Digital SLR Photography

Shoot a spooky still-life

By Dina Belenko . Posted

Using smoke in still-life photography is a wonderful and easy way to create a mysterious and enigmatic atmosphere. Smoke is a malleable and interesting object for shooting itself; it can be cryptic, mystical and a bit creepy, so it’s perfect for Halloween! It looks even better in combination with some storytelling elements like, say, paper figures of zombies, ghosts and witches too. So let’s use it to create our own still-life All Hallows’ Eve story.

The list of required props is pretty concise: a transparent glass jar, paper silhouettes of evil spirits, bats, castles or spiders, a couple of additional still-life items like autumn leaves or pumpkins to fill the surroundings, and incense sticks to create smoke. Cut your paper shapes from thick paper with a craft knife and fine scissors, or buy pre-cut figures in your local scrapbooking or craft store.

You can even use small toy figures if they fit inside the jars (and fit in with the theme). Using incense sticks to create the smoke is much cheaper than a fog machine, more accessible than dry ice and safer than an open flame. You just need to be careful with ashes and shoot in a well-ventilated space.

Finally, you will need a light source, such as a flash or nearby window, your camera along with a lens suitable for still-life photography,
a reflector and (optionally, but rather conveniently) a tripod. Are you all ready to go? Let’s shoot our spooky still-life!

1 Composition

1 Composition

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 Light

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.!

3 Settings

3 Settings

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 Shoot

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.