Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

What do you do when you want to go out and take pictures, but it’s nasty and wet outside? Well, of course you could argue that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong kind of clothing – but then, if you’re not deliberately going for bad-weather shots, there are probably more comfortable alternatives. So, you start looking for indoor photography ideas. Which is exactly what did.

Starting from the tutorial videos for photographing water splashes, I quickly came across guides to smoke and flame photography. I especially liked the idea of taking pictures of matchsticks right when they light up. Starting from the ideas given in the videos, I thought about my own setup, and then kindled for an entire afternoon – with results that definitely exceeded my initial expectations.


Foremost, I wanted the images to have a completely black background, to give the smoke and flame as much contrast as possible. Much of this can be achieved by choosing the camera and flash settings accordingly; nevertheless, I decided to darken the room to be on the safe side. Now for the setup itself.

I’ve taken the images with my Canon 760D. Initially, I used the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, but then later on switched to the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 STM. Its shorter focal length captures a larger portion of the set, thus making better use of the available space, and it also renders a larger depth of field. As the smoke spreads quickly, and in three dimensions, both facts are relevant. The camera was of course mounted on a tripod and triggered with a remote shutter release.

I used a boom stand with a clamp holder to hold the matchstick in place. I placed a metal tray underneath it to have a fireproof base. The match was enflamed by holding a burning candle a few inches under its head. I used black cardboard as background, approx. 1.5 ft. away. The camera was lined up so that, with the 50mm lens, the black cardboard just filled the frame, and the matchstick was positioned in the bottom quarter of the image.

Finally, the flashes were set up. I tried out various arrangements and optimized them during the shooting. I will describe here only the final layout, which rendered the best results: One of the flashes (Yongnuo YN565 / YN568) was positioned about 45° to the left of the camera; the other one exactly opposite. I attached a flag made from another piece of cardboard to the rear flash, to avoid its light spilling onto the background. This mix of front and back lighting gave full effect to the smoke. Both flashes were positioned above the match to light up the smoke, but they were also pointing downward enough to illuminate the matchstick itself in the final image. The flashes were controlled by means of the Yongnuo YN622C(-TC) wireless remotes.

This is how the final setup looked like:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: The flashes are set so that the background remains black. The matches are lit up using the candle.


The settings got me thinking for a while, due to the fact that natural (flame) and artificial (flash) light sources had to be mixed. Using the candle, I started by adjusting the camera settings so that the flame was captured as bright as possible, while not overexposing more than just a small portion of it. I also had preset the shutter speed to 1/200 of a second. This is the shortest exposure the flash without high-speed sync (the YN565) supports. I also didn’t want to keep the shutter open longer than that, to avoid motion blur when the flame heftily flickers when the match ignited (that still happened in several images). The initial results, taken with an aperture of ƒ/8.0 (for good sharpness and depth of field) and ISO 100 (for good image quality), were quite satisfying.

The next task was to set up the flashes. My idea was to work with the lowest possible power setting (1/128), for two reasons: At this setting, the flash duration of speedlights like mine is about 1/20.000th of a second – this guarantees razor-sharp freezing of the smoke’s motion. Also, at this low power setting, the capacitor in the flash is recharged so quickly that I can use the camera’s continuous shooting mode with almost no delay, which vastly increases the chance of capturing great images. I actually tried it with a setting of 1/64 as well, but that had a considerable impact on the frame rate, due to the longer recharging time of the flashes.

Taking all of this into account, I found the ideal balance between the brightness of the flame and that of the smoke illuminated by the flashes using the following settings:

  • Camera: manual mode, ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec., continuous shutter (with the 90mm lens, as well as later on with the 50mm one)
  • Flashes: manual mode, 1/128 power, zoom at 24mm (I flipped out the diffusor disc on the front flash)

Needless to say, you’ll need to adjust these settings to your particular setup and lighting conditions to achieve comparable results.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

I manually focused the camera on the match, using the 10x magnification in Live View. I put a mark on the clamp holder so that I could put every new match in almost the same position, which spared me refocusing the camera every time. The camera was set to continuous shooting, to be able to capture a number of images in quick succession, and the white balance was set to automatic.


After the test shots to get the exposure right, it was show time. The biggest challenge was to find out exactly how I had to hold the candle under the matchstick. The flame had to be so close that its head would get hot enough to ignite, but not so close that it would be visible in the image when match ignites. How long I had to hold the candle there varied, not at least because every match is a bit different. And finally, each match burns differently: some flame up in a short intense burst, others keep going for about 2 seconds until the head is burned up and only the burning wood remains.

