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.

ISOcompare

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 BorrowLenses.com, 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.

Alexandria-Huff-Glare-SmugMug-Broad-Short-Lighting

  • 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-Reflection-Lighting-SmugMug-Alexandria-Huff

  • 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-Flag-SmugMug-Glare-BTS-Alexandria-Huff

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.

Angle-Incidence-SmugMug-Glare-Photography-Alexandria-Huff

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.

Glasses-Before-After-Glare-Alexandria-Huff-SmugMug

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.

Glasses-Glare-SmugMug-Alexandria-Huff

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.

Alexandria-Huff-Glare-Glasses-SmugMug-Portrait

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

Getting inked: SmugMug style

It should come as no surprise that here at SmugMug our employees bleed green. We are passionate about our jobs — thrilling customers and delivering awesome are two mantras we all live by. Our employees show their passion every day in different ways that will forever leave happy reminders of our beloved SmugLife — including getting inked with their own SmugMug tattoos. That’s right — not one, not two, but three employees have SmugMug tattoos!

Team SmugInk

Team SmugInk left to right: Lindy, Ben and Rich

The first in the SmugMug family to get a company tattoo was Rich, who is on our QA team. Almost 10 years ago, in 2007, Rich decided he would get the SmugMug logo (we call it Smuggy) on his calf. He recalls how he used to tell his sons, “Think about what you put on your body; what it represents,” and for him, the logo represents how much he loves the company and how it will be a part of him for the rest of his life. “I have a lifetime commitment to SmugMug,” Rich says. “This logo represents quite a bit to me about our SmugMug family. In fact, our granddaughters view Smuggy like a living being.” He likes to brag that when he’s out in public with family, he gets more comments on his Smuggy tattoo than his brother who has full sleeve tattoos. Why? As Rich says, “It’s simple, straightforward, and stands out.” No one can resist a smile!

First Smuggy Tat

Rich, getting the first SmugMug tattoo in history

Rich’s wife, Lindy, one our amazing customer Support Heroes, was the second to receive a SmugMug tattoo. The culture at SmugMug left an incredible impact on Lindy before she even became an employee. “I went with Rich [to HQ] for an anniversary party,” she says. “After seeing the people and culture, I fell in love. I had to work there too. Two months later, I was a Hero!” Lindy worked for SmugMug for a year before she got her tattoo in 2008 — also on her calf to match Rich’s. She says it’s fun when they both go places in shorts and someone spots their matching tattoos. “We get a LOT of smiles. People think they are so cute. It opens up a great opportunity to have a dialog with others about the company. We often wear our SmugMug hoodies, but nothing gets as many comments as those tattoos.”

Last, but certainly not least is Ben, our Head of Customer Success. Ben has been a SmugMug employee almost since the beginning. When he hit his 10 year anniversary, Ben began thinking about getting a SmugMug tattoo to mark the milestone. However, Ben, who claims he “is not a tattoo person,” waited another year before pulling the trigger to get his own Smuggy ink. When asked why he said, “It’s a statement to me about how great a company we are. We are a cool company, we make an awesome product, and we care so much about our customers and employees that I wanted to commemorate what we’ve built over the past decade.” Ben loves the reaction it gets. “It makes people happy when they see it — whether they know the logo or not — the green smilies just light up everyone’s faces.” And despite “not being a tattoo person,” Ben is open to get a second SmugMug tattoo in another 10 years to commemorate what he does in the future. I don’t know Ben, sounds like you might be a tattoo person after all!

We’re incredibly proud of our culture here at SmugMug, and seeing our employees so passionate about what we do every day thrills us. Not many companies can boast so highly of their employees as we do. We thank each and every one of them for being the rockstars that they are and for their incredible passion. With or without tattoos.

5 reasons why you’ll love your custom SmugMug mobile web “app”

Mobile Web App hero

Wouldn’t it be awesome to have your own personal or business SmugMug mobile “app” that you could share with clients, family, friends, or visitors? Well, now you can! Creating a custom app for their mobile phone or tablet is the easiest way for your visitors to find and see your work. You can share your entire SmugMug site, just a page, a folder, or a gallery. The options are endless. Professionals — this means clients can have their own app to showcase and share their wedding and any special event right on their mobile desktop!

Let’s go over five reasons why this cool new feature is one you’ll want to take advantage of.

1) Brand yourself

Who says only big companies can have their own app? Now you can wow your customers, family and friends by having your name, logo, and photos on your own unique app. Your brand should resonate in person, in print, and online. Continue to build your reputation and identity as professional, technically savvy, and successful. The market is more competitive than ever, so stand out and show yourself and your brand as a leader in the field with a mobile app.

2) Your photos found faster

It’s no surprise to anyone that more and more content is added to the internet daily. In fact, more than 2 trillion (possibly 3 trillion) photos alone are added to the web each year. That is a lot of pictures of weddings, senior graduation portraits, food and more. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to have one’s photos be discoverable and findable. It’s literally a needle in a haystack. By creating your own app, you make it incredibly fast and simple for others to find your work. No searching on the internet and no incorrect links – just your own branded app, with only the photos you wish to share.

