How to Photograph Color Smoke Using Two Flash Units

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View sample images from this photo tutorial on photographing colored smoke.

Video Transcript

Hi my name is Alyn Stafford for the Photography Lighting School, welcome to another episode of our lighting techniques tutorials. In this episode I’m going to show you how to photograph smoke using two flash units and colored gels.

So, you’ll need no Photoshop experience or you won’t even need to use Photoshop for this lesson.

What you’re going need though are two flash units; in this case I’m using a Nikon SB 800 and Nikon SB 600. I have two homemade grid spots right here that I made myself.

Two umbrella stands with a cold shoe mount or adapter on top. I have one shown here. You will need at least two light stands as I have one of them shown here. And some colored gels.

These particular colored gels come standard with the Nikon SB 800, which has actually been discontinued, but you can get them with the SB 910. You can also get them for the SB 600. If you’re not shooting with Nikon then you can always purchase colored gels.

I like to buy me Lee filters. This is the a master pack, which has all kinds of, all kinds of different colored gels on them and I cut them up into small strips and then tape them over the top of my flash heads utilizing some gaffers tape which won’t stick or leave any residue or resin on the flash.

And finally what you’re going to need are something that generates smoke in this case I’m using incense. I have two incense holders here.

My incense, vanilla flavor, and something to light the incense with.

I recommend using incense because they’re less hazardous, if a fire can be less hazardous. But they are less hazardous than using candles, where some people might use, or anything else that may generate smoke. Again, this is up to you. Know your environment. If you’re going to use anything other than incense, I recommend you have water nearby or fire extinguisher for the unlikely event that the something catches on fire. Hopefully it doesn’t though.

Also you will need, I’m utilizing a black, a black cloth or black material backdrop. You can utilize poster board because this lesson focuses on photographing colored smoke with a black backdrop, not a white backdrop.

Alright, so let’s get started.

Okay, I’ve placed the incense inside the incense holders, and take notice that I’ve placed the heads rather closely to each other rather than far away because, what I wanted to keep that smoke rising somewhat close in proximity so I don’t have the smoke spread all over the, the frame of the camera.

Let’s go ahead and light these two. I would recommend using one of these here lighters.

And there we go, we’ve got the smoke. That first one did not light, so let’s try it again.

Sometimes these things are duds, especially if you buy them at the dollar store.

Okay, there we go, nice bit of smoke there that would have been a great shot.

It’s always good to work with an assistant as well because you can be ready, in position, to capture the image while your assistant lights it and gets you that first initial puff of smoke.

Alrighty now, I’ve set up and lit the, the incense. I’ve done a couple of test shots.

If you want to take a look at the first shot, here.

In this first shot, my light, my grid spots off a little bit. So what I did is made some adjustments in order to have it focused on the, on the incense. And what I’ve done is to get some additional test shots and that’s why my incense kind of whittled down a little bit or burn down a little and right now what I wanted to turn off the studio life and start shooting. I’m going to leave the ambient light on so that I can focus and see what I’m doing. However, that will not affect the final image, because I’m using a black backdrop and it’s absorbing the light.

So, let’s go ahead and get started here. Kill the floodlight.

I got my lights in position with the grid spots and we’ll take a few test shots here.

Let’s take a look at that one. That one looks good, just a straight, straight line of smoke. Now, I have the AC (air conditioning) turned off so it does not affect the smoke output. Let’s try a few of, there’s an interesting little pattern there.

What I’m doing is I’m focusing on the tip of the incense. Some of your images are going to end up a little blurry, especially if you’re hand holding your camera; I recommending mounting it on a tripod, and actually, actually using a trigger, a cable release of some sort or a wireless trigger. That one looks good.

That one’s an interesting looking flame shot there. I’m getting a good mixture of red and blue colors from the, the flashes and the gels that are covering them.

Let’s take a few more, and that looks pretty good.

Alright, I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. If I forgot anything the video I’ll have it in my lesson notes.

Until next time, thanks for watching.