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Creating stunning smoke overlays in Affinity Photo with Reto Scheiwiller

Asset creator Reto Scheiwiller shares his process for shooting breathtaking images of smoke and turning them into overlays using Affinity Photo.

Following the popularity of xresch’s Smoke and Cloud brushes on the Affinity Store, we go behind the scenes with the pack’s creator Reto Scheiwiller, aka xresch, to learn his techniques for capturing effective images of smoke and turning them into impressive-looking overlays to bundle as assets or to use in his work.

Here we hand over to Reto to talk us through his process.

Setting the stage

For taking photos of smoke, the best environment is somewhere that there is no wind but still has a slight airflow. As I do not have a studio, and my garage is rather cold, I shoot in the kitchen using my cooker hob and the extractor fan.

“When planning your setups, you sometimes have to be creative and use what you have to create the best possible results.”

To set up my workspace I use two tripods and a black cloth backdrop to get a nice dark background. The first time I took images of smoke, I didn’t have the tripods or the black cloth, so I took a black shirt and taped it to the wall. When planning your setups, you sometimes have to be creative and use what you have to create the best possible results.

Next, I position the flash in front of the cloth, pointing upwards in the direction of the camera and smoke. This will help you get a nice dark background, and you should get a really nice colour from the smoke as the light will travel through instead of reflecting.

Creating the smoke

For creating the smoke, I use one or multiple incense sticks. You can also use a cigarette or other objects that smoke for variation, as they give off a slightly different smoke. Although, cigarettes are not that great as they tend to only produce a good amount of smoke for 1-2 minutes if you do not puff on them.

For securing the incense sticks, I use a small clamp as a stand. You can also use different variations, like putting four together or spreading them apart to get different smoke effects.

Shooting the smoke kernels

For shooting the photos, I set my camera to an aperture of around F22 and a shutter speed of 1/160 seconds. I then take several shots and adjust the intensity of the flash to get the smoke popping on the images.

You can try to block the flash from hitting the camera lens directly, for example, by using some thin material, such as the bag which contains the flash. After trying this, I removed it later in the shoot as it cut out too much light that should have hit the smoke. We will edit the flash out of the photos in a later step.

To get plenty of variation in the images, you can try putting your smoke source in different positions. You can introduce some additional airflow by waving your hand in front of the smoke or by slightly blowing towards the smoke while still keeping a good distance. Another thing you can do is to move the smoke source itself to create different effects.

Here are some examples of different variations.

As nature can be quite unpredictable, take a lot of pictures so you can pick from the best shots afterwards. When I create assets like brushes, I take about 10-20 photos for every item I want in the final product. So for a set of 100 items, I would take between 1000 to 2000 pictures.

Editing the image in Affinity Photo

Now we can pick one of our best shots and take it to Affinity Photo. Let’s have a look at the original. Depending on your screen settings, this image looks already quite good. The only thing we have to remove is the flash.

As we do not purely trust our eyes and screens settings, let’s add a Brightness and Contrast adjustment layer to see what we are actually dealing with. Now we can see some texture of the cloth in the background and some parts of the wall and the tripod on the right side of the image. In a professional studio setup, we could have avoided most of the noise, but for our purpose, this works quite well.

To remove the background noise, I add a Levels Adjustment Layer below the Brightness and Contrast Layer. Setting the Black Level to 2% is already enough to remove most of the background noise. Keeping the Brightness high helps to see how much we actually have to tweak these settings and not overshoot it, so we don’t lose a lot of detail in the smoke.

Creating a black layer under the smoke image, we can add a layer mask to the smoke layer and erase the flash with a soft brush. I cropped the image and erased some of the smoke at the edges.

To add slightly more variance to the colours, I added a Split Toning Adjustment Layer.

And as we are already creating a nice smoke overlay, let’s reuse all that hard work to create a fire overlay by adding a gradient map.

The final result can now be used as an overlay in our designs.

We hope you enjoyed this tutorial and are inspired to give Reto’s techniques a try.

If you want a quick and easy way to add impressive smoke effects to your work, you can view and purchase his 180 Smoke and Cloud brushes in the Affinity store.

Alternatively, Reto has also provided five free smoke overlays that he created during the making of this tutorial which you can download as a taster to try out in your work.

Download Free Overlays