Astronaut Don Pettit has become one of the most prolific astronaut photographers during his expeditions aboard the International Space Station. He could (and did) saturate downlink transfers with photos for three full days from just one 30-minute photographic session in space. While photography is part of an astronaut’s job requirement, Pettit’s engineering ingenuity and natural curiosity has led him to create photos that are as stunning for their artistic beauty as they are for their scientific value.
What led you to become an astronaut?
Becoming an astronaut was something I became aware of as a kid when John Glenn flew. I filed that away in the back of my mind. After I popped out of graduate school with a PhD in chemical engineering, I realized I was qualified to apply to NASA to become an astronaut. And so I put in an application. After being rejected three times, the fourth time was a charm.
What was that experience like?
It was like walking in the clouds when I first found out I’d been selected. Of course, the euphoria vanishes quickly when you find out how much work it’s going to be. But it’s fun work. It’s like going back to school.
You start off with basic astronaut training, which I like to think of as Astronaut 101. We spend two years training full time, which is about equivalent to a four-year college degree.
Physical. Academic. Flying. Tangible skills. We fly T-38s, supersonic twin-engine after-burner training aircraft, for spaceflight readiness training. A lot of the skills involved with flying these are applicable to working in the cockpit of a spacecraft during highly dynamic phases of flying. And we hone these skills in a real environment, not a simulator, where a mistake could cost you more than a reset button.
Do you also train for the photography?
We have training on all kinds of topics. From taking care of the systems on space station to flying a robotic arm to going out and doing spacewalks to doing the scientific experiments.
We also get training on photography and the use of the cameras on space station. And these are professional-level cameras that have a lot of buttons and menus. They’re almost like a little computer in themselves.
We have a cadre of folks here on the ground, professional photographers as well as trainers, who not only teach us how to use the cameras, but also about the specific equipment we have on station. Like how to set it up in that space environment to get the best pictures.
There’s a lot of engineering photography that we do. We have to take macro images of pins in an electrical connector or a bit of grunge in a hydraulic quick-disconnect fitting or little patterns that might develop on the surface of one of the windows. These things need to be documented so the images can be downlinked for engineers on the ground to assess what’s happening to the systems on space station. We get training specifically on doing these engineering images, which, for the most part, are not really interesting to the public.
Photography plays a big role in what you do.
Photography on the space station is more than just taking a bunch of pretty pictures. We take pictures of Earth and the surroundings of earth, and these pictures represent a scientific data set recorded now for over 14 years. About 1.2 million pictures were taken as of July 2012. That number’s obviously ticked up.
These images are also art. They illustrate to people what space is like for those who don’t get a chance to fly in space.
What are some of the differences we might not think about when photographing in gravity versus weightlessness?
As an example, we have one of my favorite telephoto lenses here: the 400mm f/2.8. It weighs quite a few pounds and definitely requires a tripod down here on Earth. In weightlessness, this becomes a beautiful piece of equipment to use. You can completely control it by grabbing on to the camera. And it’s heavy enough that small things like your heartbeat won’t make the lens jiggle. If you pick up a camera body with a small lens on it, the pulse in your fingers will make the camera shake.
To get around that. I taped a stick on the back of the camera in the center of the optical axis. Then when I was moving the camera, I would just have two fingers on the end of the stick. That way I could fly the camera around without physically having my fingers on the camera. And since the stick was aligned with the optical center, I could slowly rotate the stick with my fingers and make the camera rotate through 360 degrees.
In some respects, the more massive the camera, and the more massive the lens, the easier it is to manipulate in a weightless environment because small shakes have a smaller diminished effect on the imagery.
What’s the perspective like from space?
Looking at Earth from space is amazingly beautiful. You can see things on the length scale of half a continent. However, I argue it’s no more beautiful than Earth from Earth. It’s just a different perspective of what we’re used to seeing. We find Earth from space exceptionally beautiful because we’re so polarized to the natural beauty around us when we’re walking on Earth.
What have you learned from your adventures photographing from space?
Astronaut imagery of Earth is an example of learning what you need to take pictures of and how to take the pictures. Initially, you would just have a camera with whatever lens, point it out the window, and start shooting. And then you find out there are certain details you may want to focus on in this huge orbital vantage point. In order to take advantage of that, you need to use wider-angle lenses.
If you use telephoto lenses, you could come back with pictures that are just about as good as what you could download from Google Earth. So you need to ask yourself what kind of imagery is going to be the most useful. Telephoto imagery via astronauts can point out things that satellites aren’t programmed to take pictures of.
Once we make some interesting discoveries on imagery from space, then you can program a satellite to do the same thing and do it more frequently and probably collect a better data set. But often times it takes a human being in the loop to take a picture of something that nobody thought would be worth taking a picture of.
What are some of your photographic challenges in space?
The traits that make a good photograph on Earth still apply to taking a picture in space. Focus is really important. And exposure.
In space, you can have huge variations in brightness. The sunny-16 rule sort of applies, but you have to add or subtract about 2 more f-stops because the full exoatmospheric sun on the tops of clouds is really bright. If you just take a standard picture, the cloud tops will all be snow white with no detail at all. So you need to underexpose your picture when you have a lot of clouds within your field of view.
Aurora is also tricky. The green part of the aurora is about two stops brighter than the red part. If you expose for the greens, you won’t see the reds. If you expose for the reds, the greens will be saturated. We see these same things on Earth, compromising between what you can and can’t see.
Composition is important, too. Do you have a bit of the window frame in your field of view? Do you have the whole window frame or exclude it entirely? When you’re looking at Earth, where does the horizon cross your image plane? Is it right in the middle? In thirds?
What about compensating for the speed of the earth and station?
You’re moving at 8 km a second—that’s faster than a speeding bullet. And Earth goes by really quickly. If you’re using a long lens, you need fast shutter speeds. You also need to compensate by panning the camera along the axis of station to cancel out orbital motion. If you just use a fast shutter speed, they’ll be acceptable pictures, but they’ll be a little off in terms of sharpness. So you have to be able to slew the camera at the same rate of orbital motion while you’re taking pictures to actually get the sharpest imagery.
