I had some fun with Smoke photography this week. I borrowed a King Cobra from the antique shop, (it’s amazing where you can get dangerous animals these days) and I bought a pack of incense sticks that actually smelled really nice.
I had an idea that was fairly spooky, pre Halloween - esque. An angry, ready to strike snake surrounded by smoke, giving the image a hellish aura, where the Cobra has a mysterious (yet oh so endearing) stare.
I will take you through my shooting process and lighting process for the Smoke & Snake photograph. If you would like a more traditional smoke photography lesson you can find a great article here and a superb video here.
Two 100ws studio strobes with 18cm reflectors with 12 degree honeycomb grid spots mounted on light stands.
One strobe on camera left lighting the bottom half of the snake.
The other strobe, camera right, lighting the right side of the snake’s face.
A third strobe, camera left, with a 21cm reflector and a mounted 10 degree grid spot, behind and to the left of the Cobra, lighting the smoke coming from the incense sticks behind.
Each strobe is approximately on at half power.
I also use a white bounce card underneath the cobra, to fill in the shadows on the snake.
The Wooden Cobra is mounted on top of a cardboard box, on a black surface that rests on my shooting surface (a pair of sturdy saw horses and a wooden board). Underneath the box, in front, are two incense sticks that are approx 20cm apart from each other. There are also two incense sticks behind the box, in the same position.
I find that incense stick are the easiest and least expensive tool for smoke photography.
As I take each shot, with a wireless shutter release, I hold a light red gel in front of the strobes, moving to each of them consecutively, to add colour to the smoke and the King Cobra.
I shoot tethered to the computer with the camera at f/11, which is a good aperture to capture the smoke and the snake, with reasonable depth of field. (Focussing on the face of the snake, through the smoke, was most important to me).
I synced my camera to my strobes at 1/160th of a sec and I used ISO 100 for the least noisy shot possible. (I like to tether my shots so that I can see a large image on the screen of the shots as they are taken.)
After I took an initial shot of the snake without the smoke, I did not change my focus for the smoke, as I knew that there would be enough smoke wafting around the snake composition which I was already focussing on. The modelling lights from the strobes were lighting the smoke for me in between shots.
After the shoot I selected the best smoke shots in Lightroom that I wanted to work with and I edited them in Photoshop. I first composited the shots together using layer masks, and then did some minor retouching to the Cobra’s face. I made some slight Hue/Saturation adjustments to get the ‘feel’ that I wanted. I then used a Curves adjustment layer to make the image pop, creating the right amount of contrast and finally did some sharpening with the High Pass Filter.
You can create some stunning images with Smoke Photography. It really is lots of fun, not at all difficult to set up and to do, and the creativity you can unleash is only limited by your imagination. Obviously being sensible, you would want to match the smoke to the subject. Smoke coming out of a chest of drawers, perfume or shoes probably would not work.
But then again….
I love to work in the Studio. It is immensely satisfying having complete control of the photographic process, from pre-planning to post processing.
Styling the scene to my own taste, by positioning the product or Still Life item exactly where I want and utilising the plethora of props that I have at my disposal, using Compositional rules such as The Rule of Thirds and Leading Lines, in order to create an organic composition, gives me full control of my studio photography.
Thinking about how I will light the product or scene, how I will make the mundane, everyday object, look stylish and beautiful, is like revisiting Art classes at school (without punitive teachers and irritating classmates). I can let my creative imagination run wild.
When it finally comes to actually lighting the Still Life, positioning the lights, choosing the correct power output, picking the right diffusion for the job, I feel like I am a music composer, picking the necessary instruments, creating the perfect harmonies and finally giving birth to a beautiful musical composition.
I use Lightroom and Photoshop to create the final mood and feeling. The ultimate vision, that initially, lay in the right portion of my brain, is brought to fruition with the power of post processing, adding the final tone and sheen.
If the lighting and photographic process gives the Still Life the beauty, it’s the post processing that adds the emotion.
The awesomeness of working in Studio Photography is that I can make snap second reflections on my shooting process and choose a different prop, a Grid Spot instead of a Strip Box, a Gradient instead of a coloured background. I can spent time making a perfect composition, completely of my own creation.
I can patiently make changes whilst viewing the shot on the Monitor with Live View; the modelling lights on the strobes give me an idea of where the light will fall and where the shadows come into play. I can work with the set in real time.
Each shot taken will be reviewed and analysed. The set and Exposure can be readjusted if needed, and then re-shot until I get the final result.
It is having that complete control of the photographic environment, being the Master Puppeteer of the artistic vision, that I or somebody brings to me, is what makes Studio Photography so worthwhile.
As a Still Life & Product Photographer, I can be my own complete film crew, set designer, cameraman, director and editor and it is the Product that is the star.
And I get to listen to my own music ;)