I have a hard time going through my old pictures. I've learned a lot over the years and sometimes I look at old pictures and think "man... what was I thinking!?" But sometimes there are projects where I look back and think "man... what was I thinking? How did I do that and how can I repeat it!?" One of those projects was from the Summer of 2014. Some friends of mine have been painstakingly working on a comic book. But it's not just like any ol' comic book you'll find at your favorite store. This one is a massive project. Painted by hand in an oversize book. The artist was feeling uneasy about how his smoke was turning out and needed some reference material. Instead of just looking online we decided to photograph some incense smoke ourselves so we could try different effects to see how the smoke moved and responded to different situations. I had never done anything like it so of course I was on board to give it a shot. What we came up with blew my mind.
That is the test picture I took while the painter and writer where in the other room talking. It's completely unedited (if you read my last blog post you'll see me say I never show unedited pictures, so I'm a bit of a hypocrite right now but I'm showing this for a reason) and it came as a complete shock to me. I literally gasped and called for the others to take a look at this. We were all incredibly excited for the project and started working immediately. So, what'd I do to take this picture?
I spent a lot of time planning for this project. As I said before, I had never done anything like it. First thing I thought was - how do you isolate smoke from the background? I thought, well, smoke is white, we need a black background. But it couldn't be just any sort of black background. Black construction paper? I would need a big piece, or many pieces taped together. I don't know, that sounds like too much trouble and it probably wouldn't work. I could paint my wall black? But returning it to a lighter color would take a lot of paint. Also, I would need matte black, any reflection would be tough to deal with.
Then it hit me. Black velvet! Black velvet is known for being a deep dark black and absorbs light. I went to a local craft store and was expecting to spend a small fortune, I have no idea how much black velvet costs or if it's even easy to come by. Turns out, it's cheap, and most stores have it. $30 for 3 yards. It's easily one of the best purchases I've made to enhance my photography. Every photographer should have a roll of black velvet stashed away, it's incredible.
So that was step 1 - black background complete. Now I need to light my subject. The answer to me was simple - use a flash. A good flash will be bright enough to illuminate your subject no problem. The problem is that most flashes spread the light out in a cone shape. I needed a solid beam. I didn't want the velvet to get lit up at all, so I made what's called a "snoot" to fit on the end of my flash. I had some black construction paper (I used it after all!) and made a tube out of it, taped it to my flash, and voila! A snoot is born! I also used an off-camera flash cord, so I could hold the flash out to my left and fire the beam left to right through the smoke. I had one of the other guys hold up a board so the light would go die in the corner rather than bounce around the room.
This is one of my favorite images to come from that project. As you can see, I didn't adjust my settings from the first picture. Part of me wonders why I did that. I didn't experiment with faster/slower shutter speed. I didn't change the aperture at all, I didn't try a wide angle. I want to go back and try all these things to see what sort of differences they make. But, we were on a roll and I am still very pleased with how the images turned out.