How to Become the Neighborhood Sensation with Halloween Photos

By Chris MacAskill, SmugMug co-founder
Years ago we faced a Halloween dilemma: do we just pass out Snickers bars and bore everyone? Scatter a few plastic skeletons and cobwebs like everyone else? Enter an arms race with the guy a few blocks away who spends days turning his house into a Hollywood Horror Show? Where does he even store all that stuff?

Instead, we set up some lights on the driveway and shot photos:

The thing is, Smartphone cameras don’t do well in the dark.  So parents bus their kids to our neighborhood to get their annual Halloween photos:

Even the cool kids need to score Instagram likes:

Here are some things I’ve learned from 7 years and thousands of photos:

  1. The Big Thing is to have a Very Big Light front and center.  I am usually on knees or bum, and the Very Big Light is above me.  I use a 60-inch softbox.  One reason for a big light in the center is that, on zero notice, Very Big Groups will form:

The big, centered light keeps some faces from being lost in the shadows.  And it casts very soft, flattering light that adults love.

  1.  Get a very wwiiiiiddddee backdrop.  I chose black because, well, Halloween.  Black anything will do: bedsheets, paper, whatever.  You can move it back from the subjects far enough that it’s really black and is never seen in photos.

This is what happens when the group is too big for the backdrop:

  1.  Knee pads.  Ow, my knees.  I like to get the camera down to the children’s level.

  1.  There will be witches, Darth Vader, and black-hatted villains.  If you can add a flash or two behind and to the side, you’ll actually be able to see black costumes and hair without them blending into the backdrop.

  1.  Smoke!  Smoke machines are cheap on Amazon and just a few puffs add a bit of awesome:

  1.  A zoom lens.  I love prime lenses and wide apertures for dreamy shallow depth of field.  But during Halloween, you’ll shoot a small child dressed as a pumpkin and 30 seconds later you’ll shoot a large group of teens.  I use a 24-105.
  1. JPEG, not RAW.  I set my white balance for the flash and it never varies.  I set my exposure at manual because the camera will give different exposures for people in white versus people in black if I try auto exposure.  There’s no issue with dynamic range, so RAW only slows everything down but doesn’t improve quality in this case.
  1.  Tether!  I use Lightroom to display the JPEGs on a monitor as I shoot them.  It’s great entertainment for people in line.  And when people see the photos, they’re sold on your photo booth.
  1.  Hand-out cards to tell your fans where they can download their photos.  I send them to

Have an amazing time!  It’s one of my favorite nights of the year.

Take the New Carousel for a Spin

After lots of requests by SmugMuggers with great taste, we can officially announce the newest in the lineup of customizable content blocks: The Carousel!

This beautiful new feature lets your fans have a more interactive experience with your site, allowing them to scroll forwards and backwards through your favorite photos. We loved this idea and are thrilled that so many of you reached out to us. It’s such a gorgeous and interactive way to showcase your favorite photos. Here’s how to use it.

Want to see it in action? Here are a few great examples to get you inspired:

Beautiful Scrolling on All Screens

The Carousel content block can be placed anywhere on the page you’re customizing, plus it’s powered by HTML5, so it looks beautiful on all modern browsers and mobile devices.

You can pull images from any gallery on your site, or hand-pick individual photos from anywhere. And like most other content blocks, you can tweak settings further to show/hide the navigation arrows, change the height of the box, and so on.

Bonus: You can optionally customize it more with CSS.

Find It Now on All SmugMug Sites

Every site using the New SmugMug can get started using the carousel today. Find it under the Content > Photo section of your customizer and drop it into any page or gallery on your site. (Basic users can drop it anywhere they wish on their homepage.)

Tip: Make sure the photos you upload and your Maximum Display Size are large enough to fill the selections you set in the Carousel block settings. If they aren’t, your images may vary in height within the display area.

