Sometimes the best way to tell a story in photography is not to use real things, but symbols. If you want to have a dragon in your shot, you don’t really need to find a giant fire-breathing lizard. You just need to cut its silhouette out of paper. Of course, in order to make this silhouette look natural in your scene, you need to know some tricks. So, let’s see how we can use smoke to create a mysterious and enigmatic atmosphere and combine it with paper figures to tell a story. The smoke itself is a malleable and interesting subject to work with. It looks cryptic, mystical and a bit creepy. And it can be a great help in telling a dark fairy tale or an exciting Halloween story in your still life.
1. Draw a sketch
It’s very important to start with an idea first. It could be something dark and spooky with vampires, bats, and graveyard tombs. Or it could be something charming with unicorns, dragons, and fairies—you need to decide what story you’re about to tell.
Is it about All Hallows’ Eve? Then you need silhouettes of witches, bats, haunted castles or spiders. Is it a classical ‘Sealed Evil in a Can’ trope? Well, you obviously need a monster! More lighthearted stuff works too, windmills and a country landscape in a jar surrounded with daisies and strawberries may look really charming.
Moreover, your choice of complementary still life items will depend on your main story. I’m going to use a shot with a sea monster’s tentacles as an example. I made a sketch with a silhouette of a Kraken in a bottle. This bottle is my main hero. So my supporting cast should be connected to the sea theme. I can use sand, seashells, a tiny wooden anchor, small treasure chest, captain’s journals and other props like that.
Find something suitable for your own visual narrative. Also, make sure you have objects of a different scale. Take a couple of large objects, like bottles with smoke and silhouettes and then add some relatively small objects like scattered dried berries. That difference in scale helps to create diversity. It makes the image look more lively and natural.
2. Gather your props
We won’t need many items and we certainly won’t need anything fancy. The list of props for this project is pretty simple:
- A glass jar or bottle (not very big and without a very narrow neck)
- Incense sticks to make smoke
- Paper silhouettes (we’ll talk about them in more detail later)
- A dark background
- Items for your still life
- A light source
- A camera and a tripod.
Usually, I cut out the paper figures for my stories myself. Dark thick paper, a layout knife, and patience is a great combo! If you’re not used to cutting tiny figures out of paper, just buy some pre-cut paper silhouettes in a local scrapbook store. They will have some suitable designs. Craft shops in my town are not particularly well-stocked. But even I always can find a Santa’s sled at Christmas.
If you want to try something different, use thick tracing paper or vellum to create silhouettes. This way you’ll get a shape that is lighter than smoke, so it looks practically glowing. Of course, a glowing zombie or a haunted mansion would look out of place, but a shining white dragon or unicorn is perfect! With these glowing shapes it would look like you captured creatures of light in your jar.
3. Add some smoke!
There’s plenty of ways to create smoke for still life photography, but my favourite one is using simple incense/aroma sticks.
Smoke machines are expensive and produce too much smoke for a small scene. Liquid nitrogen is practically impossible to find if you live in a small town like I do. Besides, liquid nitrogen must be stored in special containers—being poured into a thermos might make it burst. Dry ice is a pretty good solution, so if you manage to get some, that’s great! Aerosols like ‘Smoke Spray in a Can’ might work. I also know a couple of photographers who utilise a hand steamer (usually used for clothes) for this purpose too.
But for a start, creating smoke with a bunch of common incense or aroma sticks would be the best choice. They are cheaper than a fog machine, more accessible than dry ice and more stable than an open flame. You just have to be careful with ashes.
And last but not least, incense sticks are rather safe to use indoors. Still, work in a well-ventilated room and don’t wear any easily flammable clothes, just to be on the safe side.
4. Arrange the composition
The easiest way to work on composition is to start with the largest objects and then move on to small details. A minimalist approach is all well and good, but a lonely jar would look a bit boring, even with a zombie inside. Add some scattered leaves here and there, draw runes on craft paper and use it as a scroll, pour some coloured liquid into a small bottle and call it a potion. Make the viewer stay with your image a bit longer.
