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….
For my Product and Jewellery photography, I sometimes photograph antique and second hand products, as they are easy to come by in local shops, they are inexpensive, they are great for practising and refining lighting product photography skills and there is an abundance of exciting and unusual artefacts to choose from.
The lighting and shooting process generally goes smoothly. For this shot, I hung one shoe from a C-Stand with wire and tilted the other upright. (I later turned the image 45% degrees in Lightroom). The concept that I dreamt up was that I wanted to show the front of the shoe from one side and the pump and heel on the other shoe from the other side.
I used two strobes with 18cm reflectors and 12 degree, grid spots attached to light the shoes. A third strobe lit the background which had a 21cm reflector also had a gel attached to achieve the colour. The shoes, lit with the grid spots were photographed in a number of different exposures, in order to light a specific portion of the shoes in each shot, which were then masked together in Photoshop.
Because there can be significant wear and tear with used products, there is a lot of retouching in Photoshop that needs to be done. In the case of these women’s shoes there were tear marks and white spots, wrinkles, creases and dirt. The Clone tool and the Spot healing brush, makes the retouching process easy. However it is no quick task, especially when there is a texture on the shoes, so I cannot blur every tear and dust spot out easily with the ‘Dust and Scratches’ filter, as I am likely to lose that texture in the process. So the only thing to do is zoom in and put some music on and retouch, retouch and retouch some more.
When all was completed and the shoes looked new, I noticed that the image needed to be taken further. The shoes on the background looked nice but it needed a texture. So I thought of using a scarf to drape across the scene, but the product I am showing off is the shoes, not another piece of clothing.
I opened up my trusty treasure chest of props and toys and I found something that would represent the a current timely trend. Autumn leaves. I can tell an autumnal walking story with these shoes and leaves.
I used a softbox to light the leaves evenly, on a white foam board. After shooting, in creating this composite, I cut out each leaf using the Quick Selection tool, I then masked them in on separate layers and used the Transform tool to get the leaves in the right position and angle. I reduced the opacity by approximately 50%, so that they were not visually competing with the High Heels and I adjusted the brightness of each leaf, depending on what portion of the background gradient they were on so that they blended in with the scene.
I believe that the lesson here is what else can you add to take your Product Photography shot further? A beautifully lit whiskey bottle on a black plexiglass background is fine, but is it enough? Sometimes it is, but it is also important to experiment and see if adding another prop, ice, fire, smoke, wood chips, will take your images to the next level. In the case of these shoes, the leaves helped contextualize the photograph giving it a timely trend.