How to Become the Neighborhood Sensation with Halloween Photos

By Chris MacAskill, SmugMug co-founder
Years ago we faced a Halloween dilemma: do we just pass out Snickers bars and bore everyone? Scatter a few plastic skeletons and cobwebs like everyone else? Enter an arms race with the guy a few blocks away who spends days turning his house into a Hollywood Horror Show? Where does he even store all that stuff?

Instead, we set up some lights on the driveway and shot photos:

The thing is, Smartphone cameras don’t do well in the dark.  So parents bus their kids to our neighborhood to get their annual Halloween photos:

Even the cool kids need to score Instagram likes:

Here are some things I’ve learned from 7 years and thousands of photos:

  1. The Big Thing is to have a Very Big Light front and center.  I am usually on knees or bum, and the Very Big Light is above me.  I use a 60-inch softbox.  One reason for a big light in the center is that, on zero notice, Very Big Groups will form:

The big, centered light keeps some faces from being lost in the shadows.  And it casts very soft, flattering light that adults love.

  1.  Get a very wwiiiiiddddee backdrop.  I chose black because, well, Halloween.  Black anything will do: bedsheets, paper, whatever.  You can move it back from the subjects far enough that it’s really black and is never seen in photos.

This is what happens when the group is too big for the backdrop:

  1.  Knee pads.  Ow, my knees.  I like to get the camera down to the children’s level.

  1.  There will be witches, Darth Vader, and black-hatted villains.  If you can add a flash or two behind and to the side, you’ll actually be able to see black costumes and hair without them blending into the backdrop.

  1.  Smoke!  Smoke machines are cheap on Amazon and just a few puffs add a bit of awesome:

  1.  A zoom lens.  I love prime lenses and wide apertures for dreamy shallow depth of field.  But during Halloween, you’ll shoot a small child dressed as a pumpkin and 30 seconds later you’ll shoot a large group of teens.  I use a 24-105.
  1. JPEG, not RAW.  I set my white balance for the flash and it never varies.  I set my exposure at manual because the camera will give different exposures for people in white versus people in black if I try auto exposure.  There’s no issue with dynamic range, so RAW only slows everything down but doesn’t improve quality in this case.
  1.  Tether!  I use Lightroom to display the JPEGs on a monitor as I shoot them.  It’s great entertainment for people in line.  And when people see the photos, they’re sold on your photo booth.
  1.  Hand-out cards to tell your fans where they can download their photos.  I send them to

Have an amazing time!  It’s one of my favorite nights of the year.

Transforming Our Support Heroes… Into Actual Superheroes

My old boss, Steve Jobs, used to say, “One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are.”

Kaydin Carlsen, SmugMug Support Hero

Kaydin Carlsen, SmugMug Support Hero

Our heroes are photographers, from moms who capture priceless moments with iPhones, to elite pros who shoot astonishing photos like the one you see above.  To help them, we built a team of 40 support people, mostly photographers.

Working in customer support is a hard job. In most companies, more than a third of customer support employees quit every year. Which means on a team of 40, on average you can expect to lose 12 people a year. So, few people believe they’ve heard us correctly when we say that in over a decade, only one of our Support Heroes has ever resigned.

Our customers sent so many emails to them saying, “You are my new hero,” we called them Support Heroes.

What’s our secret?  We don’t have scripts or thick training manuals. We simply ask our Support Heroes to be heroic.

Which gave photographer Benjamin Von Wong an idea:  take their photos where only real superheroes would dare go. He wanted to make them into superheroes without green screens or special effects.

What do you see when you imagine a superhero?  Standing strong on top of a building, overlooking a city, hair blowing in the wind?  That’s what we saw, so we did a photoshoot on the ledge of a skyscraper.

Here’s Von Wong’s amazing story.

SmugMug Films started with a simple idea:  to tell the story of our greatest heroes, the photographers who inspire us.  The films have taken flight on their own, and today we’re excited to introduce one about Von Wong’s inspiring rooftop shoot:

Who inspires you?  Do you have a story of a photographer worth sharing? Let us know, we might just pop over to film it!

All the best,

Chris MacAskill (aka Baldy)

Co-founder, photographer, regular guy, and on this day a terrified hero wannabe.

