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Essential Night Landscape Photography Tips from Chris Burkard

August 13, 2014 8 comments

chris burkardToday’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

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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! 

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

120227_BURKARD_03997
Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

131210_BURKARD_92002

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

Photo Credit: Chris Burkard

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.

Want More?

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.

http://youtu.be/cBJyo0tgLnw

Links to love:

SmugMug + SnapKnot’s Camera Giveaway

June 2, 2014 11 comments

Photographers are always looking to upgrade to the latest and greatest equipment, and no pro can say they’ve got too many cameras. Well, today you’re in luck! We’ve partnered with SnapKnot, a sweet website that matches engaged couples to photographers like you, to give away a brand-new Nikon D800 or a Canon 5D Mark III to one lucky random winner.

HOW TO ENTER: Simply visit their Facebook page to see more details and to get your entry in. Earn more bonus entries by sharing with your friends, too.

Hurry, because the contest ends this month. Good luck!

SmugMug’s Brand New Refer-a-Friend Program

April 21, 2014 Leave a comment

When we started SmugMug 12 years ago, it was a labor of love created between father and son and shared by word of mouth among family, friends, and neighbors. Through the years, photo lovers have touted SmugMug’s great features through conversation and email, creating a trail of beautiful websites that bridge one family to the next.

We knew it was time to make some big changes so we could better say “Thanks!” to all of you who’ve shared SmugMug with those you love.

“What’s the new Refer-a-Friend program?”

When you refer someone to SmugMug, you’ll earn 20% of their account value and your friend gets 20% off their first year. You’re basically splitting a 40% discount two ways. Just be sure they use your unique referral code at signup.

The referral credit you earn will automagically be applied towards your next SmugMug renewal, or credited towards your next Gift of SmugMug.

You can always see how much credit you’ve earned in your Account Settings, under the Stats tab.

“What does that  mean for me?”

Your friend must use your unique referral code for you to get credit. To find yours, log in and visit your Account Settings > Stats tab to see your personalized referral details, and your credit balance. Copy the link and pass that along to your friends, or you can just grab the code itself and ask them to paste that in when they sign up for their new account.

Math example: Say your friend signs up for a full SmugMug Business account, which is normally $300/year.

  • You’ll get 20% – or $60 – of that amount put on your account to apply towards your next renewal or your next Gift of SmugMug.
  • Your friend also gets $60 off their first year at SmugMug, dropping their signup cost to only $240.

“But I don’t have any pro photographer friends!”

SmugMug is not just for full-time photographers! Photos are a part of all of our lives, no matter what type of camera you have and how often you’re taking pictures. Whether you’re a wedding pro, a business owner, a family guy, a world traveler, a writer, a student or if you just love life in any way at all, you’d probably appreciate a safe, beautiful place to keep (and archive) your photos online.

We’ve shared some beautiful examples here.

Let’s not forget that everyone on SmugMug gets 24/7 white-glove support by our team of amazing Support Heroes (who are everyday people just like you), so there’s no excuse. And whether you’re Regular Joe or a Smokin’ Hot Pro, every print order that comes from our labs is covered by our 100% money-back guarantee.

Your life is worth sharing. Take pictures of it!

“How do I know how much credit I’ve earned?”

You can check to see your referral credit balance at any time in your Account Settings, then click on the Stats tab.

Check out the full Refer-a-Friend program terms and conditions, as well as our updated help page.

To everyone who’s referred people to our family and helped us grow: Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts. We literally could not have come this far without you!

You Can Win a Slice of the SmugLife

To celebrate today’s announcement, we’re giving our U.S. friends a chance to come on down and be a SmugMug VIP:

GRAND PRIZE. In December 2014, we’ll choose one lucky, random SmugMug referrer to come visit SmugMug HQ and get the full VIP treatment. (Max 100 entries per person.)

Monthly prizes. Every friend you refer to SmugMug enters you into a monthly drawing for a sexy, slow-mo capable GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition, or a $400 Amazon Gift Card. Drawings occur at the end of each month from May through November. (Max 10 entries per person.)

What does it mean to be “VIP?”

