Water photographer Sarah Lee (recently featured in a behind-the-scenes artist profile for our SmugMug Film series) grew up in Hawaii, surfing and swimming competitively. One day, while at a swimming competition, she was handed a camera and hasn’t looked back since. She finds inspiration in the unpredictability of nature, creates art that captures the interplay of people, water, and light, and uses photography to find beauty in the chaos. If you want to take the plunge into underwater photography, check out Sarah Lee’s essential underwater photography tips below, plus get a close look at her underwater photography gear kit.
Underwater Photo Tip #1: Ask your models to channel their inner ballerina or yogi and trust them. Open body posture is key. This photograph was taken of adventure model and soul surfer, Alison Teal, somewhere in the warm waters of Fiji.
Underwater Photo Tip #2: I find it ideal to photograph people underwater in the late morning between 8-11am because you’re going to need a lot of natural light being underwater. Though, on occasion it’s fun to experiment with different times of day. This photograph was taken during the last hour of the day, probably in the presence of a few sharks too shy to make themselves known.
Underwater Photo Tip #3: Skin tones look the best within 1-5 feet of the surface. Beyond that, you start to lose the warmth and reds in their skin tone.
Underwater Photo Tip #4: Lately I’ve been using an Outex, which is a silicone water cover. It’s rad because you can use different lenses in it, and it has a tripod neck strap. It’s worked really well underwater in lots of different situations.
Underwater Photo Tip #5: You don’t always need a fancy camera or underwater setup to take a good photo. This photograph was taken on a GoPro. Read more about shooting with a GoPro on my blog.
Underwater Photo Tip #6: Working with props and clothes can be challenging underwater but worth the effort! In this shoot, I created a jellyfish from an umbrella, ribbons, and beaded curtains. Just be careful you don’t lose anything in the process!
Underwater Photo Tip #7: Within the realm of underwater photography, there’s not much in your control. It’s all about being in the moment and finding the composition within the “chaos.” Most of my favorite photographs were taken when I just let things “be” and used my camera as a way to interpret what is happening at the present moment, rather than trying to orchestrate and control any of it.
Underwater Photo Tip #8. Protect your gear. I alternate between surf housng and water covers depending on the conditions I shoot in.
Find Sarah online:
When not finishing up her film-production degree on the coast of California, Sarah Lee spends as much time as she can in the water. Be it Hawaii, Australia, or any coastal beach, she loves diving in to see what photos can be captured beneath the waves. Her natural love of swimming led to photographing swim meets, and her interest in photography grew until she started taking her camera in and under the water to photograph other swimmers, surfers, and good friends. Sarah’s passion has led to her work being featured in Italian fashion magazines and for adventure companies in Australia and New Zealand.
How long have you been a photographer?
I started taking pictures in high school, and I never thought I’d do it professionally. I grew up surfing for fun and swimming competitively. Someone handed me a camera during a swim meet one day, so I started taking pictures. When I started shooting, I really enjoyed the way it allowed me to interact with people and capture what was happening. And it evolved from there.
How would you describe your specialty?
What I do is 90 percent focused around the water and ocean. I grew up around it—and in it—and it’s very important to me. I would describe what I do as water and lifestyle photography. It’s people interacting with nature, in water.
My approach to photography is more spontaneous, because, for me, it’s more about capturing what’s actually happening than trying to make something happen. With water, many things are out of your control, and I love that. Whatever the water and light decide to do, you have to adapt to capture it.
Have you worked on a lot of surf photography?
Probably my favorite thing to do is surf photography, but I approach it more as something to do for fun. I was in Fiji two years ago during one of the surf contests, with 15- to 20-foot waves. I just love swimming and shooting in huge waves!
Is that the coolest place you’ve traveled for a shoot?
Actually, there’s this spot in New Zealand called Blue Duck Station. I traveled there with the Alison’s Adventures series I was working on. It was this amazing farm filled with sheep and horses and rivers—just the most majestic place. Imagine riding horses up the tallest mountain at sunrise to watch the fog separate over the mountains. It was incredible.
Are there any other shoots that are particularly memorable for you?
I did a shoot for a high-fashion design company, forte_forte. This Italian clothing company found me online, and they sent me their capsule collection that they wanted to have photographed underwater. They were these gorgeous, expensive gowns, and I told them, “You know they’re going to get destroyed, right?” They didn’t blink.
For that commission, I got some of my friends together—swimmers and surfers—and we swam under really big waves with these really heavy, long dresses, and it was an incredible feat, especially for the models. forte_forte loved it. It got published in Marie Claire Italy, too, and all over the Internet.
Did the models have to change in the water?
Yes. I swam with a huge backpack filled with the dresses, and the models had to change in the water between waves. That’s also why I use only experienced swimmers and girls whose swimming abilities I am familiar with.
It sounds challenging!
It’s extremely challenging! Especially for the models since they have to swim in the dresses, too, without fins. It can be really tiring for them.
Have you done any more fashion shoots?
I did one a couple months ago for another Italian company’s swimwear line. They had these expensive Italian leather boots they wanted shot underwater, as well as purses and jackets with bikinis. Styling is a bit impossible, but there are approaches to having a purse underwater and having clothes in motion.
And the model—huge props to that girl. She had to wear high heels and a jacket while holding a purse under the waves, and she was amazing. I tried to put on one of the shoes just to see what it was like, and it was a disaster.
How do you find models for your underwater shoots?
Mostly it’s people I meet surfing or swimming. I’ve never really used a professional model before. Because water is such a difficult element to deal with, it’s important the models are strong swimmers and are aware of what the ocean can do—and be able to hold their breath well. It takes a really special person to do that.
Do you have signals to direct the models while underwater?
