Archive for December, 2013

Disclosure: This blog post contains Amazon affiliate links. I may earn a small commission with each affiliate link click. For more details please see my full disclosure about blog profit.

This has been one of my most ambitious photography projects, and also one of the hardest secrets to keep. Now that each of the grandparents have received their baby book Christmas gift, I wanted to share this project with you!

For Nicole’s baby book we purchased a 24 page photo book, using 12 whole page images.

1 Month

2 Months

3 Months

4 Months

5 Months

6 Months

7 Months

8 Months

9 Months

10 Months

11 Months

12 Months

I had been reading a fair number of ‘mommy blogs’ when I was pregnant with Nicole, and wanted to do an age progression baby book. I thought I’d be different and use baby blocks instead of the typical tummy stickers. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen anyone else use baby blocks before. It seemed like such an obvious idea. Turns out there’s a reason the stickers are so popular. The first couple of months with the blocks were easy, but once she realized she could reach those blocks, everything got a whole lot harder.

My intention was for each month to represent a different milestone: smiling, sitting, clapping, first tooth, etc. I also had this grand vision of the baby blocks neatly aligned, a big smile on Nicole’s face as she looked straight into the camera. Ahh Naive Sarah, so Naive.

Lessons Learned:

  1. While cute in concept, the milestone idea was the most difficult aspect to execute. I gave up at seven months. I was having too hard coming up with milestone ideas, and an even harder time convincing Nicki to show off the desired milestones. Instead I repeating some poses (on her back for 2 & 8 month photos, on her tummy for 3 & 9). It worked out for the better. I think the repeated posses really emphasized how much she had changed. I only wish I had given up on the milestone idea sooner. Her five month milestone is holding a block, but in reality she was able to hold much sooner, and the 5 month photo feels so different because of it.
  2. Variety is key. Once I’d given up on the milestone idea, I started doing multiple different posses each month: sitting, lying down, to the left of the blocks, right, etc. This gave me more flexibility, so if the only good 9 month photo was of her lying down, I could use her 8 month sitting photo and not have the same pose back to back.
  3. Consistency is hard (and it’s noticeable when things aren’t consistent.) I accidentally used a different lens on month 6, and with the difficult winter lighting the photo looks different from the rest. Even with the same lens and same camera body, the camera settings will need to change. As Nicki grews and became more mobile, the depth of field necessary to keep her in focus as well as the shutter speed needed to freeze the motion changed. Add the changing lighting conditions and it’s easy for photos to start having minor differences in the amount of shadow, brightness, etc. Next time I plan to print out the previous month’s photos so I can immediately compare them with the current set. I hope that makes it easier to achieve a consistent look.
  4. Photo editing can save your sanity. A number of the above photos were off center, or had the backdrop edge in the photo. Hey, it’s HARD to get everything lined up perfectly with a squirmy child! For the 10 month old photo she’s staring right at the camera and smiling. It was the only one where she was in focus, smiling at the camera. The problem? Almost half that background wasn’t a backdrop at all. I ended up shooting at a slightly different angle than anticipated and the backdrop wasn’t wide enough. Indeed the raw photo contains the door and some of the hall way. Since retaking the photo isn’t always a practical idea (go ahead, try and ask a ten month old to pose the same way again), it’s worth spending a little time learning how to clone the background and fix those minor issues.

Material Costs
Uncle Goose ABC Blocks: $30
Extra block(s), one block was damaged due to teething, and we needed an extra letter: $4

Total costs: $34

December 24, 2013

A Very Merry Christmas

christmastree
The Tree, before the arrival of Santa and Grandparents

This is a very special year for us. Domingo and I are hosting Christmas, for the first time, and having both sets of Grandparents. It’s the first Christmas in our new place, and the first time my parents will see our new place (and wouldn’t you know there’s still some boxes left to unpack). In a lot of ways, it feels like our first Christmas with Nicki. That’s not true, of course.

