Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Adventure Photography: Is it Worth the Risk?

July 5, 2013 4 comments

We hope that many of you are out there enjoying your summer and spending time with the people you love most. This week we’re talking to  Smug friend Kelsey Gray: climber, world traveler, photographer and author of Alaska Rock Climbing Guide. He’s well known for doing heart-pounding stunts like cliff jumping – stunts that most of us will only ever enjoy in his photographs. So we had to ask the burning question: Why do you bring the camera and is it really worth the risk?

Photos by Kelsey Gray Photography

Climbing to Live

My first foray into climbing was back sometime around 2002 when I took an indoor rock climbing course at the Alaska Rock Gym through the University of Anchorage Alaska. Before that time, I was purely a gaming nerd who had gained almost 65lbs after high school eating cheeseburgers and pizza. With the occasional challenge of who can drink the most ketchup or eat the most salt packets, those were some very unhealthy years. During a routine doctor visit (also partially due to the emotional issues that come with being overweight and with an astronomical blood pressure), my doctor said that if I didn’t get off the computer and fix my blood pressure I would probably have a stroke by 30. I was 20 and that didn’t leave me much time.

After the indoor course, I enrolled in the outdoor course and found that to be even better. I soon after began climbing outdoors with a friend from Era Aviation, where we both worked. Later that year I began climbing with John Borland, who would introduce me to many areas around Hatcher Pass as well as becoming a great climbing partner and friend.

Enter: Photography.

Sometime during my first few years of climbing I became more interested in hiking peaks. My uncle, Dano Michaud, had dragged me unwillingly up a peak called Harp Mountain and the 1000+ft glissade (natural slide down the snow) hooked me. That summer I climbed peak after peak and soon realized that explaining the beauty of the areas was simply not enough. I needed to show it.

My very first camera was a small point and shoot with no screen and not enough megapixels to warrant labeling it on the front. I’m pretty sure it came free with a printer, which was also terrible. After a few trips I realized I needed a better camera. I upgraded to a Fuji Finepix F700 which worked for me for a long time. I then moved on to a Fuji Finepix S9000 before finally making the jump to SLR with the Canon 20D. After the 20D I moved on to the Canon 50D (which was later stolen from my car), and finally to my current camera the Canon 7D.


During my years of climbing I have learned some important lessons about myself, and how I view life. I am never more confortable than when dangling from a cliff with the sun setting and the wilderness expanding in my view. I’ve often said that the journey is not the summit but in the adventure, which I’m pretty sure is a mashup of others quotes, but I can’t discount the great feeling of having made it as high as I can go without actually flying into the air. When I reach the top of a peak or climb and look out over the expanse I have a ritual that I try to do as often as possible. It is as follows:

1. Close your eyes and wait for at least 30 seconds. Let all the emotions, feelings, failures and successes wash into you. Reject nothing.
2. Open your eyes and star directly ahead. Everything washes away, and I can’t help but feel that I was not meant to have a wall in front of me. Cubicles were not meant for us.

Climbing rocks by Kelsey Gray

Help or Hinder?

There are times when I won’t bring my camera climbing and I usually regret it. The hairy times when the sheep dung really hits the fan is when the camera seems to really come into use, if not for just recording the trip for my own memory. The worst time to have a camera attached to you is when jammed into an off-width. This is the climber term for anything that you can’t wedge your body into but is too big to use a single hand or fist to climb. It’s probably the most uncomfortable situation most humans will ever find themselves in. A 60m off-width can feel like you’ve just run a marathon, sprinting, while holding a log over your head. (If you’re curious about just what an off-width has to offer then Google for the video, “Boogie Till You Poop.”) Add climbing gear to your harness and it becomes worst; add a camera and you’ll pray it doesn’t shatter.

It is not easy to bring a camera as large as a Canon 7D up a climb, especially with consideration of the lens size. I usually stick with the kit lens that comes with the 7D, the 18-135mm, it’s not the best lens but it is light and easy to carry. I would upgrade to a better lens, except I’m always spending all my money on travelling. I like to carry it in a waist pack that I often clip to my harness, just in case it comes off. I know others who use backpacks but I don’t like having to take it off to get my camera out. That is my general kit for all adventures. Not much, but just enough so that I don’t feel burdened by it. The camera is there for my use to record everything that I wish to keep for myself or show to others, so I’ve had to take a rather lenient stance on its value. If I consider it gold then I’ll never bring it to the truly dangerous adventures. There are times I almost have to convince myself that my camera is already gone before I bring it, then I just try and make sure it stays in one piece. This allows me to continue to bring it to the most dangerous situations.

Adventure climbing mountains by Kelsey Gray

Worth the Risk?

There are others in climbing that are much more advanced in climbing photography than I. I’ve often marveled at their ability to get paid to do the things I’m paying for! But with everything comes risks, such as the photographer that was with Johnny Copp and Micah Dash, two amazing alpinists that died in an avalanche, their photographer (Wade Johnson) by their side. I’ve often had to decide just what is it I want to do, how far do I take this hobby that has become a driving force in life? I’m still figuring that part out. I have found that half of the reason I travel is to take photographs. If I were to lose my camera today it would probably take quite a lot of self-reflection to pull myself from the loss, even if I have the illusion that the loss is already imminent.

Like many other climbers I am driven too heavily by emotions. I would love to say that most of my travelling began as a desire to see the world and experience new things. The truth is that many of my travels have been fuelled by escape, the desire to escape the emotions that come with a loss, whether it is a relationship or the death of a loved one. Over time it has had to change as those emotions were hidden, or in my current case I found someone who truly makes me happy in life. Previously I spent much of the time travelling the world alone, a few of the trips included others. Now I try to share it with others, those who I travel with and those who I get to show through the photographs  I take.

Stay safe, wherever you are this summer! If you’re playing it safe at home or at the office, you can get your thrills from the other installments in our Photography Perspectives series.