We actually wait to surface to give direction. It’s all about timing so we can talk above the water and give direction, then go back underwater to continue shooting.
What kind of conditions do you look for when you go out for a shoot?
It depends what kind of shoot it is. My favorite kind of shoot is early in the morning or sunset underwater—just like any photographer’s ideal timing. Condition-wise, it depends on the spot and if it will be high tide or low tide. Each spot is different in terms of when water clarity is best. There are so many elements to consider, like surf size, tide, wind, and weather.
For shooting underwater, you want bright sun and less cloudy weather. But above the water, like for surfing, I love cloudier, darker skies with light—like when a storm has cleared and the clouds are dark but there’s so much light. That’s the best.
How far do you usually have to swim out?
It depends on the spot. For some places it’s 50 feet off shore, and others it’s a couple hundred feet. Lighting for underwater is best between 1 to 8 feet from the surface. Too deep and you lose a lot of light and clarity, and it affects skin tone.
Is everything you shoot natural light only?
Ninety-nine percent of what I do is all natural light. I’ve tried flashes underwater, but I haven’t really gotten into it. Lately I’ve been shooting underwater at sunrise or sunset to experiment with natural lighting.
Have you ever used props other than dresses and other items your models wear?
For one shoot, I really wanted to build something that looked like a jellyfish. We found a plastic umbrella, bought some beaded chandeliers that go over windows, took them apart, then stitched them onto the umbrella and added ribbons. That was really intense to deal with in the water.
Was the umbrella easily tossed around by the waves?
We didn’t take it into the waves because of the risks of having a huge umbrella underwater, so we took it out into deeper water for that shoot. It worked out pretty well—and no plastic pieces were lost in the process!
What gear could you not live without?
If I could just have one lens and body to walk around with, it would be my Nikkor 50/1.2 and 5d MkIII.
Lately I’ve been using an Outex, which is a silicone camera cover. It’s rad because you can use different lenses in it and it has a tripod neck strap. It’s worked really well underwater in lots of situations.
And of course fins—and goggles, sometimes.
Do you have to decide on which body and lens you’re using before you swim out for a shoot, or do you ever swim back to shore for a lens change?
I have to choose one and go out for the entire shoot so no; I have to make a choice and stick with it and shoot it all on manual, adjusting aperture and shutter speed as I go. I’ve done it enough that, based on the conditions, I know what’ll work best. For anything underwater, you’re usually shooting fisheye or wide angle.
It must be like manual zoom, too, but instead of walking you’re using your fins.
Totally! It’s cool because you can just be underwater, floating and swimming. It’s not always just a “walk in the park,” and that’s what I love most.
Any advice for an aspiring photographer?
I like to approach every photo session as an experiment. Be open to whatever nature and the elements give you, and work with it. Take it easy, and adapt to whatever happens. So far that approach has worked out for me.
Find Sarah online:
Today we proudly release the third episode of SmugMug Films featuring YouTube superstar and extreme sports videographer Devin Graham. Watch it now and subscribe to see future installments as soon as they’re live.
Devin Graham has always loved adventure. From traveling with his father to snowboarding with his friends, he’s enjoyed experiencing all life has to offer. Even after two severe injuries, Devin didn’t lose his love for extreme sports; instead, he decided to keep experiencing them–only now from behind the lens, sharing through YouTube the unique, wild, and extreme adventures he discovers all over the world.
How did you get started in film?
I started making videos when I was a little kid. My dad had this huge camera that used VHS tapes that I would borrow, and he was always hesitant about letting me take it because it was the only one we had. I would break them from time to time, but it allowed me learn.
I used Legos to make little stop-motion movies essentially–I hit record really fast and took a picture of a couple things, then I’d stop tape, move the pieces, and take a couple more shots. I’d also make music videos with my siblings.
Once I got to Boy Scouts, I was able to get the cinematography merit badge. We learned how to edit on a turntable, which was very slow editing. Later I volunteered at a cable access studio. After that, my senior high school project required us to make a creative video, so I made a snowboarding video with my friends, and that’s where I learned linear editing, how it’s done today.
If you were filming snowboarding in high school, your interest in extreme and unique adventures must have started early!
Definitely. I got a lot of that from my dad, who was a big outdoors person. He loved camping. He loved hiking. And I’ve always loved extreme sports, especially snowboarding, which I did constantly. I’d go out with all my friends and film us all snowboarding together. Then I’d come home to edit on the computer, so I taught myself how to edit digitally that way–back when computers were really slow and it’d take weeks to put together a 30-second clip.
With your love of extreme sports, do you participate in any of the adventures you film today?
When I was filming my snowboarding videos, I actually broke my back and then my leg, and I was told I would never be able to do that kind of stuff again. But I loved it, and I was able to figure out how to stay involved through filming. I pretty much stay behind the camera now. Occasionally I’ll participate in something that won’t hurt my back. Generally, I come up with ideas and then let my friends, who are the professionals, handle the action so I don’t chance popping my back out of place.
Goodness! May we ask how you injured yourself?
I broke my back and leg in two different trips, a year apart. My back injury happened during a snowboarding jump on a tabletop I was trying to clear. It was 70- or 80-feet long, and I didn’t go fast enough. I spun and landed from high up–it would be like falling from a couple stories and landing on flat ground. My vertebrae squished in an L2 compression fracture.
My leg broke during snowboard camp. I was on a trampoline of all things, and I landed on a spring. It popped the bone out of my leg. They had to stick a rod down my leg, and I had to go through surgery, but it never stopped me. When I recovered, I went right back into filming extreme sports.
Wow. Seeing your behind-the-scenes videos you’d never know. You’re running and jumping along with these folks!
Yeah, my original goal was to tell feature film stories for Hollywood on the big screen. Then I made the decision to create wedding videos on the side to help with finances. When I started studying other wedding videos, I realized they all used static shots. I wanted my wedding videos to look like something out of a movie. And with movies, the camera is always moving.
I heard about Steadicams and things that allowed you to get those moving shots. After lots of research, I bought a GlideCam and started using it on everything I did, including the fun things I did with my friends. That led to using the GlideCam for the extreme sports videos, which require me to always keep moving!
You make it sound simple, going from weddings to extreme sports, but it sounds like quite a transition!
It definitely was a transition. I was filming weddings on the side while I was going to college for film. While I was working on my studies, I discovered the power of social media and YouTube. I was able to transition at the right time and find my niche with extreme sports, which people would share. Then companies around the world started asking to hire me to do bigger and better projects for television. YouTube opened the door to all these opportunities, and it’s been great ever since.
How do you handle lighting while you’re doing all this running around?
For me, there’s no science behind it. I just film what I feel looks good. Since we’re a one- or two-man team at most, we don’t have time to light things. That’s one of the reasons I shoot outside: you don’t need a whole crew to light things. But we do time all our shoots around the sunlight, filming during the golden hour when the sunlight’s looking its best.
With such a small team, do you use additional cameras, or are you just running around everywhere to get all those angles?
We’re literally just getting every shot we can think of, running from one thing to the next. Especially when we have only an hour of sunrise or sunset. In addition to the GlideCam shots, we’re also using GoPros now since the quality has gotten so amazing. With those we use a GoScope, which is basically a pole we can hook the GoPro on to. We’re all about making people feel like they’re part of the action, and the GoScope allows us to put the viewer in the position of the athlete.
Any other essential gear?
We use two cameras as our main cameras: a Canon 5D MkIII and a Canon EOS-1D C. Ninety-five percent of our shots are with those and 5% are from the GoPro cameras. For lenses, the majority of our shots are done with the Canon 16-35/f2.8 L series. The rest of the time we use a Canon 70-200/f2.8. With the 16-35, we can be everywhere. We’re always choosing epic or amazing locations, and the wide-angle shots make the viewer feel as if they’re there.
We’re curious about your settings since you’re moving around so much. Do you shoot any of this manually?
We’re working on new videos once a week, which doesn’t allow a lot of time to edit, so we try to do everything in camera. Generally we’re shooting everything at 2.8 with ISO around 100 and shutter speed around 4000. We also use a B+W polarizer, which makes the skies super blue and the greens super vibrant as well.
As far as focus goes, we do everything manually. When shooting video, you can’t do automatic focus because the focus will be pulled all over the place. So we set the focus and then try to keep our subjects the same distance from us. If we move in close, we just change the focus.
What are vital things you look for when framing a shot?
I try to have movement in the foreground as well as in the background because it gives the shot more life. If nothing is going on in the background, I’ll have someone run by or shoot a water gun so it feels like there’s as much action going on as possible. Then I’ll look for good lighting that makes the person or location pop the best.
How do you maintain your framing so well while you’re running along with the action?
Years of practice! When I started I wasn’t very good with the GlideCam, but now that I’ve done it so much I don’t have to look at the camera anymore. I can instead look where I’m going and get a good sense of what I’m filming.
What do you feel is important for telling a great story in film?
I always try to create mystery in the first 15 seconds of any video I do. This involves close-ups so we don’t reveal exactly what the viewer is going to see. For example, in the rope-swing video, you see someone walking in a close shot, then you see them setting up something, and it makes you wonder what they’re doing. Then, at that point, it’s all about making the viewer feel like they’re a part of the action and showing them something they’ve never seen before.
I feel so many people are stuck in their office space looking out the window, and they want to experience life, so we try to give people experiences they potentially would never have.
Could you walk us through your editing process after a shoot?
We’ll spend a day shooting and then it usually takes a week to edit the video with music and sound. The music I use is stuff my friends compose. And our sound design is done by a guy in England. It’s really just straight-up editing.
We always have an idea of how we want a video to play out, but once we start editing we get a better scope for it. We lay out everything on a timeline and go through every shot one by one–it’s a discovery process all over again. Then we’ll spend a couple of days fine-tuning and putting sound in.
Often we’re editing on the plane when we’re coming back from a shoot. The world is my office.
That sounds like it can be tiring. How do you keep going?
It is definitely tiring, which is why we’re super selective about our projects. We don’t do anything that we’re not going to be passionate about. And that’s the only reason we can do what we’re doing–when we travel it’s almost a vacation because we love it so much. We’re hanging out and making a video with friends, and we’re just having fun. We get to see the world doing that.
Any advice you’d give to someone who’s looking to get started with filmmaking?
Go out and constantly shoot and constantly learn. A lot of people wait to get accepted on projects, so they never end up shooting. But what I discovered is by doing a video once a week, we’re constantly growing as filmmakers. It’s okay to fail as a filmmaker. Make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. And content is more important than any gear you can or cannot afford.
What do you love most about what you do?
It gives me amazing opportunities to work with amazing people. I get e-mail from people around the world thanking me because it’s given them a reason to go outside and do things they’re passionate about. I once got a letter from someone who said they were going to commit suicide but then remembered my videos; he said the videos gave him a reason to be alive because these were all things he’d be missing out on. For me, more than anything, the reason I do what I do is it gives me an opportunity to give back to the world and show how amazing life really is.
Find Devin online:
Stories are breaking on sites like Fstoppers and Brandsmash about private Boudoir photos that appeared on a creepy voyeur forum. It’s hard to imagine a more humiliating nightmare for a photographer or their clients.