The procedure was always the same: in one hand, I held the remote shutter release for the camera, the button already pushed half-way. In the other hand, I held the burning candle. Then I held it under the match, and as soon as it flamed up, I pushed the shutter button all the way and let the camera capture 5-7 frames. By then, the exciting part was mostly over. Just as with the water splashes, I quickly learned the right timing to trigger the camera.

Afterwards, I put the candle down on the tray, and as soon as the camera had finished writing all image data to the memory card, I blew out the flame. I took another 5-7 photos of the resulting smoke. Depending on how you blow out the flame, or wave your hand a bit, the smoke creates rather fantastic figures.

With a fresh matchstick in the clamp holder, the next iteration began.

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames
Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames. Here you can see how the match is enflamed using the candle. The picture is unedited, straight out of camera. Compare it to the final version in the gallery.

At the end of the session, I had burned 36 matchsticks and shot close to 600 images. On the computer, I filtered the pictures in several steps. First, I deleted all test images and the ones that were obvious misses because they were either completely black, out of focus, or taken too early. This reduced the number of photos by more than half. Then I went to picking the images that were outstanding in one way or another. Finally, I kept 40 images for editing, and you can see the “top ten” of those in the gallery above.


This is another case of ‘practice makes perfect’, so here are a few points to improve for next time:

  • Fire protection: a sufficiently large, fire proof base below the match and to put down the candle is absolutely mandatory. It also doesn’t hurt to have a big glass or pitcher of water handy. And don’t forget: if the room you’re doing this in has a smoke detector, disable it before you start (and turn it back on when you’re done!)
  • Whether you darken the room or not, you need to have sufficient ventilation. Also take a break in between, and aerate the room. Unfortunately, the smell of the smoke is rather persistent.
  • The candle you are using to ignite the matches should be easy to handle, but also safe to stand when you put it down. I used a pillar candle left over from last year’s advent wreath. Its flame should be rather large, but without flickering or giving off sooty smote. You can cut down the rim of the candle with a tinker knife, and pour off some of the molten wax.
  • As for the matches, I recommend using the longer kind, usually sold for lighting fireplaces, instead of the small regular ones. The ones I used were about 5 inches long, compared to the regular 2 inches.


Recommendation: Definitely give this a try! In particular, during the dark winter days this is a nice handicraft challenge with which you can create moody images. By the way, this also works with sparklers.

What I’ve learned: Once again, I’ve learned quite a lot about the correct alignment and setting of the flashes, in order to create the desired effect – especially in the combination of natural and artificial light.


  • YouTube: Smoke Photography made simple
  • YouTube: Photographing flames and smoke
  • Note: Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any decent tutorial video in English on how to photograph matches when they light up. If you find any, please let me know. In the meantime, also have a look at the German version of this page…

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Splashy Fruit

Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit

They are omnipresent on the decoration shelves in furniture and garden stores: pictures of fresh fruit and vegetables, dropping into water with big splashes. The idea obviously isn’t new, but it poses a challenge nevertheless: how do you take such photos? This is the perfect task for a grey and windy weekend when you don’t want to go outside.

A little research on the internet quickly showed: it actually doesn’t take that much. The only thing missing here was a suitable, rectangular glass vessel. Our vases are all round, which doesn’t work for this setup because the flash would be reflected in the image. After some consideration, I decided for a 25 ltr. (6.5 gal.) aquarium from a local hardware store. I will certainly use it for more experiments like this in the future, so the expense of 20 Euros was easily justified.


The pictures were taken on the dining room table, and the setup can easily be explained:

  • I used my Canon 760D with the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro
  • The aquarium was placed on top of a box, so that the tabletop behind the aquarium didn’t show in the images
  • The first external flash – a Yongnuo YN568 EX II – faced into the aquarium from the left, at the same height as the water level.
  • The opposite side was covered with aluminum foil, which served as a reflector
  • The second external flash – a Yongnuo YN565 EX II – was directed onto the backdrop, a white foldable reflector, which was placed approx. 3 ft. away.
  • The flashes were adjusted and triggered using the Yongnuo YN622C(-TX) wireless remotes.
  • I used a simple cable remote for the camera.

The entire setup looked like this:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: 6.5 gal. aquarium, one external flash for the fruit and splashes, aluminum foil as reflector. The second flash and the white background are used only for the bright images.