Categories: photography, Sports, Travel

How Gary Arndt Does Everything, Everywhere

June 28, 2013 1 comment

If you’re a longtime follower of our blog, the name Gary Arndt may ring a bell. We featured him in 2010 and  he inspired many of us to follow our dreams, explore the horizon and take more photos. Gary’s still traveling the world and taking photos from all corners of the planet. As you’re dreaming of faraway lands and maybe even planning your annual vacation, here are a few tips Gary shared about how to efficiently pack, travel and share all the photos you take when you’re not at home.

Photos by Everything, Everywhere

How did you get your start as a full-time travel blogger? 

I made the decision to travel around the world in October 2005 and began my blog one year later in October 2006. I sold my home in March 2007 and have been traveling around the world ever since.

My blog began as a way to document my trip for my friends and family and sort of just grew into something more over time. I made a decision in late 2007 to take it seriously and to see if I could turn it into a business, which I now have.

How many places do you visit in an average year?

The number of places I’ll visit in an average year can vary and it also depends on how you define a place. 2013 has been very busy for me. So far this year I’ve been to 17 countries and I’ll probably be in around 35 by the time the year is over. I’m currently at the beginning of a 3-month trip to visit all the countries and territories in the Lesser Antilles.

This is a dream most of us consider at some point in our lives, but you’ve found success. How did you do it?

I promote my site whatever way I can. I do many interviews online and off. I’ve had my work appear online on sites like, The Today Show and Mostly people discover me via social media channels like Twitter and Facebook.

Most people are fascinated by my lifestyle before they ever see one of my images or read one of my articles. Simply having traveled for so long and having been to so many places is the biggest hook for people.

As far as recognition, I’ve won many mainstream travel journalism awards for my photography and for blogging. I won a Lowell Thomas Award last year for Photo Illustration of Travel (placing behind the New York Times), a Northern Lights Award for Photography of Canada (placing behind National Geographic) as well as many North American Travel Journalist Association awards and recently a SMITTY Award for my use of social media by Travel + Leisure Magazine.

Tip time: What’s in the travel blogger’s survival kit?

The bare minimum for me is my SRL, laptop and an iPhone. The iPhone gives me the ability to post images while I’m out and about. The SLR and laptop should be pretty obvious.

I also have an iPad, Kindle Paperwhite, and 2 USB hard drives. Over the last 6 years it has actually gotten easier from a technical standpoint. Many of the devices I used to carry with me have all been condensed into my iPhone ( GPS, video camera, point and shoot camera, wifi detector, audio recorder, microphone, etc)

How do you manage files on the road? For example, what storage systems/archiving tools do you use ?

People often assume that I back everything up in the cloud. This isn’t true. I can easily shoot several gigabytes of images a day and uploading that much data from remote places around the world is next to impossible. It is difficult to do even when I’m in the US. I have almost 2TB of images now and I’m not in one place long enough to do that sort of upload.

I have 2, 2TB USB hard drives that I carry with me. I keep them in two separate bags in case one should get lost or stolen. I keep a copy of everything on each drive.

I also have several hard drives at my mothers house. When I visit her, which I do about 2-3 times per year, I copy everything to those drives as well so I have copies in at least 2 locations.

By the time I outgrow my 2TB drives, there should be portable 3, 4 or 5 TB drives available. I upload only my edited jpegs to SmugMug. Those I consider my finished product. I obviously worry about my original RAW images, but so long as my finished jpegs are there, the world won’t come to an end.

I don’t think my system is fool proof or the best possible, but it has worked for me so far. I hope the day isn’t too far away when global bandwidth is big enough and cloud storage is cheap enough that it would be viable for what I do.

Do you shoot at the full resolution of your camera or do you use one of the lower ones to save space? Do you take your photos with the intent to sell big prints?

I shoot everything in RAW. When I began traveling I shot in jpeg and it was a horrible decision. Storage has gotten so cheap that I can not see the point in shooting in anything less than full resolution. I don’t shoot with the intent of selling prints, but I do always have that option by shooting in RAW.

Have you lost any images over the years?

Amazingly enough, I don’t know of any images that I’ve lost. I’ve been very careful about my data storage. When I started traveling, I was backing up my photos to DVD and an old iPod that I had. It was a horrible solution. I remember spending 2 days in Melbourne burning dozens of DVD’s and having to send them back to the US in a big box. I am amazed I haven’t lost anything from my early travels.

How do you deal with needing internet access in remote locations?

I seldom have a problem finding internet. As I am writing this, I’m on one of the lesser populated outer islands in the Bahamas, and the bandwidth here is fine. I’ve spent thousands of nights in hotels now and I’ve become an expert in maximizing my connection. Where in the room I can get the best signal, when to go down to the lobby or when I have to head to Starbucks or McDonald’s. I also have a global Boingo account which lets me log on to wifi hotspots all around the world.

What are your essential photo editing tools? 

I currently have a 15″ MacBook Pro Retina and use Lightroom 5.0, and occasionally Photoshop CS6. I also sometimes use SilverFX Pro and Photomatix.

Since you’ve been on the road for 6 years, has your camera changed much?

I began with a Nikon D200 and a 18-200mm lens. Today I use the exact same lens and have upgraded the body to a Nikon D300s.

The Nikon 18-200mm VR lens is far and away the most versatile lens on the market. I can take it out for the day without knowing what I’ll be shooting and be reasonably covered for both wide angle and close-up shots. It isn’t the ‘best’ lens on the market, but it is usually the only thing I need when I leave my hotel room.

I’ve stuck with a crop sensor camera for reasons of weight. The crop sensor lenses are smaller and lighter than full frame lenses. Size and weight is very important to me as I have to carry all my equipment with me all the time.

In addition to the 18-200mm lens, I also carry a 12-24mm lens and a 50mm f/1.4. I probably use those lenses for less than 5% of my shots. I have also rented lenses on occasions. During my trip to South Georgia Island and Antarctica last year, I rented a 500mm lens which was a fantastic decision.

I also have a lightweight carbon fiber tripod from Oben and my camera bag is from Timbuk2. I also use a BlackRapid shoulder strap.

Does your safety (or safety of equipment) ever affect your workflow, what you bring, or how you work?

