Digital SLR Photography

How to photograph smoke trails

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Shooting smoke trails is an unpredictable technique requiring patience, skill and perseverance. Get them right, though, and you can create spectacular, almost hypnotic, results. It’s a quick to shoot, too: it can take less than 30 minutes to capture once your have your lighting right.

You’ll need a black backdrop and incense sticks, a camera, tripod and lens – a standard zoom will do. The room you’re working should be well ventilated, especially if it’s small, but your set-up should be away from any drafts that can interfere with the smoke’s movement. Ambient light also needs to be minimal otherwise it will interfere with the flash exposure, so make sure you have blinds or curtains to close at the windows. Incense sticks are your best option for providing lasting smoke, giving you more opportunities and interesting trails.


In your well-ventilated room, set up a table and a black background; I’ve attached a black cloth on a background stand, but a couple of sheets of black cardboard can work too. Place the incense burner and stick about two- to three-feet away from the background and position your tripod-mounted camera in front. You’ll need to be able to see the stick in the frame but have space above to capture the rising smoke.
step 1

Camera settings

It’s a good idea to shoot in Raw+JPEG in case you need to make exposure adjustments, but there’s no reason you cannot get these shots right in-camera. Set your camera to manual mode, ISO 200, a shutter speed of one second and a starting aperture of f/8. You may need to alter the aperture, and therefore the shutter speed, if you find the smoke naturally moves towards the camera to ensure most of it is in focus.

Position your flash

The angle of your flashgun is potentially the trickiest part as it determines the success of your shots. Start by setting your flash to manual and 1/8 power, then place it behind and lower than the incense stick. A flash with a tilting head will be an advantage. You need to avoid any light from falling on the backdrop or hitting your lens, so you may have to alter its position and flag the light if you’re having trouble.

Find your focus

With all the lights on, use single-shot AF to focus on the incense stick; if you have trouble locking on to the stick, place a white piece of paper behind it. Once you’ve found focus, switch to manual focus to stop your lens from hunting and carefully recompose so the stick is out of the frame. When you take the first couple of shots, use the LCD monitor to zoom in to your smoke to check it’s in focus.

step 4

Fire your shots

The quickest and easiest way to fire the flash is by pressing the Test/Pilot button during the exposure. You’ll either need to fire the camera using a remote release or its self-timer mode, or attach a flash transceiver to the camera’s hotshoe and flashgun. Here I’ve used the Yongnuo YN622N, which works brilliantly. If you find your smoke starts to rise in a straight line, try wafting the smoke or tapping the incense stick to create some movement.

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