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Spark interest in your images with realistic smoke effects

Added on Tuesday 22nd of July 2008 07:27 am EST
Adobe Photoshop CS/CS2/CS3
Operating Systems:
Microsoft Windows, Macintosh

If you’ve ever tried it, you know how difficult it is to photograph real smoke. The moment is fleeting and the lighting that makes smoke look good tends to render the rest of the image poorly exposed. Using our simple Photoshop technique, you can add smoke to your properly exposed images digitally—and even make it look better than the real thing.

To create some smoke of your own, we’ll show you how to:

  • Design a customized smoke pattern with the Brush tool.
  • Soften your paint strokes with the Smudge tool to enhance their appearance.
  • Accentuate your strokes with the Plastic Wrap filter to make them look more realistic.
  • Enhance other images with your finished smoke image.

Fine plumes of smoke rising from an extinguished candle are captivating, as you can see in Figure A. The smoke in this image, however, is a Photoshop enhancement. You may think mimicking smoke on a computer is too complicated, but as we’ll show you in this article, it’s much easier than capturing the real thing with a camera—and you have a lot more control over the final image.


Start anew
As always, the first step is to create a new Photoshop document in which to work. In this document, you’ll fill the background layer with black to use as a backdrop for the smoke.

To set up your document:
  1. Launch Photoshop and press D to set the foreground and background colors to black and white respectively. Then press X to switch the foreground and background colors, setting the background color to black.
  2. Choose File > New to open the New dialog box.
  3. Name your file Smoke.
  4. Set the image size to 2 inches wide by 2 inches high (or the size that you need it to be), with a resolution of 300 pixels/inch (ppi).
  5. Select RGB Color from the Color Mode pop-up menu.
  6. Choose Background Color from the Background Contents pop-up menu.
  7. Click OK to create your document.

Brush on the smoke guidelines
The next step is to plan how you want the smoke to look. You may find it helpful to draw it on paper first. Then, in your new document, you can use the Brush tool to paint the smoke guidelines. As shown in Figure B, our smoke guidelines are on eight separate layers. (We’ve numbered the white lines to indicate each line’s layer.) You can use this as a guide or come up with your own design.


To paint the smoke guidelines:
  1. Choose Window > Layers to display the Layers palette, and then click the Create A New Layer button located at the base of the palette.
  2. Check to make sure your foreground color is still set to white.
  3. Select the Brush tool from the Tools palette.
  4. Click on the Brush pop-up menu on the tool Options bar to open the Brush Preset picker and choose the Hard Round 5 Pixels brush. Also on the tool Options bar, set the Mode to Normal, the Opacity to 100%, and the Flow to 100%.
  5. Paint a white curve on your canvas in the direction you want the smoke to go.

Continue to paint smoke lines as needed, making sure to create a new layer each time you create a smoke line with a substantial change in direction. This will preserve the curves and overlapping areas when it comes time for you to use the Smudge tool. You may also want to change the brush size for some of the strokes.

Smudge the smoke
The next step is to soften and blur your guidelines so they look more like smoke. You’ll use the Smudge tool to accomplish this.

To smudge your smoke lines:
  1. Select the Smudge tool from the Tools palette. (It’s hidden behind the Blur tool by default.)
  2. Click on the Brush pop-up menu on the tool Options bar to access the Brush Preset picker and select the Soft Round 65 Pixels brush. Also on the tool options bar, set the Mode to Normal and the Strength to 50%.
  3. Select the first layer in your document on which you created a smoke guideline.
  4. Drag from one end of the guideline on that layer to the other, as shown with the Before image in Figure C.
You may need to drag the Smudge tool over a segment multiple times. We find it more effective to drag one way, reverse direction, and then drag back over the line. Make sure to blend the intersecting lines as well. Also, consider how smoke dissipates and switch to larger brush sizes as you move away from the point of origin. Once you’ve smudged all the lines on all the layers, your smoke should look something like the After image in Figure C.

Tip: If you can’t remember which layer a line is on, click on the Eye icon for each layer in the Layers palette and watch your canvas. When you see the line you want to edit disappear, you’ve found its layer. Select the layer, and then edit the line.

Perform layer management
You now have several layers in your document and you’re about to create more. Before you do, though, we recommend you group your current layers together.

To group multiple layers in CS2/CS3:
  1. [shift]-click on the first and last layer (excluding the background layer) in the Layers palette.
  2. Select New Group From Layers from the Layers palette’s pop-up menu. Alternatively, you can press and hold [shift][command]([Shift][Ctrl] in Windows) and then click on the Create A New Group button located at the base of the Layers palette.

To group multiple layers in CS:
  1. Select the top-most layer, and then clic...

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