Smoke Photography Composites

A number of people have asked me how I created the image below. This is obviously a composite, but there is actually less Photoshop work involved in this one than you might think:

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The Torch : Prints Available

Skeleton holding torch made using smoke photography

First, I had no plans of creating the final image above. However, below is the primary shot exactly as it came out of the camera. You can see that the “skeletal figure” (a.k.a. creepy looking guy) appeared naturally in the smoke. I shot around 40 or so pictures and came out with two or three that had odd looking characters like this to start with. So, I’d recommend shooting a lot of pictures and seeing what you get.

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In terms of the set-up of the shot, here is what I did:

– As you can see, I used an incense stick for the smoke.
– I kept the room dark, except for a desktop lamp pointing at the smoke from one side. This was to create enough light for the camera to focus.
– I used a black background.
– I set my camera to manual and used F11 at 1/200.
– I used one off-camera flash from the other side (pointing at the direction of the lamp, with the incense in between the flash and lamp). I set the flash to manual and zoomed the flash in a bit to narrow the light beam. I also blocked the light from hitting the background and entering the camera using some make-shift “barn doors,” which were a couple of pieces of back construction paper on each side of the flash.
– I left the white balance on auto (resulting in the blue tone), but you can adjust this however you want in the camera and/or in post-processing.
– You will want to wave your hand to stir up the smoke now and then to create interesting shapes.
– In Photoshop, I pieced together a few parts from the other smoke pictures to create the torch and the beam. I had to re-size the flame and torch and then colored the torch pieces using a Hue/Saturation layer.

These are really fun images to create, especially when you end up with something completely unexpected like the image above. The key is to take a lot of pictures and you will hopefully find something interesting to start with in at least one of them.

Backing Up Your Photos

Losing all of my photos from a trip or, worse yet, ALL of my images is completely unthinkable. In fact, I better just stop thinking about that now and move on to the steps I take to prevent it from happening. Here is my strategy for back-up while traveling and long-term.

First, while traveling:

I buy decent cards (not the best, but definitely not the cheapest) and make sure I have enough card capacity for the trip. I shoot a lot of pictures and in RAW format, so I have about 120 gigs of card space which is usually barely enough. I don’t have extremely high capacity cards because I wouldn’t want to lose half my pictures if one of the cards went bad (and they are known to get corrupted sometimes). I have 6 cards at the moment.

At the end of every shooting day, I back up the day’s images onto my laptop and also import them onto the portable hard drive which I use for my Adobe Lightroom library. I do not erase the pictures off the cards. So, I carry three copies: 1) the originals on the cards; 2) the files on the laptop; 3) the imported files on the portable drive, which become my “original” files and which I can start keywording or processing. I never leave all three together alone. If I leave the hotel and head to dinner, I take either my cards or my computer with me and leave the others locked up in the safe in my room or hidden.

When the trip is over, I immediately back up my images to my long-term backup drives. I leave the copies on my cards and laptop drive as well until I have backed everything up to those drives. Then I delete the files off the cards and laptop.

Next, my long-term back-up strategy:

I am not at all comfortable having just two copies of my images:

As mentioned, I use a portable hard drive as my main (Lightroom) drive. Some people don’t advocate the portable drive, but I do a lot of processing away from home and prefer a portable drive for my original images.

Second, I have a good quality external hard drive as my main backup drive. This has all my images on it, including the RAW files, Photoshop files, etc. I do not recommend buying a cheap hard drive as your main backup drive, as two years ago I bought three cheap ones (the same brand) and had two crashes within a month.

I have another back-up drive (so 3 drives total) at a friend’s house inside a fireproof safe. He lives a bit farther away, so the same tornado couldn’t hit both of us.

Doing all of this allows me to get good sleep at night.

Watch the Windows!

