Benjamin Von Wong: How to Make Everyday People Look Badass

When you combine the imagination of Benjamin Von Wong with the photographic enthusiasm of SmugMug and the MacGyver-esque ingenuity of SmugMug’s facilities genius, Daniel Petrosian, you end up with a lot of chaos and cool photos. Von Wong’s persistence to coax the best out of his everyday models resulted in portraits that awed the models. Many had no idea a “beast mode” existed within themselves.

Learn more about the magic behind creating athletes out of SmugMug employees with the right lighting, motivation, and a bit of rain.

Step 1. Lights, Location, and Rain Rig

How did the idea for this shoot come about?

Von Wong: SmugMug President and Co-Founder Chris MacAskill, aka “Baldy,” wanted to fill up the SmugMug gym with awesome photos, and I happened to be in town, so he commissioned me. He wanted simple black-and-white shots, but I had to put that special Von Wong spin on it.

The day began quite normally: setting up lights, backdrop, and rain. Things started getting exciting a good hour and a half later when—I don’t know what happened! I think word spread that the photos were turning out great, so Baldy ended up coming out himself to see the photos and start filming.

It started off really small, and it expanded from there into full-out awesome.

Photo by Benjamin Von Wong


What made you think rain would be perfect for this shoot?

Von Wong: I think rain, in a sense, symbolizes hardship. We wanted to make people look like they’re working out and putting forth an effort, and everything’s harder when it rains outside. You don’t want to go out. It’s just crummy and grimy. From a metaphorical sense, the rain adds a really nice dimension.

Then, from a photography standpoint, it suddenly adds all these nice beads of water dripping down skin, which looks really nice.

It’s one thing to have this idea, and it’s quite another to control weather.

Von Wong: Yeah. In my mind it was pretty easy to make a rain rig, which is essentially a glorified sprinkler system distributed along a longer cross section. I talked to people who were smarter than me—Daniel and Brent—and explained what I was looking for. We basically had one day, and they just pulled it together with about $20.

Photo by Kerry Ellis


How did you go about making it rain?

Petrosian: We brainstormed a little bit, trying to think simple and low-tech. Things were happening so fast, we didn’t have time to rig up something sophisticated. Think simple, and things usually work out. And we thought PVC pipe and sprinkler heads might do the trick. So we went to Home Depot.

We bought different kinds of sprinkler heads to test them out and see what the flow was like, how fast the water would come out, and how we could control it. After some experimenting, we ended up using brass/copper old-school sprinkler heads.

We connected them together using PVC pipe and plumber’s glue, and then we just connected a hose to it and made it rain!

Photo by Kerry Ellis


So now that you had rain, how did you go about photographing it?

Von Wong: With water, just like smoke, you photograph its reflections by backlighting it. Water looks really good when it’s backlit. We needed two hard bare-bulb lights to light the droplets, and a black background so the drops would show up. For the foreground, I used two big parabolic umbrellas. Any large, directional light source would work to bring in our characters so they’re nicely lit without rough shadows.

It’s a basic four-light set up. With the subject in the middle, you have two lights coming in from the back and two bigger, softer lights coming in from the front.

Photo by Benjamin Von Wong


How did you get rid of the ambient light?

Von Wong: We initially wanted to do this indoors because, ideally, if you want to freeze water droplets, you need a short flash duration. If you want a short flash duration, the flashes have to be at lower power. And that’s usually done in a darker environment.

We thought about shooting inside the gymnasium by putting down a big tarp and pumping out the water with a shop vac, then we kind of stared at each other and said that’s going to be way too much trouble. So we went with Plan B: a shaded area outside underneath a tree.

I ended up shooting at 1/1500th of a second at F/5.6 or F/4.

Step 2. Motivate Your Models

What was the biggest challenge during the shoot?

Von Wong: This wasn’t a professional athlete photoshoot. We were taking average people who hardly have any photoshoot experience and trying to make them into something more. To show them like they’ve never been shown before. The true magic of the shots comes from people doing something they had never imagined they would before.

And that wasn’t achieved just by taking a single shot. It was achieved with this very persistent pushing of people and getting them to try different things until they were comfortable in front of the camera. Pushing people to get the best out of them. That’s where most of the work happened. If you look at the video, you see me trying to encourage people, pushing them, making them feel good about themselves.

