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Smoke Photography Photoshop Tutorial

In this tutorial, I will show you how to process your smoke photographs using Photoshop. This is a follow up to the tutorial on How to Photograph Smoke – Step-by-Step Tutorial. If you want to know how to photograph smoke, please read the previous article and then come back to this tutorial when you’re done.

The main aim of this tutorial is to point out the key elements needed to bring out the smoke and make it more visually stimulating. I will be showing you my own methods that I learned through trial and error as well as tips from others. Photoshop has a myriad of tools that some professionals either don’t use or even know existed, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Before and After Photoshop Editing

For simplicity, I have written this tutorial with the novice Photoshop user in mind and hope it is quite easy to follow. To avoid confusion, I will not be using any Photoshop shortcuts, unless there is no other way to perform an action. If you know the shortcuts to the tasks I describe throughout the tutorial, then by all means use them.

I use Adobe Photoshop CS4, which has some new tools and features compared to older versions. However, there shouldn’t be any confusion with control options as I will be using the most common tools which exist in all versions of Photoshop.

If you don’t understand some parts or have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below and I will be happy to clarify.

Getting Started

I will be using the image below as the demonstration for this tutorial. It is the original RAW photo with no processing involved at this stage. As you can see, it has a few blemishes and does not stand out so much. We are about to change that in a few simple steps.

Sample photo to be used in this tutorial

STEP 1 – Adjust RAW settings

NOTE: If you did not shoot in Raw format, then ignore this part and start from Step 2.

Open the RAW file in Camera Raw (opening the file in Photoshop will automatically launch Camera Raw) and adjust the settings you require.

Usually when I process my smoke photos, I tend to adjust only the basic settings such as the Temperature, Blacks, Contrast, Brightness and Clarity, but only if it is necessary. I find it easier to do everything in Photoshop with greater flexibility as you can isolate parts of the image.

I adjusted the following settings only:

  • Temperature: from 6000 to 5500
  • Exposure: +0.50
  • Blacks: +10 (5 to 15)
  • Contrast: +15 (25 to 40)
  • Clarity: +15

The results of these adjustments can be seen below. The circled areas are blemishes that I was not happy with.

RAW Adjustment Before & After, Circled Areas are Blemishes to Fix

STEP 2 – Open image and create backup copy

Once you have opened your image in Photoshop, it is best practice to create a backup copy of the image. This is so that you have the option of starting over if you make any mistakes or just don’t like the results.

Here’s how you create a duplicate layer:

1. Open the image in Photoshop

2. From the Menu Bar select the following: Layer > Duplicate Layer

3. Name the duplicate layer if you prefer. I tend to leave it as the default title “Background Copy”

4. Once you have created the duplicate layer you need to hide the original image. You do this by first selecting the image by clicking on it. If you did not rename the image when you opened it, then it should still be labelled as “Background”

Select Original Image

5. Now go to the Menu Bar and select: Layer > Hide Layers

In the Menu Bar select: Layer > Hide Layers

Your layer should now be missing the ‘eye’ located to the left of the image. **[Photoshop Screenshot-Hidden Layer]**

This has made the original image invisible while you work with the duplicate copy above it. Now select the duplicate layer and you are ready to start editing.

STEP 3 – Highlight Blemishes

Now you have your duplicate layer selected you need to check for any blemishes. Remember, the black background of the smoke photo must be 100% black – RGB 0, 0, 0.

If you adjusted the blacks in Camera RAW then it may seem that it’s already pure black but, depending on the browser you are using, you may not be able to see it on your screen. However, if there are any flaws, they are likely to appear on other browsers.

To check for blemishes, spots, glare etc, do the following:

1. From the Menu Bar create a Levels Layer: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels For easy reference later, leave the name of the new layer as “Levels 1.” Also, make sure that the levels layer is located above the image layer you are editing, in this case the ‘Background Copy.’ If it isn’t, then just click and drag the levels layer above it.

Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels

2. Move over to the white levels slider and drag it all the way across to the left. This will highlight all the light colours of your image.

Drag the white slider all the way to the left

Highlighting the light colors shows you areas to clean up

As you can see, the image on the left looks workable without any major blemishes. However, after highlighting the light colours you can see how much of the image needs cleaning up.

STEP 4 – Remove Blemishes

Removing the unwanted blemishes is a very quick and simple task.

1. On the layer palette select the ‘Background Copy’

Select the Background copy

2. On the Tools Panel, Select the default Foreground and Background Colours by clicking the small Black and White icon. Make sure the Black is on top (Foreground)

Default Colors

3. Then select the “Brush Tool”

Brush Tool

4. Go up to the Options Bar and set both the Opacity and Flow to 100%

Opacity and Flow to 100%

5. Now brush over the blemishes making sure you don’t go over the edges of the main smoke image. You can make it easier to brush around the smoke by zooming into the image and selecting a smaller brush.

Brush Over the Blemishes

6. To zoom into the image go to the Menu Bar and select: View > Zoom In (shortcuts are displayed on the right)

View > Zoom In

7. Once you have finished perfecting the background, you need to delete the levels layer. If you need to adjust the levels then obviously keep it, but remember to bring the white slider back to its original position on the right.

Removing the levels layer effects

There are many other ways to be more precise with this task, but this demo image has a simple shape and not much intricate work is needed, so I won’t confuse you by suggesting more on this tutorial. If you would like to know other methods then don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact me directly. Leaving a comment will be ideal as others can benefit from the responses.

STEP 5 – Adding Colour

There are a number of ways to add colour to your image, but if you have many smoke images to process and little time on your hands, there is a very quick but effective method you can use. All you need to do is adjust the “Hue”

1. Go to the Menu Bar and select: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation

2. Move over to the Adjustment Palette and play around with the Hue adjustment slider until you find the colour you like.

Hue adjustment slider for color effects

Smoke Photo Final Product

And voila! You have a beautiful smoke photo with added colour. I told you it was quick and simple…:-)

If you want to get more creative, you can use the Brush tool and manually add the colour and gradient. This will require more skill and patience though. You can also create a gradient layer with two different colours and use Blending Modes like Overlay or Soft Light etc…

The other methods require an entire tutorial of their own. I am working on creating Video Tutorials for each specific method.

About the Author
Jay from J.Hoque Photography ( London based Portrait and Asian Wedding Photographer covering all types of Asian Wedding Photography.

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