How to Become the Neighborhood Sensation with Halloween Photos

By Chris MacAskill, SmugMug co-founder
Years ago we faced a Halloween dilemma: do we just pass out Snickers bars and bore everyone? Scatter a few plastic skeletons and cobwebs like everyone else? Enter an arms race with the guy a few blocks away who spends days turning his house into a Hollywood Horror Show? Where does he even store all that stuff?

Instead, we set up some lights on the driveway and shot photos:

The thing is, Smartphone cameras don’t do well in the dark.  So parents bus their kids to our neighborhood to get their annual Halloween photos:

Even the cool kids need to score Instagram likes:

Here are some things I’ve learned from 7 years and thousands of photos:

  1. The Big Thing is to have a Very Big Light front and center.  I am usually on knees or bum, and the Very Big Light is above me.  I use a 60-inch softbox.  One reason for a big light in the center is that, on zero notice, Very Big Groups will form:

The big, centered light keeps some faces from being lost in the shadows.  And it casts very soft, flattering light that adults love.

  1.  Get a very wwiiiiiddddee backdrop.  I chose black because, well, Halloween.  Black anything will do: bedsheets, paper, whatever.  You can move it back from the subjects far enough that it’s really black and is never seen in photos.

This is what happens when the group is too big for the backdrop:

  1.  Knee pads.  Ow, my knees.  I like to get the camera down to the children’s level.

  1.  There will be witches, Darth Vader, and black-hatted villains.  If you can add a flash or two behind and to the side, you’ll actually be able to see black costumes and hair without them blending into the backdrop.

  1.  Smoke!  Smoke machines are cheap on Amazon and just a few puffs add a bit of awesome:

  1.  A zoom lens.  I love prime lenses and wide apertures for dreamy shallow depth of field.  But during Halloween, you’ll shoot a small child dressed as a pumpkin and 30 seconds later you’ll shoot a large group of teens.  I use a 24-105.
  1. JPEG, not RAW.  I set my white balance for the flash and it never varies.  I set my exposure at manual because the camera will give different exposures for people in white versus people in black if I try auto exposure.  There’s no issue with dynamic range, so RAW only slows everything down but doesn’t improve quality in this case.
  1.  Tether!  I use Lightroom to display the JPEGs on a monitor as I shoot them.  It’s great entertainment for people in line.  And when people see the photos, they’re sold on your photo booth.
  1.  Hand-out cards to tell your fans where they can download their photos.  I send them to

Have an amazing time!  It’s one of my favorite nights of the year.

Show Us Your SmugMug Smile at Photoshop World 2015

Join SmugMug for three days of creative adventures at KelbyOne’s Photoshop World Conference and Expo, the world’s largest Photoshop, Lightroom, and Photography conference of the year, August 11–13, 2015, at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Come out and be inspired by world-class educators, network with your fellow photographers, and show off your smile in the SmugMug booth for a special gift!

Take our class

Be sure to add SmugMug’s platform class, “Showcase, Share, and Backup: Why Your Photos Need a Website,” to your itinerary. Learn everything there is to know about building a beautiful photography website from award-winning landscape photographer Aaron Meyers.  Aaron is an expert at creating stunning photographs and, as a SmugMug Product Manager, beautiful websites to display them. He’s a former aerospace engineer but now limits his explorations to chasing light in remote locations on planet Earth. Join us August 12 at 9:30 a.m. in Tradewinds C/D. Don’t have your Photoshop World ticket yet? Grab a full conference pass here.

Visit our booth

You’ll find us at booth 217 in the expo hall.

Drop by for one of our SmugMug demonstrations or to talk with Nick (Beardly), Seth, Ann, and Aaron to find the answers to all your burning SmugMug questions.

Get cool stuff

We’ll have some special show swag for any visitor that shows us their “Smuggy.” Take a selfie with Smuggy, our logo, post it to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter with the hashtag #SmuggyPSW, and then bring that selfie to our booth. We’ll reward you! If you’d like to visit the expo only, please do so on SmugMug. Just print this expo pass and present it at the door. Need more convincing? Watch our SmugMug Film on our friend Scott Kelby, the man behind KelbyOne and Photoshop World, to see why he’s an inspiration to photographers everywhere.

See you there!

How to Photograph Your Kids

This famous mom photographer shares her secrets.

Last year, Elena Shumilova took photos of her sons as they played by the Russian countryside. She uploaded the photos online, then they started getting shared, and shared again… until they became a viral sensation, with over 60 million views.

These photos hit something magical all across the Internet — a sense of nostalgia for a childhood past. She even started getting letters from people in their nineties, saying the photos moved them to tears.

