Archive for June, 2014

June 29, 2014

New Lens

I had been pinning for a new lens ever since I took my kit lenses to the zoo. I just wasn’t happy with the contrast and detail of the 55-200 zoom. As Nicki gets older, she sits still less and less. I love my primes, but a zoom is becoming a must to photograph a toddler.

I decided to replace my 55-200mm with two lenses: a midzoom/portrait 20ish-70ish lense, and a telezoom 70ish-200/300ish lens. The former covers the distance of my most use primes, and is the lens I expect to utilize the most these days where Nicki is never allowed to wonder that far. The later I expect to like more for things likes recitals and soccer practice. I can wait on that one.

The contenders for my new mid-range Zoom:

  1. Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 (~$450)
  2. Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 (~$1,000)
  3. Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 (~$600)
  4. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 (~$1,900)

Consumer research on the lenses:

The first lens has been in my “save for later” list on Amazon since before Nicki was born. I read a photography forum were all the moms raved about it for child photography. It lacks optical image stabilization, which could be a problem at the far end, so I also started considering the second Tamron on the list. While most of the reviews on the Tamron lenses were overwhelmingly positive, there were more than a few that complained about the auto focusing locking. Apparently when auto focus locks the only way to fix the lens is to detach and reattach it to the camera body. Given that my camera does not have it’s own focusing motor, I was worried that I would be more likely to encounter the locking problem.

The thinking behind considering the nearly $2k Nikon lens is it is one of the “pro lenses”. At that price, I probably won’t be buying anything else camera related for quite some time. Yet, I’d rather buy a top of the line lens that I will love throughout my photography career, than a marginally better lens every few years. In the long run, it’s got to be cheaper, right? The big issue with the Nikon 24-70mm is the weight. It’s nearly two lbs, twice the weight of any other lens I own.

The general rule of thumb that my photography friends tell me is that a lens with constant aperture over the zoom range (e.g. F/2.8) is usually better a quality lens. Then again, I’m trying to train myself not to rely on large aperture.

The third lens, Nikon 24-85 f/3.5-4.5, is actually a kit lens for the full frame (FX) camera models. I admit the fact that it’s a kit lens biased me against it from the start. It wasn’t until I realized my 18-55mm kit lens is also considered semi-pro (as indicated by the gold ring) that I started to lean towards it.

To compare image quality I tried a number of different sites: the digital picture, Ken Rockwell’s review and flickr. The digital picture review made the image seem terribly not sharp, though the sharpness was one of the the things Ken Rockwell raved about. There are also some gorgeous pictures on flickr.

The deciding factor:

A friend pointed out that the Nikon 24-85mm F/3.5-4.5 was available on Nikon’s website refurbished for a roughly $200 off. Yup, I’m cheaped out. At that price I was willing to take a risk.

The verdict:

The lens arrived Monday so this was the first weekend I was able to play with it. We took it out for water play in the park today. It was a hot, bright sunny day and I was exhausted out in the hot sun. I loved the ability to zoom and stay in the shade. The images were pretty sharp too.

Here’s a photo I took of Lily this evening: 1/30s, f/4.5, 28mm focal length, ISO 640.

Lily captured with my new lens
Resized, no other edits

Lily captured with my new lens
Cropped, no other edits

I’m happy with that. At 100% the fur around her eye is a little soft, but given the relatively slow shutter speed, I’m hardly surprised.

The lens is definitely capable of delivering at my current skill level.

June 26, 2014

Too Fast

I can not believe how fast time is flying this time around. Next week I will be twenty weeks pregnant. Twenty! How is that even possible? My anatomy scan is scheduled for Thursday and we’ll finally find out if Ziggy is a little boy or girl. My guess is boy, Daddy thinks girl. (Incidentally, mommy also thought Nicki was going to be a boy. So much for my mother’s intuition…)

Time is flying way, way too fast.

The big thing I need to get a handle on is the organizing. It’s starting to reach the daunting, I-don’t-want-to-do-it, but-I-know-I-have-to phase. Domingo and I are taking a full vacation day the day of the anatomy scan, Nicki is still going to school. That’ll give us 6ish hours to tackle things uninterrupted. Fingers crossed for some serious progress then.

Another item high on my to do list is to take out my camera more. I have taken hardly any DIY maternity photos this time around. Part of the problem is I don’t have a good spot. Last time most of my photos were taken in our home’s entrance way, which had great natural light, a bare wall, and a full length mirror. Our apartment has spots with natural light, and spots with full length mirrors, but none that are both. We also lack empty walls. Then again, maybe if I get a handle on the organizing and free up a photo spot.

Since we don’t have as many good natural light spots, I think it’s also beyond time for me to learn how to use my external flash. I want to be in tip top photography shape when the baby gets here. Days with a newborn can be so chaotic, I can only imagine it being how it will be with a toddler in tow. I regret how few photos I have from the first few months with Nicki. I want picking up the camera to be second nature.