Nicki has grown so much in the last year, as babies and toddlers are wont to do. Her level of understanding these days is amazing. She adores the tree, and presents (although right now it’s more the sparkly paper that holds her interests). Add four grandparents and a Christmas cookie or two into the mix and you have a recipe for one very happy little girl!

Since she didn’t really understand last year and we were traveling, we gave her her Christmas gift early (the jumperoo!). This year Santa is giving her a gift (the play kitchen), and Mommy and daddy are giving her a gift (the Hallmark Wacky Doodle Dandy Duck, a toy duck that sings and dances the chicken dance) to unwrap under the tree. She is also getting a stocking from Santa. I am particularly excited about the duck. Daycare has another one, which Nicki adored. She insisted on having it every morning and would bop up and down doing the toddler dance as it sang. Then it broke and stopped singing and dancing. She still hugs it and asks to hold it every day when I drop her off, but it’s not the same level of excitement. I am so excited to give her one that sings and dances.

The Christmas season flew by so fast. There are so many things I didn’t get a chance to do, like make cinnamon rolls. Time is moving just to quickly these days.

December 19, 2013

Backup Update

Every photo of Nicki I have taken from my DSLR has been backed-up to the cloud. Almost 600 Gigs worth, now safe from fire, theft and earthquake.

About a month ago I began backing up using Crashplan, the benefit being cloud storage, the drawback is that I’m rate limited in my upload by my ISP. Or at least, so I thought.

I keep two copies of each of my photos these days, one stored in a relatively flat directory structure that mimics the one the camera generates with directory names like 100DS5100, 101DS5100, etc, and another that’s more hierarchical and easier for me to navigate with directory names likes ‘Holidays/Christmas 2013’. The latter makes it easier to find something, but the former ensures I won’t accidentally override my only copy of something when reorganizing my files. It has happened more often than I care to admit. This tuns my 600 Gigs worth of data to 1200 Gigs of raw storage.

Since Crashplan is supposed to be smart about storing only one copy of a file, even if you have multiple copies, it’s reasonable to assume they don’t upload the full file if they detect a duplicate. I wasn’t sure if the “uploaded bytes” was the number of bytes sent across the wire, or the size of the effective directory that was backed up. Thus I decided to hunt down my ISPs data usage meter to see how much I was using to be sure I used all that I was entitled to. I couldn’t find it, however. All links that purported to be for the usage meter lead to dead pages. Instead I found a press release that the cap had been lifted and that they were testing “alternatives”. My ISP didn’t specify what the new cap was, nor did they provide any means to monitor my usage myself. The press release said they would contact “excessive users” so I decided to take them at their word.

I let Crashplan loose, so to speak, and checked our email daily for unhappy letters from our ISP. Six hundred GBs later, and still no complaint (although our upload transfer has slowed down to a crawl.)

The next step is going to be to back up the rest of my photos (including my iPhone photos), followed by the rest of my files and Domingo’s files. At the current rate we could be fully backed up in the cloud by the end of January!

In our newborn care class we were instructed not to shampoo our baby in the first few weeks, to only use water. Shampoos can be abrasive on newborn delicate skin, besides newborns aren’t supposed to get very dirty. Nicki, however, was born with a full head of hair. Hair gets oily after a few days of not washing it, whether on a newborn or a full grown adult. After a few days it was quite obvious that we were sticking to the no-shampoo rule. In retrospect it was probably silly for us to have stuck so firmly to the rule. In the hospital they cleaned her with diluted soapy water right after she was born. Certainty we could have done the same on an as needed bases. But we didn’t.

I wanted to use a nine day old photo for her birth announcement, but the awkward teenager with oily hair inside me cringed. So I decided to see if there was anything that can be done in post processing to reduce the shine. Short answer: not really. You need mad fat skills to fix that level of hair problem. Still, I found a solution that kinda sorta worked. Shortly there after we started using shampoo.

Then last night I captured this.

nickidaddy
Nicki hugging her daddy, looking at the Christmas tree.

I love it. It’s one of those moments that’s hard to manufacture. The photo was taken post bath. We pat Nicki’s hair dry, and let it air dry the rest of the way. I hadn’t gotten around to combing it yet, hence it’s still a little on the straggly side. The photo reminded me of her birth announcement photo, and decided to take another crack at smoothing her hair in post processing.

