How I re-processed our famous San Francisco panorama.

by Head of Product, Aaron Meyers

It may be a 45-mile drive between SmugMug headquarters in Mountain View, California, and San Francisco, but when you walk into our headquarters you find yourself surrounded by sites of the city. The Bay Bridge, the Ferry Building, Coit Tower, and the Golden Gate Bridge all envelope you. You stare at a storm burning in the sky in front of you. But the sky isn’t really on fire: it’s a giant panoramic photo in our Media Room taken by SmugMug co-founder Chris MacAskill.

Over 23 attempts, Chris took 336 photos with a long, telephoto lens (the Canon 300mm f/2.8L for those lens junkies out there!) and his trusty Canon 5D Mark II, and he turned those two evenings into one of the most-visited photos on display in Silicon Valley. Featured in the San Jose Business Insider and the Huffington Post, this amazing wraparound print attracts visitors each week to see it and many more stunning photos at our headquarters.

01 - sf_panoSmugMug’s San Francisco Panorama

Originally printed in 2009, the past seven years haven’t been too kind to the image and it’s seen better days, most notably thanks to a pot of flying coffee. It was time to reprint and reprocess the photo using the latest Photoshop, Lightroom, panoramic stitching, and luminosity-masking techniques. That’s where I come in.

Over the course of one and a half months, I acquired the original RAW files from Chris, imported the photos into Lightroom, reprocessed each individual photo, stitched them into several panoramas, and blended various exposures together. It was a serious undertaking: three different software programs, various Photoshop filters, and many hours spent perfecting it. Let’s dive into how it was done.

Processing with Lightroom

The first step in reprocessing the panorama was importing the photos into Lightroom. Chris had sent me all the files as Canon CR2 RAW files with his edits saved as separate XMP sidecar files. I hate keeping extra XMP files, and I immediately converted the photos to Adobe’s own RAW format — DNG — which combines the RAW and edit information into one file. The XMP sidecar files were then deleted.

03 - lightroom_dngThe CR2 files were imported and converted to Adobe’s DNG format

Now it was time to start editing. The first roadblock I stumbled upon was figuring out how Chris photographed the image. When you create a panoramic photo, you start on one edge of the scene and then slowly move the camera left or right, then up and down. Each photo should overlap the previous one by at least 30% so one can match up the same features between photos. Overall, I had to sift through:

  • Two days of photos.
  • 36 slightly overlapping photos per pass.
  • Multiple passes of the same exposure as he tried to “get it right.”
  • Three different exposures (too dark, normal, and too bright).
  • Changing light as the sun moved closer and closer to the horizon and eventually disappeared.

To get a handle on the 336 photos that I was sorting through, I took advantage of Lightroom’s “stacking” feature. It allows you to group photos together in a stack that can be collapsed and expanded. This allowed me to group each pass of photos together. Each pass was photographed with the same settings (same shutter speed, ISO, and aperture) so they all looked the same. But each pass might be slightly different from the previous; for example, pass one might have used aperture f/5.6 while pass two used aperture f/9. I was going to edit every photo in a given pass the same, then repeat for each pass.

04 - lightroom_groupedThe photos were stacked into groups of 30 – 36, representing each pass.

Now that the photos were stacked into their groupings, it was time to start editing. Lightroom has a nifty feature that allows you to copy and paste your editing settings from one photo to the next. All I needed to do was edit one photo in each pass, then apply it to the rest of the photos in each stack. Canon 5D Mark II files have a hard time capturing really bright scenes and really dark scenes all at once (i.e., dynamic range), so I had to ensure I didn’t push the limits of each of these files. Luckily, Chris took bright and dark versions, which would later enable me to control brightness without pushing the files too much and avoid unnecessary noise in the image.

I left the white balance mostly the same, knowing I’d be cleaning up the color balance, temperature, and tint later. I focused mostly on extracting color and detail from the photo by increasing the contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation. I also slightly reduced the highlights to pull out some of the detail in the clouds while also increasing the whites so they still retained the look of clouds. I also brightened the city lights.

05 - edited_photoI edited each photo to bring out detail and color.

This is the point where I ran into my first unexpected bump (though easily surmountable). Chris initially made a common mistake — he photographed the pano in Aperture Priority mode. This means the camera’s sensitivity to light (ISO) and aperture (f-stop) were fixed but the shutter speed changed as the camera tried to guess the exposure. In theory, every photo would come out with the same brightness, but the camera was fooled in a few of the photos. Some of the individual photos in each pass were darker or lighter than others. I had to fix the exposure on each photo before proceeding, trying to get each photo to have almost the same exposure.

06 - different_exposuresThe photo on the left is darker than the right, requiring additional editing to match.

Some of the passes were done (as I would have hoped) in Manual mode, with the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all fixed. The only problem is that taking 30+ photos takes time, and in that time the sun is setting and the sky is getting darker. If Chris started taking photos on the left (the Bay Bridge), by the time he got to the right (the Golden Gate Bridge), the sky would be much darker than when he began. I had to account for this as well and processed the photos so they’d have similar exposure.

Lastly, I wanted to get as much detail out of the sky as possible. That meant applying a gradient filter to the sky to increase its warmth, darken it, and bring out the midtones and darks in the sky by increasing contrast and clarity. The shapes of the storm clouds became more apparent and the clouds returned to a more natural-looking color.

07 - gradient_filter_appliedTop: the Gradient Filter is applied (in red).

Bottom: Extra details are pulled out in the sky and the purple color reduced.