I started with a large glass bottle and moved on to placing a chest and a pile of books in the background. And, as a final touch I added some sand and seashells.
My bottle has a very narrow neck, so I’m going to have some trouble with fitting a paper figure inside it. But, I can manage it with long tweezers—it’s not as complicated as a ship in a bottle. You can fix your paper figures in jars with double-sided tape if they won’t stand on their own. If you have a flying figure inside a jar (like a dragon or a fairy), fix it steadily with transparent scotch tape. It will be visible, but it won’t be hard to fix in post-processing.
5. Set up the lights
The secret to shooting smoke is backlighting. Coming from behind, the light makes smoke not only visible for the camera, but practically glowing. No backlight means no glow, so the smoke looks dull and barely visible. Backlighting also outlines dark paper silhouettes, making them more prominent.
This light shouldn’t be too soft. So, use a narrow stripbox or snoot on your main light source to center the light flow on the jars. Aside from that, you can use any lighting scheme you like. In my case, the scene is lit with a speedlight inside a stripbox. You can see it on the right-hand side. On the left there’s a big reflector. I also used a black flag near my light source to cut some light from the background. That made the items there (treasure chest, anchor and books) appear darker and concentrates the viewer’s attention on the bottle and my pet Kraken.
6. Consider the Moon
Another amazing way to set your lights is to cut a big circle or a crescent out of a sheet of paper and place a source of soft light behind it. Here I attached a sheet of paper with a circular hole to a large diffuser with a speedlight behind it. It looks especially good if you can work with a model. Silouettes of human arms and legs in a circle of moonlight look fantastic, especially if you combine them with some magical props.
7. Add some action!
It’s time to set something on fire! Well, ok, just to create some smoke. Ignite a couple of incense sticks, put them in a bottle and let the smoke condense at the bottom. If your bottle has a narrow neck, plug a cork. If not, cover it with your hand to let the smoke condense. Take a sequence of shots watching the smoke swirl and curl.
You can also move your bundle of incense sticks along lower parts of the scene, letting smoke cover the foreground areas. This is smoking photography, after all, so let the smoke spread around the frame. Since your camera is fixed on a tripod, you can try different approaches and see what works best for your dark magical still life.
Keep in mind, that a glowing bottle can be a lot lighter than the rest of the scene, so it’s easy to get them overexposed. That’s why you may want to slightly underexpose the image: details in the dark parts are easier to recover in post-process.
Get the shot which looks most spooky and magical for your taste and then give it a little polish. Usually my post-processing consists of merging two or three layers together because I like different curls of smoke on each of them. So after uploading all the images that I wanted to combine as a sandwich, I used Layer Masks to conceal the parts I didn’t want to be visible. Picking the parts of smoke I liked, I then merged them together.
After that I deleted a visible piece of scotch tape which I used to keep my Kraken from falling. I also concealed the bottom part of the table where I could see its dark edge.
Then I used a Curves Adjustment Layer to play with contrast, making my glass bottle glow even more. Finally, I adjusted the colours. Voila!
As you can see, there’s not much post-processing involved. That’s why I love creating this smoke effect on set. That way you can do the editing very quickly—and save some time to shoot another scene, of course!
I hope you enjoyed this process and are ready to try it again with your own story! You could try using smoke without a container to let your silhouetted creatures run wild, like this unicorn.
Experiment with materials and create glowing shapes—not only dark ones. Gather a collection of ships and lighthouses, or place a corner of a distant fantasy land on your desk. Tell your own stories and have fun. Over to you!
About the creator
Dina Belenko is a still life photographer and 500px Brand Ambassador. She tells magical stories behind everyday inanimate objects. When she isn’t busy shooting conceptual still life and food on commission, she writes photography and photo editing tutorials.
Check out her tutorial on floating food compositions on Affinity Spotlight.