We’ve seen carousel-style displays popular with fashion, sports, and commercial photographers, and we’d love to see how you’re using it for your photos. Post a link to your site in the comments below, or share it with us on Facebook or Twitter!

Related links:

Release Notes: Uploads Made Even Easier, Subscription Receipts, Original Filenames, and more

This time of the year most of us are pretty busy either with work, family, holiday prep, and all the other things that make this time of year so much fun. Here’s a few great new goodies we’ve released that you’ll love.

Drag Photos Directly Into Galleries

Adding new photos to your galleries is so easy, your camera can practically do it on its own.

You can still click the “Upload” button to fire up our in-browser uploader, but we’ve made it even easier than that: Simply log in, go to any gallery on your site, and drag photos off your desktop into the photos already there. The upload starts right away!

You can take a quick look at all the different ways you have to add photos and videos to your site… if this one doesn’t win you over.

Grab-Your-Own Receipts

Our Support Heroes get lots of requests from folks who need a simple subscription receipt for their records. Now you can do it all on your own, as many times as you want, with zero wait… even at 3:44 AM (supposedly the most common time to wake up in the middle of the night.)

Just look in your Account Settings > Me tab, and you’ll see a new section called “Receipts.”

Have fun accounting!

Zip Downloads Keep Your Filenames

Pros and label freaks, you’ll love this one: Now when you open your zipped gallery downloads, you’ll notice that the filenames are just as you left them (minus special characters.)

This has been a big request from a lot of photographers who offer gallery downloads of their photo shoots. So now clients can find exactly what they’re looking for, and they’ll correspond with the filename you gave it in your catalog.

Save-an-Email for Huge Zip Downloads

We’ve also given the email delivery gnomes a break by combining your zip download links into a one notification email. For galleries larger than 1.5 GB and/or 200 images, we typically split the download into multiple zip files. We’ll still do this, but send the links in a single email.

Pinch to Zoom on Your Phone

Need more detail when browsing photos on the go? Your mobile-friendly SmugMug site now allows you to zoom in and get peeping in on every pixel in your lightbox. (We’re talking browsing your site on Safari, not through our iOS and Android mobile apps which already let you zoom in.)

Miscellaneous improvements:

  • The Folder, Gallery & Pages Content Block now properly displays items in the same order as the Organizer when it’s set to display by “Organizer Position.”
  • Galleries in Journal viewing style no longer skip to the first image when the page is loaded and now display the content above the image. Links to specific photos in the gallery will also now jump to that image when you load the page.
  • When browsing a keyword gallery that has been limited in scope, buyers purchasing multiple photos are limited to only photos that fit within that scope.
  • Event details and settings should save properly again. Additionally, Favorites should save as expected when you clients click them.
  • The Flash uploader properly allows for replacing photos in Proof Delayed orders.

Enjoy the new stuff and keep snapping great memories this holiday season!

 Link roundup:

A “Pool” Party in Winter? That’s Guest Uploads for You

Quick tip for you holiday planners: Guest Uploads are your party’s best friend! With the season of cheer finally here, cameras will be snapping right and left. Use guest uploads to pool all your friends’ photos from the event and remember every antic in years to come.

Get started by looking in your Gallery Settings.

Here’s why you’ll love this handy-dandy feature that comes built in to every SmugMug account (even yours):

What it is: A way to let your friends and fans upload photos & videos to your SmugMug gallery. They can also browse that gallery and see what fellow event-goers have snapped and shared.

How to use it: Look under your gallery settings for the Upload Key and type something in the field. Choose something personal, because it’ll become part of the link you’ll share (and prevent strangers from randomly guessing the URL). Once you save it, we’ll give you a secret link to share. When guests visit that link, we’ll present our web uploader and they can drag their pictures in.

Why it works: After hosting the merriest party that was ever held in the history of holidays, do you really want to be chasing down your friends for their memory cards? Guest Uploads let them do the work on their own time. All you have to do is share the link… and be sure that somebody else volunteers their house for next year’s big bash. ;)

Add an Upload Key so the URL is personalized to you… and safe from party crashers.

