Let’s face it: There are tons of photographers out there, and the competition to get clients is stiff. One of the most important things you can do to stand out and help your product photography business thrive is to keep learning so you can develop a strong, contemporary portfolio.
When it comes to adding to your product photography skill set, there are many techniques you can try.
One very powerful effect you can learn and employ is fog. Harnessing this element may seem challenging at first, but there are actually a few ways you can create a fog effect for your product photos. After you’ve read this article, you can choose which method you like and try for yourself.
Why would you want to create a fog effect?
Why fog? After all, there are lots of different techniques you can try, so why pick one so ephemeral and hard to control? It turns out there are a few simple reasons why you might want to add fog to your product photos.
First, fog can add a mystical quality to your images. Depending upon the product you’re photographing, this can be an important storytelling element in the image. If you’re shooting something like healing crystals or Lord of the Rings-themed merchandise, this can be an obvious fit. But even if your subject is less than magical, fog can still lend a dreamy or moody quality — and that’s a good thing.
Additionally, the products you’re photographing are 3D, but the photos themselves are obviously 2D. This can distort the viewer’s impression of your product. Fog can give your flat, distorted composition much-needed depth and dimension.
Finally, fog just looks COOL. It’s not something you see every day, so it makes people stop and take a second glance. (And that’s what we want them to do!)
Fog, mist, smoke: what’s the difference?
From an atmospheric perspective, fog, mist, and smoke are obviously very different. Mist is tiny water droplets suspended in the air. Mist is usually light and mostly transparent and evaporates quickly. Fog is also composed of tiny water droplets, but it’s denser and heavier so “clouds” of fog last longer. Smoke is a collection of small, solid particulate emitted when something is burning.
From a photographic perspective, they’re different, too. Mist doesn’t give quite the effect that fog does, and it’s harder to recreate in studio. Fog tends to stay low and disperse horizontally, evaporating at the edges. Smoke, on the other hand, travels upward from its source — it’s more difficult to wrap around a subject because of this. You can use smoke in photos, but because of the way it travels, it’s less predictable (and sometimes smellier!) than fog.
There are a few ways you can add fog to your images. Choose the right one for your situation, or play around and test them all; it’s good to have fun when you’re working!
Practical ways to create a fog effect for your product photos
If you’re into going all out with Halloween decor, chances are good that you’ve used dry ice before — and for good reason. Dry ice is relatively inexpensive, widely distributed, and pretty predictable in terms of longevity. It also makes a cool, low, moody fog that’s thick and very photo-worthy.
The biggest downfall to dry ice? It burns, literally, if you touch it. Dry ice is corrosive and can cause injury instantly, so always, always, ALWAYS use gloves when you handle it.
One more note: Because dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide, you need to be in a well-ventilated area. Inhaling oxygen = good. Inhaling too much dry ice fog = bad.
You can find dry ice at party suppliers, ice distributors, and many grocery stores. As I said, it’s an inexpensive material (my local grocery has it listed at $1.44 a pound!) so buy more than you think you need — it dissipates fast.
When you’ve purchased your dry ice, place it in a cooler and start setting up your shoot. (One quick note: Do NOT place dry ice in an airtight cooler as it can cause an explosion.)
Set up your background, your chosen lighting, and your product. Once your composition is correct, dial in your exposure and white balance. Remember, dry ice disappears quickly, so get as close to perfect as possible before you add in your fog.
When your shot looks pretty good, it’s time to bring in the dry ice. Set your cooler on a towel (to catch any condensation that develops). Get a large bowl and add hot water — the hotter the water, the more extreme your reaction will be. Once the bowl is half to three quarters full, you can add chunks of dry ice. You might have to experiment to see how much ice will produce the look you’re after.
When your fog starts rolling, start shooting! You’ll have about a minute or so to capture your dreamy fog. If you need to try again, simply start over with hot water and dry ice.
Fog machine method
This is almost a no-brainer. If you want fog, there’s a machine for that. There are tutorials about how to make your own, but if you’re not super handy, you can also purchase one for less than $40. With the machine and the necessary “fog juice”, you’ll be making fog for a long time to come.
One note on the fog machine method: Much like smoke, you’ll notice that this fog “rises” so it might disperse pretty quickly as you go.
To ensure a successful shoot with your fog machine, first set up your scene and composition. Get your lighting, white balance, and exposure pretty close to correct. Depending on the type of fog look you’re going for, you may only have a short window to play in, so get as close as possible during setup.