As parents, we instinctively want to take photos of our kids. We’re trying to preserve this brief slice of time before they grow up. But when we take our kids to professional photo studios, the results can end up looking stilted and unnatural.

We want to remember our kids as they actually are — not with the forced smile a stranger coaxed out of them at the studio, but with the real smiles and giggles they share with us every day.

How can we capture natural photos of our kids, the kind Elena seemingly has a magic touch for?

Photo by Ivan Makarov

Elena has mostly been quiet since her photos have gone viral, undistracted by all the media attention. Instead, she focuses on raising her kids and continues to photograph them every day.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

Given how quiet Elena has been, we’re excited to share a behind-the-scenes look at her in action. She invited us onto her farm in Russia, where we asked her to share how she captures these beautifully nostalgic photos.

This is what she had to say.

5 Tips to Get Better Photographs of Your Kids

by Elena Shumilova

Watch a video of Elena demonstrating these tips.

1. How to get your kids to look natural, not “posed.”

So you catch your kids in the perfect moment — they’re outside playing and laughing, the lighting is just right, and you see this perfect picture you want to capture. You rush to get out your camera, but then…

They see the camera. They stiffen up. They start posing. The moment is lost.

What do you do?

When photographing children, the single most important thing is to photograph them often — every day.

You can’t just do it sporadically, or they’ll freeze up as soon as the camera comes out. Consistency is key. That way they’ll be comfortable around the camera.

It’s these everyday scenes that you want to capture — the ones you’ll remember best when they grow up.


To get the most genuine photos, I try to catch them in the moment — when they’re playing with each other and have completely forgotten about the camera.

Here they’re playing “airplanes,” a game we also play together at lunchtime when they’re feeling picky about their food.

Watch Elena explain how she captures her nostalgic photos:

2. The types of clothes that work the best.

I follow a pretty simple rule: clothes shouldn’t be distracting. They shouldn’t take attention away from what’s happening in the photo.


For such a simple rule, it’s harder to follow than you might think. Kids’ clothes today are designed to grab your attention—with bright colors, cartoon characters, and writing all over them. In photographs, all this takes attention away from your kids.

When I started pursuing photography seriously, I actually replaced all their outfits. This took quite a while to do, but now I know that anything I pull from their closet won’t interfere with the photo.

3. How to best capture kids of different ages.

A lot of parents have asked me about this photo — how did you get your one-month-old to look so calm? Infants are notoriously difficult to photograph because they’re often crying or fidgeting.

Here you’ll have an advantage as a parent. I’m his mom. I’m around him 24 hours a day, and I know when he cries and when he doesn’t. Let your parenting instinct help you choose the right moment.

The Golden Age: Ages 2–4
Something I noticed while photographing many children, including my own, is that there seems to be a universal age when kids are the most photogenic.

That seems to happen between ages two and four.

Kids around this age behave very naturally. They don’t care that someone is looking at them, they don’t care what others think, and they don’t care that a camera is pointed at them.

They aren’t yet self aware. And so, they’re free.

Ages 5 and Older
It gets a bit more difficult when they’re older. As early as age five, they start to become more self-conscious when the camera comes out. They start to pose.

The key here is to be very patient. Let them play while you disappear into the background. My best photos always happen at the end of a photo shoot, when my kids have forgotten all about the camera.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

4. How to get good photos of your kids with pets.

Just like people, every animal is different. Some pets like to be photographed, and others don’t.

Because every pet is different, there isn’t a magic formula for this. I spend hours observing our farm animals, figuring out how they move and what angles work best for them — just like I would for people.

I’ve also tried bribing pets with food, but it doesn’t work. It’s almost impossible to get a good picture when they’re chewing or licking their paws. So I’ve learned the hard way not to feed our pets during photo shoots.

With animals, you have to rely on a bit of luck — and constant patience.

5. Don’t give up.

This is the most famous photo I’ve taken. It’s been viewed over 10 million times — but I almost didn’t bring my camera that day.

Before I took this photo, my confidence was at a pretty low point. I had tried for a photo of my son and dog 14 other times — not 14 other photos, but 14 full photo shoots, all failures.

I was convinced that my hands were too clumsy, or my dog was not the right dog for it, or my kid was not the right kid for it. I was just feeling desperate that day and didn’t even want to bring my camera.

But something told me to bring it. And on that fifteenth day, it all just came together.

This dog of ours is now famous — but he’s not all that photogenic from most angles. He’s actually a pretty difficult dog to work with. From the previous 14 photo shoots, I’d learned what angles and body compositions work for him and my son.

