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Tutorial: How To Create Stunning Smoke Brushes in Photoshop

Tutorial: How To Create Stunning Smoke Brushes in Photoshop

We've been working on a new set of smoke brushes and textures over here at MediaLoot HQ (they should be out in a few days) and since we've been spending so much time with them I thought it might be fun to do a tutorial on how to create your very own smoke brushes. All it takes is a camera, a few matches, Photoshop (obviously), and maybe a little bit of patience — and I promise the result will be totally worthwhile. There's certainly no shortage of smoke brushes out there, but by creating them yourself you'll learn a lot and be able to ensure a really high quality result. Plus, there's the satisfaction of using your own work over and over again in your other designs. Let's get started.

Part 1: Basics of Smoke Photography

The first step to creating a really good smoke brush is to take a really good picture of smoke. To the photographers in the crowd this might seem like an easy thing to do (and feel free to leave tips in the comments), but for the non-photographers out there it can seem like a daunting task. Let me reassure you — while it does require some setup, it’s certainly possible for most people to handle.

There are four basic parts to getting a really good smoke photograph:

  • Get your light source close to the smoke and get the background far away.
  • Keep your background nice and dark, put a black backdrop there if you have one.
  • Use a fast shutter speed. In my experience it should be 1/200sec or faster.
  • Have a consistent source of smoke. Incense seems to work pretty well.

Let me elaborate a bit more on each of these points.

Creating your setup and light source.

As I mentioned above, it’s important to bring your light source up close to the smoke, and equally important to make sure that the background (the wall behind it) is as far away as possible. This combination is responsible for creating the nice crisply-lit smoke with a pure black background.

Here’s a picture of my setup (notice it’s in my house, not a studio — you can do this stuff anywhere):

smoke photography setup

What you can’t see in the above photo is that behind the smoke is another room, so there is at least a 12-15 foot distance between the smoke and the wall behind it.

For my light source I’m using a large CFL bulb and umbrella (which I actually purchased for videography purposes), AND I’m also using the on-camera flash set to a low level. If you’re just starting out with this stuff, you will almost definitely need to use your camera’s built in flash, thoughmost photographers would recommend an off-camera flash. The reason is you’ll get less light on the backdrop with a flash that is offset by 45 degrees. With the built-in flash you’re getting a lot of light spilling directly onto your background (so it should really be even further away).

Setting up your camera

The only critical setting for smoke photography is the shutter speed. It should be at least 1/200sec, and ideally higher. If you’re using a built-in flash you may run into a “flash-sync” limit, so just hope that it is high enough :-)

Other than shutter speed, you’ll want to expose the smoke itself while leaving the background a few stops less exposed. For photo newbies, this means to get the smoke just bright enough to see well with the background as dark as possible. If you set up your workspace correctly this should be no problem (though you’ll probably have to do it manually, I doubt the auto-exposure would get it right).

Practice and evaluate

The biggest key to getting really great smoke photographs is to practice, evaluate, and adjust. Bring your laptop or computer with you to the shooting space so you can swap your memory card and see how the photos turned out — your first set will probably have some sort of problem that you’ll want to fix. After a few tries, though, I promise you’ll be really impressed with yourself :-)

Part 2: Turning the Smoke Into a Brush

image
Now that we’ve got the smoke image, the rest of this process will happen in Photoshop. Start by importing your image from the camera and opening it up.

The first few things we need to do are basic image cleanup. You’ll see in my example image above that there are a lot of unwanted elements in the raw photo. You’ll want to crop these out before showing it to anyone.

After cropping the photo, the next step is to adjust the levels, go to Image -> Adjustments -> Levels. I typically start by bringing the white levels down a bit(making sure not to cut off any image data), and I bring the black levels up until the backdrop is thoroughly black. Adjust to your taste, but be careful not to cut off too much of the highlights or shadows.

Before:
levels before

After:
image

After adjusting the levels you might notice your smoke has a colorful tint. This is easily adjusted by reducing the saturation a bit and tweaking the hue to your liking. Go to Image -> Adjustments -> Hue and Saturation, and adjust according to taste. For the brush itself you’ll need to completely desaturate the image, but I like to create a nice-looking texture first (it’s easy to do along the way…) The settings I used were:
hue and saturation

After these adjustments (crop, levels, hue and saturation), you’ll find that the image is starting to look a lot better. At this point, you might want to save this image and keep it around as a smoke texture for some other purposes. Your photo should look something like this:

adjusted smoke image

Okay, now let’s turn this into a brush. Start by inverting the image, go to Image -> Adjustments -> Invert (or just hit Ctrl + I). We’ll also need to desaturate it completely before we create the brush, so if you haven’t already, go to Image -> Adjustments -> Desaturate.

You should have something like this:

desaturated smoke picture

If it looks like they need it, adjust the levels again to make sure the background is completely white. The smoke should be a nice combination of gray and black. Now, select the smoke itself and copy it into a new layer. I also like to expand the canvas size at this point so I know exactly what I’m working with.

selected and expanded

Okay, now for the final (arguably most important) step of the process — we need to cleanup the edges of the soon-to-be-brush. To do this select the eraser tool and set it to a large circle with hardness 0. I also recommend lowering the opacity so it has a more subtle effect. When you’re ready, start deleting from the top and bottom edges to soften the hard lines that we created when we selected the smoke. I recommend working slowly, and varying the size of the circle so you get a natural looking result.

