The Comprehensive And Contemplative Guide On Creating Magical Smoke Composites


There is an old song that says that no good story ever started with the words “No Good Story Ever Starts With Drinking Tea [Watch this link, it has some pretty explicit music]. Anyhow,  I am not really sure if this is 100% accurate, but it definitely applies for my story today. I once drank a nice shot of Whiskey. Drinking Whiskey and smoking cigar. I kinda threw my head back and relaxed while enjoying the smoke swirling upwards. Ahhh…. What a nice swirl…… It was actually dancing its way up. I know that this is what incepted this ballerina photograph:


So, the cigar went out, and I drank some more Whiskey. Then I went upstairs to and started staring at my monitor. There had to be a way to convey that dancy-smokey feeling   in a photograph. This ended up with me staying up and selecting one of my ballet dancer photographs and placing layer upon layer of smoke on the photo, until I ended up removing the underlying dancer. Saved the file and went finally went to bed.

It was only when I woke up the following morning that I realized I  may be on to something here.

But before going into the full story and tutorial, here is a short video showing how a smoke composition is constructed:

Next was a bit more ambitious shot, something with more interaction. I ended up editing and re-editing (and re-editing) a photo of a couple holding hands in love. Here are some of the version:


So, this wraps up the philosophical part of this post and now I am going to get down to business and explain how such edits are made.

The first thing you would wanna do is get a nice collection of smoke shots that you can dissect, cut and merge for getting the smoke bits that you need. I would say you should not even try pulling a smoke composition together if you don’t have at least 40 images of smoke.

I am not going to go into smoke photography here (there is plenty of that on the web), but in a nutshell, you shoot smoking incense sticks in a windless location with a strobe shooting from the side flagged (or gridded) so it does not contaminate the background. Here is a quick setup shot from my messy living room, but really, you can read any of the tutorials above.

guy-viner-smoke-02-01Here is a quick rundown of the important stuff (it corresponds to the numbers in the photos):

  1. Camera (duh!)
  2. incense sticks and stand
  3. snooted strobe (using a piece of cardboard)
  4. watchdog

As you can see, I shot against a dark background, but really go ahead and read the tutorials above, they go into further details. Anyhow, by the end of a 20 minutes smoke shooting session, you should have more than plenty photographs. Here is (some of) what I made in 20 minutes:


This was easy, they hard part is to decide what you want to draw. It’s best if you made a little sketch, to illustrate how the final composition will look like. (admittedly, I don’t always make a sketch and always get upset that I didn’t – it can save so much headache). It makes sense to motivate the smoke, so think of placing something that creates smoke in your sketch: a cigarette, a torch, a cigar, a match, a flame… you get the point.

When you think about the composition, a good idea to help with motivating the smoke is to have some sort of interaction with the smoke-to-be. A look, a gesture of the model with the empty space that will be filled out with your composited smoke.

Next, you’d take your photo, this could be any photo at all that may (or may not) be introduced with smoke in the compositing phase. Work by the sketch and leave plenty of room for the smoke.

The last step, which is kinda tricky is compositing. I am going to leave out any “usual tweaks” such as tones, crop, curves and so on, and focus on compositing the smoke. Open your base image in Photoshop (or another photo editing tool).

To make the actual composite, you can go back to the sketch and see what you wanted the smoke bit to look like. Look for an image that looks like the smoke but you want to use, and once you have found it you need to make it smoke compositing friendly.

There are two ways to do that and they both go through Photoshop’s filter gallery. In both cases you want to end up with a blackened front on a white background.

The first option is to select: Filters -> Filter Gallery – >Sketch -> Torn Edges.

The second one is to select: Filters -> Filter Gallery – >Stylize -> Glowing Edges

Here is a sample photo applied with the Torn Edges filter – it is my profile picture. The torn edges filter has a few parameters to play with, the most useful one is Image Balance that sets the black vs white ratio.

guy-viner-smoke-03And here it is again using the glowing edges filter inverted and desaturated.


Now that we have a photo to work with we can start painting the smoke in. Lower the opacity of the baseline photo, it will make the editing process easier.

Position the drawing from the previous step in your base frame and start adding smoke layers one by one. Yea – this is going to be a slow process.

If you are using smoke brushes, you can simply paint away, but if you are using smoke photographs, you should set your blending option to Screen, this will get rid of the black background and only leave the smoke in. Have a play. (While you are playing you may wanna check the Lighter Color and Linear Dodge blending options as well)

Here is a photo that illustrates “merging” two smoke shots with the Screen blending mode. Pretty seamless.


A Quick Wrap up:

  1. Create a smoke photo gallery
  2. Shoot a base photo
  3. Create a map for compositing the smoke
  4. Lower the opacity of the smoke map


Now comes the part where I usually get some more whiskey. You have to match smoke patterns to the smoke map. This is not trivial but luckily there are some tools that we can use:

  • The Mask tool will enable selecting only part of a smoke photo
  • The free transform tool will give you the ability to stretch, squash, rotate and skew any piece of smoke
  • The Puppet Wrap tool gives you total control over how the smoke is transformed

You can go back and watch the movie again now, with a better understanding of how the layers are built up.

Some General Tips

  • Smoke rises up and expands as it rises, use that to make your smoke believable.
  • Not all smoke photos and smoke brushes are created equally, use the opacity tool to equalize them.
  • If the smoke in a certain photo is not white, you can whiten it up using a correction layer
  • Be gentle when manipulating smoke, too much makes it obvious that it is ‘fake smoke’

There you have it, I hope you enjoyed, here are some more photos using this technique:

guy-viner-smoke-21 guy-viner-smoke-22 guy-viner-smoke-23 guy-viner-smoke-20 guy-viner-smoke-28 guy-viner-smoke-24 guy-viner-smoke-27

About The Author

Guy Viner is a conceptual photographer based in Carmiel, Israel. You can follow his (Hebrew) musing here, his Facebook here, and his art on 500px