Not really. I have never had anything stolen and I don’t worry too much about theft. I take common sense precautions and usually never leave anything expensive in my room when I am not around. I keep a minimal amount of gear with me, so I’m not as worried as some people might be if they were on a big photo shoot. I have older camera bodies, lenses and laptops at my mother’s house should I ever need a backup.

So, tell us Can you outline your workflow, start to finish?

1) I take the image.
2) Copy images from the camera to my laptop.
3) Copy images from laptop to my 2 backup hard drives.
4) Edit the images on my laptop.
5) Upload the edited images to SmugMug.
6) Delete edited images on laptop.

That last step is sort of controversial. Basically, images on my laptop are my to do list. As I finish images, I remove them to clear up space. I don’t have a permanent catalog for Lightroom like some people do. This system I developed years ago when my laptop hard drive space was scarce. I also don’t want to have to bring my USB hard drive out every single time I edit photos, as I often do it when I can find time in cafes or on airplanes.

Again, I’m not saying this is the best system, but it is the one that I use.

We hope that all of you – everywhere, anywhere – find a little inspiration to capture and share the moments of your life. Safe travels, and don’t forget to check out the rest of our Photography Perspectives series!

Categories: photography, Travel

Quit Your Job and Run For the Hills: Ron Coscorrosa Speaks Out

June 7, 2013 7 comments

The open road, sweet mountain air, and being alone in nature. As photographers, don’t we all dream about living the nomad’s life? If you’re like us, the thought probably pops up every now and then but most of us don’t actually take the leap and do it. One of our long time friends and Digital Grin veterans, Ron Coscorrosa, has been a subject of extensive envy for the past 2 years. He traded his tech job and high-rise apartment to live a life of sunlight, pixels, and sleeping in his car. So we asked him to give us the skinny on what it’s really like to put life aside and put photography first.

Botany Bay sunrise blue clouds by Ron Coscorrosa

Photos by Ron Coscorrosa

I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, but despite being near some of the most spectacular scenery in the American West didn’t pick up a dSLR until 2005, when I was tired of crappy image quality of my point and shoot digital camera (I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure it had a floppy drive and a resolution of 6×4 pixels). It turned out that buying a better camera only made the bad photos larger, not better. Deterred by this sad realization, the camera and some expensive lenses sat unused in my closet until finally overwhelming guilt forced me to start using them more (this process took years). Eventually photography and traveling to beautiful places became a passion, to the point where I quit my software development job in the summer of 2011 in order to travel and photograph full time for approximately two years, without any distractions and without trying to generate an income. During my travels I met my girlfriend and gifted nature photographer Sarah Marino and moved from Seattle to Denver to be with her, and since then we have spent the last eighteen months traveling and photographing together extensively.

You’ve done something extraordinarily brave, something many of us wish we had the gumption to do: Quitting your day job to spend two years doing photography. Was that a hard decision to make? Did you agonize for a long time, or was it spontaneous and immediate? 

It wasn’t a hard decision to make, nor particularly brave (at least to me). The hard part was in coming to the realization that there was actually a decision to make, that I didn’t have to live the normal life of working nearly fifty years straight until retirement when at last I would be liberated from the shackles of employment and free to enjoy life fully (assuming I was still alive and still healthy). After thinking about it for a few days, it no longer made any sense for me to continue the path I was on, and I was fortunate to have the financial flexibility to quit my job and be on the road within a few weeks of making the decision to leave.

By that point in my life I was heavily into photography yet not particularly good. I wanted to be able to dedicate myself to photography and pursue it absolutely free of distractions to see where I would end up. So having an alternative to work (in my case travel and photography) was definitely crucial to making the decision. I also didn’t want to be distracted by earning an income or trying to generate money via photography, I just wanted to do it for the sake of doing it itself.

What gear do you need to get the shots that you take? Do you pack differently if you’re traveling domestically vs internationally?

My preferred subjects are natural landscapes, both large and small (including macro and abstract subjects). I used to photograph wildlife, cityscapes, and some other subjects as well but felt I needed to narrow my focus to try and be good at something rather than mediocre at everything.

Currently I’m using a Canon 6D as my primary camera, with a series of rotating lenses (all Canon) including a 14 prime, 17-40, 24-70, 70-200 f/4, 100 macro, and 100-400, all subject to change pending future insurance claims.

I don’t distinguish between foreign and domestic travel as much as traveling by car or traveling by plane. If by car (my preferred choice, though it doesn’t work so well over oceans or apparently on I-5 over the Skagit river in Washington state) then everything will come. If traveling by plane, I typically won’t bring things like backpacking packs, extra food (unless it’s Iceland, where $3 gas station hot dogs get old after a few weeks when nothing else is open in winter), extra boots, etc. For both types of travel I will bring backup camera bodies and tripods, as inevitably something will fail on a trip and securing a replacement is a hassle that has potential to interrupt photography.

Selfoss Iceland black white and blue by Ron Coscorrosa

How has your gear held up to your adventure?  Is it true that you buy tripods in bulk?

My gear hasn’t held up at all, which is typical for landscape photographers who are in the elements (salt water, sand of various types, fresh water, waterfall spray, rain, and extreme temperature variances). I’ve had more experiences with Canon’s repair department than I care to recount. I’m on my third camera in two years. I have three tripods and none of them are fully functional (though I haven’t bought any in three years, it’s now getting to the point of ridiculousness and I may have to buy one soon). The only pieces of gear I can actually recommend are my RRS plates and ballheads.

Most of my gear failures are from gradual wear and tear in the elements rather than single dramatic incidents. One exception would be one of my aforementioned tripods which had a leg severed by an incoming iceberg on a beach in Iceland. Fortunately my own legs are of higher quality than my tripod’s legs and I remained unscathed.

If you consider your car gear, and I do, it’s held up fairly well despite 80,000 miles in two years and continual driving on roads that it is ill suited for, including numerous drives to the Racetrack in Death Valley, sliding down wet clay roads in the San Juan mountains in Colorado after a thunderstorm, going high speed over a rock disguised as sagebrush at Toroweap in the Grand Canyon and impaling the gas tank, driving twenty miles in slick mud near Escalante, Utah after an afternoon snow melt, navigating down steep rock shelves at Marlboro Point in the Canyonlands, and, the most expensive, getting stuck in deep mud on a remote desert playa two and a half hours from the nearest towing company.

