Archive for February, 2013

February 28, 2013

2nd Year Blogiversary

I’m not sure how I missed it, but my 2nd year Blogiversary was 4 days ago! You’d think with all my posts on meta-blogging I would have noticed it coming. I blame my distracted state on prepping for upcoming interviews.

So how’s my fledgling little blog doing?

* In terms of traffic sources, I had five times as many visitors from Pinterest last year than the year before!
* I have ten new pins, bringing my total to fourteen pins!
* Overall, page views is up 139% from the same time last year!

I noticed the newborn photography was the third most profitable page. I admit when I saw that I envisioned a random surfer thinking “I’ll try this do-it-yourself stuff”, stumbled onto my blog, and think “no way! I’m hiring a professional.”

The most popular page is my Labor Predictor. On any given day about 40-50% of the page views to my blog are on the labor predictor. I’m glad it’s so popular, it was fun writing it! I love my math-y posts.

My goal for the coming year: increase the number of non-mommy related posts. I was talking to someone the other day and it was clear that he thought of my blog as a “mommy blog”. Obviously being a new mom is a major part of my identity right now, but it’s not the only piece. While I’ll never shed the mom title, Nicki will grow older and more independent. I plan on keeping my blog for a while, not just while I have young kids!

With that said, I’m off to go take more photos of Nicki. Because I’m an obsessive momtographer like that.

February 26, 2013

Off Auto

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cutiebug
offauto

I have been completely off ‘auto’ mode on my DSLR since November. I’ve gone off auto before, like for the maternity photos, but this is the first time I’ve been consistently off auto. It feels awesome, my photography has improved so much, it’s ridiculous. Of course, I’ve had a lot of practice. Here’s what I’ve learned for getting the most out of my camera:

The camera’s metering light is usually way too dark

If there’s one really simple trick I’ve learned, it’s to typically shoot on the lighter side. You generally get better contrast (especially in the eyes) and photos look all around more professional.

Don’t be afraid of High ISO

I switched cameras about a month after Nicki was born. I was so used to ‘400’ being high and noisy that I stayed away from ISO 400 and above on my new camera. Technology has improved a lot since my first DLSR purchase. I can now get up to ISO 1000 without noticing much noise. (Keyword “much”). If I had realized that sooner, I would have had much more flexibility with my shutter speed and f-stop, and could have gotten much nicer photos initially!

Even if it had been too noisy, a little noise is easier to correct in photoshop than a little blur.

It takes about four sessions before I get the ‘perfect’ shot

Take the baby toes and rings example. Yes, those are perfectly good pictures, but the aperture was slightly too wide, the depth of field slightly too shallow, and the shutter speed slightly too slow. The end result of the first photo session is a very nice photo as a 4 x 6, but I can’t do much else with it even though by pixel count I should be able to get much larger prints.

By the fourth time I had a handle on just how much light I needed, how fast the shutter speed (at least 1/80 if she’s being still, 1/125 or greater if not) and the right aperture (at least f/5) when shooting with my 85mm Macro. I LOVE the last set I took.

I took 3 sets of Nicki and the twinkle lights before I struck gold, 2 Halloween sets, 5 sleeping newborn, a ridiculous number of Santa hat photos… You get the idea.

Nicki is rarely as cooperative with me with each additional shoot

Which is not to say that she’s uncooperative, just that she is usually the most expressive the first time I take a set of photos. It’s interesting and new the first time. She was fascinated with the photo setup for the Halloween photos, and we had so many great facial expressions. But I was using the wrong lens (and the wrong aperture, and shutter speed, etc). The next time around, she was less interested. I’ve discovered this is not atypical. Babies get bored.

It’s not actually a problem if I plan ahead. The best time to try for photos is right after a nap when she’s well rested and not hungry. I get setup during the nap time and test the light using a toy as her standin so we’re ready to go as soon as she wakes up and I can take full advantage of her well rested happy mood.

I can sometimes elicit a smile if I dangle a toy or dance, but my ultimate secret weapon is Dada. If she hasn’t seen Dada in a little while, she will be ear to ear grins. But if she’s overtired? She will not smile, no matter what I do.

