Smoke Grenades, Levitation, and #WHPcolorplay
I recently made a purchase online of "cool burn" wire-pull smoke grenades in hopes of creating some exciting images. I bought what I didn't know was classified as "dangerous goods", so as you can imagine, shipping was steep. I decided to buy five of them to really give them a proper test.
They shipped from Ontario, which I was happy to find a Canadian dealer that sells this brand of smoke device. I have read the reviews and they seem to be the best, almost everywhere I looked.
Once I received the smoke, I had to decide on what type of shoot I was going to do. I wasn't quite sure what I could do, actually, I wasn't sure what I could get away with. I wasn't sure of the location and I was unsure of how they actually behaved in the wild, so it wasn't until nearly the end of the week when I decided what I was going to do for my first smoke grenade photoshoot.
On the Friday of that week, I took note of the weekly shooting assignment topic for Instagram: colorplay. I instantly knew that this weekend was the time to bring them out. Now I just needed the idea, having the whole weekend to put to use, everything came together quite nicely.
I love the idea of weekly shooting assignments and I was really excited to have an idea in place and the time to pull it off. At this point, I had a general theme but I still lacked substance and context for my weekend masterpiece. I was looking through grids and grids of other 'grammers' feeds looking to find inspiration into what would make a good smoke grenade shot. I started to see very similar themes with most examples in an urban cityscape or underground lair. I wanted to do something creative as compared to the "just sitting there with a smoke grenade in a mysterious location" shots.
I decided on doing some levitation shots. Perhaps , some back-story. I have done levitation shots before with varying levels of success. Several weeks ago, I purchased a pro tutorial from one of my favorite websites, Phlearn. The tutorial is an in-depth look at levitation shots, from beginning to end. I have had it sitting in my downloads folder for several weeks and I figured that this would be the time to finally take a peek and see if I can integrate it with my use of smoke grenades.
I ended up watching most of it in one sitting. Tashia even stopped what she was doing and couldn't resist the charm and charisma of Mr. Nace, which was really good in the end since I knew she was going to be one of my models and why not have her aware of everything that goes into the shoot. Not only did I get to brush up on my levitation shot skills but there is something about the way truly passionate people share their knowledge to others, it is a wonderful way to get inspired, which is definitely what happened in my case.
So now that I had all of the creative components determined, I moved on to the next steps to put this plan into motion. It worked out great with timing because this same week, I have been shooting with someone I met through Instagram and I knew he would want to help out. I messaged Herry and he was definitely ready to help out and managed to convince his girlfriend, Sarah, to come as well.
I made sure to read up on all possible safety precautions and brush up on just what to expect from the experience at all. I wanted to be sure of any variables and try to minimize any problems that may come up during the shoot. I even checked in with others in the community to see what they had for advise or safety measures, such as the temperature of the device after burning. I was assured that the model would be safe to hold onto the device and that respiratory protection wasn't required. As I started to note these things, I became more and more confident in the shoot. Slowly, there were less variables and things were really starting to come together.
I wasn't nearly done planning yet. I had to decide the wardrobe, which was actually a no-brainer. Tashia has had this flowing green dress and we had always planned to do a shoot with it but just haven't yet. It was a great choice because it fits her very well and also has a lot of loose fabric hanging from the end (as opposed to the top) which would catch the wind nicely, adding to the effect. I wasn't taking any chances with this shoot, I even had her paint her nails (I bought her matching nail polish when she got the dress). She then quickly accessorized and that was it, wardrobe was set.
The last bit to come together was location. This was one of the tougher decisions it was to make, not having dealt with smoke grenades before. These were the last variables to figure out. I didn't know just how intense the smoke would be if I set it off in the middle of a field, in a parkade, or anywhere really. I ended up just choosing a good outdoor location that would be good for air-movement and still somewhat secluded so as not to disrupt anyone or worse, have someone alert authorities over misunderstood smoke.