The goal is to reduce the contrast in the hair, without losing the texture. Thus the smoothing brush won’t work (it destroys the texture). The dodge (lightening) and burn (darkening) tools are risky and can make things worse. So instead I used the cloning brush.

Start by creating a second layer. I cloned her hair from the original image into the second layer. The intent is for the hair to be in a slightly different spot, so that it’s flowing in the same direction and the highlights in the hair from one layer are over/under the shadows in another. The new image should look very similar to the original.

nickidaddysidebyside
The side by side. Left original, right with the clone. The difference I hardly noticeable, even side by side.

Next I reduce the opacity of the second layer to about 40-50%. If the cloned region is in good spot, the texture remains the same, but the overall lightness/darkness is more even. This gives the appearance of slightly smoother hair. As a final touch I use the eraser and touch up the edges of the cloned layer so they’re not noticeable.

Don’t worry about light region over top of a light region, or dark over top of dark. Since we’re merging two layers, rather than using the dodge/burn brush, the extremes won’t become more extreme. If it still doesn’t look even enough you can always try adding an additional cloned layer. I recommend not merging the layers together until the very end, and always clone from the original image.

nickidaddyfixed
Fixed.

The difference is hardly noticeable. It’s not perfect, but it is better and far easier than trying to capture the same moment again.

December 12, 2013

Holiday Card Dilemma

The problem with being a data miner is that you become obsessed with finding patterns. Perhaps it’s my analytically nature, or my pension for order but it drives me batty when there’s a pattern that doesn’t carry through to all the elements in a set. Once I see a broken pattern, I cannot not see it. The element that doesn’t match the pattern sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s like an itch in the middle of my back I can’t scratch.

I have been working on our Christmas card. It’s the 5th year that we’re doing one. As you can imagine, with just four cards already done there’s going to be some similarities (and differences) between them.

DIY Layout (4 out of 4 cards) – I love the fact that I have designed all our holiday cards. I was particularly proud of last year’s (although last year’s family photo was my favorite). I’ve learned a lot about graphical editing in the process of doing these cards, skills I’ve also applied to photo editing. My only quibble is the 2009 and 2010 layouts are pretty similar.
Different Colors (4) – The primary color on our 2009 card was green, our 2010 was blue, 2011 was red and 2012 was white.
DIY Photos (3) – Using one of my photos has also been a source of pride, but one of the 3 photos on our 2010 holiday card was a professional wedding photo.
Family Photo (3) – I figure anyone with a blood relation is going to be most interested in seeing Nicole on the card, but since we do send it to work friends, and old high school friends it makes sense to include our photos as well. After all, I go by my maiden name, Tyler, at work, and use my husband’s name on the family card. I wouldn’t want someone wondering who this ‘Colón’ family is upon receiving our card.
Our Family Name/Family Website (3) – Since 2010 I’ve always signed our card ‘The Colón Family’ with a link to our family website. A website that is sorely in need of updating, but I digress.
Lily (2) – Lily was our original baby. She’s since been demoted back to pet status, at least as far as our holiday card is concerned. Fear not, she prefers it this way as it means she no longer has to wear the silly Christmas hats, nor chased around with my camera.

Alas, I am going to have to break some of these patterns.

The only unique primary colors I could come up with that fit the bill is gold, and my graphical knowledge foo just isn’t that strong. I am leaning towards at least a different green, but still a green.

DIY Photos and a Family Photo are two points that are at odds. It can pretty hard to get a decent family photo when using a tripod and remote. In fact, I’m not really happy with our 2012 Family photo, but babies don’t smile too well for tripods. I’m debating about splitting up the family photo. Instead of one photo of the three of us, I’ll have one of Nicki and I and one of Domingo and I. I’d much rather have the whole family in a single family, but that might be asking too much right now.

I am being neurotic and hyper critical again, aren’t I?