Photo by Benjamin Von Wong


Tell me a little bit about trying to coax the best out of people.

Von Wong: You don’t always know what a person’s capable of doing. In my experience, the best way to find out what they can or can’t do is to simply ask them to do a variety of different things. It doesn’t matter what they actually do, whether it looks good or not, you just keep throwing ideas at them.

Along the way, as things are getting better, you say, “Wait, I really like that. It’s looking great over there. Put your arm a little higher. Let’s try another angle.”

Getting out from behind the desk to look fierce are (from left) Michael Shostack, head of online marketing; Katherine Cheng, head of community; and Pablo Ceron, product manager. Normally nice, approachable, and with sunny dispositions, these portraits reveal it’s probably better not to cross any of them, just in case. Photos by Alexandra Zielinski

It’s a continuous conversation to keep people busy. If you let them think too much about what they’re doing, sometimes it feels ridiculous. What looks good in camera might not feel natural in position. Not every pose I came up with worked. Actually, a lot of them failed. We took about 2,000 photos that day. But that process of working through things, people start to trust you.

A photoshoot is one thing, but the other aspect to it is the experience. All those who participated really felt like they pushed themselves and found a side of themselves they had never showcased before. That’s very important.

Photo by Michael Shostack
Photo by Benjamin Von Wong


Step 3. Process and Print—BIG

Can we talk a bit about your post process?

Von Wong: It was relatively simple because all we wanted to do was convert the images from color to black and white. There’s a beautiful little button in Lightroom called “B&W” that does most of the work for you. That got the shots 90% done. Because we had taken the time to set up great lighting and good location, we got the photo right straight out of camera.

What did you do for the other 10%?

Von Wong: There was a little tweaking of highlights, shadows, and clarity to make the image pop a bit more. The rest was cleaning up water droplets that were too dense in certain areas, like on the face, using healing and cloning to get rid of distractions. There was a little dodging and burning using curves to highlight different muscles and carve things out.

It was very simple—about 20 minutes per image for the post-production.

We love HUGE prints here at SmugMug. Were these tricky to print larger than life for a gym environment?

MacAskill: Our gym lives inside an old machine shop, and the available wall space—above the mirrors and equipment—curves. Even the ceiling is curved. So we needed a material we could print on that would, most importantly, look amazing, but also bend to fit the curved walls and stand up to the gym’s environment. And be large enough, of course.

We ended up printing each image with an Oce Lightjet at 68” tall on Kodak Endura semi-gloss bonded onto 1/4″ sintra, which is a lightweight PVC foamboard. We thought about adding a thin polycarbonate laminate over the prints to ruggedize them, but the prints ended up being hung so high we didn’t think they’d get exposed to sweat or medicine balls. So we didn’t laminate them. But it was a perfect option had we hung the photos any lower.

Photo by Alexandra Zielinski

What did you love most about this shoot?

Von Wong: The greatest compliment was all those who didn’t participate were upset. I thought that was great. A lot of them felt like it wasn’t really their thing, but when they saw how the others’ photos turned out, they were amazed and sad they hadn’t done it themselves. That’s the best compliment you can get.

Check out an extra tip from Von Wong on how to achieve a similar look with a bucket of water and two speedlights!

Find Benjamin online:

Photography Perspectives: Underwater Wildlife with Scubazoo

We’re halfway through this orbit around the sun and to those of us in the northern hemisphere, that  means it’s time to grab your towel and hit the beach. In the spirit of the ocean, we browsed through Scubazoo‘s incredible collection of underwater photos and videos and were taken aback by the magical beauty of life beneath the waves. How does Scubazoo do it, and what kind of gear does it take? What’s the market for underwater photography? Scubazoo photographer Jason Isley graciously shared a look at how they get that incredible footage. 

All photos by Scubazoo

So, who and what exactly is Scubazoo?

Scubazoo is a video production, location management and publication company based in Borneo. Over the past 15 years Scubazoo has managed locations for more than 125 hours of programming within SE Asia for international broadcast. Scubazoo’s cameramen have filmed on upwards of 150 programs from natural history blockbusters such as BBC’s LIFE and Human Planet to hit reality shows like Survivor & The Amazing Race. The Publication department has a number of world class photographers working on various assignments throughout the year and a great editorial team in the office. Scubazoo have provided images to hundreds of magazines and books and have also published several high-quality coffee table books, selling over 200,000 copies internationally.