Do you adjust manually?
Yeah, manually! And it’s not easy. Some crewmembers really have the knack and can take really sharp telephoto lens imagery. It’s a skill.
What are some challenges of shooting in the cupola?
Windows. Some of the windows are designed for photography, others are designed for engineering observations and point toward the solar panels and things like that. The cupola windows are designed for getting views of station when flying the robotic arm, and they also happen to look at Earth.
There are the shutters that cover the windows on the cupola to protect them from micrometeorite damage, which is significant. They also act as a thermal barrier due to the heat radiation of space. Things get too cold or too hot, so we’ll close the shutters when we’re not using the windows. When we do use the windows, the shutters open and we have this marvelous view of Earth.
The crew tends to congregate a lot in the cupola. We’ll have maybe six to eight cameras all staged with different lenses so you can just grab a camera and start taking pictures. There might be two or three other people in the same window with you for an interesting pass.
Say a volcano’s going off. Maybe one crewmate has a 400mm, maybe one has a midrange 85-180mm lens. And then someone’s shooting with a wide-angle lens. We’re all shooting at the same subject at the same time in this rather small space. You have to learn not to stick your elbows out and interfere with your partner trying to get the same images.
If you want to take pictures to show the dynamics of what’s going in the cupola itself, I would typically use a 16mm fisheye lens on a full 35mm format digital camera.
When you’re in the cupola, particularly during night time photography, you’re plagued by window reflections. There are four panes of glass you have to look through, separated by about 6 inches from the innermost pane to the outermost pane. So there’s a couple inches between each window pane. They have anti-reflection coatings, but you still get reflections—mostly from internal lights—and they can spoil your imagery.
Is that when you use that black sheet?
It’s like a big turtleneck sweater that’s flattened out, and you stick your head through. It shields all the windows from light coming in from behind the cupola. Or you can make something we call a witch’s hat, where the peak of the witch’s hat fastens onto the camera lens and then flares out to cover the window.
I prefer to have all seven windows shaded, and I’ll have six or seven cameras set up instead of having one window shaded with one camera and one witch’s hat.
How did you create your star-trail images?
Star-trail images have been photographed by amateur astronomers for years. You put your camera on a tripod, point it some place up in the sky, then as Earth turns while the shutter’s open, the stars make trails.
I tried the same thing from station. The dynamics are the same, but the physics behind the motions are different. You still see stars going in circles, but they’re not going in circles around the north star, they’re going in circles around the pitch access of station as it goes around Earth.
You also see cities streak by on the surface of Earth. They move with a combination of our orbital motion and Earth turning at the same time. Then you’ve got the atmosphere on edge, and it glows. Scientists call that air glow. You can’t see it with your bare eye on Earth because it’s too faint. But when you’re on orbit, you can see the air glow with your own eye. It’s like looking at something that’s illuminated with a black light, and it’s fluorescing with a cool green glow.
When you take a timed exposure, the green glow shows up quite vividly. In some pictures it almost looks like a slice of key lime pie that got flopped on the edge of Earth. And the scale height of that in the images is about 100 km.
You get to see these time-integrated exposures of the atmosphere on edge and there’s all kinds of other delightful physics and natural phenomenon that you can see in these pictures. I can talk about one picture for a half hour just on the physics of what you can see.
Aside from that, you can sit back and say these pictures look really cool as an art form.
Any other favorite subjects you love to photograph from space?
My favorite subject is the earth at night. Aurora is just amazingly beautiful. It’s this glowing upper part of the atmosphere that crawls around like amoebas in the sky.
Other aspects of nighttime photography: atmospheric air glow. Originally people thought the atmosphere glowed more or less uniformly. But the pictures we’re taking on station show that there’s spatial structure in the atmospheric air glow.
Then there’s polar mesospheric clouds, also known as noctilucent clouds. These are clouds in the upper part of the atmosphere, right on the fringes of space, that are sort of a scientific mystery in terms of why they form. In space you can collect a data set that folds in with observations made from Earth and with other platforms.
And cities at night. The way human beings sprinkle their light bulbs around is a fascinating statement on how we as human beings define our urban areas. It’s a juxtaposition between geography, technology that you choose, and culture. There’s a lot of things you can learn about human beings in the way that they sprinkle their lights out at night.
Cities at night were much tougher to photograph during your first expedition.
On my first spaceflight, digital cameras were in their infancy. The highest ISO we could use was 400, which is pretty slow. Taking pictures of cities at night required a half-second to one-and-a-half-second exposure, and the orbital motion would make the images blurry. You could try to compensate by hand, but you really couldn’t do an outstanding job of cancelling out orbital motion.
Now you jump 10 years in the future and cameras have useable ISOs up to maybe 12,000. Coupled with our fast f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses, we can now hand pan the camera and take beautiful pictures of cities at night.
It sounds like so much to keep track of at once: the star trails being on the axis of station, the lights of the city, plus the air glow—all lining up. And you were doing it manually.
You cannot get a picture where the stars are sharp and the cities on the surface of Earth are sharp because they’re all moving at different rates, and they all require different exposures. However, you can do HDR images, where in rapid succession you take an image that’s exposed properly for the stars and then you take an image that’s exposed properly for cities on Earth, and then maybe an image or two exposed properly for the green part of the aurora and then the red part of the aurora. Then the work comes later on the ground when you take five of these images and put them all together to make a single HDR composite.
We heard a bit before about the labor involved in downloading all the photos you took on station.
Right, once you take the pictures, then you’ve got to get the pictures back to Earth. We can beam them down using the Ku-band satellite asset, but we still have a finite bandwidth. And it can take hours to get your pictures down.