Here’s what my image looks like after cleaning the edges:

cleaned smoke brush

Finally, once you’re finished cleaning the edges, all you have to do is select the smoke layer again (using the selection tool of your choice) and go to Edit -> Define Brush Preset. Once you’ve done that the new smoke brush will appear in your brush palette and will be ready for use. I recommend saving the ABR file (brush file) by clicking on the extended menu in the brush palette (upper right hand corner).

image

Here’s some colorful smoke I created using final result:

image

Want to download our smoke textures and brushes?
MediaLoot members will be getting the full pack of 10+ brushes and textures later this week. If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, we’ve got tons of new resources every month for a ridiculously low price. Find out why you should join us →

Comments

  • Reply »
    Yigit Ozdamar

    Yigit Ozdamar

    This is kind a pro solution. We are (who is not really want to spend time with these things) just searching sites for brush. :)

    By the way thanks ;)

    Mar 23, 2010 at 7:01 pm
  • Reply »
    Mason Hipp

    Mason Hipp

    Hey Ozdamar,

    Totally understand that :-) Keep an eye out later this week and we’ll have this exact set for download. Also, we’ve got a few others already available if you check out the browse page.

    Thanks for stopping by :-)

    - Mason

    Mar 23, 2010 at 7:04 pm
  • Reply »
    Yigit Ozdamar

    Yigit Ozdamar

    Thanks friend!

    This is really good news for me. :) I’m taking my time to check everything detailed.

    Cheers, keep rockin’ around.

    Mar 23, 2010 at 7:16 pm
  • Reply »
    Michael

    Michael

    Very simple! I enjoyed seeing how you made the brush rather than handing me a zip a file. Thanks for demystifying this one!

    Mar 23, 2010 at 7:20 pm
  • Reply »
    Richie

    Richie

    This is great stuff. Something very original and creative.

    Mar 23, 2010 at 7:55 pm
  • Reply »
    Anuranjan Bhatia

    Anuranjan Bhatia

    that is sweet. thanx mate!

    Mar 23, 2010 at 8:06 pm
  • Reply »
    Smashing Share

    Smashing Share

    Cooool!. I love photography

    Mar 24, 2010 at 12:50 pm
  • Reply »
    LearnMyShot

    LearnMyShot

    Great Tut. Photographing smoke is an easy task for me, but to invert it and turn it into a brush was eye opening. Thank you. Great site by the way!

    Mar 27, 2010 at 3:11 am
  • Reply »
    Matthew Heidenreich

    Matthew Heidenreich

    very creative article, and thanks for the share.  I may actually give this a shot when i get some time.

    Mar 28, 2010 at 4:35 am
  • Reply »
    George

    George

    hi! very good tutorial!I wonder if there any differece with what produce smoke?

    Mar 28, 2010 at 8:34 am
  • Reply »
    Sussex Photographer

    Sussex Photographer

    This is just too cool. Thanks very much. I’ve been wanting a smoke type thing for ages.

    Mar 28, 2010 at 10:22 pm
  • Reply »
    London Photographer

    London Photographer

    That was an excellent demo. Thanks.

    Mar 29, 2010 at 10:24 pm
  • Reply »
    M. Elizabeth Williams

    M. Elizabeth Williams

    That’s a great tutorial. I’m going on a two week creative vacation (getting away from life to just play with my camera and photoshop) and I’m absolutely going to try this out!

    Mar 29, 2010 at 11:34 pm
  • Reply »
    Aline

    Aline

    Awesome article, and thanks for the sharing. Clears up many questions on how the smoke brushes are actually captured and turned into a brush. I will actually give this a shot when i get some time.

    Mar 30, 2010 at 4:42 pm
  • Reply »
    Zabava

    Zabava

    Nice tutorial thank you for sharing!

    Apr 2, 2010 at 12:26 pm
  • Reply »
    ANNA

    ANNA

    THANK YOU ALOT..I WAS SEARCHING FOR THIS ARTICLE SO LONG.
    THANK YOU FOR SHARING THOUGHTS . WOULD LOVE TO HEAR MORE SUCH CREATIVE IDEAS.

    Jul 2, 2010 at 12:21 am
  • Reply »
    Sue

    Sue

    Great Tutorial. Thank You!

    May 7, 2011 at 8:13 am
  • Reply »
    Think360 Studio - Web Design Company India

    Think360 Studio - Web Design Company India

    wow that’s a fantastic work! well done

    May 9, 2011 at 10:21 am
  • Reply »
    Dijeta

    Dijeta

    Fantastic tutorial ,in past several months I have no enough time for Photoshop but i love it..

    Jul 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm
  • Reply »
    Dhammika Peiris

    Dhammika Peiris

    Thank you very much….this would help me to design my final year project in a new way….great help. Thanks…keep it up mate and good luck..

    Sep 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm
  • Reply »
    Yogesh Dhiman

    Yogesh Dhiman

    Fantastic.. :)

    Feb 15, 2012 at 11:02 am
  • Reply »
    Zuhairi

    Zuhairi

    fantastic tutorial. help me a lot. thanx

    May 22, 2012 at 7:20 am
  • Reply »
    shubham

    shubham

    Great work ; all only want brushes but you tell how to make them that’s cool .

    Nov 26, 2013 at 11:51 am

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