Which element is in focus will make or break a photo

I love shallow depth of field, but it is critically important that the right element be in focus. That’s typically the area you want to draw the viewer’s eye. This is especially true if it’s an area of high contrast (baby’s eye, the diamond in a wedding ring, etc).

There are several Photoshop tricks you can do to bring out the eyes but they have to be in focus first! Of course you can have artistic photos where the eyes aren’t in focus, but if you don’t have that artistic image in mind already from the start, you likely won’t stumble upon it by accident. At least I never have.

If I’m exploring with my camera, especially if I’m not sure how deep my field is, I usually make sure the focus area is over Nicki’s closest eye.

Flash isn’t all bad

Every photography article I read says to always use natural light. Flash can wash out the subject, and cast harsh shadows. But sometimes it’s useful. I try and use as much natural light as possible, but our house is dark. Even at high ISO the camera can have difficulties focusing, creating a “soft focus” effect without a flash.

Flash controls light on subject. Shutter speed controls background light. You *can* use them together to light up your subject without washing him or her out. Here’s a good article about it.

Angles matter, even for babies

Okay, so this is totally a matter of personal preference, but I cannot stand the up-the-nose angle. Sure, sometimes it cannot be avoided, and I’ve posted a few here (like this one). But it sticks out and is so distracting to an otherwise beautiful picture. I find this especially true if you’re shooting against a simple light background. Especially, especially if it’s a close up of the baby’s face. Nicki is asleep in this photo, I have no excuse for the angle.

Nowadays if I can avoid the up-the-nose perspective, I will. Every time.

February 21, 2013

Writing Sample Analyzer FAQ

In preparation for my re-entering the work force (shameless self plug – I’m job seeking!) I closed down some of my old legacy sites that I’ve been keeping around for posterity. One of which was my consulting site, bluecentauri.com. Even though I haven’t updated it in years, the tools were still in use, especially the Writing Sample Readability Analyzer. So I moved it to my resume website, sarahktyler.com.

Since I’m getting a ton of emails about it lately, I thought I’d answer some of the frequently asked questions.

How does your analyzer work?

The analyzer uses the Flesch, Fog and Flesch-Kincaid metrics to predict reading ease. Each approximation makes the basic assumption that longer sentences are harder to read than shorter sentences, and words with more syllables are harder to read than words with less syllables. Although the underlying principle is the same, each metric is calculated slightly differently.

FleschScore = 206.835 − (1.015 × AverageSentenceLength) − (84.6 × AverageNumSyllablesPerWord)

FogScale = 0.4 x (AverageSentenceLength + PercentageOfWordsWithThreeOrMoreSyllables)

FleschKincadeScore = 0.38 x AverageSentenceLength + 11.8 x AverageNumSyllablesPerWord – 15.59

I’ve used your analyzer and another analyzer and gotten different results, why is that?

The Flesch, Fog, and Flesch-Kincaid are well defined metrics. If another system is reporting a different score for the same metric, then the input variables (either number of sentences, or number of syllables per word) must be calculated differently.

It is surprisingly not as straight forward to calculate sentence boundaries as it seems. As humans, we can identify when a sentence ends pretty easily. Since the computer can’t really parse or understand the sentence**, it can only make an educated guess based on clues like punctuation and capitalization. But not all punctuation (think abbreviations) end sentences, and not all sentences are ended with punctuation. This is especially true online were sentences are often not well formed.

The same goes for computing the number of syllables in a word. It may seem simple to just create a list of syllables per word, but language is infinite and constantly evolving. Such a list is not possible. Pronunciation (and the number of syllables) can differ in different parts of the world. Additionally, heteronyms words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciation, can have different number of syllables. The word ‘learned’ as the past tense of the verb ‘to learn’ is one syllable, but ‘learned’ the adjective to describe someone with scholastic achievement is two. Any method to calculate the number syllables per word will involve some heuristics.

The differences in calculating sentence length and the number of syllables will tend to be more noticeable on shorter samples, rather than longer. Even so, while there may be differences between different analyzers, the differences should be relatively small.

