The Power of SmugMug’s Lightroom Publish Tool

If you’re a SmugMug customer, you’re likely a lover of all things photography. You love taking photos, you love sharing photos, and you might even love editing photos. But we’ll bet you’re not in love with the less-romantic bits: organizing, keywording, and getting your photos from the camera to your SmugMug site.

There are some powerful tools out there to help, and we have a favorite: Adobe Lightroom.

Not only does it simplify the process of organizing photos from camera to desktop (or device), it also works directly with SmugMug using our super powerful SmugMug publish service.

Our recently updated LR plug-in will now keep itself up to date automatically, and it works with the latest Adobe Lightroom CC and Adobe Lightroom 6 software. Make sure you’ve grabbed the most recent version of our plug-in to use our best—and most recent—built-in features, including Private Sharing and automatic plug-in updates. It even keeps Lightroom’s new facial-recognition tags in place!

Here’s three reasons why we think SmugMug and Lightroom users would love using our publish service.

Keep It Simple (All Accounts)
Simplify your workflow! If you use Lightroom to manage your photos on your computer, then you already know what a timesaver it is. But did you know you can also manage your SmugMug site without opening SmugMug? Import, cull, organize, keyword, upload, and share your photos all from one place.

The most recent update to the SmugMug publish service includes our hottest new feature, private sharing. When you create or edit folders and galleries from the publisher within Lightroom, you’ll be able to select visibility and access settings for those folders and galleries—without ever firing up your browser.

Collaborate on Photos (Business Accounts)
Combine the SmugMug Event Management Feature with the power of the LR Sync Hierarchy Tool.

Have your client, or your family, go through galleries you’ve added to an event and choose their favorite photos for a photo album or special edits. Use Lightroom’s Sync Hierarchy and Sync Photos buttons to add their favorite gallery, and its photos, back to your Lightroom catalog to edit.

Lightroom will recognize when you’ve made changes to those files and will mark them for republishing to SmugMug when you’re ready!

Proof Print Orders (Portfolio and Business Accounts)
You’ve just received your favorite “Cha-ching!” email from SmugMug: a new photo order has been placed from your Portfolio or Business account. You’ve used proof delay so you can review the order and make any final edits to the photos before sending them to the print lab.

When you edit those files in your Lightroom catalog, they’ll be marked for republishing, too. Press that republish button and send your final, print-ready photos off to your SmugMug site. Now you’re ready to release the order from proof delay and send it to the lab.

This barely scratches the surface of what you can do to manage your SmugMug account from within Lightroom using our plug-in. If you’d like the Ultimate User’s Guide to the Galaxy, er, to the SmugMug Publish Service for Lightroom, check back here soon. We’ve got a great follow-up post coming your way!

How to Photograph Your Kids

This famous mom photographer shares her secrets.

Last year, Elena Shumilova took photos of her sons as they played by the Russian countryside. She uploaded the photos online, then they started getting shared, and shared again… until they became a viral sensation, with over 60 million views.

These photos hit something magical all across the Internet — a sense of nostalgia for a childhood past. She even started getting letters from people in their nineties, saying the photos moved them to tears.

As parents, we instinctively want to take photos of our kids. We’re trying to preserve this brief slice of time before they grow up. But when we take our kids to professional photo studios, the results can end up looking stilted and unnatural.

We want to remember our kids as they actually are — not with the forced smile a stranger coaxed out of them at the studio, but with the real smiles and giggles they share with us every day.

How can we capture natural photos of our kids, the kind Elena seemingly has a magic touch for?

Photo by Ivan Makarov

Elena has mostly been quiet since her photos have gone viral, undistracted by all the media attention. Instead, she focuses on raising her kids and continues to photograph them every day.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

Given how quiet Elena has been, we’re excited to share a behind-the-scenes look at her in action. She invited us onto her farm in Russia, where we asked her to share how she captures these beautifully nostalgic photos.

This is what she had to say.

5 Tips to Get Better Photographs of Your Kids

by Elena Shumilova

Watch a video of Elena demonstrating these tips.

1. How to get your kids to look natural, not “posed.”

So you catch your kids in the perfect moment — they’re outside playing and laughing, the lighting is just right, and you see this perfect picture you want to capture. You rush to get out your camera, but then…

They see the camera. They stiffen up. They start posing. The moment is lost.

What do you do?