I settled on the small valley town of Lumsden, Saskatchewan, specifically, a small train bridge just behind the high-school. This is one of my favorite places to go to, any time of year. I have done many photos out here before in the past so I am very comfortable in the area and I know that not many people out there would have a problem with what we were doing. I let Herry know that we would be heading out there, which is great because has only driven by on the way to Saskatoon and hasn't ever stopped in. Now that the location was set, all that was left was gathering equipment.
For the direction of the shot I wanted, I needed a support device to use to prop the model up in the air. We decided against a portrait stool as it doesn't offer nearly enough support or stability for jumping of any capacity. We ended up using an old small shelf unit that was about waist-high. I grabbed the usual other things: tripods, sandbags, water, and bucket.
We lugged all of the gear out to the location and I was happy with what I saw; the snow had melted and dried up but life has not yet made it back into the valley yet. Everything was still dead and dreary looking, which is great in contrast to the vibrant green I had in mind for the shoot. We set up the equipment to get an idea of the composition we wanted and worked from there. The light was really harsh so we had to move down past the bridge in order to get some shade from the trees. Once we had the camera set up, weighted down, and framed accordingly, we cleared the set to take the "before" photo.
I took a few frames at varying levels of exposure just in case I lost some detail and needed to recover it. This was fairly straight forward but I did make sure to set the white balance to a non-variable setting such as Daylight. I also made sure to manually focus in full manual mode.
Now that I had the plate images, it was time to bring in the model. We did a few warm up jumps just to make sure she had the movements down and that she was comfortable jumping just a few centimeters off of the prop. Once she let me know that she was ready, I brought out the green smoke grenade and removed the cap. Although, I had already covered the instructions with everyone, I wanted to cover them again just to make sure we were all ready and had a plan. We made sure to follow the operating instructions correctly before going over how we would shoot the scene.
As I was not sure of how the smoke grenades would behave, I left it in the hands of the model to decide on the movements and timing. I know that I wanted to get possibly two shots; one of them a profile view with arms behind and toes pointed down, the other straight on with arms to the side, floating. Once we were all feeling comfortable, we were finally ready to start.
I set up the camera to have a fast shutter speed at about 1/500, in order to freeze motion. I then selected an appropriate aperture value to keep at least the entire model in focus. Luckily, I didn't need a very high ISO setting in this environment. I made sure that the white balance was still selected as "Daylight", the focus set to manual, and the drive mode set to "High-speed Continuous".
Tashia gave me the sign that she was ready to begin, Herry was ready, and I was ready. Tashia pulled the wire from the smoke grenade directly sideways (not upwards) and immediately, it started spewing smoke. Both cameras frantically snapping photos in rapid succession as soon as Tashia's feet left the table. I wanted to let Tashia know how she was doing so during the process we had good communication. Since each grenade burns for a limited time of approximately 120 seconds, I had a timer to see how much time was remaining. Before long, time had run out and the grenade had fizzled out. Everyone gathered around the small LCD to see what we just did. Immediately, we were all in amazement from the smoke, and seeing that alongside the floating woman in a striking green dress, it was truly amazing.
We were gone for about a two hour period and did a few different shots but only using two of the smoke grenades. With the shots snapped, it was time to head home and start the intricate post-processing. Much like the actual shooting part of the process, I was really excited to get into Photoshop-mode and use some new tools that I just learned.
There are many tutorials out there that will tell you a lot of the same information and you can achieve similar results. I really enjoyed the Phlearn tutorials because it covered everything all in one place and in great detail. One thing that was a little different about this method is the usage of the Pen tool to select. That was, and is, a bit to get used to but makes things much easier for you in post.
I won't go into too much detail with what I did in Photoshop but I did end up taking some shots and compositing them into the final shot. I did this mainly with the smoke plumes and the model's hair. I wanted to give more drama to the shot and I think I got that by adding in more hair and smoke. It was enterprisingly easy, after I restarted twice. It helps if you are taking detail from other images that are backlit or use the sky as a background. In this case, I was able to select a whole chunk of smoke and simply mask out the surrounding sky and integrate it directly into the image.