Shoot Breakdowns

Create Colorful Beauty Portraits With a Handheld Smoke Machine

Studio Shoot Breakdown


The Concept

A constant challenge with studio portraiture is the need for more depth in an image.

If you are using a solid colored background, it is easy for your image to become very two-dimensional and take on more of a traditional commercial advertising feel. 

While those solid backgrounds have their place in advertising and product photos, business portraits, and acting headshots, we want to create a sense of depth in the image for a more creative approach.

Our traditional tools for this challenge are carefully crafted lighting, specially designed backgrounds, and sets created with background and foreground elements. We can even use things like blowing material, water, bubbles, snow, or smoke for creative portraits.

I often talk and write about my “calm-in-the-middle-of-chaos” technique for creative beauty and fashion portraits as a way of creating a sense of depth in an image. Smoke is a great way to generate chaos, which can then be lit and colored in any number of ways to create mood and depth in the image.

So, my concept for this series of shots was to create fashion and beauty portraits using smoke and LOTS of bold color.

The Smoke

Until recently, smoke presented some unique challenges in a studio setting. The go-to source of smoke for years had been portable smoke machines like those found at party supply stores. Unfortunately, these commercially available machines generated a ton of smoke very quickly, which made it very hard to control, and the smoke was very slow to dissipate.

Indeed, if you had the budget, set shops and rental houses had higher-end units that were even more expensive to rent than the cost of purchasing the party store variety. However, the more costly units provided more control over the smoke. Regardless, the higher price made it prohibitive for hobbyists.

In recent years, a married couple of Tennessee-based wedding photographers, Joe and Kathleen Atkins, have marketed Atmosphere Aerosol, billed as “Smoke or Haze in a Can.” Atmosphere Aerosol has been an excellent solution for outdoor work and shoots in large spaces. It comes in a can similar to spray paint, and it is non-toxic and doesn’t stain clothing. It will linger in the air, but you have much more control over where it goes. 

The big downside to Atmosphere Aerosol is that it is EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE per the warning on the front and back of each can. It is made from Propane, Butane, and medicinal-grade mineral oil. 

That means you can’t travel with it on an airplane or use it indoors anywhere near a heater – which made it prohibitive for my home studio.

Some knockoffs of this product are available now, but they share the same issue – EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE. Besides, if you are going to use the canned version – support your fellow photographers who created this, not some knockoff company.

The Handheld Smoke Machine

The Lensgo Handheld Fog / Smoke Machine S is a new smoke machine from the Chinese company Lensgo, better known for its video and audio production accessories. This is an upgraded version of the previous Model B smoke machine.

It is rechargeable by USB and will run continuously for 25 minutes. It uses a Vegetable Glycerine and Propylene Glycol mix, which is safe and easy to refill.

It starts with the push of a button and generates smoke within seconds. The unit ships with a case and several accessories that create different smoke effects.

Also included is a wireless remote control that will allow you to start and stop the unit from up to 10 meters away.

The handheld smoke machine is fantastic for tabletop food and product work. It has worked effectively for my creative portraits.

It will not produce enough smoke to use it for head-to-toe fashion shots or high school seniors. In a contained space or outdoors with no breeze, it will generate as much lingering haze as the canned option, but if you are trying to add smoke for a fashion or multi-person shoot, a traditional smoke machine will be the best solution.

The Beauty Portrait Setup

As I often do when working with bold colors, I chose to work on a Savage Universal Black #20 Seamless Paper Background. I like the black background for shots like these because the gel colors will appear much richer and bolder.

The camera is placed just below my subject’s eye level for all three shots to give my subject a dominant feel.

I had the camera tethered using a 15-foot Tether Tools TetherPro USB-C to USB-C cable that I could see from behind my subject while adding the smoke. This was important because I wanted to get swirls in the smoke close to my subject, but I needed to be sure I wasn’t so close that I was in the shot.

I set the camera to fire at 3-second intervals and started drawing with the smoke machine. I would shoot for 45 – 60 seconds until there was too much haze and then just stop the camera. It would take about 3 minutes for the haze to clear with the help of a light fan. During that time, we would review the images, discuss changes, and then repeat the process.

The Red Necklace – My Creative Policy

I want to point out the red necklace that appears in two of the photos.

A red beaded necklace on a white background.

This is one of the many accessories that I routinely find on Amazon.com. It takes a little creative searching, but searches for terms like fashion sunglasses, fashion necklaces, feathers, chokers, fashion gloves, etc., will turn up interesting pieces that can frequently be purchased for just a few dollars.

The key with many of the Amazon finds is not to use them as intended or marketed but to find interesting ways to have your subject wear them.

This red necklace cost $21.00, and I will only use one of the photos in my portfolio. (Image #3 – the one featured at the top of the article will be added to my portfolio.)

I make it a policy to experiment with these Amazon finds until I create an image that I really like. Then, the piece is retired and given away, usually to the last model who wore it.

Using the same item over and over again becomes very obvious and really devalues the creativity of your work.

📸 Pro Tip
Colored gels were initially developed for theater lighting, not photography, but quickly found artistic uses in portraiture. Smoke photography was popularized by surrealist photographers like Man Ray in the 1920s.
An image of a woman with blue smoke on her face.