Stitching with Autopano Giga

Once each stack of photos was processed in Lightroom, it became time to stitch the 30–36 photos into one, long panorama using an amazing piece of software called Autopano Giga. Let’s start by discussing a few key terms that are useful to know when stitching panoramas:

  • Projection: How the software maps a 3–D scene (San Francisco) into a 2–D image (our panoramic photo). Cambridge in Color has a great tutorial that’s worth reading if you want to know more.
  • Control Points: Spots identified on two or more photos that are identical. They’ll exist in different places in each photo, and by identifying where that specific point is on each photo, we can then align the photos. Control points can be the edge of a building, a boat, a tree, a door—anything you can identify as the same point in both photos.
  • Rendering: The final step of running all the mathematical calculations to determine how the pano will look. It performs a number of steps: warping, de-ghosting, exposure blending, color balancing, and much more before finally saving the blended panorama.

Photoshop and Lightroom can stitch panoramas, but there are a few reasons why I prefer Autopano:

  • Autopano lets you specify the number of control points each photo will find. The more control points, the less chance of “ghosting,” where two photos aren’t properly aligned which results in a blurring effect.
  • Autopano lets you manually add or adjust the points in case it guessed slightly wrong, which allows me to improve the accuracy of the stitch.
  • Autopano lets me change the projection on the fly, before rendering. This lets me figure out which projection will give the most realistic-looking photo.

The first step is to let Autopano detect the control points and then align the photo. It will then offer a preview of the stitch, while allowing me to add or edit control points, change the projection type, and more.

08 - autopano_projectionsAutopano lets me preview the stitch and change the projection type before rendering the pano.

Choosing different projection types lets me see which of the projections creates the most realistic-looking photo. Autopano initially suggested “Planar,” but I found that “Spherical” returned the best results. The planar version, which you see below, had too much bowing in the center. You’ll notice that the horizon line tilts downward as you move away from the center of the photo, something I wanted to avoid. The spherical projection had a straight horizon, exactly what I wanted!

09 - autopano_rendering

Autopano will render the image once all your settings are complete.

Once you’ve finalize the settings, Autopano renders the panorama into its final 400-megapixel image. Rendering a 400-megapixel image can take some time, but I borrowed one of SmugMug’s Mac Pro computers, and it whizzed through the calculations and saved the photo to an external hard drive.

Processing in Photoshop

With the photos stitched, it was time to bring them into Photoshop and begin fixing a few issues. The first problem to tackle was removing the purple and orange cast from the buildings. This appearance was due to the white balance of the sky but in reality, the buildings shouldn’t be this purple and lights shouldn’t be this orange. Using color-balance, hue-saturation, and selective-color adjustments, I was able to remove the purple and orange and warm up the buildings.

10 - remove_purple_and_orangeTop: The purple buildings and orange lights seem off.

Bottom: The odd colors are removed using several color adjustments.

Since the sky is a major part of this photo, I instantly noticed an interesting effect: the thickness of the clouds caused them to change in color from blue to purple. Even if this color variation was natural, it looked weird and needed to be corrected.

11 - color_variationSome parts of the sky will need color correction to get the colors to transition more naturally.

On closer inspection, I noticed that the spherical projection wasn’t quite perfect: at the edges of the photo, the horizon and the Golden Gate Bridge were slightly slanted. Using the puppet warp tool in Photoshop, I was able to straighten the edges that had bowed on the corners.

12 - fix_spherical_warpingTop: The spherical projection shows signs of warping at the edges.

Bottom: The puppet warp tool fixed the warped edges.

A few other things needed to be cleaned up in the photo: the city lights were brightened a bit, the clouds had extra detail returned in them, and shadows in the city buildings were pulled out in order to make them look less black. Trying to do all this manually would have been a great amount of effort; however, I let Photoshop do this for me automatically. Using luminosity masks, Photoshop can automatically select parts of a photo based on how bright they are, and then only apply changes to areas that have the detected brightness. Below you can see how Photoshop automatically detected the brightest parts of the photo, allowing me easily make changes to the city lights.

13 - luminoscity_mask_city_lights-1A luminosity mask was used to select only the brightest parts of the photo: the city lights.

The final step was to add sharpening to the photo. For this, I use the free plug-in from Nik software called Sharpener Pro 3. I just used the default settings to add a little bit of sharpness.

14 - Screen-Shot-2016-07-28-at-1.19.30-AMNik Sharpener Pro was used to add some extra sharpness to the photo.

The final image

With all the photos reprocessed, stitched, and then edited to perfection in Photoshop, we’re finally done! The final photo came out to a whopping 425.5 megapixels (67,683px wide x 6,288 px tall at 240 ppi).

Compare the original edit:

15 - sf_pano

To our final edit:

16 - IMG_9223_pano09_SphericalThe final San Francisco panorama.

Now, to hang this beauty somewhere where a pot of coffee can’t find it….

Three out-of-the-box uses for watermarks.

Watermarks are one of the most used tools in the photography industry. With today’s digital landscape, watermarking is one way photographers can protect images that often get scattered like the wind around the internet with no connection to the original owner. Making money from photo sales should never be in jeopardy and thanks to watermarks, photographers can share their work online to attract new clients with peace of mind. But watermarks can be much more than a stamp to deter theft. Let’s explore three other uses for watermarks you may not have thought about.

Use watermarks for client drafts.

Show of hands: how many of you have sent a draft to a client only to see it later shared online? Not only was the work unfinished (extra frustrating for perfectionists!), but possibly the client hadn’t paid for the digital copy yet. Using watermarks on drafts not only reinforces to the client the work is still in progress but also assists in unauthorized sharing. To ensure the watermark doesn’t inhibit the client’s ability to view the photo, try a bright, neon color (red, green, yellow) that doesn’t blend into the photo’s background and try an opaqueness of 80%.

