For a while I was thinking about taking some portrait photos with coloured smoke as I have come across some of those on Instagram and absolutely loved how it adds a whole new layer to the image. I thought I should approach this particular idea more professionally instead of just grabbing the camera and randomly taking some photos. I started putting together a mood board with
and included photos I have found online to get a better understanding of what I’m looking to get out of this. In order to prepare for it I also thought about what challenges I might be facing during such a shoot and came up with some bullet points that I'd like to share with you in this post. Below you'll see the results of my very first attempt of taking smoky portraits.
1. Choosing the smoke emitters
There are plenty of options of coloured smoke emitters that you can order online. Not every seller is shipping to Australia so I had a look at local offers and came across a website of a seller based in Australia. I've looked at their IG page to see what results I can expect from the different emitters they offer. As I was looking for a strong smoke release I went with the 60g emitters. If you just wand to add some atmosphere in the background I'm sure the 18g size would be enough but I wanted the smoke to play a dominant part in the image.
Here's the LINK to their website.
2. Time and Location
With smoke emitters obviously comes a time limit as they are only releasing smoke for a couple of minutes and you can’t really hold them in your hand until the very end as they get quite hot. You also don’t want to have to change lenses or locations once the emitter is lit so you better think of all or some of those things in advance. In terms of location I wanted to find a secluded area since I wasn’t sure how much smoke the emitters will create and how much attention this will draw. As for lenses I went with my 42.5 mm fixed focal length which never lets me down when it comes to portraits.
3. Camera settings
I was sure I wouldn't have much time to trial and error all different camera settings like focal length, aperture and shutter speed. The very first thing I thought about was focus. I didn't want the autofocus to get confused so I decided to do it manually to make sure that the focus is on the person instead of the smoke. However, I was sure I’d have to quickly adjust the focus as the person will be moving constantly. I also didn’t want the smoke to be too blurry which is why the aperture was wide open to achieve a high shutter speed. This also makes the background blurry which I really like in portraits but it adds up to the challenge of adjusting the focus.
4. Movements and facial expressions
This last one is not only a challenge for the photographer but also for the person being photographed. The photographer has to get the framing and the focus right while the subject is constantly moving. The smoke can spread quite fast and uncontrolled so you want to make sure that the subject is at least partially visible in your image. That means the person being photographed needs to pay attention to the way he or she handles the smoke emitter and their movements within the smoke. At the same time the person shouldn't completely forget about their facial expressions otherwise you might end up having the perfect framed shot with a nice smoke arrangement but your subject/model makes a weird face. You see, it seems like a perfectly staged dance performance but leave room for surprises as well. It might bring some amazing results.
My friend Scott and I went on a weekend trip to the country and found a quiet trail right next to our accommodation that was perfect for this. While I thought I had it all figured out before which setting I should use in what situation and when I would have to make changes, my friend Scott was basically just pointing and clicking in the program auto mode and it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. It was great fun playing around with these smoke emitters and I enjoyed working on the photos afterwards. I've increased the contrast and the clarity quite a bit to make the smoke pop.
As you will see we only used two different colours this time. The results are below. I’m sure I will use the rest of the colours soon so there might be a Vol. 2 of this post. I'd definitely take some more wide angle shots then.