Smoke is a cool element to play with when it comes to photography. Not only can it be used to set a mood, it can also shape light. One could say smoke is a crafty light-shaping, mood-shifting machine, but one won’t. I mean, it is all those things, I’m just not saying it (that’s why I typed it instead).
Anyway, a few weeks ago, I was in my shop looking for a project, surfing Thingiverse in search of something to 3D print and turn into a photo. One of the models I stumbled across was a hollow Deadpool mask that looked promising, so I printed it and painted it up.
I had visions of making an image with a black background and giving the mask an eerie, dramatic set of glowing eyes. I tried thinking of ways to get the glow effect, but nothing really seemed to work in my head. Then I remembered I owned a small fog machine and some Lume Cubes.
Fog has an amazing ability to diffuse and reflect light. Smoke and fog are basically the same thing from a light perspective, and anyone who has driven a car in the fog knows how turning on your high beams reflects a wall of light back at you. I wanted to use that effect, except targeting the diffused light through the mask’s eye holes.
In my lightbox, where I shoot a lot of my images, I set up the rig I had in mind. I started by mounting a Lume Cube on a goose neck attached to a Platypod. On top of that rig, I placed the mask with the eyes positioned so light would shine straight out of the eye holes. Then I added a second light in the front for some facial illumination. Finally, I positioned my smoke machine, the MicroFogger 2, under the mask so the smoke would go straight up into it and flow both around the mask and out of the eye holes.
It looked a little exactly like this:
As a test, I triggered the Lume Cube and the smoke machine. As I had hoped, the light diffused from the smokey mask interior to a nice smooth wall of light that made the eyes glow.
It looked freaking amazing in person, and I hoped it would look equally amazing through the camera lens.
Once I had my concept proven, it was just a matter of tuning the ambient light so I would get a nice dark background, and then triggering the smoke machine and my camera at the right moment, All the while hoping to capture the perfect curl of smoke coming from the eyes.
Smoke is a fickle mistress. As the warm smoke mixes with the air, it creates random air currents that causes the smoke to curl in all sorts of directions. No two puffs of smoke act the same way (cue Ian Malcom’s chaos theory explanation from Jurassic Park). Capturing the right smoke effect requires a whole lot of trial and error, mixed with a dash of luck and the clever application of burst shutter mode.
As you can see with the following shots, I had a lot of rejects before I captured the perfect image (over 100 frames of rejects actually, but these are the highlights of rejection). They seemed to follow a few patterns though, like the eyes not being fully smoked.
Or the smoke not being evenly distributed between the eyes.
Or there being too much smoke.
Perseverance, patience, and grit is the key to this sort of shooting (along with a rippin’ good soundtrack and a cold fizzy drink). You will go through a *lot* of frames when using mediums like smoke effects. There will be a series of obvious rejects until you suddenly get one that is annoyingly close to what you wanted, but not good enough. So you’ll try again, going through another sea of rejects until the next almost-good-enough candidate comes by.
Eventually, after a few rounds of cycling through the pattern, I managed to capture a frame that had just the right amount of eye glow and ambient smoke.
All that was left was to clean it up—I had a lot of dust spots, and a bad paint job to fix—followed by a splash of colour grading to get to my final image, which looked exactly like I envisioned.
This is one of the first times I have tried using smoke as a diffusing element. I’m pleased with the way it looks. This is definitely another tool in my creative toolbox for use with future shots down the road.