Quick-Thinking Tip: Print out the link and include it with your holiday party favors and thank you notes.

So whether you’re hosting your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, planning the office party, or are getting hitched this winter, be sure to capture every last smile!


Link roundup:

Smug Tip: We’re Your Holiday Newsletter’s Best-Kept Secret

This year, skip the stamps and go digital for the family newsletter. Your SmugMug account is the perfect way to share a beautiful, personalized, ever-changing array of memories from the year that’s easily shared with friends, family, and everyone you wish.

Not only do you gain precious extra time to put it together (fab for busy holiday preppers), but you can go way beyond text with a custom SmugMug newsletter page. Think: Video, slideshows, maps, the whole shebang! And it’s interactive, letting your friends and family click through your content, leave comments, share and more.

Our SmugMug family newsletter, digital-style.

How to Build Your Newsletter

First, we’ve built a sample holiday newsletter from SmugMug and put it right here. Take a look and we’ll break each piece down for you below.

Creating a custom holiday newsletter can be done as many ways as there are snowflakes in Siberia, so these tips are just a guideline. Feel free to experiment with different content and layouts until you get something you like. The sky’s the limit! 

  1. Create a Page. If you plan on making your newsletters digital each year going forward, we suggest actually going a step further and creating a whole new Folder called “Family Newsletters.” From there, you can create your Page and name it by year.
  2. Choose a Theme. Since we’re specifically creating a holiday newsletter, try Winter, Flurries, Blizzard, or Snowflake for that seasonal feel.
  3. Plan your content. Think through the highlights of your year and how you want to present those memories. Would you like to add in a block of thumbnails that viewers can click? Or would you prefer to display them in a slideshow? Do you have any videos you’d like to share of school plays, memorable sports wins, or your annual vacation?
  4. Add your content. To do this, you may want to Collect just the photos you want into a special, unlisted “Newsletter” gallery, so you can easily drop it into the page and not have to select lots of photos from many folders around your site. This also keeps fans who click through to see more from getting lost.
  5. Tell your story. Use Title and Text blocks to greet guests and tell them every detail about your year. Remember that you’re never confined to just one block, so you can break up your text and let it flow down the page around the different photos and other content.
  6. Make it shareable. Don’t forget to add a Social Buttons box at the top or bottom of the page so your viewers can share it with other loved ones you may not be able to reach.
Dress up your newsletter page or gallery with a festive holiday theme.

Have a Basic account? While the ability to create custom Pages and use the more advanced Content Blocks are available only with Power accounts and up, there’s plenty you can do. Customize your SmugMug homepage to include all the Content Blocks that tell your story, or create a new gallery and Collect your best photos from around your site to illustrate all the great things you did this year. Your Gallery Description field is the perfect place to greet your guests, and you can use the photo Title and Caption fields to expand on what happened in each and every photo.

Key Smug Features to Use

The Multiple Photos content block is a great option for displaying select photos from your year.

We’ve just barely skimmed the surface of what you can do, so here’s a list of Content Block options you’ve already got to build the best digital newsletter your family has ever seen.

  • Custom Pages. Why stop at one? If an epic story needs to be explained, link out to a second, third, or fourth page so your fans can read all about it. We love photo blogs!
  • Themes. If you’re in Australia, snow may not fit the holiday idea like it would in Canada. Your account comes packed with dozens of beautiful themes, so don’t be afraid to be different.
  • Text and Title blocks. These are key. You could let your photos speak for themselves, but we prefer tradition on this one.
  • Maps. If you’re a globetrotter who loves to geotag, embedding a map is a wonderful, interactive way to show your family where you’ve traveled this year.
  • Slideshow box. A space-saver. For those who don’t prefer the endless scroll, the Slideshow content block is a great way to show off big, beautiful photos one at a time. You can even customize the playback speed, transitions, and much more.
  • Animoto video. Video clips are a fabulous addition to any newsletter, since paper versions can’t do this at all. But if you’re not sure your shaky vacation clips are up to snuff, you can still create an engaging, professional, beautiful video from your content with Animoto. They’ll do all the work so all you have to do is drop it into your page. Find it in any gallery under Buy > Other Products > Create a Video.
  • Galleries box. An easy way to feature your best galleries of the year, all around your site.
  • Comments. Will grandma love this year’s newsletter? Drop in a comment box so you can find out!
  • Social share buttons. Because you may not have the email address of your second cousin twice removed, the one you hit it off with at your niece’s wedding. But somebody in your network will.