IMG_2576-X3No one is sharing this draft!🙂

Try watermarks as a call to action.

Why not use watermark real estate as a call to action? Promote your website, Facebook page, Twitter handle, or even a hashtag! It’s a simple way to alert viewers where they can see more of your work, buy prints, or hire you. Have a social campaign you’re working on? Encourage others to share similar content for a cause or event by using a hashtag watermark. It’s a great way to not only encourage viewers to share the work on multiple networks, but it also allows for easy tracking to measure campaign popularity and reach. #Sweet.

14_08_KA_129-X3Photographer Ben Von Wong uses watermarks to share his URL

IMG_4243-X3Cool call to action to encourage concert goers to share their own photos

Turn watermarks into a printmark.

Hired for a fun event, concert, or company function? Use watermarking to printmark all photos! Give your photos the same professional look and feel that amusement parks, ski resorts, and zoos have been doing for years. This kind of custom microbranding is perfect for event photographers who want to highlight the time and place photos were taken for their clients.  Remember though, if you’re allowing your clients to order prints from your site, you might want to consider the printmark tool so your design stays on the photo through the printing process.

july_watermarkWatermarks as printmarks!

Interested in trying one (or all) of these ideas? SmugMug Portfolio or Business account plans include the watermarking tool feature. Don’t worry Basic and Power users — you can use programs (like Lightroom) to apply watermarks to your photos before uploading to SmugMug. You’ll find a handy-dandy step-by-step guide to using our watermarking tool here. Happy stamping!

SmugMug Films: Point, Click, ShootTokyo with David Powell

As a busy executive at YouTube, David Powell often found himself caught up in the hustle and bustle of his daily life in Tokyo: commuting, meetings, travel, more meetings, home, sleep. Seeking a better balance between work and life, he decided to pick up photography as a creative outlet. Since he could take his camera anywhere, it didn’t disrupt his busy schedule. It grew into a successful blog: ShootTokyo. There David shares his glimpses of the city he calls home and his travels around the world, offering business insights and other random thoughts each photo sparks.

SmugMug had the chance to tag along through the back alleys and side streets of Tokyo, discovering what makes David’s photos so intimate and compelling. Watch him in action in our latest SmugMug Film.

How would you describe your photography?
For me, it’s an expressive outlet. I was one of those people who always worked non-stop: 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Traveled a lot and never got to see a lot of places I was visiting. I would come back from Beijing and people would ask, “How was the Great Wall?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, the Great Wall is in China. Missed it.” I started thinking about how I could get a better work–life balance and see the places I was visiting. My schedule can often be erratic, and photography was something I could do on my own time whenever and wherever I wanted. Whether it’s two in the morning or midday, as long as I had a camera I could go out and photograph no matter where I was.

Photography, for me, is easy because it’s simple to always have a camera in your bag. It forces you to slow down, to explore. I tend to be a structured person, so when I started photography, I thought about doing a 365 project but quickly realized I had no time for that. I thought a blog would be easier. When I started blogging, I realized I needed to blog on a regular basis in order to keep at the photography and make blogging worth my time and investment.

ShootTokyo Best 2-10

How has your blog evolved?
In my first posts, I was trying to figure out what to do. I was writing a “how to,” or I was putting pictures up without many words. What started resonating with me and the readers was posting photos I took as I was out and about and talking about my day, mixed with some random thoughts.

I’m not a technical photographer. I’m never talking about what settings I used, and I don’t do a lot of post-processing. Instead, I focus on productivity tips: how I manage and think about things, or how I see something as I’m going about my day. I mix my thoughts on business in with my photography, which is a bit unique. Someone once referred to my blog as a photography blog with an MBA ethos, and I think that sums it up well.

When did you move to Tokyo, and how have you liked living there?
I moved here in 2001. I was living in New Jersey, working in New York City, and was asked to move to help the company in Asia. They initially put me in Singapore, but I found myself on a plane to Tokyo every two weeks. Being in Tokyo made more sense than being in Singapore. I wanted to be in North Asia because I think that’s where the living is most exciting; I really enjoy it. It’s a nice place to live as Tokyo is a very clean, safe city. It’s a nice lifestyle. You have to work hard, but you can enjoy your life here as well.

ShootTokyo Best 2-22

What do you usually look for when you’re out exploring the city?
I don’t go looking for anything in particular. Photography makes me slow down. I want to make sure I post on my blog once a week, which means making sure I’m observing the world around me, looking for interesting things to photograph. If I was on the train before, I would have my head over my phone reading or responding to emails. Now, I almost never do that. I usually have the camera in my hand, looking around for something interesting or funny or pretty.

What usually catches your eye?
It might be an interaction between people. It might be the absence of people. A lot of people look at my work and ask, “How did you set up that shot?” I don’t. I went to a photography workshop a few years ago with Jay Maisel, and he said the objective is to take the photo that nobody else is taking. We were on one of the top floors of Trump Tower overlooking Central Park. Everyone was shooting straight out at the amazing view in front of us, and I remember wondering what it would look like if you shot straight down to capture the reflection in the building. That ended up being one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. I try to see things how other people might not see them.

Are there any photos you didn’t get to take or haven’t taken yet?
The one I always wanted to take was a photo of a geisha. It might be cliché, but it was something I always wanted to photograph. There aren’t many opportunities to photograph geishas in Tokyo, so I went to Kyoto. There were more tourists than I expected, and many people were hanging out trying to take photos. I knew I was never going to get what I wanted there or, if I did, there would be 200 tourists in the photo. So I started walking the back alleys of Gion seeing if I could find a better shot.

