Smoke grenades for engagement and wedding photography

I think that it always important to challenge yourself as a photographer. You should try new things and get out of your comfort zone as much as possible. To that end I am always experimenting with new things; using prisms to get crazy reflections and sun flares in my photos, exploring new photo locations, editing my photographs in new ways, and of course, using smoke grenades.

I hope that this guide will act as a how to for other photographers, and act as inspiration for brides to be.

One winter I advertised on Facebook for adventurous engaged couples. We drove out to interesting locations and let our imaginations run free. Here are some of the first photographs I captured.

First I'll run through the practical things to think about when using smoke bombs in photography, then I'll talk through some tips.

Items required while using smoke bombs for engagement and wedding photography

  • Smoke bomb (cool burning if possible)

  • Lighter (if not using a “cool burning wire pull” grenades)

  • Water (to pour on the smoke bomb after it has burnt out to ensure safe disposal)

  • Risk assessment

I got my smoke bombs from Just Paintball and they cost me just £25 for 5 including postage. I ordered each bomb individually and chose a variety of colours; Blue, green, orange, purple and yellow. They were Enola Gaye, wire-pull smoke grenades. They are cool burning, although they can get warm once they get going and for a few minutes afterwards. You sometimes get sparks immediately after pulling the wire, but there are no flames or sparks after that. Although it is not recommended, I found that I could hold the grenades whilst they were going off. The grenades I got ran for 90 seconds.

For the risk assessment I spoke to my couples about the possibility of irritation to their eyes or breathing. If they had existing issues with either of those I didn't use the grenade. If they felt unwell or in any discomfort I asked them to simply walk away from the smoke bomb.

I warned them that the smell from the grenade could get into their clothes and hair. In my experience I found that this was similar to being near smoke from a fire, so no real issue. The coloured smoke certainly didn't stain anyone's clothes.

Finally, I warned the couple not to touch the grenade at all. I poured water over it as soon as it finished, and then I would go back to it at least ten minutes later and put it in a bag to carry away and dispose of properly.

Tips on using smoke grenades in wedding and engagement photography

I recommend using smoke grenades in an open outdoors space, away from anything that is overly dry and susceptible to catching fire. Use them well away from the general public. Only use coloured smoke bombs so people don’t think it’s smoke from a fire.

Don’t use the smoke bomb if it is too windy. This is probably the single most important tip I can give.

You can see the effect of this in the photos above. The bottom photograph was taken at Druridge Bay, which is a long, desolate beach on the Northumberland Coast. It wasn't very windy that day, but we were right out in the open, and we were on the coast, so there was a light breeze. It was the first time I used a smoke bomb, and I simply set it off and left it to one side of the couple. What I was hoping for was billowing clouds of smoke that hung in the air around the couple. What I got was smoke that spewed straight out of the grenade and then dispersed in the wind. When the wind changed direction, it didn't even hit the couple at all! It was a pretty disappointing first try.

The second time I tried the smoke grenades was at Bamburgh beach. This time I suggested we go into the dunes, away from the wind. This worked much better, as you can see from the middle photographs. The clouds of smoke still dissipated quickly once they drifted above the height of the dunes and the wind caught them. When this happened, I'd run in and move the grenade to a different position.

The third time I used the smoke bombs was in Chopwell Woods, on a dead still day. There was not a hint of wind at all. These are the top photos and turned out to be my favourites, and closest to what I had in my mind when I suggested using them in my shoots. What I loved about this shoot in particular was the way that the smoke hung in the air for minutes after the grenade had spluttered out, and that added a very specific quality to the photographs.

So after three attempts I had a better idea of how to utilise the smoke grenades and get interesting photographs. I found it was best to talk the couple through 3 or 4 poses moving every 15 seconds or so, so that we could get a range of photographs. I'd also have a similar number of composed shots in my mind to move through as the grenade went off. A combination of those two variables, plus the randomness of the smoke, should give a good variety of images and the best chance of getting a good photograph.

Here’s how my next shoots went using smoke bombs on couples sessions and at a wedding.

I took Sarah and Billy up to Kielder water and forest park for their shoot. The bright orange was a good contrast for the green woodland but the smoke was too thick in my initial shot.

The second image was pretty much perfect for what I wanted. I picked up the smoke bomb and moved it to the side of the couple once I knew which direction the wind was blowing. I also moved it slightly behind them so that there was some smoke wrapping around them but most of it was behind.

The second image was pretty much perfect for what I wanted. I picked up the smoke bomb and moved it to the side of the couple once I knew which direction the wind was blowing. I also moved it slightly behind them so that there was some smoke wrapping around them but most of it was behind.

