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.

Newborns
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.

8 Rules to Remember That Make More Powerful Portraits

Valentine’s Day is rolling up, which means portrait photographers are aiming to capture beautiful clients looking their best. But even if you simply want to learn to take better, more powerful portraits, here are a few tips from expert portrait photographer, Alexandria Huff As the photographic brain behind the On Creating ChiaroscuroGlare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses, and Transitioning from Point-and-Shoot to DSLR: Understanding Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors, she’s well qualified to share these 8 essential rules no portrait photographer should ever forget. 

By Alexandria Huff

There are no rules in photography. There are, however, good habits that photographers rely on when they need to quickly capture a solid image. These habits are especially important when shooting for clients rather than just for personal projects.

1) Items in the foreground will look bigger/fatter/wider than the rest.

Keep extremities away from the foreground unless you’re going for that exaggerated look. Even the elbows in the second image are too far forward for my taste.

We get fixated on faces when shooting portraits and sometimes forget about what the rest of the body is doing. Keep hands, feet, and anything else you don’t want looking too bulbous further away from the camera.

2) Cutting off hands, feet, and foreheads can ruin visual flow.

Don’t crowd your frame or cut hands off at the wrists. Watch out for this when shooting in small spaces.

Arms and legs can act as leading lines for viewers that they follow out to the edge of the frame. Cropping at ankles, wrists, and foreheads is often too abrupt a cut-off for viewers. It is generally more acceptable to crop mid-thigh for 3/4th length portraits or at the waist/above the elbow for half length portraits. Also, cropping the forehead can have a “Frankenstein effect” so crop above the hairline.

3) Anything directly behind the subject’s head can make an image look weird.

Lines directly behind the head of a subject can be distracting. Check your backgrounds.

Mind your background to avoid “brain stems” – lines, trees, or other elements that photographers accidentally place their models directly in front of. Even in the studio they’ll appear in the form of wayward backdrop creases.

4) Slide your subject to the side.

Shifting a subject’s body over in the frame can produce more engaging portraits.

Symmetrical, center-weighted images can be really cool but the Rule of Thirds still has a strong place in photography. Placing your subject along one of the vertical/horizontal lines that divide an image into thirds produces pleasing results. Also, placing your model at an angle rather than square with the frame can be “slimming”.

5) Use broad and short lighting to your advantage.

The flash here is set up for broad lighting. Short lighting would dictate moving the flash to the far side of the subject’s face.

In broad lighting, the light is on the part of the face closest to the camera. Short lighting is on the far side of the face. Broad lighting is often good for softening skin and for thin-faced subjects while short lighting is good for bringing out wrinkles/character and for thinning wide faces. Use broad lighting if you want to avoid glare in glasses.

Using broad lighting (left) vs short lighting (right) will have a huge impact on your subject.

6) Direct your model through a series of micro adjustments and expressions.

Direct your subject through incremental changes in body language and expression.

The devil is in the details and your winning shot might differ from the rest because of a slight change in expression (like a Peter Hurley-esque “squinch”, parted lips, or dropped shoulders) rather than from large movements.

7) Make the most of lousy locations.

If you can’t have the location you love, love the location you can get.

Don’t shy away from shooting if you don’t have a studio or a park nearby. A strong portrait can be taken anywhere if you you’re following other compositional rules.

8) Shooting down onto your model is more flattering than shooting up at them.

It’s very rare for a subject to look good when being shot from below.

It’s rare for a subject to look good when being shot from below, even when you’re going for a power look. Nostrils are just not very photogenic — stick to eye-level or above. Remembering these rules and practicing good shooting habits will help you create consistently strong portraits. After a while you will have enough experience to successfully break the rules and develop your own distinct style.

SmugMug Films: Fantasy Storytelling by Ben Von Wong

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:

How to Create Success with Amanda Reed Photography

Next up in the lineup of pros we’re tapping to chat with is Amanda Reed, a fun and fearless high school senior portrait photographer. We love her attitude (in addition to her gorgeous images), so we had to ask her how she built her business from the ground up, how she keeps it alive in her tiny West Virginia town and what inspires her to keep capturing those teens at such an important time of their lives. Amanda’s got some amazingly fun ideas for promotion and marketing, too, so read on to see what she says!

