Smoke Trails


Smoke Trailssmoke_01_colour_mirror1

The group decided this weeks Digital Imaging task was to photograph smoke trails. These make very interesting abstract images as, like the water splashes, each image is unique as the pattern generated by the smoke is entirely random. all the colour manipulation is done in post production using software of your choice, photoshop in my case.

The set up.

Set up is straightforward, with a plain black background, a single flash lighting the smoke from the side. The flash gun is triggered by a wireless trigger on the camera.


The background needs to be as black as possible, accordingly to minimise any light spillage onto the background I made some “flags” held on the flash gun with a elastic band. These were simply made from a cereal packet with some background paper stuck on one side and an extra card strip on the other to help stiffen the resulting paddle.


I happened to own an incense holder made from a wine bottle and so incense sticks were used as the smoke source.

Once set-up the photography is very straight forward, simply adjust the flash output until a pleasing result can be seen, in order to ensure that all the smoke is in focus I wanted a relatively wide depth of field so with an f stop of F9.0 and a shutter speed of 1/160th pleasing results were obtained.

At this speed its perfectly feasible to hand hold the camera but because I wanted to be able to manipulate the smoke as well I mounted the camera on a tripod, framing quite a large area of the background so I could selectively crop the final image. I also used a remote release so I could physically stand close to the smoke source. To avoid any problems with the camera trying to autofocus I manually focussed on the front lip of the bottle and then switched off auto focus. As neither the camera or smoke source is moving then all images are similarly in focus.

Post Processing.

Firstly I adjusted the levels to ensure a deep black background,I then used a black brush to effectively erase erratic wisps of smoke. Then  by adding a hue / saturation adjustment layer, adjusted the hue to find a pleasing colour for the smoke and then adjust the saturation to taste. Adjusting the opacity will give a wider tonal range, leaving some lighter areas. Resulting in this image.


I then decided to add a second adjustment later, choosing a different hue in combination with using a black brush to mask out areas selectively the smoke can be made multi coloured. I also decided to crop out the bottle top and darken the area where the incense stick “leaves” the picture.

smoke_07__MG_5559A further refinement was to mirror this image.


The last thing was to add another adjustment layer, and again with more selective masking you end up with a symmetrical form but varying colour which I think is a pleasing effect.


To get a high key effect I used “inverse” to reverse the colour palette.



I also mirrored this image and because its mono colour and the particular way the initial plume of smoke is naturally symmetrical it is partially overlaid giving the impression of being from a single source. The hue adjustment technique does not work on these images as the mask brush strokes are very obvious and without extremely complex masking I couldn’t see a way to address this easily.

However following collective discussion and review in class I also explored blending modes and created this multi-coloured white background by saving 3 separate images with a different hue/saturation combination and pasting them into a new, pale white background file, slightly offset from each other so the colours are clearly visible. By using “multiply” as the blending mode then white becomes transparent in the resulting image As a final touch I merged in a photograph of a coffee mug to make it appear as the source of the smoke. This required some detailed masking at the intersection of the smoke and cup.

smoke_01_strange brew



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