When you combine the imagination of Benjamin Von Wong with the photographic enthusiasm of SmugMug and the MacGyver-esque ingenuity of SmugMug’s facilities genius, Daniel Petrosian, you end up with a lot of chaos and cool photos. Von Wong’s persistence to coax the best out of his everyday models resulted in portraits that awed the models. Many had no idea a “beast mode” existed within themselves.
Learn more about the magic behind creating athletes out of SmugMug employees with the right lighting, motivation, and a bit of rain.
Step 1. Lights, Location, and Rain Rig
How did the idea for this shoot come about?
Von Wong: SmugMug President and Co-Founder Chris MacAskill, aka “Baldy,” wanted to fill up the SmugMug gym with awesome photos, and I happened to be in town, so he commissioned me. He wanted simple black-and-white shots, but I had to put that special Von Wong spin on it.
The day began quite normally: setting up lights, backdrop, and rain. Things started getting exciting a good hour and a half later when—I don’t know what happened! I think word spread that the photos were turning out great, so Baldy ended up coming out himself to see the photos and start filming.
It started off really small, and it expanded from there into full-out awesome.
What made you think rain would be perfect for this shoot?
Von Wong: I think rain, in a sense, symbolizes hardship. We wanted to make people look like they’re working out and putting forth an effort, and everything’s harder when it rains outside. You don’t want to go out. It’s just crummy and grimy. From a metaphorical sense, the rain adds a really nice dimension.
Then, from a photography standpoint, it suddenly adds all these nice beads of water dripping down skin, which looks really nice.
It’s one thing to have this idea, and it’s quite another to control weather.
Von Wong: Yeah. In my mind it was pretty easy to make a rain rig, which is essentially a glorified sprinkler system distributed along a longer cross section. I talked to people who were smarter than me—Daniel and Brent—and explained what I was looking for. We basically had one day, and they just pulled it together with about $20.
How did you go about making it rain?
Petrosian: We brainstormed a little bit, trying to think simple and low-tech. Things were happening so fast, we didn’t have time to rig up something sophisticated. Think simple, and things usually work out. And we thought PVC pipe and sprinkler heads might do the trick. So we went to Home Depot.
We bought different kinds of sprinkler heads to test them out and see what the flow was like, how fast the water would come out, and how we could control it. After some experimenting, we ended up using brass/copper old-school sprinkler heads.
We connected them together using PVC pipe and plumber’s glue, and then we just connected a hose to it and made it rain!
So now that you had rain, how did you go about photographing it?
Von Wong: With water, just like smoke, you photograph its reflections by backlighting it. Water looks really good when it’s backlit. We needed two hard bare-bulb lights to light the droplets, and a black background so the drops would show up. For the foreground, I used two big parabolic umbrellas. Any large, directional light source would work to bring in our characters so they’re nicely lit without rough shadows.
It’s a basic four-light set up. With the subject in the middle, you have two lights coming in from the back and two bigger, softer lights coming in from the front.
How did you get rid of the ambient light?
Von Wong: We initially wanted to do this indoors because, ideally, if you want to freeze water droplets, you need a short flash duration. If you want a short flash duration, the flashes have to be at lower power. And that’s usually done in a darker environment.
We thought about shooting inside the gymnasium by putting down a big tarp and pumping out the water with a shop vac, then we kind of stared at each other and said that’s going to be way too much trouble. So we went with Plan B: a shaded area outside underneath a tree.
I ended up shooting at 1/1500th of a second at F/5.6 or F/4.
Step 2. Motivate Your Models
What was the biggest challenge during the shoot?
Von Wong: This wasn’t a professional athlete photoshoot. We were taking average people who hardly have any photoshoot experience and trying to make them into something more. To show them like they’ve never been shown before. The true magic of the shots comes from people doing something they had never imagined they would before.
And that wasn’t achieved just by taking a single shot. It was achieved with this very persistent pushing of people and getting them to try different things until they were comfortable in front of the camera. Pushing people to get the best out of them. That’s where most of the work happened. If you look at the video, you see me trying to encourage people, pushing them, making them feel good about themselves.
Tell me a little bit about trying to coax the best out of people.
Von Wong: You don’t always know what a person’s capable of doing. In my experience, the best way to find out what they can or can’t do is to simply ask them to do a variety of different things. It doesn’t matter what they actually do, whether it looks good or not, you just keep throwing ideas at them.
Along the way, as things are getting better, you say, “Wait, I really like that. It’s looking great over there. Put your arm a little higher. Let’s try another angle.”