Photos by AR Photography

Bright sunny senior portrait by Amanda Reed

What is your niche, and how did you find it? How would you describe your specific style of photography?

My photography journey starts with a personal tragedy that took place when I was 10. When you are 10 you are mostly concerned with Scooby Doo episodes and your bike. Not me. When I was 10 and my youngest brother was 4 he suffered a brain aneurysm. To make a long story short, his life is a miracle. Doctors told us he would not have anything to offer the world, that his life expectancy would be a maximum of 18 years. Damage from the aneurysm was indeed severe. He requires 24-hour care. Epilepsy now wreaks havoc on his body and my now 27-year-old brother will always mentally be my 4-year-old brother in an adult body. So, the doctors were wrong.

When he was 21 and about to graduate high school, he needed senior portraits. Watching my brother be ridiculed, watching him tire after a seizure, I knew this would be a daunting and stressful situation. I told our mother I would handle his portraits. I was always documenting everything with my camera for as long as I could remember. So, I took my brother’s senior portraits. In that moment I realized I captured a moment doctors had told me would never happen and that these images may be all I have to hold on to one day.

That moment changed my life. People recognized my work. My love for photography became more than documenting moments – it became an outward expression of what moves my soul and a journey to perfect this profession.

In 2008, Amanda Reed Photography had legs and of course high school seniors are my niche. It is where I got started, where I feel most creative and where I feel I can have the most impact on a young adult’s life. Growing up in West Virginia it is very easy to be sheltered by our beautiful mountains and heritage. It is easy to be convinced that you will never have more than what your family has. The fact that I still live in the small town of 1500 people I grew up in and have a successful career, that I can travel and experience new places and situations inspires the clients I come into contact with. I want them to know that with hard work and faith your dreams can fly you to places you only dreamed about.

Dark soot senior portraits by Amanda Reed

How did you find your “happy place” in your profession? Did you know how you were going to make AR succeed from the start?

That is a hard question to answer. I shoot from my heart. A few years ago I got caught up trying to emulate what other successful photographers were doing. I spent a lot of time reading blogs, trying to figure out their style and yet I was very unhappy. I began examining my life, my choices. I was working way too much for way too little. I spent half of the night on the computer. I was spending more time with other families than I was my own. My business was running me and I was not happy.

In 2010 I attended my first WPPI convention and learned the importance of a business plan. I came home and went to work on finding me. I stopped reading blogs. I hid every photographer and photography page from my Facebook wall. I developed a business plan. I stopped working weekends. I scheduled work hours from 9 to 5, Monday through Thursdays. I quit relying on sweet light and relied on skill to manipulate and create light. I honed my craft and I found me.

If you want to find your style, turn off the noise, tune out what everyone else is doing and look for you in what you create.

In 2010, the market was saturated with photographers and the economy was in a down turn. Our business was thriving. Every six months it seemed liked I reached a point where I said “go big or go home.” We went big and broke ground on my studio in 2011, by the winter of 2012 we were moved in. Was it scary taking on the debt of a studio when the economy was crashing? Yes, but I knew when the market recovered I would be way ahead of photographers who were relying on nice weather to run a business. While they were praying for warm weather I could master in-studio lighting. Operate on a 12 month calendar of income instead of the 6 month on-location photography calendar. Right now, we are sitting pretty and I could not be happier with our success.

Blue outdoor hat senior portrait by Amanda Reed

Apart from technical skill and perseverance, what do you think is the secret to your success?

