Amp Your Backlight with a Cheapo, Disposable Fog Machine

Yesterday, I spent most of the afternoon cruising my local big orange store for an upcoming "Home Depot" week here on Strobist. Yep, a whole week of cheapskate, hardware-themed DIY fun.

The goal is to have the posts pre-written for late October, so I will not have to spend my entire week in Paris attached to a laptop. I have long since considered HD as tightwad photo gear heaven. Given that, I walked in with notebook and pen in hand, ready to scrounge. Two hours later I walked out with a cool list and more new ideas than I could shake a stick at.

But this particular find was too perishable to hold until late October. Get the full details on the dirt-cheap fog machine after the jump.

(Cool, fogged-up backlit photo by mwreeve)

1983 Called. They'd Like Their Lighting Back.

Nothing makes hard, strobed backlight look cooler than a bunch of smoky fog wafting around, making those cool beams and layered tones. A little '80's if done too over-the-top. But lotsa possibilities, all the same. Sadly, the professional model fog machines are mid-three digits to start.

Fortunately, America's insatiable appetite for tacky, over-the-top Halloween decor is your temporary ticket to a fog machine for just $29.95. But as you might imagine, at that price there are catches.

Number one, they won't be around long. HD has them in the pagan holiday tacky decor section. And that opportunity is fleeting, for obvious reasons. You can also apparently get them at Wal*Mart, Michaels, and a few other companies I have never heard of. Ditto the Halloween-themed, fly-by-night stores at your local mall.

Number two, at $29.95 it does not come with the water-based fog fluid. So that'll set you back a few more bucks.

Finally, (and this is why I refer to it as "disposable,") the fluid can reportedly sometimes get too thick and gum up the machine. But it is water based, so my game plan is to dilute it a little with water and thicken it back up juuuust until I get decent fog. (I like to tinker.)

In fact, your local Home Depot may or may not carry the fog fluid just for that reason. So call around to find out who has the whole set before you waste the gas.

UPDATE: Check out the anti-clogging solution by RootyB in the comments.

Hey, it's $29.95. If it holds up for one good shoot it's worth it for a chance to play with smoky backlight. (I'll bet Keith Taylor would have liked to have it for that fireman shot.)

(Fog Machine Product Page, at


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Blogger Photohipster said...

Something to consider is that several models of smoke machines are known to set off fire alarms.

October 03, 2007 12:49 AM  
Blogger Photohipster said...

Take into account the fact that some smoke machines cause fire alarms to trigger.

October 03, 2007 12:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ironic, i was looking for these on ebay today

strobist saved my life

October 03, 2007 12:51 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Awesome, thanks for the tip. I was wondering if there was a cheap fog machine out there. Guess where I'm going tomorrow morning...

October 03, 2007 12:53 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Smith said...

UK supplier, various models:

October 03, 2007 12:57 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

David, love your site and I have learned so much.

Here is a cool snoot idea I haven't seen anyone else do yet (not to say it hasn't been done somewhere) right from the Home Depot raingutter section.

Here is my link to share for a way cool home depot snoot.....

October 03, 2007 1:11 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Smith said...

Another thing you need to be careful about is not getting the fog on your camera or lights. Some of the chemicals get on your gear like condensation but then dry as an adhesive film that can be time-consuming to clean off.

October 03, 2007 1:13 AM  
Blogger RootyB said...

Quick tip from someone that used to have to deal with these things on a daily basis:

Every few times you use it, replace the fog juice with a water/vinegar mix (half & half works), to clean it out. Stinks pretty bad, but it gets the job done, and keeps 'em running clog-free quite a bit longer than they otherwise would.

October 03, 2007 1:17 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Smith said...

Steve that drainpipe snoot is genius! I think someone at a plumbing company secretly designed that for strobists.

October 03, 2007 1:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's another place, if you join the site, you get a coupon for 10% off.

October 03, 2007 3:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's another place, if you join the site you get a coupon for 10% off.

October 03, 2007 3:15 AM  
Blogger James Pratt said...

I have one of those, it works moderately well. You have to let it warm up first, and then it is kind of hit or miss if it fogs at the exact time you need it. Has some goofy timer or something that make is a pain.