School of red fish in a blue sea by Scubazoo

As a serious photographer as well as a serious diver, what’s in your kit bag? What does a professional setup for underwater photography look like?

It’s not advisable to try and change lenses underwater so, in order to handle macro and wide angle subjects I might encounter, I usually take two setups down with me. For the macro setup I use a Nikon D700 with an AF-Micro Nikkor 60mm f2.8 or an AF Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D. The wide angle kit consists of a Nikon D800 DSLR with a Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 and a Nikon AF 16mm f/2.8 D Fisheye. Both cameras are housed in Nauticam underwater housings. These give me access to every control on the camera and are rated to 100m. Each housing will have two strobes connected by a fibre optic cable and attached with ultralight arms. I use the Inon Z-240’s as they are light and extremely portable and I also usually carry lots of other gadgets like snoots, flourescent filters, wet diopters etc. If I can, I’ll employ a local dive guide to help spot critters and carry the extra setup.

All the usual scuba gear is used – a tank, weight belt, buoyancy compensation device (BCD) and regulator and also wetsuits to extend my bottom time. Even in tropical waters it can get a little chilly!

Underwater diving photographer and gear

What has been your most frightening underwater encounter?

During my filming days I filmed the sardine run in South Africa which is basically a massive feeding frenzy including dolphins, sharks, seals etc and that was a certainly a little hairy. However, the most frightening encounter must be the one with a 4.5m salt water crocodile that literally walked all over me underwater.

Underwater shark photos by Scubazoo

Which came first, diving or photography?

I didn’t start diving until I was 25 so the photography certainly came first. When I was 15 I use to play with my father’s camera kit and tried to photograph birds in the garden.

Blue fish face lips by Scubazoo

Are there any other underwater projects you’ve worked on?

I have worked on many assignments shooting amazing creatures in different exotic locations, however the project that seems to have gained the largest following must be the miniature people series I started back in 2011. The project is based on a futuristic scenario where the planet is completely underwater and the people are living and breathing underwater, I use miniature people to create scenes with the marine life.

Underwater miniatures with snake eel by Scubazoo

Underwater miniatures with cuttlefish eggs by Scubazoo

Out of all the places you’ve been, what wins the prize as your most exotic locale?

I’m based in SE Asia which is about as exotic as it gets, however I have certainly been based in some extremely remote locations for long periods of time which can definitely effect your sanity. Myself and one of my colleagues lived in a remote village in Indonesia and spent everyday sat opposite each other under the beating sun in a tiny dug-out canoe for three weeks tracking leatherback turtles.

The coldest location was Newfoundland and Hudson Bay in Canada looking for Beluga whales, that trip really confirmed I am not a big fan of cold water diving!

High five with whale by Scubazoo

There’s a ton of life under the seas. What is your favorite subject?

Sharks are definitely high up on the list, however you certainly get more of an encounter with dolphins and whales as they appear to be interested in you sometimes. I don’t have a specific favourite subject as I like diversity and think it improves your photography to change subjects and try different styles.

Sea turtle underwater photo by Scubazoo

Who are Scubazoo’s customers?

Scubazoo have two large online libraries, one for video and one for photography and we also have regular agents that we provide our images to. I also write articles for dive, adventure and travel magazines but we are really trying to expand our publications department and publish a couple of books each year. One of the books currently in production is for a large resort company and we are shooting all the wildlife and landscapes around their resorts throughout South East Asia.

Pink coral with yellow and blue fish by Scubazoo

What kind of equipment, training, workshops, locations, etc., would you recommend to people looking to test the waters, so to speak, in underwater photography?

I would strongly suggest a course with one of the leading underwater photographers that operate locally wherever you’re based. It will rapidly improve your technique. Underwater photography equipment can be quite expensive because you need all the extras to house the camera and underwater strobes, etc. You may want to consider looking for a 2nd hand set-up to start with. There are some great underwater photography sites with plenty of people giving advice and also selling old kits that you can use to get started.