** There is an active area of research in natural language processing which tries to automatically parse and understand sentences.

Which analyzer is the most ‘accurate’?

There are two types of ‘accurate’ we can consider: which analyzer comes closer to the true Flesch, Fog and Flesch-Kincaide metrics, and which one better predicts reading ease. Keep in mind that each metric is just a heuristic based on an assumption that is often true, but not always. For example ‘kiln‘ is one syllable, but harder than the simple, three syllable word ‘together’. Depending on the kind of text you are analyzing, you may find one method or score works better for your application than another.

Let’s consider two Analyzers, one with a very good sentence boundary detection, Analyzer A, and one with a very good syllable per word calculator, Analyzer B. If you were analyzing writing samples from elementary school children, you may prefer A. That’s because young children may not write grammatically correct sentences and typically don’t have a rich vocabulary, so a more complex syllable per word calculator wouldn’t buy you much whereas a better sentence boundary detector may be necessary. On the other hand, if you were analyzing scientific journal articles, you may prefer B.

My suggestion is to use both analyzers to get a feel of which one is better for you and your task.

Will you share the code?

I have in the past, but only for extra special cases.

The other day I was suddenly stuck by the desire to have newborn-toes-and-wedding-rings photos. I blame the desire on the fact that I’m suddenly taking so many more photos, and going back over the old ones. Nothing makes me want to pick up a camera more than looking at old photos, especially when I’m learning so much more about photography! I keep thinking about all the ways I can improve those old photos and pinning for a time machine.

toerings

I waited until Nicki was napping in the rock n’ play. (I love that thing, not only has it been a must have for newborn baby sleep, but some of the best photos are from the rock n’ play!) Her feet were elevated in the rock n’ play which made this a particularly easy shoot. The only problem? A seven month baby wakes up when you put something on her toes! She woke up instantly.

whatsthis
What’s this?
If ever there was a time for a safety spotter, rings on baby toes are it! Guess where that ring is going if\when she get’s it off! We also had a few sudden baby movements followed by hunting for the missing ring. It would definitely be easier to do this style of photo when she was a sleepy newborn.

Luckily I waited until she was 2 hours into her morning nap which is usually 2 and a half hours. Nicki was rested enough to be in a good mood, but really curious about what was on her toes. I ended up giving her a ‘new toy’ (a stuffed animal from my dresser she’s never seen) to distract her which gave me a chance to experiment with different lightening and angles. And they’re gorgeous. These are all unedited.

rings2
With the desk light on. Normally I prefer natural light only, but I like the added warmth in the photo.

rings3
Natural light from the window.

I am really impressed how well these turned out. Yes, her feet are a little plumper than they were when she was six months ago, but I don’t really think it’s noticeable. And, maybe even a little preferable? Lesson learned: never let the fear that your baby is too old stop you from picking up your camera.

I love these so much I have a new header photo for my blog and twitter account! I plan on changing my facebook cover photo as well, but I only recently updated it to a photo of the crochet baby blocks my mother-in-law made Nicki which makes her very happy. I’ll leave the baby blocks up for a little while longer first.

February 16, 2013

Sleep, and Lack There Of

My once perfect little sleeper is rebelling. We had three months of glorious, unheard of, newborn sleeping through the night. Then colds, travel, and transitioning to the crib hit. Crying-it-out was working, but this week was about as miserable as it could be. Last night, Nicki woke up not once, not twice, but five times. Even though she went back to sleep on her own four of those times, mommy got maybe three hours of sleep. Total.

We have three theories as to what might be going on

Teething – Her bottom left tooth has now cut through the gum although it still hasn’t fully erupted, but we only have a corner of her bottom right tooth peeking through. Although she’s showing some mild signs of teething discomfort, she doesn’t really seem effected by it. She’s still a very happy baby during the day. She’ll chomp on her teething toys, but doesn’t appear to need them.

