Technology changes with time, but the fundamentals and recipes in photography remains. This article was first published in 2007, revised in 2018
“What is this world? A mere curl of smoke for the wind to scatter.”Abraham Cahan.
I get excited when I see smoke, dust or mist appearing in front of me. To me, these are good photography opportunities. Some of the famous pictures have some element of smoke, dust or mist. I am sure there are fleeting memories of images of the soldiers and tanks charging in the midst of Desert Storm. I once asked myself, do these opportunities come ONLY out of luck, or can we create or anticipate them?
It is good to know what created smoke or mist. According to Wikipedia, smoke is the collection of airborne gas and particulates, often a by product of fire. Mist is a phenomena of tiny droplets suspended in the air, usually due to cold air above warmer surfaces. Fog and mist are similar, difference only in visibility. Anyway, we are not here to talk about the scientific terms or names, but how to take better pictures of the smoke and mist as well as how to anticipate or even create them.
One need not be an expert in photography to be able to take pictures of smoke and mist. One needs to equip oneself with the necessary basic photography knowledge as well as with the right equipment. For many beginners, some of the common problems faced will include:
- Camera or subject shake
- Messy background
- Unsure of which angle to adopt
Low lighting condition and use of low ISO, which results in slower shutter speed, are the main culprit for camera and subject shake. If the subject is stationary, a good tripod will be useful in preventing camera shake. If you are shooting handheld, it is good to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1 / (focal length). If the subject is moving, you may like to use a higher ISO.
Many beginners often overlook the distracting objects in the foreground and background which can draw the viewers’ attention away. The good thing about smoke and mist is they can help to hide these distracting objects.
Another common problem faced by photographers is the lack of ideas as to what angle to use. For smoke and mist, the tip is to identify what is good to be the main subject when you see smoke and mist. From there, you can conceptualise the composition and it will be easier to get the angle. It is good to spend some time exploring the various angles. Experiment with the various angles and shoot more, shoot both horizontally and vertically. If the results are unsatisfactory, you can always delete the images later.
Equally important is the ability to appreciate the quality of light at different times of the day as well as the weather condition. Mid day sun is usually avoided to prevent having hotspot on the subjects. Early morning and late afternoon often produce good lighting that light up the subjects nicely. Even on a cloudy day, the flat lighting can also help to produce some modest images. Hence, do not discount the possibility of photographing nice images even on a cloudy day.
- It is important to identify what can be your main subject when you see smoke or mist.
- Make sure the smoke or mist does not cover your main subject, so called “smoked out”.
- Use of lighting to create visual impact, especially lighting in early morning or late afternoon.
- If need be, increase the ISO to minimize camera shake.
With the tips above in mind as well as the case studies below, enjoy your quest in seeking the smoke and mist.
Center Weighted metering, Daylight White Balance, ISO320, Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter speed 1/1000s, Aperture f5.6, 18-200mm
You may not believe it but it is true that I took more than 40 shots of this angle. The smoke was erratic and irregular. Out of the 40 over shots, it was not hard to see pictures like the one on the left where the smoke covered the face of the chef. This is called “Smoked out”. Given such situations where the game of probability ruled, it is wiser to shoot more shots and choose the better ones. I managed to select a few that resembled the one on the right, where the smoke is obvious and yet the smoke does not cover the chef.