  • Airfare and 2 nights hotel accommodation in San Francisco, CA
  • A tour of our print-covered global headquarters in Mountain View, CA
  • Your favorite meal cooked by our in-house chef (touted as the best in Silicon Valley)
  • A chance to talk with the people who built the features you know and love
  • A full face-painting session where you’ll become the superhero of your dreams (like these)
  • Your portrait taken by our President and Co-founder, Baldy (and a big print to keep)
  • A helicopter tour and photowalk around San Francisco with Baldy & friends

Check out the official promotion rules for the full terms and details. We can’t wait to have you over!

* Unfortunately due to international contest rules, this contest is only open to U.S. residents.

Let’s Connect at WPPI 2014 in Las Vegas

February 27, 2014 Leave a comment

If you’re a portrait or wedding photographer bound for WPPI next weekend in Las Vegas, please come see us! SmugMug will be hitting the expo floor from Monday, March 3rd through Wednesday, March 5th, so stop by, say hello and ask us your burning questions. Let’s connect!

We’ll have two great ways for you to win great stuff next week:

1) Photo Critique with David Beckstead 

Become a better photographer in minutes! Submit your best wedding photo now for an in-depth critique by one of the Top 10 Best Wedding Photographers in the World, David Beckstead. Details here.

2) Snap a Smuggy Selfie

Snap a fun self portrait with one of our SmugMug Booth Babes (or just with the SmugMug logo), tag it and share to win part of $2400+ worth of prizes. Winners announced each day of the WPPI expo. Details here.

We’ve lined up an impressive list of totally free seminars and SmugMug demos led by pro photographers (who also happen to be SmugMug friends) ready to impart their knowledge of marketing, business and the craft with you. You’ll also get the chance to talk with some of SmugMug’s Product Managers, Engineers and Design teams, so bring your feedback, suggestions and a winning smile.

Find a complete list of times, dates and topics right here on the handy reference page we’ve built for you here. Bookmark it, love it, keep it close at hand.

http://school.smugmug.com/WPPI

See you soon, wedding pros!

How To Avoid Leaking Sensitive Photos

February 7, 2014 19 comments

Stories are breaking on sites like Fstoppers and Brandsmash about private Boudoir photos that appeared on a creepy voyeur forum.  It’s hard to imagine a more humiliating nightmare for a photographer or their clients.

Photo Used With Permission From Je Revele Photography 

Photos came from several sites, including SmugMug, and we paid extreme attention over the last two days to how it happened.  We tried to take some comfort in observing that in every instance, it came down to passwords that were guessable in just a few tries.

The question for us was what could we do that we weren’t already?  Over the past year, we’ve done considerable work around this problem, but yesterday we decided to expose some of the alerts our systems generate to our customers.

When our systems see several password attempts on a gallery or folder, they now send an email to the owner of the SmugMug site.  It identifies the gallery, gives the first few digits of each password attempt with asterisks for the rest (bou***), and adds info like time of day and geographic location the request may be coming from.

Today our Support Heroes are receiving thank-yous from people whose family members couldn’t get in because they left the caps lock key on or forgot some aspect of the password “it’s a cap O (oh), not a 0 (zero)”.

And we read two help tickets from photographers who discovered that their boudoir galleries had password guessers.  Fortunately, they had long passwords that were too hard to guess, but they are still making changes like removing the word Boudoir from the title, and making the gallery Unlisted so only people who obtain the link can know of its existence.

One of the security upgrades that came with New SmugMug is we don’t store passwords in a form that could leak in any way, including a systems breach, a bug, or a disgruntled employee. We use an industrial grade, Cryptographic hash function.

The breaking stories are about Boudoir photos, but we host incredibly sensitive photos (all cloud services do) of unannounced products and even, we remember, photos of an upcoming TIME Person of the Year.

Best Practices:

1.  Set a good gallery password before uploading photos!

2.  Set galleries and folders to Unlisted.  Unlisted means means no one can see them unless they have somehow been given a link.  They cannot guess the link because it has a random string added to its URL.  The combination of strong password + Unlisted is extremely secure.

You can learn more about how to protect your SmugMug galleries here.

We hope this helps, and thanks for being part of the SmugMug family!

Chris & Don MacAskill

Founders

SmugMug Films: Air-to-Air Photography by Jessica Ambats

January 28, 2014 2 comments

Today we’re joyously announcing the second installment of SmugMug Films with a spotlight on heart-racing aviation photographer Jessica Ambats. Watch it now and subscribe to get first access to future episodes.