I attribute 75% of that to my personality. I am a people person. I love honestly and openly. I know that when you walk into my studio that smile on your face may be hiding hurt and insecurities. High school is a tough time. My high school years were some of my hardest, personally. I want my clients to feel comfortable. We talk personally and comfortably. They are making an investment in my work and I am making an investment in them. I come from a genuine place in befriending my clients. I want every young adult who walks in that door to walk out feeling better than when they arrived. Not only do I invest in my client but I invest in what is important to them. We often joke that I give away more money than I make but I have no problem with that. I give back to our high schools, I rally around them. I want Amanda Reed Photography to be integrated in the happenings of not just my town but my state. If it is a charity event, a sporting event or a simple prayer that I can offer my heart to then you better believe I am going to make every effort to be there.

My essential gear:

  • Canon 5D Mark II
  • Canon 70-200 IS L series lens
  • Adobe Bridge/Photoshop
  • PhotoVision Reflector goes everywhere I go.

Native bear senior portrait by Amanda Reed Photography

We hear you’ve done some pretty fun events to market your brand. What are they?

One year we decided to see how far our fans would go to show their love for AR. The craziest idea would win them $1500 worth of products. My brother kicked things off by shaving my logo into his hairy chest. Yep! Things only got crazier from there. A few examples of entries were: my logo burned into a field, a sleeping baby lying beside milk spilled into my logo, people with backstage passes to concerts having music artists sign autographs to “AR.” All of these were fabulous ideas but the winner tattooed AR on her leg. Those were not her initials, not by any means! We had over 200 entries. Lots of them amazing so it was going to take something big to seal the deal and this did it. I posted every entry to my Facebook account and tagged the entry. When you tag 200 entries and multiply that by their number of friends we were getting maximum exposure. People were waking up to see our page and the craziness going on around it.

This year we are going to prom. Yes, prom. I offered a free session and an iPad mini to the first person to take me to prom. I have no plans of crashing the prom. Only to create buzz, arrive in the limo with clients, pose for prom portrait and be on my way. If you missed out on taking me to prom then you can take Flat AR. It is a twist on the Flat Stanley character. Snap some images with my flat AR persona with you getting ready for prom, family portraits, at dinner, on the dance floor, etc. Whoever shows Flat AR the best time at prom and documents it through images wins $1500 worth of products.

All of these fun ideas create a ton of buzz for our business and our clients realize that we are about having fun.

The promotion I am most proud of is our Annual Toy Drive event. During two weekends in November I will photograph 34 sessions. The cost of these sessions is a new toy valued at $35. Each session lasts 20 minutes with option of purchasing another 20 minutes for another toy donation. Our print pricing is deeply discounted for this event but that still doesn’t stop some clients from ordering over $1800 in products from a 20-minute session. Each year we donate toys to a different charity so that I can spread our love back to different communities who support us. Some of our clients really outdo themselves by donating bikes and electronics to make a child’s Christmas a little brighter.

Archery senior portrait by Amanda Reed

We have to ask: What are your favorite SmugMug features?

High school seniors live in the moment. I believe the faster we can put products in their hands, the happier the client experience will be. That’s where SmugMug comes into play. The ability to link clients to their galleries and the sharing options they have right from their computer or mobile device leads potential clients directly back to me. If I am photographing a charity event or a high school basketball game, the option my clients have for to downloading and sharing the display copies directly from my galleries creates amazing word-of-mouth advertising for our business.

Football senior portrait by Amanda Reed

So, what would you say is the #1 secret to success?

How you define success is very important and my definition should be different than yours. I define my success by the quality of my life and the time spent with the ones I love. It is not about the money, the exposure, magazine covers or speaking engagements. When photography affords me the opportunity to make a difference in an individual’s life, that is when I am most successful. Please do not get caught up in the “do it all” mentality. You do not have to be on the cover of a magazine, have a million dollars in the bank, be on speaking circuit, and have products to sell to the photography industry to be a great example of success.

I believe you have to carry a smile in your heart. When you find you, you find success.

As a final note, I know you are going to visit my blog and website but please do not spend much time there reading about my life and my work. That is how you waste time worrying about the competition. Instead, grab your camera, go find you and find success!

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

The Changing Business of Wedding Photography: Are You Keeping Up?