For the curious, here are prior years’ Christmas Cards

December 8, 2013

Milk and Cookies by the Tree

milkandcookies
What do you mean “Santa’s?”

I’ve loved the idea of a milk and cookies in front of the Christmas tree photo ever since coming across this photo. I think these were some of Nicki’s favorite photos too, for obvious reasons. I’ve been trying to do more of these kinds of photos, technically formal in the sense that I planned the photo right down to the Christmas PJs and pig tails, but the could have been spontaneous. So far my strategy is to set the scene, typically during nap time, and let her do her own thing.

We have never given her sugar cookies before. Outside her birthday party and cake smash, we have never given her frosting. Me thinks someone has had frosted sugar cookies at day care because she knew just what to do with those cookies! Frosting first! And, oh boy, did she attack the frosting. It went everywhere! You can’t really see it in the small photo above, but she actually has green frosting over her left eye brow.

I can’t get over how big she’s getting. It seems like just last weekend she was my bitty baby, and now she’s a little girl. It all goes by way to fast.

Material Costs
Cookies – Target ($3? Domingo bought them when he was at the store.)
PJs – Target pre black friday sale ($10).

Total Cost: ~$13

milkandcookiestaketwo
Take 2, two weeks later (12/22) with the presents and stockings. Mommy does better with practice, and Nicki doesn’t mind obliging mommy. Add another $3 for more cookies, but totally worth it.
December 7, 2013

Black Friday Addendum

Disclosure: This blog post contains Amazon affiliate links. I may earn a small commission with each affiliate link click. For more details please see my full disclosure about blog profit.

My order of the Step 2 LifeStyle Dream Kitchen was still on hold as yesterday, so Domingo and I decided to go ahead and cancel it. It didn’t seem likely to arrive on time, and our second choice of play kitchens (the LifeStyle Custom Kitchen) was on sale on Amazon. It’s a good price (the same price that I got the bigger Dream Kitchen, actually) and comes with free shipping which the Dream Kitchen did not. Not as good a deal overall, but still a good deal.

The Cottage arrived earlier than expected. Domingo and I had just gotten Nicki down for bed when the doorbell rang at 8 pm. The thing was huge, nearly as tall as our Christmas tree! We were debating about saving it for Christmas and setting it up early, that is, until we saw the box. I wanted Nicki to have a ‘big present’ under the tree, but not one the size of the tree! I was beginning to feel like we had gone waaaaaay overboard this holiday season.

This morning I set it up outside while Domingo watched Nicki. Actually, I set it up around them, working on the pieces they weren’t playing with. At one point Domingo had both side walls standing up with the windows open and Nicki was crawling through them and running around in circles. Even though all the pieces are laying flat in the box to conserve space, the assembled cottage didn’t seem nearly as obnoxiously big as the box. It fit nicely on our patio, with plenty of room to spare. Nicki has been tickled pink with it. In, out. Open, closed. Around again. She keeps asking to go back outside.

I think the cottage is going to win as my favorite black Friday purchase yet. With the park 15 to 20 minutes away, there are times when we’d like to get Nicki outside to run around, but just don’t have the time before we have to start dinner, or be some place. Now we can let her play outside and burn off all that crazy toddler energy.

Though not a Black Friday purchase, I’m also in love with my Dyson Slim. I bought it in October right after we moved and shortly before finding out it was going to be a Black Friday sale item. Normally missing out on a deal sours me a little on a product, but the slim is so cool I can forgive the universe for this one. I love how versatile and maneuverable it is, and have taken to holding it ‘gangsta style’ with the handle horizontal simply because I can. We got it so we wouldn’t have to bend over cleaning up all the spilled kitty litter with the hand vac, but it’s proving to be quite effective near a certain toddler’s high chair. I know, I know – I’m a mom, with a blog, who loves a vacuum. I’m a cliche.

December 1, 2013

Black Friday 2013 Recap

Disclosure: This blog post contains Amazon affiliate links. I may earn a small commission with each affiliate link click. For more details please see my full disclosure about blog profit.