I ended up getting a picture of a geisha entering a tea house, and I got her profile from behind as she entered. I was shooting on film at dusk with a manual-focus lens—it was the worst possible conditions for taking the photo. She was moving very fast, and I wasn’t shooting with a fast film. It ended up being a really cool photo. That was the photo I always wanted. Once I got it, I was super happy I did.

Geisha in Gion

Do you have a favorite location your wandering has led you to so far?
Shinjuku is great for photography because there are so many great scenes out there. You can walk through an iconic district, and there’s lots of stuff to photograph. Like Yakitori Alley. Golden-Gai used to be fun, but it’s a bit overrun now. Yurakucho is also great. It’s an area between Shimbashi and Ginza.

Ginza’s the really high-end fashion district, and Shimbashi is a business area. There’s a train line that runs between them, and underneath the train line, weaving in and out, are all these little restaurants and alleys. It’s always a really fun place to go shooting. It’s smoky, it’s pretty, it’s a bit dirty, and it’s full of little restaurants. It’s an awesome atmosphere. You can loop through these little alleys and each time you’re going to see something different.

One of the things that make any big city good for photography is its repetition. If you find an alley that looks nice and it has the right light, you know a pocket of smoke from the yakitori restaurant is going to come out every few seconds. A businessman in a suit will walk through every few minutes and give you the opportunity to capture great photos.

Suzuki Yakitori

Do you ever make a plan before you go out wandering the city? For example, this is a shot you might try to get today?
No, only locations. If somebody says, “Hey, let’s go to dinner,” and I’ve been to dinner in Shinjuku three times in a row, I’ll say, “Let’s go to Yurakucho or some other area.” I do think about what would be an interesting spot to photograph on the way. I’ll avoid very stale hotel or office areas for the alternative to find something a little more interesting. I try to be efficient because I don’t have a lot of personal time to go out shooting. I get a lot of emails asking, “Wow, how do you have the time to go out shooting?” I don’t. I simply always have my camera with me, and it’s not in a bag. It’s in my hand or around my shoulder or around my neck.

Has there been a photo that’s been particularly challenging for you to get?
There’s one from Singapore I really like and found particularly challenging, because it took persistence. You’ve got to get up at four in the morning. You need the right mix of light, the right mix of rain, the right mix of everything. I usually don’t do landscape photos because you have to have a lot of patience and Photoshop skills, and I don’t have the skills, patience, or time. I travel to Singapore all the time for work, and this is a photo I had to take. I tried to get it 20 or 30 times. One day the lighting was bad, one day the sky was white. On this day, it had just finished raining so everything was nice and wet. That was a good photo; it felt like a nice accomplishment. And I sold the photo an hour after I posted it. That was exciting.

Good Morning Singapore

You mentioned earlier, and in previous interviews, that you’re not very technical with shooting. What, if any, are your gear must haves?
I go out with the absolute bare minimum of gear possible. When I first started, I was shooting Canon. I used to carry a backpack, my tripod, and four to six lenses. It was so heavy. Today I carry my Leica Monochrom with one lens. If I go on a one-month business trip, I’ll travel with one body and one lens, always a prime. I think I used to carry so much gear because I was afraid I was going to miss a shot. Eventually, I started shooting more minimally. When I got my 50mm lens, I shot only with that lens for a week. Then I put it away and I would only shoot with my 21mm for a week, then with my 35mm, and then my 28mm. This allowed me to learn what looked good with each focal length.

Do you have a favorite prime that you like to go out with now?
I probably shoot with my 28mm or 35mm the most. The 21mm and 50mm can be a bit limiting. At this point, I only have three lenses: a 28mm, a 35mm, and a 50mm. If I could only have one, it’d be my 35mm because I find it’s a good focal length. If you’re going to a dinner, you’re going to catch the person and a little bit of everything else in the scene.

Do you shoot everything manually?
I shoot everything aperture priority.


Other than always having your camera on you and ready, do you have any rules when it comes to your photographic process?
I don’t have a lot of rules. I won’t photograph somebody in a compromising position because I don’t believe in posting images that would make anybody look bad. One time, I happened to be walking by a bar where somebody was being thrown out by the police. He had two cops holding each of his arms, and he was kicking and yelling. I took the photo, and the photo came out great, but I didn’t post it because I don’t know the story. I don’t know if he did something wrong. I don’t know if he’s innocent. I have no idea. I have no context for what’s happening and neither will my viewers. I’m always careful if I post somebody’s photo. I always try to let them know, and I want to make sure they’re being shown in a positive light.

What do you look for in terms of light or framing in your shots?
I don’t do anything aggressive with the lighting. I’m not jumping in front of people as I don’t think that’s a very nice way to shoot. I want people to be happy in my interactions with them. Often, I let people know before I even take the photo that I want to photograph them. If you’re walking down the street I might say, “Hey, I like your hat,” or whatever it was that caught my attention. Then I might ask you not to pose or not to smile, and I’ll take a street-style portrait. Usually I give people a card and say, “If you want a copy, just let me know.”

ShootTokyo Best-114

I try to make sure my subject is right in the middle of the frame. I look in the corners of my images to make sure there aren’t any extra things that are cluttering the image. At 28mm, you’re going to be very close to your subject. I can put my hand straight out and touch whoever the subject is. I’m shooting that close.