It‘s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to think, “Oh, why bother, it won’t work anyway.” And it may not for the first 14 times. Those 14 photo shoots weren’t failures though, because I learned from them. And they’re what made the fifteenth one possible.

Don’t give up.

For when you get frustrated.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

When I was first starting out, I got frustrated easily. I used to create these elaborate setups — I’d bring my kids to a special place, in special clothes, at a special time with the lighting just right. I’d arrange it all. And naturally, I started to feel like they owed me a good photo.

But I started getting better photos when I realized: no one owes me anything.

If you get frustrated, your kids will sense it and won’t want to participate anymore. Which just creates a vicious cycle of more frustration. When I stopped feeling entitled to a good photo, I was more relaxed. It was more fun for me and for them.

Rather than creating high-pressure elaborate setups, observe your kids in everyday simple situations. Do it every day. Bring your camera along.

And then — when the right moment comes along — you’ll be ready.

See more of Elena’s photos on her SmugMug print site.

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Watch Elena demonstrate these tips.

Let’s Connect at WPPI 2014 in Las Vegas

If you’re a portrait or wedding photographer bound for WPPI next weekend in Las Vegas, please come see us! SmugMug will be hitting the expo floor from Monday, March 3rd through Wednesday, March 5th, so stop by, say hello and ask us your burning questions. Let’s connect!

We’ll have two great ways for you to win great stuff next week:

1) Photo Critique with David Beckstead 

Become a better photographer in minutes! Submit your best wedding photo now for an in-depth critique by one of the Top 10 Best Wedding Photographers in the World, David Beckstead. Details here.

2) Snap a Smuggy Selfie

Snap a fun self portrait with one of our SmugMug Booth Babes (or just with the SmugMug logo), tag it and share to win part of $2400+ worth of prizes. Winners announced each day of the WPPI expo. Details here.

We’ve lined up an impressive list of totally free seminars and SmugMug demos led by pro photographers (who also happen to be SmugMug friends) ready to impart their knowledge of marketing, business and the craft with you. You’ll also get the chance to talk with some of SmugMug’s Product Managers, Engineers and Design teams, so bring your feedback, suggestions and a winning smile.

Find a complete list of times, dates and topics right here on the handy reference page we’ve built for you here. Bookmark it, love it, keep it close at hand.

See you soon, wedding pros!

Podcast: How to Get Paid What You’re Really Worth

One of the most popular (and constant) debates between photographers is how to properly price your work and know that you’re not over- or under-charging for what you do. We’ve covered this topic before, but like fingerprints, no two photographers are the same. How do you know that someone else’s magic number is right for you?

Pricing Podcast with Dane Sanders

Tune in to our latest podcast with the inimitable Dane Sanders: photographer, entrepreneur, educator and author of countless business strategies for photographers like you. He’s no stranger to helping passionate people find their stride, get their businesses off the ground and turn their love into a lucrative way of life.

In this podcast, you’ll hear answers to some of the most important pro questions, such as:

  • Are you a freelance or a signature photographer, and why does it matter?
  • How do you get past the “newbie mindset” and stop sabotaging your success?
  • Are there any benefits to being new, and how can you leverage the opportunity?
  • Can you afford to accept that next photo gig?
  • How do you charge a fair price without scaring the client away?
  • Why should you trust your print lab?

Dive in to iTunes right now and start listening! Podcasts are the perfect way to give yourself a competitive edge while you’re processing last night’s photos, or while you’re stuck on your morning commute.

Bride and groom in veil by Dane Sanders
Photo by Dane Sanders

We REALLY Want You To Succeed! Listen and Win More Ways to Learn

If you’re hungry for even more photo knowledge, we’ve got a Full Scholarship* to give away for Skip Cohen University’s Summer Session in Chicago, August 11-14, 2013. One lucky winner will get a chance to fine-tune their photo and business skills, meet other photographers and recharge their creative batteries. Read more about the program here.

* Airfare and accommodations not included

Here’s how to enter:

  1. Listen to our most recent podcast with Dane Sanders.
  2. Tweet your most memorable “A-ha!” moment at us and use the hash tag #ahasmugmug

We’ll pick one lucky random winner on July 3rd, 2013.

So keep listening, keep learning and start getting more light bulb moments when it comes to your business!

UPDATE: Congratulations to our winner, Joy Michelle Photography (@joymphotography)! We’ll be in touch with you ASAP with all the info for SCU’s exciting summer session.

Sportraiture: Punch Up Your Portrait Photos with Levi Sim

What’s “sportraiture?” you ask? Simply put, unique portraits of fervent athletes showing them doing what they do best. Pro photographer and SmugMug educator Levi Sim has a place in his heart for the passion and thrill of this type of portraiture, and today he’s sharing the three key tips on how to make it happen for you.