Tip: Pair Your Newsletter with a (Real, Paper) Card

Even if you go digital on the newsletter, you can (and should) still turn your best photos into a beautiful holiday card. SmugMug’s got tons of gorgeous, personalizable designs that complement any photo you’ve ever taken (we’re willing to bet on it).

And since you can write your own words in them, a photo card is the perfect opportunity to debut the link to your newsletter. ;)

We just think the digital newsletter idea gives you much greater creativity and flexibility when it comes to your memories since you can add, change, and update the content your family sees.

Happy holiday planning, and we’d love to see your own creative examples of family newsletters this year! Tweet us a link, send it to our Support Heroes, post it to our Facebook wall, or just leave a comment below so we can check it out.

Links to love:

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Tips for Taking Pictures in Low Light

As we roll into the season of longer nights, we don’t think the extra darkness this should cut down on the amount of time you spend with your camera.

Low-light photography can be intimidating if you’re new to photography, but it’s easier than you think…. and you can take some amazing photos that take much more patience to capture when the days are bright and long.

Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind to keep you shooting (and sharing) photos through the darkest time of the year.

Know Your Gear

Photo by Schmootography

Photography is all about physics, but even if you weren’t a science major you can take a few minutes to learn the only tip you ever need to learn.

Photography is about capturing light, so low-light shooting means maximizing the amount of light hitting your sensor. There are three ways to do that:

  1. Allow more light through the lens
  2. Keep the shutter open longer
  3. Boost the sensitivity of your sensor

How? Widen the aperture of your lens, slow down your shutter speed, or raise your ISO, respectively. If you’ve never done any of this before, dig up your camera’s manual (or Google for the PDF version) and get to know these three things now. Shooting in your camera’s Manual mode is the most tricky – but most surefire – way to learn these principles, but you can also try Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes to fix one of the settings and let your camera automatically calculate the rest.

Knowing which buttons to push and which dials to turn is a priceless skill to have, and you should commit it to muscle memory now so you don’t end up panicking in the dark.

Additionally, your camera and lenses often have specific limitations. If you have an older camera, for example, you may not want to push the ISO above 1600. And some lenses simply don’t open up wider than f/5.6. If you’ve been thinking about trying new equipment but aren’t sure it’s the right gear for you, check out our own, in-house gear reviews to get an idea of what’s out there before you drop thousands of dollars.

Embrace Your Grain

Photo by Black Cat Photography

Even if your images come out a bit grainy from pushing your ISO, that’s OK. Think about all the film photos you’ve probably seen from 30 to 50 years ago and you’ll notice the grain adds a lot of character to the image. It makes sense to embrace it and get to know it a little better.

Grain itself can contain quite a bit of color that may not be found otherwise in your scene. To minimize it, try third-party noise-reduction software, or experiment with the noise-reduction feature in programs that you’re already using, like Lightroom and Photoshop. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Alternatively, try converting your image to black and white and playing around with the contrast. Photos that look weird at first look rock ‘n’ roll once the color’s stripped out. To do this, give it a quick conversion using SmugMug’s Image Editor, PicMonkey, or (our favorite) Lightroom.

Make More Light with Lightroom

Modern digital cameras give you quite a bit of leeway with the exposure, so if your image came out a bit dark (which happens because your camera’s LCD often gives a brighter impression of your image than you actually took), it’s OK to bump the exposure in post.

