Photo Challenge: ´Smoking Scenes´ by David Nightingale, Chromasia

Welcome to week one of our Photo Challenge. This week´s challenge is ´Smoking Scenes´, set by David Nightingale, from Chromasia. For tips on how to best capture the smoke effect, read on.

15 Jul 2013


Photo Challenge: 'Smoking Scenes' by David Nightingale, Chromasia


Welcome to the first in our series of photography challenges. Each week, Currys will invite a leading UK photography expert to set our readers a photography challenge for the opportunity to win a 'One Day Photography Course' and a Nikon Coolpix S6500 camera! 

This week, David J. Nightingale who runs and their online photography training centre, kick starts the series with his challenge, "Smoking Scenes".


Shooting Smoke

For this challenge you're going to be using your dslr camera and shooting smoke - a fairly simple subject, but one that can prove tricky to get right. Hopefully the shooting and post-production tips I've included below will help you to create some interesting and exciting images.

To enter, go to the Currys PC World Facebook page. 


Shooting tips

Tip #1: Although we're aiming to produce an image of smoke against a white background, you should shoot your initial image in a dark room against a dark background. The reason for this is that it's easy to light the smoke - making it stand out against a dark background - but much harder to make it appear dark against a light background.

The easiest way to do this is to place your smoke source on a table (an incense stick or burner is ideal as it will generate quite a lot of smoke and produce some interesting patterns) and place a light source at 90 degrees to your intended camera position. You can use a table lamp, but make sure the light doesn't spill onto the background, or an off-camera flash.

Tip #2: You'll need to work out the exposure you need - you're aiming for a reasonably distributed histogram, particularly in the highlights - but you do need to make sure you avoid over-exposing the smoke. If you're using a table lamp you'll probably need an exposure of somewhere around 1/30s at f/4 but if you're using a flash you'll get away with somewhere around 1/60s at f/11.

Tip #3: You should also use a telephoto lens if you have one - something like a 100mm macro or a 70-200 zoom - as this will allow you to get a reasonable distance away from the smoke while still being able to focus in on the detail. It's also a good idea to switch your camera or lens to manual focus as your autofocus will struggle to pick out the detail in a dark room.

Tip #4: You'll also find that you need to take a lot of shots as the smoke will tend to move and swirl in unpredictable patterns. I've found that for every 100 shots I take, one or two will be interesting. You may have more luck, but be prepared to take a lot of images. You may decide that you'd like to capture something with a clearly defined pattern (see image 1), something a bit more fluid (see image 2) or a shot that's a lot more abstract (see image 3).

smoke 1, 2, 3

Post-processing tips

Once you've got a shot you're happy with there's one essential step and two optional changes you can make during post-production. 

Tip #1: Invert the image. If you're using Photoshop you can do this via the Layer menu:

Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Invert

 - But if you're using Lightroom it's a bit more complicated.

  1. Switch to the 'Develop Module'
  1. Click the small box at the bottom-right of the Tone Curve Palette. This will allow you to 'edit the point curve (see image below).
  1. You then need to modify the Curve (see image below) by dragging the white point (top-right) to the bottom-right and the black point (bottom-left) to the top-left (see image below).



Tip #2: The second optional step is to increase the contrast to brighten the background, increase the contrast within the smoke, and so on (see image below).

smoke contrast

Tip #3: The final step is to add some colour.

smoke coloured

There are a whole variety of ways of doing this - using a Curve, the Hue/Saturation tool in Photoshop or the HSL tab in Lightroom, Split Toning, and so on. Again though, this is an optional step.

Good luck.

David J. Nightingale