By Levi Sim

When I started photography four years ago a local photojournalist, Eli Lucero, opened my eyes to sports photography. He said, “You know when you make a great portrait that shows emotion and it’s awesome? Athletes are finally performing what they’ve been practicing, and powerful emotions show on their faces all day. It’s great to be a sports photographer.”

Ever since then, I take every opportunity I can find to shoot sports.

Still, I’m a portraitist at heart, and I can’t help making portraits of people everywhere I go. Here are three tips that let me maximize every opportunity I get to shoot great sports portraits.

1. Know Your Game

Athletes spend many hours every day for many, many years to learn to perform flawlessly. They have worked incredibly hard to have the body and the skills to do what they do. It is disrespectful to put them in front of your lens and then mess around with your camera, trying to figure out the best settings. You owe it to them to be proficient at what you’re doing because you’re photographing other passionate people.

Now, I’m not saying you have to be a pro who knows everything before you photograph someone. I’m saying that you do your practicing before you shoot the athlete. At the very least, grab a kid from the sidelines and practice your setup right before you invite the athlete over. Then you can be confident that you’ll get a good image from that same setup.

I’d also recommend quitting while you’re ahead. If you’ve just taken a good picture with a test setup, don’t say, “Let’s try this other thing,” unless you’ve also practiced the other thing, too. They’ll think you’re the best photog in the world if you fire off two frames and have a great picture; if you mess around with the unknown, they’ll be frustrated and disappointed.

Practice your setup, take a good picture and say thank you.

2. Seek Passionate Subjects

I’m not likely to get the opportunity to spend a few minutes photographing a famous athlete, like John Elway or Danica Patrick. But, if I go to the open track day at the local race track, I’ll definitely be able to photograph some very passionate people, and they are likely to let me spend more than a few minutes taking pictures of them.

This is my pal, Jeremy. He’s the one who told me about the open track days, and his wife’s a member of my local SMUG, so he invited the group down to make pictures. Now it’s become an annual event on Memorial Day for the club, and we have a great time.

The track is crawling with guys and gals who are so passionate about racing motorcycles that they travel across the country to race on a world class track.

These people spend their lives working to earn money so they can blow it on a few tanks of fuel and a few sets of tires in a single weekend. They aren’t the kind who ride because it’s cool. They ride because they can’t not. These are the kind of people you really want in front of your lens, and they are the kind of people who will be pleased to help make a picture.

All athletes fit this category of Passionates. I hope you do, too.

3. Use Technique, Timing, Lighting – Anything It Takes to Create a Memorable Shot

It’s interesting that when talking to athletes they can describe the winning goal of a game they played ten years ago. Passionate athletes remember the intricate details of a split second for their entire lives. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what we do as photographers, too.

When you make a picture after a game, that picture will be part of their memory, and an important piece of the experience. I recommend that you prepare a few techniques that will allow you to create a memorable image –something your subjects will be happy to show off to future generations.

In these motorcycle portraits, the guys just got off the track where they broke speed records passing others around the turn, one knee dragging on the ground and sending sparks flying. They have the courage to get back on their bikes after tipping over and sliding through gravel for a hundred yards. I’m just taking it for granted that you have the courage to approach them and ask to take their picture.

After chatting for a sec about the bike, or the game (or whatever), I usually say, “There’s some really good light right over here, and I wonder if you’d let me make of picture of your bike — yeah, with you in it!”

I’ve never been turned down.

Now, put on your widest lens and get in close. No, closer! These portraits were made within inches of the subject, almost touching their bikes with my lens. I used the incredible Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8. When you get in close with a wide lens you make a picture that is distorted and absolutely not normal. And not-normal makes it memorable.

The key to these pictures is the lighting. These are all made within a half hour of noon, so the sun is straight overhead, and there is no light in their eyes to fill the raccoon shadows on their faces from their eyebrows and ball caps. My solution is to use a speedlight to pound some hard light back into their faces and the shadows on their bikes. These are hard looking guys with sunlight casting hard shadows all around, so using a bare bulb speedlight really fits the scene.

Remember: the speedlight is not mounted to the camera–that would be obvious in the picture and ruin the look. The flash is off to the side, and high, as if it’s a little more sunlight from a slightly different direction. Whether you use your camera’s proprietary speedlights controlled by the camera, a radio trigger or an extension cord, you’ve got to get the flash off the camera to control the direction of the shadows. When using a very wide lens (shorter than 35mm), you can even hand hold the flash to the side and it will be enough. I prefer to have my buddy or my subject’s buddy hold the flash.

One More Thing…

For best results in sportraiture, bring a friend. Or two. The more the merrier! You’ll have more people there to help make your vision happen, and more visions to make things happen. You help each other hold stuff, ask each other questions, make the rest of the town jealous by talking about “that great time you spent at the track,” which then gets more people to join in next time. Photography is always better with friends.

All photos by SDesigns Photography

Going to WPPI 2013? Come say hello!

Since we’re big on meeting our customers, we love going to WPPI each year and seeing a slice of the wedding and portrait world. Viva la Vegas!

If you’re going, too, say hi! We’re here to hear what you think, share what we can and shed some light on any of your burning questions. So swing by, shake our hands, bend our ears, grab some swag and take part in the fun.

Meet Us in Booth #1529

Apart from our shining faces, you’ll see:

  • A giveaway for current Smuggers. Win a total website makeover by one of our amazing Certified Customizers: FastLine designs. It’s your chance to get the beautifully branded, professional website you’ve always dreamed of. ($665 value)
  • A giveaway for everyone: Enter to win a mind-bending prize package from SmugMug + friends, including one year of SmugMug Business ($300 value), print credit from Bay Photo Labs ($300 value), a gallery wrap print from WHCC ($300 value), two-year membership at PhotoTraining4U ($390 value,) Perfect Photo Suite 7 Premium from OnOne Software ($299 value), “Design, Print & Bind” Album from Zookie Pro ($300 value), and $150 credit from Blurb books. Whew!
  • A fun, free photo booth so you can seal the experience with a(n infamous) Smilebooth pic! We’ll have creative props for you to use and an online photo gallery to share all the fun. We don’t always believe in all that “What happens in Vegas…” stuff.

And we’ll have some big-name photographers like Jeremy and Zabrina from JeZa Photography hanging out with us to answer questions about the photo biz and share tips on how SmugMug fits into the successful pro’s workflow.

Make Time for Awesome People We Like

If you’re seeking words of wisdom from your favorite pros, here’s when you can catch them over the course of the week. Check the WPPI directory to find exact locations:

Corinne Alavekios
Photographic Essays: From Ordinary to Extraordinary
3/10/2013 9 AM – 10:30 AM

Suzette Allen
Retouching Power with Photoshop CS6
3/13/2013 8:30 AM- 10:00 AM

David Beckstead
In the Box, Through the Box, & Out of the Box with a Videolight!
3/11/2013 11:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Bambi Cantrell
Beyond Boudoir
3/7/2013 9 AM – 5 PM

Lawrence Chan
Content Marketing and Social Media: The Secrets to More Bookings and Online Engagement
3/11/2013 4 PM- 5:30 PM

Tony Corbell
“Between Light and Shadow”- An Educational Conversation About the Craft of Photography
3/13/2013 3 PM- 4:30 PM

Bob and Dawn Davis
Llevando un Pequeño Negocio Local al Éxito
3/12/2013 9 AM- 10:30 AM

Kay Eskridge
Beyond Boudoir
3/11/2013 8:30 AM- 10 AM

Gustavo Fernandez
Second Shooting: Learn the Wedding Business FAST
3/11/2013 3:30 PM- 5:50 PM

Mike Fulton
Wireless Flash and Strobes Tips and Tricks – Both Manual and TTL
3/11/2013 6:30 PM- 8 PM

Zach and Jody Gray
How to Avoid What Small Businesses Do: Fail
3/10/2013 3 PM- 4:30 PM

Vanessa Joy and Rob Adams
How to Start Your Photography Career Step-by-Step
3/10/2013 11 AM- 1 PM

Kevin Kubota
Pimp Your Speedlight! Location Lighting Tips and Techniques
3/10/2013 9 AM- 10:30 AM

Scott Robert Lim
Crazy, Stupid, Light: Amazing Off Camera Lighting Techniques
3/10/2013 3 PM- 4:30 PM

Denis Reggie
Beyond Cliche: A Case for Authenticity in Wedding Imagery
3/13/2013 3 PM- 4:30 PM

Dane Sanders
Going to Market: Maxmizing Portrait and Wedding Profits
3/10/2013 9 AM- 10:30 AM

Matthew Jordan Smith
10 Secrets to Building a Powerful Photography Career
3/11/2013 4 PM- 5:30 PM

Kirk Voclain
Lighting and Posing Today’s High School Seniors
3/11/2013 8:30 AM- 10 AM

Moshe Zusman
Shedding Light on the Wedding Venue
3/11/2013 3:30 PM- 5:30 PM

Are you ready for the most amazing year in the wedding and portrait industry yet? We can’t wait to meet you!


The SmugMug Family