For example, when I was there, in one night pass I could easily shoot 60GB of RAW files, and we could download only about 20GB a day. In one 30-minute period, I could saturate the downlink for three days.
Does that mean you’re eating up the bandwidth for others?
Yep, which is why the bandwidth allocated for imagery was 20GB a day. I had almost every hard drive on station filled with a backlog of images. Imagine 60GB of images in 30 minutes with hard drives that were 120GB, and only being able to download 20GB a day. You could quickly saturate everything with this big bottleneck.
Thankfully, the folks on the ground figured out there were times when bandwidth wasn’t being used, and there were other, more efficient, ways of using the bandwidth. So they figured out a way to get all my images down and speed up the process.
Today they’ve added more channels of Ku band so bringing down these kinds of images is no longer a problem. But when I was last there in 2012, we had these issues and I probably deleted 500GB of images that I just wasn’t able to downlink given the circumstances. I quickly went through the images and the ones that I thought were substandard—maybe there’s a corner of the window frame in the field of view or a big reflection that showed up—those were the ones I flagged for deletion.
Fortunately, I wasn’t required to delete all my pictures. I deleted maybe 10% of them. And I was doing this to show that I was working to do my part to try to help the ground get the images down.
What’s your favorite part of astronaut photography?
I had a friend of mine in New Zealand who took one of my star-trail pictures, made a print of it on fabric, and made a jacket out of it. It’s neat to see people using these images.
That’s exactly what, as a photographer, you want people to do. You want people to use your pictures. And all the pictures that I take with NASA are in the public domain, so people can use them for their own purposes.
It makes my heart sing to see people using my pictures. There’s no point in taking pictures and hiding them in a closet. You want to take pictures and share them freely with anybody who’s willing to look at your photography. And that, to me, is more of a compliment than anything else.
Subscribe to the SmugMug Films channel to watch and see future installments as soon as we set them free. If you enjoyed the film with Don Pettit, you may like these artist profiles on adventure photographer Chris Burkard, underwater photographer Sarah Lee, and lava chasers Lava Light.
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Links to love:
- Pros, don’t leave money on the table. Sell digital downloads
- SmugMug’s four great print labs
- Paper pixel peepers, look here for full details on our print specs
- Photo Extras at Bay Photo: Frames, mountings, finishes and more
- Turn your SmugMug galleries into custom photo books in minutes
- 4 Reasons Why the Organizer is the Best Thing to Happen To Your Photos
- How to price, sell, and make money on SmugMug
- All about your Account Settings
Today’s post comes from extraordinary surf and landscape photographer Chris Burkard, who we recently featured in our short film, Arctic Swell. Chris has made it his life’s work to find wild, remote destinations and then capture the juxtaposition of humans in these environments. The world is an oftentimes harsh, humbling, and magical place, and Chris wants to photograph it all.
He shares his essential night landscape tips below. You can browse his portfolio and print store on his site.
It’s hard to beat the enchanting feeling of star gazing at a clear night sky. You soon become lost in its beauty like a giant kaleidoscope full of shooting stars, planets, and glow from the setting sun or nearby cities. I’ve traveled to countless countries over the past ten years and some of my fondest memories occur long after the sun has set. Whether it’s camping near my home in Big Sur or witnessing a rare northern lights show in the Arctic, I’ve had the privilege and challenge of documenting these night landscapes.
My introduction to night photography happened when I took a road trip in 2006 along the entire California coastline. My friend Eric Soderquist and I spent over two months on the road in his Volkswagon bus in search of waves in every California county. The trip was later turned into a book, The California Surf Project, and looking back through its pages you can see some of the early stages of my night photography. Camping under the stars literally every night made me that much more appreciative and eager to capture the beauty of the night sky. Fast forward 8 years and I’m still drawn to these dark moments where my friends and I are huddled around a campfire in Iceland or getting lost in the magic of the northern lights in Norway. Photographing in the dark certainly requires some adjusting but here’s some tips to prepare you for the next time you’re shooting night landscapes.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 1: Get Away From the City
The farther you are from city lights the clearer you will be able to see stars and the less light pollution you’re going to have. The photo pictured above was shot in Big Sur, CA a few hours from any major cities.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 2: To Infinity!
Set your focus to infinity or focus on far away light sources to make sure you get the sky in focus. If you want to focus on your subject shine a light on them.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 3: Trial & Error
Don’t be afraid to test settings to see what works best. The beauty of working with digital cameras is that you get instant feedback. I usually open my aperture as wide as it will go (f/2.8 or wider) and then vary my ISO depending on how bright the sky is. In this particular photo I exposed for 30 seconds at f/1.8 and 400 ISO. I like to keep my ISO as low as possible.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 4: Frame Up
Remember that the sky is your hero in the photo. Try framing the sky in the upper 2/3 of your image and then vary your angle depending on the scenario. With the northern lights creating a really dramatic light trail I framed up. You could do the same with the milky way or stars in general.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 5: Expose Long & Short
Long exposures are going to leave you light trails and short ones should make the stars nice and sharp. Try both methods for variety in your imagery.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 6: Bring a Headlamp
You can use a headlamp to light up your tent or even light paint a tree or waterfall. Practice the amount of light that you are shining out of your headlamp because it is easy to wash out the picture with too much light.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 7: Add a Subject
Adding that human element to a picture can give it a sense of perspective and depth. Play around with where you place the subject in your frame. The less busy your framing is the better.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 8: Mind the Moon
If you want to have clear stars shoot underneath a new moon or when the moon is below the horizon. If the moon is out you can play with the effects that it can have on your photograph. Use it to backlight trees or your subject but be careful not to let it wash out your picture.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 9: Use a Tripod
Or a rock or the hood of your car. A tripod is you’re most crucial piece of night photography gear. Joby makes great camping tripods cause they are small and packable. I also recommend a remote so you can make sure your shots are even more stable.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 10: Stay Up Late
Night skies are often darkest and most active late into the night. I’ve seen tons of meteor showers and northern lights shows way past midnight. Set an alarm and wake up if you have to or use a remote to take photos periodically throughout the night.