Floating underwater octopus by Scubazoo


With that, we hope that all of you get your opportunity to take great photos wherever you end up on holiday. Stay safe in the waves, and check out our Photography Perspectives series if you’re looking for some light beach reading!🙂

Success Stories: Matthew Jordan Smith Photography

The Model: Fashioning a Niche in Celebrity Portraiture and Beauty

Name: Matthew Jordan Smith
Position/Title: Owner
Company: Matthew Jordan Smith Photography
Location: Los Angeles
Market: Fashion/Celebrity Photographer
Bragworthy Factoid: Having a client list that reads like a People magazine table of contents (Oprah Winfrey much?)
SmugMugger Since: 2011

Career Highlights…

  • Publishing his first book, Sepia Dreams: A Celebration of African-American Achievement Through Words and Images
  • Appearing as a guest photographer and judge on the hit TV show, “America’s Next Top Model”
  • Teaching at Manhattan’s prestigious School of Visual Arts and the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

Favorite Features…

Yin yang black white red profile by Matthew Jordan Smith
All photos by Matthew Jordan Smith Photography

A Beautiful Beginning

Scanning Matthew Jordan Smith’s subject roster, which includes such luminaries as Halle Berry, Jennifer Connelly, Michael Jordan, Vanessa Williams and Jamie Foxx, the last word you would ever apply to this explosive talent is humble. Nevertheless, the high-profile fashion and celebrity photographer traces his success to a simple yet formative beginning: an involved father and a basic camera. “My father taught me how to process film. It was a hobby until I read a book by [photographer] Gordon Parks,” he says. “That was the first time I saw a photographer making a living. From then on, I wanted to be a photographer.”

Purple glitter eyes by Matthew Jordan Smith

Want a Unique Look? Cultivate a Vision

Smith, whose specialties are magazine editorial and beauty advertising, attributes his success in part to knowing who he is and where he comes from—to cultivating his own vision. “Whoever we are, it has a big impact on our work,” he says. “What pulled me into fashion and beauty was that it was one of the few industries where I could tell my story. You see that in my images.” Smith says having a clear vision of what you want to communicate with your work is key to developing a unique style. “Everybody can become a photographer,” he insists. “It’s more important to work on your vision. You can take a great picture on an iPhone and have no idea how you did it—the camera does everything for you. But once your vision is clearly defined, people will come to you for that.”

Yellow butterfly eyes by Matthew Jordan Smith

How SmugMug Helps

Smith’s focus is laser-guided when it comes to getting the most out of SmugMug. “My site is very clean,” he says. “I can make changes easily. It loads fast, so clients can see what they want and jump off — I love that about it.” Smith says the compliments he gets on his site design “changed everything,” increasing interest in his work. His other favorites? Secure archiving, privacy and display options. “All hard drives eventually fail,” he cautions. “Backing up is every photographer’s nightmare. Storing my work on SmugMug is a big plus for me — I can’t express how important that is.” Finally, Smith enjoys the ease SmugMug’s gallery features have added to his routine. “Once the images are up, I send the client a link to SmugMug – it’s a vital part of interacting with the client and keeping everyone in the loop,” he says. Often, his client is an advertising agency that turns around and sends the link to their client. Maintaining privacy and controlling feedback and versioning is critical.

Aretha Franklin feathers by Matthew Jordan Smith

Getting Behind the Beauty

Smith is an expert on working with models . Before shooting a subject, whether celebrity or CEO, Smith researches her extensively—and not all the research takes place alone at a computer. “A lot of the digging happens in hair and makeup. Find out what books they’ve read, movies they’ve seen—ask about them as a person. Get to know them before they get in front of a camera so you can pull out that knowledge later,” he advises, pointing out that this type of casual data collection also makes models more comfortable with you once the lighting goes up.

Three models with dark eyeshadow by Matthew Jordan Smith

Don’t Just Talk; Get Visual

Smith is a big proponent of using visual aids to communicate a concept to models and clients alike. “Give them something they can hear, see, touch,” he advises. “Then they become part of that idea. They’re all looking for direction and it’s your job to give it.” Smith cites a shoot based on the film From Here to Eternity, in which he showed models sketches and storyboarding of movie scenes while describing the mood he sought (“romantic” and “musical”). The models in question hadn’t seen the film, but, with props, he was able to bring alive the iconic image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing in the crashing waves. Another time, he guided actress-singer Vanessa Williams through a successful shoot by pulling her aside mid-shoot and showing her a tear sheet of the look he wanted, which she was then able to replicate. “It’s not enough to just tell someone your idea,” he says. “Always show some them something tangible.”