The last shot I liked even though most of the smoke had dissipated. I edited these photos in a more vibrant style than my last batch to bring out more colour in the images.

Although I was mainly interested in colour photographs I did find the smoke modified the light wonderfully for black and white photos.

Although I was mainly interested in colour photographs I did find the smoke modified the light wonderfully for black and white photos.

Having used the smoke bombs in several couples sessions, I felt confident enough to experiment with them at a wedding. My first try was at Emma and Paul’s wedding. During the day we drove out to a special location for bride and groom portraits and we were a little pushed for time so we couldn’t use the smoke bombs in the light.

During 2018 I’d also been experimenting with off camera flash and taking night portraits of couples. I’d take them outside for literally 10 minutes and try to get one or two romantic portraits to finish off the day. At Emma and Paul’s wedding I added a smoke bomb to the mix.

For my night portraits I generally place the flash on a small light stand about 2 metres or so behind the couple, either pointing straight up if there is interesting surroundings, or straight back towards the camera. This gives a strong, dramatic light to the final image. For my first try adding a smoke bomb I popped it behind the couple but in front of the flash.

For my night portraits I generally place the flash on a small light stand about 2 metres or so behind the couple, either pointing straight up if there is interesting surroundings, or straight back towards the camera. This gives a strong, dramatic light to the final image. For my first try adding a smoke bomb I popped it behind the couple but in front of the flash.

This was my favourite photo of all the ones I took. The flash made the couple into silhouettes, with a strongly defined rim light. The flash is punching through the smoke and giving a very romantic and dreamy mood. Combined with the twinkling strings of fairy lights and the trees it works very well to transform a tiny corner of a Mining Institute garden into something magical.

Emma and Paul made the smoke shot above the last photo in their wedding album. Emboldened, I photographed Angela and Dave’s wedding at The Parlour in Blagdon, and used smoke bombs during the day.

Angela and dave wanted to use smoke bombs during their bride and groom portrait session and I jumped at the chance!

We used a number of colours of smoke bombs during the wedding. Bright primary colours work best, especially reds, yellows, oranges and purples.

Our original idea was to use the smoke bombs in the central courtyard of The Parlour at Blagdon but on the day it was too windy and I was concerned about the smoke blowing into the adjacent buildings. I was also mindful that there were two fairly major roads nearby and that I really didn’t want to have smoke billowing out in front of passing cars.

After speaking to the venue staff, in the end we settled for taking photographs on some nearby scrub ground. The surroundings weren’t that inspiring, nor was the light, but the smoke bombs livened up the proceedings! Dave and Angela were brave enough to hold the smoke bombs during the shots, and we also had a groomsman run around with a couple off camera to add to the effect.

Smoke bombs, wedding photography and the law

I don’t know what the formal legal position is, but I have been scared enough reading reports of exploding sparklers and a wedding photographer being sued for helping a guest carry a bag, to be very careful with using smoke grenades at weddings. Although my default position is usually to offer to help, I take a back seat when it comes to the logistics of smoke grenades at weddings.

My position is that it’s up to the bride and groom to supply the grenades for the wedding. It’s also up to them to decide how close they want to get to them, especially holding them. Remember that the instructions on the grenades are not to handle them when they go off. I really don’t want to be the wedding photographer who gets taken to court because I asked a bride to hold a smoke grenade that exploded and caused her injury. And I don’t want to be landed with a £2000 bill following the wedding because her wedding dress is ruined. Of course I have insurance, but I don’t know for sure that I am covered for this sort of activity.

I say to the couple that I will photograph whatever happens at their wedding and if that includes smoke bombs, sparklers, owls or whatever else, I’ll be there. I will of course offer advice on posing, talk about the risks I mentioned above, and get into a good position to get the shot. What I won’t do is take any responsibility for organising the smoke bombs, or directing the couple to ignore the warnings for their use.

Using smoke bombs for couples sessions and weddings summary

  • Encourage the couple to supply the smoke bombs and don’t ask them to do anything that the instructions on the grenade tell them not to do

  • Use cool burning wire pull grenades

  • Talk through the risks with couples before the shoot

  • Dispose of the smoke bombs responsibly

  • Use the smoke bombs away from the wind, in less exposed areas

  • Do not use the smoke bombs close to buildings, roads or an airport

  • Keep to bright primary colours such as reds, blues and yellows

  • Keep shooting after the main grenade has fizzled out - the smoke can hang in the air for a few minutes

  • Once you are confident with the smoke bombs try adding other elements to the shot such as flash, prisms or the ring of fire