Lingering Cough – Nick had her third baby cold from last Sunday to Wednesday. She had bad congestion and a cough and for a couple of nights needed to sleep at an incline. Her symptoms are mostly gone, but every once in a while we hear an errant cough.

Physically Cold – The last three times she woke up the temperature in the nursery was 66 and 67 degrees as reported by the bay monitor. (We didn’t think to check the temperature before that.) The thermometer in the nursery tracks the high and low temperatures at 64 and 75 degrees. That’s quite a range! We noticed over the summer that Nicki, like mommy, sleeps better in slightly warmer temperatures to colder temperatures. She had her longest stretch of sleep last night after we upped the thermostat.

Unfamiliar with the new routine – Once upon a time Nicki used to get drowsy in the bath tub. These days our little ducky prefers to swim and splash and play with all her bath toys. This left us with two options: (1) no toys in bath and a moratorium on splashing or (2) make bath time earlier and not part of bedtime. Since I love that she enjoys her bath so much, we opted for the second option. She now gets twenty plus minutes of light play after the bath to wind down. She’s adjusted to that part very well. That left the bed time routine at vitamin, night time milk, and story. Since that only last ten minutes, and the books say bed time routines should be 20 to 30 minutes, we’re adding in some lullaby and rocking cuddles. When I sing to her (which is so off key I’m surprised it doesn’t re-energize her to get away from mommy) I stroke her face. I’ve been doing this at nap time, so it’s nice nap time and bed time routines are becoming a little more similar.

So many variables when debugging baby behavior! I contemplated getting the baby connect app to track baby’s feeding and sleeping in the early days, but ultimately passed. We kept a log on paper for a few weeks, but didn’t end up needing it after that. It’s time we start again. We couldn’t remember when the difficulty sleeping started. Before teething? After teething? Has it been trending bad for a while? So I created a custom excel spreadsheet to track the variables I was interested in and show me trends. Time to put my data science skills to test.

I just have to keep reminding myself that she does have good nights. The last three months we’ve had bad weeks, but there are good weeks too. We will get back there again. This phase, too, shall pass.

February 12, 2013

Pregnancy/Newborn Shadowbox

I’ve been planning on doing this for a while, but only recently found Nicki’s hospital bracelet. Domingo and I have been in mad panic baby proofing/spring cleaning mode, and I needed somewhere to store the ribbon and bracelets so I wouldn’t lose them again.

shadowbox

Living in California, I know it’s only a matter of time before the “next big” earthquakes hits and all my shadow boxes hit the floor. That’s why it’s really important to me that anything irreplaceable (i.e. hospital bracelets, ribbon) is removable and completely undamaged by the mounting process.

  • I scanned the original ultrasound into the computer in order to enlarge it and increase the contrast. Since it’s a print, and not the original, I felt comfortable gluing it down.
  • I used photo corners to mountain my three hospital bracelets.
  • I was going to glue down the photos, but we were out of high quality photo paper. Since I’m the impatient sort that didn’t want to wait until morning, I used photo corners for the prints as well. I plan on replacing them with better quality prints at some point.

Nicki’s hospital bracelet was the biggest challenge. The wrist band was still in tact as it had slid off her the first night home, but the paper identifier itself was in poor shape. (Someone managed to poop on it in the hospital. It was cleaned, but the paper is loosing structural integrity) I couldn’t use photo corners since there were no corners. I also couldn’t use pins since genius me seemed to pick out the only non pin-board backed shadowbox at the store. So – and I fully admit, I don’t like this solution – I used scotch tape. I made a little donut and attached it to the back of the plastic connector. It’ll come off, but it might leave a little residue on the plastic.

I’m on the hunt for a better way to mount the bracelet.

I also need a better way to mount the ribbon. I’m going to look for hooks that I can use to hold the bow up. I thought about detaching the bow from the ribbon itself, but I really like the fact that it’s the same ribbon went all the way around my belly. I was once that big!

I have a spray sealant that I’m thinking of using to protect the tag on Nicki’s hospital bracelet. My plan is to try it out on a number of different paper sources first. The sealant label says it works with paper mâché, so I imagine it will work, but I would hate, hate, hate to be wrong.

