Smoke Portraits with ring flash and beauty dish

January 26, 2015 · 4 comments


This is some examples from my first portrait session using a smoke machine in the photo studio, the assignment was to create some band photos for a friend. The two guys, with beards and all, liked the idea of having some kind of haze in their photos, so I got to try how a little smoke can add an extra dimension to portraits.

My studio is quite small, but using smoke removed that feeling from the portraits right away. Or after a while, if I should be correct. At first, the smoke from the machine is a very visible part of the portraits, but after a short while it settles to a nice fog, making the studio space endless and very much a living part of the photos.


Lighting diagram with smoke machine

This is how I set up the lights for the headshots and single portraits, using three Profoto lights I was able to get a nice portrait light as well as highlighting parts of the haze in the studio so that also became a visible part.

I used a cheap smoke machine together with “fog juice” named “haze”, I think that is thinner and that was perfect for these portraits. Using a smoke machine is easy, just fill the container with smoke fluid of your choice and turn it on.

A couple of minutes later it is warm and can start producing fog/smoke/haze with just a push of the button. This model also had the feature to spurt out smoke at intervals, but we used it manually when we needed more.


Beauty dish with grid as main light

Before we started, I had the idea to use a ring flash together with the smoke machine, but I wanted something else as my main light. We did single portraits and group shots with the two members of the band, so a white Profoto Softlight Reflector was ideal to get the right type of light.

As I said, my studio is not that big, so I used a grid on the beauty dish to constrain the main light so it only reached the bearded men, not the background. Coming from camera left, it also lit the smoke it hit.

Smoke without light is not that much fun, it just makes things blurred and hazy, to get a feeling of volume from the smoke in the room, I set another light.

Rim light for effects

Usually when I have a rim light in the scene, it is not visible to the camera, just the light hitting the model is. But here, with a gridded Magnum reflector camera right behind the model, it also created a gradient in the smoke as well as separating the head and shoulders from the background.

Here I also used a grid to keep the light from bouncing everywhere in the studio, but letting the light be visible in the picture and shine into the front lens added a nice touch as it flowed out into bright smoke in the corner.


A ring light for even more details

Adding a ring light to the scene did a lot of thing, first it did the usual with bringing out the small details from the shadows. With a light on-axis with the camera you get a lot of nice detail.

Then it also brought some light to the smoke in front of the model, not just where the main light was shining, but everywhere. And with the smoke behind the model as well we never got those telltale shadows that a ring flash can produce on a background. Or halos, I think they are called sometimes.

I have some nice examples of using a ring flash for portraits, but they are all without smoke so the effect is very direct. In these portraits, the smoke in front of the models sometimes gets in the way and blocks the rays from the ring light, which makes for even more interesting shots. I think.


Volumetric fog

When I dabbled in 3D programs many years back, volumetric fog was a quite new feature. I like the word “volumetric” as it describes the feeling precisely.

With light on the smoke in the room coming from three direction, the smoke really has volume. Depending of the thickness of the smoke and distance to the light sources, it looks different everywhere.

Just lighting the smoke from one direction can be fun too, but then I guess the effect will not be as three dimensional as lighting it from different directions.


A different portrait every second

Or maybe millisecond. As the smoke, or haze, swirles around and settles, the impression of smoke changes the portrait you take. The smoke machine we used had a very short electric cord, so I had to walk over to it and push the button. Many times, my movements in the studio caused enough flow of air to make the smoke move away from where I had hoped it would be.

So, next time I would either hire an assistant or buy a longer cord so I could move around with the smoke machine more freely, and apply more smoke where I wanted it to be. But the effect of moving air is still there.


You can create some smoke from the machine and move your hand around in the air to make new patterns, but it will change all the time, so be quick.

From smoke to haze and fog

In the beginning of this session, I liked all the portraits where there were thick clouds of smoke dominating the photos. But after I while I came to appreciate the more subtle haze around the lights and the gradients they made in the background.

We started with a black paper background, but removed that after a while to get this greyish tone which is a result of gridded lights and a white cyclorama. I think that made for a more interesting background with less contrast but nice gradients.

With the black background, we needed more smoke to fill the entire screen and that was a bit hard on our eyes and noses (not just the photos, but working in a small room full of smoke). It is not toxic in any way, but we needed to let fresh air in every now and then to stop our eyes from watering and that dry cough you don’t like.

The effect of smoke and light


As I said, every frame was different from the last, thanks to the smoke that affected everything. Here is a good example that shows how much a small amount of smoke between the light and the model changes the impact of that light on the model.

Look at the top of his chest for example, or left side of the face, how the contrast and exposure is totally different.


Behind the scenes

This is the only BTS I took during the whole session, but this is not correctly showing how the studio and lights were set up for the above portraits. This is a bit later when we did group shot of the two band members.

But, the only change is the main light left. Here I have moved it behind the models and before it was camera left just outside the frame. But more or less correct.

If you want to hear and see what this band looks like, please visit the website of A Swarm of the Sun.

If you liked this blog post, please share or click Like. Any comments are always very much appreciated.

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Profoto Blog How Stefan Tell Created Smokey Portraits with Ring Flash and a Beauty Dish
February 20, 2015 at 16:14

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marco Venturini Autieri August 11, 2016 at 14:32

Hello Stefan,
I have just started experimenting with smoke. I find it very difficult: just small differences in the lights make the shot good or bad!
Eventually I got one photo that I am satisfied with, even though, to be honest, the light placement worked just by chance, because I had set them up earlier for a portrait without smoke, and then I simply added smoke and the result was okay.
This is what I did:

Weirdly, I am now trying to move the lights and set them better with the smoke in mind, but the results I get are worse! So I am going to use your scheme as a new starting point. Unfortunately I do not own a ring flash. With what modifier would you replace yours, if you had to?


2 Stefan Tell August 16, 2016 at 22:44

Hi Marco,
I had a look at your blog and I think it looked good.

The ring flash is not that important, you can get great photos with other modifiers, I think. What might be useful is to experiment with how the light reacts to light from above or below, from the front or the back.

Instead of a ring flash with light coming from the same axis as the camera sees, you could try a clam shell setup, with light from above and reflector below the camera. That way you will light the smoke in front of the model.

Add rim lights from behind to give the scene more depth. Maybe with gels of different colours.

Good luck.


3 Marco Venturini Autieri August 17, 2016 at 19:06

Thanks! For the reply and above all for the compliments. Of all the internet, your blog (the English part!) was one of my preferred sources of information when it came to studio lights.
I have always wanted a ring flash but I had never thought of it as a means to fill residual shadows left over by the main and rim lights. It is an interesting philosophical approach.


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