It’s a continuous conversation to keep people busy. If you let them think too much about what they’re doing, sometimes it feels ridiculous. What looks good in camera might not feel natural in position. Not every pose I came up with worked. Actually, a lot of them failed. We took about 2,000 photos that day. But that process of working through things, people start to trust you.
A photoshoot is one thing, but the other aspect to it is the experience. All those who participated really felt like they pushed themselves and found a side of themselves they had never showcased before. That’s very important.
Step 3. Process and Print—BIG
Can we talk a bit about your post process?
Von Wong: It was relatively simple because all we wanted to do was convert the images from color to black and white. There’s a beautiful little button in Lightroom called “B&W” that does most of the work for you. That got the shots 90% done. Because we had taken the time to set up great lighting and good location, we got the photo right straight out of camera.
What did you do for the other 10%?
Von Wong: There was a little tweaking of highlights, shadows, and clarity to make the image pop a bit more. The rest was cleaning up water droplets that were too dense in certain areas, like on the face, using healing and cloning to get rid of distractions. There was a little dodging and burning using curves to highlight different muscles and carve things out.
It was very simple—about 20 minutes per image for the post-production.
We love HUGE prints here at SmugMug. Were these tricky to print larger than life for a gym environment?
MacAskill: Our gym lives inside an old machine shop, and the available wall space—above the mirrors and equipment—curves. Even the ceiling is curved. So we needed a material we could print on that would, most importantly, look amazing, but also bend to fit the curved walls and stand up to the gym’s environment. And be large enough, of course.
We ended up printing each image with an Oce Lightjet at 68” tall on Kodak Endura semi-gloss bonded onto 1/4″ sintra, which is a lightweight PVC foamboard. We thought about adding a thin polycarbonate laminate over the prints to ruggedize them, but the prints ended up being hung so high we didn’t think they’d get exposed to sweat or medicine balls. So we didn’t laminate them. But it was a perfect option had we hung the photos any lower.
What did you love most about this shoot?
Von Wong: The greatest compliment was all those who didn’t participate were upset. I thought that was great. A lot of them felt like it wasn’t really their thing, but when they saw how the others’ photos turned out, they were amazed and sad they hadn’t done it themselves. That’s the best compliment you can get.
Check out an extra tip from Von Wong on how to achieve a similar look with a bucket of water and two speedlights!
Find Benjamin online:
As we roll into the season of longer nights, we don’t think the extra darkness this should cut down on the amount of time you spend with your camera.
Low-light photography can be intimidating if you’re new to photography, but it’s easier than you think…. and you can take some amazing photos that take much more patience to capture when the days are bright and long.
Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind to keep you shooting (and sharing) photos through the darkest time of the year.
Know Your Gear
Photography is all about physics, but even if you weren’t a science major you can take a few minutes to learn the only tip you ever need to learn.
Photography is about capturing light, so low-light shooting means maximizing the amount of light hitting your sensor. There are three ways to do that:
- Allow more light through the lens
- Keep the shutter open longer
- Boost the sensitivity of your sensor
How? Widen the aperture of your lens, slow down your shutter speed, or raise your ISO, respectively. If you’ve never done any of this before, dig up your camera’s manual (or Google for the PDF version) and get to know these three things now. Shooting in your camera’s Manual mode is the most tricky – but most surefire – way to learn these principles, but you can also try Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes to fix one of the settings and let your camera automatically calculate the rest.
Knowing which buttons to push and which dials to turn is a priceless skill to have, and you should commit it to muscle memory now so you don’t end up panicking in the dark.
Additionally, your camera and lenses often have specific limitations. If you have an older camera, for example, you may not want to push the ISO above 1600. And some lenses simply don’t open up wider than f/5.6. If you’ve been thinking about trying new equipment but aren’t sure it’s the right gear for you, check out our own, in-house gear reviews to get an idea of what’s out there before you drop thousands of dollars.
Embrace Your Grain
Even if your images come out a bit grainy from pushing your ISO, that’s OK. Think about all the film photos you’ve probably seen from 30 to 50 years ago and you’ll notice the grain adds a lot of character to the image. It makes sense to embrace it and get to know it a little better.
Grain itself can contain quite a bit of color that may not be found otherwise in your scene. To minimize it, try third-party noise-reduction software, or experiment with the noise-reduction feature in programs that you’re already using, like Lightroom and Photoshop. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Alternatively, try converting your image to black and white and playing around with the contrast. Photos that look weird at first look rock ‘n’ roll once the color’s stripped out. To do this, give it a quick conversion using SmugMug’s Image Editor, PicMonkey, or (our favorite) Lightroom.
