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.

PIX 2015: Inspiration, Demos, Von Wong, Oh My!

Join SmugMug for two days of photography inspiration and hands-on learning at PIX2015, a brand-new conference organized by the good folks at DPReview and Amazon, on October 6 and 7 in Seattle. At PIX 2015, you’ll have the opportunity to hear inspirational talks, take part in photo walks, get hands-on demos of new photography gear, and of course, connect directly with SmugMug. Plus, we’re giving away awesome prizes! The expo is free – just grab a pass and come on down! More details below on the three ways you can get in on the fun.

Two Days of Creative Inspiration in McCall Hall

On Tuesday, October 6, at 11:15 a.m. SmugMug customer and master photographer Benjamin Von Wong will give an exclusive talk, titled “From Ordinary to Extraordinary,” as part of the “re:Frame” series of inspirational talks, taking place in McCall Hall of the Seattle Center. You may know of Von Wong’s boundary-pushing art from previous SmugMug collaborations such as the superhero-themed photoshoot on top of a skyscraper in San Francisco or the sweat-drenching photoshoot that helped “ordinary” people look like Olympic athletes.



Alternatively, you may have heard about the nearly $2 million he helped raise for the treatment of Eliza O’Neill, a 4-year-old girl suffering from a terminal, degenerative genetic disease called Sanfilippo syndrome. He’s a creative force to reckon with, and we hope you’ll join us in person to hear his talk. Attending any talk in the re:Frame series costs just $10. Browse the full schedule of talks and purchase your ticket here.

Want to connect with Von Wong in person? You can do so by visiting our booth (for free) at Booth 11 in the Exhibition Hall.  Simply register for a free expo pass here.

Free Demos and Giveaways at Booth 11

Find us in Booth 11 in the Exhibition Hall of the Seattle Center!  The Exhibition Hall is open on Tuesday, October 6, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Wednesday, October 7, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. We’ll have a daily prize giveaway, plus special show swag for people who register at our booth.

Panel Discussion on Photo Privacy

DPReview, in partnership with leading thought leaders, will host a panel discussion called “Protect Your Privacy Online.” SmugMug’s Director of Customer Support, Ben MacAskill, will take part, bringing 12+ years of perspective on the changing attitudes around online privacy. If you’re interested in hearing the discussion, please visit the Exhibition Hall Stage on Tuesday, October 6, at 3 p.m.

Hope to see you there! Pick up your passes here.

Renee Robyn’s Top Tips for Creating Epic Digital Art

Photographer and Digital Artist Renee Robyn survived a devastating motorcycle crash that nearly left her paralyzed. Unable to leave her bed while recovering from the accident, she discovered a new way to express her boundless creativity without having to travel: digital composites. She’s now a critically acclaimed artist. Learn more about Renee’s inspirational story through her SmugMug Film, the latest in a series of stunning video shorts that we hope will inspire passion, ignite possibility, and encourage you to throw your own shutter wide open to the wonders of the world.

Below, Renee shares some of the tips she’s learned through years of “trying to make things suck less.”

Photo by Renee Robyn

1. Look for inspiration everywhere.
I read way too many fantasy books, and I probably played too many video games. When you’re creative, I don’t think the ideas come from you. I think they come from the universal ooze, and you channel them into existence. You bring something into reality that wants to be here and is looking for the right translator. Your job as an artist and as a creator is to take that content from something that isn’t tangible into something that is.

Look around—every single image is like playing with a Rubik’s cube. Turn things around and eventually you’ll find something that works. Look at draping and lines, colors, body shape, and personality. Take it all in and mash it together.

Immerse models in the story
Photos by Renee Robyn

2. Immerse your models and make them comfortable in the story.
When you’re doing portrait photography, it’s really psychology. You have to be able to communicate and make your subjects feel comfortable. Most women need to feel safe, and they need to feel heard. Most men like to feel strong and powerful. You have to consider these things because not everyone is going to behave the same way, particularly if they’re not comfortable in front of the camera. Experienced models are a different story, but not all of us shoot pro models day in and day out.

When it comes to composite images, your models can’t see what you see. You can show them the background pieces, the idea of it, and then tell them to imagine themselves running there. If I want to create a wonderful portrait, I’ll say, “Imagine you’re running through a field full of magical flowers,” and s#@$ like that. As soon as people start to imagine that, with the way neuroscience works, the brain starts dumping all these chemicals into the body and these tiny physical changes start to happen. And all these tiny changes are what will take their posing from good to great. You can’t tell someone, “Look sexy,” if they don’t feel sexy. It just looks awkward. Same goes for storytelling poses.

Leap of Faith
Photos by Renee Robyn

3. Photograph with the end story in mind.
I shoot most of my stuff on grey paper. For me, it makes it easier to isolate my subject for compositing later on. It’s not for everyone, because our styles are all very unique. I cringe at the thought of a green screen, but I know many digital artists who use them with great success.

