Transforming Our Support Heroes: Behind the Scenes with Hellgirl

Last week, our latest collaboration with photographer Benjamin Von Wong took our SmugMug employees to new heights—literally. I was lucky enough to be one of those employees, though I am the unlikeliest of models. How did I end up on that rooftop with my superhero colleagues? Read on!

“Kerry, it’s your turn. Step up!” the photographer called to me, excitement in his voice.

Step up where? This ledge:

Which was followed by this drop:

And this is the safety harness that was certified to keep me — all 300 pounds of me — from plummeting to my death.


All the other models on the photo shoot wore harnesses, too, and I saw with my own eyes how many safety precautions were taken to make us secure. Logically, I understood that nothing bad would happen to me.

But I just couldn’t shake the feeling: I’m 2 people in 1. I’m going to be too heavy to pull up.

All I could think was:

If I fall, I’m probably dead because I was too fat.

Somehow I managed to step up on the ledge, and the photographer snapped a few photos.

Check out the behind-the-scenes video of the photo shoot.
(Warning: Do not attempt on your own. The photographer is a trained stunt person. All models wore safety equipment.)

When we were done, all the other models were excited to see how the pictures turned out. After all, we were on a skyscraper dressed as superheroes, getting our pictures taken by world-famous photographer Benjamin Von Wong.

But I wasn’t looking forward to seeing my photo at all. I had this nagging feeling: I’m going to look like crap. I may be on a fancy photo shoot, but I’m still a fat girl.

Here’s how my photo turned out:

Hey, that isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be.

Actually … I kind of look badass.

How the heck did this happen? How did I get to be a model on an awesome photo shoot? Models aren’t fat girls like me. But here I was, on top of the world.

Just one year ago, I was at the lowest point of my life.

Self-portrait. Photo by Kerry Ellis.

My struggle with weight began right after college when a surgery on both feet left me unable to walk long distances for exercise. I ballooned up from a size 12 to a size 22.

I gained some experience after graduating and managed to get a great job writing for NASA. I had been there for 8 years when the phone call came from my boss:

“Kerry, I’ve got some bad news. I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go. Actually, you were supposed to be laid off yesterday.”

Me working from home. Photo by Kerry Ellis.

This job was all I’d known for nearly a decade. What was I supposed to do now? How was I supposed to pay for my house?

I hung up the phone and burst into tears. Here I was, a 35-year-old grown woman, and I felt like a scared 14-year-old again. Completely lost.

Me with Britta. Photo by Kerry Ellis.

I’ve never liked asking people for things, but when you lose your job, that’s what you have to do — ask everyone for help. After sending out hundreds of emails and posting to Facebook and LinkedIn, I heard about an interesting opportunity. Not a full-time job or anything, just a short writing assignment for SmugMug.

As a photographer myself (and longtime customer), I loved SmugMug and had been trying to get a job there for ages. Actually, they’d already rejected me once when I interviewed there 5 years ago. But no matter. This was a chance to get my foot in the door at my dream company, and I took it.

I completed the writing assignment for them, and the article somehow got the attention of Chris MacAskill, President and Co-Founder of SmugMug. It turns out he was the one who had vetoed hiring me 5 years ago.

He told me he’d made a mistake. Oh, and would I like to join SmugMug full time?

The next day, I packed up everything and moved straight to California to start my new job.

Me in my new office at SmugMug. Photo by

Within my first few weeks on the job, Von Wong was in town and SmugMug asked him to do a fun photo shoot for the employees.

SmugMug employee — that’s me! That’s how I ended up as a model on this phenomenal photo shoot.

The SmugMug family on the skyscraper.

The whole thing feels like a fairy tale, like something that only happens in movies. I landed my dream job and moved across the country. I felt on top of the world. But looking in the mirror, my outside didn’t match how I felt inside.

That’s why this photo means so much to me. It makes my outside match my inside.

It’s a reminder that, even when I was at my heaviest, I can look amazing.

Since this photo was taken, I’ve dropped a dress size. I’m eating healthier and working out regularly. If I could look amazing then, then I can continue to look amazing.

I went from rock bottom to a superhero literally on top of the world. How is this even real? This is the stuff of movies.

But this is my life now, and it’s pretty freaking awesome.


As great as this photo makes me feel, I almost didn’t write about it. I wrote and deleted this article 3 times before hitting publish.

The Internet is cruel. I’m already bracing myself for the comments people will make:

“She’s still fat.”

Or my personal favorite that’s been popular lately — “Why is she promoting unhealthy habits?”

It’s not about celebrating being unhealthy. It’s about loving yourself so you can continue to work on yourself. If you start the journey from a point of hate, that’s where you’re going to end. You may lose the weight, but you’ll still hate yourself. The root problem is still there — that’s why so many diets fail.

Start from a place of accepting yourself, so you love yourself as you continue to make progress.

Photography by Benjamin Von Wong. Read how he pulled off this photo shoot on his blog.

Media Requests
You may quote or republish this article and its photos on your own publication—please credit and link back to the original.

Find more photos from the photo shoot on Benjamin Von Wong’s blog and the behind-the-scenes video.

Pros, Your Fans Are Gonna Love This

While we’ve had tutorial videos and archived webinars forever, today we’re happy to show you the latest additions to our library: How to Buy Prints & Downloads.

Two New Videos for You to Share

Pros have often asked us for tools that will help sell more prints, gifts, and downloads, because occasionally your fans need a little extra push. So we’ve created a long-format tutorial (7:58) and a short-format tutorial (4:52) showing your fans how to add photos to the shopping cart, understand those framing and cropping options, and check out. Here’s the short version:

We hope that you’ll share these with your clients, or even embed them into your site so that they’re viewable at any time. Tip: Use Customize > Customize Site and drop a YouTube video Content Block onto the page. You can get the video link above.