Check out our short film, Arctic Swell, to see Chris Burkard and pro surfers Patrick Millin, Brett Barley, and Chadd Konig brave sub-zero temperatures in the Arctic Circle.
Links to love:
We’ve long wanted to film famed surf photographer Chris Burkard in action, so when we heard that he was headed to the Arctic with professional surfers to tackle the brutally harsh seas, we packed our bags and followed. In our latest installment of SmugMug Films, we travel with Burkard on his journey with professional surfers Patrick Millen, Brett Barley, and Chadd Konig as they brave sub-zero temperatures to capture moments of raw beauty, adventure, and community. Keep reading after the video to get an exclusive interview with Chris about how he got his start, what he looks for in a fantastic image, and that time he got deported from Russia.
How did you get started with photography?
I did a lot of art in high school. And I transitioned to wanting to explore doing art out in the field, but I soon realized it wasn’t very fun. It wasn’t a very intimate experience to me. You’re just a bystander. When I picked up a camera and started taking photos of my friends surfing and landscapes, I realized I was in the moment. I was out there, and shooting these photos was an extension of the body. It was intimate. You’re a part of it, and you can take it anywhere: social settings, mountaintops, oceans. It was a perfect extension and a great medium of expression for me. To this day I’m seeking out new places so I can bring a camera and experience them.
If you hadn’t become a photographer what would you have been?
Probably a fireman. I don’t know! I worked for many years in random jobs. Before I was working to be a photographer, I worked on cars a lot. I loved old vehicles and the idea of making them how I wanted. It came down to the idea of wanting to do something where people will appreciate my craft and my talents, and I realized that was what made me want to turn machines into artwork. If I wasn’t a photographer, maybe I’d be working on cars somewhere.
How would you describe what you do today?
I’m always seeking out the adventures in life, whether I’m shooting surfing in a cold, harsh environment or shooting a commercial assignment. And that’s meant to speak to the idea of going to a new place, summiting a new peak, or surfing a new wave. It doesn’t matter to me how big or how small. My goal has always been to create images that inspire people to get off their couch and go explore something new.
The idea of exploration is the thing that really makes me want to push harder. It’s the driving force behind a lot of my work.
What do you look for when creating an image?
There’s a lot of technical things I’ll look for. I’m looking for light, contrast, and all those elements that make a good image. But I consider other elements when I’m thinking of how to capture something. Like if there’s historical value to a photo—where I’m shooting a place that might not be around for very long—that’s very important to me.
Coming from an art background, I’m used to trying to put everything I want into this easel shape. I’m just bringing in all the elements. When you’re shooting and photographing in this frame, you have to get everything inside it. You’re really constricted in being able to make it happen.
For me, it’s also super important to push your cameras as far as they can go to capture what you’re seeing. A photograph is usually a two-dimensional item. If there’s anything you can do to make it feel three dimensional, that’s the goal.
I also like the idea of creating images that will carry weight with people. Photos that aren’t driven by advertisements or logos. And it’s super important, too, when creating a body of work that you want to be around longer than yourself.
Given the adventurous nature of your work and the harsh conditions you’re in, are there any great pictures you didn’t get to take?
There’s always a lot of pictures I don’t get, or I feel I haven’t had a chance to capture yet. As a photographer, or anyone who’s a perfectionist, that’s all you think about: all the moments you didn’t get. And that’s just life. You’re striving for something better, and you always wish there’s something you could’ve captured, but if you get them all, you’ll have nothing left to strive for.
What do you consider the biggest challenge about your work?
It all depends on where I’m going. The nature element is the hardest thing, like if I’m going somewhere really cold or somewhere that has a harsh environment. Being in the water in high 30s or low 40s can be brutal on your body, mind, and psyche, and it’s always challenging. You’re always weighing out risk versus reward. Luckily, 90 percent of the time you’re not far from a warm car, but there are those moments when you know in order to get the shot you have to go out and suffer a bit. Those are the times I feel most alive. I have to put in more effort and lose a little bit of skin.
Your explorations often take you to off-the-beaten-path locations. What do you look for?
I’m drawn to places that feel and look more wild. I think it’s human nature to want to see these places, but the reality is most people don’t want to put in the time to find them. So a big part of what I do is try to find spots that will speak to that aesthetic. The location is almost as important as who I’m with and what I’m shooting. Each place plays a huge character role in these stories. Whether I’m on a remote beach in Norway or somewhere in Russia, I want to be in a place that people naturally associate with adventure.
How do you find these places?
There’s a certain recipe. There are a lot of amazing places I could go, but I have to have an assignment that takes me there. I have a list of places I would love to see and love to experience, but I don’t have opportunities to shoot there. But I have a list. And it’s something I tick off as I get to go to places.
With so many places yet to see, is there a favorite place you’ve already been?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been to Iceland 13 times. That place is pretty dang special.
What do you love about it?
The way the landscape is always changing really draws me in. It’s inspiring to me and makes me want to go back because the conditions and climate are constantly evolving. For a photographer, it’s what you’re always searching for. You could shoot only one day there and have so many different conditions.
I don’t like to go to places that wouldn’t be inspiring to me on a personal level. Because if you’re not excited about the work you’re doing, then it’s hard to want to photograph it.
Is there a photography project that’s been the most meaningful for you to date?
The trips I do, I invest a lot of my energy, heart, and soul. That’s why when they turn out successful, it means so much. Success can be measured many different ways, but for me it’s pretty simple: If I feel like I got the images I needed, or got the job done while still being able to experience the culture for myself, then the trip was a success.
I plan for three years or more to do these trips, and when I’m able to set foot on the landscape and experience it, I don’t want to leave anything behind. For me, that’s been Russia, Alaska, Iceland, and Norway. These are places I put a big part of myself into.
What’s been your most challenging to date?