Do you know Lee Morris, pro photographer, video producer and wicked-good educator? You should. He’s an incredible, seasoned commercial, advertising, fashion and wedding photographer, plus he’s co-founder of the refreshingly useful website Fstoppers.com. He’s also a friend of ours who took a moment to reflect on the wedding business, why it’s so hard, how it’s changing and how pros like you can make the most of it by staying true to your heart.

by Lee Morris

Weddings, From Film to Digital

It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few years ago wedding photographers burned every image into a single piece of film. If they didn’t expose or focus the image correctly, the frame was ruined. If the film was processed incorrectly, scratched, or lost, the picture was gone forever. A single piece of film with a quality image on it was a very valuable thing and wedding photographers charged accordingly. It was common for wedding photographers to charge a single flat rate to show up to the wedding but then an additional fee for the number of images taken and processed. At the time it was very common for couples to pay their wedding photographers a few hundred dollars to take the pictures, but they would then spend thousands paying for prints and albums to be made after the event. Just a few years ago, a digital copy of a photograph, one that you could view on a computer was worthless to couples getting married. They wanted classic prints that they could hold in their hands, hang on the wall, and share with their friends, and they were willing to pay a premium for them. Times have changed.

As digital started to take over, wedding photographers were very slow to give away or even sell the files to their clients and rightfully so; for their entire careers, they made most of their money selling prints, not actually shooting. Many photographers that were unwilling to adapt their businesses actually went under because they thought they couldn’t compete with the new “cheap” digital market. What many of these photographers failed to realize was that the money was still there, in fact, as wedding photography progressed, couples were actually willing to spend more; many of them simply weren’t interested in paying for expensive prints in a digital world.

The Role of Sentimentality in Business

When it comes to managing a business as intimate as wedding photography it’s easy to let your emotions take over. I try my best to approach my photography business as I would any other business. I need to manage my time, keep my current clients happy, consistently book new clients, and make money. So many photographers fail to meet at least one of these goals. Maybe you are really good at making your current clients happy but you work too much and you don’t enjoy your job or have time to enjoy your life. Maybe you book a ton of work but you don’t charge enough and you are constantly struggling financially. During the digital revolution many photographers that didn’t change their pricing structure were incapable of making their current clients happy. Maybe their pictures were great but as digital started to take over, couples felt like they were getting nickeled and dimed after the event. If you can’t make your current clients happy, you are going to struggle to find new clients.

When I started my business years ago I learned very early on that I hated making prints and albums. I could shoot a wedding in a few hours and make a few thousand dollars but it would take me a full day to retouch a few pictures, print them myself or take the files to a lab, package them up, take them to the post office and I would only make a few dollars profit. In many cases my clients would have to wait weeks to actually get their prints because I was out of the state shooting another job. I decided that I was going to start giving away the digital files with each of my weddings. Maybe I would lose a few dollars on the back end but I was also gaining a ton of free time and my clients were happier because they could print their pictures, how they wanted, when they wanted.

As a single guy in my twenties, money was important to me but free time was far more valuable. Once I had booked my 20 or 30 weddings for the year I knew I had plenty of income to support myself and I now had the security to start working on other things. With the extra time I had gained, I created the photography website Fstoppers.com. If I had focused on custom prints and albums like other photographers do I have no doubt I would have made a bit more money but Fstoppers has been far more rewarding. Creating videos for our website like Bon Jovi’s photographer behind the scenes, or Peter Hurley’s: The Art Behind The Headshot, or our newest video: How To Become A Wedding Photographer, has been the most exciting experiences of my life.

My point is that you may love your photography career (I sure do) but if you can give yourself some extra time, who knows what you will be able to create.

SmugMug = Time = Money

When I found SmugMug I realized that it filled 3 major needs in my business:

1. High resolution backups are included with the subscription.
2. It allowed me to promote my photography by giving guests and family members a place to go to see my work.
3. Bay Photo integration means I give my clients high quality prints without actually having to do any work.

By simplifying my business I was meeting all 4 goals above; I had more free time, my clients were happier, I was marketing to new potential clients, and I was making money from print sales each month.