Chris MacAskill on skyscraper

Unveiling the All-New SmugMug on Tuesday, July 30th

SmugMug's Ustream live broadcast on July 30th, 2013

In seven days, on Tuesday, July 30th at 10:30 a.m. PDT, we’re unveiling the new SmugMug. We will be streaming our announcement live and direct from our headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Join us for a 30-minute webcast with our CEO and Chief Geek, Don MacAskill. See the new look, catch a live demo, and be a part of the biggest launch since SmugMug started in 2002.

We’re so grateful you found us. Thank you for entrusting us through the years with your priceless photos. We consider you part of our family and can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on. We think you’re gonna love it.


Live streaming begins at 10:30 AM PDT

Chris & Don MacAskill answer questions about SmugMug’s pro price increase

We’ve read thousands of your emails, tweets, and posts this week and planned on making a blog post with answers to your most common questions.

Baldy, our President and co-founder, recently spent some time with Frederick Van Johnson from TWiP (This Week in Photography) addressing a lot of questions that the community has been asking about our pro price increase.  Frederick suggested that, rather than a blog post, we do a follow-up video answering your most important questions.

So that’s exactly what we did:

SmugMug’s Pro Pricing Change: What, Why and How.

UPDATE on July 30, 2013: It’s live! A whole new SmugMug is finally here. With it you get gorgeous designs, a powerful drag-and-drop organization and so much more. It’s all included in your current subscription rates.

UPDATE on November 8, 2012: We’ve added the ability to price and sell to the Portfolio account, based on the feedback we’ve been getting from you.

UPDATE on Sept 7, 2012: We’ve posted an update from Don & Baldy to answer your most common questions about these changes.

UPDATE: In case there was any confusion from the email, you won’t see a price increase until after your next renewal date if it’s after October 15th. We are not billing anyone on October 15th unless that was their annual or monthly renewal date.

Dear Pros,

For the first time in 7 years, we’re raising the price of some SmugMug Pro subscriptions, something we tried hard not to do.

Pros who sell at a markup use far more storage and features than pros who don’t, so we split our pro account into two types:  Portfolio and Business.

Portfolio is $150/year or ($20/mo) and still provides access to our pro labs for both you and your visitors, plus pro features like watermarking.

Business lets you set prices and earn profit.  It will be $300/year (or $35/mo) for new customers, but existing subscribers who set prices will be asked to renew at $250/year (or $30/month) beginning October 15, 2012.

Personally, if I were asked to pay more for a service, I’d want to hear from the person responsible for the decision.  That’s me, so I placed my dSLR on a tripod, and looked it right in the lens imagining it was you.  I tried to offer a peek inside SmugMug and our thinking:

What will I be charged when I renew?

If your anniversary date is before October 15, no worries, you’ll renew at our existing rates.

  • After October 14, we’ll guess you’d like to renew at the Portolio rate if you aren’t setting prices.
  • Also after October 14, we’ll guess you’d choose to renew at the Business rate of $250/year (or $30/month) if you do set prices.

If we’re guessing wrong, you can upgrade or downgrade in a few seconds in your Account Settings.

What’s the diff between Portfolio and Business?

The short. Portfolio has everything except commerce features.

The long. Portfolio lets you build a beautiful site, protect your photos and print pro-quality prints. You get everything in the Power account, plus:

  • Watermarking
  • Printmarking
  • Backprinting
  • Access to Bay Photo and WHCC. (Loxley in the works. We’ll say when.)

Business has every bell, whistle and feature we offer, including:

  • Commerce tools: Custom pricing, Sales tax, direct deposit
  • Marketing features: Events and favorites, Coupons, Packages, Order branding
  • Workflow helpers: Proof delay, Personal Delivery, Boutique Packaging

Our features chart has all the details.

Do I get something out of this?

Yes!  The other big reason for doing this is to invest more engineering in SmugMug to make your lives better, which is exactly what we’re doing.

We love that many of you have been with us for almost 10 years and it’s stunning to think how far we’ve come together.  Thanks so much for all the great support you’ve given us.

Thanks for being a part of the SmugMug family,

Chris MacAskill (aka Baldy)

Co-Founder & President

SmugMug’s Startup Story in the Spotlight

Recently the Mountain View Patch came to visit us at SmugMug HQ to feature us in the Startup Spotlight:

We’re not really a startup and are excited about entering our 10th year of profitable business! But old habits die hard and we still act like one: We’re nimble, hiring like crazy and we stay close to our customers.