I’d say Russia just because of the logistical challenge of getting there. It took three years to plan and find the place to go.
I went to Russia for the first time in 2009, and you have to fill out a visa request like three months ahead of time. I was in a crew with four people, and we had to go through customs. I get stopped. They look at my passport. They look at me. They look at my passport again. They look at me. And I realize the entry date on my visa was for the next day. It was the wrong date.
After a long discussion, they put me in a holding cell for 24 hours, and then deported me to South Korea. After recouping a day later, I flew back. It was scary. Really scary. I didn’t get food and water until I talked to the embassy. It was crazy.
It was one of the first places I traveled to that was really wild and remote. And it was such an eye-opening one because I realized for the first time what it felt like to have all your rights stripped from you. It makes you really appreciate being on American soil.
What’s at the top of list for a place you’d like to return to?
I really want to go back to Chile and explore Tierra del Fuego. It’s at the very end of South America, and it looks amazing.
In a lot of your behind-the-scenes shots, it looks like surfers are headed right at you. Have you ever suffered any collisions?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been run over. I’ve had surfers hit me with their board. Cut my nose and other things. Those are the experiences that make it exciting. You’re very much at risk. And it makes it that much cooler, really, being able to be a part of the action. Being hidden in the midst of it myself.
Ever lost any gear?
I’ve lost quite a bit of gear. One time I was on a little boat, and we got hit by a wave. Basically my entire kit went overboard, and I lost about $30,000 worth of gear. Luckily, I had insurance for it.
Speaking of gear, what are your must-haves?
I have a lot of must-haves. It comes down to the fact that I think, man, if I don’t need to use this it’s not going to be much of an adventure!
A multitool is super important when it comes to being somewhere remote and interesting. Obviously having a good, reliable camera is crucial, and that’s personal preference. I like to travel really light and really small, so I use a lot of mirrorless cameras, like the Sonys. There’s usually a solar charger of some kind, whether for cell phone or camera. An ultralight, ultrasmall water-purification device that uses UV light. Energy bars. A light rain jacket is always crucial. A lightweight tripod is always in there. Filters. Almost always a pair of gloves.
If you don’t need a headlamp, it’s not even a place you want to go. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone out driving around, having a great time, then coming back for a couple hours to sleep until dark. That’s when, as a photographer, you know the best light is going to be, or when the stars are going to come out. Nine times out of 10 we’re hiking back in the dark with a headlamp on.
It sounds like you have a survival kit with some camera gear versus a camera kit with some survival gear.
That’s really what it comes down to. I want to make sure that when I’m shooting photos that I’m able to relax, knowing that safety is taken care of. I occasionally have a small rope and carabiner just in case I need to lower down from somewhere. Usually the most unusual thing I have in there is a packet of gummy candy, because that’s one of my favorite things. It’s either a reward after the shoot because things have gone well, or I just got beat down by rain or no sun and I want to have something sweet.
Given the chaos you’re in for your shooting conditions, do you shoot manually?
Yeah, always. I love shooting manually. You really start to work with your camera, and it becomes second nature. I like to have complete control. I don’t want to have my camera trying to make decisions for me.
Do you have any rules when it comes to your overall process?
When I’m going somewhere new, I’m really careful not to research too many of the places I’m going to see because I don’t want to get some interpreted view of what these places should look like on a postcard. I want to be able leave my view and perspective unskewed so I can maintain ultimate creative freedom. That being said, I also want to make sure that I’m being educated on where I’m going, because the more unique the less you know. That’s a really important mantra to have at all times.
If someone decided to pursue a similar path, what advice would you give them?
I personally would tell them that I don’t think school is going to teach you the type of skills you need to do what I do. A big part of this is experiencing things. Learn from a magazine setting or an editorial conference. Study a photographer you like and really understand the hustle it takes to do what they do. Understand what it’s like to be in those commercial and editorial situations where you’re trying to make it all work for a client.
I look back at the time I spent driving down to Oceanside every week to intern at Transworld Surf, and a summer I interned with a landscape photographer. That’s where I feel like I gained the biggest understanding of what photography was really like. I realized what it means to run your own business. And if you still want to do it after that, you should.
Any advice for capturing a great image?
There’s great moments happening everywhere, but for me there’s two main types. There’s the one that happens all of a sudden, which requires being there and being ready, and knowing your equipment inside and out. And the second is the one you’ve preconceived. Sometimes those are really special to me because you have this idea and you get to see it through.
Look for unique lighting situations. Go out in storms and go out at a time when no one else is. That’s when you’re going to capture something unique.
And what about the best advice you’ve ever received?
My grandpa told me to kick ass and take names. I don’t know if that’s good advice or not.
I guess a personal mantra I try to follow is the more you know, the less you need. I’ve always been a big proponent of traveling with less and not being the person who has the biggest, most expensive camera. It’s not that I can’t afford it, I just like to experience moments personally as well as through my camera. If you walk away from any trip and it’s a complete blur because you were shooting the whole time, then you weren’t really experiencing it.
In the end, you should have all these cool stories to share with loved ones and family and friends. At least that’s how it is for me. I always try to be present in the moment and really experiencing it myself, too.
What do you find exciting about the photography industry today?
Now everyone is a photographer. People have cameras and video cameras in their phones. At any time I could have four or five cameras on me. It’s crazy.
What we’re seeing is the emergence of these smaller, lighter cameras being able to capture more real, intimate moments. And I think the idea of mobile photography and how it’s changed photography as a whole is really exciting.
I think we’re really seeing, too, a changing of the guard where a lot of established photographers have lost touch with the people who are interested in their work because they haven’t adapted to these new forms of social media or ways of promoting their work.
Photography as a whole is really moving toward those who are open to sharing. Nothing’s a secret anymore. If you try to keep secrets, people just aren’t going to embrace it. They want to find people who are sources of knowledge and are able to share that knowledge. That’s how I look at inspiration.