Light for the environment you’re going to put your subject in. For example, in the “Leap of Faith” shot, I lit my model with an octabox on a boom overhead for a large, soft light source. But then I got shadows around the sides of her body, which is what’s going to happen when you flat light from the front. When you’re having something jump over the side of the building, though, sunlight will likely be reflecting from everywhere. If you put your hand out, you might see there’s a little bit of a highlight coming from beneath because something is reflecting. So I added two strobes, one to each side of her, and I bounced them off the wall to gently fill in those shadows a little bit. This made the final composite more realistic, since my lighting more closely matched the environmental conditions I was going to put her in. I actually will photograph my hands a lot when I’m in certain scenarios shooting backgrounds, just so I’ll have a record of how the environmental lighting behaves so I can work with it later with more accuracy.

Photo by Renee Robyn

4. Edit nondestructively.
Use brushes, masking, colorizing, liquefying, and, of course, layers. I like to use channels for color, masking, and doing luminosity adjustments. Those are the big ones. My motto, in photography and composite work, is basically push buttons until it sucks less. Try lots of things, and keep an open mind.

Zoom in really, really close, usually 300–400%, and start masking everything. I start with a 30%-ish flow brush, and I’ll change that a lot depending on where I’m working. And I’ll change the hardness of the brush a lot. I use brushes all the time, and I make many of my own as well.

Editing nondestructively always results in tons of layers. Make groups! Groups are awesome. Group that s#@$! If you build good organizational habits when you’re starting, it gets easier to keep track of what you’re doing once you start building more complicated composites.

Photo by Renee Robyn

5. Use the tools that work best for you.
My go-to tools are Photoshop, a Wacom tablet, and Nik Software. And I like to tether using Capture One version 8. I like to shoot tethered to my laptop so I can see really what’s going on. The screen on the back of the camera is really small, and you can’t really tell if anything is going to match the way you want it to. I can start lining things up more accurately when I shoot tethered.

Vanishing point
Photo by Renee Robyn

6. Make time to understand the basics.
Understand color theory. Understand vanishing point. Understand lighting and contrast. Then understand how to tell stories. Understand what makes great storytelling.

I took shortcuts when I was learning in my career, and it’s making things now a little bit harder for me. I have to go back and relearn those basics so I can make my artwork better in the future. Shortcuts aren’t really saving you much time. I think to be a really great artist, it helps to understand why color behaves the way it does. When you’re making images, colors are very important, regardless of what you choose to shoot.

There’s this really awesome book out there. It’s dry as f@$#, but if you want to learn color theory, it’s the best one out there. It’s called Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers. If you want to learn color theory, it’s awesome. It’ll probably take you a year to get through it because you read it for a little bit and you fall asleep. However, the guy knows his s#@$, and it’s fabulous.

Makeup basics
Photo by Renee Robyn

It sounds like a lot to take in, but anything we do that is a search to feed our creative souls often can be, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I often suggest taking classes that have nothing to do with photography. Creative writing, painting, sculpting, fashion, makeup, hair, sketching, even driving courses can all teach you things you can translate into your images. It doesn’t mean you have to go out and sign up for a two-year program at a high-end beauty college, but taking evening or weekend classes can just give you a different perspective on your existing process and teach you something you never thought of before.

The first time I sat down with a makeup artist and told her, “Okay, explain the basic stuff to me,” it totally changed my world and how I communicate to my teams.

Now, get out there, and be the most awesome version of yourself that you can be.

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

Show Us Your SmugMug Smile at Photoshop World 2015

Join SmugMug for three days of creative adventures at KelbyOne’s Photoshop World Conference and Expo, the world’s largest Photoshop, Lightroom, and Photography conference of the year, August 11–13, 2015, at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Come out and be inspired by world-class educators, network with your fellow photographers, and show off your smile in the SmugMug booth for a special gift!

Take our class

Be sure to add SmugMug’s platform class, “Showcase, Share, and Backup: Why Your Photos Need a Website,” to your itinerary. Learn everything there is to know about building a beautiful photography website from award-winning landscape photographer Aaron Meyers.  Aaron is an expert at creating stunning photographs and, as a SmugMug Product Manager, beautiful websites to display them. He’s a former aerospace engineer but now limits his explorations to chasing light in remote locations on planet Earth. Join us August 12 at 9:30 a.m. in Tradewinds C/D. Don’t have your Photoshop World ticket yet? Grab a full conference pass here.

Visit our booth

You’ll find us at booth 217 in the expo hall.

Drop by for one of our SmugMug demonstrations or to talk with Nick (Beardly), Seth, Ann, and Aaron to find the answers to all your burning SmugMug questions.

Get cool stuff

We’ll have some special show swag for any visitor that shows us their “Smuggy.” Take a selfie with Smuggy, our logo, post it to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter with the hashtag #SmuggyPSW, and then bring that selfie to our booth. We’ll reward you! If you’d like to visit the expo only, please do so on SmugMug. Just print this expo pass and present it at the door. Need more convincing? Watch our SmugMug Film on our friend Scott Kelby, the man behind KelbyOne and Photoshop World, to see why he’s an inspiration to photographers everywhere.

See you there!

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.

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!