Want more inspiration? Check out our Success Stories and our Photography Perspectives series!

Photography Perspectives: Tilt-Shift Photography with Richard Silver

We’ve tapped tilt-shift photographer Richard Silver on the shoulder because we’ve long been inspired by his ability to miniaturize pretty much any beautiful location on Earth. We asked him a few questions about what it’s like to be a pro in this genre of landscape photography, and how he turns the mundane into something totally unexpected. Here’s what he said.

All photos by Richard Silver Photo

Do you have a past life in other careers, or have you always been behind the camera?

I have a varied professional background from owning a beer distributor, stock broker and a real estate agent. In real estate I would photograph the apartments that I had for sale so photography played a role in that area. I have always traveled and photographed all of my trips which my friends would make me take all of the pictures for them too. In early 2011 I got the itch to leave real estate and pursue my photography career full time.

Why miniaturization?

A few years back I was fascinated by this photographer Olivio Barbieri, who became my inspiration to do Tilt Shift in the first place. He would travel the world and do this effect using an actual Tilt Shift lens. I figured out how to do the effect using Photoshop only in post production. To me it is such a fun way to see the world, it gives a different perspective to seeing in a way that plays tricks on you. In the big picture we are just a small blip of what the world truly is.

What are your tools of the trade?

I have always been a Nikon guy. Currently I have a Nikon D800 a full frame camera, Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 lens and a Sigma 70-200mm 2.8 lens which I use mostly for my Tilt Shift shots. I have 2 different tripods, one for travel which is carbon fiber and one that is heavy duty, my Manfrotto 055XPROB. Daylight is extremely important in my shots as shadows add so much to the final image.

Do you ever create or enhance the miniaturization in post?

All of my work is done in post production. Photoshop and Lightroom are my go to programs. Using digital gives me the freedom to make any changes needed to achieve the Tilt Shift effect. When I take the original photograph I already have in my mind what the image will look like. I do not do anything other than the few steps needed in Photoshop to create the effect.

With the new PS6 there is a single filter that I can apply but in the older versions it took me about 5 moves to achieve my effect. I go back and forth between using the new single filter and the older way, it all depends on the image that I use.

What makes the ideal tilt shift miniaturization?

At first I would only shoot iconic places such as the Eiffel Tower, Great Wall of China, Acropolis in Greece but then I started to shoot more nature locations. Now I try and mix the locations up depending on where I travel to. I need to be in a location that is higher than what I am shooting. Mountains and tall buildings work great for me. I also need people in my photo for me to get the perception part to work. For the best results I need a good sunny day, people lined up in rows, me to be on top of a skyscraper shooting down to the streets or shooting from a helicopter which I find exhilarating.

What other types of photography do you shoot?

There are two new types of output I am working with now. One is called “Sliced” where I take photographs of buildings at sunset for about an hour and sliced them together creating an effect of day to night in one image, each image consists of about 30 individual photos. I have shot so far almost 40 buildings in New York and plan on doing that all over the world. I also perfected a new way to shoot churches. I do a 180 degree panorama from pew to exit of the church shooting the ceilings in the photos. I received so much play on the web from so many photography websites it was an amazing feeling to be recognized.

You’ve achieved great commercial success, although your images aren’t the traditional client-photographer sort. How did you build your business and brand?

I am honored to be represented by Yellowkorner Gallery, a photographic company with locations all over the globe. They represent 9 of my images, we recently did a book together called Portfolio 9 of my Tilt Shift images. In New York I have representation by two local galleries also. One with my Tilt Shift and one with my New York Sliced images. I am not the type of photographer hired; I aim to sell my photographs of my travels through my SmugMug sites or through some of my physical galleries.

What SM features get you through the day?

Since I travel so much I am constantly updating my Galleries at my SmugMug sites. I love how simple it is to upload, arrange my photos and make any other changes so easily to my site. Having 2 separate sites with Smugmug, both being slightly different in look but both having the ease of use to work with. I work with the guys over at Fastline Media, they helped me design my sites exactly to my specs. I get so many compliments on my images and layout of the site.

Love being inspired? Check out our other Success Stories and stay tuned for more perspectives from great SmugMug photographers!

