Smoke Photography Setup

Guide to a Smoke Photography Setup

During the (g)olden days of film when retouching was too expensive and Photoshop did not even exist, shooting smoke/ steam to add credibility and additional ambience to a food shoot was extremely difficult or even impossible to achieve. The reasons: (a) lighting smoke/steam was different from lighting the food dishes and (b) the angles were totally different.

Nowadays, with the powerful and wonderful Photoshop, combining smoke/steam with the delicious food shot is just few clicks away. But please don’t ask me how to do that! This exercise is how to shoot smoke and steam.

Start with a black background, assembled in vertical position. Set up a stand a couple of meters away. Using adhesive clay (Blu Tack or Tack It), secure the stand to the floor (trust me on this: you don’t want to accidentally hit and move the stand just when you are all set to shoot!). You will need only one light. Attach a regular reflector to the head. Place it about 45 degrees behind the stand, between the stand and the background. Either left or right side works. Point the light toward the stand.

Mount your camera on your tripod. Tape or Blu Tack it to the floor. Focus the lens. Make sure that the end of the stand is sharp. Turn off the auto focus. When you shoot smoke, the camera’s focusing system may have a hard time finding its bearings. You don’t want to be frustrated by missing some creative smoke designs. You may also want to set up a black illustration board (between the light and camera) to prevent the harsh light from the flash head entering the camera’s lens.

To create the smoke itself, there are several items you can use: cigarettes, incense, or the smoke mosquito killer. I don’t smoke so I prefer the incense. Blu Tack (or tape) the item to the stand. Make sure that all the electric fans and air conditioner are off. You want to control the shape of the smoke. If there is no air moving in your shooting area, the smoke should look like. Start gently fanning the air. The smoke will gently break up and dance for you.

Smoke created by these items is bluish. Don’t worry. A little click here and there in Photoshop will neutralize the color.

Steam, on the other hand, is very neutral in color. And how does one create steam? Very easily by using a teakettle pot. To boil the water and to keep it hot, use one of those portable gas burners. Remove the stand and reposition the teakettle pot. Focus this time on the teakettle’s mouth. Compose your camera correctly and don’t forget to turn the camera’s auto focus off. Two settings do affect the flow and intensity of the steam: the size of the teakettle’s opening and the temperature of the boiling water. Experiment with and without the kettle’s cover. After boiling the water and when the steam is gushing wildly out of the kettle, turn off the gas burner. Shoot and wait. Shoot and wait.

Smoke and steam are indeed different from each other. Can you spot the differences? So when your client wants ‘smoke’ with the food shots, ask what kind of smoke he/she wants.