You’ve spent the last two years doing crazy things like living out of your car so you can be in the right place for a sunrise shoot. What’s the best thing to come of it? What’s the worst aspect of it? Would you keep doing so if you could afford to, indefinitely?

For some reason, sleeping in a car brings much more scrutiny than sleeping in a tent (a more societally accepted form of cheap lodging), but to me, car sleeping is clearly superior in every way (save for backpacking, where sleeping in the car is not an option for obvious reasons).

It is more comfortable (especially with a twin foam mattress in the back), takes less time to set up and disassemble (in that it doesn’t take any time), can be used in noisy and windy environments, and comes with a full heating and cooling system. It is also more flexible, given there are always more roads than there are camping areas and none of them require a reservation in advance. It also allows me to be nearer to where I want to photograph for sunrise, letting me sleep longer.

There are some downsides, including questionable legality in certain places (though it rarely is an issue if you’re in after sunset and out before sunrise), occasional lack of public restrooms, and lack of showers. If the choice is between showers and photography, photography always wins. If it’s between showers and sleep, sleep usually wins. Apologies to any member of the general public that we may have came across while in the midst of a long photography trip…

If I had infinite resources I would still travel and sleep in the car because the main motivating factor is convenience and not to save money, though I’m sure the car would be a lot better!

Ibex dunes rainbow and sunset by Ron Coscorrosa

You don’t sell your work. In fact, you don’t take measures to protect it – it’s out there for all to see, enjoy and use. What’s your philosophy about that? What is your philosophy about taking photos in general and sharing them on the web?

Actually that’s not entirely true, all my work is copyrighted and can only be legally used with my permission. It is true that I do not watermark images and would never consider doing so. There are so many elements that go into making a compelling photograph that ruining it with an excessive or distracting watermark seems to undo the entire point of taking the photo to begin with. Measures such as right-click protecting images will only deter the lazy, as those with even limited technical savvy can download any image that is displayed in a web browser.

I do not sell my images or prints not because I’m against doing so in principle, but because I would currently rather spend my time on photography and travel. Sarah and I are writing a few location guide e-books that should be out by mid summer, but other than that I don’t have any immediate plans to sell my work or make money from my photography.

As for sharing images online, I do it all the time, mainly to tell stories of the places I’ve been and show people what I’m photographing. I’m not a big fan of the quid-pro-quo culture of many online photo-sharing or social media sites where the goal seems to be to solicit praise or get attention rather than engage in any meaningful dialog (some of which may be critical of the image being shared). I have met a lot of photographers online who have since become friends in real life, and that wouldn’t have been possible before, though I do wish there was less ego-stroking and more thoughtful discussion in general.

If you could sustain your lifestyle through photography sales and keep doing what you’re doing, would that change your perspective on image protection/pricing?

I don’t actually believe I can sustain my lifestyle through photography sales, as my lifestyle currently doesn’t involve spending any time marketing or selling photos. There may come a time when I believe that spending a little time on marketing and selling, or conducting photo workshops, would be worth the larger payoff of being able to do photography full time (which would be a different but possibly acceptable lifestyle), but right now I’m enjoying the flexibility and freedom of being able to photograph whatever I want, whenever I want.

Roaring Fork cataract green forest by Ron Coscorrosa

After completely submerging yourself in photography, are you ‘photo-ed out’ or are you still passionate? Are you planning on going back to work?

I am definitely still passionate but my priorities have shifted since I began. I no longer feel any pressure to come away from an outing or a trip with something to show for it or feel like I’m missing out on photo or travel opportunities. I am more able to take risks and be comfortable if they don’t pan out because I still have a gigantic and overwhelming backlog of photos I’ve barely even looked at. I’m much more interested in coming away with a unique or personal take than nailing an icon shot at peak conditions (though I still photograph icons occasionally because they’re iconic for a reason – they’re inspiring beautiful places). While I am not where I want to be as a photographer (and probably never will be, and this is good!) I believe I am finally on the right path and have a vision about what I want to accomplish with my photography.

I will be going back to work before the end of the year, and plan to use that time away from extensive traveling to process more photos and possibly dust the cobwebs off of my blog or at the very least create some new cobwebs.

How far in advance do you plan your travels? Do you plan for major meteorological or astronomical events?

For domestic trips, we usually plan a few weeks in advance (though a trip to the Colorado Plateau can just as easily become a trip to Death Valley if the conditions aren’t good). For international trips usually a month or more in advance. The only trip we planned for meteorological events was a March trip to Iceland in order to see the aurora (which we were able to witness several times and it is an amazing spectacle that deserves to be seen in person) Once we are on a trip, we go wherever we feel like going. There are so many random variables that one cannot plan for (weather, clouds, foliage, general conditions) so I feel it is better to be flexible and react to what’s there rather than follow a strict itinerary.

Mono Lake pink and blue sunrise by Ron Coscorrosa

You’ve got a dedicated group of friends in your social circles, but what’s your philosophy about shooting or traveling in groups?

I am lucky that I found a partner in Sarah who is equally passionate about photography and likes to photograph the same subject matter as I do. Photographing together enhances our individual experiences and there is almost zero conflict or friction (and though we are often at the same location our photos are always quite a bit different). Once you start photographing with more than three people I personally believe that you are compromising on photography in favor of being social (which is fine, if that’s what you are trying to do). Some areas and locations are just not conducive to small groups let alone large ones (and large photo workshops in these areas are annoying and in my opinion irresponsible). The idea of a “photo walk” is absurd to me. It’s a social outing; it has nothing to do with photography. So I prefer to photograph with Sarah and occasionally with one or two more people, but beyond that it’s too crowded. Photography to me is personal, not social.

What countries/areas are next on your hit list?

For foreign locations, Norway, Scotland, New Zealand, and Patagonia are near the top, but I’m just as happy in re-visiting old locations with a new eye or with different conditions or seasons. One could spend their entire lifetime in, say, Death Valley, and still only scratch the surface of what’s there. I’m not really in favor of hitting the landscape photography destination circuit like I was a few years ago. There’s plenty to photograph almost everywhere.

