Tips & Tutorials

How to Photograph Steam, Smoke, and Vapour Trails

Often, when we attempt to photograph rising steam, smoke, or vapour, the image does not depict it the way we see it. In this article, I explain how to judge the direction of light, which is the key in emphasising the presence of smoke or vapour. (Reported by: Joe Nishizawa)

EOS-1Ds Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 16mm/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/180 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight
Location: JFE Steel Corporation (from the photo book “Steelwork Manufacturing Zones”)


The scene of smoke faintly escaping through the gaps of the sturdy equipment had caught my attention, and this image shows my attempt to capture both elements.

When photographing smoke or vapour, the direction of light is crucial for getting the shot to turn out the way you want. Shooting at a position that has backlight or semi-backlight enables you to capture smoke or vapour in a similar way to how we see it.

Placing utmost care and attention in framing my shot, I decided on an angle, making fine adjustments in regard to the direction of light, and the position where the smoke was coming from.


Tip: Use backlight and a dark background to emphasise smoke for more impact

Lighting direction is important to emphasise vapour or smoke, but it is also essential to choose a shooting location where the background appears as dark as possible. Adjust your camera angle to find the position where the light, subject and background come together perfectly.


The presence of smoke will not be obvious when shooting with direct light

EOS-1Ds Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 35mm/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/500 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight
This shot was taken from the opposite direction. As you can see, the smoke is hardly visible.


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EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM


Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Joe Nishizawa

Based on the concept of ‘Supporting scenes of Japan through photographs’, Nishizawa takes photographs related to science and manufacturing, and has published self-written works and magazines. In Japan, he is the leading photographer in industrial photography. Having previously worked in car manufacturing design and photographic production, he has been working freelance since 2000.


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