How to safely use dry ice in art nude photography – Velvet Thyme

How to safely use dry ice in art nude photography

Smoky art nude photographs

Bleary eyed I headed off to pick up my pre-ordered dry ice on the morning of the photo shoot, at the sparkling time of 7am! Dry ice actually sublimates very quickly so it has to be used fresh on the day. I have been so excited to try this effect in shoots. I am obsessed with adding textures and layers to photographs as is probably evident in the photo gallery.

I’ve already been hoarding a collection of brightly coloured smoke bombs for outdoor photo shoots, but I’ve been too nervous to use them. The idea of using anything that burns, even safely, in Australia fills me with fear. Additionally, signalling to passersby with brightly coloured billowing smoke, while shooting art nude seems less than ideal!

What is dry ice?

Dry ice is solid compressed carbon dioxide and sits at around -78 degrees celsius. As it warms it sublimates reasonably quickly and this sublimation causes it to turn into a gas. The intense smoky effect is actually achieved by the combination of water vapour and carbon dioxide. So when you mix it with water, that speeds up the process and creates a stronger smoky effect.

Dry ice safety

The night before the shoot I found myself in a rabbit warren of dry ice safety videos. I had never used it before and suddenly became convinced that I might accidentally injure my model (to her great amusement). My model T, had infact worked with dry ice for years in hospitality and found my trepidation novel! In saying that, there are some important safety considerations when using dry ice.

Yes, you can very briefly touch it

Dry ice is cold, it’s bloody cold. The best way to think about it is like fire, as with fire you can whip your hand quickly through the flame but it’s better to avoid it! The same goes for dry ice, you can touch it very briefly and it won’t immediately cause damage. Lingering will result in escalating pain and significant burns. Insulating gloves or using a scoop or a spoon is the best option! 

The only time I mildly hurt myself was when I accidentally stood on a bit. A little shard had fallen unnoticed on the floor and not yet sublimated. Yes, it hurt for a brief second and then I moved my foot and gave it a rub and all was well!

I purchased the ice from Dry Ice Supplies and they were really lovely talking through everything with me first, as I was a total newbie at this. The lady there echoed this, with the advice that you will know through your pain receptors before it actually is likely to leaves damage.

Don't store in a sealed box

As the dry ice sublimates and turns into a gas, the space it takes up expands. This means that if you store it in a sealed container it could explode. I was advised, though, that most eskies are not actually perfectly sealed so mostly this isn’t an issue. Dry ice is typically supplied in a polystyrene box to easily allow for some gas escape.

Ventilation is a must

With all this sublimation into carbon dioxide gas, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that enclosed spaces are a bad idea. This goes for travelling around in an enclosed car with a box of dry ice. There are some horrific stories about improper use of dry ice resulting asphyxiation and burns. As I don’t want to traumatise you, I will leave this here – suffice to say, crack a window and use common sense. It’s also important to ensure model safety as the smoke sinks low to the ground. I’ll talk through this more in a moment.

Eye ware is recommended

Safe Work SA recommends wearing eye ware when handling dry ice. I already wear glasses, so I had this covered.  Although, my model did handle small amounts of the dry ice, she was very confident having used it for years in cocktails 🍸. Any handling should always be done with care.

How to get an immersed pool effect

I had watched a few videos prior to the shoot, so I had some idea of how to proceed. Like with most things in life, until you do it you don’t know exactly the best way to approach it. 

Build a little vapour pool

I knew that the smoke needed to be contained to be effective. Otherwise the smoke just dissipates into a light haze. So we built a little cardboard walled pool. This was lined with painters plastic and later we popped a towel underneath the plastic. 

Use hot water

I grabbed some mid sized bowls and we first experimented with a little dry ice and room temperature water. That didn’t produce much smoke so we tried using hot water. Hot water creates a much more intense reaction and produces more smoke. The most important thing is to pop the dry ice into the bowl first and then carefully add water. It will bubble and froth immediately, so particularly watch out for hot water splatters.

Behind the scenes making our own vapour pool!
The pool was pretty big and faced the studio's large windows.
Ceramic bowls and a few useful scooping spoons - note how inactive residual dry ice can be.

It runs out quickly

The smoke is very limited and using lots of dry ice can be wasteful. Dry ice goes inactive and congealed if you use too much. You can reactive it by giving it a light smush and adding more hot water. You are better off using many bowls of small quantities of dry ice.

Use ceramic bowls

Hot water in metal bowls isn’t ideal and that’s what we started with! Although they cooled quickly with the dry ice, we decided it was safer using ceramic bowls. Place the bowls equally around where you intend your model to go.

Quantities of dy ice to hot water

The rough quantity we used was 1/4 – 1/2 of a cup of dry ice to 1 cup of hot water.  We used three bowls, which brings me to my next point. I purchased 3kg and used about 2kg in this shoot. I had hoped to keep the rest to play with the next day, but it sublimated overnight! The more dry ice you have in the box though, the slower the sublimation.

Eyes closed and don't breath it in

If your model dips into the gas, it makes sense to hold your breath briefly and close your eyes. Carbon dioxide can also cause mild eye irritation so just be careful with your model!

Experiment with the dry ice

I really wanted to create an effect where the smoke flowed over the body. We used a small glass jar with a lip. The lip didn’t get hot so could be held by T and swirled to produce more smoke. I would love to say that it resulted in a cascade of smoke, but I did have to amp up all the effects in Photoshop. There are plenty of smoke brushes that can take the effect exactly where you need it – the dry ice smoke does create a good base.

You can move the slider (below) over to see my before and after edits. I had intended to use this image on social media, hence the nipple censorship! 

Dry ice is a beautiful photo effect

Dry ice adds a smokey ethereal quality to photos that is really amazing. I highly recommend playing with it. A few extra sets of hands would make the process easier as someone can be shooting whilst an assistant takes care of the dry ice. This also enables more smoke to be created and trapped, creating more effect. In saying that, I think we managed to do pretty well working as a duo.

Before After

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