If you’ve enjoyed this guest post, don’t forget about the other posts in our Photography Perspectives series! We love hearing from photographers from all walks of life, and hope you do, too.

Categories: photography, Travel, Users

BYOC: Lighting Tips and a Kiboko 30L Backpack Giveaway from Andy Biggs

February 12, 2012 16 comments

Streams of light illuminating motes of hoof-churned dust. Storm clouds swirling over the Serengeti. As photographers, don’t we all dream about that? Please welcome guest blogger Andy Biggs, founder of Gura Gear,  African Safari leader extraordinaire, and SmugMug Pro. Gura Gear’s Kiboko backpack was inspired by Andy schlepping his gear thousands of hard miles trekking to the ends of the Earth. In it you’ll discover oodles of thoughtfully designed, photography-smart details to carry your cargo. Check it out here, and keep reading to find out how you can win your own to keep your gear safe on your next adventure.

Making The Most Out Of The Light

By Andy Biggs

When we think of dramatic photographs we often think of brilliant sunsets, saturated colors and a sun that hugs the horizon. Emotionally speaking I think many photographers are looking for those kinds of in-your-face lighting situations. Well, I have to say that much of the time we as nature photographers have to deal with lighting situations that are less than ideal. Ok, most of the time lighting is sub-par, or at least not what we are expecting. Here are some ideas on how to think about your photography in a different way, and how to come home with photographs that still stir the soul.

Let’s be honest. How many times have you gone outside with the intention of going to your favorite location, wait for a long while for sunset and then realize that the light didn’t meet your expectations? This happens to me when I am out on safari on a daily basis. It is something that I just have to deal with. What to do? The best approach is to accentuate the good things and try to eliminate the negative things.

Skip the Sky

Case in point. When the sky is overcast, grey or just not exciting, don’t include it in your photograph. As a wildlife photographer, that means that I might point my lens down more to include more of my subject and less of the sky. I also will use a longer lens that will include less of the environment. The photograph is more about the main subject than anything else, so I will go for a tighter shot than I would normally want.

As a general note, when I compose a scene I like to think of the potential photograph as a game: I attribute a plus, neutral or minus to various elements in a scene. My goal is to eliminate the minuses and accentuate the positives. The neutrals are just there because they have to be there. I use my shooting position, focal length and shooting angle as my variables to get all of the best pluses into the scene and to leave all of the negatives out.

Shoot Portraits

Because the sky is overcast, this means that the light that is falling on my subject is soft. Think of the light as if it is coming from the largest soft box on earth. There is a rule of thumb with lighting: the larger the light source, the softer the light. Well, a cloudy day will yield a very pleasing and flattering light, which will help accentuate colors.

Exploit Texture and Motion

Another approach that I use is to blow out the sky and turn my image into a black and white photograph. When a sky is mostly grey and has no definition in the clouds, it is very easy to overexpose and blow the skies out. This doesn’t always work for color photographs, but it is a great technique for B&W images. You end up with a high-key lighting situation, and it makes it easy to draw attention to what matters most: your subject.

I find that marginal lighting allows me to get creative with shots that have a very low success rate. When the sun has gone away for the day, or when it goes behind a cloud, I seek out pockets of soft light that work for blurred panning shots. I slow my shutter speed down and experiment with about any subject that can be found.

Harsh Light

Midday light can also be challenging, because the light that is directly overhead can create harsh shadows that have a distinct clue color cast to them. Rather than compete with the light, I find that by avoiding the direct light I can get some decent images. One type of example would be a leopard who is in a tree. I can end up with soft light on my subject’s face and body, due to the shade of a tree, and still get an image that I am happy with.

In Summary:

Spend your time thinking about how you are going to use marginal light to your benefit, as opposed to letting it take control over you. Photography literally means ‘writing with light’, and you will never be able to photograph without light. Use the lighting situation to your advantage and you will find yourself coming home with images that you are happy with, even though you had not though of those types of images before.

Remember to use what you have, and use it wisely. Be flexible with how you approach your photography, and don’t go out looking for only one kind of shot, because the light may not be what you want it to be.


Enter to Win a Kiboko 30L Bag Loaded with Photo Goodies


(This giveaway is now closed. Keep reading to see which lucky folks won big.)

The Kiboko 30L is a magnificent bag, designed by photographers for photographers. It’s lightweight (only 4 lbs), durable, and features a butterfly opening, allowing for unique customizable configurations for long lenses and multiple SLR bodies. The newest incarnation features a removable waist belt and fewer zippers for snag-free travel. In fact, SmugMug’s very own In House Pro, Andy Williams, swears by it. What more could you possibly want?

Here’s how to get yours:

  • Step one. Visit our sweepstakes page on Facebook.
  • Step two. ‘Like’ the page.
  • Step three. Answer the questions on the page.

That’s it! We’ll announce the winners on April 30, so stay tuned and come back.

Here’s the juicy prize list:

  • Grand Prize: 1 Kiboko 30L backpack ($429.00 value); 2 free years of SmugMug Pro ($300 value); 1 Monocular ($349.99 value); 1 Really Right Stuff TVC-24 Versa Tripod ($910.00 value), 1 Really Right Stuff BH-55 ($375  value)
  • 1st Runner Ups: 1 free year of SmugMug Pro and $75 Gift Certificate to Gura Gear
  • 2nd Runner Up: 1 free year of SmugMug Pro and $50 Gift Certificate to Gura Gear



Thanks to everyone who entered our Gura Gear giveaway.  We shuffled, tossed, and mixed up all the entries and randomly picked the following winners:

Grand Prize Winner: Randy Ellen

1st Runner Up: Shawn Kinney

2nd Runner Up: Osman Ullah

Just cuz’ we love ya, we also randomly picked 20 people to win Smuggy T-shirts. The lucky folks are: Radu Margarint, Kevin Whitehead, Larry Johnston, Kristine Philipp, Lamar Smith, Ken Holmes, Chris Holtmeier, Janet Wheeland, George Rodriguuz, Christine Ruffo, Kris Dome, Kathy Brundage, Zach Blackwood, Brittany Ann Spriggs, Wendy Peterson, Jamie Raddatz, Peter Williams, Joe Sterne, Joseph Orchard, and Jim Sylvain. Congratulations everyone! We’ll get in touch with you by email this week.

