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FORUMS Photography Talk by Genre Still Life, B/W & Experimental Talk
Thread started 03 Dec 2010 (Friday) 09:02
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Smoke Photography Tutorial...

 
katodog
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Dec 03, 2010 09:02 |  #1

Since I've been asked again for a tutorial, I thought I'd add the one here that I did for another forum. I'm no expert, but certain things I do may different from other techniques. This is a good start though, and there is room for refinement in the techniques I use I'm sure. Plus you'll see information for a few different methods, like shooting in the lightbox, shooting in the garage, etc..

Processing smoke images is either fairly straightforward or a pain in the neck, depending on what your shooting setup is. I’ve shot various setups, from in the garage to in the lightbox, and different setups yield different results, which alters processing workflow. I’m going to do a workflow for standard shots, and then do one for the “Smoke Art” imagery.

Lightbox shooting: Pretty simple setup: flash with diffuser inside lightbox, incense, black background. You get good light for the smoke, and it’s concentrated inside the box so everything gets lit up pretty good. The drawback is that when the box starts to fill with smoke you’re lighting everything, main smoke drifts and spillover smoke. This in itself isn’t bad, you still get great results, the problem is that you need to use processing trickery to get the shots.

Here is an example...


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The first thing I do is resize by 50%. The reason for this is to have an image size that’s easier and faster to work with, but also so I don’t have to do any fancy trickery when I upload to the web. At 50% it’s the perfect size to upload and not have it resized during the upload, which helps maintain image quality. The next step is to brighten the smoke, which you may think is as easy as boosting the exposure, but it’s not. You want to keep the background dark and only brighten the smoke. I use Curves, and adjust the top straight across to where I want it...


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After that, I use the Histogram to drop the background down to pure black.


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These two adjustments are done to however you want the smoke to look. Once I get the smoke to look “decent” I either color the smoke or leave it the way it is, and run it through Noiseware at Full Suppression twice, once on the image as-is, and once with the image inverted. This eliminates pretty much all noise on the image while maintaining the look of the smoke.

This is when I decide whether or not to leave it with the black background or invert the colors. Depends on how I think the image looks, no particular method here. If I decide to color the image, I use Hue/Saturation/Lightne​ss, or I use Adjust Gamma correction.


First off, an inverted image. At this point it’s not cleaned up yet...

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Here is Hue/Saturation/ Lightness...

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Here is Gamma...


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What you can do with the Gamma adjustment is raise or lower RGB to get whatever color you want. Gamma is going to give you one color, Hue/Saturation/Lightne​ss works with the tones that are in the smoke, you’re just enhancing them, so you’re going to get multiple colors. You can also color the smoke with gels, and if you play around a bit you can get some really cool effects, I’ll do a little bit on that later.

There’s a bit more you can do, use a paintbrush with a hardness around 20 and brush out any spots you don’t want, shape the smoke a bit better or remove hazy areas. Shooting in the lightbox requires a bit more effort in processing, but the results can be pretty good.


Next up: Shooting in the garage.

The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked - Photographers shoot to thrill, not to kill
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katodog
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Dec 03, 2010 09:03 |  #2

Working in the garage and working on a table are basically the same, the only difference is that in the garage I had enough space that I didn’t need to worry about the background too much. I could put the smoke pretty far from the background and shoot and still keep the background fairly black. The only difference with when I did it as that I wasn’t using a snoot on the flash, so I was lighting up the tools and stuff in the background, and sometimes a reflection or something would get in the shot. Sometimes I left it in, but most of the time I had to clean up shots.

As an example, the colors you see in this shot weren’t added, it’s the colors of what was in the background showing in the shot...


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Basically what I did for this shot was adjust Curves so that I brightened the smoke and at the same time dropped the background to black. It ended up getting rid of anything in the background, but the colors in the smoke stayed. I actually liked it this way and kept the shot.


Shots I did later in the garage I put a big dark sheet up over the background to eliminate the tools and such getting in the shots, and those results were basically the same as what I’m getting on the table top.

Which is this...


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How did I get this shot? Simple. I set up the incense on top of the short shelf in my office, which you saw in the first post in this thread. That setup gives the best smoke/background, and little processing is needed. The only things I do are to brighten the smoke a bit if needed, drop the background if needed, and then crop to what I want. The shot started out like this...


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As you can see the white wall shows in the shot, I need to find a larger black backdrop. But otherwise, the shot stands pretty fair on it’s own with no processing. I could just crop it, invert it, and done. But, what I do though is crop to get the shot I want and work from there. I do the Curves and Histogram adjustment to suit what I want to see, and then the runs through Noiseware. Then what I do is work on the inverted image, the black smoke on white background makes it a lot easier to see the little bits I want to clean up. After that it’s only a matter of figuring out what I want the image to look like, I can use a little bit of fill flash to brighten the darker areas, I can boost contrast, etc.. That all depends on what I want the final image to look like. My basic idea is to enhance the smoke and give it a good body and a lot of detail.


