Home photography ideas: Use artificial fog to create a cinematic portrait

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We’ve all seen those steam-filled railway platforms in black-and-white movies from the ’50s, and how atmospheric they can be. Even at a rock concert, the appearance of artificial fog (dry ice) creates a moody atmosphere, and it’s no different in the stills photography world. 

By adding some artificial fog – we used a can of Atmosphere Aerosol – you can turn plain environments into dramatic stages, with shafts of light illuminating the areas around a model. All you need is a willing participant, a window with some direct light and harsh shadows, and the fog to fill it with. This technique works best indoors with no air movement, but if the air is relatively calm outside and you have the ability to generate a lot of artificial fog, you could get your shoes on and head into the open air. 

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(Image credit: Future)

We took our model, Esme, to the Avon Valley Railway in Bitton, UK, for our photoshoot. As you can see, those vintage railway carriages made the perfect location for a bit of simulated steam! However, this is also a perfect project for capturing stunning portraits at home. So, grab your camera, your artificial fog and model, and we’ll explore what you need to do.

Capture a cinematic portrait 

(Image credit: Future)

Take your tripod

Shoot handheld at first to find your favorite vantage point. If your shots are blurry because you need to use a longish shutter speed, use a tripod. However, we found that a tripod wouldn’t fit in the strange shapes of the carriage, so we went handheld for most of the shoot.

(Image credit: Future)

No sun...?

No problem. You can definitely shoot this project without a flashgun, but if you've got a dull, cloudy day then some artificial light could be your saving grace. Cover your flashgun with a warming gel, make sure it’s set to at a wide zoom (35mm is fine) and place it outside the carriage, about six feet away, pointing in through the window. Leave it bare to create the long, hard shadows you need to accentuate the fog.

(Image credit: Future)

Find the perfect backdrop

We went to Avon Valley Railway to find the perfect train carriage for our backdrop. This restored 1950s carriage already oozes character. Finding a suitable location is half the battle in getting your smoke-filled photo to look authentic and atmospheric. However, you could also try using your living room or study to capture a similarly cinematic effect.

(Image credit: Future)

Include some props

If you have a special location, make sure you have props. The lamps in the train carriage looked good, but they looked even better once we’d turned them on. We made sure that every light was on during the shoot to act as ‘practical lights’, as they say in cinematography. 

(Image credit: Future)

Go the extra mile

When you’ve gone to the effort of finding an incredible location, you don’t want your model to sit down wearing standard T-shirt and jeans. Go the extra mile and find some clothing to complement the location – it’s just as important as the camera settings. 

(Image credit: Future)

Add some fog

We used an aerosol fog spray by Atmosphere Aerosol to create our fog, and it’s currently only available in the United States. If you’re not in the US you could also use a smoke machine instead. Spray the fog in front of the windows in broad swathes to highlight the strong shafts of light. 

(Image credit: Future)

Direct your model 

You can be creative when posing your model: do you want them to stand in front of the windows, with the light striking the fog and creating leading lines, or do you want a smokey side-shot? We took both, but preferred the seated pose showing more of the carriage.

(Image credit: Future)

Expose for the light

To minimize depth of field, we set an aperture of f/2.8 at ISO100 in manual mode. We then adjusted the shutter speed until the ambient light was a stop under-exposed, to make the most of the light streaming through the windows, and really bring out the texture of the fog.  

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N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine is a monthly publication that's entirely dedicated to Nikon users. As a 100% independent magazine, you can be assured of unbiased opinion from a trustworthy team of devoted photography experts including editor Adam Waring and Technique Editor Mike Harris

Aimed at all users, from camera newcomers to working pros, every issue is packed with practical, Nikon-specific advice for taking better photos, in-depth reviews of Nikon-compatible gear, and inspiring projects and exciting video lessons for mastering camera, lens and Photoshop techniques.

Written by Nikon users for Nikon users, N-Photo is your one-stop shop for everything to do with cameras, lenses, tripods, bags, tips, tricks and techniques to get the most out of your photography.