How to capture the transient shape of the ethereal smoke

Smoke is a substance between “visible” and “invisible”. If you can record its instantaneous shape with a camera, you will reap many surprises – you can’t predict what kind of works you will take before you press the shutter.

This article lists some basic precautions and technical points for you to shoot smoke, which will certainly be helpful for your shooting. Those who are interested in children’s shoes must carefully read this article~

1. Background

To shoot smoke, first you need to create a black (or other dark) background to produce enough contrast. The best choice is to use black cloth – it “absorbs light” and does not reflect light.

Light a stick of incense to make smoke, which is the best choice to produce smoke continuously for a long time; Then place it far enough from the background. In this way, the subject and the background will be sufficiently “separated”, and the light hitting the subject will not easily “run” to the background.

2. Lighting

Set the flash on the side of the incense, rather than directly on the front, otherwise it is easy to directly illuminate the background, which will cause your “all black background” to be damaged.

You can also place a piece of white cardboard behind the flash to prevent the flash light from affecting the background. If possible, you can also load a honeycomb cover or beam cylinder on the lamp to make the light more concentrated and not easy to “run around”.

3. Lens focal length

With a longer focal length lens, you can use a smaller background plate – it will appear larger in the picture. More importantly, you can put the camera farther away from the incense to avoid the lens being damaged by smoke.

With a longer focal length lens, you can “fill” the whole picture with a smaller background plate

4. Camera settings

shutter speed

You need a higher shutter speed to ensure that the lines of the smoke are clear, rather than forming a large cloud of foggy fog.

This is particularly important if you are shooting a relatively “large” and “wide” “smoke source”, such as a pot of boiling water and a cup of coffee; However, if small point like “smoke sources” such as cigarettes and incense are used, the shutter speed is not required as high.

The longer the shutter time, the stronger the motion blur. Shoot at 1/30 second shutter speed


It should be noted that smoke is not a flat static surface, but a dynamic mass with uncertain “thickness” and shape. If you want to make the whole smoke clear, the aperture should not be too large; But also consider the background. If the aperture is too small, the texture on the background will appear.

You need to try to adjust several aperture values to get the shooting effect you want most.

If the aperture is too small, some of the smoke will become blurred. Shoot with f/11 aperture


You need to manually focus on the plane with the most smoke/steam – for example, the tip of a cigarette/incense; If you use large containers (such as cups and pans), you can consider covering most areas with a lid, exposing only one seam, so that the smoke is concentrated in this area, and then focusing on this seam. In order not to change the distance from the lens to the focal plane, you need to use a tripod to fix it.

By the way, if you need to produce more smoke, please shoot immediately after putting out the flame (cigarettes and incense)/stopping heating (cups and pans).


When shooting many subjects, we will need to “use the lowest possible sensitivity under the premise of meeting the normal exposure”, especially for the subject of smoke – because the dark background will make the noise more obvious.

By the way, the idea of the “right exposure” technique commonly used by landscape photographers is based on the reverse application of this property: noise will be less obvious in the highlighted picture, so improving the exposure and post-processing under the condition of no exposure and loss of picture quality can effectively improve the picture quality of landscape works.

After the shutter speed and aperture have been determined, you can use the histogram as a reference to adjust the sensitivity value as low as possible without affecting the exposure.

Image taken by ISO 12800. The noise blocks and spots in the picture are not the stains on your screen, but the noise

Finally, I would like to remind you to pay attention to safety! Put a layer of fireproof mat (instead of wood and paper) on the bottom of incense and cigarettes, and prepare water or small fire extinguisher for emergencies; In addition, the shooting time should not be too long, so as not to affect your health due to excessive smoke in the closed room.