Andy    July 25, 2016

Smoke photography is a surprisingly simple technique once you know how, and great way to spend a rainy afternoon.


What you need

  • A camera with short telephoto lens, or a zoom lens zoomed in.
  • Some incense sticks
    These can be purchased in many new age shops for around £1 a tube.
  • A black background
    I used an A1 sized pieced of black piece of foam board, however a black bedsheet will work just as well.
  • An “off-camera flash” or other bright directional light
    You can do this in several different ways, but your aim is to get a short exposure and control exactly where the light goes. Some options include;

    • A speedlite flash with a remote trigger.
    • A studio light – with just a spill or snoot.
    • A slide projector
  • A tripod
    You can do this hand holding but you’ll need to be careful about focusing – Manual focus is the only way to go here!


  • Identify a room where you can shut out all draughts and won’t get in trouble for “making the house smell funny”.
    You’ll also want to shut all of the curtains or to do this at night.
  • Place the incense stick so that it is a foot or so in front of the background. The tip of the incense stick needs to be near the bottom of the background so you can capture the smoke rising.
    Make sure no flooring can be damaged by falling ash.
  • Place the light so that it illuminates the tip of the incense stick from one side, but ensure that no light falls on to the background.
    Moving the light so it shines a little bit towards the camera will make this easier, but watch for flaring.
  • Line the camera up so that you can capture an area up to 1 foot above the incense stick and so that the background fills as much of the frame as possible.
  • Light the incense
  • Pre-focus the camera on the tip of the incense.
  • Select manual exposure and guess the settings
    A good starting point would be f8, 1/125th @ 100 ISO. Once you take some test shots you’ll quickly see whether you need to lighten or darken the image. You’re aiming for the brightest image you can get, where the background stays black.

    • To make the image brighter;
      • increase the ISO
      • Use a wider aperture
      • Move the light closer
    • To make the image darker do the opposite.

If you’re using a continuous light source (e.g. a projector you can also change the shutter speed), however if you go too slow you’ll get blurry shots as the smoke moves.

  • Take lots of shots and experiment!

Use a photo editing tool like LightRoom, or Photoshop to adjust the contrast and brightness to give you the best smoke pattern.

Thin white


  • CE9A6671-001Jiggle the incense to make the smoke waver
  • Use your editing tool to;
    • Give your images a coloured tint
    • Turn them black and white
    • turn them into a negative

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