Next up: Working with gels and smoke art.

The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked - Photographers shoot to thrill, not to kill
My Gear- Flickr (external link) - Facebook (external link) - Smoke Photography - - Sound-Activated Paint

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katodog
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Dec 03, 2010 09:04 |  #3

Starting off, working with gels isn’t rocket science, you basically pick a color, or two or three, and slap them in front of the flash. Easy enough, you can use the built-in diffuser panel on the flash to hold the gels. But, with a snoot on you can’t, so what do you do? You make a gel holder, and the funny thing is you have all you need to do it in your house right now.

CD case, razor blade (please be careful), matches or a lighter.


You pull the clear cover apart from a CD case and use the razor blade to score the plastic so you can break off unnecessary pieces. I used the front of a slimline case, and scored and snapped the folded edges off. Then I scored the plastic so I could snap off the excess and make it the size I wanted. Then, and this is the fun part, you get to play with fire. Simply take a match or lighter and hold it under the plastic, with the tip of the flame about a quarter of an inch away from the plastic. You want to heat it, not burn it. It will get a little dark, but only where the bends are so it won’t interfere with the color of your gels.

You’ll only need to hold the flame under it long enough for it to start to bend, then just bend it to form the part for the gels to slide into. Then hit it with the flame again to make a small ledge to put a piece of Velcro on, so you can Velcro the holder to the snoot.


Basically what it would look like, and it might take you one or two times to make it the way you want it to be...


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I have a couple of Rosco packs, the little strips that you could get for basically free back a few years ago. I don’t know if they still do it or not, but it might be worth it to check them out and see. Since I have more than one pack I decided to cut a few of them in half long-ways, so I could fit three colors into the holder. As it is, the holder I made will hold one full one and half of another. If you put two full ones in they overlap, which in itself can create cool colors. No matter how you do it gels can give you some pretty dang cool-looking smoke...


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These and many of the others I’ve posted were done with gels, no processing trickery involved. The only thing I do is the same as I did for any other smoke shot, enhanced the smoke and dropped the background. Otherwise, apart from cropping or cleaning bits and pieces, these are how the look straight out of camera. Of course, regardless of how you color the smoke, it’s obvious by the ridiculous amount of smoke images that I’ve posted that the possibilities are endless. One cool thing about smoke photography is that you can create artwork out of it. While you may say the smoke in itself is plenty artsy enough, you can’t deny that these...


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...aren’t pretty dang cool and artsy. These were done pretty easily, and how I did it comes up next...

The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked - Photographers shoot to thrill, not to kill
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katodog
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Dec 03, 2010 09:05 |  #4

Start with a finished smoke image, any smoke image, doesn’t matter. Every smoke image you come up with can be made into something. I like to use images where the smoke ran out of the image, it gives me a clean edge to match together. Once I pick an image I resize it by 50% (the original image was already resized once, but that is not the same as this resize). The reason for the resize is because the final “art” image is going to be four times bigger, and working with a larger file is going to create an even larger file, and it’ll get mooshed when you upload it to the net. I always maintain image sizes during processing that are going to be the sizes I use to upload, that way no compression takes place and my images look the way they’re supposed to look.

I copy the resized image, and then paste it onto a large canvas. Black or white, doesn’t matter. First off, don’t use the magic wand or freehand selection tool, just copy the whole image. I work with the image either as-is or inverted, depending on what I want the final result to look like. Here’s an image, start to finish...


Straight out of camera, resized by 40% and inverted...

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I then resize by 50% to get the image to the size I want to work with. This isn’t necessary, and if I were going to print these at a large size I wouldn’t resize. But for uploading to the web I like to maintain a certain size so little to no compression takes place. Anyhow, once I resize I copy the image. I create a new, blank image, say with a white or black background depending on what I’m working with, and then I paste the image onto it.

Then, I paste again as a new selection, and float it to where I want it. The good thing about pasting as a new selection is that not only can you move the image around, but you can flip or mirror it too. When I paste the second time, I mirror the image and then move it to match the first paste. I left a small space between the two so you can see what it looks like before mating...


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I’m basically just working with the same copied image, and flipping and/or mirroring it and matching it together. Once I get things where I want them, I get this...


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Or, if I want to work with the original, non-inverted image, I get this...


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the thing with image inversion is it goes both ways, you can work with the image in one version, and if you want to switch it you just invert it. PSPX2 has a very simple one-click tool that inverts colors, named “Negative Image”. All I have to do is click it and it automagically inverts colors. I could hit it all day long and flip between black background and white background, and flip-flopping colors, if I wanted to. Every “Smoke Art” image I’ve posted has been done in this manner, copy/paste onto background and mate the egdes. The funky-looking ones, like these...