3) Stand out from the competition

The market is competitive. What better way to hammer home the point that you are the right photographer for a prospective client by saying, “I can give you your own app of your wedding photos. Can the other photographers you’re interviewing say the same?” It’s a client offering that yells “Hire me!” without any actual yelling. Pretty impressive.

4) It’s fast and easy

Best of all, getting your own app couldn’t be easier. There is no coding to learn! No App Store approval ever needed. It’s fast and hassle-free to create, and updates instantaneously every time you make any changes to your SmugMug site. And it looks awesome on both iOS and Android.

5) Bragging Rights
Let’s face it, having your own app is pretty awesome. How many people do you know that have their own app? Probably none. There is no shame in having a little something to brag about.

Anchorman

This new feature has been capturing the attention of our customers and press alike. SmugMug CEO and Co-founder Don MacAskill sat down with USA Today Columnist and SmugMug customer Jefferson Graham to catch up and discuss our mobile web app. Check out the segment on Talking Tech Podcast to hear more on why having your own app is the bees’ knees.

To learn how to get your own mobile app and see a step by step walkthrough, be sure to visit our mobile web “app” help page. We would love to hear what your customers, friends and family think of your new app – so let us know their reaction (and yours!) in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter.

SmugMug Films: Brent Gilmore — Just a dad with a camera

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.

Cerie out on her scooter for the first time.

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.

Three Cousins

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.

Xavier The Explorer

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.

Natasya, Cerie & Xavier

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.

Backyard Summer

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.

Watching the Rain

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.

Five Years & Still Laughing

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.

Xavier - Month 4

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.

 

Let’s give it up for Dads and Grads!

We couldn’t let Mom have all the fun. On the heels of Mother’s Day, dads also have something special to celebrate and graduation season is still in full force.  We think that’s plenty of reason for you to save some sweet moolah on SmugMug. Right now, you can take 25% off your first year of any new SmugMug account to help keep your digital files safe and display them brilliantly. Dads get ties. Grads get diplomas. You get a sweet discount.

That’s not the only deal though. SmugMug subscribers can give the Gift of SmugMug. Move past the paisley neckwear and dormitory shower caddy/rubber flip-flop combos. Your dads and grads deserve something they really want – much more than just a tie or a diploma.  Right now you can take 25% off when you give one-, two-, or three- year SmugMug subscriptions. You already know SmugMug is the safe and secure home to store and showcase your favorite photos and memories, so why not share the love with a sweet SmugMug subscription. Plus, there’s more, you’ll be earning a credit of 25% off the retail gift price that you can use toward your SmugMug renewal. That’s up to a total of $450 in potential savings. Everyone wins!

twitter-dadsGrads-gosm
With great deals like this, you’ll save a lot of cash and your dad or grad will get a gift that keeps on giving. But remember, Father’s Day and Graduation Day will be here before you know it and this deal won’t last forever. Getting 25% off your new SmugMug account or Gift of SmugMug ends June 20th. What are you waiting for?

SmugMug Films: Trey Ratcliff lights his own path

Trey Ratcliff left a career in technology to pursue photography and exploration. His new path has led him to far-flung places around the world, and we at SmugMug were lucky enough to follow him to Morocco and see the world through his eyes. Watch his approach to his unique vision in our latest SmugMug Film at the end of this interview.

In Trey’s pursuit to create images that portray the world with all the light and color he sees in it, he’s been met with praise and criticism across the Internet. And he’s learned to ignore it, choosing instead to create his art only for himself.

How would you describe what you do?

I try to make the real world look like it really does to me: a fantasy. When you start taking photos in a certain way or of a particular subject, you go into a fantasy spiral that allows you to see more “truth.” I look for that thin veil between fantasy and reality—that’s my favorite area. I explore the tension between what is real and what isn’t, because secretly, I feel like the world is a giant fictional projection.

Burning-Man-Day-1 (1006 of 1210) (1)

Tell us a bit about how you got started with photography.

I was born blind in one eye and with terrible vision in the other. I’m still blind in one eye, so I see the world in 2D. So I love to think about how to present a world that’s 3D in a 2D medium, like a photograph.

How does your partial blindness affect how you see the world?

One eye is more than good enough, and I call it The Gift! Every year we experience more of the world in 2D. Every month, in fact, we probably spend 1% more than the last staring at a phone or a laptop, which is 2D. We’re all learning to experience a 3D world in 2D—I’ve simply been doing that for 44 years. And that’s the challenge for all photographers, right? How do you successfully remove one dimension and still have a scene make sense?

I think the idea that you need to take a 2D photo of a 3D world really got me into HDR. It seems to me that “depth” is no more important to a scene than color or texture. Since you lose depth in a photo, I chose to make up for it with dramatic color and texture, which can do a lot to communicate the essence of a scene.

Lijiang at Night (1)

The philosophy of HDR is to use your camera to sweep through all the light available, dump the light into your computer, and then bend the light to your will. I love using technology to make beautiful things. It’s fun to break the rules—have fun with photos and find your own creativity through child-like exploration without rules.