It’s easy to think that we know what’s best for our clients. We may know that if they don’t book an album now, they will probably never get one made. But the sad truth is that many of our clients would rather put their pictures on Facebook than deal with an album. It’s important to remember that we are hired by these couples to do a service for them; if they don’t want prints, we should figure out what they do want and charge them accordingly for that. If you’ve ever bought a car before you know how obnoxious it can be when the salesman tries to sell you on something you don’t want. There are so many other ways to make money with wedding photography that may not involve incredibly expensive prints. I make far more money than I ever did selling prints selling engagment and bridal sessions, setting up a photobooth at receptions, selling video slideshows of the event, and offering a video service. Many photographers also don’t know that SmugMug makes it incredibly easy to sell digital copies of files. If you don’t want to give away your files like I do, you are able to set the size and price for each individual picture.

I want to make it clear that I love high quality prints and that many wedding photographers make a lot of money selling prints, even today. I love seeing my work printed huge, professionally framed, and hanging on a wall. My point is simply that times are changing and the current generation of brides probably do not want the same things that their mothers wanted. To stay ahead of the pack you need to deliver exactly what your clients are looking for, not what you think they will appreciate one day.

If I could sum up this article into a single point it would be this: Listen to your clients, and give them what they want. A happy bride will tell her friends how wonderful you are you will never have to worry about a shortage of work. In some cases, especially this one, it can make your life a whole lot simpler and you might even make more money.

All photos by RL Morris Weddings

Get a Boost in the Business of Love

In the spirit of wedding season and WPPI, we’re going to pick one extremely lucky winner who will sharpen their wedding photography skills and  fistbump the biggest stars of the wedding biz in Las Vegas.

Here’s what we’re giving away:

Here’s how to enter:

  1. LIKE SmugMug’s Facebook page
  2. LIKE Fstoppers’ Facebook page
  3. POST A COMMENT BELOW answering the question:

    What (to you) is the hardest part of being a wedding photographer?

Get your entries in and we’ll randomly pick one winner on February 13, 2013. So keep your eyes peeled and don’t forget to check back for when we announce it here.

Edited to add: The giveaway is over but you can still learn! We highly recommend that you check out Lee’s video, available now on the Fstopper’s site. It’s a comprehensive, 14-hour, 2-years-in-the-making tutorial covering everything you’ll ever need to do know to become a successful wedding photographer. Check out the trailer to get more details about what you’ll learn and why wedding photography will change your life.

Good luck!

UPDATE: We’ve spun the wheel of destiny and it picked… Dennis Schroader! Congrats Dennis and we’ll be in touch with you to deliver your prizes. Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts with all of us in the wedding industry!

The Business of Love: Getting Intimate with Je Revele Fine Art Photography

We’re so excited to debut this guest post from the two lovely and incredibly talented ladies over at Je Revele Fine Art Photography, who we featured as a Success Story last summer. Love is in the air as Valentine’s Day approaches, pros fill their wedding calendars and winter engagements blossom into summer nuptials. So with the “Business of Love,” we’ll feature insights and tips related to planning, shooting and selling those beautiful photos you’ll take in the coming weeks. Enjoy this behind-the-scenes look into what goes into crafting the stunning images you see at New Jersey boudoir photographers Je Revele!

Insights from Natalie Licini and Cate Scaglione

When Cate and I joined forces, it was based on a love and a shared vision for Intimate Portraiture. From the beginning, we had a common passion about the kind of work and client experience we wanted to create for our clients, which we believe has been the foundation of our success.

Our business is a fusion between photography, a luxury spa, and an art gallery. We make more than beautiful portraits. Our clients cherish the wall art we make for them… but beyond that, they remember the experience of the day, how they connected with Cate or I and how our stylists made them feel. Ultimately, their memory is about feeling beautiful and special. That translates very powerfully into the portraits we create for them.

Cate and I have different personalities and approaches when it comes to working with clients. We sometimes find that one of us may be more compatible with a certain type of shoot or client, but the one constant is the final product our clients receive. Our end-to-end client experience is something we both take part in, regardless of which of us photographed the client. Cate often handles pre-consultations whereas I often execute the sale. We both handle editing and post-production. Our common ground is in our aesthetics, editing style and a mutually unwavering commitment to the quality of our product and studio experience.

