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