A Christmas Experiment with Incense Sticks

Incense sticks are normally used to give your room the right atmosphere. But the smoke from incense sticks also forms one long unique, creative movement. And that’s a natural challenge for photographers. So get inspired by this photographic experiment with incense sticks and tea lights, and take advantage of the Christmas holidays for similar experiments of your own.

Incense is so natural that it would be a shame to pair it with artificial lighting from a flash, so I’ll be using something more natural: fire. I’ve conjured it up using tea candles—after all, these are a part of the Christmas atmosphere.

Lights Out

One simple starting recommendation: photograph these sticks at night when it’s dark outside. Take advantage of the long winter evenings! Then just turn down or turn off the lights, and you can start your photographic experiment.

Composition and Camera Settings

First position your elements around the scene and find the ideal composition for the shot. Once you have the scene set up, make sure your settings respect the exposure triangle.

When shooting in an environment this dark, you have to take your camera’s limits into account, and if you have a basic DSLR with a sensor that’s too small, there’ll be visible noise in your photos. I shot all the pictures for this article on a Sigma 18-35 mm f/1.8 and a Nikon D7000. My ISO values hovered around 1250.


Once you have everything ready, you can start to experiment. Try things like shadow games or long exposures.

Straight Smoke

If you wait a while and prevent the flow of air, you can see the smoke rising straight up. To diffuse my light, I tried putting a tea light in a salt lamp.

Smoke in still air.
Smoke in still air.

Harness the Shadows

Candles are just like any other light source. If you want smoke to stand out, put a candle behind the subject. If you need to create a shadow, put a candle in front of it.

The closer the candle is to the incense stick, the larger the shadow. A little illumination of the wall creates a pleasant effect that’s a bit similar to the less-pleasant phenomenon called vignetting.

Producing a shadow on the wall.
Producing a shadow on the wall.

Expose a Little Longer

Smoke moves slowly, but it moves. So I recommend exposing out to the limits of what your camera can bear. Somewhere around 1/30 to 1/15. Or use a tripod so you can afford to set a longer time.

With a long exposure time, the smoke will be blurred a bit and will start to form elegant lines. You can fine-tune your art by going for a Low Key picture—this also helps to suppress noise.

It’s important to focus on the top of the incense stick.

Blurred smoke.
Blurred smoke.

Try Macro

If you want to try macro in this setup, then turn the lights back on. If, like me, you don’t have a macro lens and prefer to use an alternative method such as rotating the lens, then you’ll have to do a lot of guessing for macro. And under candlelight, you probably wouldn’t get any good pictures at all.

Also take care that the burning tip of the incense doesn’t damage your optics.

As the incense burned on, I photographed the stick with a long line of fallen ash; then it burned on further and went out. So I created a “life story” for my stick.

Various phases in the burning of the incense.
Various phases in the burning of the incense.

All Done. Now It’s Your Turn.

The stick is done burning; there’s nothing left to do but clear away the ashes and open the window. I’d closed it so the wind wouldn’t blow my smoke. And now my room smells a bit too much like incense.

In closing I took one last photo of fallen ash:

The stick after it went out.
The stick after it went out.

The Christmas holidays are the ideal time to pull out your camera and try to create original images from the comfort of your home. Don’t forget to upload your photos to Zonerama or show them off in the comments for this article—your ideas can be an inspiration to other photographers.

Receive our weekly newsletter to stay on top of the latest photography trends

Subscribe to receive the best learn.zoner.com has to offer

Invalid email

By confirming the subscription, you consent to the processing of your personal data for receiving newsletter. Learn more in our privacy policy.

AuthorMatej Liska

I most love taking pictures of people. Weddings, portraits, graduation photos, balls... I am always in search of backlight, but I enjoy various types of lighting and mostly like to use shorter lenses. I love my Nikon, my guitar, and a kebab. You’ll find my photography on my website or on Facebook.

Comments (0)

There are no comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *