Brent Gilmore has worn many hats during his lifetime, but none so fulfilling as that of dad. He’s not only juggled his share of strollers, dirty diapers, and 1am wake-up calls, he’s also learned to balance his fatherly duties with those of the family historian. He photographs his family’s tender, wonderful moments and keeps them safe for his children and future generations. We chatted with Brent about how he’s mastered the busy roles of father and photographer and why he trusts SmugMug to keep those precious memories safe and secure. Watch our video with him and read his interview below.
What’s the most important lesson you learned from your mom about being the family historian?
There are no unimportant moments. Even the moments you think are unimportant can turn out to generate the most memories. Case in point, a picture I took of my daughter or my son may not be super special, but when they see them, they see a pair of shoes they were wearing. Or they see a toy they’re still very fond of. And that will elicit really amazing memories for them. For me, it’s not that great of a photo. But for her it’s almost magical. For him, it’s his truck. And the truck is definitely magical. I think the most important lesson is that there are no unimportant moments.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to become their family’s historian?
Shoot really wide. You can always crop. Sometimes when you’re photographing family, the primary subject can be things happening in the background.
We were looking through my old photos and talking about furniture that we grew up with, and there’s this random photo of me with this piece of furniture. This photo becomes relatively important because it’s got this piece of furniture in it, but to begin with, it wasn’t important—it’s very wide, and it’s not particularly interesting. But it now has a really interesting purpose. So shooting wide is really important.
And capture items that people will forget but they’ll want to remember. Whether hairstyles or Nike Airs from seventh grade. Or, “I remember that Trapper Keeper,” which is something I said just recently looking at photos my mom took on the first days of school. That’s one of the great things about documenting. It’s not just documenting an individual or an event, but the time and space that it took place in, which is really important for me and my kids. I get to relive that with them now, and I find myself setting up shots that have their shoes in it where otherwise I might have cropped above the knee. Things they’ll forget but they’ll want to remember.
How do you balance being in the moment with capturing the moment?
You have to really be in the moment with the kids—with the camera. If they know you’re just trying to capture a photo, or if you’re in the moment and you stop to get the camera, they’ll stop what they’re doing, too. Kids are finicky that way. But if you can participate—run around the background, be on the floor, be at their level—then you can be part of the moment, and also capture that moment.
That takes practice, and also it takes the kids a little bit of practice, too. They might wonder why you always have that camera, then it becomes part of their environment, and they start to act normal with it. Otherwise, sometimes it looks artificial or feels artificial to the kids. As soon as something doesn’t seem right, they’ll stop doing what they’re doing. They don’t want to perform. The camera has to be out, it has to be accessible, it has to be a part of the environment.
Do you primarily shoot with a DSLR, or just whatever you have on hand?
You know the old quote, “The best camera is the one that you have with you.” The camera I shoot with primarily that’s not my iPhone is a DSLR. The kids are really accustomed to me having that all the time, and they’re accustomed to it being around the house.
My DSLR is gigantic, and the lens is gigantic, so it’s not always convenient to have it on a walk in the grocery store, or when going to go grab ice cream, especially with two. The iPhone plays a really huge part then. I have amazing memories captured on the iPhone that are irreplaceable.
Do you have any favorite go-to settings for your DSLR?
On the DSLR, I was a manual guy until I had kids. It took me about the first eight months of my daughter’s life to give up my hope of being a fully manual guy. Now I have it set on auto ISO, and the aperture wide open, so I just worry about shutter speed. That allows me to just pick up the camera, focus, and shoot in all the different types of lighting environments you’re going to have with kids.
The iPhone is amazingly great at capturing photos. I just tap on the screen to highlight the area where I want the light to be perfect. That’s typically a face, but iPhone does a really great job out of the box. I’ve been really happy with that. DSLR is the ideal and I try to have it with me as much as possible, but when I can’t, it’s the iPhone.
When it was just my daughter, we went to New York City for Mother’s Day and I took my DSLR. New York City is a smorgasbord of amazing things to take pictures of, and I used my DSLR the whole time. But with two kids, you can’t have them plus a double stroller in New York City and a huge DSLR. So the last two trips we took with the kids to New York City I just had my iPhone. Both times the photos were amazing.
