After reading an article by Caroline Schmidt in January 2016’s edition of “Digital SLR Photography” magazine I was keen to attempt this technique. It’s fairly simple to do & although it can be somewhat hit or miss during the photography stage, the editing side is very easy.
Set up. Ensuring you have a black background (a cloth or as I used, sheets of black cardboard) place the incense stick & tray at least two to three feet in front. With your camera on a tripod, shoot in RAW, in Manual mode with ISO 200, shutter speed of one second & aperture f/8 to start with. If you find the smoke drifts towards the camera you may need to adjust the aperture to keep it all in focus. Place the flash gun behind & slightly lower than the incense stick. Make sure none of the flash illuminates the backdrop or hits the lens. With the room lights on, use single-shot AF to focus on the tip of the incense stick before switching to manual focus to prevent the camera from hunting. Now recompose the shot so the incense stick is out of the frame. Turn off the room lights & shoot away.
Editing. Open the image in Adobe Camera Raw & increase the “Clarity” slider to draw out the detail. Next increase the “Highlights” & “Whites” sliders before decreasing the “Blacks” & “Shadows” sliders until you’re happy with the contrast. Don’t worry if the image turns blue due to the ‘clipping warning function’ as there is no detail in the black backdrop anyway. To colour, create a new layer (Layer>New), set the blend mode to Color & use the brush tool to paint the smoke trail in your chosen colour. Adjust the Opacity of the layer to obtain the desired effect. You can add additional layers with different opacities if you wish.