I can’t quite remember why I came up with this idea, but I couldn’t get it out of my head: I want to photograph smoke. Can’t be too tricky, right?
I must admit, I don’t know a lot about photography. A few weeks have passed since I wrote my last «One Perfect Shot» article and I’ve been taking pictures non-stop since, but I wouldn’t call myself anything more than an «ambitious amateur».
I’ve been experimenting with lighting since then. Which light does what and how – that kind of thing. Plus: How can I make it work for me? I took photos without light and against the light to see what would happen and how my Sony a7s would cope with these conditions. I wasn’t only interested in the final product but also the technology of the camera.
First off, I visited Tattoo Conventions and spend some time taking pictures of tattooist João Otreze in cold light.
João Otreze at work
Then, I visited Fantasy Basel and tried to take a picture that would focus on one person and blur the rest of the crowd. This snapshot of cosplayer Melo is kind of what I was looking for – I would have liked more light so that she’d stand out even more, but that wasn’t possible on that particular day.
Melo as beer can Wonder Woman
What I was looking for was a project that gives me control over the lighting conditions. Professional studio lights are hard to get at, so I decided to make do with whatever I could find in my flat.
I get going. From the very start, I doubt that I’ll get a decent photograph without using my bedroom lamp. So I arrange the same setup as in my first article in this «One Perfect Shot» series – I wait until it gets dark outside. Why? As I’m aiming for full control over the lighting, I want to eliminate natural daylight as much as possible. I begin at 10 p.m.
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I don’t smoke, but I own incense candles that I light in a small dragon statue. The smoke is released through the dragon’s mouth, making it look like he’s breathing fire. This dragon is going to be my model. Turns out backlighting isn’t a good choice, as the light shines through the smoke. So I decide to relocate the light source. What seems most promising is placing it at a 45° angle. Judging by the eye, this is how the smoke can be seen best from where the camera is standing.
This isn’t working.
Having said that, my first attempts are rather unsatisfying. I’m on the right track, but I need to make quite a few adjustments.
I try out a few things, but still can’t think of how to make this work. I light the second candle of the evening and think about smoke while I watch my little dragon fuming. What do all good photos of smoke have in common? That’s when I get it: They’re all taken in the dark, or at least with a dark or even black background. Photoshop? No way. Smoke is such a delicate substance; it would take hours to change the colour of the background on Photoshop. I know this as a fact; I once had to change the background colour in a picture of a lady wearing a semi-transparent frilled skirt. That’s the kind of task I used to take on from every corner of the web when I taught myself how to use Photoshop.
According to this file’s meta data, the last time I edited this picture was on 24 March 2008.
I realise what it is I need to change: the background. I have to create a black background. My flat has only white walls, so I need to get creative. I grab my lamp, take it to the bedroom – where it usually is – switch it on and find a black fitted sheet. Then, I transport my lighting system back to the dining room and stick the fitted sheet to the wall with gaffer tape. It works pretty well. Gaffer tape is magic and should be worshipped.
The fabric is a bit wrinkly, but I hope to correct this by adjusting the depth of field on my camera or, should this not work, adjust it with Photoshop.
I soon realise something isn’t right with this setup. I’m only kind of photographing with backlight. If you’re actually taking a picture with backlight, the camera adjusts to the brightness in the background and everything in the foreground appears darker.
Let’s take a look at this furry unicorn as an example: One with backlight; once with frontlight.
If you’re forced to photograph with backlight, you’ll need a counterpart light. Is this the correct technical term? No idea, but it’s what I call it. And this is how it works: If the camera makes everything in the foreground look dark, you need more light. It’s the same principle as I was taught years ago for journalistic photography: «The person you’re taking a picture of should be facing the sun».
There are two ways to create this counterpart light:
I prefer lamps, especially for this project. Firstly, I assume it makes it easier to plan the final shot and secondly, I don’t have a flash. The regular version of my a7sii doesn’t come with flash and I wouldn’t know how to get my hands on a studio flash unit at this time of the night.
So I look for a lamp. My only portable lamp isn’t available, as I’m using it as backlight to the dragon who’s – by the way – smoking his fourth candle by now. A candle maybe? That’s when I stumble across my bike lamp.
This is what my setup looks like now:
The remains of my dining room.
There’s still one problem: The edge of the table can be seen on the picture. I like my dining table, but I’d rather it made itself invisible right now. The solution? I need to raise the dragon. So I grab the box of the card game Cards Against Humanity and place my dragon top of it.
The box does the job but looks ugly.
Again, Photoshop seems to be the solution to making the white letters on the box disappear. Darn. But then I have an idea: Why not wrap the box in a black t-shirt? It worked with the fitted sheet against the wall, so why not here, too? Plus, according to one particularly cynical video producer by the name of Stephanie Tresch, I have plenty of black t-shirts.
Here’s my sketch of what I think might work in front of a black or dark wall:
In my case, the black background is a fitted sheet and the frontlight is a bike light. In an ideal world, I would have made sure the two lights have the same brightness and same warm tone of light.
But this isn’t a professional setup, it’s one of my MacGyver projects. Now to the easy bit: I light candle number six, wait until there’s enough smoke, take a shot and enjoy.
Now we’re talking.
I decide to adjust one last thing: I raise the camera slightly to capture more smoke. Finally, the one thing I use Photoshop for is to reduce black levels to make sure the background is as dark as possible – that’s it!
The Exif data says:
Ok, this photograph isn’t perfect. If it wasn’t 2 in the morning, I’d try to get a shot with better focus on the dragon. If it wasn’t in the middle of the night, I’d go and buy a lamp. I’m a real impulse buyer when it comes to these projects. But now I’m more and more convinced what my flat needs is a ring light.
And that’s it. Now my flat smells like an esoteric shop and I know my lack of sleep will catch up with me tomorrow. But I don’t have the slightest regrets: I had loads of fun.
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