Find Chris online:
Subscribe to the SmugMug Films channel to watch and see future installments as soon as we set them free. If you enjoyed the film with Chris Burkard, you may like these artist profiles on underwater photographer Sarah Lee, YouTube superstar DevinSuperTramp, and lava chases Lava Light.
CJ Kale and Nick Selway long ago fell in love with Hawaii and founded Lava Light, a photography gallery focused on capturing the ever-changing landscape created by an active volcano and crashing waves—and sometimes both together when the conditions are just right.
And if swimming with fire and dodging lava bombs weren’t challenging enough, these photographers believe in creating their images completely in camera. Balancing exposures between sky, water, and lava can be incredibly tricky.
Luckily, Lava Light has shared some tips to help you get the shot without combining exposures or using HDR.
Photo Tip #1
To capture lava and stars together, put a neutral-density (ND) gradient filter on your lens upside down to balance the extreme exposures between the lava and stars.
Photo Tip #2
When photographing lava in the daytime, use the ND grad right side up to balance the light from the sunrise, because the sun will eventually be brighter than the lava is.
Photo Tip #3
For front-lit scenes, a hard ND grad balances light from a bright sky and a dark foreground, allowing you to darken the sky and deepen colors. For example, in this shot I used a polarizer to intensify the rainbow, but it left the sky a fraction too bright. So I added a 1-stop hard ND grad across the entire sky to darken it and get its depth and color to match with the lava and everything that’s front lit below.
Photo Tip #4
To capture the little curvature of a wave, a shutter speed around 1/3 of a second is usually enough to get a little light blur to the water but keep that shape in the wave.
Photo Tip #5
If you’re trying to capture a really misty feel, where the water almost looks like fog, use a 2- to 3-second exposure.
Photo Tip #6
Since we capture everything in camera, sometimes we have to compromise on exposures and accept some clipping of highlights or shadows. So maybe a rock by the lava won’t have any detail in the shadows because I want to capture the detail in the lava instead, and I prioritize my exposure for the lava.
Photo Tip #7
Prepare the right gear for the day. My normal, hike-out-to-the-volcano kit includes a Nikon D800e, Canon 5dMkIII, 16–35 L lens for Canon, 14–24 for Nikon, a 50mm and an 85mm prime, and a 50–500 Sigma telephoto. Because sometimes you want a wide-angle shot, like the rainbow and lava, and others you want to zoom in on the drip, which requires a telephoto.
Check out the SmugMug Films artist profile of Lava Light below. Thanks for the tips, Nick and CJ!
Find Lava Light online:
This week we’re debuting Joel Grimes as our next SmugMug Films subject. As commercial pro and Photoshop wizard, Joel has found great success following his creative dreams and leading workshops worldwide on how he plans, shoots, and polishes those incredible images. Watch the film now and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel to see each new episode as we post them.
When it comes to creating masterful illusions, Joel Grimes is happy to share what it takes to succeed in the art and photography world: hard work and passion. The bravery to be yourself at all times doesn’t hurt, either. Learn how he applied these truths to his own path into commercial photography.
Tell us a bit about how you got started with art and photography.
I’ve always had that side to me, even when I was a little kid. In grade school, we’d have art projects, and I would be in heaven. Then in seventh grade, I think it was, I had my first official art class. That was the ultimate. I was like, “Wow, every day I get to do art and actually receive a grade.”
When I got to high school, we had a program where you could do photography. I just thought, “This is really cool.” I ended up staying in the program my sophomore year, and then my junior and senior years. By the time I was a senior, I was the photo teacher’s assistant. But I still didn’t understand starting it as a career.
When I got out of high school, I ended up working for an outdoor store downtown. One day a man came in looking for a waterproof container. I asked what it was for, and he said it was for transporting film. I said, “I’m a photographer, too!” I had just spent every dime I had on this new black-body camera, which was the first: the Canon EF. At the time, I thought it was like buying a ferrari. It was just so amazing.
Turns out he was the head professor of photography at Pima Community College and asked if I’d thought about taking any photography classes. They had just started a new semester at the college, and he said if I really wanted to get in his class, he could pull some strings. I said yes!
What I didn’t know is he had a waiting list of 80 students for that class. His name was Lou Bernal, and he was the most inspiring educator I’ve ever been around. He really launched me into thinking about photography, not only as a possible career but as an art form. From that point on, photography really became an all-consuming passion.
But I still didn’t understand photography as a career. Like, do I do weddings? Do I do editorial? After college I ended up sharing a studio with a guy who was a natural at marketing. He really taught me a lot about selling myself. With his guidance, I ended up going after the commercial advertising arena. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
I look back and never thought I’d get to where I am. It’s just amazing. I feel very blessed.
What inspires you first when you go about creating an image? Do you see the full concept or does a background or subject inspire you first?
In songwriting, people ask, “What comes first: the melody or the lyrics?” It’s the same with photography. For some people the melody comes first. Some people get an idea and put it into lyrics. It’s really a mixture of both.
I think about an idea, but most of the time it’s kind of a discovery process—it’s found moments. Found ideas that aren’t too thought-out, meaning I don’t create a plan for what I want to end up with. I have an idea stylistically, but it’s not as scripted as people think.
I always tell people there’s two things I’m not and two things I believe I am. I’m not brilliant and I’m not a creative genius. I do have a passion for the creative process, and I work really hard at it. I put in the time.
You can be brilliant and a creative genius and produce nothing in your lifetime. But if you have a passion for the creative process and you work very hard, great things follow.
When we’re in school learning photography, many people think, “I’m not brilliant at it. I’m not as talented as my friend or my classmates.” That’s what I thought when I was in school. But in the end, having a passion for the creative process will out-trump or outwork and outperform the brilliant creative geniuses. Don’t worry about if you feel like you don’t quite get it. Just keep practicing. Keep working at it. Keep putting in the time. And then explore.
What gets you up at 4:30 in the morning to photograph the sunrise? Being brilliant? Being a creative genius? No. It’s passion. I can’t wait to see what this morning will bring. And those are the people who achieve great things.