Make More Light with Lightroom
Modern digital cameras give you quite a bit of leeway with the exposure, so if your image came out a bit dark (which happens because your camera’s LCD often gives a brighter impression of your image than you actually took), it’s OK to bump the exposure in post.
For most, pushing the “Exposure” slider is sufficient, but some pixel peepers may suggest using the more specific sliders you can find below that: highlights, whites, and shadows. These boost only the pixels you need without harming the rest. Experiment with what works best for you to get the look you want.
Once that’s done, don’t forget to publish your goodies to SmugMug and show the world what you’re capturing after the sun goes down.
Seek the Moment, Not Perfection
Above all, don’t stress about getting the perfect shot every time. Blurred motion, being too dark (or too bright) are all details that take your photo beyond basic shape and color. So be sure to capture the action, the intensity, and the joy of what you and your friends are doing. Even if it’s not textbook perfect, we guarantee that as soon as you share your photos, they won’t be thinking of anything except how much fun they had.
We’ll be sharing a few more low-light tips in the weeks coming, so stay tuned for more creative ideas to keep shooting in the dark!
Since today is World Smile Day (and we love to smile), we thought it was perfectly appropriate to share a few tips we’ve written that help you better create infectious grins throughout your circle of fans.
Keeping your smiles safe, sharable, and profitable:
- Smug Tip: Take Your Photos Further With These Smug Features
- 3 Flavors of Privacy: Are You Using the Right One?
- Share Photos to Make Lots of Money
Start smiling more… with photography:
- 10 Ways to Get Out of That Photography Rut
- Glare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses
- For the Love of Photography: How to Organize a Photowalk by Scott Jarvie
- 5 Killer Locations for Your Photo Shoots
- Tony Corbell’s Top Tips for Stellar Portrait Sessions
- What Not to Wear (to That Photo Shoot)
Inspirational smile-grabbers (AKA People who get to do this for a living):
- SmugMug Films: Extreme Filmmaking by Devin Graham
- SmugMug Success Stories: iSmile Studios, Inc.
- Making Magic: Stylists in the Fashion Photo Shoot
- Sportraiture: Punch Up Your Portrait Photos with Levi Sim
- SmugMug Success Stories: Smilebooth
- Picture Perfect Pet Photography
Enjoy the day, and don’t forget to capture it in pictures!
The Smilers at SmugMug
Don’t let your photos die in the digital graveyard! Even though we live in the iPhone age and highly recommend that pro photographers offer digital downloads as part of their business models, we think that a trusty, traditional, physical print still has a place in every home.
Here are four reasons why.
1) Prints Bring Photos to Life
Prints have presence. There’s never any doubt about that, as any framed photo or tangible image in your home draws the eye every single time. It’s easy to dismiss the importance of a physical print when you’re not actually faced with one, but once you unwrap your print, feel the weight of it in your hands and see the light shining from its surface, you’ll see what we mean.
Particularly if you opt for metallic paper finish, or one of SmugMug’s modern print options like MetalPrints and Box Frame Prints. Guaranteed to stop every guest in their tracks.
2) Not Everyone is Online
Facebook may hold its fair share of friends with whom you share photos, but we’re willing to bet that your social group isn’t 100% online. For all the people you care about who aren’t on the web, prints are the medium of choice.
Whether this includes your mom, your grandpa, or your pen pal from 3rd grade abstaining from the internet, we’re pretty sure they’ll be delighted to receive a print, album or even a photo book in the mail.
3) Rare Means Care
Since we’re all guilty of taking digital photos for granted, prints are rare and (by basic laws of economics) will command more attention because of their relative scarcity. You know you’ll already captivate your online audience with your unlimited SmugMug galleries, but we’re pretty sure one meaningful print in your hallway will grab their attention, too.
For those of you looking for the most bang for your buck, prints are perfect for you. And who wouldn’t want something special hanging on their wall?
4) Your Memories Exist Even If Your Computer Explodes
Imagine you’re rummaging around your desk and find a priceless snapshot from 1992 that you took on one of those disposable cardboard cameras. Wow!
It’s definitely easier to drag and drop your files around folders on your hard drive (or in your SmugMug Organizer), but real photos are a joy to unearth. While not completely immune to discoloration, fire or fading, so many threads of history have been woven into a larger tale because of photos, crisp and bent with handwritten notes scrawled along the back.
