Tutorial – Smoke Demon

Welcome to the step-by-step guide on how I created this image.
Basic knowledge of camera-use and Photoshop is assumed.

2014-09-19 16.34.47
Controlling the light is the critical first step in creating an image like this. If there is too much light or the light source is too broad you will not be able to produce the rim-light effect seen here.

For lighting this shot, I used two Elinchrom BX250Ri studio lights with narrow strip modifiers on them:

I shot at night so that there would be no pesky ambient light to mess things up.

I set the two lights up with the strip modifiers in a vertical position as shown in the image on the left and placed them behind where I was going to stand at around a 45 degree angle.

For the backdrop, I used a black muslin cloth. Generally, I don’t like to use muslin because of the irritating wrinkles but in this case it was ideal due to the fact that it reflects far less light than paper or other backdrop options.

I placed the camera on a tripod, pointing directly down the middle between the lights. See below diagram for the full setup:



I experimented with different intensities on the lights and camera settings until I got what I needed. In this case, the camera settings ended up as follows:

  • Shutter: 1/200sec
  • Aperture: f9.0
  • ISO: 200
  • Zoom: 42mm on my 28-300mm lens

There was less science and more trail-and-error involved in reaching this point. I just tinkered a bit, moved lights, changed intensities and fiddled with camera settings until I arrived at the below image



Post Processing:

Now that I had the image I needed, it’s onto Photoshop for some editing fun!

The first step is some simple cleanup work, cropping and positioning.
I decreased the exposure of the RAW a little and smoothed the skin using Imagenomic Portraiture. I highly recommend this plugin and use it all the time to save a bunch of effort on smoothing skin.

I decided that I wanted the final image to be in a landscape aspect, so I created the image, filled it with black and then pasted the photo into the frame. I then erased all the unnecessary stuff like the lights and some vague bits of backdrop using the brush tool and the burn tool.

Following that, I duplicated my background layer and created a mask around the subject.
To create the mask, I used the quick selection tool (found in the same swatch as the magic wand) then tidied it up with the Refine Edge tool.
For a great tutorial on how to use the Refine Edge tool, take a look here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jI-9Mr7cLBY



The end result of these steps looks like the below image:

Screenshot 2014-09-19 16.29.07

The next step in the process was to start adding the smoke.
For this, I created a blank layer between the background and the masked figure then started painting in some smoke using a set of free brushes from http://www.brusheezy.com/

I positioned my smoke curls and rotated the brushes as necessary to give the right impression of the smoke curling off the back of the figure. I also used the warp tool here and there to bend the smoke shapes into what I needed.

Eventually, I arrived here:

Screenshot 2014-09-19 16.28.59


I then created another layer in between the background and masked layer to paint in some larger, more general smokey effects:

Screenshot 2014-09-19 16.28.34


Next up, it was time to add some more smoke in from of the figure.
To do this, I created another blank layer, this time above the masked layer and drew in some more smoke. Again, I used the warp tool a little to shape the brushes and make them appear to be curling around the body.
Notice that I have used two layers for the end result in the below image, but you could just as easily use one.
To create the right sense of depth, I also applied layer masks to the new smoke layers and, with a soft brush, simply masked out the areas where I needed the figure to come through – the fingers, in this case.
I also tinkered about with the opacity of the top layers, as they were too solid-looking at 100%

Image with smoke layers behind hidden and top ones shown with layer masks to make fingers show through:
Screenshot 2014-09-19 16.26.42

The key to making my smokey layers convincing is the contouring. The smoke has to be made to look like it’s actually coming off the figure and even though the image is flat, it needs to be made to appear like it existed in the 3D space of the real world, prior to the photo being taken. The key to achieveing THAT goal is warping and masking.
Spend some time fiddling with these tools and you’ll soon get the hang of it.

Final smoke layers:

Screenshot 2014-09-19 16.26.16


Now that I’ve got all my smoke in, it’s time to move on to finishing touches.
I duplicated my background layer and put it in top of the masked figure layer, ran a high-pass filter over it and set the blend mode to Overlay. This process is great for making things ‘pop’ a little more.

You can find a great tutorial here on how to use the high pass filter for this purpose.

Next, I added a Black and White adjustment layer and found that the default settings on it gave me what I was looking for:



Screenshot 2014-09-19 16.22.45


Finally, I decided on a whim that I would go against everything I believe in with regards to selective colour images and add some glowing red eyes to the image.
To do this, I simply created another blank layer at the top of my stack and painted in some red spots over the eyes, erasing parts of them to fit where the eyebrow ridges are:

Screenshot 2014-09-19 16.22.15

We’re done. Thanks for reading!

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One Response

  1. Makes for an interesting read, and appreciation of the effort there goes into these creations. Both before and after the click of the camera shutter.
    Nicely done.

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