If you didn’t win this time, take heart. We have many more giveaways coming up for all Smuggers.


Have Bag, Will Travel

Categories: Contest, photography, Travel

Plan Your Next Adventure with Trey Ratcliff’s 2012 Calendar

January 17, 2012 29 comments

HDR Master, Travel Photography celeb and SmugMug Pro Trey Ratcliff kicks the year off right: With calendars!

Check out his exclusive, all-new photo beauty here. Twelve famous photos are printed on high-quality, thick glossy paper and saddled stitched for durability. It’s the perfect way to stay inspired and plan your own around-the-world adventure.

Win Yours on Facebook

He’s sharing the love with fellow Smuggers and offering 10 copies of this lucious wallhanger to 10 lucky fans.

To enter:

1. Like our Facebook Page HERE.
2. Share this blog link or contest FB post with your friends.
3. Post one of your best Travel photos and tell us the story behind the shot. You can post your photo on our FB Wall or in the comments below.

We’ll pick 10 winners on Thursday, January 19, to win a calendar, PLUS free Smuggy swag for themselves and a friend. That means you AND a friend have a chance to win, so spread the word and share the love :)

Happy travels!



Huge thanks to everyone who entered this contest. We loved seeing all of your photos and hearing your stories. Here are the randomly-selected winners, in no particular order. They will each win a 2012 Stuck In Customs calendar, PLUS cool Smuggy swag for themselves and a friend.

Phaeton Place

Suzanne Kammann

–Jonathan Wilson of JawSnap

–Knapp Hudson of Stone Coast Photography

–Bernardo Franco of Framing Colours

Shirley Ann Dees

Sheena Leazenby

Ashley Curella

Christian Mejia

Kyla Ford

Congrats everyone! Katherine from our team will get in touch with you in the next few days with info on how to collect your prize.



Categories: Contest, Travel

Shoot With Rick Sammon in NYC

June 2, 2011 3 comments

Rick Sammon‘s a big name in the photo biz and his reputation is well-deserved. He’s always out shooting, teaching and sharing his expertise (and his RICKSMUG20 SmugMug discount code) with photographers everywhere. After all, it’s his love for life that makes him so appealing to pin down and chat with… if you can catch him.

But we know where he’ll be on June 18th, and you can be there, too. No charge. No fee. Autographs optional.

2011 Times Square Shootout: Where and When

Shoot with Rick in one of the most iconic and photo-rich places in the world: Times Square!  So clear your cards, pack your bags and show up in Duffy Square in Times Square at 5 PM, June 18th. He’ll kick it off with a big group photo. From there, anything goes.

We’re green with envy as we type because it’s such a great opportunity and it’s totally free. If you’re in New York and can go… GO! But if you can’t make it, that’s OK. The happy clan will pop their photos into this pool on SmugMug by June 22nd so the rest of us can see what we missed.

For the information about  the event, check out Rick’s blog post here.

Build Buzz and Win Stuff

To get you charged, we’re giving away goodies to a few lucky folks. There are two ways to win:

Option 1) Join the shooting session. One Rick-picked winner gets a free year of SmugMug Pro AND a gorgeous MetalPrint of one of their Times Square shots. A perfect way to remember your incredible day in the city.  We’ll announce Rick’s pick for the grand prize on June 27th June 23.

Option 2) Spread the word. Follow @smugmug and @ricksammon and then tweet this to get your name entered:

Join @RickSammon and @SmugMug ‘s Times Square Shooting Session for fun and prizes, 6/18. Please RT. Info here:

On June 20th we’ll randomly pick some winners from a hat and send them a care package of SmugSwag, PLUS a free year of SmugMug Pro (Value: $150, not including bragging rights).


June 18 at 5pm: Meet Rick in Times Square. Commence major shooting session.

June 20: We’ll announce the winners of Rick’s Twitter contest (option 2).

June 22: Deadline for uploading Times Square shots to Rick’s gallery.

June 27 June 23: We’ll announce the winner of the shooting session (option 1).

Happy shooting… and don’t forget to bring cab fare. ;)


We drew a few names out of a hat and picked a handful of photographers to win a care package of SmugMug Swag, plus a free year of SmugMug Pro (Option 2). Congrats to @nicole627, @meggiemagoo, @DatsPhoto, and @OffsideElement!  Please email katherine [at] smugmug [dot] com for more info on how to collect your prizes.


Rick got so excited about all your amazing photographs, he went ahead and picked his favorite early. Drum roll please…

The big winner of the Times Square Shooting Session, handpicked by Rick himself, is Margie Strange, for this shot:

Photograph by Margie Strange

As the genius behind Rick’s favorite shot from the day, Margie will win a gorgeous Metal Print of her shot, plus a free year of SmugMug Pro. Congrats Margie!! To collect your prize, please email Rick.

Read Rick’s recap of the whole day, plus see some of his other favorite shots here.

Thanks everyone for getting together for such a fun day!

Categories: SmugMug, Travel, Users

Photog Tip of the Week: Five Tips for Dramatic Adventure Photos with John and Kelsey of Azimuth Photo

May 3, 2011 1 comment

John Borland and Kelsey Gray of Azimuth Adventure really know how to get the adrenaline going. They’ll climb anything that stands still, which can provide truly incredible and unique perspectives for photography. Since summer is quickly approaching and you’ll soon be planning your own outdoor thrills (maybe free climbing in Yosemite!), we thought a few tips might come in handy.

Rock climbing and photography go hand in hand. By its very nature, climbing puts a person in a rare position with a unique perspective of humans interacting directly with the earth itself, pushing limits and performing amazing feats while often surrounded by some of the greatest scenic views on the planet.

