Collect all the props you’re going to use and create a simple composition with jars and bottles as the central elements. Try to keep the scene simple, but add some details to create an atmosphere (such as a little pumpkin, autumn leaves or a thread of artificial spider web). Put your paper figures in the jars and fix them with double-sided tape if they won’t stand on their own.
2 Set up the lighting
Lighting from behind makes the smoke glow and creates a silhouette of the paper cutouts. Aside from that, you can use any type of lighting you like. In my case it’s a flashgun in a strip softbox from behind and slightly to the right with a reflector on the left, filling in the shadows. I’ve also used card as a flag to stop some of the light from hitting the background to make it darker.!
If you’re using flashguns, set them on a low power (about 1/8th) to allow you to use a relatively wide aperture to blur the background. Select your flash sync speed (usually between 1/160sec to 1/250sec) and adjust the ISO to get a well-exposed image. If you’re using natural light, a longer shutter speed will give the smoke a blurry finish, whereas a faster shutter speed will retain texture in the smoke.
4 Let’s shoot
Ignite an incense stick or two, put them in a jar to let the smoke condense at the bottom and plug the cork. Fill the jars one by one and take a sequence of shots as the smoke swirls and curls. You can also add some swirls of smoke outside of the jars, low down so it drifts upwards, or open the lid of a jar to capture the smoke escaping. Remember to place the incense stick down on a fire-proof surface.