There are times when a photographer needs some smoke. Want to make a candle look like it’s just gone out? Smoke. How about a steaming cup of coffee? Smoke. Make the cigarette or cigar look realistic? Smoke. Add some magic to a fantasy portrait? Yep. Smoke! Here’s a quick tutorial on making photographs of smoke’s feathery goodness.


Incense sure does smell good. That’s not how it gets me happy. It  amazing. A single stick of incense is good for several hundred fun, wispy images.

Burning incense is a great source of smoke.

Lighting for smoke

Sidelight is great for photographing smoke. I use a Dynalite studio head with a 40º grid on the reflector. Placed to the side of the camera at 800 watt seconds, it provides enough light to shoot at f/16. F/16 gives a large depth of field so the smoke is sharp even as it moves away from the point of focus. Make sure than none of the light hits the background. A totally black background is critical for “the trick” to work.

The 40º grid keeps light from striking the lens avoiding flare.

After shooting the smoke, move over to Lightroom’s Develop module. Hold down the Option (WIN: Alt) key then click and hold the Blacks slider. Move it to the left until the background is completely black.

The trick

Choose the smoke images you want to lay into an existing photograph. Move them into the photograph in Photoshop. Change the blending mode from Normal to Screen. The black background magically disappears leaving only the smoke behind.

Smoke patterns enhance fantasy portraits.


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