The Value of the Pre-Consultation

Our process always starts with a pre-consultation, which is a critical component to the shoot and its subsequent sale. We believe this first step is a major component to our success. Our clients are surprisingly open during our pre-consultations, which enables us to know them on a highly emotional level, upfront. We like to hear what the client is envisioning and learn who they are to plan the session of their dreams. The pre-consultation serves a two-way purpose; we get to know them intimately beforehand to effectively plan a shoot and they get excited about it. Both of these factors lead to higher sales.

As a result of our pre-consultations, we’ve found ourselves planning era-inspired sessions of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, or 1980s. Some sessions are based on specific milestones, like one client’s 50th birthday where we planned a “past present and future” theme incorporating various themes of her life. Other clients find art as a healing mechanism, to recover from the death of a loved one, a double mastectomy or to regain confidence after a divorce or breakup. And yet other times, our sessions are to mark a celebration, such as remission from breast cancer, bachelorette parties or a special anniversary. On one occasion, we even held a Ladies Day of Glamour, a fashion-inspired day where we served lunch, champagne and a private chef who prepared a special dinner on the terrace of the castle in between their individual photo shoots and styling sessions.

No matter what type of session, their day with us is about comfort, convenience and luxury. We furnish them with everything they need to relish in their beauty, which includes in-house stylists, delicious hors deurves, chocolates, champagne, an in-house wardrobe to peruse, or our concierge-approach to designer gown rentals. We often find that the more we do to create a great experience, the more engaged they become with their images.

The pre-consultation is truly step one of putting clients at ease for the shoot. They feel they have a pre-established connection with us and they know what to expect. In addition, we put ourselves at ease through a consistent routine of scheduling, either as a 10AM or 1PM session appointment daily. We don’t waiver much and clients are OK with that.

Fluidity and Confidence During the Shoot

On the day of the shoot, women can initially feel nervous, shy or self-conscious… or all of the above. Cate often jokes that there is a “nine minute factor” in which clients find the joy and liberation of the session, a point at which the nervous excitement goes away. After those first nine minutes, we feel them come to life. We always give them authentic feedback and compliments early in the session. We do our best to make them comfortable, happy and show them a sneak peak of an early photo to build confidence in themselves. We don’t always show them the images, but sometimes we find that it enables clients to let go and embrace the experience. This approach can often be reassuring.

We hear a lot of consistent comments from women, regardless of her age, body type or overall appearance. One of the most common phrases is: “I’m not not photogenic at all”, almost as a warning. We often say: “Have you ever had your photo professionally taken? {often the answer is no} Many of your photos may be taken by friends and family under challenging lighting conditions so you may think you’re not photogenic. But beautiful light and proper direction by a professional photographer can definitely make you look your very best. If you’re photographed in darker light some clients feel they look wider or older. Let me show you a posing example”.

At this point, it’s a great example to show them how I’d look straight on flat-footed. I’d look wider, static… almost bored. With some adjustments, bending my knee, pushing my weight on my back hip in beautiful light and suddenly, I look thinner and prettier. The clients instantly feel more confident!

The pre-consultation is always a guide to how we pose our clients. The direction will vary depending on the styling and theme of the session. Our intimate portrait work may include high fashion photos, fine art nudes, boudoir or all of the 3 in one session. I feel the best approach is to pose my clients from the feet up, posing them standing, seated, leaning or laying and guide them so they look and feel beautiful, slim and elegant. The wrong pose can instantly add 10 pounds to any client. We do our best to ensure the opposite is true with every photo. The last step is to ensure they look relaxed and their hands are relaxed. Little adjustments with hands and encouragement can make your client shine brightly from the inside and you see that in their eyes.