It’s not easy though: getting in position for the shot often requires technical skills and experience only acquired by many years of practice and instruction. To keep this short, we’ll forgo the knot tying and anchor rigging and just stick with a few of the simple tips and tricks that will make it a little easier for readers to bring home a fantastic piece of adventure!

#1: Be There and Have the Gear

The single most critical tip for getting great climbing photos is simply to put yourself through as many adventures as possible and ALWAYS have your camera on your person and accessible, no matter how difficult the terrain or weather becomes.

A small dedicated camera bag is perfect for this. Every climber’s preference is different, but between the two of us our favorites are a fanny-pack style bag large enough to hold a body and a lens or two, or a small lightweight backpack style that can be unslung easily to access your gear. Whatever you use, make sure it has a rain cover and is durable enough to take the abuse that will inevitably come.

#2: Get High and Think Ahead

Getting above or at the same level as the climber is critical to avoid the dreaded “butt-shot”. Additionally, positioning yourself with a perspective that puts the action in front of a beautiful backdrop or some interesting rock features and textures will immediately set the stage for a great shot.

#3: The World Is Not Flat

Get creative with your composition. Often a slight rotation to shift the “horizons” of the cliff and ground is just what is needed to add a sense of depth. The unconventional framing can also emphasize a tiny detail that would otherwise be missed.

#4: Climb, Climb, Climb

The more you get out there and perfect your own system of rigging and shooting in vertical terrain, the easier it will be to take  more winning photos to bring home.

#5: SHARE!

And finally, we’ll leave you with perhaps the most important part of climbing photography, and one which SmugMug helps with enormously: Share your photos with the world!

- John and Kelsey

Categories: photography, Sports, Travel

Sharing Chernobyl: Video Editing for the Rest of Us

December 16, 2010 6 comments

Stephanie Theune (known here as just “Schmoo”) writes for SmugMug. Write what? If you don’t know, she’s done a good job. Recently, she emailed some guy on the internet to take her to Chernobyl and came back with suppressed facial expressions and an intense craving for kale. The following movie was birthed from that amazing trip. We asked her to tell us how she came up with it, since video remains uncharted territory for many digital photographers.


I am not a videographer. I’m a writer who likes to take pics.

That said, the allure of video is a siren call that’s too strong to resist. Like a selkie to the sea I’m drawn to attempt something pretty in this new, now-widely available format. (Shiny!)

We’ve had our share of incredible, awesome artists on SmugMug who got me totally revved. I needed diapers to watch some of them: Vincent Laforet, Bob & Dawn Davis, Anton Lorimer, just to name a few.

You’ve probably thought: “I have a 5D!! Why can’t I do that?” Yeah, me too. Fear not, gentle reader. Joe Photographer can make a simple movie, you’ll see.

Most photographers serious enough to invest in a video-equipped DSLR already have enough software to edit video clips. (It’s like what they say about those metal steamer baskets. Check your kitchens, folks, I guarantee you have one of your own.) I’ve canoodled with iMovie, I’ve canoodled with Final Cut Express. And I am sure that you can stick clips together and add a music track using one of many other programs, too, so get Googling!

Dreaming it.

Like all my projects, the song was the key. I had a trip to Ukraine planned out but the moment I heard this track by Unheilig I knew it was perfect. Over the next few months I brainstormed what I wanted the movie to look like, mostly jotting down words that I thought would help my headspace, like:

  • cold
  • walking away
  • hands
  • silhouettes
  • gray

… and so on. These were just ideas, but I needed to know what to shoot.

Shooting it.

During the four days in Chernobyl, things got hairy. My “actors” were my buddies and they were – understandably – not there to be shot, but to take photos themselves. So filming them doing the things I had planned in my head was trickier than catching a Sasquatch. Try, try, try again.

I primarily used the 16-35L and 70-200L lenses for all my clips, due to the shallow depth of field. It’s a neat trick, using the focal point to navigate your way through the picture. After all, Pripyat’s kind of a dead zone. And in the throes of autumn there isn’t much going on besides freezing rain, chopped beets and a few sad leaves waving ‘bye.

I shot and shot until my CF cards cried uncle. On past projects I would run out of clips and ended up scraping the bottom of the barrel, so I learned that lesson fast: Shoot early, shoot often. (Sound familiar?) Nothing ever goes to waste… especially because the “unusable” ones where your friends are making faces and being goofballs are useful as blackmail.

Making it.

When I got home and finally dumped my files, I was overwhelmed for a week. I let them, um, cure a bit on my hard drive before I sat down to organize it all. Hey, sometimes you need to grab a brewski and Become One with your digital pile.

Step one: Give each file a useful, identifiable name. “MVI_9473.MOV” became “leaves-rain-chair.MOV” This way I was able to get an idea what the clip was about at a glance.

Step two: I then created bins (normal folks call them “folders”) in Final Cut Express to sort the clips by type: Landscapes, People, Animals (wasn’t much in that one), and Chernobyl Tours (ditto). After moving all the clips into the relevant bins I was ready to go.

Step three: I spent the next two weeks throwing spaghetti at the walls. Drop a clip into the timeline, see how it looks, then trim or delete it if it doesn’t. Movie making is largely serendipity and you never know what you’re going to get until you try. There were a few parts that worked out exactly as I had envisioned, but I’d say about 90% of it was made through playing around.

If you’re a natural director who can pre-plan a whole video, more power to ya! Email me and teach me your secrets. (I’m serious.)

Finishing it.

Once the clips were sorted in a rough sequence that worked well, it was time to trim and make sure the timing was perfect. By the way, precision trimming is a little easier to do in Final Cut than it is in iMovie.

Color. Now this was a real toss-you-by-the-horns, buck-you-in-the-rump beast. I played around with the Color Corrector, then tried Magic Bullet’s Colorista, but after much blood, sweat and tears I decided there was just no way I was going to get that Hollywood-rich color that I had always dreamed about. Not for this. The weather in the clips was overcast and rainy and I do have a regular job and a life outside of movie-making. I had to move on.

Since the music was already raw and Cold War-esque, I decided to throw on a black/white filter with a slight sepia tone, then add a small vignette to round out the edges.

