This happy photo

by Jon Sullivan - 2019-10-15 - Photography

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For me photos should be an intersection of technique, subject, composition and story. Here's the story behind this photo.

My apartment is pretty small, about 450 sq feet, but it suits me. My needs are pretty simple, and I don't like the idea of having a lot of stuff to weigh me down. But even so, a considerable amount of space is devoted to a big table with studio lighting. I take so many photos of food and random stuff that it's really a necessity.


I can't remember where I got the idea for this photo, but it's pretty simple. Smoke from an incense stick in a still room, regular old lens, and an off camera flash. The exposure is 1/10th, but the flash freezes it. The two colors is pure Photoshop. So just light some incense and snap a photo.

But actually it was a long process of trial and error. The randomness of the smoke meant I had to take a ton of shots and just hope one looked great. And the tiniest movement would have big changes on the smoke, while being still just made it boring. Most of the photos had it swirling in the wrong place for either the flash or the focus. And whole Newton's laws thing (hot air rises) meant if I framed the photo too close to the incense it was just a straight boring line of smoke. Take the photo too far above and the smoke would be dissipating. Of course every time I reframed something the randomness would change. I finally got the effect I wanted by standing 8 feet back with a remote shutter, waving my arm once slowly in front of me, and then shooting several shots while it was just right.

So.... not so simple after all.

For me this photo captures one of the most magical things about photography - The ability to see the world in a way your eyes can't. And revealing a reality that may be very different than what we perceive. A reality that hides all around us and is usually ignored. Or things that are pretty boring until you see them in a new way.

I always think of smoke as fuzzy. but the sharp edges on some of the smoke here is magical. How does it even do that?

I also love how lucky this shot is. I probably took over 100 frustrating photos and only two were worth keeping. And the other one was good but pretty meh. I could have been at it forever and not gotten anything I'd really be happy with.

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Marilee Harrison
2019-10-15 05:53:04 : Beautiful

Jon Sullivan
2019-10-15 06:51:25 : Thank you. Pretty happy with it. Makes a great screen background.

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