When you are taking pictures of a building at sunrise, sunset or after dark, pay special attention to the windows. Windows can really add to a shot at these times of day. There are two things I watch for:

1. Reflections of the sunrise or sunset in glass windows which are facing the sun
2. Background sky which can be seen through the windows

When I was in Iceland, I took a couple of shots within a few minutes of each other which illustrate what I’m talking about. First, check out the cool reflections of the sunset in the church windows in this first shot:

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Church on the Coast : Prints Available

Red and white coastal church with the beginning of a beautiful sunset overhead

The reflections really add some life to the picture and give the viewer something to look at. A few minutes later, I walked around to the other side of the church and took this second shot:

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Coastal Church Silhouette : Prints Available

Silhouette of a church on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland

The church silhouette looks much more interesting with the sunset showing through the windows. I have also used this same approach in twilight shots of churches, barns and old buildings:

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Old Stone House : Prints Available

Silhouette of an old house on the Snaefellsnes peninsula

The above picture works because of the sky showing through the windows. Otherwise, this would have been a tosser.

The Stories Behind the Pictures

I’ve always enjoyed hearing what was going on while a picture was being taken. Hearing about how a dog kept coming up to the photographer to play fetch while he was trying to take the picture. Stuff like that. Here are a few stories behind some of my pictures:


Icelandic Horse : Prints Available

Beautiful horse standing still in a field with a castle in the background

The above is a picture of a beautiful Icelandic horse. These are amazing animals that actually seem to pose for you for long periods of time. It must have been wonderful taking this picture, right? What a peaceful scene. Well, the truth is, I was behind a barbed wire fence shooting these horse pictures. I wanted to get as close as possible, but I didn’t want to get stuck by a barb. I carefully placed my hand and camera on the fence, avoiding the barbs, and then moved in close and rested my head against the top wire to take the shot. Which was all fine. Except for the fact that the fence was electric. It sent a pretty major jolt right into my head and practically knocked me over. For those of you who are wondering, YES, I did say a bad word and, YES, I did say it three times and, YES, loud enough to scare the horses away.

The above is a beautiful silhouette shot of my wife. She danced ballet when younger and so I had this idea of silhouetted ballet shots at sunrise. We got up at 4:30 am and went to the lake and proceeded to get some great shots, including this one. Unfortunately, she was a bit out of practice doing the ballet jumps. After this shot, she landed hard on her ankle and I had to practically carry her back to the car. But, it’s a great shot, so well worth the trouble of carrying her back. (hint: that’s a joke)

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Sunset on the Farm : Prints Available

Colorful sunset silhouette of an Illinois farm

This barn was off of a highway in Illinois. I had noticed it before and my wife and I made a special trip out there to shoot it at sunset. My wife stayed in the car to read and I ran around shooting for about an hour. Our battery must have been a little low, because the dome light basically drained the battery completely and the car wouldn’t start. This wouldn’t be a big problem, except that it was dark and I had no idea where in the world I was to even call for help. We were stranded for about two hours. I eventually had to run a mile or so in the dark (with the state trooper on the phone) to find a mile marker and get someone out to help.

Before taking the above picture, I set my camera bag down and didn’t zip it because then I would just have to unzip the bag again to put my camera away and that’s a lot of work, right? I took this shot and had so much fun taking it that I forgot the camera bag was unzipped. I picked it up and my $2000 lens fell out of the bag onto a pile of rocks. Yes, there was glass on the ground. Yes, I said a bad word. Fortunately, the glass was from a $100 filter I had placed over the lens for protection and my lens survived the fall. I vowed to never again set my camera bag down without zipping it and have kept my vow.

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Rustic Window : Prints Available

A cabin window hidden in the middle of a forest of Birch trees

I had heard about a group of birch trees in Vermont and really wanted a birch forest shot during my trip to New England last year. I actually drove 5 hours roundtrip to take the pictures. When I got to the forest, it was completely overgrown and basically useless for picture taking. I had heard about a barn in the forest, but that was also surrounded by overgrown trees. All I got was the shot of this window. Five hours roundtrip for a picture of a window. But, this turned out to be one of my favorite shots from the trip.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the glamorous world of photography!