Wouldn’t you want physical proof that you lived, even after the ‘Off’ button was pressed?
Let Your Photos Grow Up on SmugMug
We have four great print labs for you to choose from at SmugMug. EZ Prints is available for Basic subscribers, and Bay Photo, WHCC, and Loxley Colour are additional options (with additional print and mounting choices) for Portfolio and Business accounts.
To see the complete list of all print sizes and products available on your account, simply log in and view your Account Settings > Business tab to view your Pricelists by lab. Basic and Power Users can just click the Buy Photos button in any gallery to open the available items in the shopping cart.
Print your photos. No matter if you’re just snapping moments on your iPhone or documenting in RAW with a top-of-the-line DSLR, whether you just snap photos of your friends or if you’re a full-time pro, it’s up to you to make the most out of your life. So buy a print, hang it on the wall and keep those memories close at hand.
You won’t regret it.
Links to love:
- Pros, don’t leave money on the table. Sell digital downloads
- SmugMug’s four great print labs
- Paper pixel peepers, look here for full details on our print specs
- Photo Extras at Bay Photo: Frames, mountings, finishes and more
- Turn your SmugMug galleries into custom photo books in minutes
- 4 Reasons Why the Organizer is the Best Thing to Happen To Your Photos
- How to price, sell, and make money on SmugMug
- All about your Account Settings
Today’s post comes from extraordinary surf and landscape photographer Chris Burkard, who we recently featured in our short film, Arctic Swell. Chris has made it his life’s work to find wild, remote destinations and then capture the juxtaposition of humans in these environments. The world is an oftentimes harsh, humbling, and magical place, and Chris wants to photograph it all.
He shares his essential night landscape tips below. You can browse his portfolio and print store on his site.
It’s hard to beat the enchanting feeling of star gazing at a clear night sky. You soon become lost in its beauty like a giant kaleidoscope full of shooting stars, planets, and glow from the setting sun or nearby cities. I’ve traveled to countless countries over the past ten years and some of my fondest memories occur long after the sun has set. Whether it’s camping near my home in Big Sur or witnessing a rare northern lights show in the Arctic, I’ve had the privilege and challenge of documenting these night landscapes.
My introduction to night photography happened when I took a road trip in 2006 along the entire California coastline. My friend Eric Soderquist and I spent over two months on the road in his Volkswagon bus in search of waves in every California county. The trip was later turned into a book, The California Surf Project, and looking back through its pages you can see some of the early stages of my night photography. Camping under the stars literally every night made me that much more appreciative and eager to capture the beauty of the night sky. Fast forward 8 years and I’m still drawn to these dark moments where my friends and I are huddled around a campfire in Iceland or getting lost in the magic of the northern lights in Norway. Photographing in the dark certainly requires some adjusting but here’s some tips to prepare you for the next time you’re shooting night landscapes.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 1: Get Away From the City
The farther you are from city lights the clearer you will be able to see stars and the less light pollution you’re going to have. The photo pictured above was shot in Big Sur, CA a few hours from any major cities.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 2: To Infinity!
Set your focus to infinity or focus on far away light sources to make sure you get the sky in focus. If you want to focus on your subject shine a light on them.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 3: Trial & Error
Don’t be afraid to test settings to see what works best. The beauty of working with digital cameras is that you get instant feedback. I usually open my aperture as wide as it will go (f/2.8 or wider) and then vary my ISO depending on how bright the sky is. In this particular photo I exposed for 30 seconds at f/1.8 and 400 ISO. I like to keep my ISO as low as possible.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 4: Frame Up
Remember that the sky is your hero in the photo. Try framing the sky in the upper 2/3 of your image and then vary your angle depending on the scenario. With the northern lights creating a really dramatic light trail I framed up. You could do the same with the milky way or stars in general.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 5: Expose Long & Short
Long exposures are going to leave you light trails and short ones should make the stars nice and sharp. Try both methods for variety in your imagery.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 6: Bring a Headlamp
You can use a headlamp to light up your tent or even light paint a tree or waterfall. Practice the amount of light that you are shining out of your headlamp because it is easy to wash out the picture with too much light.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 7: Add a Subject
Adding that human element to a picture can give it a sense of perspective and depth. Play around with where you place the subject in your frame. The less busy your framing is the better.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 8: Mind the Moon
If you want to have clear stars shoot underneath a new moon or when the moon is below the horizon. If the moon is out you can play with the effects that it can have on your photograph. Use it to backlight trees or your subject but be careful not to let it wash out your picture.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 9: Use a Tripod
Or a rock or the hood of your car. A tripod is you’re most crucial piece of night photography gear. Joby makes great camping tripods cause they are small and packable. I also recommend a remote so you can make sure your shots are even more stable.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 10: Stay Up Late
Night skies are often darkest and most active late into the night. I’ve seen tons of meteor showers and northern lights shows way past midnight. Set an alarm and wake up if you have to or use a remote to take photos periodically throughout the night.