When photographing children, the single most important thing is to photograph them often — every day.

You can’t just do it sporadically, or they’ll freeze up as soon as the camera comes out. Consistency is key. That way they’ll be comfortable around the camera.

It’s these everyday scenes that you want to capture — the ones you’ll remember best when they grow up.

 

To get the most genuine photos, I try to catch them in the moment — when they’re playing with each other and have completely forgotten about the camera.

Here they’re playing “airplanes,” a game we also play together at lunchtime when they’re feeling picky about their food.

Watch Elena explain how she captures her nostalgic photos:

2. The types of clothes that work the best.

I follow a pretty simple rule: clothes shouldn’t be distracting. They shouldn’t take attention away from what’s happening in the photo.

 

For such a simple rule, it’s harder to follow than you might think. Kids’ clothes today are designed to grab your attention—with bright colors, cartoon characters, and writing all over them. In photographs, all this takes attention away from your kids.

When I started pursuing photography seriously, I actually replaced all their outfits. This took quite a while to do, but now I know that anything I pull from their closet won’t interfere with the photo.

3. How to best capture kids of different ages.

Newborns
A lot of parents have asked me about this photo — how did you get your one-month-old to look so calm? Infants are notoriously difficult to photograph because they’re often crying or fidgeting.

Here you’ll have an advantage as a parent. I’m his mom. I’m around him 24 hours a day, and I know when he cries and when he doesn’t. Let your parenting instinct help you choose the right moment.

The Golden Age: Ages 2–4
Something I noticed while photographing many children, including my own, is that there seems to be a universal age when kids are the most photogenic.

That seems to happen between ages two and four.

Kids around this age behave very naturally. They don’t care that someone is looking at them, they don’t care what others think, and they don’t care that a camera is pointed at them.

They aren’t yet self aware. And so, they’re free.

Ages 5 and Older
It gets a bit more difficult when they’re older. As early as age five, they start to become more self-conscious when the camera comes out. They start to pose.

The key here is to be very patient. Let them play while you disappear into the background. My best photos always happen at the end of a photo shoot, when my kids have forgotten all about the camera.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

4. How to get good photos of your kids with pets.

Just like people, every animal is different. Some pets like to be photographed, and others don’t.

Because every pet is different, there isn’t a magic formula for this. I spend hours observing our farm animals, figuring out how they move and what angles work best for them — just like I would for people.

I’ve also tried bribing pets with food, but it doesn’t work. It’s almost impossible to get a good picture when they’re chewing or licking their paws. So I’ve learned the hard way not to feed our pets during photo shoots.

With animals, you have to rely on a bit of luck — and constant patience.

5. Don’t give up.

This is the most famous photo I’ve taken. It’s been viewed over 10 million times — but I almost didn’t bring my camera that day.

Before I took this photo, my confidence was at a pretty low point. I had tried for a photo of my son and dog 14 other times — not 14 other photos, but 14 full photo shoots, all failures.

I was convinced that my hands were too clumsy, or my dog was not the right dog for it, or my kid was not the right kid for it. I was just feeling desperate that day and didn’t even want to bring my camera.

But something told me to bring it. And on that fifteenth day, it all just came together.

This dog of ours is now famous — but he’s not all that photogenic from most angles. He’s actually a pretty difficult dog to work with. From the previous 14 photo shoots, I’d learned what angles and body compositions work for him and my son.

It‘s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to think, “Oh, why bother, it won’t work anyway.” And it may not for the first 14 times. Those 14 photo shoots weren’t failures though, because I learned from them. And they’re what made the fifteenth one possible.

Don’t give up.

For when you get frustrated.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

When I was first starting out, I got frustrated easily. I used to create these elaborate setups — I’d bring my kids to a special place, in special clothes, at a special time with the lighting just right. I’d arrange it all. And naturally, I started to feel like they owed me a good photo.

But I started getting better photos when I realized: no one owes me anything.

If you get frustrated, your kids will sense it and won’t want to participate anymore. Which just creates a vicious cycle of more frustration. When I stopped feeling entitled to a good photo, I was more relaxed. It was more fun for me and for them.

Rather than creating high-pressure elaborate setups, observe your kids in everyday simple situations. Do it every day. Bring your camera along.

And then — when the right moment comes along — you’ll be ready.

See more of Elena’s photos on her SmugMug print site.

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Watch Elena demonstrate these tips.