Photos came from several sites, including SmugMug, and we paid extreme attention over the last two days to how it happened. We tried to take some comfort in observing that in every instance, it came down to passwords that were guessable in just a few tries.
The question for us was what could we do that we weren’t already? Over the past year, we’ve done considerable work around this problem, but yesterday we decided to expose some of the alerts our systems generate to our customers.
When our systems see several password attempts on a gallery or folder, they now send an email to the owner of the SmugMug site. It identifies the gallery, gives the first few digits of each password attempt with asterisks for the rest (bou***), and adds info like time of day and geographic location the request may be coming from.
Today our Support Heroes are receiving thank-yous from people whose family members couldn’t get in because they left the caps lock key on or forgot some aspect of the password “it’s a cap O (oh), not a 0 (zero)”.
And we read two help tickets from photographers who discovered that their boudoir galleries had password guessers. Fortunately, they had long passwords that were too hard to guess, but they are still making changes like removing the word Boudoir from the title, and making the gallery Unlisted so only people who obtain the link can know of its existence.
One of the security upgrades that came with New SmugMug is we don’t store passwords in a form that could leak in any way, including a systems breach, a bug, or a disgruntled employee. We use an industrial grade, Cryptographic hash function.
The breaking stories are about Boudoir photos, but we host incredibly sensitive photos (all cloud services do) of unannounced products and even, we remember, photos of an upcoming TIME Person of the Year.
1. Set a good gallery password before uploading photos!
2. Set galleries and folders to Unlisted. Unlisted means means no one can see them unless they have somehow been given a link. They cannot guess the link because it has a random string added to its URL. The combination of strong password + Unlisted is extremely secure.
You can learn more about how to protect your SmugMug galleries here.
We hope this helps, and thanks for being part of the SmugMug family!
Chris & Don MacAskill
Today we’re joyously announcing the second installment of SmugMug Films with a spotlight on heart-racing aviation photographer Jessica Ambats. Watch it now and subscribe to get first access to future episodes.
A love of flying led Jessica Ambats to an editorial job with an aviation magazine, Pilot Getaways. The publication required air-to-air shoots, and after tagging along a few times, she was hooked. Jessica learned how to direct her own air-to-air shoots and eventually became a pilot herself, sharing her love of the sky and everything that flies through it with fellow aviators and friends. She also works as editor of Plane & Pilot magazine.
Starting with air-to-air photography seems like a big leap to take.
I’ve always been fascinated by photography for as long as I can remember, but I never had any formal training. My first official introduction to aviation photography was through the International Society for Aviation Photography. They have a meeting every year, and I was able to attend one. I’d always been interested in photography and aviation, but it hadn’t really occurred to me to put the two together. Listening to speakers at the meeting was an eye-opener for me. I then worked at Pilot Getaways magazine, where I got to join their shoots and learn the ropes that way. I’ve also been fortunate to have a great mentor, photographer Russell Munson, who has encouraged me every step of the way.
Has your process changed much since then?
Over the years I’ve refined how I do things. I’ve learned how to be more directive, because you need to constantly give the pilots positioning instructions. And I’ve gotten a lot pickier about everything: the timing of the shoot, the background, and so on. Whereas in the very beginning, I was just excited to go up in an airplane and take pictures, and I didn’t focus on the small—but important—details.
Has your own training as a pilot helped improve your ability to direct in-flight composition?
Being a pilot and taking a formation-flying course helps because it gives me a firsthand understanding of the flight dynamics. This is useful when positioning my subject planes. Also, when planning the shoot, it gives greater understanding of the logistics, such as airspace restrictions, appropriate altitudes, and ATC [air-traffic control] coordination.
How do you position the subject planes?
I talk to them directly over the radio, or I relay my instructions through my pilot via the intercom. My positioning instructions are measured in feet, such as “ten feet higher” or “twenty feet back.” Sometimes I’ll also use hand signals, but in general I prefer to keep my hands steady on the camera.
You’re telling pilots to fly ten feet one way or another, which is probably very tough to do.
A movement of ten feet exactly is really hard to judge. So what I’ll do is give the first command: ten feet higher. And then I’ll watch what they do. Whatever they do, I make a mental note of what they are using as ten feet. Then I calibrate based on that.
The pilots I work with are highly experienced in formation flying, so they’re used to small adjustments. They can focus on a particular part of the photoship (the plane I shoot from) and then move their line of sight relative to that.
Air-to-air photography is a team effort and the pilots make all the difference in a safe and successful shoot.
How close do the planes fly?
Distances range from around 20 to 150 feet. I’ll move the subject planes farther out or closer in depending on the composition I’m trying to create.
You’ve got all this coordination between pilots, planes, and air-traffic control. Do you also have to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration?
No. And depending on the airspace, we may not even need to talk to ATC. There’s no special clearance required for a photo flight. You fly within the same regulations as a standard flight.
In congested areas with controlled airspace, like Las Vegas, we coordinate in advance with ATC. We’ll also give a head’s up to local helicopter companies as well as law enforcement. They’ve gotten calls saying, “Hey, two planes are chasing each other over the Strip.” We want to do as much advance coordination as possible before shooting in a high-visibility area.
Could you walk us through your typical shoot process?
I’ll first pick a location. For the SmugMug shoot in the SmugMug Film video, it was the Bay Area. Then, I’ll plan a flight route. In the Bay Area, you can make a nice loop over Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Next is the hardest part of everything: scheduling a date that works for everyone. Coordinating multiple pilots, airplanes, and the weather is not easy!
Once a date is set, I’ll calculate the exact timing for everything. I’ll look up sunset times and work backward from there: What time do we want to be over the bridge? What time do we need to depart our airport to be there? What time do we need to arrive at the airport to brief and set up cameras?
