"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in."

-- Robert Frost

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Photography "tricks"

When I first started wanting my pictures to have that magical something, I read everything I could here.  The more I read, the more I felt that photography is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Tricks. Are we really capturing memories as they happen or are they all orchestrated?

Blurred backgrounds, chosen locations, dressing brightly, looks in that direction, wait ... let me adjust and shoot it one more time...

The magic's gone.

And it felt like I needed a magician's touch just to juggle what was going on behind and in front of the camera at the same time.

I love portrait photography but I struggle with it being my style.  I think it's important, though to find your style.  I just find I prefer a more candid approach.

I have a wall of favorite pictures.  My husband took them.  They hang in my front hall and every day that I walk by each of them I can't help but think, "That was a good day!"  I just love when a picture speaks a story to me.  It's the story of my life with these kids.  And that's what makes up my style, maybe it's a picture of one child in one moment we are having together, or just where we all were at some point in time.  Either way, I want each picture to take me back there.  Here are a few "tricks" I've learned to capture that kind of magic without disrupting the spell.

1)  Any camera will take great pictures with good lighting.  I stink at indoor photography.  My house is dark.  But even my camera phone will take great pictures with great natural lighting.  That said, I do have a Canon RebelT2i camera which is the most affordable DSLR on the market.  I have the lens it came with (18-55mm).  It was a great jump start.  I read the manual, played, read it again, played some more, and read it again.  I carried that manual in my purse to read while waiting in the car outside of kids activities. Learn ISO, learn manual, learn white balance, learn focus points.  For all you know, that darn camera might be able to make dinner, you just have to learn everything that it can do.

2)   The lens my camera came with was a great "training wheel".  Next, I bought the only affordable piece of equipment Canon makes.  The 50mm 1.8 lens — $100.  I'm pretty sure it's Canon's marketing trick because that lens has taught me more about aperture (that blur that makes subjects stand out).  They hook you in with the cheapie and then gouge you with anything beyond but by then it's too late and you're addicted.  I love the 50mm.  It's pretty sharp and I think the color just a little more vibrant than the standard the camera came with.  It's a fixed lens so I have to move in and out, but that's okay because kids are always moving, too.

3)  I like to get in close in my photography.  Maybe this comes from my scrap booking days way back when I had time to scrapbook.  I'd cut off all the extra "nonessential" parts of my pictures in order to tell the story.  Now, I frame my pictures in the viewfinder the same way.  I get as close as I can.  If I can't get any closer and still have focus or I don't want to disrupt what is happening out front with my closeness, I will post crop.  Sometimes it's a little tricky getting in close and succeeding in grabbing all of what I'm trying to capture in the moment.  That's when I change the angle.  Down low, up high, sideways to get it all in. And sometimes, just a part tells all the story I need.

4)  Nextly, (I know that's not a word) I got a 100mm 2.8 for my birthday after a year of practicing with my 50mm.  It's an L series which ain't cheap but man, is it sharp and bright.  It's a dual macro so it really takes great shots of little details, too.  I do love that it takes me into the action without getting up in the kids faces.  It makes capturing what is going on easier because it zeros in while I hang back and leave their fun uninterrupted by my camera. It's great for outdoor candids.  That's just what I have ... a zoom lens in your price range can do the same.

5)  I got frustrated with seeing a sunset, taking a picture of that sunset, and viewing the results on a screen only to find that the orange wasn't as orange as what I had observed naturally.  This was the same for a lot of colors. I know I could saturate in post production but who wants to feel like they are faking a picture?  I wanted pictures to look as I see them.  Here is where I played with my camera's factory settings a bit.  I went into my camera's main menu, selected "picture style" and by touching the "display" button, edited the ones I might use most — Standard, Portrait, and Landscape. I was given a menu to boost or lessen the sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone of each.  I spent an afternoon out in the yard with the kids, playing with these settings to get the desired effects to have my pictures come straight out of the camera as I see them, not as I have to post produce them.  Again, here I say, read your manual for directions.  See if you need to change those factory settings to get what you are wanting out of your camera.

6)  Have your camera ready.  If I'm in the kitchen, it's on my counter and pretty much already set to my indoor use. White balance on indoor, ISO up higher, and aperture low enough to avoid blurring. Same with heading outside.  I check those settings before I head out so there's no stopping standing or waiting while Mom gets her camera ready.

7)  Play with light ... a lot.  I remember family photos with that debate:  "Stand in the shade." "No, stand in the sun." "No, back to the sun."  "No, don't get back lit."  Well, which is it???  Shade is best, but not always available in which case, I put the sun behind.  I love to catch the setting sun behind and get that orange glow.  Squinting into the sun is never pretty.  Just turn until you get a fully shaded face unless your effect is to have sun on one side and in that case, whatever.

8)  Focus.  Learn what those focus points on your camera can do.  And learn how to rotate them to get a different perspective.  Focusing on a hand, eye, flower can be pretty powerful.  Learn to isolate those ... read that manual... focus can make all the difference in a good picture and a great one.