For our intimate portrait work, we shoot both indoor and outdoor at our studio. Our studio has over seven acres of picturesque grounds at the castle, with brick and stone, old classic architecture, thick woods, beautiful gardens and trees, etc. We shoot indoors using both natural light and strobes. We love variety, but we photograph our clients truly in accordance with the pre-consultation we planned. At all times, both Cate and I each shoot with our own two cameras. Cate uses her two Canon 5D IIs using a 85mm and a 24-70 or a 70-200, depending on the session. Cate likes fluidity and tries to incorporate with a single new idea each shoot. I always photograph my clients with my Canon 5D Mark III with my 85mm 1.2 on the right of my rapid double strap and my Canon 24-70 II on my left. We love both perspectives for intimacy and storytelling. The dual-camera approach is important to the flow of the session because changing lenses causes delays, which breaks your clients’ enthusiasm. It’s important to keep a rhythm and energy going… for all parties involved in the shoot!

Exquisite Marketing

One thing we noticed was that clients booked us because they are attracted to our fine art work and they wanted to hang a piece of art in their home. We’re always excited to do what we love, but from a business perspective it was limiting. Cate always tended to shoot intimate close-ups for her fine art. I liked to shoot wide for maximum storytelling. So we made adjustments on both our parts and begun offering a variety of posed beauty portraits, creating the variety and “bigger picture” story for our clients. This enabled us to sell both wall art and albums or image boxes with each sales session, doubling our revenue instantly. It changed and reshaped our business.

This past summer, we created a marketing plan which cross-promoted with venues, stylists and clients. We offered gift vouchers enclosed in a gorgeous black box with thick white satin ribbon. Targeting our class-A clients and vendors was a great way to attract our ideal clients for intimate portrait sessions.

Pricing is an important part of the brand. Our brand is about a premium experience and making woman feel special and important. We are priced accordingly and our brand look and feel helps us communicate that idea. One can never underestimate the importance of being well branded and well priced for your target audience. You attract what you put out there in the market.

Working Together as a Team

There are two of us in our studio and naturally, we work a little differently than one another. However we maintain a very structured workflow for the consistency of the client deliverable and final product.

First, we download our images from our cameras and with Photo Mechanic do a “sort by capture time” and rename the RAW files. Then, there is a culling process in Photo Mechanic which we reduce the gallery selections to 75-100 images. We then import everything into Lightroom 4.

Cate and I process images a little differently, but generally maintain the same aesthetic with our custom-created presets and actions Cate made from our most inspired looks. I label about 40% of the images in LR using the star rating, which I make black and white. I use the same style black and white throughout for consistent styling and branding. I take the remaining 60% and edit them with a desaturated vintage color. I don’t cherry-pick which images are black and white, I randomly choose. Cate really enjoys the editing process and tends to like to look at each image individually and decide with each image what should be presented in color or black and white. Our editing aesthetic can vary a little from session to session depending based on the styling and theme (example: 1930s era), but in general there is about a 40/60 rule for bw/color (unless we know from our pre-consultation a client has a penchant for a style). No matter what, we always try to ensure that our post-processing maintains that signature Je Revele look.

We typically decide before the sales session which portraits would have the best potential as a fine art wall portrait. Rarely do we edit any fine art work before the viewing appointment. Instead, we show several beautiful fine art portrait samples to clients during the viewing appointment. This explains what their portraits could potentially look like and it usually illustrates the idea quite well.

From the beginning of our Je Revele adventure, we decided that our Intimate Portraits were about creating intimacy with the client and helping them see their beauty. It was never about the wardrobe like lingerie or boudoir-style setting to define our genre. In this sense, our Intimate Portraits are very much the same vertical as our other portrait work. With this philosophy in mind, we price our Intimate Portraits the same as our other portrait sessions including families and high school seniors. Our newborn photography structure and weddings have a different pricing structure, however to accommodate the very specific needs of those life stages.

At the end of it all, we simply want our clients to look and feel their most beautiful self. That’s incredibly important to us… we feel it’s what differentiates us. We listen to their needs and understand why they are doing the session… and we deliver according to that. That’s intimacy.

All photos by Je Revele Fine Art Photography