As the shoot gets closer, I’ll start checking the weather forecast constantly. The day prior to the morning of, we’ll make a final go/no-go decision. If the weather looks iffy or bad, we’ll postpone it. If it looks good, that’s a go, and we’ll all meet for a pilot brief.
During the brief, we’ll cover the specifics of the flight, including takeoff/landing procedures, frequencies, altitudes, airspeeds, photo maneuvers, and emergency procedures. I’ll discuss the shots I’d like to get and review my positioning terminology.
On the ramp, we’ll configure the photoship. My pilot will remove the doors, and I’ll set up my gear. I’ll put my harness on, and we’ll launch.
In the footage you had a spare camera in your lap. You don’t try to change lenses once you’re up in the air, right?
No, that would be a bad idea. You don’t want anything loose. I would not want to drop a lens for sure! And there’s so much airflow that it can’t be good for the camera sensor. I’ll take two cameras, with two different lenses.
On photo flights, do you use any cameras besides your Canon DSLRs?
In addition to my beloved GoPros (which I mount in various spots on each airplane), I’ve been wearing Google Glass while on photo flights. I record video and take photos with Glass, but I would like to find a way to do live hangouts during photo flights so others can join in on the experience!
Do you have any tips or tricks for how you maintain your focus in such a chaotic, loud environment?
My mental focus, or the camera focus?
Mental focus comes instinctively. It’s a very intense environment. Everything happens quickly, so there’s a lot going on. You’re sitting in an open door, which can be pretty uncomfortable, cold, noisy, and bumpy.
For example, I did a shoot over the Hollywood sign with three jets that was very challenging. We flew orbits in front of the sign, and I only had a small amount of time during each orbit to get the shot. In that time I had to position three airplanes relative to each other, and then line them up with the sign, too. I have to be entirely focused on what I’m doing during the flight or I will miss the shot.
With the camera itself, I try to be really, really steady holding it. I stay out of the airstream and focus on the subject. I also use image-stabilized lenses, like Canon’s 24-105 and 70-200.
The flights are pretty intense. I’m usually completely exhausted afterward. Mentally and physically exhausted.
Are there any flights that are particularly memorable for you?
One that comes to mind was over New York City, where I’m from. It was a complicated shoot of four privately owned Citation jets and a P-51 Mustang warbird from WWII. So we had six airplanes, including the photoship I was in, flying down the Hudson, circling over the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks. As a kid growing up in Manhattan, I always looked up at airplanes as they were flying and never imagined that I’d be in one taking photos.
You mentioned that you prefer sunset flights to sunrise. Any reason why?
I’m not a morning person! And sunrise shoots in general are harder on everyone. I want to be shooting over the location at the very first light, so that means getting up way before sunrise to meet, brief, get the airplanes ready, set up my gear, take off, and fly to the location. And then the sun comes up. It can be a little brutal when I have a sunrise photo flight the morning after a sunset shoot.
But the main reason I like sunset better is that, as I usually launch an hour before sunset, the light just keeps getting better and better. You’re working into the good light. Everything gets more tuned. But at sunrise, the very start of the shoot is the best light, and it just gets worse from there. I always feel like I run out of good light really quickly in the mornings.
That said, the air is usually so calm in the mornings, and you have a great feeling that you’ve got the whole sky to yourself. It’s always worth the effort.
Do you have a favorite aircraft to shoot?
I like them all! I do. It was a real treat when I shot the Blue Angels from one of their F-18 fighter jets, but I love shooting everything from a little Piper Cub, which is a two-seat light aircraft, to a larger business jet. They all have different challenges.
On one of my Blue Angels shoots, I was in their two-seat F-18 for formation aerobatics. Their routines are intense with strong, sustained G-forces. It can be physically hard to hold the camera up while pulling Gs. I learned pretty quickly to position my camera before each maneuver started. It’s also challenging to shoot through a canopy, which may have scratches, reflections, and glare.
Any advice for those who might want to pursue a similar path?
Safety, safety, safety. Make sure you’re with experienced formation pilots; otherwise, don’t do it. It’s not the kind of shooting I would encourage anyone to just wake up one day and go do. Spend time in aviation environments first. A good place to start is at an airshow where you’ll have lots of great ground-to-air photo ops and you’ll meet other aviation photographers.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love to be in the air! There’s a great saying: “To most people, the sky is the limit. To those that love aviation, the sky is home.”
Find Jessica online:
Photo credit: David Farr
Holy moly, SmugMug fans! Because of your amazing support, SmugMug’s been picked as a finalist for the 2013 Crunchies Awards.
Pinch us, it’s real!
We’ve been bootstrapped for 11 years with millions of customers and billions of happy photos. Would you help us take it all the way and become the “Best Bootstrapped Startup” of 2013? If you think we are and want to make your photos proud, we’d love to have your votes again.
- Simply visit the Crunchies site and start voting now! You can vote once a day through 11:59pm PST, Sunday, January 26, 2014.
SmugMug’s always been known for support, but your votes have shown us what “support” really means. Thank you for all that you’ve given us over the years: your comments, your shares, your likes, your stories, your ideas, and above all the glaring hard truth when we needed it most. We’d never have made it this far without you. :)
Today marks the release of our first installment of SmugMug Films with a spotlight on creative portrait photographer Benjamin Von Wong. Watch it now and subscribe to get first access to future episodes:
Two years ago, Montreal/Toronto-based photographer Benjamin Wong was a mining engineer who took pictures on the side. In 2012, he quit his engineering career and threw himself into photography full time. He’s now an award-winning photographer admired for his “epic, surreal, fantasy storytelling.” Today with the official launch of Ben’s spotlight in SmugMug Films, he’s shared more details about himself, his background, and exactly how he crafted those exquisite angel wings.