SmugMug Success Stories: Kent McCorkle Photography, LLC

The Sportsman: Kicking Off a Second Career and Having a Ball

Name: Kent McCorkle
Position/Title: Owner/Photographer
Company: Kent McCorkle Photography, LLC
Location: Metro Atlanta, GA
Market: Sports (professional, college and high school), plus local news and company-sponsored events
Bragworthy Factoid: Earning back his initial investment in his SmugMug site within a few months of launching his business.
SmugMugger since: 2004

Career Highlights…

  • First time being accepted by a media wire service to cover sports.
  • Breaking into Division I college and professional sports.
  • Seeing his work published in Sports Illustrated, on ESPN and in other national publications.

Favorite Features…

Making the most of a moment

Kent McCorkle knows the exact moment he became a photographer. After more than 30 years working in the corporate world, raising a family and flirting with image-making, everything changed with a single email. Although he had enjoyed capturing youth sports, vacations and other personal moments for years, he hadn’t thought seriously of working for profit. Then he was contacted out of the blue by an architectural design firm about photos he’d shot and posted of antebellum homes during a family holiday. Interest sparked, McCorkle quickly sold them the images for publication in a book. Fast-forward to today: McCorkle has settled firmly into sports photography, fashioning a second career out of his passion for capturing exciting moments in youth athletics. Riding the digital photography wave and fueling his interest with online support resources, he honed his skills and bided his time. “The idea of selling photographs had never crossed my mind…[but] after the surprise of selling my first photographs, I began to wonder if parents might be interested in purchasing the sports-action photographs I had been taking of their kids.”

Fit to print

Along with technical mastery, McCorkle has acquired a deep knowledge of the byzantine world of sports photography. His advice for the aspiring and uninitiated? Get your feet wet covering youth sports before attempting Division I college and professional athletics, both of which require extensive credentialing. “The first step is to gain lots of experience photographing sports at lower levels,” he says. “Develop a portfolio that shows your best work. Standards for acceptance by wire services are very high. Compare your work to what you see in major sports publications. You can also visit media wire service websites and see examples.” Photographers must be affiliated with approved media companies to shoot higher-level sporting events; the sports governing associations license the images for distribution. McCorkle suggests honing your craft by connecting with other photographers. “Even at high school games, you may have opportunities to pick up tips and learn techniques from more experienced photographers.”

SmugMug and sports

Citing SmugMug’s “remarkable” customer service, continual innovation and “flawless” order processing, McCorkle considers the service foundational to his business model. From the outset, SmugMug helped McCorkle streamline his burgeoning business needs. He especially likes the one-stop shop aspect. “I started with SmugMug because it offered the ability to create a gallery-based photographic website and sell photos. Order placement and fulfillment were the clinchers for me,” he says. He continues to add SmugMug features to his arsenal, sometimes evolving his workflow to take advantage of SmugMug’s conveniences. “I was slow to get on the Proof Delay bandwagon because every image uploaded to my galleries had been fully post-processed and I considered them print-ready,” he points out. “But then I started using it in order to allow me one last chance to make sure everything is right.”

Pounding the pavement

McCorkle’s business acumen has proved invaluable since his transition to photography. Underscoring the importance of building multiple revenue streams and diverse customer segments, he has cultivated clients ranging from athletes’ families and high school booster clubs to local news outlets and national publications including Sports Illustrated and ESPN. “In all but one case, my freelance work with newspapers resulted from my making initial contact with either the editor, sports editor or publisher,” he says. “Sometimes a simple email expressing your interest in working with the paper is all that is necessary to get the ball rolling.” McCorkle adds that persistence and patience are key. “Each time that I’ve expanded the types of sports I photograph or my customer base, I’ve followed a simple principle from my corporate career. Stated simply, it is ‘gentle pressure, relentlessly applied,’ ” he says with a smile. McCorkle markets his business in creative ways, ranging from hardcopy business cards he passes out while shooting games to requesting links to his portfolio on booster club sites to emailing booster officers gallery links and asking that they forward them to coaches, parents and fans.

Love what you see? Check out our other incredible SmugMug Success Stories.

SmugMug Success Stories: Graham Watson Publishing, Ltd.

