Smoke Bomb Photography: Yay or Nay?
Smoke bomb photography adds a whimsical and mysterious element to any photo, and it can work to cover distracting or unsightly backgrounds. If you’re shooting a couple, a portrait or even a landscape, using smoke bombs adds an interesting point for the eye to follow.
People are fascinated by fire and smoke. Think of the quiet beauty of steam coming off a cup of coffee or even smoke billowing from a chimney. The use of smoke bombs adds a unique, slightly wild aesthetic to any photo. It show viewers the element of fantasy in an otherwise very life-like art form.
The juxtaposition between the human subjects, the natural beauty of the outdoors, and the colored smoke will draw viewers into your photo. You want people to look at your photos again and again, and you will evoke intrigue and emotion in your viewers by using smoke.
Smoke bombs, as with all pyrotechnics, can also be potentially dangerous. They get very hot, and some people find the smoke irritating to the eyes and lungs. Smoke bombs were originally manufactured for use as military ground cover, and the non-toxic (though still potentially aggravating) smoke has grown popular in modern photography.
If you’re interested in using smoke bombs in your next shoot, we’ve gathered all the best tips and tricks from photographers who have experience in the field. Read on for everything you’ll need to know for a safe and successful smoke bomb photography shoot.
First things first: it is so important to make sure smoke bombs are legal in the state in which you are shooting. You do not want to get arrested on a photography shoot; it’s not a good look. The following states permit the sale of most fireworks to residents:
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
- Wyoming (varies by county)
If you are not shooting in one of these states, you’ll want to check in with the local fireworks laws of the state you are in. For example, all fireworks, including smoke bombs, are illegal to use without a license in Massachusetts. Delaware, New Jersey and New York also have a “blanket ban” on fireworks. You can use this resource to check on the laws of each state.
Even if smoke bombs are legal in the state, you should always ask the owner of the venue where you will be shooting if it permissible to use smoke bombs. While the smoke will dissipate quickly, it does leave a mark on the ground which will wash away with rain.
“Many local and federal parks ban them, and you may run into problems in areas where fireworks are illegal. If you’re planning on firing off smoke bombs in a public place you may want to inform local authorities, especially if you’re using white or black smoke. Check your local requirements to see if permits are required. Even with all that, if you’re shooting inside a building, make sure anyone else in there knows about it.” – Photographer C.A. Bridges
As Bridges mentions, it is particularly important to notify someone if you will be using white or black smoke, as large clouds of smoke in an otherwise remote area may cause alarm.
Smoke Bomb Safety
It is best to use cool-burning smoke bombs whenever possible. These do not get hot to the touch, and instead of lighting them with a lighter, you will pull a ring (like a grenade) to start the smoke. Even if you are using a cool-burning smoke bomb, it will still get hot. These bombs burn top to bottom, so it is best to hold them on the base where it will be less hot.
Though it is uncommon, smoke bombs can explode.
“This is possible when too much moisture gets inside the tube, thus clogging the pathway for the smoke’s expulsion. When this happens, it can cause a smoke bomb to combust. There is a way to tell if your smoke bomb could potentially have this issue. If it fails to emit plumes shortly after the fuse has burnt, this could indicate that there is a clogging issue relating to moisture inside the cylinder. In the event this happens, move away from the smoke bomb and allow it to burn itself out.” – Husband and wife photography team Aaron and Whitney DuRall
It is also recommend that when using smoke bombs, hot or cold, that you carry water or a fire extinguisher with you. Once the bomb has burned out, immediately pour water over the tube. After the smoke stops billowing, the shell remains hot for several minutes, so you’ll also want to avoid using the smoke bombs on dry ground or around anything flammable, especially dry grass or certain synthetic fabrics. It is wise to have models sign a waiver or a release when working with smoke bombs, because while the risk may be low, burns and irritation can occur.
One of the reasons the smoke from smoke bombs photographs so well is because it is extremely thick. This is great for photography, but not so great for your lungs and eyes.
Smoke bombs are typically made of potassium nitrate. When lit, they release smoke that is primarily made of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water vapor and potassium carbonate. These are similar to known air pollutants, and it is not uncommon for your skin and eyes to feel irritated if you are exposed to the smoke for too long. Some people will be more sensitive than others, but it is always helpful to keep a safe distance (a few yards) between people and the smoke. It is best to leave the smoke bombs at home when working with children.
Finally, we should mention that smoke from the smoke bombs can and will stain. This is especially important to keep in mind when working with brides who not be pleased if you stain their wedding dress. The smoke can leave a colored stain on clothes, hair and skin. The dye is typically water-based so it will come out eventually with a washing, but it is tough to remove on the spot. You may also want to elect to use a rain cover to avoid staining your camera and gear.
