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.

Pictage customers, here’s a big SmugMug hug.

Dear Pictage Customers,

The SmugMug Family is sincerely sorry to hear that the Pictage photo platform will be shutting down at the end of September. As fellow photographers and another service that has operated in the same space for over 13 years, we can appreciate how much of a shock and how much uncertainty you might be feeling right now. We also know your primary concern is making sure your photos and your livelihood are safe. Selecting a new company to host your photos and make them look beautiful is your number one priority—and we want you to know that SmugMug is here to help.

Who to trust with your photos and your business is something we know you take very seriously. That’s why every photo you upload to SmugMug will have a home on Amazon Web Services (the Gold Standard in storage, security, and reliability with a 99.99% uptime). Also, we never alter your photos during uploading, so pixel for pixel, your image is saved exactly the way you uploaded it—every time.

SmugMug is a family-owned and operated business, made up of passionate photography enthusiasts who work tirelessly day in and day out to create the world’s number one photo storing, sharing, and selling tool.

Some of the standout features we think you’ll love are:

  • Unlimited Storage
  • 24/7 Support
  • Uploading photos from web, mobile and Lightroom Publish
  • Beautiful galleries and mobile-friendly designs
  • Selling tools and full integration with four top photo labs
  • Fair pricing plans
  • Consistently reliable service (99.93% uptime)
  • Friendly tools for building pro personalized websites in minutes

We realize you have many options when it comes to selecting a new home for your photos, and we hope you’ll consider SmugMug when it comes time to make the switch to a new service.

And right now, we want to welcome all Pictage users to the SmugMug family with a 25% discount on your first year’s subscription. Go ahead and start your free trial now! (Clicking this link automagically applies the discount when you subscribe.)

Finally, if you have any questions about our service, please contact us at: for our dedicated Pictage help center. 

We look forward to welcoming you and your photos to their new home,

The SmugMug Family

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!

Your Background’s Got Some New Moves

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and a gorgeous homepage for your photography website does just that. SmugMug makes it easy to have a jaw-droppingly beautiful homepage with our options for content, themes, backgrounds and layout. And now, we’ve added full-screen HD video to the already existing background options of full-screen slideshow, a single image, or a rotating series of images.

Backgrounds sit behind your navigation menus, Gallery Blocks, Text Blocks, and any other content you have on a page, so to make your video the star, you may want to consider moving—or even removing—content that cramps your style.

Of course, you’ll probably want to have your logo and navigation menu remain and be very visible. Certain colors in your background photos or video can make your site hard to read, but we have tools for solving that through background options: just toggle on a “mask” that dims or brightens the background and allows your content to shine.

This new feature is available only on New SmugMug. Videos must be less than a minute long and can’t be shortened after uploading, so make sure you trim your video before you upload it.

Once you upload your video, you’ll want to open your Customizer and select the Background tab to set it as your background. Check out this help article for the full dish on how to make your video background shine.

Is it available on my account? Basic account users can add background images, videos, or slideshows to their homepage only. All other account holders can add this content to any page(s) on their site.

You can set your video background to appear across your entire site, only on your homepage, or on select Galleries, Folders, and Pages on your SmugMug site. Tweak it to your liking in the Customizer.

New Feature: Gallery Downloads for Your Visitors

We’re excited to announce that we’ve added one more card to the digital-file delivery deck: Gallery Downloads for your viewers. You’ll now be able to give friends, family, or clients the power to quickly and easily download an entire gallery of full-quality photos themselves.

Have a set of birthday party photos that you’d like grandma to have, or a prepaid photo shoot to deliver to a client? No more need to send a disc or thumbdrive, or request the gallery download yourself and then forward the link.

Simply set this up in the gallery settings and remove yourself as the middleman in your digital-file deliveries.

You’re in control of whether or not this feature is available within a gallery, as well as who can use it—you can even set a password for the download process if you wish.

Combine Private Sharing with Visitor Gallery Downloads to create a personal, powerful, and private photo-delivery experience for your adoring fans. Private Sharing allows you to send a unique invitation for a gallery to specific guests. If you’ve got a SmugMug Portfolio or Business account, you’ll be able to customize this experience even further with your Client Area.

Of course, all our other digital-file delivery tools still exist. As the account owner, you’ll always have peace of mind knowing you can recover your original files from any gallery by clicking the download icon in the Organizer. SmugMug Portfolio and Business accounts can sell gallery downloads and individual photos by adding them to their Pricelists.

Learn more about Visitor Downloads, selling digital files, and Private Sharing from our help center.

Shiny, New Product Photos in the Shopping Cart

Do you ever find yourself about to buy your favorite photo, but hesitate because you’re not sure if it’d look better in a frame or as one of SmugMug’s beautiful, ready-to-hang print products? Well, now you don’t have to guess because you’ll see example images for each product before adding it to your cart.

Now, when you (or someone visiting your SmugMug site) opens the cart, you’ll see examples for each category of products to help you imagine how it’ll look in your home, office, or anywhere you want gorgeous art.

It looks great on mobile devices too:

When you choose a particular product and click the information icon, we’ll show you product images from a variety of angles so you’ll know exactly what to expect. We’ll even show you the back of the ready-to-hang products, so you’ll know how a product will hang on your walls.

And, of course, if you’re a SmugMug Pro selling specific products, we’ll always only show those products to your customers. Combined with other great pro features like coupons and packages, these product photos will help show off what you offer and boost sales.

Give the new product photos in the cart a thorough look over, and let us know what you think! We love feedback and are always looking for ways to improve your experience.

Note: This feature is available on New SmugMug only. Old SmugMug users will need to upgrade to try out the new shiny.

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.