A love of flying led Jessica Ambats to an editorial job with an aviation magazine, Pilot Getaways. The publication required air-to-air shoots, and after tagging along a few times, she was hooked. Jessica learned how to direct her own air-to-air shoots and eventually became a pilot herself, sharing her love of the sky and everything that flies through it with fellow aviators and friends. She also works as editor of Plane & Pilot magazine.

Starting with air-to-air photography seems like a big leap to take.

I’ve always been fascinated by photography for as long as I can remember, but I never had any formal training. My first official introduction to aviation photography was through the International Society for Aviation Photography. They have a meeting every year, and I was able to attend one. I’d always been interested in photography and aviation, but it hadn’t really occurred to me to put the two together. Listening to speakers at the meeting was an eye-opener for me. I then worked at Pilot Getaways magazine, where I got to join their shoots and learn the ropes that way. I’ve also been fortunate to have a great mentor, photographer Russell Munson, who has encouraged me every step of the way.

Has your process changed much since then?

Over the years I’ve refined how I do things. I’ve learned how to be more directive, because you need to constantly give the pilots positioning instructions. And I’ve gotten a lot pickier about everything: the timing of the shoot, the background, and so on. Whereas in the very beginning, I was just excited to go up in an airplane and take pictures, and I didn’t focus on the small—but important—details.

Has your own training as a pilot helped improve your ability to direct in-flight composition?

Being a pilot and taking a formation-flying course helps because it gives me a firsthand understanding of the flight dynamics. This is useful when positioning my subject planes. Also, when planning the shoot, it gives greater understanding of the logistics, such as airspace restrictions, appropriate altitudes, and ATC [air-traffic control] coordination.

How do you position the subject planes?

I talk to them directly over the radio, or I relay my instructions through my pilot via the intercom. My positioning instructions are measured in feet, such as “ten feet higher” or “twenty feet back.” Sometimes I’ll also use hand signals, but in general I prefer to keep my hands steady on the camera.

You’re telling pilots to fly ten feet one way or another, which is probably very tough to do.

A movement of ten feet exactly is really hard to judge. So what I’ll do is give the first command: ten feet higher. And then I’ll watch what they do. Whatever they do, I make a mental note of what they are using as ten feet. Then I calibrate based on that.

The pilots I work with are highly experienced in formation flying, so they’re used to small adjustments. They can focus on a particular part of the photoship (the plane I shoot from) and then move their line of sight relative to that.

Air-to-air photography is a team effort and the pilots make all the difference in a safe and successful shoot.

How close do the planes fly?

Distances range from around 20 to 150 feet. I’ll move the subject planes farther out or closer in depending on the composition I’m trying to create.

You’ve got all this coordination between pilots, planes, and air-traffic control. Do you also have to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration?

No. And depending on the airspace, we may not even need to talk to ATC. There’s no special clearance required for a photo flight. You fly within the same regulations as a standard flight.

In congested areas with controlled airspace, like Las Vegas, we coordinate in advance with ATC. We’ll also give a head’s up to local helicopter companies as well as law enforcement. They’ve gotten calls saying, “Hey, two planes are chasing each other over the Strip.” We want to do as much advance coordination as possible before shooting in a high-visibility area.

Could you walk us through your typical shoot process?

I’ll first pick a location. For the SmugMug shoot in the SmugMug Film video, it was the Bay Area. Then, I’ll plan a flight route. In the Bay Area, you can make a nice loop over Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Next is the hardest part of everything: scheduling a date that works for everyone. Coordinating multiple pilots, airplanes, and the weather is not easy!

Once a date is set, I’ll calculate the exact timing for everything. I’ll look up sunset times and work backward from there: What time do we want to be over the bridge? What time do we need to depart our airport to be there? What time do we need to arrive at the airport to brief and set up cameras?

As the shoot gets closer, I’ll start checking the weather forecast constantly. The day prior to the morning of, we’ll make a final go/no-go decision. If the weather looks iffy or bad, we’ll postpone it. If it looks good, that’s a go, and we’ll all meet for a pilot brief.