9)  Let life happen.  There's an art to conversing with your subject and snapping shots without breaking your concentration on the moment.  I watched my sister do it.  She's a pro at making folks feel at ease for a portrait.  Boy does that take practice, but if you can be spending a quality moment with your child, and still capture that easy laugh or concentrated look ... that's it!  

10)  I don't like to post process much.  It feels like cheating.  I did purchase Lightroom 3.  I determined Photoshop would take a semester of college to learn.  If I can get my picture coming out of my camera pretty much like I see it, all I do in post process is heighten my exposure and pull in some black.  Too much post processing looks ... well, over processed. 

Unlike film, digital photography is limitless so snap away!  There was a time I kept my camera on continuous shoot in the hopes of catching a fast moving child perfectly.  That's a great start. Eventually, as skills get better, you'll get tired of shuffling through 20 of the same picture and get better at snapping one or two of exactly what you want.  But, practice is key.  Last summer, I loved to just take my kids to the park and tell them to go play and pay no mind to what I was doing as I practiced away with settings, angles, light and so forth.  It was fun for both of us and I look back at those pictures now and remember, "Yeah, that was a good day."  

Just capture the magic your heart holds close.

Friday, August 26, 2011


"Photo" meaning light and "graphe" meaning representing with lines.

If I represented my photos with lines on graph, they would be all over the place.  

But just as dropping by the photo counter to retrieve that packet of pictures in the days of developing film was as good as Christmas morning, I still get a thrill when downloaded from my camera to my computer screen, moments are captured that make my heart skip a beat.

I've had folks say such nice things about my "photography"... and I blush every time and try to be so appreciative of their complements.

But, here's my reality:  I feel like I've gotten pretty good at picture taking but photography??...  Not by a long shot. 

See, a photographer jumps out there and captures any moment for everyone.  That takes real skill.  I watched my youngest sister work during our family reunion and she's got a gift.  Working the camera, conversing, catching angles and light ... multitasking like a pro and getting 90% of it right the first time.

I, on the other hand, have been snapping hit and miss every day shots of my own kids ever since that first baby cracked one eye open and recoiled from the bright light of day.  I've gotten pretty decent at capturing great pictures of our moments because they are magical to me.  I put my eye up to that viewfinder and it's like looking through a window into the soul of my world and wanting to stop time forever.

Doing that for someone other than us, leaves me feeling more than a little incompetent and insecure.

So, to everyone who has ever said, "Your pictures look so great!" ... I say thank you, thank you, thank you .... you are so kind!  

And for every mom who thinks to herself  "Where's my camera?  I don't want to loose this right here and right now."  ... if you have ever just wanted to take better pictures of your own children, I'd like to share what I've learned because you really can do it too.  I'm not an expert.  I'm just a mom with very little time, too many unfinished projects, a load of semi-tolerant kids, and a sister who willing lets me bug her to death with endless questions while I avoiding doing those dishes calling my name from the other room.

Feel free to ask questions and I'll be posting some picture taking "tricks" next week. In the meantime, these shots are from my first attempt at trying to capture some magic that is not directly mine.  One of my other beautiful sisters, her sweet, sweet baby and the relationship they share, frozen in time forever.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I can feel summer's magic fading.  

Celia is into week two of early morning seminary.  It's a scripture study class our church holds daily before school begins.  Our days commence at 5:30am and I get up with her to warm her morning with hot breakfast and a mom made lunch.

Inch by inch, minute by minute, I see we are no longer getting up with the sun.  I'm a solar battery and fall's creeping effects are hard to ward off.

Annie has brought home our first "welcome back to school" cough and cold.  It's spreading amongst the troops.

Backing up our lax summer bedtime routine has been like moving a mountain.  The same goes for waking overly tired children.

The cooler nighttime brings the garden green to yellowish hues.

In the stillness that is Eliza's nap time, I can see that the carpets now free of running bare feet are in desperate need of cleaning.

And just like that ... the enchantment dissolves. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Not a party mom in theory

As a kid, a birthday was a cake and a song ... or fruit salad if my mother was "dieting" ... and eight siblings gathered around to "oh and ah" as the birthday recipient opened simple gifts of gum, shampoo, or those desperately needed socks.

It was a great day.
I repeated this model when my husband and I were newly married.
It didn't fly half as well as it did with us kids.

As a young wife and mother, the entertainment bug hit and as soon as that first child was old enough to stand on two legs, I unleashed the birthday madness.  Parties for everyone, I say!

And then I had more kids.
And then I saw where Mom was coming from.

Birthdays and holidays seemed to bleed together leaving me O.D'ed on celebration.  Year after year, parties progressively eclipsed one another.  Friendships increased as did birthday invites that my schedule and my pocketbook couldn't support and I started weighing what things I could actually do with those funds.  Next thing I knew, neighborhood moms seemed in competition and that kitchen table princess party just could not hold a candle to the indoor play arenas and stuffed-animal-building themes.

And then I dropped out of the race where birthdays were concerned.
And then I sighed terribly when anyone breathed desire for a party around birthday time.
And then I pretend not to hear.

