If you’ve recently noticed an increase in photos featuring colored smoke, you’re not the only one. The style, known as smoke bomb photography, has been slowly gaining popularity over the last few years. It’s even become a common wedding photography request.
While pyrotechnics have a long history with the photography and film world, it’s typically been reserved for professional, high-scale productions. Smoke bomb photography has become popular on smaller shoots as safe-to-use pyrotechnics have become more accessible.
If you’re an amateur or professional photographer interested in trying smoke bomb photography, we’ve broken down everything you need to know before you pull the pin on your first grenade.
What is a Smoke Bomb & Where Do I Get One?
In the context of photography and film production, a smoke bomb is a type of pyrotechnic that typically resembles a flare or grenade. They are designed to gradually release non-toxic, colored smoke for a short period of time, usually ranging from 10 to 180 seconds.
The leading manufacturer of colored smoke bombs for commercial and professional use is Enola Gaye. They offer a range of grenades that produce varying amounts of smoke depending on what you require. They also offer other products that simulate the effects of frag and flash bang grenades. Their products have been used in the production of films including The Fast and the Furious series and television shows such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
For beginners, we recommend the EG25 Wire Pull smoke grenade. It’s small, easy to use, and produces a decent amount of smoke. It comes in a range of colors and is also relatively affordable, just $60 for a box of 10 grenades. So you might like to practice setting one or two off before using them for a shoot. Watch the video from Enola Gaye below on how to use the EG25 safely.
Before purchasing a smoke bomb grenade online, it’s a good idea to confirm you can legally use it in your location. For example, smoke bombs are not legally allowed to be used within New York City, as per article 270 of New York State’s Penal Laws. New York classifies smoke bombs as a type of “sparkling device”, which are legal to use in most parts of the state “except in cities with a population of one million or more.”
Location, Location, Location!
In fact, it’s probably a good idea to scout the location of your smoke bomb photography shoot before you invest in any new equipment. As we mentioned, the rules and regulations surrounding the use of pyrotechnics can vary greatly, even within a state. You may require a permit, or the use of all pyrotechnics may be strictly prohibited. There are also several other factors to consider.
Firstly, you’ll need a well ventilated, outdoor area. While the smoke you’ll be using is non-toxic, that doesn’t mean you should be ingesting it. Inhaling too much smoke could have negative repercussions on your and your crew’s health, and that’s likely to happen if you ignite the grenade inside. Not to mention how it could stain the walls and ceiling.
The grenades can also get quite hot, and emit sparks and ash, making them a significant fire hazard. For that same reason, you also need to be careful where you use them outside. Igniting a smoke grenade in an area with lots of dry grass or tinder could accidentally start a fire. A firefighter died last year while fighting a fire that was initially started by a smoke bomb used during a gender reveal party in El Dorado, California.
You also shouldn’t use a smoke grenade in a densely populated public place. Plumes of smoke are rightfully perceived as signs of danger or a hazard, and you may unintentionally alarm passersby. If you are permitted to use a smoke grenade in a public place, installing signage and doing your best to alert everyone nearby about what’s happening is the best way to ensure a safe and stress-free shoot.
Other Gear You’ll Need
We recommend investing in safety goggles and gloves for anyone who will be handling the smoke grenade during or after use. If you’d like your model to hold the grenade, it is possible for them to do so bare-handed. However, it’s important to show them how to hold the grenade safely and make sure they feel comfortable.
If the person holding the grenade won’t be in frame, they should be wearing protective gear. As we mentioned, the grenade expels sparks and ashes while smoking, and it can get quite hot in the minutes after it stops smoking.
We recommend using a camera that has a high burst rate speed, so you can capture multiple shots per second. You’ll only have a short period of time to photograph while the grenade is smoking, so a high-speed camera will help you make the most of it. Sony’s flagship camera, the Sony a1, is a great option. The camera offers a speedy 30fps burst rate and a powerful 50MP full-frame sensor.
Taking the Shot
You’ll likely want to place the grenade behind or in-line with your subjects, but out of frame. Placing the grenade between you and your subjects means the smoke may hide them from view, and it could be uncomfortable for them if the smoke gets in their face. The smoke can also stain clothes, which is especially important to consider if you’re using the smoke bomb for a wedding shoot.
You can use a fast or slow shutter speed to capture the smoke for differing effects. A fast shutter speed will help you capture the smoke more sharply, as if frozen in motion. A slow shutter speed means you’ll capture more of the smoke’s movement in a single exposure, resulting in a motion blur effect (read more about long exposure photography here).
The shutter speed you use determines what your aperture and ISO should be. A fast shutter speed means less light is entering the lens, so you’ll need a wider aperture and higher ISO to compensate. Conversely, a slow shutter speed will let in more light, so you’ll need a smaller aperture and low ISO to avoid an overexposed image.
You’ll only have a small window to photograph once the grenade starts smoking, so it’s important to make sure everything is ready to go before you pull the pin. Take a few test shots without the smoke to make sure everything else looks right. Once you’re satisfied with your test shots, and everything else is ready to go, pull the pin and start shooting.
We hope we’ve given you a helpful insight into how to get started with smoke bomb photography. Please don’t forget to look up the rules and regulations in your area before purchasing or using pyrotechnics on set. Have fun and stay safe.