Your portraits have struck me as being very intimate because they’re so close. How did you get over your fear of photographing strangers?
During Jay Maisel’s workshop, he asked, “What’s your most uncomfortable thing?” I said, “Photographing strangers. I’m not sure how to approach people.” He told me to go out and photograph 100 people and come back. I had to literally go out and stop 100 people on the street, hand them a card, and say I’m a photographer, I’d like to take your picture. You have to figure some small percentage will reject you. But you’d be surprised, many more will say yes than no. I got very comfortable with stopping and photographing people.

There’s this one photo I took of an older Japanese man who’s squatting down looking at his old flip phone. If you’ve never shot at 28mm before, you can see him and all the turnstiles—the entire scene in the frame. I had to have been a foot and a half away from the guy. I remember I just walked up to him and said, “Hey, I’m a photographer, do you mind if I take a photo?” He sort of nodded and went back to his phone.

If you’re shooting with a 200mm lens from far away to sneak a photo of someone, they’re going to get angry. If you walk up in a very friendly way and say, “Hey, mind if I take your photo?” you get a genuinely friendly response. People will feed off your energy.

ShootTokyo Best-104

Do you have a favorite story you like to tell from your experience in photography?
I’m surprised how many people I’ve met through my blog that I’m now really good friends with. One time I was leaving a company, and I mentioned on my blog that I was going to another company but hadn’t said where I was going. One of my readers who I’d never met before said, “Oh, you must be going to this place.” I asked how he knew. As we talked, he let me know that he’d figured out where I was going based on where I’d worked and my industry. Then he asked me to say hi to someone—who was the person who hired me. This reader told me he’d hired the person 25 years ago to work for him. I mean, wow, really small world. Our lives are surprisingly intertwined.

You mentioned you don’t really use Photoshop, but do you have any post-process that you follow?
I use Lightroom. For my color images, I do next to nothing. Occasionally, I might add light vignetting if I wasn’t shooting wide open, as my lenses naturally add it wide open. I might add a little bit of sharpening, contrast, and clarity, and that’s about it. I probably spend about 25 seconds per image. For my black-and-white images from my Monochrom, I’ll do more as the camera produces a very flat image.

How do you get your photos from Lightroom up to SmugMug for your portfolio and prints?
I use SmugMug’s Lightroom plugin. It’s the most useful tool. I literally just drag whatever images I want to the SmugMug folder in Lightroom and it uploads my images automatically to my site.

ShootTokyo Best-101

Why did you end up choosing SmugMug for your print sales?
I used to use Livebooks but hated it because it was Flash. It was too hard. I couldn’t do anything with it. I was really trying to sell prints, and I didn’t want people to be able to tell where ShootTokyo started and SmugMug ended, since I have my blog and print-sale sites separate. I wanted my menu to have one item for prints and one for my portfolio, and I wanted my visitors to click between them and not be able to tell they’d moved to another website. Setting it up was simple. I get to run my blog and visitors can buy prints. SmugMug pays for itself in spades.

Are there any other SmugMug tools or features you use the most?
I use the app quite a lot. It’s hard to show professionals the blog if I’m out at dinner or something, but it’s very easy to pull up the SmugMug app and quickly scan through my photos offline. I also use coupons a lot to take advantage of things like Black Friday or other events where you might want a sale to grab some momentum.

Do you have any advice for those looking to pursue a similar path in photography or blogging?
Take lots of photos. And take them for yourself. One of the most frustrating things is trying to make my audience happy. Instead, make yourself happy and hopefully your audience comes along for the journey. It takes a long time to build an audience.

I also have a personal policy to update one post a day. I go back to my older posts and review them, rereading to make sure all the links are good and any content that should be updated is refreshed.

The Noodle Maker

What about advice for capturing the image?
Don’t be afraid to take the same photo over and over and over again. You have to work at your shots. If you think one particular scene is interesting, make sure you’re shooting at 6:00 a.m., at noon, at four in the afternoon, at 8:00 p.m., at midnight. When it’s raining out, when it’s snowing, when it’s hot out, when it’s sunny, when it’s cloudy. Just keep shooting it to learn the difference and find the shot that works. Photograph it for a thousand days, figure out what’s interesting about it.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I got was to always carry a camera. It’s hard to take a good photo if you don’t have your camera with you. Another is to take the same photo a lot. When we started Jay’s workshop, he asked, “How many shots does it take to get the photo you want?” Some people said two or three. One guy said he got it the first time every time and was super proud. Then Jay said, “I must suck as a photographer. It takes me, minimum, 800 times to get the shot I want.” I think that really surprised everybody. His point was try harder. Shoot the scene in the rain, in the snow, in the morning, at noon, in the evening, in the middle of the night. See how it changes.

So keep shooting. Keep photographing the same scene until you get the shot. And make sure you always have your camera on you.

From Russia with love: Photographer Elena Shumilova teaches SmugMug employees how to capture childhood magic.

Employee enrichment is incredibly important here at SmugMug. We want our employees to grow and learn, not only in their working roles but also in personal and creative ways. Many of our employees are photographers themselves, and we encourage them to grow their craft every day. To help with this goal, we established an Artist-in-Residency program. This program gives our employees the opportunity to attend lectures and hands-on workshops from some of the greatest photographers in the world. It’s an insightful, fun, and exclusive experience that continually gives us unique insights on new photography techniques and styles.

One of our most recent Artist-in-Residency was SmugMug Films featured artist and renowned children’s photographer Elena Shumilova. Elena flew from Russia to California to deliver two lectures and one hands-on workshop over two days at SmugMug HQ. Elena creates incredibly magical photos of her children and pets in the Russian countryside that are famous around the world. For SmugMug, family and relationships are incredibly important, so this opportunity to learn new techniques and methods for family and child portraits was a no brainer. Additionally, this Artist-in-Residence program was extra special as SmugMug provided six scholarships to remote employees to travel to the Bay Area to participate in the experience in person.