5 Easy Ways to Ready Your Website For a Busy Year

Now’s typically the time of year when you step back and re-evaluate your life. Whether or not you follow tradition (or break it), it’s always a good idea to think about your photography, your goals, and how you want to get there in the coming months.

Today we debut 5 easy questions to ask yourself to help you check your SmugMug site and be sure that it’s ready to face the next wave of photos, fans, and fame.

Read how to reboot your site for success »

Note: Some of these tips are only possible in current SmugMug, so if you’ve been with us since before July 30, 2013 and haven’t upgraded your site, preview the latest version of SmugMug now. You’ll get free access to a slew of incredible new features, because they’re already included in your subscription.

Other Ways to Stay in Control

If you’re super excited to take the tidiness to the next level, here are two more great articles we recommend bookmarking to help you sort your photos and stop the headache.

As always, our Support Heroes are here to help if you have questions. We do way more than just tell you where your Account Settings are – remember that we’re photographers, too, and we’d be thrilled to help you achieve your goals for the year. Talk to us!

8 Rules to Remember That Make More Powerful Portraits

Valentine’s Day is rolling up, which means portrait photographers are aiming to capture beautiful clients looking their best. But even if you simply want to learn to take better, more powerful portraits, here are a few tips from expert portrait photographer, Alexandria Huff As the photographic brain behind the On Creating ChiaroscuroGlare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses, and Transitioning from Point-and-Shoot to DSLR: Understanding Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors, she’s well qualified to share these 8 essential rules no portrait photographer should ever forget. 

By Alexandria Huff

There are no rules in photography. There are, however, good habits that photographers rely on when they need to quickly capture a solid image. These habits are especially important when shooting for clients rather than just for personal projects.

1) Items in the foreground will look bigger/fatter/wider than the rest.

Keep extremities away from the foreground unless you’re going for that exaggerated look. Even the elbows in the second image are too far forward for my taste.

We get fixated on faces when shooting portraits and sometimes forget about what the rest of the body is doing. Keep hands, feet, and anything else you don’t want looking too bulbous further away from the camera.

2) Cutting off hands, feet, and foreheads can ruin visual flow.

Don’t crowd your frame or cut hands off at the wrists. Watch out for this when shooting in small spaces.

Arms and legs can act as leading lines for viewers that they follow out to the edge of the frame. Cropping at ankles, wrists, and foreheads is often too abrupt a cut-off for viewers. It is generally more acceptable to crop mid-thigh for 3/4th length portraits or at the waist/above the elbow for half length portraits. Also, cropping the forehead can have a “Frankenstein effect” so crop above the hairline.

3) Anything directly behind the subject’s head can make an image look weird.

Lines directly behind the head of a subject can be distracting. Check your backgrounds.

Mind your background to avoid “brain stems” – lines, trees, or other elements that photographers accidentally place their models directly in front of. Even in the studio they’ll appear in the form of wayward backdrop creases.

4) Slide your subject to the side.

Shifting a subject’s body over in the frame can produce more engaging portraits.

Symmetrical, center-weighted images can be really cool but the Rule of Thirds still has a strong place in photography. Placing your subject along one of the vertical/horizontal lines that divide an image into thirds produces pleasing results. Also, placing your model at an angle rather than square with the frame can be “slimming”.

5) Use broad and short lighting to your advantage.

The flash here is set up for broad lighting. Short lighting would dictate moving the flash to the far side of the subject’s face.

In broad lighting, the light is on the part of the face closest to the camera. Short lighting is on the far side of the face. Broad lighting is often good for softening skin and for thin-faced subjects while short lighting is good for bringing out wrinkles/character and for thinning wide faces. Use broad lighting if you want to avoid glare in glasses.

Using broad lighting (left) vs short lighting (right) will have a huge impact on your subject.

6) Direct your model through a series of micro adjustments and expressions.

Direct your subject through incremental changes in body language and expression.

The devil is in the details and your winning shot might differ from the rest because of a slight change in expression (like a Peter Hurley-esque “squinch”, parted lips, or dropped shoulders) rather than from large movements.

7) Make the most of lousy locations.

If you can’t have the location you love, love the location you can get.

Don’t shy away from shooting if you don’t have a studio or a park nearby. A strong portrait can be taken anywhere if you you’re following other compositional rules.

8) Shooting down onto your model is more flattering than shooting up at them.