Take a look to learn about our modest beginnings and how we’ve worked hard to be successful bringing you big, beautiful, ad-free galleries you know and love. Plus, find out how being stretchy can make or break you in this rapidly-changing digital age, and meet a few high-profile neighbors in SmugLand.

We’re tickled that we’ve come so far through the years. Of course we couldn’t have done it without you: our friends, fans and family!

SmugMug camera strap fail

We thought we were doing an awesome thing by giving away 20,000 stretchy comfy grippy camera straps.  Until recently, all we heard was how cool the straps are.

But we’ve heard a few disturbing reports of the clips failing on some straps, so we thought we’d better put out an alert.  Problem is, we’ve given these away at places like SmugMug user group meetings, so we don’t have a way to contact everyone who received them.  Please pass this along to anyone you know with our straps.

We have 15,000 new straps coming this week and we asked the manufacturer to put much bigger clips on the new ones (click to see bigger):

New clips for SmugMug camera straps

Disclaimer: the fact that we’re hanging a 20 pound weight from the straps does not mean we recommend it! Don’t try it at home.

We’re happy to replace your strap with the new ones coming this week even if you’ve had no clip fail.  No worries, they’re free, just like the originals.  But we have to ask for patience because we have a backlog of orders.

The reports we’ve heard of failed clips appear to have come from the kinds of big cameras Batman would use:

Batman's camera

We know of a few people who heard of the clip fail but love their straps so much they threw away the clip and sewed the strap.

Clip slip & fail

Camera strap configurationWe researched failures on the net and it was a little bit scary to read clip fail reports about straps of just about all makes.  Someone sent in a diagram of the way they have secured their straps for years no matter the manufacturer or size of camera.  Here’s what they said:

“The idea of the double lock is that it prevents the slippage by binding the nylon against itself and also captures the tail end of the strap inside the slider.  This makes slippage virtually impossible.  The other advantage is if the clip should fail, the slider with all of this extra material can and usually does bind and catch the item before it falls.”

But big cameras require big straps

I know, the straps say Pro on them…  But honestly we can’t be sure even the new straps will be bullet proof on big camera/lens/flash combos.  We’ve not been able to do the thousands of hours of testing under all conditions that would make us be sure they’ll never fail under a big load.

How to get new ones

SmugMug subscribers can get new straps at

Love the straps but don’t subscribe to SmugMug?  If you have one of the old straps, send email with your name and address to help at smugmug dot com.  We’ll get one to you if you act fast before this goes viral and we go through all 15,000.

But we can’t tell you how sorry and embarrassed we are that a clip apocalypse happened to some people whose beloved cameras hit the ground.

All the best,

The SmugMug Family

Referrers, Personal Delivery, and Sales History

Who’s your daddy?

We added a referrer tab to your statistics so you can see who’s making you popular.  My SmugMug site was discovered by StumbleUpon:

For most sites, you can click on the numeric link under hits to discover which pages on those sites are fueling your rise to fame and fortune.

Personal Delivery

This feature diverts your customer’s package to you so you can personally deliver it to them.

Enable it for all galleries on the pros tab of your control panel.  Enable it for specific galleries via Gallery Settings.

We still collect your customer’s ship-to address in the shopping cart in case you don’t have it.  We’ll notify them that their package will come from you.

Continuing the effort to promote your brand on orders, such as cart and package branding, our new order confirm emails mention you more prominently and us less so.

Improved Sales History Page

Faster, lighter, betterer at the maths, with more sort options.

Bug fix

An annoying error message asking you to remove Google Analytics code from your custom footer should annoy you no more.

Almost shipped but…

Stay tuned for our next exciting episode because two pro improvements almost went out tonight but just missed the bus.

All the best,

The SmugMug family

Kevin’s FrankenCamera for high-pixel action

The thing is we have giant walls and we’re kinda bored by static scenes.

What if we want a giant print of fireworks over San Francisco, like this shot we love from Chris Michel, printed BIG!

Creative high-schooler and SmugMug intern Kevin, who dreams of Stanford, did what he does best:  mooch cameras from his friends.  Fire nine of them at the same instant and voila!  Pixels enough for 12-foot prints.

Here ’tis with two cameras firing simultaneously:

So who wants to be part of shooting an epic 12-foot print of Fireworks over San Francisco?  ‘Cus Kevin and I  would like to meet you there so we can mooch your 5D MKII, if you have one.

Got other ideas for an epic big action shot we can take as a group of 5D donors?