Another Black Friday has come and gone. Much like last year most of my shopping was done online. The major difference this time around was more than half of it occurred before the Turkey even came out of the refrigerator, and it was one of our best years to date with an average saving of 48%! That is, assuming none of our purchases fall through. I’ll get to that.

Thanksgiving morning I got up with Nicki to give Domingo a chance to get a little more sleep. While she was eating breakfast I decided to check the websites of some of the stores whose deals we were hoping to snag, to see if any of the deals were live yet. The Step 2 Cottage was already on sale on Toys R Us matched by Amazon, as was another item Domingo wanted to get his father for Christmas. (Actually Amazon’s deal for Domingo’s dad’s gift was a few dollars cheaper on Amazon, a happy surprise.) In my cart both went. That’s my kind of shopping: in the comfort of my own home, at a leisurely pace, exactly what I wanted at the price point I wanted.

Alas, the Step 2 Kitchen, was not available online from Toys R Us, nor price matched on Amazon. I figured I would wait until 5pm eastern standard time (the time Toys R Us was opening it’s doors on the East coast) to see if Amazon would price match then. Nada. Okay, 5pm our time. Still nope. I was bummed, but hopeful for a surprise lightening deal.

I continued to monitor Toys R Us and Amazon’s websites throughout the day and Friday. To my surprise Friday morning the kitchen was suddenly available for shipping. In the shopping cart it went. While in the middle of the check out, right after supplying my credit card information, I suddenly found myself viewing my cart. I was confused. Did I click the wrong thing? Did I finished checking out? The kitchen was still in my cart, and I hadn’t received a confirmation number so I decided to try again. The checkout process failed at the same place the second time, with the kitchen still in my cart. The third time I tried to check out I was told my purchase couldn’t be completed because my cart was empty. I went back to the search page, but the kitchen was now listed as sold out. I was very bummed. Eight hours later the kitchen was once again available for shipping. This time, on the second try, I was able to confirm the purchase and received an order confirmation number, but an hour later I received an email saying there was a problem fulfilling my order. The kitchen is back ordered.

I am questing whether my order will be fulfilled in time for Christmas. My experience on toysrus.com reminds me of the bestbuy.com website glitches of 2011. BestBuy’s front end website had no notion of how much inventory was still available, and too many orders went through. BestBuy was ultimately unable to fulfill all those orders, and had to cancel someone of them. The constant fluctuations between in and out of stock could be due to a similar inventory accounting problem. Maybe my order kept failing because there wasn’t a product in stock to buy? Toys R Us’ original estimated delivery date was mid December. While my order isn’t canceled, I no longer have an estimated shipment date, and there’s not a lot of slack time between mid December and Christmas.

I am trying not to be too pessimistic. Domingo pointed out that the BestBuy shoppers had no idea there was a problem with their orders until a few days before Christmas because BestBuy had no idea there was a problem with the orders. This isn’t the case here, as I have already received an email from Toys R Us letting me know of the delay. From Twitter and Facebook it sounds like I wasn’t the only one this happened to, and some other folks had their orders out right canceled. Toys R Us didn’t cancel my order, which likely means they think they can fulfill it.

Fingers crossed.

Anyway, here’s what worked for us this time around:

Checking Early if the Deal was Live – For stores with a physical presence “Thursday, midnight!” corresponds to a single, specific time. A website, on the other hand, could have a physical presence in multiple time zones and receive visitors from all over the world. Do they mean Thursday according to where the website servers are located (which could be anywhere in the world and even multiple locations)? The company headquarters? The potential shoppers?

In the past two years I’ve found many retailers have soft start times, and the kind folks answering the help lines often don’t know exactly when the sales start. We discovered some deals went live when it was Thursday in Europe & Asia, but still Wednesday here in the US.

Keeping Multiple Tabs For Easy Deal Checking – I kept a tab open for each product/retailer combination I was considering. I had the play kitchen opened on Amazon’s website, Toys R Us, and Target. Periodically I’d refresh each page to see what the current offer price was. I found this worked better than price alerts websites which are usually restricted from crawling merchant websites too often.