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:
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.
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.
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.
TIPPS & TRICKS
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.