1. How did you get your start in photography?
I had a job at a mine in Nevada (USA) when my girlfriend at the time broke up with me. I figured if I didn’t find a hobby, I’d go crazy. The idea to take pictures of the stars came to me, so I went to Walmart and bought my first point-and-shoot camera. I didn’t do very well, so the next chance I had, I drove to the next city over and bought my first DSLR.
I brought that camera around to everything. But the first time I got paid to shoot an event was a very significant part of my mentality shift.
Another photographer asked whether I would be interested in shooting an event for pharmaceutical students. It was $250 for five hours of shooting. At the time, I wasn’t actually geared up for shooting events. I had an 18-200. I borrowed a flash from a friend. I basically had a flash, a slow zoom lens, and a model clause to make myself look more professional.
At the end of the day, what was special about this event was my realization that I could earn money doing what I love. And that’s when I really got into it. I bought a bunch of new equipment. Got business cards made right away.
Shooting events was fun, but it wasn’t a passion, so I quit the events business and launched myself into creative portraiture. My creative portraiture grew, and I started the Von Wong brand in 2010. The next biggest transition was when I quit my day job. I woke up one morning and said I know I’m not going to do engineering for the rest of my life. So in 2012, I quit. Having the financial support of my mining engineering career helped me make that leap.
2. How has your photography changed since you first started?
Shortly after I picked up my first camera, I started a 365 project and planned to take a picture a day for an entire year. But instead of doing self-portraits, I wanted to take portraits of other people. The motivation behind the project was to grow and learn, but I soon realized I didn’t have time. I was working 10 hours a day at my engineering job. Every day I’d get up, go to work, spend the day thinking about a concept, get home, set up my lights, eat, shoot the concept, edit it, and post it. I’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning, then I’d have to go to work the next day. It was exhausting. I set a milestone for myself of 100 days, and when I hit it, I shifted gears toward doing larger productions. I started putting more emphasis into cool locations and people, and making each shoot really count.
3. How do you choose your locations and find help for these large productions?
I travel for people, not places. I stay on people’s sofas and do what they do, so I connect with the people.
And I pull together resources significantly from social media. As I’ve invested in meeting my fans and giving back to them, that’s grown into a powerhouse in the sense that I can go to any country in the world, say, “Hey guys, I’m in town, let’s hang out,” and most of the time someone replies.
I usually go to a place with a certain intention or starting point, and it grows. I have a spark of inspiration—location, a model, a cool studio, a performer — there’s always one single point around which everything ignites and from that point forward, everything else needs to be found. Someone knows some place who knows something. It’s about staying open to possibilities and opportunities.
The fallen angel shoot I did with you guys is a great example of this. I was actually looking for an opportunity to go on vacation, and Kelly Zak had reached out to me through Facebook for a critique — and we ended up chatting about shoot ideas. I said I’ve always wanted to create a fallen angel, and she said, “If you come to Florida, there’s fallen angels for you!” I figured I better get on a flight.
Right before Florida, I’d been traveling around a lot. Kelly was caught up with school work. So when I landed, we didn’t have much planned, so we went scouting right away. The first place she drove me to was this amazing, magical-looking forest. Which is funny because for the Floridians it’s probably the most common tree they have, a Spanish oak tree, I think. For me, it was so magical.
Given the beauty of the location, I thought, “Why don’t we increase the concept?” Have two fallen angels, and a bunch of mystical creatures. One thing led to another, and Kelly started enlisting classmates in the film school. We had costume designers, makeup artists. I started asking fans through social media if they’d like to be a part of it. And the whole thing took off from there.
We pulled this entire shoot together in about eight days. We had a good time, and we basically became a family for about a week.
4. How did you make those fantastic wings in so short a time?
The wings were made out of a type of plastic you use for packaging. We just cut it up and layered it. The broken wings were filed down using razor blades. Then we took charcoal and blackened the edges, each wing tip individually. The whole thing was put together using hot glue. Kelly did the research, looking up cosplay tutorials on how people would strap on wings. Since I wanted the angels to be topless, this meant they couldn’t wear a harness or anything. So they had to come up with a creative solution, which ended up being clear bra straps.
5. What are some of your best in-front-of-the-lens tips for special effects?
Birthday sparklers for light trails. Flour for snow. Smoke bombs for portable smoke. Cloth/Vaseline on the lens to create foreground texture in your image. Water guns for portable rain. That’s all I can think of off the top of my head!
6. You attribute a lot of your success to having a great social network and being able to find what you need within it. How were you able to build such a vast network?
Slowly but surely. That’s really what I did. There’s no big success trick other than continuously uploading content.
Before I was doing behind-the-scenes blog posts, I was posting a new photo every day while I had my day job. Day after day of putting out new content. And my shoots are extremely social in the sense that people like to hang out and be a part of them. So at the end of the day, I would always tag all the people who got involved, which helped disseminate information. Then add on the behind-the-scenes videos and that’s ongoing social-media exposure. After I quit my job and traveled for a couple months, I started building my international exposure, which allowed me to start feeding my blog. Every week I would put out a new blog post. Lots and lots of work. I started doing workshops and speaking engagements. Any time somebody asked to do an interview, I would do it. Really just nonstop trying to build this network.
There was no massive unannounced peak—no surprise where it felt like okay, I’ve made it, and it started snowballing. It’s always been very consistent growth. And the minute I stop posting, the minute I stop sharing, then everything stops.