This year, Grant (and the other kids) plagued me with reminders that he'd never had one, that he had a great group of friends, that things were different now, that it would never be any easier.  That everybody should at least have one birthday party with friends in their lifetime.

And then I buckled my resolve.
And then I lay down some ground rules. 

Seven kids because you're seven.  Backyard simplicity.  Working with what we've got on hand.  I even tried to push the "bring no presents'' rule at first, though I failed (because lets face it, who needs more stuff ??).  THEN,  I redoubled the emphasis to never ever expect another party again.
And then I put on a smile and went down to my basement to rummage up a little piece of Americana.

And then everyone got excited about taking part in balloon animal making, games, rides and cake decorating.

And it was a good day on the farm.  Even the chickens said so ... though they thought it unethical to serve nuggets for lunch.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Grant's 7

I used to listen to Christian's heartfelt prayers by his bed each night, pleading for a little brother.

When the ultrasound revealed boy number two, I teared up.  I couldn't help it.  Christian had asked so many times.

The day Grant was born, I leisurely packed children off to a friend, loaded my bag, and headed arm in arm with Newel for the necessary induction.

We walked across the parking lot looking up at the towering hospital and talked of how in a few short hours our family dynamics, our lives, and our numbers would no longer be the same.

Number five.  

I knew just how long it would take.  I knew just how much medication would be needed.  I knew exactly what time I'd be home later.

It was the only birth where everything went according to "my plan" and I proclaimed it the funnest birthday ever.

And every day with him, has been the funnest ever since.  Happy Birthday, Grant!  You were an answer to all of our prayers.  I love every day I get to be with you,


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Alone again

It's just me and her once again.  

And man alive, isn't she missing the constant one on one attention a summer with five siblings brings.

Who am I kidding?  We both are.  She needs them to entertain her every bit as much as I need them to entertain her.

Monday, August 15, 2011

First days

Post editorial update ... still here.  My kids came off the bus and were dusted by the trash man barreling down our dirt road.  They tell me they slowed their pace just in case he should start inquiring if "these kids" belong to "that house".  Poor kids.  The things they must endure living with me.  Trash man drove on unsuspecting and the kids and I let out our breath like we'd gotten away with ... murder? No, but maybe more like it was the first clean air we'd sucked into our lungs in just a little longer than dead carcasses should be rotting down on a street corner.

Speaking of ...

First days of school!  We were ready.  I can recall arguing mercilessly with my parents in the days leading up to my leaving for college and my father saying that it was a sign.  It deadens the pain once the departed leaves ... at least just a little.

We all felt a twinge of that.

Christian was thrilled to be shed of me, Janie too, Annie looked way too little to be entering junior high, and Grant proclaimed the first day the best ever but all days thereafter just a little darker and did he really have to go back.

But the kicker ...

I dropped in to pick up textbooks prior to the actual first day of high school and Celia took me around to find her locker.  

It was a punch in the stomach.  She did suddenly look so high school ready and more excited than I wanted her to be.  The inhale and exhale that is four years frightened me, looking at the end from the beginning.

I was just there myself.  

A picture flashed to mind of a girl with big hair and bigger earrings suffering the injustice of endurance with "these people".  Sisters who were annoying, brothers who were rude, and parents who turned embarrassment into an art form.  I replayed the video in my head of that girl being forced to ride in the back of a pickup truck with eight loudly singing siblings on a family night outing.  Big hair blowing in the wind, kudzu vines streaming from the truck tailgate where they'd gotten caught in the exodus, and a father who thought it'd be funny to shortcut past the house of her secret crush.

By darnit, I promised myself to hold on to the great relationship Celia and I have even if it were the last chicken-rot-free breath I take.

I drove her to the school on that first day, full of excitement and advice. We pulled up to the drop off curb as cheerleaders poured out of the car in front of us.  They all laughed and hugged, then did back flips down the sidewalk to the front door of the school, built a pyramid while clapping and cheering finally disappearing inside.

"Okay, now I feel a little sick, Mom."  Celia said in intimidation, opening the car door.

"You can do this!" says I, "Just don't let any of the stuff ...."

Too late, the empty water bottles, Kleenex box and random pair of underwear sitting on the passenger-side floor, spilled out unto the waiting high school pavement.

I would have gotten out to assist but I was almost certain the help of a mom in her snowman PJ's in August, would not be okay.

She sighed and tossed the stray paraphernalia back inside as I distractedly watched students pass in front of my car.

"Hey!! There's Ryan Gilbert." I exclaimed, "Maybe you can walk to class with him!!"

Realizing my mistake, I grimaced apologetically as she hung her head at my way too loud, loudness and with an inconspicuous three finger wave, she shut the door.  

The cars rolled forward slowly, leaving me just enough time to hang my makeup free bed head out the window and snap a shot or two of her entering the next four years of her life.

And just like that she was gone.

Feeling cooler than cool ... because I really was just this age ... I dusted off my defensive driving skills and honed my cat like senses to get my giant suburban safely out of that parking lot as teens squealed tires and did donuts to celebrate their first day arrival.

Only thing missing was a little Def Leppard and a pair of LA Gear leg warmers.

And I missed that girl all day.