It’s very rare for a subject to look good when being shot from below.

It’s rare for a subject to look good when being shot from below, even when you’re going for a power look. Nostrils are just not very photogenic — stick to eye-level or above. Remembering these rules and practicing good shooting habits will help you create consistently strong portraits. After a while you will have enough experience to successfully break the rules and develop your own distinct style.

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:

Cold Snap! Tips for Staying Warm While Taking Winter Photos

Planning on hitting the snowscapes with your camera? There’s plenty of cold-weather advice on the web, but our in-house landscape adventurers offered to share some of the more practical tips to help you stay focused on having a good time.  From one photo lover to another, it’s about getting the shot and having fun – not freezing your fingers off. Here’s what they said.

1) Keep Those Hands Warm

Snow can turn an otherwise mundane scene into something starkly exotic. Photo by Ivan Makarov.

Your hands are the second-most important part of you in photography (after your eyes), so treat them well. There are many kinds of gloves that keep your appendages toasty while still giving you tactical function: traditional, fingerless, convertible mitten/glove, or just regular gloves that you remove to hit the shutter. Go to the store, try them out, find what works best for you and your shooting style. As a bonus, get a couple of chemical hand-warmer packets and throw them into your pockets.

2) Hold Your Breath

Be ready and spend more time exploring the beauty of winter. Photo by Welling Photography.

 It’s pretty neat to exhale plumes of smoke like a dragon in winter, but you probably don’t want this getting into your shot. If it’s frosty out and you’re trying to capture clear, pristine views, hold your breath when you hit the shutter to be sure you’re not polluting the pic.

3) Bag It! (Your camera, that is)

Landscape photographers are familiar with harsh conditions, but being prepared is a good tip for all kinds of photographers. Photo by Schmootography.

Your house is significantly warmer (and damper) than the naked outdoors, and this can wreak havoc on your camera when you come inside. When you’re finished shooting, try sealing your camera in a Ziploc bag, pack it away, and wait for it to come to ambient temp after you get inside. Why? A cold camera in a warm room can cause moisture in the air to condense into water droplets, which is a risk your inner electronics probably don’t want to take.

4) Beware the Tripod

Just because the water’s still flowing doesn’t mean it’s warm. Photo by Mike Diaz Photography.

Given how tripods are a bit of an investment, we don’t recommend that you go out and buy a new one just to shoot in the cold. But if you are shopping for one and plan on doing a lot of winter landscapes, certain materials like carbon fiber don’t get as cold when you grab them. The last thing you need are sweaty palms that get you stuck when you’re packing up! If you do have a traditional metal tripod, try wrapping the legs with insulating fabric where you grab them, or cover the parts closest to the ground in plastic to prevent salt, water, and other damage. You know those long, rectangular plastic baggies you find at incense shops? Those are perfect.

Way-over-the-top tip: If you’re super hardcore, wood tripods are a great compromise between cold resistance and vibration stabilization. It’s not likely you’ll be spending your winter standing in icy rivers, but if you were, we hear wood’s the way to go. 

5) Plan Ahead

Winter portraits can be tons of fun for both you and your clients. Keep warm and plan ahead so the attitudes stay positive! Photo by Black Cat Photography.

If you know what you’re doing, you’re less likely to scramble. And this is especially important in uncomfortable situations like bone-freezing cold, so plan your shoot as best you can. Scout the location, check the weather and sunrise/sunset times, keep cables and cards within reach, and have an idea of the final image so you bring just the gear you need. The less time you spend switching lenses or moving around, the more time you can spend focusing on your shot. (Plus, it’ll probably be dark.) 

6) Thaw Properly

Snow can add emotional warmth to your engagement portraits, even if it’s ten below zero. Photo by Black Cat Photography.

When you’re done, don’t forget to come indoors and sip a hot chocolate while you edit, upload, and share your photos. We’ll argue that this is the most important step of all. Because chocolate. ;)

Stay warm and creative this season! If you’re feeling ready for snow and need more inspiration, don’t forget to check out our short film about Arctic surf photographer, Chris Burkhard. 

Related Links:

 

SmugMug Films: Earth from Above with Astronaut Don Pettit

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

ISS Star Trails
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

 

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Spain at Night
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

ISS Star Trails
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit
Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

 

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.

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Check out more of Don Pettit’s photos over at SmugMug Films.

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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.