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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
6) Direct your model through a series of micro adjustments and expressions.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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!
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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. ;)
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.
So far this season we’ve shared a few basic dark-friendly photo tips, but winter’s not over yet. Here’s a few more ways you can stay creative with the camera even when the nights are long and there’s never a lot of light.
1) Use Your Bokeh
Bokeh is the blurring of the out-of-focus areas you’ll see when you’re taking pictures with your lens opened all the way (low f-stop numbers). It’s a great way to draw the viewer’s eye to a part of the scene, since everything else fades into a creamy blur.
Bonus tip: Lights (like Christmas lights) usually appear as circles, but did you know that you could make them any shape you want? Simply cut out a shape in dark paper and tape it over your lens like a lens cap, then take your picture through the hole at your lowest aperture value. Voila! Your background lights will automagically be hearts, stars, snowflakes, or whatever else you’ve cut into your 10-cent bokeh-maker.
2) Make Twinkling Stars
Grab your tripods and make it a starry holiday night even if it’s snowing up a storm. The opposite of creamy bokeh, taking pictures with your lenses stopped all the way down (highest aperture values) will turn bright points of light into little stars. Since this means little light goes through your lens, you’ll need to set your camera on a tripod, set a timer, and let it go for a while. The coolest thing? Every lens creates its own signature star shape, so have fun experimenting with all the lenses in your kit to see which one you like best.
3) Use Creative (and Available) Light Sources
Don’t be limited to your strobe if you’re out with your friends and want to catch the mood! Sure it’s dark, but there’s tons of ways to snap your shot even if you don’t have your whole kit bag. Street lamps, strings of holiday lights, open doors, fire pits, and even the flashlight function on your cell phone are all potential lighting sources for your next happy holiday shoot. Experiment with the kind of effect each one creates and think outside the box – maybe your best shot of the season is a simple silhouette?
4) Paint with Light
Paint the town… with light! If you’d rather not move your friends over to the light source, bring it to them. Flashlights are all you need to stand your subjects where you want them most, and help them stand out in the dark. Be sure to set your camera on a tripod, set a longer exposure, and cover them with photons. It’s especially great if you’re outdoors and want to pair a sharp subject in the foreground and warm house lights (or even stars) behind them.
You may need to try a few times to get it right, and to be sure that you get everything covered before your shutter snaps closed.
5) Make Happy (Light) Trails
While you’ve already got your tripod out, why not play with moving subjects? Light trails are a cool way to capture things the eyes don’t see, and to get super creative in the dark. Moving bright objects – like cars and friends waving flashlights – turn into lines during a long exposure, so try photographing a busy street in your favorite snowy location. Or have a friend practice his Picasso techniques by drawing pictures in the air.
6) Bring a Friend
If you’re afraid of the dark or just don’t want to learn alone, winter’s the perfect opportunity to warm up with a photowalk. You can experiment with all the techniques described above, or teach someone new who’s looking to learn. We’ve previously shared some tips about organizing social shoots from expert photowalk and community favorite, Scott Jarvie, so you can plan the best photowalk your town has ever seen… then pool them all in SmugMug so you can share the experience.
While we have a deal going this week for new SmugMug fans, we didn’t want to leave our existing Smug friends out in the cold. Our photo friends at KelbyOne, MacPhun, and Clickin Moms have some super deals you’ll want to grab if you’re hungry to learn and want to amp up your photo cred.
KelbyOne: Photoshop, Lightroom, and Photography Education
Photographers and designers: KelbyOne hosts a massive party over Cyber Weekend with tons of disounts on education bundles, gift cards, and more. Check out their holiday deals before they’re all gone!
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MacPhun: Inspiring Photo Software for Mac
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Clickin Moms: Click, The Magazine for Modern Photographers
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From all of us at SmugMug, have a safe, happy, and a very photogenic week!