The Master: SmugMug Helps a Seasoned Pro Adapt to Cycles of Change & Finish Strong

Name: Graham Watson
Position/Title: Director
Name of Company: Graham Watson Publishing, Ltd.
Location: Lives in Hampton, Middlesex, UK, but works globally
Market: Professional Cycling
Bragworthy Factoid: One of just 4-5 pros worldwide who cover cycling at this level
Website: and
SmugMugger Since: 2009

Career Highlights…

  • 30-plus years photographing cycling
  • Apprenticed to society photographer Leonard Green as a teenager (Green, AKA “Lenare,” was the UK’s leading mid-century celebrity portraitist)
  • Authored or co-authored 20-plus books
  • Offers online, same-day race coverage of more than 160 racing days/year

Favorite Features…

Portrait of a master

Watson attributes discovering his life’s passion to impoverishment. Signing on to study photography as a teen in 1970s London and unable to afford the train, Watson invested in a bicycle to make the 15-mile trip into the city each day. He points to the 1977 Tour de France, his first as a fan, as pivotal in his journey from portrait to cycling photography. “It’s one big adventure. The photography purists would be horrified if I said that. My passion, if anything, is the adventure.” Purists aside, Watson clearly had the chops: Following the event, he won a photography contest sponsored by Cycling Weekly and his career took off at a sprint.

Blocking with the best

Watson’s business includes magazines, books and online print sales for race fans. He brought his online business to SmugMug in 2009 after it was recommended by a developer with knowledge of both cycling and photography. Watson relies on SmugMug to leave him free to do what he does best — take brilliant photos. He likes leaving printing in SmugMug’s capable hands and concentrating on other areas of his business. Citing cycling’s worldwide following and the need for quick turnarounds — globally, fans number in the millions — Watson takes his role in fan appreciation seriously. “You entertain people. It means a lot to see pictures of the sport they love. It’s a responsibility.” SmugMug’s platform has allowed him to make prints available to a bigger audience at a more competitive price; it helps him stay in touch. Watson links to SmugMug from social media to deliver a race-day postmortem, tracking the day’s happenings through pictures. He loves focusing on his commentary while SmugMug takes care of post-race ecommerce, enabling fans to order directly from the site.

Riding the pegs

Like a lot of seasoned pros, Watson initially had mixed feelings about the industry shift to digital. Now, they’re gone. “Digital prints better in a magazine than slides ever did. Digital photos go straight to press (no 15 minutes sending one image!). The romance is gone, but it’s efficient.” Watson says the increased competition enabled by digital technology has changed the game. “Most of us thrive on the challenge of staying ahead of everybody. It’s very expensive and [digital] has more people getting involved, so I try to find extra ways to keep pace with my rivals.” He points to SmugMug handling print fulfillment as a benefit that allows him to focus on his core competency: capturing exciting sports moments. Watson’s studio relies on SmugMug for every aspect of order processing, from selection and payment to delivery and customer service. They are pleased to have had exactly zero issues with fulfillment since they became a client. One favorite feature is the ability to link directly to an individual order with full details after payment is received, via the Tools button on their homepage.

Bagging the peak the smart way

Because digital is making access easier for non-pros, Watson says it’s important to move with the times. This means recognizing what’s good about digital. “Even 10 years ago working with film, the day never ended. It was eight hours of shooting cyclists and another eight getting film scanned and emailed. With modern tools, you’re in bed by midnight.” He likes that clients can get their images very quickly following events, view their full archive and choose what they need, without having to contact him and wait for source images. “I use Twitter as a way to entertain and promote my work,” Watson says. “It’s proven to be a commercial tool. You get low-res pictures on the website, and, true, it’s not the same as being published in print. [It’s] a different medium, but a very important one.”

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SmugMug Success Stories: Silverbox Creative Studio

The Hybrid: SmugMug Smooths the Way for a Dual Focus on Design & Photography

Name: Susan Sidoriak
Position/Title: Owner
Name of Company: Silverbox Creative Studio
Location: Lederach, PA
Market: Graphic Design, Branding & Photography
Bragworthy Factoid: Growing enough to hire freelance photographers, a graphic designer and an office manager
Websites: and

Career Highlights…

  • Expanded globally throughout the US, Europe, Australia, and Africa.
  • Within the last two years have become a go-to source for branding in the photography industry.
  • Ranked #1 for invitations in the Philadelphia region for the last several years.
  • Escalated photos prices while growing a customer base.

