Smoke coming off a burning light bulb filament

The photo above shows what I call Light Bulb Smoke Photography. It is capturing the smoke rising from the burning filament of a light bulb. This sort of image is very easy to accomplish and in this tutorial I will explain how you can capture similar images.

How it Works

The glass globe of a light bulb has a vacuum inside it which prevents the filament in the light bulb from burning up. By breaking the glass of the light bulb and letting air get to the filament, the filament will burn and give off smoke when power is applied to the bulb. By slowly applying power to the light bulb you can get it to a point where it starts to glow and burn. The burning filament will smoke and creates interesting patterns. As the power is increased the filament will burn faster and will eventually burn up and break the electrical connection.

Capturing Smoke Inside the Globe

Smoke inside a light bulb globe
Another techinique is to leave the glass globe intact and break the vacuum by drilling a hole in the base of the light bulb. Because there is no vacuum in the bulb the filament will smoke and burn but smoke will be contained inside the glass globe. This gives another interesting photo opportunity.

Light Bulb Smoke Photography Tutorial – The Video

The following video tutorial shows the setup for photographing Light Bulb Smoke.

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Lighting Setup

To light this setup we want just the edges of the light bulb globe to appear lit while the background appears black. This is called Dark Field Illumination. I learned how to do this sort of lighting from this book Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting (this is an affiliate link).

In my implementation I placed a large softbox directly behind the light bulb and then taped a black piece of poster board onto the face of the softbox that was slightly smaller than the width of the softbox. The black poster board makes the background appear black. The light on the sides of the poster board highlight just the edge of the light bulb glass.

You will need to adjust the distance of light bulb from the softbox to that just the edges of the light bulb are highlighted. If the light bulb is too close to the softbox then the glass edges will appear black and the glass will not be visible in the image, if the light bulb is too far way then more than just the edges of the glass will be illuminated and you will not be able to see through the glass. So move it back and forth to find the sweet spot.

Electrical Fixture

The fixture is relatively simple. It is a wood box that contains a switch, a light dimmer, and a socket for the bulb. There is no need to build a specialized fixture, you could also use a household lamp plugged into a dimmer.

Fixture used for light bulb smoke photography

Wiring Diagram

Here is the wiring diagram for the fixture.
Wiring diagram for fixture used in light bulb smoke photography

The Bulbs

Doing Light Bulb Smoke Photography requires a lot of light bulbs. I look for clear glass globes (not frosted), a simple single filament, and cheap. Here is a link to the ones I used in the above photos Feit Electric 60A/CL/MP-130 60-Watt A19 Household Bulb, Clear, 24 Pack
(this is an affiliate link so if you purchase I make a few pennies. It does not cost you anything additional).


Light Bulb Smoke Photography is relatively easy to do and you can get a lot of interesting shots as the smoke curls away from the filament. Give it a try and share with me any photos you might take. I’d love to see them.