In the morning lecture, Elena discussed how she discovered photography, what it means to her, and the various ways she approaches photographing children with animals. Elena shared tips and tricks on how to direct children, such as coaxing them to look in a specific direction or modify their body language. Later in the afternoon, Elena covered her post-processing techniques. During this lecture, Elena edited three photos, which employees had access to beforehand in order to follow along and edit them together for maximum hands-on learning.

The second day, 14 lucky employees (chosen by lottery) traveled to Hidden Villa, California, for a hands-on, outdoor photoshoot with Elena. A small group was necessary to ensure the models — in this case, six children and two dogs — remained calm and undistracted. Elena set the initial scene to photograph with one child and one dog while employees observed and determined the best angle to capture the moment. Elena was very hands-on assisting workshop participants—explaining model placement, giving tips, and admiring photos. It was far from comfortable as employees got down to the same level as the models, often finding themselves completely on the ground. The experience forced them into a new environment well outside their comfort zone. The small group also allowed Elena to engage with SmugMug employees one-on-one for further, more personalized instruction and learning. Employees loved being able to work alongside her, observing as she made decisions on the fly. They received a better understanding of how to work with children and animals. Most importantly, they discovered that even if a child isn’t responding the way you hoped, you can still end up with your best shot of the day thanks to unexpected moments.

untitled-279-2Elena shows employees some of her photography tips.

untitled-158-3Get low: staff search for the perfect angle.

untitled-134-3Elena gives Aaron, head of Product, one-on-one instruction.

untitled-243-2There are a million angles to perfectly capture the moment.

untitled-74-3Employees practicing what they learned.

untitled-197-2Never too young to become a photographer.

untitled-247-2Modeling is hard work.

untitled-116-3The Secret Garden.

untitled-255-3A girl and her dog.

It was an experience we won’t soon forget, and we are very thankful that Elena came so far to be our Artist-in-Residence and share her craft with us.

When photographers become models: Clay Cook visits SmugMug HQ.

Here at SmugMug, we’re lucky to work with some of the best photographers out there. On occasion, we get even luckier and one of these incredible photographers comes to SmugMug HQ. Employees get hands-on workshops from the best of the best to further their own photography craft. It’s a valuable, awesome perk of the job and incredibly fun. In early June, we were thrilled to host Clay Cook as our Artist in Residence.

Clay is an award-winning published photographer and filmmaker, specializing in editorial and advertising photography. He’s an incredible portrait photographer to learn from, and we were lucky to nab him not only for training but also for fresh, new headshots for our Smuggy employees.

untitled-36-2Clay Cook, photographer.

For two days, Clay set up shop at HQ and took headshots of 44 employees. In addition to the awesome headshots, he also did some very individualized training for a few employees on editing and post-production. Clay, unsurprisingly, has a special knack for making you feel comfortable and secure in front of the camera. It’s not easy working with a bunch of non-models who also happen to be photographers themselves and prefer being behind the camera. And, of course, every photo turned out incredible.

untitled-290Clay breaks the ice.

untitled-303Andrew Tower: Copywriter by day, model by night.

untitled-146-2-EditJill Valenzuela, Head of People, flashes her pearly whites.

untitled-5-3A rare capture in action: Controller Ivan Makarov smiling.

untitled-367Sarah Arnold, QA, and her infectious smile.

untitled-182-2Mozzie isn’t too sure about this photography thing, but his human, Ping (Engineering), is a natural.

IMG_5798Clay shows Alex, SmugMug Historian and Photographer, editing techniques.

In addition to the headshots and training, Clay also took the time to participate in our very first Facebook Live broadcast! Senior Marketing Manager Jen led Clay in a fun Q&A with viewers and gave away a few coveted, hard-to-acquire SmugMug hoodies to commemorate the special occasion. Watch the replay below and keep an eye out for more Facebook Live broadcasts with other photographers. (And, yes, more SmugMug hoodie giveaways!)

If you’re in London, you’re in luck—Clay will be hosting a workshop August 13–14. Details on how to sign up can be found on his web page. It’s sure to be a valuable learning experience and a lot of fun. Oh, and there may or may not be a few SmugMug prizes at the workshop for attendees! Stay tuned for more behind the scenes at SmugMug HQ!

untitled-296-2-EditPeace Out! – Clay and his assistant, Hunter.

A guide to the bang and flame: how to shoot fireworks.

By Andrew Tower

Summer means long days and warm nights, hamburger cookouts and sunscreen, pool lounging and ice-cold drinks. The peak of summer for me has always been the Fourth of July. Ever since I was a kid, I looked forward to grilling up some hot dogs and anxiously awaiting the evening’s fireworks show. From the subtle trail they leave after being shot from the earth to the spidery tendrils of light that burst at their crescendo, fireworks are dazzling. Starry-eyed and open-mouthed, lying on my back in the grass and absorbing the light show is tip-top of my summer checklist every year.

But capturing the event in photos can be a tricky, confusing process. Before I started working as a copywriter for SmugMug, I wasn’t regularly able to lean on the expertise of so many fantastic photographers like Head of Product, Aaron Meyers, who authored the pro tips below. If I had, I may not have spent the entirety of one New Year’s fireworks show adjusting, fixing, and panicking as I ruined shot after shot after shot with my ineptitude. My confidence was shattered as the finale began and I hadn’t taken one decent picture of the fireworks. With time running out, I made a few more adjustments and managed to snag one great photo as the very last firework took flight.

I want to save you from suffering the same fate, so I’ve put together a little step by step guide complete with my failed attempts to help illustrate the pitfalls and best practices for your very own fireworks photoshoot.

