Smoke Photography: The Science and the Art

Posted on June 13, 2017 | Updated on October 31, 2023

Smoke photography, in its simplest definition, is photographing smoke as it rises, twists and moves. As with fog and other challenging photographic situations, smoke has a mind of its own and is not always easy to photograph. However, the beautiful and unique movement of smoke is well worth the effort involved in capturing it and turning it into absolute works of art.

Although there doesn’t seem to be any ready information on how smoke art photography initially started, the higher definition DSLR cameras of today have made this particular genre of photography take shape. Also, the ability to mesh two images into one with software such as Photoshop has helped the genre grow.

Smoke photography is no easy task. The very nature of smoke is that it shifts and moves in unexpected patterns. Everything from the lighting to the speed shutter on your camera has to be exact if you plan to capture smoke’s elusiveness.

A Black Backdrop and Smoke Source

Smoke is wispy and white — sometimes almost transparent. To capture smoke, you need the right backdrop and a stream of smoke. Start by using a black backdrop and something like an incense stick. The goal is to capture only the smoke itself and not the source. That way, you can more easily combine the smoke with other photographic elements. Position your camera so it points only at the smoke, such as at the tip of the incense stick.

You also may want to take multiple images as the shape and movement of smoke tends to change from minute to minute. At times, the stream of smoke may be stronger than at others.

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Alberich Mathews offers us a fantastic look at how capturing smoke at just the right moment can lead to inspiration for the overall smoke art photograph. In his image, he shows a woman in a dancing pose with smoke rising up to meet her outstretched hand. The image is beautiful and ethereal.

Manual Settings

Most photography schools suggest setting your DSLR camera to a manual focus and choosing an aperture of f8.0 and shutter speed of 1/200th of a second. It is also recommended that you shoot in RAW format so you can edit easily later.

Every camera can differ slightly, so you may need to experiment with different settings until you find what works best with your equipment. The above references are a good starting point, and you can adjust them from there to meet your own individual needs. The adjustments can be a big part of the artistic process.

Courtesy of Smashing Magazine

A tripod can help eliminate shakiness, but it is not a requirement. Photographer Stephan Bollinger captures smoke in all its natural beauty. In this image of a candle that has been snuffed out, he used a blue background to highlight the beauty of the tendrils of smoke as they struggle to re-spark and stay alive.

Light Source

To capture smoke, it needs to be lighted from the side or from underneath. You don’t want to light from the front, as that will wash out your black background, but you do want plenty of light so you can highlight the smoke.

A table lamp works as well as anything else, and it can be moved around and adjusted easily. You can also experiment with the flash on your camera to light the smoke.

Courtesy of Flickr

Photograph Steven Dong lights up smoke perfectly in this photo and captures it so clearly that it almost looks solid. Placing light in the right location can help you achieve this type of photograph.

Manipulating the Smoke

Another thing you should do when photographing smoke is to manipulate it a bit. You can do this by blowing on the smoke before snapping a photo. You could also use a fan, multiple smoke sources, etc.

While smoke won’t really do what you want it to do, manipulating it will add another element you wouldn’t get from just letting it float without any direction at all. For example, photographer Martin Cauchon uses different types of smoke to create amazing images. In his photo of a martini glass, he creates the smoke effect with liquid nitrogen. Other artists use dry ice or simply manipulate smoke as mentioned above.

Matching the Smoke With an Image

You need to learn to take a step back and find the hidden image within the smoke. What is the natural motion of the smoke? What does it remind you of? Can you picture it with another object or replacing an object?

Smoke might not be predictable, but it does create shapes and patterns. If you pay attention, there is no limit to how creative you can get with the different shapes it forms in your mind’s eye.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at

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