During the brief, we’ll cover the specifics of the flight, including takeoff/landing procedures, frequencies, altitudes, airspeeds, photo maneuvers, and emergency procedures. I’ll discuss the shots I’d like to get and review my positioning terminology.

On the ramp, we’ll configure the photoship. My pilot will remove the doors, and I’ll set up my gear. I’ll put my harness on, and we’ll launch.

In the footage you had a spare camera in your lap. You don’t try to change lenses once you’re up in the air, right?

No, that would be a bad idea. You don’t want anything loose. I would not want to drop a lens for sure! And there’s so much airflow that it can’t be good for the camera sensor. I’ll take two cameras, with two different lenses.

On photo flights, do you use any cameras besides your Canon DSLRs?

In addition to my beloved GoPros (which I mount in various spots on each airplane), I’ve been wearing Google Glass while on photo flights. I record video and take photos with Glass, but I would like to find a way to do live hangouts during photo flights so others can join in on the experience!

Do you have any tips or tricks for how you maintain your focus in such a chaotic, loud environment?

My mental focus, or the camera focus?

Both!

Mental focus comes instinctively. It’s a very intense environment. Everything happens quickly, so there’s a lot going on. You’re sitting in an open door, which can be pretty uncomfortable, cold, noisy, and bumpy.

For example, I did a shoot over the Hollywood sign with three jets that was very challenging. We flew orbits in front of the sign, and I only had a small amount of time during each orbit to get the shot. In that time I had to position three airplanes relative to each other, and then line them up with the sign, too. I have to be entirely focused on what I’m doing during the flight or I will miss the shot.

With the camera itself, I try to be really, really steady holding it. I stay out of the airstream and focus on the subject. I also use image-stabilized lenses, like Canon’s 24-105 and 70-200.

The flights are pretty intense. I’m usually completely exhausted afterward. Mentally and physically exhausted.

Are there any flights that are particularly memorable for you?

One that comes to mind was over New York City, where I’m from. It was a complicated shoot of four privately owned Citation jets and a P-51 Mustang warbird from WWII. So we had six airplanes, including the photoship I was in, flying down the Hudson, circling over the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks. As a kid growing up in Manhattan, I always looked up at airplanes as they were flying and never imagined that I’d be in one taking photos.

You mentioned that you prefer sunset flights to sunrise. Any reason why?

I’m not a morning person! And sunrise shoots in general are harder on everyone. I want to be shooting over the location at the very first light, so that means getting up way before sunrise to meet, brief, get the airplanes ready, set up my gear, take off, and fly to the location. And then the sun comes up. It can be a little brutal when I have a sunrise photo flight the morning after a sunset shoot.

But the main reason I like sunset better is that, as I usually launch an hour before sunset, the light just keeps getting better and better. You’re working into the good light. Everything gets more tuned. But at sunrise, the very start of the shoot is the best light, and it just gets worse from there. I always feel like I run out of good light really quickly in the mornings.

That said, the air is usually so calm in the mornings, and you have a great feeling that you’ve got the whole sky to yourself. It’s always worth the effort.

Do you have a favorite aircraft to shoot?

I like them all! I do. It was a real treat when I shot the Blue Angels from one of their F-18 fighter jets, but I love shooting everything from a little Piper Cub, which is a two-seat light aircraft, to a larger business jet. They all have different challenges.

For example?

On one of my Blue Angels shoots, I was in their two-seat F-18 for formation aerobatics. Their routines are intense with strong, sustained G-forces. It can be physically hard to hold the camera up while pulling Gs. I learned pretty quickly to position my camera before each maneuver started. It’s also challenging to shoot through a canopy, which may have scratches, reflections, and glare.

Any advice for those who might want to pursue a similar path?

Safety, safety, safety. Make sure you’re with experienced formation pilots; otherwise, don’t do it. It’s not the kind of shooting I would encourage anyone to just wake up one day and go do. Spend time in aviation environments first. A good place to start is at an airshow where you’ll have lots of great ground-to-air photo ops and you’ll meet other aviation photographers.

What do you love most about what you do?

I love to be in the air! There’s a great saying: “To most people, the sky is the limit. To those that love aviation, the sky is home.”

Find Jessica online:


Photo credit: David Farr

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