What’s the top tip you would give somebody who wants to start photographing their family but might be a bit intimidated by the hardware?
That’s one of the things my wife and I laugh the most about because, “Oh my god, such a beautiful photo. He must have a nice camera.” Right? If you have a really expensive camera and really fast computer for processing, that doesn’t automatically make you a great photographer.
Technology has made it much easier than it was in the past. Now with how ubiquitous cameras are, anybody can have access to a really simple camera. And if they really work at it, they can take great photos with anything they have around them.
On the other hand, there’s people who do want to step up to a DSLR. I think it can, at first, be very overwhelming. But just take it one step at a time: figure out your camera, then figure out how to develop, and then you’ll figure out how to present your photos.
You mention in your video that your mother documented everything carefully, and I noticed her handwritten notes on the back of your photos. How do you approach documenting everything you photograph?
Well, I won’t lie. It’s tedious. There’s no super easy way. I joke that our parents invented tagging. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t know who a lot of these people are in these old black-and-white photos. But there’s no easy way that I found to directly transfer the tags that are on the back of the photos to the digital age.
Getting them scanned in, and then going into SmugMug and putting those tags in does take some time, but it is extremely worthwhile. It is time well spent and for a couple of reasons. The obvious main reason is organization. You are able to find any photo, any event, any year, almost instantly. We’ll be at a family function and somebody will mention this birthday, or this piece of clothing, or that birthday cake that mom made of Big Bird in 1978 or whatever. They’ll mention something completely random and I can go to SmugMug and search my tags for things as generic as birthday, and sort through the photos to find this particular one. Or I can search Brent’s birthday, or 1978. The better you tag it, the easier it is to search and find. Everybody’s completely blown away with that.
These photos are so precious and important, why did you entrust SmugMug to keep them safe for you?
Yeah, it’s literally thousands of photos. One of the things that’s lacking in a lot of software companies is updates, improvements, and listening to user feedback. SmugMug has continually impressed me with the fact that they are growing stronger every day. The way I know they’re growing stronger is they’re making improvements to the service every single day. They could be operational improvements, things that make my life easier, things that make processing and organizing easier, or it could be graphical changes that just make it more pleasant to work in SmugMug.
The reason I trust SmugMug is because I can tell they really care about their product, and about the people that use it. When you’re looking for a partner you want to know that they’re going to be there. So you’re looking for that longevity and solidness, and that was one of the things that tipped me off that these guys are serious and they’re going to be around because they keep getting better.
Could you walk me through your process of getting your photos from your camera on to SmugMug?
It’s not particularly sexy: I take my SD card and import everything to my laptop, then I use Lightroom to do my initial processing and tagging. The thing that I think is probably the most helpful, and to me this is very sexy, is SmugMug’s plug-in for Lightroom. It is absolutely amazing.
With other services, if you upload a photo and you want to change something later, you have to change it on the computer and upload a new version of that photo. A lot of times you’ve already shared that photo, so links are broken and people aren’t able to see it. The thing that is amazing about SmugMug and the plug-in for Lightroom is that any change I make on my computer with Lightroom is instantly synced with SmugMug. It doesn’t change the links, it doesn’t break any of the sharing.
That happens frequently with my tagging. I’ll upload everything, send it out on Google+, and everybody is looking and commenting. Then I realize, “Oh, well I didn’t tag it with these certain things, or I didn’t put the geo location.” Everybody’s looking at the photos at the same time I’m changing them in Lightroom and they never know that anything was changed. It’s absolutely brilliant. Genius.
What about photos on your phone? Do you keep those on your phone or do you end up uploading those as well?
I don’t upload every single one. I typically upload the ones that are worthy of sharing publicly. That doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect, or even that I’ve developed them, it just means that for me they have to be relevant to the people that I’m sharing them with. I’ve used my iPhone to upload directly to SmugMug, and I’ll do that with really important things as an immediate backup.