1. Get a tripod.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t believe how many people you’ll see holding their digital cameras trying to capture the light show without a steady vantage. Fireworks are bright to our eyes, but the long exposure required to capture them clearly and in all their glory necessitates a solid, unmoving camera.

1 tripod

I wasn’t shooting with the camera in my hands, but I didn’t have a tripod and the upturned trashcan I was using instead wasn’t quite working as you can see from this blur-fest.

Pro tip: If possible, use a remote. It will cut down on small movements caused by manually taking a photo. Sounds minimal, but accidental blur happens no matter how careful you are.

2. Framing

If you have a general idea where the fireworks will be exploding, take some time to frame your images before it begins. Take special note of foreground to ensure nothing will obstruct your direct view of the fireworks. If you’re not trying to capture a specific landmark and want the fireworks to be the main focus of your image, try to find a location where you can shoot with an empty foreground. Pay special attention to the moon’s stage and position. The moon’s light can drastically alter your ability to capture both the fireworks and foreground if you’re trying to include it in your image.

2 bad-framing

What was I even aiming for? Poor framing didn’t even allow for the entirety of the firework in the image plus I chopped off part of a house.

Pro tip: If you’re photographing in a city, try to find a high vantage point that looks down on the city while also capturing the fireworks. If you’re at a beach, look for landmarks like a pier or natural elements like a tree to use to frame the photo.

3. Aperture

Because fireworks can and will burst in any direction, you’ll want to shoot at a higher aperture. Speed will be sacrificed in your exposures by letting less light in, but your depth of field will accommodate a broader focal area and help keep your images sharp. It will be a fully manual process, so you’ll want to change your camera into “manual” mode and set the aperture somewhere around F6–F12. Adjust and tweak to let more or less light into your shots depending on how bright the fireworks are.

3 aperture

Notice how neither the house nor the firework burst is in focus, but the hill behind them is slightly more in focus. The tight depth of field made it almost impossible to get right, so nothing turned out sharp.

Pro tip: Prime lenses (fixed focal length lenses) can often be found with apertures that go as low as F1.4 or F1.8. With such a wide aperture, capturing the bright lights of fireworks in the night sky will be much easier, but it will narrow your depth of field and be trickier to maintain overall sharpness.

4. Focus

Your autofocus probably won’t be able to find the right length in the dark, so focusing will likely be a manual process as well. Your focusing ring should have an infinity option that looks like ∞. After switching your lens from autofocus to manual focus, turn the focus ring to infinity and take a practice shot. Depending on the distance you are from your fireworks display, you may need to adjust the focus ring to slightly less than infinity to keep everything in focus. The higher aperture setting and bigger depth of field are more forgiving but take practice shots until you’re happy with the clarity and focus of your images.

4 focus

See? Just bad. Unfortunately, I have way too many of these examples from this shoot.

Pro tip: Set your focus using autofocus before it gets too dark. Focusing at night can be hard and trying to get focus in the half a second the firework bursts and gives off enough light will be hard. Once you’ve found the focus, switch the camera to manual focus and let it be.

5. ISO

In an ideal world, we’d always have enough light to shoot the sharpest images, but with fireworks, as with many nighttime shoots, that’s not always the case. Of course depending on the moon, the stars, light pollution, and your proximity to the fireworks you’re shooting, you’ll have to adjust accordingly. If you jack your ISO up too much, your images will be overexposed and may be unfit for printing or very grainy when blown up to bigger sizes. If you leave it too low you’ll end up with dark images that don’t show off the incredible fireworks.


Notice the grain on the left image, shot at ISO3200. When blown up for print that grain will severely detract from your image. On the right at ISO640, the sky is much more clear and grain-free.

Pro tip: Adjust ISO often throughout the fireworks display. As smoke fills the air, it’ll catch the light and brighten the scene. As a result, you’ll need to turn down the ISO. As the smoke clears away, turn the ISO back up. For the finale, you’ll want to turn the ISO back down.

6. Shutter

When shooting fireworks, the shutter speed can make or break a potentially great photo. We see and remember fireworks as dazzling explosions with brightly colored tendrils of light streaming toward the earth, but what your camera will see if your shutter is too fast, is just a single moment within that firework’s life in the sky. You’ll end up with a brightly lit photo and a polka dotted sky of firework sparks. Capturing the stream of light from the initial explosion through to a firework’s end requires a shutter speed as long as that firework is lit and in the air, typically 2-4 second exposures.

6 shutter

Look ma, no tails! Not only is it out of focus, but since the shutter speed was only about ⅙ second, I only managed to capture a short bit of the firework tendrils’ paths. Turns out pretty lackluster.

Pro tip: Set your camera to BULB mode and either hold the shutter down or use a remote shutter. Start pressing the shutter when the firework is launching, then let go when it’s exploded in the shape you want to capture. Adjust ISO/aperture as needed to get the right exposure.

7. Putting it all together and shooting!

Shoot throughout the entire fireworks show, constantly taking images and checking them. Review the histogram and look at the clipping to make sure you’re not blowing out the photo. Try to time your shots when you hear the firework ignition so you can capture the entirety of the explosion. Every fireworks location and vantage point will be different so be ready to adjust your camera on the fly as you review the images you’re capturing. With any luck, when you get home and have a chance to edit, you’ll end up with the perfect fireworks shot. (And hopefully for you, it won’t be the very last image you took during the show.) Happy shooting!

7 good one

Ooooohhh! Ahhhhh! This was literally the last firework of the entire show. Somehow I managed to frame it correctly including the scene around the firework, expose the background and foreground without being distracting, and catch the bright beautiful tails of the firework.