October 03, 2007 3:33 AM  
Blogger KeithAlanK said...

There are certain models of smoke machines on sale at the places The Strobist mentioned that are low-lying-fog versions, and are supposed to mimic the cool dry-ice fog of early '80s bands and '40s monster movies on the Moors.
They have a "chiller" section filled with your household or imported ice.
Get one of these if you don't want your smoke/fog to just go everywhere the wind blows.

October 03, 2007 3:39 AM  
Anonymous Tim Johnson said...

I actually bought one last week at Target. They have them in stock for halloween for only $19.99 AND, it comes with a bottle of 32oz WATER BASED fog juice. Its a 400W machine which can do 2,000 cubic feet per minute. I have already used it for one of my photos. I am looking forward to using it more because I am not too happy with my first attempt at a fog machine.

Oh yeah, the refill bottles at Target are only $4.99, so I bought 3. But, you better get them now, because they probably won't be available after Halloween!

October 03, 2007 6:31 AM  
Anonymous Tim Johnson said...

This is the link to the Target fog machine. (forgot to include in last post.

October 03, 2007 6:34 AM  
Anonymous Donovan said...

Had to look this up...

Smoke Machine Chemistry

Many commercial smoke machines use 'fog juice' that consists of glycols, glycerine, and/or mineral oil, with varying amounts of distilled water. The glycols are heated and forced into the atmosphere under pressure to create a fog or haze. There are a variety of mixtures that may be used. See the reference bar to the right of this article for Material Safety Data Sheets on some example types. Some homemade recipes for fog juice are:

1) 15%-35% food grade glycerine to 1 quart distilled water

2) 125 ml glycerine to 1 liter distilled water
(glycerine creates a 'haze' at concentrations of 15% or less and more of a fog or smoke at concentrations higher than 15%)

3) Unscented mineral oil (baby oil), with or without water
(I can't vouche for the safety of using mineral oil for fog juice)

4) 10% distilled water: 90% propylene glycol (dense fog)
40% distilled water: 60% propylene glycol (quick dissipating)
60% water: 40% propylene glycol (very quick dissipation)

5) 30% distilled water: 35% dipropylene glycol: 35% triethylene glycol (long-lasting fog)

6) 30% distilled water: 70% dipropylene glycol (dense fog)

The resulting smoke should not smell 'burnt'.

October 03, 2007 6:53 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Argggh can someone get me a fog machine and post it to the UK, our most extravegant Haloween stuff is a plastic cape in the local newsagents....

October 03, 2007 6:54 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I shoot a lot of live bands in clubs and pubs in Sydney - since the government banned smoking inside this year it has become quite difficult to take photos of the same standard as I used to get. And then a few weeks ago I shot a band who had their own smoke machine and I was in heaven!!

October 03, 2007 7:32 AM  
Blogger photocairns said...

This was recommended by a photographer at the SportsShooter Luau a few years ago.

October 03, 2007 7:39 AM  
Blogger Quoc-Huy said...
Those are for fountains.
But maybe interesting...

October 03, 2007 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had my $75 Radio Shack fog machine for over 5 years now, never cleaned it--no gumming despite numerous warnings in the manual.

It's been through several litres of fluid, at least a dozen cheesy dances, a couple of "disco" nights I'd rather forget, some stage theatre, a couple of photo shoots, and 1 time it was arranged in the back seat of my car to blow fog at passers by.

October 03, 2007 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Ben said...

I've not tried the vinegar/water one (seems like it would work, stinky or no), but we always run distilled water (not just tap water) through our fog machines to keep them from gumming up.

October 03, 2007 9:29 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Ironically I'm going to be shooting some kids in bunker gear this Sunday and appreciated the double CTO idea from the Keith Taylor post. I am also borrowing a cheap fog machine for the shoot from a DJ that I work with. He told me not to buy one until after Halloween is over and then the machine and fluid would be $19.95 at Walley World.

October 03, 2007 9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another great place to get fog machines are your music stores. I bought mine several years ago at guitar center for $30. They probably won't sell out for the halloween season, and you may be able to get them over seas (ahem, all you UKers) through there website.