Here’s to smoother sales at SmugMug!

P.S. Did you know that we have a 100% guarantee on all items ordered through your SmugMug galleries? If you or your customer are not happy for ANY reason, we’ll fix it or replace it for free. We mean it.

Links you’ll love:

Tell Your Story with SmugMug and Animoto

We believe that photography and videos go hand in hand, and that creating videos should be easy and fun.

You already know that SmugMug offers a place for all your photos to call home. Did you know how easy it was turn those photos into a stunning, professional-looking video that you can share with friends, family, and even clients?

Organize, Upload, and Animate with Jared Platt

Our friend, photography educator and portrait pro Jared Platt put together this 20-minute tutorial that shows you how easy it is to unite three simple services to save time and create stunning photo projects on your own.

Jared teaches you how to:

  • Quickly catalog and edit your photos in Lightroom
  • Publish them to SmugMug
  • Use the Animoto Builder to create a video

Best of all, you’ll see how the videos bring more visitors to your site, ultimately allowing you to share more of what you do with your fans.

“What’s in it for me?”

Take a look at some of Animoto’s examples to see what you can do, and why people everywhere love the convergence of photo and video. Best of all, SmugMug subscribers can try Animoto now and get 20% off any Animoto membership.

Here’s to shooting and sharing all the beautiful moments you’ve captured!

Essential Underwater Photography Tips from Sarah Lee

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.

Photo Credit: Sarah Lee


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.

Photo Credit: Sarah Lee


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.

Photo Credit: Sarah Lee


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.

Photo Credit: Mark Tipple


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.

Photo Credit: Sarah Lee


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!

Photo Credit: Sarah Lee


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.

Photo Credit: Lucia Griggi


Underwater Photo Tip #8. Protect your gear. I alternate between surf housng and water covers depending on the conditions I shoot in.

sarahlee-watergear (2)
Photo Credit: Sarah Lee


Want more?

Read our exclusive interview with Sarah Lee. You can also check out the SmugMug Films artist profile of Sarah Lee below. Thanks for the tips, Sarah!

Find Sarah online:

SmugMug Films: Extreme Filmmaking by Devin Graham

Today we proudly release the third episode of SmugMug Films featuring YouTube superstar and extreme sports videographer Devin GrahamWatch 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.

Portrait of Devin by Jarvie Digital

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.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

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.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

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.

Behind-the-scenes photo by Dustin Bess Photography

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.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

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.

Scenes from Devin’s adventurous youth

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.

Portrait by Jarvie Digital

Find Devin online:

Tune In to Channel Smug

All Smug, All the Time

Hey YouTubers! Did you know that we have our own little corner on your favorite video community site?

That’s right. For your viewing pleasure we’ve corralled all of our favorite SmugMug videos into one easy-to-follow spot on YouTube: how-to tutorials (lots!), promotional pretties, photographer spotlights, behind-the-scenes-Smuggy-HQ clips, archived Google+ hangouts and even educational webinars from our SMUGs.

Plus, we’re always adding more. So if you’ve ever had a question about how to use our features or want to learn how to get the most out of your camera, hop on over and check it out.

And be sure to Subscribe to the channel to guarantee you won’t miss a thing.

Why YouTube?

We get this question a lot, but the answer is pretty simple: We love it just as much as you do and think they’ve got a great setup for broadcasting useful and interesting videos to anyone looking for it.

See you there!

Vincent Laforet’s Guide to Making Electrifying Images

If you’ve ever held a DSLR in your hands, you’ve probably heard of Vincent Laforet.

He’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning mastermind behind some of the most incredible photos seen in National Geographic, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Time and more.

Vincent earns his bread and butter using the industry’s most coveted photographic equipment. He is a Canon Explorer of Light who breaks down the barriers between Photo and Video. We’ve been behind him since his his first HDDSLR short film, Reverie, and now he’s written a book that everyone should read.

Visual Stories: Behind the Lens with Vincent Laforet

Whether you’re an avid photographer or just someone who seeks a better creative process, you’ll love taking the journey through Visual Stories.

In it, you’ll find over 200 pages of inspiring photos, personal reflection and informative technical details to help craft your unique vision. The DVD contains over 60 videos that get you up-close and personal with the photojournalist himself.

"The image tells the story of her victory from the context of the thousands of people who had witnessed the moment. This perspective gives you an appreciation for the scale of the event that you don’t necessarily get with a long telephoto lens, where the background is completely blurred out." - Excerpt from Visual Stories by Vincent Laforet

Because Laforet’s experience began in journalism, he shows you how the principles of this genre can be applied to tell powerful stories in a single image. You’ll learn how to craft this energy into any type of photograph, include landscapes, close-ups, portraits, action shots, aerials and more.

Plus, get tips on using light, shape and color to create rich photos that support your story and add intense beauty and emotion.

Vincent Makes his Mark for You

We’ve got five autographed copies of this beautiful book, ready to find their way into your hands. Here’s how to get one:

1. Like SmugMug’s Facebook page HERE.
2. Post a message on our Facebook wall telling us why you want this book.

We’ll pick five lucky winners from the list on Wednesday, December 28, 2011.

So what will it be? You can keep grasping in the dark and taking the same photos, or you can grab a copy of Visual Stories and learn how a master works his craft. Check it out now at Peachpit Press.