My work became popular after I had the honor of having the first HDR photo ever to hang in the Smithsonian. That led to many more opportunities that I’m eternally grateful for.

182191565_11129fc8df_o

What were some of those opportunities?

One day Mark Zuckerberg sent me a note through Facebook Messenger. I thought it was a joke. He asked if I wanted to come into the Facebook offices and spend the day with him. We spent a day together and talked about photography and art. He was so curious. It was a nice conversation. That led to more things, including this fun new thing we’re doing now: a few live shows a week on Facebook as we travel across 6 continents in 6 months.

Another time I got an email from Sergey Brin asking if I wanted to come into Google X. He pulled up an old video I made in Japan; I’d had a crazy idea to shoot the world at 300 FPS (10x faster than normal) but play it back at 30FPS. The result was interesting, and I was trying to explain stuff I barely understood to Sergey and his Google X team! That got me involved with Google and many of their projects.

The key to receiving these opportunities seems to be having an open heart, being totally vulnerable, and never taking anything too seriously. Having an open heart has filled my life with amazing people.

What work is most meaningful to you?

One of my most meaningful projects to me is the HDR tutorial I put together on my site. I never thought it’d be so popular. But I’ve found that sharing stuff I figured out along the way has been a great way to inspire others.

I used to think of myself as a “photographer,” and I still am, but I think I accidentally became a “teacher” as well. I have no formal training in teaching, but I don’t have any formal training in photography either! I figured it out along the way organically, and this became my teaching style.

What’s been your most challenging shoot to date?

Antarctica was very difficult. Camping on the mainland in the Dry Valleys was physically challenging, but it was rewarding, too. I felt lucky to fly on a CL-130 and land with skis on the sea ice. It was so amazing! I felt like a proper explorer from the olden days.

Day 13 - Sunny Valley - The Mighty Glacier

What are your gear “must haves?”

Currently, I’m between worlds. I’m mostly shooting with the new Hasselblad, but I have my Sony gear nearby and ready too!  A full list of all my gear is available here.

Do you shoot everything manually?

I shoot manually for maybe 30% of my shots. Everything else is aperture priority. That computer in the camera is really smart. With quick-changing lighting conditions, I let that computer decide the same thing I would have anyway.

What do you look for in terms of light and framing for your shots?

I prefer light that’s a bit confusing or dazzles the mind. If I’m surprised or transfixed by the light, it becomes a fun challenge to capture that feeling.

Deep in the Guangxi Province of China

How you go about capturing that feeling?

I listen to a lot of strange ambient and electronic music. That helps my mind disconnect the visual from the audio. This makes everything dramatic, and it feels like I’m moving around a huge movie set to find the most interesting photo.

And what about for storing, selling, and sharing your images?

I like using SmugMug because of its beauty and flexibility. It’s almost scary how much you can change to make your website uniquely your own. I was able to make my site look exactly like I wanted without needing to do any code or scripting nonsense. It’s nice to know that when people come to my portfolio, they see things exactly the way I want them to see them.

SmugMug has also made organizing way easier for me. I have a lot of photos, and I’m constantly re-organizing them. The order is really important to me. It’s very fun and fast to re-order my albums and move files around folders. It’s also given me a chance to get in there and clean up all the clutter that’s happened over the years.

For sharing, I use SmugMug in the background for my main blog. My blog is hosted on my own server, and I embed my images directly from SmugMug so anyone clicking on a photo will be taken to my SmugMug site to view the large image. I looked at the stats, and we have over 160 million photo views on SmugMug for the year!  I also get asked a lot about my in-camera settings before processing, so I use SmugMug’s API to show the embedded EXIF information whenever someone rolls over a photo on my blog. Since SmugMug already stores that information, I can just use their API to pull the info and show it to my visitors. This way they know exactly what settings I used on my camera to capture a shot.

Any advice for those looking to pursue a similar path?

Yes! Stop worrying about what other photographers think. They’re not your audience. Every minute you worry about impressing other photographers is time wasted.

When I first started posting my photos on the Internet, I got a lot of hate and negative feedback. So my advice to you is if you get any kind of hate, fight back with awesome. You create yourself through your art. Take photos that are interesting to you that very few other people understand.

An artist creates for the sake of creation. Self-expression is one of the most natural things about all of us.

What about advice for capturing the image?

The key is to see 100 interesting things per day and take photos of all 100. Then, in your workflow, choose the best 1, 2, or 3. This process and workflow is an end in itself.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Before I got into photography, I once called an investor in a new company, Michael Heisley. He was a lovely man, and I‘m sad he’s passed. At one point in my late twenties, I offered to sell him additional stock because I really needed money and thought that would make me happy. He said, “Trey, money will not bring you happiness.” At the time, I didn’t see it, but it’s quite true. That was the first step to letting go of myself. I’ve gone on many struggling steps since then and I’m still going down whatever strange path there is in this universe. I’ll make a book suggestion, okay? “The Untethered Soul” by Michael Singer. Another great one is “A New Earth” by Eckhardt Tolle.

I get much more joy from pursuing my creativity in whatever direction it takes me. Find what you love and go after it. The right audience and support will find you as a result.