Auto-exposure won’t be of any help, because the images need to be deliberately over- or underexposed (for white or black background), and autofocus is useless as well because it won’t pick up the falling fruit in the water; at least not fast enough. So everything needs to be set manually. The first thing I did was to place a roll of wrapping paper across the aquarium, and then let a ruler dangle from it at the point where I wanted to drop the fruit into the water. Then I used the camera’s Live View mode to manually focus on the ruler. Next, I set the exposure:

  • Camera settings: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec.

The settings are chosen so, that an image taken without flash will be completely black. I used an aperture setting of 8 to have the depth of field big enough so that the fruit would still be sharp even when I don’t drop them at the exact point I focused on. If you work on this experiment yourself and you still see some of the surroundings (e.g., a bright window) in the image with these settings, close the aperture even further to e.g. ƒ/11. If you want to use a faster shutter speed, you need external flashes that support high-speed sync. However, the shutter speed is not relevant for these images anyway, because the motion is frozen by the duration of the flash – which is much shorter than 1/200th of a second.

The flashes are set next. You will have to adjust these to your respective lighting conditions, so the values given here are just for reference. For the images with the white background I started by adjusting the rear flash. I turned the over-exposure warning (the ‘blinkies’) on my camera on, and then set the flash so that part of the background was shown to be over-exposed. You shouldn’t set the flash too bright, though, because otherwise the white background will outshine the water splashes and the rims of the fruit.

Following that, I used a few test images to adjust the aquarium flash so that the white areas of the lemon slice were not over-exposed. This flash will use a much lower setting. You might have to adjust it depending on the target object; a darker orange slice will need more light than a bright lemon. For the images with black background, the rear flash was simply turned off, and the aquarium flash was adjusted accordingly, because of the missing backlighting.

  • Flash settings for white background:
    • Background: 1/4 + 0.7
    • Aquarium: 1/64 + 0.7
  • Flash settings for black background:
    • Background: off
    • Aquarium: 1/8 + 0.3
Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.


With the proper fruit at hand, I stood next to the aquarium, holding the remote shutter release for the camera with one hand, and then started my routine. It was easier than I thought it would be. You’ll quickly get a feeling for how to drop the fruit and when to press the shutter release. I only had a few frames where the timing was completely off.

Some luck is required however, for how the various objects hit the water. It may happen that you’ll see the lemon slice edge-on, or that the apple wedge casts a big shadow onto the orange.

All in all, it was a lot of fun and made for an entertaining afternoon. The required effort and equipment are very reasonable – you can take these images even with just one external flash; instead of the aquarium you might just as well use a square vase, and for the background you can use some cardboard, or a tablecloth.


When you do something like this for the first time, you’ll quickly learn that there a number of details you didn’t think of initially – and which you can improve on next time. Here’s an overview of my ‘lessons learned’, with no guarantee for completeness:

  • After every (literally every) drop, wipe dry the front and rear glass panes of the aquarium – a microfibre cloth is perfect. This is a bit tedious, but it will save a lot of time in post-processing; especially in the images with black background.
  • When working with citrus fruit, take the images with black background first, the ones with white background later. At every drop, these fruit will shed little pieces of pulp, which float around in the water as bright fuzz. This is much less noticeable in the white images, or at least it can be more easily removed in post. At some point in time, you will have to replace the water entirely. If you also have other objects you want to drop, use those first.
  • Take care with the background and the surface you set everything on: I put a plastic blanket on our wooden table to protect it from the water. A blue plastic blanket. With red balloons on it. Haha. Find the mistake. The glass panes of the aquarium as well as the water surface relentlessly reflected this pattern – when you take a close look at the images above, you will see the blue with red dots in some of the water splashes. Next time, everything will be covered black or white.
  • If you want to capture fruit and splashes above as well as below the water, the flash pointing into the aquarium has to be at the same level as the waterline. At first, I had positioned it a bit lower – with the consequence that its light was diverted by the surface of the water, and everything above the waterline remained dark. An alternative setting is to position the flash high above and a bit to the side, pointing down into the aquarium. This will mimic a natural light setting, as provided by the sun.


Recommendation: Kids, do try this at home! It’s the ideal occupation for a dreary afternoon, and as a bonus you’ll learn to work with your flashes and how to set up the lighting correctly.

What I’ve learned: Practice makes perfect – I’ve already written about most of my learning experience in the Tips & Tricks above. I will certainly make more experiments of this kind in the not too distant future…


Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

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