Here's one for $20:

October 03, 2007 10:26 AM  
Blogger Albert said...

Another great place to get fog machines are your music stores. I bought mine several years ago at guitar center for $30. They probably won't sell out for the halloween season, and you may be able to get them over seas (ahem, all you UKers) through there website.

Here's one for $20:

October 03, 2007 10:27 AM  
Anonymous TiMpWeB said...

I guess we all know what the next month worth of 'Pool' images are going to look like.... ;-)

October 03, 2007 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, how wierd is that. I have managed to loose my fog machine (£30ish from Maplin for those in the UK) and just took delivery of some VERY neat smoke pellets from ebay. These are used by plummers and gas fitting types to check flues for saftey. They cost me only something like 50p each ($1) and produce 25sq meters of smoke. Being keen, i took one to the woods earlier today and made like Smokey the bear. Got a strange look from a dog walker but no fire engines. I found the fog machine to be really unpleasant on the throat after a very short while and i like this idea. I unfortunatly dumpped the images from this mornings test.

Sitbonzo. :-)

October 03, 2007 11:13 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...

CostCo had a cheap machine with a gallon of "fog juice" for about the same price I almost picked it up to play around with some pictures, still might have to go back and grab one. I guess I could also use if for Halloween, and look like I actually tried a bit more than just turning on my porch light. :)

October 03, 2007 11:25 AM  
Blogger Mr. Eeve said...

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I did this a few months ago and thought I got a pretty cool shot using a fog machine:

My Fog Machine Photo on Flickr

October 03, 2007 11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah Dave, Kevin Clark here from TWP in DC. Quick question. I'm using using the techniques from Strobist every chance I get. From food to portraits and most of the time it's gold. "Gold Jerry Gold"...But I'm running into something you might be able to help me with. While using my PWs, my Canon's, 1D mark 11n and 30D, they won't sync above 125th with that dark band. Any advice?

October 03, 2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Beware the fog juice that contains mineral oil. It can make surfaces very slick...including the insides of your digestive tract. Yes, breathing in mineral oil fog juice can lead to some, ahh, accelerated digestive activity.

The theater supply companies like Rosco sell fog juice and even have some in flavors with vanilla and other scents if the smell is objectionable to talent. I trust Rosco not to poison me more than I trust the offshore supplier that won the low bid at WalMart.

Party supply stores rent these things too.

I've seen folks use insect poison/repellent foggers with fog juice instead of dedicated fog generators.

As others have said, they WILL set off fire detection and alarm systems.

It's funny this David posted this, because I've been thinking it would be cool to do a demo of different light modifiers. I was ruminating that fogging the room and shooting from a high vantage would show the light on the target and the fog would make visible the shape of the light as it was transmitted from the strobe.

October 03, 2007 2:09 PM  
Blogger fotodaddy said...

Even better is "smoke in a can". You can find it at any good movie grip house and there are some online distributers as well. They have fog in a can and smoke. They are supposed to last for 1-2 hours and you can keep it in your camera bag for those times you're waxing nostalgic for 1980!

October 03, 2007 2:13 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I've played with them before for images (and wasn't too thrilled about the outcome) but your post sparked new interest. Has anyone converted one to run on batteries yet?

October 03, 2007 2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are these the same machins that list mercury as ingredients, in the fogger and the juice, but not the actual amounts??

Just wondering

October 03, 2007 3:23 PM  
Blogger Paul Graham said...

If you really want to go DIY you can make your own fogger with an old Iron, a small pump and a couple computer fans. I stumbled across this last year and have been saving an iron for the day when I decide to make it.

October 03, 2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger embry_rucker said...

perfect timing..... love the site - thanks.
here's an option that is cheaper financially, but may cost 'someone' more in the end.

i had to have my assistant lay on his back & smoke Camel lights.... not all that glamorous, but it got the job done.

October 03, 2007 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

perfect timing..... love the site - thanks.
here's an option that is cheaper financially, but may cost 'someone' more in the end.

i had to have my assistant lay on his back & smoke Camel lights.... not all that glamorous, but it got the job done.