I mentioned traveling to New York before. On one trip, we’d been there for four days and captured some really great moments. After we pause to take a couple of photos in Central Park, I go to SmugMug while we’re getting everybody back in the stroller, and I’ll upload those five photos and boom, now they’re backed up to SmugMug. I lose my phone, my phone gets stolen, my daughter throws it into a fountain—everything’s already on SmugMug, and I don’t have to worry about it.
Are there any other tools or features on SmugMug that you use the most?
Prior to SmugMug I would share photos through email and people would want me to email a higher resolution. With Smugmug, I don’t ever have to send anyone a photo. I just direct them to the gallery on SmugMug and I’ve got it enabled to be downloaded. They can download the entire album, they can download individual photos. It’s an amazing time saver for me.
Or they want prints. Tangible photos. Before, I had a workflow where I would visit my local camera shop and get them printed, and then input everyone’s address to send copies. The time and effort was a nightmare. Now I just enable the ability for people to buy these photos on my SmugMug site, so when anybody wants one or all the photos, they can buy them directly from my site. They can pay for them themselves and have them shipped directly to them. In terms of the tools that are really an amazing life saver for my photographs, being able to download the photos and buy the photos on SmugMug is amazing.
Do you think having prints is important?
We’ve got a sofa table behind the sofa with thirty 4x6s and 5x7s on there. Our entire fireplace mantle is filled with picture frames. Anywhere there’s open space, it’s cluttered with picture frames. And it’s important for a couple of reasons. One, we really like to relive these moments and memories all the time. Having them online, I unfortunately don’t have my laptop or phone open to SmugMug all the time. But I’m in my office right now, and I’m looking up at the wall with an amazing photo of my daughter kissing my wife’s pregnant belly. It takes me back to summer 2012.
The second thing really lends itself to the very first question you asked about taking pictures of kids. When they see every day the outcome of daddy having the camera out, they’re more willing to be participants when they know it’s going to be printed. I find that they’re much more cooperative in the process when they know it’s going to be printed and framed.
And how do you prepare your photos to ensure you get great prints?
I think a year and a half ago I would have answered about different crop sizes, and color profiles, and a bunch of nonsense, but now I print everything through SmugMug. I upload an uncropped, full-resolution version of the photo, and if I want a 4×6, 5×7, an 8×10, SmugMug does almost all the work for me. I just have to approve where SmugMug wants to crop the photo, or adjust if I want it to be a little bit different, and know with a few keystrokes and a few button pushes I can have photos on the way to the house.
How do you protect the more private memories from anyone you don’t want to have access?
This is one of the top reasons I use SmugMug; it allows me very easy-to-understand control over what people will see. Whether it’s Facebook or Google Photos or Flickr, a lot of times I’m not really sure what other people can see. They don’t make the privacy controls very easy. But SmugMug makes it super simple. I know what is private, what’s completely locked down, password protected, and nobody can get to but me. I know what’s shared with only the family, and I know what’s public.
I do use Smugmug for some really private, really tender moments with my wife and my kids, and I know and have confidence that they’re private.
For example, someone in Pennsylvania happened to find my site and was randomly typing in passwords on a protected gallery. Really good guesses. Every time he typed in a password, I was getting an email instantly from SmugMug saying, “Someone applied the wrong password for this private gallery.” It alerted me to the fact that someone was trying to log in to this private gallery, and it did it every single time this individual put in a wrong password. Which let me know this wasn’t a random thing; someone really wanted those photos and was not going to give up. I was able to very quickly change the privacy settings to where all my password-protected galleries weren’t publicly discoverable, they were hidden.
When this guy in Pennsylvania goes back to that particular page, he can’t see it anymore. He can’t even attempt to type in a password. Not only did the security keep this person out, but SmugMug alerted me to the fact that there was an issue and made it easy to change the privacy settings on the fly. It’s really quite amazing that SmugMug had my back in such a gigantic way.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Your photos don’t have to be perfect to be memories. That’s the thing I think people need to get over—just capture what’s going on, and it’s going to be really, really special. You have to just start taking photos. They’re going to be amazing memories. If you ask anybody to look back at the photos their parents took, they’re not technically perfect, but they mean a lot to them. It’s going to be the same for their kids. Capturing memories is important, and Smugmug makes it really easy to share them.