Smoke Art

 

The Runner: This image was created using four different images of smoke and then fused together at appropriate angles, to create this runner in motion. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

The Runner: This image was created using four different images of smoke and then fused together at appropriate angles, to create this runner in motion. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

Inspired by the unpredictability of smoke, Suyog Gaidhani lights incense and creates a series of evocative photographs.

My Assignment

  • Description: Creating abstract art by photographing the myriad contours of smoke.
  • Duration: Shooting late at night for a week, followed by a few more days of creative processing.
  • Notes: No lungs were harmed during the course of this shoot, since all the smoke was created using common incense sticks.

The confluence of art and photography has been a constant source of passion for me. So when I read an article by Graham Jeffery on the concept of photographing smoke and creating abstract art forms from it, I knew I had to give it a shot. The aesthetic appeal of the project was not the only enticing part. I later realised what a challenge it would be to capture a cloud of fine particles in air, and create magic with it.

Mask: Mirroring images also works. Here, a mask and a hint of an eye is visible. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

Mask: Mirroring images also works. Here, a mask and a hint of an eye is visible. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

My Perspective
Smoke is one entity we take for granted. We do not think that there could be more to it than what we already know or see. While some aspects of smoke have negative connotations—like cigarette smoking or fire accidents—no one would think of it as art or something worth photographing. With this assignment, my intention was to reveal its embedded beauty. There is nothing predictable about smoke—its density, the contours, the path that it takes and so on. While I am sure that the laws of physics could explain much of it, a creatively inclined person would care little about that, instead choosing to focus on its randomness.
During the assignment, I realised that smoke photography is similar to wildlife photography—you have to set up your gear, observe the scene carefully and wait patiently. By luck or by chance, ‘the moment’ arrives when the subject decides to reveal itself and it is all over within seconds, leaving behind a glimpse of wonder on the sensor of your camera.

Heart in Love: Selective colouring can give a tighter focus on a shape or pattern that you want to highlight. I saw a heart here and decided to brighten only that area with a red tone. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

Heart in Love: Selective colouring can give a tighter focus on a shape or pattern that you want to highlight. I saw a heart here and decided to brighten only that area with a red tone. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

The Process
The smoke had to be reasonably thick, with the ability to continuously change shape and path; so that I could get interesting patterns in the photograph. Once I had the right kind of smoke, I started focusing on the other technical details. The background was a black cloth that reflected little and had a uniform surface.
Lighting up the smoke well was crucial to this assignment. Although I would have liked to have some expensive piece of lighting, I believe in home-made DIY solutions. I used two powerful compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) encased in table lamps on either side of the subject. It is necessary to get their positioning right, because they should be close enough to illuminate the smoke; but not so close, to cause lens flare or highlight details of the background. Through trial and error and with patience, I got it right and I knew I could always cover up the minor glitches while post-processing.
I did the basic processing of these images in Lightroom, and exported the ones I felt have the potential to make it big, to Photoshop. As the first step, I used Levels to get the contrast right and cloned out all the stray smoke particles or noise that had crept in. Then I tried an invert to see if a black background suited the image better or the pristine white.

Musical Note: The isolated spark reminds me of a musical note. This made it to the cover of a trance music album Best of Nellie Recordings 2007 – Various Artists, which was released in Europe. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

Musical Note: The isolated spark reminds me of a musical note. This made it to the cover of a trance music album Best of Nellie Recordings 2007 – Various Artists, which was released in Europe. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

The final step was to apply the tone and colour that I felt made the smoke get a life of its own. For some of the images, I went a step further and tried fusing them together to create larger patterns like The Runner. Mirroring of the image can also create some great results.
Frankly, there are no limits or boundaries for what you can do in processing. You only need to explore the mind!

Psychedelic: I wanted this photograph to have a psychedelic feel, which is why I chose a loud pink colour. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

Psychedelic: I wanted this photograph to have a psychedelic feel, which is why I chose a loud pink colour. Photograph/Suyog Gaidhani

My Equipment: I used a Canon EOS 350D and a Canon 50mm f/1.8, since these were the best options to shoot the sharpest possible images in low light. A Velbon tripod proved to be quite handy as well.

You Can Try Smoke Photography Too

  • Experiment with different incense brands till you get the one that gives the most interesting contours. For thick dense smoke, try dhoop or try lighting up multiple incense sticks.
  • Choose an evenly toned black background , to let the smoke stand out and ensure that it covers the frame fully. A black dupatta or a t-shirt will do.
  • Examine all the raw smoke you have captured and you will soon see abstract forms, human forms, faces, flowers emerge. By combining different shots or by creating mirror reflections, you can end up with unique masterpieces.
  • Since this involves fire and smoke, be careful with your setup. Photography cannot take prominence over loss of property or life.
  • Let your imagination take over! There are really no limits on what you can create.

To see more of Suyog’s photography, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/suyog/

Tags: abstract, Low light, May 2009, On Assignment, Smoke art, Suyog Gaidhani, Tripod, Unusual