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Abstract smoke art tutorial

This tutorial will guide you through the steps I take to make my abstract smoke art.

Step 1 - Setting up and taking the shot

Setting up your shot
Setup explained
  1. Camera (with manual focus lens)
  2. Tripod
  3. External flash gun
  4. Remote trigger
  5. Off-camera flash cord
  6. Black backdrop (any matte material)
  7. Incense stick
  8. Lighter (There is no smoke without fire)
  9. Tray (to stop your house burning down)
  10. Cardboard to direct the light from the flash

Setup your shot as shown in the photo above. Make sure you have setup the shot in a dark room so that you don't get any light pollution. You need to be able to control the light that hits the smoke for the best detail.

Set your camera to 'Manual' on the dial and also "Manual" on the lens. You can experiment with settings but because of the low-light in the room and the movement of the smoke, the camera will have a job focusing and metering. The settings I have used are as follows:

Aperture: f11
Shutter speed: 1/250
Focal length: 50mm
ISO Speed: 100

Now you are ready to take the shot. Turn off the lights and light the incense stick. When its lit, blow out the flame and you will see the glowing end. Manually focus onto the glowing incense stick and then re-frame your shot so that you can only see the smoke. You may want to zoom in or out to get the best composition. This next bit is really important. You need to fold the flas gun so that the light hits the smoke but NOT the background and NOT the lens. The best way to do this is to hold the flash gun to the right, slightly behind the smoke pointing towards the smoke but not directly at the lens.

There is no definitive way to take the shot once its setup. The key is to practice and take a lot of shots. You will eventually get the hang of it and will know when to fire the remote trigger. You will see the shapes in the smoke begin to form. You may need to stop after a little while to clear the room of smoke and to refocus as the incense stick burns down. Review the shots you have taken in the camera and look for clear, bright smoke with little or no detail from the backdrop.

Step 2 - Post processing in photoshop

Here comes the fun and creative part. In the last step you only had control over the setup and not the photographs that you were producing. Now you need to look through the shots on your computer and choose your favourite. Look for clean, sharply focussed images and delete the rest. This review process witll really narrow down your options and you will be able to choose the perfect image. Open this image up in photoshop.

For this tutorial I have chosen the following image...

My chosen smoke art image
I chose this image for the tutorial. Mainly for the shapes, the contrast and for the exposure.

Firstly you will need to decide whether or not you want your image to be on a black or a white background. I have chosen a white background so the first thing I do is to Invert the image (Image > Adjustments > Invert). You can keep the image on a black background if you want.

Now you need to create and adjustment layer (Layer > New adjustment layer > Levels) to correct the contrast of the image as shown below.

New adjustment layer - levels

When you are making the layers adjustment you want to bring out the best contrast. You are aiming to see all of the detail in the smoke.

The three sliders you see are as follows. A black point slider on the left, a grey point slider in the middle and a white slider on the right. You will be able to see the histogram change as you make these adjustments.

Try to emulate the contrast in my picture (left).

OK, by now the picture is looking pretty good. Next, I like to sharpen the image a little to bring out the edges.

Unsharp mask

Firstly make sure that the image is selected rather than the adjustment layer that you previously created.
I find the best way of making this adjustment is to go to (Filter > Sharpness > Unsharp mask). You will have a better level of control over your sharpness.

Remember not to go overboard with this or you will end up getting a halo effect around the smoke which will not look professional.

Play around until you are happy with the image

If you want, you can stop here, you will have already achieved a great, sharp smoke art shot.

I normally like to select the burn tool and just gently brush around the darkest areas. I do the same on the highlights with the dodge tool to really make the image pop.

Step 3 - Further adjustments

I now want to crop the image to get the best viewpoint of it. Play around with the crop tool until you are happy with the composition. I have chosen to run my smoke diagonally so that it will look great on a canvas print.

New adjustment layer - levels

Crop the image to cut down on some of the whitespace.

Now we are going to add some wow factor to the image by adding subtle colours. This bit is so much fun, you can play around with this for hours.
Firstly, create a new blank layer above the main smoke image. Set the layer mode to Color and the Opacity to around 38%.

Adding colour

Choose a large brush with a soft edge. Select a colour that you like and start to paint the colour onto the smoke. If you want a stronger colour just change the opacity of the colour layer.

You can also do this using a gradient layer but I prefer the control of being able to brush 2 or 3 colours on.

Play around until you are happy with the image

And thats it!

Thats all there is to it really. I hope you have fun playing with your smoke images. Below are some examples that I have done recently.

Abstract art smoke
Example 1
Abstract art smoke
Example 2

If you have enjoyed this tutorial please click the button below to "Digg it"


"Thank you so much for my print, it has pride of place on our living room wall"

Caroline M

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