Finally, I made the opening, ending and intro text in LiveType. This is a very simple program to use and I didn’t want anything fancy, just a simple slow fade out. This probably took about half an hour, total, and the nice thing about LiveType is that as you’re saving the clips in one program, it automatically updates it in the other.

Pimping it.

Export, upload et voila! You’re ready to click Get a Link and post it everywhere. This particular movie was created to build momentum for the still pics from the Exclusion Zone, so I hope others find it interesting as those of us who were there.

Good luck and don’t be afraid to edit your own movie. This is a fantastic way to record memories and tell your stories in a fresh way. You’ll be glad you did.

Need moral support? We’ve got a great little corner on our Dgrin forum reserved for video dabblers and we love seeing folks try their hand at it. No question is too silly… except for the ones I ask! Don’t forget to share what you make.

Here’s to creating great movies together,

Ghostwriter Schmoo

Everything, Everywhere

December 1, 2010 5 comments

Introduction: Every now and then, we have the pleasure of featuring guest blog posts from members of our wide community of users.  We’re always delighted to see and hear about the ways you’re using SmugMug to share your picture memories.  We’re excited to feature Gary Arndt from  Four years ago, he decided to leave his job to travel around the world.  He’s been globetrotting, photographing and writing ever since.  Here’s his incredible story.

By Gary Arndt

In March 2007 I sold my house, put my possessions in storage and set out to travel around the world.

I also thought it would be neat to someday cover a wall of my house with photos taken from my trip. So on my way out of the country I purchased a camera which was way over my head: a Nikon D200.

I didn’t know my aperture from my ISO. Like many people new to photography I shot everything in full auto mode, saved everything in jpeg (because it saved space on the memory card) and uploaded every image to Flickr without any post processing or selection. I had never taken a photography course or workshop and had never read a book on the subject. I knew absolutely nothing.

This is a five exposure HDR image taken in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Unlike most HDR images, I let the motion in the photo blur. I like the effect and the impression it gave of movement. Jerusalem is perhaps the most photogenic city I’ve visited in the world. It seemed that no matter where I turned my camera, I could capture a good image.

The first stop on my trip was Hawaii, where almost four years later I’m writing this article. You can still see the first photos I took in all their horrible glory. The composition for most of them is unspectacular and the exposure very sub-par.  I’ve decided to leave them visible to the public as a reminder of how far I’ve come since the start of my travels.

Over time I started to read photography blogs and listen to photography podcasts. I began to look at my travel photos with a more critical eye and tried to understand why my good photos were good and my bad photos bad. I eventually picked up a copy of Photoshop and the readers of my website noticed small, but consistent improvements in my travel photography.

This photo was taken in a moving motor boat. I visited Rennell, one of the more remote islands in the Solomon Islands. The village I visited didn’t get too many western visitors, so the kids had a great time following me around. When I left the village, the kids got in a canoe and started to follow my boat. This is the resulting photo.

In November 2007 I made the decision to start posting a photo every day on my travel blog, something which I’ve been doing every day now for almost three years. This was huge step for me because I had to come up with something reasonably good every day. Not every photo was going to be a home run, but I certainly had to try to not strike out.  Every. Single. Day.

As photography became a bigger and bigger part of my site, I began to look for alternative photo hosting and sharing solutions. I didn’t want to be limited with the size of photos I uploaded, I wanted to fully customize the look and feel of my galleries and I wanted an easier way to integrate photos into my blog.  In addition, I wanted a site that was easily searchable, public in nature and could help drive traffic to my official website.

I eventually decided to move my photo hosting from Flickr to a Gallery2 installation, which I could host myself. This turned out to be a disaster. I didn’t save any money because of the additional storage costs from my web host. Trying to customize Gallery2 was a nightmare and extremely expensive. Worst of all, there was no real SEO benefit to hosting my own images. Self-hosting photos turned out to be a a bigger challenge than I was willing to deal with.

This photo was taken at the Indian Holi festival in Singapore. Much of the festival involves throwing colored dye on other participants. Keeping my camera clean and dye free was a challenge as most of the participants had no problems throwing dye on a man holding an SLR.

I had heard many photographers talk about SmugMug on some of the photography forums I read, and so decided to give them a try. It turned out to be incredibly easy to import all my photos from Flickr, even with a bad Internet connection overseas. I could use my own domain name, which was the main reason why I wanted to host my own images in the first place, and with SmugMug’s many sharing options, I could create images of any dimension just by modifying the URL of the photo (something I couldn’t do on Flickr).

Of all the decisions I’ve made in blogging and photography, moving to SmugMug has been one of the best. Every week or two there are new features being released; the SmugMug elves never seems to be resting on their laurels.

Since my move I’ve become a personal evangelist, telling everyone I know in the travel blogging community about SmugMug.  I know I’ve been responsible for more new SmugMug customers than my referral code would suggest! I wear my SmugMug camera strap wherever I go and make sure to tell everyone about it when they ask me what it is.

I was in Bangkok in 2010 during the redshirt protests. I went out several times to photograph the protesters. I managed to position myself one day between several thousand redshirts and several hundred police officers. The photo of a young boy with the protesters really stuck with me.

There’s still a lot I want to do with my SmugMug account. My system of categories and subcategories needs some tweaking, I need to go through and properly tag my photos and at some point I’d like to hire someone to professionally customize my site.  In 2011 I also hope to redesign my blog to allow readers to order prints of all my daily photos.

I can’t really envision having a serious photography website without having SmugMug as the back end.

To see more of Gary’s daily images subscribe to his blog and visit his SmugMug gallery.  You can also get his free ebook “50 Favorite Travel Photos” by subscribing to his email newsletter

An Outdoor Photographer

October 4, 2010 8 comments

As summer draws to a close, most of us are ready to stay indoors in the warmth. For others, the changing seasons mean getting out and catching the best of nature’s offerings.

Brian Grossenbacher expertly captures the wild, breathtaking experience of the hunt in his beautiful, journalistic photographs:

Get a feel for the outdoors in his other galleries here.

Categories: Art, Galleries, Images, Sports, Travel, Users

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