Pro tip: If you have access to photo editing software, you’ll get a lot more out of your photos in the editing process if you can shoot in RAW as opposed to hi-res jpgs. It will allow you to bring out more colors and brighten dark skies and stars while processing.

Andrew Tower is a copywriter at SmugMug in Mountain View and loves night photography despite struggling with it immensely.

Big thanks to Aaron Meyers who provided technical review and pro tips for this article. He is Head of Product for SmugMug and credits his firework photography as his foot in the door.

Shedding Light on Outdoor Portraits of People in Glasses

By Alexandria Huff

Alexandria Huff is a Marketing Coordinator for, where she is also the resident lighting guru. Visit her website to find more lighting tutorials, discounts on classes and camera gear, plus view her collection of chiaroscuro-style closeup studio portraits. She can be reached on LinkedIn and followed on Instagram.

In my Glare Aware Series, I cover the basics of avoiding lighting glare in photography. To recap, the following are essential lighting laws for working with reflective surfaces:

  • Broad Lighting vs Short Lighting

Short lighting is when your light is primarily illuminating the angle of the face that is far from the camera. Broad lighting is when your light is mostly illuminating the angle of the face that is close to the camera. Short lighting is harder to use on subjects wearing glasses than broad lighting. To learn more, see  Glare Aware Part 1.


  • Position Lights Outside the Family of Angles

Placing your lights at acute angles in reference to the subject (90º or less – think of on-camera flash as being 0º) is generally bad for glass and placing lights at obtuse angles (greater than 90º) is generally good. To learn more see Glare Aware Part 2.


  • Angle of Incidence = Angle of Reflection

For the most part, light travels in a straight line. If you position your light toward glass at a 45º angle, the reflection will be apparent in your image if your camera is also positioned at 45º on the opposite side. To learn more, see  Glare Aware Part 3.

These tips are well suited for controlled environments – studios and homes. When you step outside the comfort of a room, the lighting laws are a little less clear. After frequent requests, I am sharing a few of my go-to tricks for troubleshooting stubborn eyeglass reflections when shooting outside.

Combating Glare in Eyeglasses for Outdoor Portraits

Shooting subjects wearing eyeglasses outdoors poses particularly vexing problems. It can be really hard to eliminate all direct reflections coming from pavement, the sky, and other shiny objects that are out of your control.

Some articles suggest that your subject either remove their glasses (not always an option) or that you should choose a different environment or optimal time of day to shoot in. It is good to know what to do even in adverse conditions, however. Here are three things I did to reduce glare while shooting glasses outside on a very bright day near a home with plenty of reflective objects. Practice these to improve your skills and reduce panic when troubleshooting these problems during a live shoot.

Tip #1: Absorb Reflections with a Black Flag


Black objects produce little diffuse reflection and do not scatter light like white objects. Using a black flag (as part of a scrim or reflector kit) will reduce reflections coming from our subject’s glasses. It also acts as camouflage for your camera when shooting directly into a subject with glasses.

Black will also absorb light so expect to lose a stop of exposure. Use exposure compensation or bump exposure in post production. If you’re shooting RAW, you’ll have a lot of latitude to adjust exposure while editing.

Tip #2: Fill Reflections with Artificial Lighting

Strobes are used outdoors to “overpower the sun,” which is a method of intentionally underexposing your ambient light and using artificial light on the subject to compensate. You can also use strobes to overpower reflections.

In tip #1, I filled my reflective object with a light-absorbing black flag. Now I am using an opposite approach by filling the reflective object with light. Light reflects off shiny surfaces at about the same angle as they are struck. Position your light so that the reflection is reasonably predicted to fall away from your lens. Make sure your light is close enough to your subject to fill the surface of the eyeglasses. The eyeglasses, as a whole, are now brighter and the light obscures the specular, distracting reflections of your environment.


Tip #3: Change the Angle of the Reflective Object

In any shoot, there are three positions that can be adjusted to avoid glare:

  • The position/angle of your light.
  • The position/angle of your model.
  • Your shooting position.


Unless you’re using strobes, changing the position of your light outdoors is hard – especially if you’re constrained by when and where you have to shoot since you’re depending on the sun. Your subject can tilt their head at certain angles, upward or downward, to reduce eyeglass reflections but these positions aren’t always flattering. If you find yourself in this rut, tilting the eyeglasses themselves helps.

As with head angle, tilting glasses isn’t always flattering. It depends on the shape of the glasses, how long the subject’s hair is, etc. Your mileage may vary.


Bonus Tips

Bonus #1: Telephoto Lenses

Lens distance matters. A longer lens is going to produce a smaller viewing angle than a wide one. Smaller viewing angles cause fewer direct reflections than larger ones.

Bonus #2: Polarizing Filters

Polarizing filters manage reflections coming from most non-metallic surfaces but you also lose stops of light and a certain natural reflectance of skin that can leave your subject looking flat overall. Experiment accordingly.

Bonus #3: Photoshop

Getting it right in-camera will save you time and hassle afterward. But not everything always goes to plan.


Sometimes, a personal favorite shot just doesn’t quite ever get the right blend of good posing plus proper glare-avoiding angles. You can resort to Photoshop for these times. It is a tool like anything else.

Add your own bonus tips for overcoming difficult reflection situations when shooting outdoors in the comments below. Be sure to check out the rest of the Glare Aware Series:

Glare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses

The Art of Copy Work: Photographing Artwork Accurately Without Glare

Bouncing Off the Walls: Lighting, Glare, and Shadows When Photographing Interiors