February 8, 2013

Mom-tographer by the Numbers

I used to hate it when someone told me how much Nicki’s changed or how big she’s gotten. The words feel like a dagger to my mom-tographer heart who never feels like I’ve taken enough photos of Nicki. Yes, I take a ton of photos, but they’re typically the same photo with slightly different angles and I rely on my iPhone way too much. So a week or so so ago I decided to sit down and finally organize the photos I have, to see if my fears were justified. (Aside: nothing makes a mom-tographer panic like missing baby photos. I couldn’t find our Thanksgiving day photos for about 2 hours. Not fun.)

Formal Photos:

I had been thinking I only use my DSLR for formal photos. The good news is that’s not really true. I loosely defined formal photos are ones that I do against a back drop or involve some amount of setup other than moving clutter out of view (e.g. the newborn photos, the Christmas lights photo and the Halloween photo). I took 3532 non-formal and 5219 formal photos.

What about Duplicates?

Well, 2084 of those photos were newborn photos. About 3/5ths of those are sleeping baby photos and there’s only so many different sleeping baby photos one can take. There were 392 Nicki and Phia photos. In my defense, I wanted a canvas print, and I wanted to be sure I had a photo that would work. Canvas prints require a lot of white space and I wanted a large high-res print that was pushing the boundaries of my camera’s image size, so I needed to get the framing right. Cropping wouldn’t work.

I’ve also been working on Nicki’s baby book. Of the 1191 photos I’ve taken just for the book, I plan to use 6. That means I take an average of 199 photos in order to get ONE for the book. Again, I’m obsessed with perfection. In my defense, some of those photos were a lot harder than others, and some required many iterations to get something passable.

Informal Photos:

I take monthly photos of her to track her growth, and I’m pretty good about taking Holiday photos. But how do I do on an every day bases? For this analysis I’m only including non-holiday and non-event (like the day she was born).

nickiphotocounts
The number of informal photos I’ve taken of Nicki each month.

My initially thinking was that I wasn’t taking enough photos of Nicki when she was 2 and 3 months old, but as we can see, that’s not the case. I did pretty good for months 1 & 2 when I was on “Maternity Leave” from grad school over the summer. Month 3 was also pretty decent at 195 photos. For months 4 and 5 that would be 45 and 25 photos of Nicki the entire month. Most of those photos are also duplicates, so in month 5 I effectively only have 2 photos! On the other hand, Month 5 was our trip back east, and I took 406 informal photos at Christmas time. The ironic thing: I found two different set of Monthlies for five months. Maybe subconsciously I knew I wasn’t taking enough photos and forgot which ones I had already done?

The bump at month 6 is from the 52 week project. Looks like I just needed some motivation.

Overall:

The numbers work out to 17 non-formal and 25 formal photos a day from my DSLR. Whenever I feel like I’m not taking enough, I should remind myself of those numbers. Yes, they’re not all perfect, and yes there are duplicates, but that is still quite a bit. Do I wish there were more? Sure. But I don’t think having more would actually alleviate that desire. You can never have too many baby photos in my book!

Now that I’ve organized the photos a bit better, I can more easily go back and see what photos I do have. In the process of organizing my photos I also discovered some I had forgotten about.

superise

I always get so close to focus on the face, but sometimes it’s nice to step back and show scale. I can’t believe how tiny she was! She’s filling the rock n’ play these days!

My biggest wish, however, is that I could go back to the hospital. I took 54 photos of Nicki in the hospital. This is one time when I wish I had more duplicates!

Before Nicki was born I have been the sole photographer in the family. Domingo didn’t even know how to take off the lens cap (or, as he claimed, he knew how but didn’t want to for fear of accidentally damaging my camera.) Now we trade off, so we can have some mommy/daughter photos. Last night I handed Domingo my camera to take some photos of bath time in my never ending quest to have more photos of Nicki.

This was the fifth image on my camera.

bath
Simply amazing. Is that not the best photo of Nicki?