Your process relies more on finding the right feel for the moment and less on the technical, but do you have go-to light setup—somewhere you start before tweaking?
You have to, especially when you do commercial shoots. You have to know the basics of achieving a soft light or a harsh light. How to light one person or ten people. It’s all about solving problems.
When you’re in a commercial scenario, you can’t just play and hope it will all come together. I’ve walked into a room with a client standing over me, and I’ll say we’re going to shoot from this angle with lights here and our subject here. Within 4 minutes I have it figured out. And they ask, “Are you sure? Can we try over here?” And I say that won’t work because there’s cross light and you have a big pipe in the background. That comes from just having walked into a room a thousand times. Time and practice.
I can teach everything I know about lighting in 30 minutes, but it takes 20 years of practice to understand how to apply that lighting. Unless you practice it over and over again, you’ll never be able to walk into a situation and build the shot.
I try to create light that could be a real-life scenario. So I use cross-light, like Rembrandt did, which is a simulation of what could be a true environment. I can simulate sunlight with one big light source. I can do a three-light approach with two edge lights and one overhead light, like if I had two windows to each side of me and a little bit of fill in the middle. That’s a pretty rare scenario, but it’s true. It can happen. I actually like to do that three-light approach because it builds depth and it looks a bit gritty.
I use my light to create a certain feel. It is a representation of what could be real and true, but it’s really about creating the mood.
How do you coax your subject to deliver the shot you’re looking for?
Personality plays a role in how I approach my subjects. Some photographers are animated, coaxing their subject to crack up and smile and do all sorts of crazy things. Others will walk over and move the subject’s arm, their chin, their hand. My personality is to watch the subject as I ask them to try different things. Suddenly they’ll do something and I’ll say, “Oh! Can you do that again?”
I’ll give an example. There’s a shot I took of the rapper Mustafa. He’s got his shirt off underneath a leather coat, he’s in a tunnel, and he’s right in your face. The light’s perfect on his face and his hands and he’s coming right at you. He was actually a bit reserved when he came in. As we started to work, he was standing there, and it wasn’t really working. As I watched him, he started pulling on the jacket. I said, “That’s cool, what if you spun and held your jacket out like that?” He did, and that’s our shot. I had no idea that’s where we were going to end up. But because I saw him tugging on the jacket while I was moving lights, I thought it might be a cool shot.
That’s how the process works for me. I don’t overscript or overthink it. I let everything take its course.
Within this commercial realm, do you have a favorite type of shoot you like to do?
Sports figures make unbelievable subjects because they’re superheroes. They make great subjects. But I also like photographing real people. I love faces. I love personalities. I love characters.
For example, I met a guy named Steve Stevens in New Orleans. He’s got these really cool sunglasses on and he’s kind of looking off to the side with New Orleans in the background. He was my ride from the airport to the college where I was speaking. While he was driving, I was thinking, “This guy is perfect!” So I asked if I could bring him in to do a portrait during my demo. I end up getting this great shot and everyone thinks I cast this guy from hundreds of people. But it’s an everyday person. I just make them look larger than life.
Could you tell us a bit about a shoot that’s most memorable to you to date?
Before digital, I was doing commercial ad work and some corporate work and shooting with a large-format, 4×5 camera and sheet film. Very slow and very meticulous. A large power utilities company was doing an annual report and I was called in to the creative pow-wow meeting with the CEO, art director, and everybody. They wanted to do something different that year, so I pitched the idea of doing a series of portraits of the customers—the end users of electricity—in black-and-white large format. I knew I was really pushing it, but they let me put some samples together and come back. And they ended up going for it. I went to 24 countries with that 4×5 camera. China, Brazil, Argentina, Kazakhstan. It was just heaven.
We can really hear the joy and passion in your voice, and you obviously have a lot of fun doing this. Do you have any challenges?
Generally, as human beings, we tend to want to follow, not lead. If someone paves the way for us, we’ll follow that path. The hardest thing for me, and I think for most people, is that we get inspired by others’ work and we think we want to be someone else. We want to be that photographer, we want to follow their lead. The problem is if you follow others, you always blend with the masses. But if you follow your uniqueness and stick with what you do best, you’ll stand out.
It’s scary to hang your hat on something that’s just you. It opens the door to criticism, and nobody likes to be criticized. So we avoid criticism at all costs, and we follow others. The hardest thing for me is to stay true to who I am. Yes, we need to be inspired by others, but every day I have to wake up and be Joel Grimes, not somebody else. When I teach, I always tell people, “Be yourself.” You’re unique. One of a kind. There’s no one on the planet just like you. And when you work from your uniqueness, you’ll rock the world.
What do you love most about being an illusionist?
Taking something that is everyday and adding excitement. For the most part we tend to go to work, get a coffee, go to our desk, do our task, go home. We want to experience something that’s outside the everyday mundane. My job as a photographer—as an artist—is to create things that take people out of the everyday and submerge them in something that’s a bit of a fantasy.
Being an illusionist is really being an artist and honing that craft to a point where people believe it. They believe that girl is that beautiful. That guy is that strong. They look amazing. Larger than life. Lighting and Photoshop play into that formula. Some people say that’s not right, but every photograph is a manipulation because you choose the lens, you choose when to take the picture—when to create that moment. Everything’s a representation of reality. It’s my job as an artist to take that representation and make it even more fantastic. That’s fun. To me, that’s part of being an artist.
Could you talk about how you refine the illusion in post-process?
It’s part of the creative process. You take the picture and then you have to finish creating it. Some people think Photoshop is cheating. But as an artist, it doesn’t matter how much I create in camera or in Photoshop. In the end, when I present that image, does it work? Is it a reflection of my artistic vision? That’s what’s most important.