Lighting Setup

The images were lit with Godox AD200 strobes.

For shot number one (above), my key light, one Godox AD200, is mounted with the fresnel head and a blue gel in a Rogue 38″ Soft White Umbrella with the diffuser in place.

I chose the Rogue 38″ because of the diffuser. This allowed me to mount a blue MagMod gel on a strobe inside the modifier and still have the light fill the entire 38″ modifier. Also, since the blue gel knocks down the power of the light rather dramatically, I wanted to get that large light source reasonably close to my subject, and this setup did the trick.

I used a total of four lights for this shot. On camera left is an AD200 with a Magenta MagMod gel, and on camera right is an AD200 with a Red MagMod gel. The background light is an AD200 with a blue MagMod gel mounted on a DIY background stand made from a Baby Pin Wall Plate

A woman is sitting on a chair in front of a light.
Lighting arrangement for shot #1 above.

For the second shot (below), I got a bit carried away with the lighting arrangement and went with a total of 6 strobes 😳. There is no doubt that this shot could have been done with fewer strobes and the primary reason I am not satisfied with this shot is that I did not pay enough attention to the shadows of her fingers on her face.

A woman with blue smoke in front of her face.

I set up a mixed key light using the same 38″ Rogue Umbrella with Diffuser and the blue MagMod Gel on camera left. 

In front of that, I added another AD200 with a 24″ Chimera Octa Beauty 24″ Collapsible Beauty Dish as an ungelled key light just for the camera left side of my subject’s face.

On camera right, I added another AD200 with the 32″ translucent white shoot-through umbrella that is part of the Rogue Travel Kit. This strobe also had a blue MagMod Gel.

Behind my subject, I had one AD200 on camera right as a rim light. One AD200 was set up on camera right with a magenta gel for some color on the top of the background, and for the bottom of the background, an AD200 with a blue MagMod gel mounted the DIY background stand made from a Baby Pin Wall Plate.

A woman is sitting in front of a set of lights.
Lighting arrangement for shot #2 above.

For the third shot (which will be used in my portfolio), I went with a much simpler setup using four Godox AD200s.

A woman wearing red sunglasses stands in front of a smoke machine, creating a mesmerizing ambiance.

For my key light, I had a Godox AD200 mounted with the bare-bulb head in a Phottix Rani II 33in Folding Beauty Dish on a Neewer Stainless Steel Heavy Duty C-Stand, 5-10 feet (1.5m-3m) with 4 Feet (1.2m) Extension Boom Arm

Behind my subject, the remaining lights were two AD200s with red gels mounted on either side and aimed back at my subject as rims. These were on Cheetah Stand C8 Automatic Light Stands, while the background light, also an AD200 with a red gel, was on a DIY background stand made from a Baby Pin Wall Plate. 

In front of my subject was a 24″ x 36″ piece of white foam board (video) just below the frame, angled to create a nice fill and soften all shadows on the model’s face.

The real challenge for this shot is the reflection of the Phottix Rani in the sunglasses. I have done this trick numerous times with different sizes and shapes of softboxes. If you want it to impress people, you MUST take your time and be detail-oriented. 

In this case, I needed the softbox perfectly centered in the glasses, which also required my model to keep her head perfectly straight and not move.

The white circle on the floor in my lighting diagrams represents a 10′ (3m) diameter circle. All of these shots can be created in a relatively small space. The ceiling in my home studio is just under 8′ tall (video).

📸 Pro Tip
Don’t think of your subject as a “subject” for shots like this. You MUST treat the person in front of your camera as a collaborator. Take the time before you pick up the camera to discuss the concept. Every direction you give to the subject should include an explanation of WHY you need them to do that. For the featured shot in this article, I needed my subject to stay very still to get the softbox reflection perfectly centered in the glasses. In situations like this, I will explain to my subject in great detail what I am doing and why I need them to do what I have asked, and I will even add a joke. Once she was in place, I explained: OK, don’t move! Breathing is entirely optional, but DON’T MOVE! That direction doesn’t work for everything you will shoot, but experiment with phrases, sayings, and directions in which people will understand and find humor when possible.
A woman is sitting in front of a red light in a studio.
Lighting arrangement for shot #3

The Camera Gear

All three shots were made with a Sony A7IV Camera Body with the Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 Di III VXD mounted and set at 102mm for shots #1 and #2 and shot #3 was made at 153mm.

My camera was mounted on an Acratech GP-SS Ballhead, which was mounted on a Cheetah Stand Pistol Stand with Extra Grip & Castors.

The Final Frame

I will definitely find more creative uses for the Lensgo Handheld Smoke Machine, but allow me to leave you with this warning: While this smoke machine is cool, you have to be honest with yourself about how many images you can create with a smoke machine before there are too many images with smoke. 

That said, it is just another tool for your toolkit. To get value from a tool like this, you must commit to finding new and unique uses for the smoke and not just copy the same stuff you see all over the internet. Remember the Xerox machine – a copy is NEVER as good as the original!

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

Have more questions about beauty portraits or lighting? Would you like to continue the conversation? Join my TOGKnowledge Photographic Community, where you will find photographers from over 30 countries passionate about learning and sharing their photography as they develop their craft.

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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