Check out our short film, Arctic Swell, to see Chris Burkard and pro surfers Patrick Millin, Brett Barley, and Chadd Konig brave sub-zero temperatures in the Arctic Circle.
Links to love:
They say your first 10,000 pictures are your worst, or that it takes 10 years to become an expert. While we can’t necessarily refute those words of wisdom, we can share tips from our team of passionate photographers that may help shorten that climb to the top.
1) f/8 Is Usually Best
Without getting too deep into the details about optics and light paths, your lens has a sharpest point within the range of f-stops that you see on it. As a rule, the largest and smallest ends of the range are the softest, or least sharp, and f/8 or somewhere in the middle is where you’ll get the sharpest images. This varies by lens of course, but we suggest shooting your own test shots of the same subject at different apertures, zooming in, and seeing how that affects your images.
Tip: Don’t know what f/8 translates to in your photos? You can search for any kind of photo on SmugMug and then refine your search to see just the photos shot within a specific aperture range. Neat!
2) Cropping is OK
Unless you’ve jumped straight into big league macro or wildlife communities (where cropping is “cheating”) it’s totally fine to take your original photo and crop it so you have a better, stronger composition. Or maybe you just used the wrong lens and need a bit more zoom. Either way, it’s your trade secret and artistic decisions like this are part of what makes you – the photographer – unique.
Tip: You don’t have to crop before you upload to your SmugMug galleries. Use our handy Photo Tools to crop your images, or even Make a Copy and crop that one so you can compare the two and see which version you like best.
3) Renting is OK
You don’t have to own the gear to shoot with the gear. So you can’t drop $14K on a 800mm lens to shoot the next game? No problem – pay a pittance to have one for just the time you need, then send it back and call it a job well done. We can’t all be big spenders… even if we strive to get the perfect shot every time.
Tip: Our friends at Borrowlenses.com have a huge variety of photo, video, and lighting gear for every reason that needs a camera. You can even customize the amount of time you rent, if the standard time spans won’t work for you. Plus, SmugMug customers get an extra 10% off your entire order.
4) Editing is Essential
While we’ve stressed before that getting your photos right SOOC is good practice, it’s rare when a photo looks better raw than polished. Even the most perfectly-lit, powerfully-composed photo can benefit from a few finishing tweaks to color, sharpness, and other aspects that make pop to the eye. So even if you think that sunset couldn’t get better than it is, just give it a boost and see what happens. You just might like what you find.
Tip: You’ve got the power of Photo Effects (in your Photo Tools) and Picmonkey for the photos that live in your SmugMug galleries. But take it a step further with Lightroom: with the ability to sync and publish direct to SmugMug and pro-worthy features simple enough for beginners, we think you’ll be hooked. Check out the tutorials and see why.
5) Technique Can Solve (Pretty Much) Anything
Backlit subject? Contrasty sunset? Wind in your umbrellas? White dress, red walls? All of these scenarios (and thousands more) can throw a monkey wrench into how you thought the shoot would go, but you can still get the final photo you had in mind with practice, practice, practice. Study hard, stay inspired, experiment, and make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. The more you know, the more you can overcome challenges that would throw photo greenhorns into despair.
Tip: We can’t promise to have a ready answer to every problem, but we’re trying. As photographers ourselves, we strive to write and deliver photography-, website-, and business-focused articles on our blog, the SmugMug School website, and through our email newsletters. It’s our mission to help make photography (and whatever you do with it) more fun.
Links to love:
- Smug Features You Didn’t Know You Had (like EXIF search)
- Cropping in SmugMug
- ClubSmug for exclusive photo discounts
- Getting the shot right the first time (and other tricks to speed up your workflow)
- Using the in-SmugMug Photo Tools to apply color effects
- Beginner-to-advanced Lightroom video tutorials
- How to use the free SmugMug-to-Lightroom plugin
- SmugMug School: By photographers for photographers
- See what you missed in our newsletter archives