These Incredible Images of Smoke Took Three Months and 100,000 Photos to Capture


You probably wouldn’t think it, but capturing shapes in smoke is an incredibly difficult task. In fact, it took photographer Thomas Herbrich a full three months, over 100,000 photos and one dead camera to capture approximately 20 images he considered keepers for his Smoke series.

We got a chance to catch up with Herbrich about the series, and he was kind enough to explain why it was so difficult to capture the images he wanted:

I was very surprised by how extremely quickly smoke move. It’s easier to photograph a racing car!

The rising of cigarette-smoke is actually so quick that conventional flash equipment is too slow, as is the photographer – only a few milliseconds pass between recognition of the subject and the taking of the shot, a length of time in which the smoke has already changed again.

I therefore used a quick flash with a flash duration of 1/10000 sec. or faster – and took more than 100,000 digital photos in three months (which killed one camera). The “poor” photos were immediately separated out on the laptop and rejected. Only 20 or so of the photos actually made the shortlist.


And even those ‘good’ photos weren’t quite ready for primetime yet.

To get the images you see below, he reveals that he had to do a little bit of work in post, “partly because the moment the shutter was released wasn’t exactly at the right millisecond, or because other interfering smoke elements were in the picture.”











You can see the full set of Smoke images by clicking here, and if you’d like to see more of Herbrich’s work, be sure to visit his website as well.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Herbrich tells us he’s a non-smoker.

(via Colossal)

Image credits: Photographs by Thomas Herbrich and used with permission

  • kso721

    making brushes in 3, 2, 1. =)

  • CalTek

    Pretty nice shots. Curious how the camera died. My Canon 60D that I bought Dec 2011 is over 95,000 so wondering if I should worry about it dying soon.

  • Stuart Wilson

    Erm, did mine in about ten shots!!

  • Tor Ivan Boine

    grats. want a cookie? :)
    maybe you arent as picky as him

  • daniel Ballard

    I’m reminded of the texture I sometimes see in fire photography. Same kind of silk dancer thing going on.

  • Paul Bruins

    I wonder how many cigarettes he smoked to get his 100,000 photos?

  • Adam Cross

    I can appreciate the effort, but surely high-speed video would’ve been far easier and less time consuming?…

  • Chris L

    Is it just me?

  • mrg2k8

    It says he’s a non-smoker at the end of the article…

  • Kalyn-Wright Davis

    Is easier always as rewarding?

  • behindthecamera

    These are stunning. I am once again reminded not to read the comments section, though.

  • Sir Stewart Wallace

    Perhaps, but that would depend on what he was looking for in terms of resolution.

  • Chang 场河

    That would be cheating.

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  • Gvido Mūrnieks

    Yes, you should start worrying,

  • Uncle Wig

    And I’m sure they are 1/100,00th as good.

  • Ideas1234


  • Stuart Wilson

    I don’t think so, but it’s subjective isn’t it. I think 100,000 images is 1000 times too many to achieve a shot but hey we can agree to differ.

  • Stuart Wilson

    I think I am, ask the OH ;)

  • Stuart Wilson

    I may have slightly exaggerated, I took about 50 shots.

  • Peter “Pots”

    Just beautiful!

  • edd

    Very nice images. Though, as beauty is such a subjective thing he may have binned my favourites, or yours, These are his. Seems to be stretching the idea waaaaaaay too far though with such an overwhelming amount of time spent and images taken. Different strokes an all that but the image posted below by a commenter has as much/little merit as in the original article.

  • guido

    It is crazy as sometimes in photography the process counts more than the result… I mean, the images are beautiful but i guess one could create the same images in photoshop, spending way less time and saving the life of a poor camera..
    I know: not as satisfactory… but this is exactly my point. :)

  • Uncle Wig

    Thanks – you’ve made my point for me.

  • kassim

    Holy smoke! That’s a lot of work.

  • Zos Xavius

    Wow. Looks like most 60Ds barely get to 100,000. The failure rate at 80,000 is disturbing for a shutter that is rated for 100,000 I think. I forget where I saw it, but someone did a survey of pentax users and there were many cameras that were over 500k and some approaching and exceeding 1 million actuations.

    edit: ok it was the same page actually. look at the stats on the k7 and compare to the 60D. Kind of interesting really. Looks like at 500k a K7 has an 80% of still being alive. Not too shabby really.

  • Stuart Wilson

    Is that constructive criticism or are you just normally like that?
    Please educate me on what is 100,00th (your comment) worse than above.

  • Uncle Wig

    Stuart: in your photo, the smoke begins to form an interesting shape at the top left, but it’s cropped awkwardly. The lighting is less good – it lacks the luminence and tranparency. The composition is not interesting: the white….erm…black space is static. It’s not a bad photo of smoke. Likely better than I could manage without some practice. But it is just not nearly as good as Herbich’s.

    I’ll concede that 100,000th as good is hyperbolic, but your photo doesn’t show anywhere near the care, effort, and quality. That you did yours to your satisfaction in far fewer shots is apparent.

  • Stuart Wilson

    I guess I could have PS’d like the ones above, which is evident from the lack of trails. I agree on the lighting, I only have single flash and diffuser. However, I think you missed the point, nobody in their right minds would take three months and 100,000 photos to acheive the results shown. I’ll maybe post some others. I just liked the Ear in mine :D thought it was unuasually well formed.

  • Stuart Wilson

    PS, Do you do smoke trails and are you any of the sharing sites? Are you based in the North of England?

  • Stuart Wilson

    Thanks edd. It is all very subjective and the only point I was trying to make is that 100,000 shots to achieve the above is a waste of time and resources. Like I say, I did mine in 50 and I know I probably didn’t choose the best example but “I” like it. I also only used one flash and did it in one afternoon; For sure I could acheive “better” different results over time, but not three months.

  • Stuart Wilson

    Can you expand Chris?

  • Shane Elliott

    Not so crazy. It just won’t make you cool. :)

  • Zos Xavius

    “nobody in their right minds would take three months and 100,000 photos to acheive the results shown”

    Some people have extreme dedication to the craft. That it took 100,000 attempts to produce 20 keepers is impressive and so are the results. If you cannot see that then you don’t understand dedication and in this case, obsession.

  • Nathan Caulford

    Easier than 100,000 shots. 20-degree grid backlight and an assistant holding some incense, you can get plenty of keepers with a few hundred shots.

  • maxrobes2000

    Taking 100K to make a 15 photos? Wouldn’t this be the EPITOME of spray and pray?

  • maxrobes2000

    I’m kind with Stuart here. It shouldn’t take 100K to produce 20 keepers. But they are great photos and probably will net the artist a nice windfall.

  • ninpou_kobanashi

    You can get the shutter replaced.

  • ninpou_kobanashi


  • Stuart Wilson

    I think you just said it, there is a difference between dedication and obsession.

  • Stuart Wilson

    Try telling that to the others in the discussion.

  • Bkbz

    That’s the D60, not the 60D. There is a tidbit of a difference ;-)

  • Apul_MadeeqAoud

    Pretty but,

    1) Cracking a camera and 3 months of effort to get what could have been done in Photoshop?

    2) Admitting to having to resort to Photoshop to get the final result?

    By my reckoning, personally I don’t care what your process is to get great shots — if you have the results I don’t care if you used crayons. But the over-effort involved in these results strikes me as a fail.

    You might as well use a fine point brush to paint the side of a building. Might have resulted in a nice job but you unnecessarily WAY over did it.

  • ajfudge

    I like the 10th photo. The smoke resembles a human head.