Those eyes are stunning, and just draw your attention into them. The way the baby’s face is perfectly in focus while everything else is slightly out of focus. The lighting, the composition, every aspect of the photo work so well together. The tender way her hand is reaching back to my arm… I mean WOW. It is just perfect.

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A close up of her face. I melt.

So how did he do it? How did he go from ‘where’s the shutter button?’ to taking breathtaking photo of Nicki in six months? Here are some tips if you, like us, have one photographer and one non photographer in the house.

Adjust The Camera Settings Yourself – This tip comes from a travel advice forum: If you want someone to take a photo with your camera, configure all the settings in advance. That way the good samaritan taking your photo only needs to push the shutter button and you get the photo you want. When I was drawing the bath I set f-stop, ISO, and shutter speed. That way, all Domingo had to worry about was point and click.

Show The Other Person What You Want – Take a couple similar photos and show the other person what it is you’re looking for. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what someone is asking for when you can see an example. Over the past few months I would take a photo with Domingo and the baby, then ask him to take a similar one with me and the baby. They photos would differ, of course. Maybe mine would have a tighter crop, or be angled differently. Gradually over time Domingo’s composition began to match mine.

Encourage The Other Person to be Trigger Happy – The key is lots of photos, lots of angles. One difference between a beginner photographer and an expert is the number of photos you take. Encourage the other person to experiment: take a few photos standing, try kneeling, maybe head on, next from the side. Digital memory is cheap and the best way to learn is with practice. There are no bad photos, but maybe lots of ‘practice’ ones!

Of course, when there’s a baby, there’s always an element of luck. Relax, there’s always another day.

I have to up my game or I might lose the job of family photographer!

February 1, 2013

Nicki at Seven Months

Dear Nicki,

I cannot believe you’re turning seven months old this month. Seven!!

Last month it amazed me how quickly you went from a wobbly little sitter to a pro. Now we’re seeing the same thing with standing. On a Wednesday mommy felt comfortable to let you hold on to the crib rail by yourself for the first time. You looked over the edge of the crib so timidly. By that Saturday you were balancing mostly by yourself, loving the fact that you could meet us eye to eye. You even try to stand up in the tub so you can have a better view of the kitty. I’m pretty sure we have a daredevil in the making. (You probably get that from your Aunt Emily).

standing
Time to lower the crib, mommy!

When you were just two months old we used to float you on your back in the tub singing ‘the good ship Nicki-pop’. You loved it, but after the introduction of bath toys, however, you were too interested in playing to float. All of a sudden you want to float again. You throw your head back giggling and laughing. You can’t get enough of the good ship Nicki-pop!

nickipop
The Good Ship Nicki-Pop sets sail

We’re thinking of getting a no-tangles shampoo for that insanely long baby hair of yours.

This past month was also the return to good sleeping. You are doing 10/11 hours in your crib easy. In fact, you were sleeping so well at night (and not at all for naps) that we felt comfortable moving you back to the rock n’ play for naptime. You’re doing a full 14-15 hours a day, which is right on track. It’s the first time that you’ve both napped well and slept well, even though we’re bucking the traditional wisdom that bedtime and naptime arrangements should be identical. (Clearly you haven’t been reading the same baby books as mommy.)

naptime
Mommy’s napping angel

You just recently started hugging. While sitting in my lap you’ll turn around with your arms out and bury yourself into me. It’s so adorable!

In news that I’m sure no adult reading this will believe, I’m really starting to think you’re saying ‘mama’ now. It started last month with you jabbering the ‘ma’ sound. There were one or two times when it sounded like you were calling out to me as I was leaving the room. But you’d say it as though you didn’t know how many ‘ma’s to put together to make a word. Now, I can count half a dozen times when you’ve screamed ‘mama’ with the right number of syllables when getting upset that I was leaving. You don’t say it at any other time, so you do seem to associate the word with me. I don’t know if you know I’m mama, or mama is a word to get to me stay.

We’re also pretty sure you recognize the word ‘Lily.’ When we say ‘Lily’ you always turn and look for your kitty. You are so enamored with her, but alas, your kitty does not return your affections.

Love always,
Mommy and Daddy