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...are done the same, the only difference is that I use the magic wand to create my selection. The reason for that is because I don’t want the whole image frame, I just want the smoke itself. This way I can flip/mirror/rotate, etc., any way I want and drop the image wherever I think it looks good.


So, there you have it, basic, but not so basic. The good thing about it is that you don’t need any fancy setups or special gear, everything I use is either camera/lens/flash/trig​ger, or something I made for free out of cardboard or plastic. The only money spent was on the incense. The wood I use to hold the incense is a piece of old trim that was laying around in the garage, I simply drilled a small hole in it at an angle to stick the incense into. The snoots I use were made from cardboard out of the recycle bin, the gel holder a bent CD case. The other good thing is time; I can go from camera bag to finished shot in about ten minutes. Processing takes the longest amount of time, and even with everything I’ve shown here I can do a shot in less than two minutes.


Okay, I’m done. I’m certainly no expert, and I’m no ace story-teller, but there you have it. Any questions, anything I missed, please feel free to let me know.

The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked - Photographers shoot to thrill, not to kill
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elogical
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Dec 03, 2010 10:25 |  #5

thanks, very nice. I love taking smoke pictures but I never thought to use colored gels though, i think i'll have to try that soon. I've colored them in post before but it never occured to mix multiple colors in the same shot with the flash.


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katodog
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Dec 03, 2010 10:43 |  #6

Thanks.

It's funny what you think of when you're in the house trying to think of things to shoot. I kept coloring the smoke in processing, and for some reason the gels I never use popped into my head.


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Dec 13, 2010 19:44 |  #7

Thanks for this. I have this on my list to do.


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Dec 13, 2010 20:06 |  #8

You're welcome. Be careful though, when you have a lot of time on your hands and nothing to shoot outside, it becomes a bit of an obsession.


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Jan 14, 2011 18:15 |  #9

Excellent work!!! You've got some super amazing shots on your flickr site. I'm going to read your set up post on the chicagophotoshop.com site. Thanks for sharing and all the info. I'm goint to try to incorporate the smoke capture technique into a lit match. Then I have a feeling that I'm going to dive into smoke all my itself.... I can see it becoming a little addictive.


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Jan 14, 2011 18:16 |  #10

Is the snoot paramount? I don't have one but I'm sure I can make one easy enough.


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Jan 14, 2011 18:33 |  #11

Without the snoot you'd get spillover onto your background, which isn't a killer, but it is a pain in the neck trying to process out hot spots without killing the look of the smoke. I just made mine out of cardboard boxes. Basically took a piece of cardboard, folded it around my flash head, and taped it together. All i have to do is slide it on the flash, and the joy of it is you can make it any length for really directing the light, and give it any sized opening for different coverage. I made a wide-mouthed one so I could put a whole bunch of gels on it, really gives a cool effect depending on which way you angle it.


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Jan 14, 2011 18:38 |  #12

And you're welcome, thanks for the great comments.


About the match shots; I stuck a match into a tea-light candle, and then lit it with a fireplace lighter. It's kinda tricky getting it right, but I just start shooting before the head ignites, and don't stop until the match is fully lit. I toss a lot of shots out, but the few that come out good are pretty cool.


Problem is I ran out of matches and haven't been out to get more. I need to go out and get a big box of stick matches so I can get some more flame shots.

If you really want to have some fun, you should check out the inverted paint dropsexternal link. The first shots were done with soap, and aren't all that spectacular, but the later ones with paint are pretty good. You've just got to love winter projects.


The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked - Photographers shoot to thrill, not to kill
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Jan 14, 2011 18:51 |  #13

I did check out your inverted paint drops they're awesome! It has got me thinking because I love audio as well. I've got some ideas brewing for that shoot. I'll post and share my methods when I do it.

I've got an engineer friend that has pulled a laser out of a DVD burner, wrote a program for it, and we're going to use it with a computer to ignite the match, and shoot from there. He really wants to use his laser....should be interesting anyway.

I'm going to apply the snoot technique, and the aproximate camera settings to hopefully get good smoke captures.

The one thing I found is that when the match is really flaring up the flame is erratic and not very elegant, but that's when all the smoke is created. Then the flaring slows down to a nice clean burn, and then the smoke is gone. That's the crux for me.

Thanks again for all the info and dialog, I can't wait to get off work and get started!


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Jan 20, 2011 12:11 |  #14

Thanks. I had to look up "Mandala" to figure out what it was.


The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked - Photographers shoot to thrill, not to kill
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Jan 24, 2011 09:41 |  #15

Awesome photos. Thanks for sharing the tutorial. If anyone needs to watch a video on smoke photography I found one Smoke Photography Videoexternal link


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