Fave Features…

Career by design

Sidoriak is a graphic designer by trade who came up via the traditional corporate ad agency route, settling into a freelance career after her first child was born. Her interest in photography was born out of necessity: unhappy with the cost of the stock photos she worked with, she decided to create her own photographic images. After buying her first camera and editing initial batches of holiday photo-cards and family pictures, she thought, wow, I could do this for other people, too. Silverbox designer-photographers now spend half their time in each discipline, most often melding the two as they produce photo-based materials like cards, booklets and invitations.

Designing a custom solution

This dual focus led to Silverbox’s most innovative application of the SmugMug tool set: creating virtual photo albums for presenting graphic design work to clients. “We’d used SmugMug for our photography services for years,” Sidoriak says. “One day we had the bright idea to upload our design ideas, much like a [physical] photo album. Suddenly, showcasing our thumbnails and initial concepts was easier. All designs are numbered and communication via phone and email is seamless. The option of clients typing their thoughts in the comments section is a tremendous asset.” Clients can also use one-click sharing to send their preferred designs to other stakeholders. Version control is easy, as Sidoriak stacks the newest iterations at the beginning of the album. If the client needs high-res jpegs, they can simply download them from their link, negating the need for Sidoriak to create another file for finals. Her other favorite time-saver? Designing logos in Adobe Illustrator, taking a screenshot of each design and quickly uploading them to SmugMug. “I can compile an album of 20 logo ideas in less than a minute — it’s the perfect combo! Clients can say, ‘I like the colors in #3 and the font in #7’.”

Counting on coupons

Learning how to use SmugMug coupons effectively has been key to growth. For example, Sidoriak realized that offering a free photo session with a retainer-like cart coupon did not yield as much profit as charging fair market value for a sitting and letting clients buy what they want. The coupon is used to discount the sitting, not for print shopping, where it can be viewed as a natural “cap” to spending. “I never had confidence that I was a good photographer—I was the designer,” Sidoriak says. “I once offered a free photo session and used coupons for $450 to spend in your cart, but I think it shot me in the foot—everyone was spending $450 and that’s it. This year I charged $225/hour for the sitting plus buy-what-you-want, my print prices are up, and we averaged in the $600s.”

Seamless with SmugMug

SmugMug has helped Silverbox bring agency-level professionalism to its customer relationships. And unlike traditional photographers, Silverbox’s crew thinks about embellishment from the start. “I can take photos a step further than a regular photographer would,” Sidoriak says. “We’re designers first. Do you want a collage? Do you want a monogram? What color is your living room? I want to hear all about it to modify the photos and design.” For example, SmugMug’s integration has helped Sidoriak do a lively business in Mother’s Day photo books, for which she shoots original photos, embellishes them, designs a book around them and uses Blurb to publish a high-quality memory book. Citing site customization as a major part of a high-quality user experience, Sidoriak relies on SmugMug to get her through peak times, including the holidays and Mother’s Day. “I love everything about SmugMug. They are so on it when I have a client issue; they’re on it well before me. I’m out shopping or something and I come back and it’s resolved. If I could hug them I would.”

Weathering the recession

Counterintuitive lesson #1: placing a fair (high) monetary value on your work does not decrease profit per se. “Moms and young kids out of college are opening up shop down the street. The new freelancer charging $50 per session has taken some of my clientele,” Sidoriak says. “Yet I have raised my prices throughout the recession, and the economy hasn’t really hit my business. During bad economies people are slower to commit…I’m the person who can help modify your business a bit visually—branding and business-to-business work has actually increased.” Sidoriak actually got a little pushback when she fairly upped prices on 4×6 and 5×7 holiday photos last fall—but, instructively, not one customer jumped ship. Sidoriak generates business mostly by word-of-mouth referrals. To network and build her skills, she participates in weekend seminars and conferences with other photographers. The shift to servicing a nationwide customer base took her by surprise when she was recently hired to photograph a batch of products the client shipped to her studio in rural Pennsylvania. Finally, she uses SmugMug’s quick-share to Facebook frequently. “What better advertising than to share your photos to the world? I have received many new clients because of that little blue button!”


Interested in seeing more SmugMug Success Stories? Look here!