Smoke and Photography   Leave a comment

I want to pass on what I’ve found about photographing with smoke – in the skies and otherwise.  Landscape photography in general is better in clear air.  I don’t mean clear skies – clouds are good!  I mean clear air, the kind you get on a cold morning in autumn or winter.  But that clear air will mean a blue bias to the color.  Of course you can color correct if you don’t like that, but that is easily overdone.  Some of the most popular landscape photos on the web were shot in very clear air at golden hour (early or late in the day).  You’re best off with that plan if you want a lot of detail in your shots.

Crater Lake in Oregon is calm as the sun rises.

But those sorts of shots can get old.  So we search for fog, mist, even rain sometimes.  Anything to give the shot some atmosphere.  We rarely go out when skies are smoky from forest fires.  That’s just an ugly look, we think.  But depending on how much smoke is in the air, this can result in some interesting, even great pictures.  The picture above was taken at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon last month while the smoke was drifting in from fires in northern California.  Now there wasn’t that much smoke, and I had the advantage of being at a relatively high elevation.

At the time I was taking this picture, in the early morning, smoke was obvious and not all that great looking.  As you can see, however, it has some nice color and a somewhat unique look.  Whenever you have a warm-looking color tone at sunrise it’s worth going with that – it always looks a bit different than sunset.   This strategy can yield some nice shots, but it’s hard to tell at the time of capture.  You can’t go by what things look like when you’re there.  It’s just too hazy and low contrast to think photos will turn out nicely.

Here are some things that will help:

  • Being far enough away from the fire that the smoke is thin and/or layered across the landscape.
  • Getting to the highest elevation you can, in order to be looking across the top of the ground-hugging smoke.
  • Shooting in the very early morning.  The late afternoon golden hour will likely see the smoke thicker and more obvious, though the winds and progress of the fire will be the major factor.
  • Definitely expose a bit to the right (slightly overexpose).  You want to avoid noise at all costs, since the mixture of the “grain” in the shot from the smoke and noise will not look good.
  • In post-processing you’ll generally want to increase contrast and clarity unless the smoke is providing a lot of atmosphere, and depending on the composition.  It’s a balance, but you generally will be able to use a heavier hand than with other landscape pictures.

Mount Hood and Hood River Valley are shrouded in smoke from a late-season fire.

The smoke in the shot above was heavier (I was closer to the fire), but not too heavy.  Also, I was taking it from a lower spot, more inside the smoke layer than the Crater Lake example.  So the blurry orange typical of smokey sky is much more dominant, effecting the colors of the landscape much more.  The two shots are very different: the first one is better for sure, but the dominating smoke of the second in no way ruins the shot.  It turned out much better than I thought, and gave me hope that a different composition and subject might take better advantage of the smoke.  I even tried that night (image below) from a spot that I love in the spring for its flowers; it’s a short hike, illuminated by a half-moon on this night.

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

Of course taking pictures of people in smoky conditions normally means they are smoking.  These can obviously be very atmospheric shots, and though I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke, I will accept it in order to bring a real personality to my subject.  Women normally don’t look good smoking in my opinion.  The shot below was not nearly as disagreeable to me as it would be if he was smoking a cigarette.  Though I don’t smoke it anymore, I still love the smell of ganja.  He was quite a willing subject, a Malawian on the shores of that beautiful lake in Africa, Lake Malawi.  It’s easy to believe you’re in Jamaica.

A hard-working woodcarver in Malawi relaxes with his drum, and partakes of his reward.

So when that smoke appears to intrude on your pictures, do what you should always do when you have a camera: go with the flow.  Use the smoke to give your shots an interesting look.

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Posted September 8, 2012 by MJF Images in Photography

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