So I blend the two together. I solve some problems in Photoshop that I couldn’t do in camera, using blending modes, working on multiple layers, masking, all that. When I’m teaching, some people say, you know, if you lift your left leg and put your finger on the Alt key, there’s a shortcut. And I say, okay, but right now that’s not important. What’s important is I’m getting to where I need to to be.
Over time I’ll learn that working with smart objects is a better way to work than not. And adjustment layers are less destructive. I learn all those little things as I go. There are people who can run circles around me in Photoshop, but in the end, people really like the end result I achieve.
Any favorite tools in Photoshop?
One of the things I teach a lot is to work from a RAW image, bring it into the RAW converter, manipulate it there, and then open it as a smart object in Photoshop. This way, when the image comes over, it’s still tied to RAW. That gives me very little destruction.
The problem most people face when they start in Photoshop is they destroy their image. There’s a thousand ways to destroy your image, lose bit depth, lose pixels, lose tones, detail, all that. The number-one rule: minimize destruction. Smart objects and adjustment layers are the single two most important things to have in your workflow to minimize destruction.
Any advice for those looking to get into creative photography?
To be an artist, you have to put your neck on a chopping block. It’s impossible to survive as an artist in this industry if you can’t overcome rejection. The biggest thing that keeps us from moving forward is fear of rejection. You may get lots of praises, but you’re not always going to get a good critique. And a negative critique is like a knife stabbing you in the back, with an added twist. It hits right in your heart.
As human beings, we don’t like to be criticized. It hurts. And it keeps us from moving forward and taking risks. But you can’t let one person steal your dream. That person may not have any authority whatsoever in truly understanding what you’re doing, but it still derails you as an artist.
It’s like country western versus rap. If you’re a country western singer and you present your demo to a rap record-label company, they’re going to wonder what the heck you’re doing there. They’re going to boot you out the back door as quickly as they can, right? And you feel rejected.
But were you really rejected? No, because you gave them something they don’t have any interest in. As artists, we present our work to people who sometimes have no interest in what we’re doing. And when they say they aren’t interested, we take it personally. It’s like selling country western to a rap label.
Criticism will come. It’s guaranteed! Don’t take it personally.
Anything we didn’t ask that you’d like us to know?
Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. Put in more hours than the person you’re competing against. Practice, practice, practice, and great things will follow.
Find Joel online:
SmugMug was born and bred by photography lovers, but this doesn’t mean that SmugMug can’t be great for everyone. SmugMug is an awesome place for people from all walks of life, and we feel strongly about photography being an essential part of your life — no matter what you do.
So what’s the benefit of a photo website for people who don’t “do” photography? Easy! A beautiful and safe place online to keep everything that’s important to you. Whether you’re a mom, a student, a lawyer, a small business owner or a chef, your photos (and videos) are how you get your message across to other people.
If you or someone you know didn’t think you were pro enough for SmugMug, here’s a list of reasons why we think we’d still be a perfect fit.
1) You can show off big, beautiful photos.
From XS thumbnails to edge-to-edge huge, SmugMug is based on huge, gorgeous photos that show off every pixel of what you do. Even if you’re not a photographer, big pics have a place: as a background image on your homepage or in a sample gallery that shows off your cooking, your offices, your portfolio of what you do best. No matter what your profession or what you love to do, we’re pretty sure that it’ll look great in pictures.
2) Build completely custom pages for anything you want.
Custom web pages let you create anything you dream up on your new site: price sheets, About Me, directions to your storefront or anything else you want your visitors to know about you. Fun facts? Easy! Lists of your favorite vendors? It’s a snap. Here’s a little tutorial that shows you how to do this via our easy drag-and-drop design, so you can build any page you can imagine.
3) Automatically get easy-to-read URLs.
In addition to being able to grab your own custom domain, you can make sure any page on your website has an easy-to-read link. We call them NiceNames: easy, readable, search-engine-friendly URLs that make it drop dead simple to tell someone where to find your website, even if you’re not at your computer. Pssst: they look great on business cards!
- Example: http://www.macaskillphotography.com/Newborn/Diego-4-Months/
4) Tie together every page with your brand.
Whether you’re the head of an internationally-reknowned restaurant or you just love the colors blue and green, your website should reflect your brand. SmugMug gives you dozens of one-click themes to match virtually any mood, and the ability to create your own if you don’t find what you love in the list. And if you’ve already got a logo designed for you, set it across all of your galleries and pages so your visitors know that you’ve got your act together.
5) Never have to worry again about site stability & bandwidth.
Once you’ve done all the work of building your new website, the last thing you need is for it to max out when too many people visit! Not at SmugMug – we’ve always offered unlimited bandwidth and traffic because we believe that photos are meant to be shared. We’re backed by Amazon and use the most cutting-edge technology to be sure that your pages load blazingly fast, no matter where you or your viewers are. Want proof? Our site status page is always open to you: http://status.smugmug.com
6) Complete flexibility in how to structure your site.
You can create whatever kind of site you want, from simple to complex to deep. SmugMug’s flexible organization lets you nest folders inside folders up to 7 levels deep, meaning you can organize your photos, videos and pages in a million different ways. And you can create as many folders as you wish, with more folders or galleries inside each to make the nested hierarchy of your dreams. Perfect for perfectly organized family history, your children’s lifetime in photos or anything else you do. Best of all, you can easily manage them with a clean, beautiful drag-and-drop site-wide organizer.
So what do you think? If you’ve got a website for a non-photography lifestyle or business, we’d love to see it! And if you’re still not yet sold, check the sites above to get inspiration and see what you can build.
- The full list of SmugMug’s great features
- SmugMug’s 9 gorgeous display sizes
- Set a full-screen slideshow on your homepage
- Use drag and drop to create webpages
- Get your own domain at SmugMug
- Easy, custom URLs that Google loves
- How to put your brand on your SmugMug website
- 9 examples of beautifully branded websites
- The OCD dream: Folders inside folders inside folders
- The site-wide, drag-and-drop Organizer
- How to get that shoebox of photos online