Now, onto the fun stuff.
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Choosing a Smoke Bomb
The Enola Gaye WP40 comes highly recommended by many smoke bomb artists and photographers. WP stands for “wire pull,” and this gets about “as hot as a hand warmer,” meaning you or your models can comfortably handle it without hand protection, though some photographers still elect to use gloves.
Be sure to differentiate between Smoke Grenades and Burst Smoke Grenades. Burst grenades release plumes of smoke from both ends, which can look more dramatic in photos, but they also burn more quickly. The Enola Gaye Bursts are packaged almost identically to the non-bursts. The main difference to look out for is that the Bursts have arrows on both ends and the serial number starts with “BWP” as opposed to “WP.”
Photographers experimenting with smoke bomb photography will want to be sure that they have plenty of fireworks on hand. Sometimes, you will encounter a “dud” which is a smoke bomb that will not fire. Each bomb costs anywhere from $6-$20, and you will need a lot of them; so keep this cost in mind when budgeting your shoot. You can find some great smoke bomb options here, and for a budget-friendly option, this 5 pack of “Smoke Fountain“ come highly recommended.
Keep in mind that these will only burn from 60-90 seconds, with the first and last ten seconds being anti-climatic. Because you have such a short window of time in which to work, the shot and and poses should be set before you pull the wire. It is also widely advised that you stick with one or two smoke colors, otherwise the smoke can mix and become distracting or gray looking.
To start the smoke, grab the wire tab, point the smoke bomb away from you and pull it again away from your body and others. It is imperative that you point the smoke bomb away from yourself and others, as they can spark and cause burns.
8 Tips for Shooting with Smoke Bombs
- If your model or client has not previously worked with smoke bombs, they will need more direction during the shoot than you may be accustomed to giving. They will not be able to see the smoke from your viewpoint. Given that you have such a small window before the smoke burns out, be prepared to give direction before you start shooting. How do you want the bombs to be held? How far away from the smoke should your subjects be standing. Some photographers have suggested setting up a reflective surface behind the camera so the model can see the smoke and pose accordingly. First-time smoke bomb models should also be open and receptive to direction.
“A model sitting quietly in a cloud of smoke won’t need much direction but if movement will be involved or you want the smoke in a specific trail, go through it with the model first without the grenade so they understand what you want and what they should do. Fancy effects will need some choreography. Plan to waste the first few bombs so she can get a feel for them.” – C.A. Bridges
- Wind is your nemesis when working with smoke bombs. Whenever possible, plan your shoot for a clear, calm day. Wind will dissipate the smoke quickly undoing any effects you had planned.
“Other points to consider are proper ventilation and wind. Smoke grenades are intensely potent and release a very acrid smell into the air that when inhaled, can be overwhelming. At one point during our shoot, the area we had chosen incased [sic] the model in smoke making it difficult for her to breathe, let alone pose. Conversely, too much wind completely ruins the effect of the smoke. Despite being very concentrated, even the slightest breeze will dissipate the smoke and ruin the dramatic effect that can be obtained if it is simply allowed to float and envelope your model. Finding a happy medium is difficult but it is unlikely you will nail in on the first try regardless of how well you plan, so just start shooting.” – Photographer Mark Bowers, Fstoppers blog
Most photographers will have at least a few shots ruined by wind which is why it is vital that you have plenty of smoke bombs on hand. You will notice that trees are often featured in the background of smoke bomb photography. This is because shooting in a heavily forested area provides a nice buffer for wind as well as an interesting natural backdrop.
- Shooting movement in smoke bomb photography will be very different than shooting in a your typical portrait or landscape shoot. If you are having a model hold the smoke bomb, advise them to move slowly; long, deliberate movements will create the thickest, most intense smoke. Think about the hand motion you would perform if you were trying to disperse smoke quickly after blowing out birthday candles; quick movements disperse smoke. However, shooting without any movement will cause the smoke to accumulate in one large cloud. Advise your model to move and walk slowly while taking large strides.
“Remember the smoke lasts for a very short period of time. A smoke grenade can run for 90 seconds, and will take a few seconds to get going. While you’ll need to have planned out shots, you can still get creative. Have you subject wave the smoke bomb around, or walk with it so the smoke trails behind them. Play with different colors and mixing two contrasting hues.” – Slickpic
Well-placed props will help to shape the smoke’s direction. You can consider using a doorway, vehicle, trees or even umbrellas to guide and shape the direction of the smoke.