7. What social channels have been the most successful for you?
Facebook, hands down. I use Twitter. YouTube is the best for videos. I’ve used Flickr. I’ve used all of those, but I don’t think anything’s really come out of those channels. It’s really been Facebook for me.
8. You are very involved with all aspects of your shoots. How do you find time to do all the social outreach as well?
I think people overestimate the amount of time I spend on the computer editing. I think I spend on average only ten to twenty hours of editing a week. A bulk of the effort that’s allocated to a shoot really takes place in the preproduction, production and social aspects of it. The actual shoot and postproduction becomes just a single step on the way.I work so much through collaborations, and I came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t going to be making a video, if I wasn’t going to be making a blog post, then I wouldn’t be giving back what people were giving to me. If I wanted people to look at that work and broaden its reach, it was worth it to do big, elaborate projects but fewer of them as opposed to many small projects that wouldn’t have all that extra media support. A lot of effort goes into making an interesting blog post or following up with the creative content.
9. Has the social reach of your shoots ever surprised you?
Yes, a shoot that I did last year. In September, my agent, Suzy Johnston + Associates, received an e-mail from a woman who was terminally ill, asking if there was any possibility of getting a photoshoot and if I’d be able to photograph her in a way that made her feel beautiful and healthy.
I was leaving in a few weeks to go to Seattle for creativeLive, and she was on a time clock because with each passing week she was getting weaker and more frail. We had to make it work quickly. I gave her a call the next day, and in about 10 days we got makeup, hair, and location together. It was her first photoshoot ever.
Afterward, I wrote a blog post about it. I really wrote it more for her than for anybody else. I wanted to create a nice little memory for her. The Internet picked it up, and it became one of my more popular posts of the year, which was, for me, a very big surprise.
Through this experience, what really struck me was that I could not only inspire, and teach about the process, but on top of that, I could create images that matter, that can touch people. These images were created to bring my fan’s dreams to life, but I felt so alive, too. Doing something that matters makes all the difference. That’s something I would like to incorporate more in my work this year.
10. Have you ever been stumped for inspiration?
It happens to me just as much as it happens to anyone. You can’t always be inspired. You have to keep growing and putting things together even when not inspired, so make plans and follow through with them. Do I always feel inspired? No, but setting the wheels in motion and filling the time when nothing is happening, that’s important. Give yourself something to do.
11. What advice would you give to a photographer who was just getting started?
In the artistic and creative world, the biggest thing you have to fear is yourself. If you stop feeling inspired or you stop feeling motivated to do whatever it is you’ve decided to do, then you’re going to lose ground, you’re going to lose traction. No matter how great your business plan is, if you don’t want to do it anymore, everything will come crashing down.
My relative success has been a combination of the journey, the sharing, the inspiration, and the work, but not any one thing would have made it go as far as it has. You really have to make sure you love what you do. No one wants “mediocre.” They don’t want a Jack of all trades. They want “special.” They want the “best” at one single thing. And the only way you can be the best is to love what you do.
You only have one life. Make the most of it.
Find Ben online:
Halloween is upon us! What better time to announce our latest inspiring Success Story with Todd Atteberry from History Trekker? Todd’s beautiful, haunting photos of historic northeast locations echo classic, timeless Dutch paintings. He talked to us about how he got into the art of photographing haunted buildings and how his SmugMug website helped him find a firm foothold in the historic community.
Todd is also the man behind Green Man Studio, one of SmugMug’s Certified Customizers. You can tell that his creative skills reach well beyond simply digital art in his beautiful and thoughtful website designs.
Read the full interview with Todd, and don’t be surprised if you hear something go bump in the night. ;)
Have a safe, happy and haunting Halloween!
Since our relaunch you’ve been unveiling gorgeous new SmugMug sites and we’re in serious SmugLove. From elegant to inventive, funky to funny, your photo websites are wowin’ us, so we’re kicking off a contest!
From now until December 27, 2013, you can “Show Us Your SmugMug” and enter to WIN a 1-year free membership! We wanna see your new site, share your inspired vision, and get you hooked up with fabulous freebies. Celebrate the all-new SmugMug!
Enter via Twitter or Facebook
Step 1: Follow SmugMug on Twitter or Fan us on Facebook
Step 2: Tweet @SmugMug or post on Facebook.com/SmugMug a link to your site with the hashtag #NewSmugMug
Step 3: Stay tuned and see if you won! One winner will be picked at random, weekly.
You must have a new SmugMug site to enter or win. Not on new SmugMug yet? No worries. Go to smugmug.com/migration to start playing around with the new SmugMug today.
1. You must be 18 years or older to enter.
2. You must be following SmugMug on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/SmugMug) or a fan of SmugMug on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SmugMug) to win.
3. You must use the hashtag #NewSmugMug when you tweet or post a link to your site.
4. The prize value will vary weekly between Basic, Power, Portfolio and Business subscriptions (USD $40-$300 value). The value of the subscription prize that week will be applied to your account as a credit towards your renewal.
All winners will be picked randomly by a random number generator and announced every Friday by SmugMug.
We can’t wait to see your sites! We’ll post the winners in a special Winner’s Gallery – stay tuned for some awesome SmugMug site eye candy.
***Update – Winners!*** Check out the final list of winners. Thank you everyone for showing off your gorgeous SmugMug sites!