October 03, 2007 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if cooling the smoke is all that's needed to make it stick to the floor as keithalank talked about then you could make a cool box for one of the cheap $20 fog machines. just run some vinyl tubing in one side of a playmate cooler filled w/ ice, cold packs, etc and coil it up a bit. then run it out the other end

October 03, 2007 5:50 PM  
Blogger humberto said...

Hello. My name is humberto. I live in Brazil and here is difficult to buy stuffs like this machine.

Someone knowns a link to buy this machine or similar in internet? This link must, of course, ships to Brazil.

Sorry my poor english. In Brazil we spoke portuguese.

Thanks to all.

October 03, 2007 7:39 PM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

Evil laughs.... very cool!

October 03, 2007 8:19 PM  
Blogger Keith Taylor Photography said...

Yeah yeah yeah David, don't remind me.

I actually was wishing I had a fog machine or smoke bomb of some sort when I did the shoot.

I mentioned to the guy in charge of the place about setting a real fire in the background of some sort to get the smoke effect.... he did not seem thrilled with the idea. Damn him.

October 03, 2007 10:05 PM  
Anonymous Scott said...

Way back in high school some friends of mine wanted to fog the stage where thier band was playing. They used an electric skillet and some mineral oil.
In hindsight, it's a good thing that we didn't set the place on fire, or seriously burn ourselves, but it worked like a charm for 69 cents!

October 03, 2007 10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Went out and bought a fog machine at michaels tonite. think its the same as the one David got, it was $39 but fortunately I had a coupon for 40% off which made it $24.

In doing some searching I came across a way to make better ground fog. The fog wants to rise because the machine heats up the water/glycerine to create the fog. I came across this

as a way to chill the fog as it comes out of the machine, before you put it out in the area you want. Best thing is... its DIY. Perfect for the strobist crowd. An ice chest, some plastic piping and instant ground fog. I'm guessing it might cost $20-30 for the materials to make the chiller. With the fog machine and the chiller thats $50 or so but I figure thats probably cheaper than a fog machine that has the chiller built in to create good ground fog.


October 03, 2007 10:54 PM  
Anonymous Dave Prelosky said...

OK, so the local Big Orange Box has two of the machines left, but no bug juice - they said it had been recalled as being "too thick" Any opinion if the above concoctions wil work as a substitute?

October 04, 2007 9:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just been to have a look at some of the sites that will ship to Scotland.

Here's an interesting snippet from an instruction manual re cleaning.


Cleaning your fog machine regularly will help reduce costly parts replacement and repair
After every 40 hours of continuous operation or when the machine will be idle for a long time it
is recommended to run a cleaning solution composed of 80% distilled water and 20% white
vinegar through the system to prevent the accumulation of particles in the heating element.
1. Empty all fog fluid from the machine and replace with cleaning solution in the tank. Plug unit
in and allow to warm as usual.
2. Run unit in a well ventilated area until tank is empty.
3. Cleaning is now complete. Unplug and refill with a quality water based fog fluid once cool.
All fog machines are prone to clogging due to the consistency of fog fluid and the high temperatures
at which it vaporizes. However a well maintained machine should provide years of reliable
The body of the unit may be cleaned with a dry cloth. Store dry.

October 04, 2007 2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget

They have a bunch of foggers, plus a good source for the juice.


October 04, 2007 3:04 PM  
Blogger Handsome said...

Don't forget, too.

They have a bunch of foggers, plus various suppliers of the refills.


October 04, 2007 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Dave Woods said...

For fellow Canadians - you can get this mini fog machine (and a bigger one too) at Canadian Tire - 28 bucks for the one pictured and 35 bucks for a bigger one. 10 bucks for bottle of the fluid.

October 04, 2007 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Wal-Mart here in NC didn't have the fog machine, but they did have fog juice. Right after the holiday it was marked down to 1/2 off and I bought three bottles. Today it was marked 75 percent off and I bought two more. Retail is $9 a bottle (64 oz).
I did find a new fog machine on EBay that was like $32 after shipping.

November 09, 2008 4:53 PM  

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