“If you want more smoke in the shot, have her turn around and make some big circles before turning back to you so there’s a wall of smoke behind her. If you have more than one model you may need to try a few different poses to get everyone in place.” – C.A. Bridges
- Work with an assistant. Models typically like to have use of their hands, and the photo can look messy or amateur if the model is holding a smoke bomb. Your assistant will be able to walk the perimeter of the shoot adding and swirling smoke wherever you would like it. You will also be able to better dodge wind if you are working with the help of an assistant.
“Let your assistant walk or at least move their hands if they’re hiding somewhere to be absent on the picture. Thus, the smoke will be smooth and more natural on the shot. Otherwise, it will just look like a huge cloud, and there will be a chance that you won’t see your model clearly; and the image would be ruined. And one more tip: Do not hold the grenades close to the model’s face; it will not be pleasant even if it looks totally ethereal and artistic.” – Weedit
Assistants are encouraged to wear all black as they will be close enough to the smoke bomb for it to stain.
- Before you begin shooting, make sure that your camera’s settings are set up for success.
“It’s better to be just a bit underexposed to bring out highlights in the smoke. Set your aperture between f/4.0 and f/5.6 with a fast shutter speed. Make sure the subject and some of the smoke is focused, but have some depth of field.” – Slickpic
When photographing smoke, The New York Film Academy advises, “Your shutter speed should be set to the sync speed of your flash — typically, this is around 1/200 or 1/250. Your ISO should be set to 100, ensuring that you have the least amount of noise in your final image. The higher the ISO, the more visible noise. Your white balance doesn’t matter if you’re shooting in RAW format, but for all intents and purposes you can keep it on auto. If you’d like a warmer image, set your white balance to ‘shade.’ If you’d like a cooler image, set your white balance to ‘tungsten.'”
- Shooting at night may be your best bet for smoke bomb photography. This may sound counterintuitive, but the smoke against the jet black background can look stunning and dramatic. This will require getting creative with lighting.
The “Golden Hour” or the hour before the sun sets or after it rises is also a lovely time for shooting smoke bomb photography. The light is soft and pleasant, and the slight gray of the sky is a gorgeous natural backdrop for smoke.
“Light sources behind the smoke can add interesting looks, and light coming from the side adds sharper definition to the smoke tendrils.” – C.A. Bridges
When shooting in direct light, red smoke bombs can often disappear into the natural color of the sun. Light may also impact how colors read, especially blues and greens, but these color flaws can easily be addressed in post-production. Experts recommend shooting toward the sun to create a backlit shot, then using strobes with a high speed sync to light the subject’s face. Models should look into the strobe for the highest quality photos.
For an interesting and pretty effect, match the color of the smoke to the models’ outfit. This creates a monochromatic feel but with layered textures. For example, a structured wedding dress will look really beautiful against a background or foreground of white smoke.
- Keep smoke bombs on hand whenever possible. You never know when they may spontaneously enhance a shoot, or when one of your clients may ask you to use them.
“Smoke bombs can really work in a variety of situations when it comes to shoots. There are no rules. We actually travel with a bunch in the trunk of our car on any given day. We do this because we never know when we may want to hop out of the car, and pop off a few frames using them. We also never know when we may want to incorporate them into an engagement session, a wedding day or even a lifestyle session and more.” – Aaron Durall
- As with all photo shoots, props can make or break the image. Before you select your prop, consider the feel and the vibe you are hoping to create. Is it edgy? Romantic? Fantastical? Keep in mind that sometimes smoke can look very out of place when you are shooting people in their own “normal” clothes. Smoke bomb photography presents a great opportunity to get creative with costumes and props, so don’t shy away from creating a whole scene.
Many photographers also mention how it can be a mistake to allow the smoke to take over the whole photo. This can feel overly contrived. Of course, it is a cool aspect of the photo, but it should not be the focal point of the shot, unless you are not photographing people. Use the smoke bomb to enhance the photo without overwhelming the image.
“Some of the best images I saw from this shoot were focused on the model’s pose and expression, with the smoke setting the tone and adding texture and mood. Some of the shots — including far too many of mine — were clearly the photographer thinking “Cool! Smoke! Look!” and snapping away. Ideally you should have an image that would be amazing even without the smoke.” – C.A. Bridges
For examples of smoke bomb art that does not feature humans, check out the inspiring work of Olaf Bruening. While he is not a photographer, his smoke bomb installations will give you a sense of the huge potential of the smoke medium. And to see more about what you can do with smoke bombs, check out the Instagram hashtag #smokebombphotography, which has over 40,000 posts.