense stick will be edited out of your photo later anyways.

Essentially this is what your setup should look like (horrible photo taken with my shitty camera phone):


Taking the Photo:

  1. Now that you are ready to go, light the incense and turn on the table lamp. This should be your primary light source, and you can turn off any overhead lights at this time.
  2. Set the flash to 1/16 power to begin, you can adjust it accordingly.
  3. Camera settings are up to you. For a guide, I put my camera in manual mode, set the ISO at 400, f/8.0, and a shutter speed of 1/200s. I also HIGHLY recommend (as always) that you shoot in RAW mode. This will grant you far more flexibility when it’s time to post process.
  4. Focus your lens on the tip of the incense, then switch the lens into manual focus. This will prevent your lens from readjusting as you go.
  5. Start shooting! This is the fun part, so get creative. Gently blowing on the smoke creates an array of unique patterns.
  6. When you feel happy with the shots you have, you are finished.
  7. Optional: at this point, I decided that I wanted to use a stationary object (the espresso cup) in my image. I shot a series of simple static images that I would use as my base for post processing. This allows the image to gain a bit of context, and I recommend using an object of sorts to create the illusion of the smoke emitting from a source.

Post-processing (Disclaimer: in this section I am assuming the user has a functional knowledge of Adobe RAW and Photoshop. If you don’t, and would like a more detailed explanation please email me at

  1. Open the image in RAW. At this stage I only adjusted contrast and shadow sliders in order to minimize the white areas surrounding the smoke.
  2. Import your smoke image into Photoshop. Here you can use a black paintbrush as your foreground colour in order to paint out any areas that you wish to hide in your final image.
  3. Import the photo of the cup (or other object) into Photoshop following a similar series of adjustments.
  4. Use to Move tool to align the layers so that they will form a cohesive image when you use your layer mask.
  5. Use layer masking with the cup as your background layer, then fill the layer mask with black and use a white brush to bring the image of the smoke into your background image.
  6. In order to create the colour combinations of the smoke, simply adjust the Hue/Saturation sliders. There are plenty of other post processing options at this stage, get creative!
  7. As you can see, my image features two coffee cups. At this stage I selected a different smoke image and followed the steps above. I used the same image of the cup to create a uniformity to the final photo. Simply create a new canvas which mirrors the height of your image but doubles your width, then drag (after unlocking the layers) both images onto your new white canvas, to create the final photograph.

That’s all there is to it! I hope you have found this tutorial helpful. Any comments (positive or negative) are always welcome.


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