Smoke art photography

‘Germinate” image Greg Vivash

They say, ‘there is no smoke without fire’. That’s generally true but we often see the smoke before the fire. It’s smoke that has fascinated and inspired me to create a series of photographs, illustrating the flow of smoke and turning them into a set of creative fine art images. 

I often looked at the wisps of smoke created when a candle is extinguished. With a gentle breeze, random swirls appear along the path of the smoke, creating something quite beautiful, which, within a few seconds has disappeared forever, So, to capture this, with a fair bit of patience and post processing techniques, I decided to shoot a series fine art smoke images.

Antelope tribal mask? You decide. image Greg Vivash

The images were made using the smoke from incense sticks. A roll of Black paper was used for the background, placed roughly three feet behind the incense sticks. One speedlight flash positioned on the floor, pointing directly upwards and towards the path of the smoke, producing oblique lighting, which provides more contrast, picking out the patterns of smoke from the background.  Due to the unpredictable nature of the smoke, perseverance is the order of the day. Many exposures were made, but to change the flow and patterns of smoke, I used a piece of card to gently waft the smoke. 

Equipment doesn’t need to be sophisticated. A Canon 7D SLR with 50mm F1.4 and a single Canon Speedlight flash was fired using the cameras built in flash trigger. The camera was on a tripod and pre-focused on the incense stick leaving enough room in the frame above the source to capture the smoke. A couple of safety tips: Ensure that the source of smoke is not close to anything flammable and do all your shots in a well-ventilated area.

Once the shots were done, the process of editing began, looking through the images to ascertain which had the most interesting patterns of smoke and had the potential for post processing and making a pleasing fine art image.  

In Photoshop, Start by checking that the background is completely black by selecting Layers>Add New Adjustment Layer>Levels and adjust the white/black points to increase the contrast between smoke and the background. If you prefer a white background, i.e. a negative image, then select Image>Adjustments>Invert.

To create the final image, a copy of the image is made then after extending the canvas to twice the original size, paste and flip it horizontally to create a mirror image. The two images are then joined together to create one, giving a symmetrical pattern. This is similar to a Rorschach picture psychology test.  At this point, the image takes on a new appearance and depending on your imagination, different patterns emerge. 

The last fine tuning steps are adjusting Gamma levels to enhance the smoke against the dark background. Experiment using color balance sliders and Hue/Saturation to personal preference.

“We are watching you” image Greg Vivash

The images make a great talking point. People have told me they see faces, gargoyles, animal skeletons and even aliens!

Greg Vivash