- Tom Chwojko-Frank: http://photos.chwojkofrank.com
Prize: Basic Account
- Anthony Mahieu: http://anthonymahieu.smugmug.com
Prize: Power Account
- George Torres: http://gtsphotography.smugmug.com/
Prize: Portfolio Account
- Kim Volles: http://boll-vils.smugmug.com/
Prize: Business Account
- Lisa B Ellison: http://lisabe.smugmug.com/
Prize: Basic Account
- Frederick Eriksson: http://fredrikeriksson.smugmug.com/
Prize: Power Account
- Emma Fiala: http://www.frostonflower.com/
Prize: Portfolio Account
- Cynthia LeGrand: http://www.legrandlifeimages.com/
Prize: Business Account
- Susan Myhill: http://illuminatingphotography.smugmug.com/
Prize: Basic Account
- Judy Valentine: http://judyv.smugmug.com/
Prize: Power Account
- Michael Rork: http://www.zinfandelphotography.com/
Prize: Portfolio Account
- Jao van de Lagemaat: http://lagemaatphoto.smugmug.com/
Prize: Business Account
- Swift Family Photography: http://swiftfamily.smugmug.com/
Prize: Basic Account
- NWP Studio: http://nwpstudio.smugmug.com/
Prize: Power Account
- Josh Freeman: http://joshfreeman.smugmug.com/
Prize: Portfolio Account
We’re halfway through this orbit around the sun and to those of us in the northern hemisphere, that means it’s time to grab your towel and hit the beach. In the spirit of the ocean, we browsed through Scubazoo‘s incredible collection of underwater photos and videos and were taken aback by the magical beauty of life beneath the waves. How does Scubazoo do it, and what kind of gear does it take? What’s the market for underwater photography? Scubazoo photographer Jason Isley graciously shared a look at how they get that incredible footage.
All photos by Scubazoo
So, who and what exactly is Scubazoo?
Scubazoo is a video production, location management and publication company based in Borneo. Over the past 15 years Scubazoo has managed locations for more than 125 hours of programming within SE Asia for international broadcast. Scubazoo’s cameramen have filmed on upwards of 150 programs from natural history blockbusters such as BBC’s LIFE and Human Planet to hit reality shows like Survivor & The Amazing Race. The Publication department has a number of world class photographers working on various assignments throughout the year and a great editorial team in the office. Scubazoo have provided images to hundreds of magazines and books and have also published several high-quality coffee table books, selling over 200,000 copies internationally.
As a serious photographer as well as a serious diver, what’s in your kit bag? What does a professional setup for underwater photography look like?
It’s not advisable to try and change lenses underwater so, in order to handle macro and wide angle subjects I might encounter, I usually take two setups down with me. For the macro setup I use a Nikon D700 with an AF-Micro Nikkor 60mm f2.8 or an AF Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D. The wide angle kit consists of a Nikon D800 DSLR with a Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 and a Nikon AF 16mm f/2.8 D Fisheye. Both cameras are housed in Nauticam underwater housings. These give me access to every control on the camera and are rated to 100m. Each housing will have two strobes connected by a fibre optic cable and attached with ultralight arms. I use the Inon Z-240′s as they are light and extremely portable and I also usually carry lots of other gadgets like snoots, flourescent filters, wet diopters etc. If I can, I’ll employ a local dive guide to help spot critters and carry the extra setup.
All the usual scuba gear is used – a tank, weight belt, buoyancy compensation device (BCD) and regulator and also wetsuits to extend my bottom time. Even in tropical waters it can get a little chilly!
What has been your most frightening underwater encounter?
During my filming days I filmed the sardine run in South Africa which is basically a massive feeding frenzy including dolphins, sharks, seals etc and that was a certainly a little hairy. However, the most frightening encounter must be the one with a 4.5m salt water crocodile that literally walked all over me underwater.
Which came first, diving or photography?
I didn’t start diving until I was 25 so the photography certainly came first. When I was 15 I use to play with my father’s camera kit and tried to photograph birds in the garden.
Are there any other underwater projects you’ve worked on?
I have worked on many assignments shooting amazing creatures in different exotic locations, however the project that seems to have gained the largest following must be the miniature people series I started back in 2011. The project is based on a futuristic scenario where the planet is completely underwater and the people are living and breathing underwater, I use miniature people to create scenes with the marine life.
Out of all the places you’ve been, what wins the prize as your most exotic locale?
I’m based in SE Asia which is about as exotic as it gets, however I have certainly been based in some extremely remote locations for long periods of time which can definitely effect your sanity. Myself and one of my colleagues lived in a remote village in Indonesia and spent everyday sat opposite each other under the beating sun in a tiny dug-out canoe for three weeks tracking leatherback turtles.
The coldest location was Newfoundland and Hudson Bay in Canada looking for Beluga whales, that trip really confirmed I am not a big fan of cold water diving!
There’s a ton of life under the seas. What is your favorite subject?
Sharks are definitely high up on the list, however you certainly get more of an encounter with dolphins and whales as they appear to be interested in you sometimes. I don’t have a specific favourite subject as I like diversity and think it improves your photography to change subjects and try different styles.
Who are Scubazoo’s customers?
Scubazoo have two large online libraries, one for video and one for photography and we also have regular agents that we provide our images to. I also write articles for dive, adventure and travel magazines but we are really trying to expand our publications department and publish a couple of books each year. One of the books currently in production is for a large resort company and we are shooting all the wildlife and landscapes around their resorts throughout South East Asia.
What kind of equipment, training, workshops, locations, etc., would you recommend to people looking to test the waters, so to speak, in underwater photography?
I would strongly suggest a course with one of the leading underwater photographers that operate locally wherever you’re based. It will rapidly improve your technique. Underwater photography equipment can be quite expensive because you need all the extras to house the camera and underwater strobes, etc. You may want to consider looking for a 2nd hand set-up to start with. There are some great underwater photography sites with plenty of people giving advice and also selling old kits that you can use to get started.
With that, we hope that all of you get your opportunity to take great photos wherever you end up on holiday. Stay safe in the waves, and check out our Photography Perspectives series if you’re looking for some light beach reading! :)