For most, pushing the “Exposure” slider is sufficient, but some pixel peepers may suggest using the more specific sliders you can find below that: highlights, whites, and shadows. These boost only the pixels you need without harming the rest. Experiment with what works best for you to get the look you want.

Once that’s done, don’t forget to publish your goodies to SmugMug and show the world what you’re capturing after the sun goes down.

Seek the Moment, Not Perfection

Photo by Schmootography

Above all, don’t stress about getting the perfect shot every time. Blurred motion, being too dark (or too bright) are all details that take your photo beyond basic shape and color. So be sure to capture the action, the intensity, and the joy of what you and your friends are doing. Even if it’s not textbook perfect, we guarantee that as soon as you share your photos, they won’t be thinking of anything except how much fun they had.

We’ll be sharing a few more low-light tips in the weeks coming, so stay tuned for more creative ideas to keep shooting in the dark!


Link roundup:

Why Print in a Digital Age?

Don’t let your photos die in the digital graveyard! Even though we live in the iPhone age and highly recommend that pro photographers offer digital downloads as part of their business models, we think that a trusty, traditional, physical print still has a place in every home.

Here are four reasons why.

1) Prints Bring Photos to Life

Prints have presence. There’s never any doubt about that, as any framed photo or tangible image in your home draws the eye every single time. It’s easy to dismiss the importance of a physical print when you’re not actually faced with one, but once you unwrap your print, feel the weight of it in your hands and see the light shining from its surface, you’ll see what we mean.

Particularly if you opt for metallic paper finish, or one of SmugMug’s modern print options like MetalPrints and Box Frame Prints. Guaranteed to stop every guest in their tracks.

2) Not Everyone is Online

Facebook may hold its fair share of friends with whom you share photos, but we’re willing to bet that your social group isn’t 100% online. For all the people you care about who aren’t on the web, prints are the medium of choice.

Whether this includes your mom, your grandpa, or your pen pal from 3rd grade abstaining from the internet, we’re pretty sure they’ll be delighted to receive a print, album or even a photo book in the mail.

3) Rare Means Care

Since we’re all guilty of taking digital photos for granted, prints are rare and (by basic laws of economics) will command more attention because of their relative scarcity. You know you’ll already captivate your online audience with your unlimited SmugMug galleries, but we’re pretty sure one meaningful print in your hallway will grab their attention, too.

For those of you looking for the most bang for your buck, prints are perfect for you. And who wouldn’t want something special hanging on their wall?

4) Your Memories Exist Even If Your Computer Explodes

Imagine you’re rummaging around your desk and find a priceless snapshot from 1992 that you took on one of those disposable cardboard cameras. Wow!

It’s definitely easier to drag and drop your files around folders on your hard drive (or in your SmugMug Organizer), but real photos are a joy to unearth. While not completely immune to discoloration, fire or fading, so many threads of history have been woven into a larger tale because of photos, crisp and bent with handwritten notes scrawled along the back.

Wouldn’t you want physical proof that you lived, even after the ‘Off’ button was pressed?

Let Your Photos Grow Up on SmugMug

We have four great print labs for you to choose from at SmugMug. EZ Prints is available for Basic subscribers, and Bay Photo, WHCC, and Loxley Colour are additional options (with additional print and mounting choices) for Portfolio and Business accounts.

To see the complete list of all print sizes and products available on your account, simply log in and view your Account Settings >  Business tab to view your Pricelists by lab. Basic and Power Users can  just click the Buy Photos button in any gallery to open the available items in the shopping cart.

Print your photos. No matter if you’re just snapping moments on your iPhone or documenting in RAW with a top-of-the-line DSLR, whether you just snap photos of your friends or if you’re a full-time pro, it’s up to you to make the most out of your life. So buy a print, hang it on the wall and keep those memories close at hand.

You won’t regret it.

Links to love: