This photo was taken in a small roadside shop near Huế, Vietnam. These incense sticks are hand-rolled by the shop owner from ground-up agarwood. The color (mixed with agarwood) is hand-applied to a few inches at the end; each color contains a pleasant natural scent.
Incense is burned as an offering to ancestors and gods; this practice is called thurification. The smoke is a form of communication and spiritual food. Multiple sand-filled pots are placed near temples, shrines, and other sacred places for holding the incense sticks upright as they burn.
Our travels often take us to countries with developing tourist infrastructures. There are few days when our guide fails to give us a tour in “a very special shop.” We generally see things we don’t need and really don’t want to carry for the next few weeks but we try to buy interesting things as long as they are small, light, and difficult to break.
One place we actually wanted to shop is Hội An in Vietnam. Even if you haven’t heard of it, if you are in Vietnam and have a couple extra days, you want to go there. You can have bespoke shoes, clothing, and purses of high quality made overnight and delivered to your hotel.
One of the shops our guide took us to made incense and burners. We found the little carved dragon incense burner there (we checked the bottom to make sure it wasn’t simply imported from China) and small boxes of agarwood incense cones we saw being made on site.
Once we got home, the dragon sat on a table along with similar items from other trips. We thought we’d never use it until we decided to try smoke photography as an experiment for a photo class we have been taking.
We placed the dragon in front of a sheet of black velvet we use as a small backdrop and ignited the incense. A speedlight was placed parallel to the backdrop and a tube (i.e., a snoot) was used to send the flash through the smoke without spilling onto the backdrop. The smoke rose in a smooth column for about six inches and then began to twist and turn in wild patterns as the column cooled and reacted to small air currents in the room. The photos below show the results. The color was created by setting the camera’s color correction to tungsten.