The I-only-need-a-little-fog method
Just about everything is available on Amazon nowadays, and it turns out that fog is no exception. If you only need a little fog (because you’re working with a small product, for example) you can get a can of fog. Yes, that’s right, you can grab an aerosol can and have the power of fog right in your hands, Check it out here.
What happens if your foggy photos didn’t come out because your added fog disappeared into thin air? Or what if you’ve got a photo you’ve already taken and you wish you could add fog to it after the fact?
Good news! There’s also a digital method you can use to create a fog effect for your photos.
How to add fog with the Photoshop filter method
There are a few different ways you can use to add fog in Photoshop, but this is probably the quickest way to add cloudy puffs of fog to your image because it employs a filter already in Photoshop.
First complete your normal photo edits. When you’re done with white balance, exposure, contrast, etc. and you’ve completed your creative edits as well, create a new layer on top.
You can name the layer “Fog” if you like — it makes it easier to see which layer you’re working on.
Go to Filter > Render Clouds. Your layer will appear as a cloud pattern all over.
Next, go to the Blending Mode and choose Screen. This way, only the lighter tones will appear.
After that, go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters, then Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Set the Radius to around 45px. Click on the Smart Filter mask thumbnail, then go to the Gradient tool and set the color to black. Hold the SHIFT key and drag a line from the bottom of the image to the top.
Next, you’ll get rid of the uniform look with a little distortion so the fog looks more random. To do this, go to the Edit menu, then select Transform > Distort. Push and pull with your mouse until your fog looks natural and hit enter to apply.
Then add a full layer mask that hides your newly created fog. Go to your Paint Brush Tool and select a soft round brush. Set your brush opacity to 20%. Change the foreground color to white, then paint over and around your subject to reveal your fog. Voila!
Want to add more? Paint it in! Go to your paint tool. In the brush picker menu, select Spatter 14. Go to Window > Brush > Brush Tip Shape. Enlarge your brush as needed and set your Spacing to 50%. Next, go to Shape Dynamics and set your Angle Jitter to 100%. Paint in more fog wherever necessary.
If you don’t love this method, there are others to try. Go here and learn how to create your own custom fog brush so you can add as little or as much fog as you like.
How to add smoke to smartphone photos
What if you’ve captured a great image with your smartphone, and you want to add a little mystery, but you don’t want to import it into PS? No problem, there’s an app for that.
Check out the Lens Distortions app (available on iOS and Android). This quick, easy, and cheap app allows you to add realistic-looking fog effects. All the fog images used are based on photos of real fog, not computer-generated simulations, and you can change the opacity and orientation of the fog to achieve your desired result fast. There are a few free overlays, and 20+ more available with a small fee.
(With just a few taps, I was able to add fog to this Witch’s Brew Frappuccino. Spooky!)
Tips and tricks to know when creating fog and smoke for your product photos
Now that you know of a couple of methods to create fog, here are a few general tips to remember no matter what method you choose…
DON’T use a white or light background. The fog likely won’t show up against it. If you need a white background, you can always send it to our pro Photoshoppers to do that for you.
DO select a contrasting background. Black or similarly dark backdrops will show off your fog the best.
DON’T use on camera flash. The fog will reflect your flash, and you won’t get the end result you want.
DO use directional light — light the edges, light from above, whatever it takes to create the mood you’re going for.
DON’T rely on the colors you get straight out of the camera. Fog tends to neutralize color and make everything less vibrant.
DO edit after the fact so you can increase color saturation to your satisfaction. Shoot in RAW if at all possible so you’ve got the most information available to play with in post production.
DON’T depend on Autofocus. With fog in the picture, your camera might not choose the correct focal point. No one wants blurry, out-of-focus products.
DO check your image as you go. If Autofocus isn’t getting the job done, switch to manual and pick the perfect point to focus on, then dial it in the old-fashioned way: with your eyes as the judge.
DON’T rely on your exposure meter, either. Fog can trick your camera and create disappointing results.
DO shoot tethered or check your back of camera screen as you go. Just like with focus, see if your results are satisfactory, and if they aren’t, then be prepared to change up your exposure or add in exposure compensation if need be.
Now that you’ve learned the ins and outs of adding fog to your product photos, what will you photograph next? Remember, adding to your bag of tricks makes you an even more valuable product photographer, so take the time to test out this skill, and, as always, happy shooting!