Another thing I’d like to get a handle, though it’s too early to do it now, is freezer meals. We planned to do it last time, but I ran out of energy. With Nicki around making sure there’s an easy, nutritious meal available is even the more important. Given the time of year that Ziggy will be born we also want to reduce the exposure to germs, and thus the amount of trips outside, as much as possible. Newborn colds are not fun!

June 22, 2014

A Place for Every Thing

It feels like we’re unpacking/organizing at the rate of one box per day. At this rate it’ll be eleventy billion (slight exaggeration) years until we finish. I am determined to finish organizing everything this time. No more useless junk!

The biggest accomplishment of the weekend was organizing the tool box. We had a tool box filled to the brim, plus a small tin of tools Domingo brought from his apartment. We sorted everything, kept the best of anything we had duplicates of, and pitched anything that we couldn’t identify or was too warn to work well. Did you know we had a wrench? We didn’t! That’s one item off our Black Friday buy list. We also had 3 micro screw driver sets. Oops. We did correctly surmise that we are lacking a set of good, full size screw drivers. By the time we were finished with the tool box, everything we were keeping fit nicely into it, and we could actually close it without force for the first time since we bought it. Bonus: the most useful stuff is in the top try.

Organizing makes me happy. Yes, I’m weird.

Other areas we tackled (or at least have a game plan to tackle):

Nicole’s ‘Artwork.’ We’ve gotten a lot of stuff from daycare that includes hand prints and foot prints, and I want to save those as best as possible. Unfortunately they’re often bigger than standard 8 x 10 pages, and too big to fit in folders. I’m thinking about getting one a large art portfolios. It’s kind of over kill (and thus pricey), but it should protect those prints. It’ll also stand up flat, so I can store it in a closet. I also figure it will be able to hold a lot, so we should get many years of use out of it before needing another.

My sister (the artist in the family) recommended Itoya Original Art Profolios.

Nicole’s hair bows. If you had told me I would be the kind of mom with a collection of hair bows for my little girl, I probably would have burst out laughing. Hair bows on babies is not my thing. What I wasn’t counting on was a kid with so much hair! She goes through phases of what she tolerates, and hair accessories are apparently a popular gift idea when a little girl has a lot of hair. As a result we have quite the collection. The problem is they’re small, and they have a tendency to find there way behind furniture.

hair ties
Bows and ties and clips, on my!
It never fails: unpack/organize anything and the toddler wants to play with it.

For these I used a bead organizer. I used to be fairly into beading, and bought a bunch of these on sale back in the day. It was nice to be able to put one to good use!

What I have no idea what to do with:

My jewelry: Over the years my taste in jewelry has evolved somewhat. I used to be really into things like silver jewelry club and the $20 side of brands like peora where you could snag silver jewelry for next to nothing. Lately I’ve been more into Diamonique solitaries and the simpler Swarovski pendants. They’re inexpensive stones in delicate settings. The delicate settings helps to make the jewelry look more expensive than it actually is (in my opinion at least.) The problem is most of the chains are too delicate for a shoe box, yet I do not have the space for a jewelry box.

June 15, 2014

Screen Negative

I always knew I would be a ball of nerves throughout my first pregnancy. What if something bad happens? What if Zippy’s not ‘ok’? I figured I’d relax for all subsequent pregnancies. Sure there’s less time to think about all the things that can go wrong when chasing after a toddler. Turns out, however, when I’m alone with my thoughts I’m just as big a ball of nerves and what ifs?.

My big fear this time has been spina bifida.

The first time around I started taking prenatal for a full 3 months prior to trying to conceive. Since supplements are not the best way to get vitamins, I was also eating enough spinach to make Popeye jealous. It took longer than I anticipated conceiving Nicki, so there was plenty of time for the folate to build up in my system. Neural tube defects was one of the things I didn’t (excessively) worry about.

I started taking a prenatal again only a few weeks before we wanted to grow our family again. I figured we were looking at roughly the same time line to conceive, and would thus have time to build the folate back up in my system. I was wrong. And because life is more hectic these days, I was also occasionally forgetting to take my prenatal. There was one week in particular where my parents were visiting where I forgot the prenatal four or five days in a row. I was pretty beside myself when I realized that. I resolved to do better, and got one of those Sunday through Saturday pill boxes. Nothing makes you feel old like needing a pill box organizer, but at least it worked.

This Saturday I got our NT screen results. Negative for all things, including neural tube defects.


I was hoping to discover one go-to trick for toddler photography like I did for baby photography. Alas, I haven’t found one yet. My old trick? It doesn’t work as well these days. These days Nicki isn’t likely to sit still, unless there is a very enticing reason, like cookies.

Admiring the Tree
Nicki admiring the tree. Or is she? She was admiring the tree in much the same pose. I wanted to get a quick photo on my cell phone but kids these days seem to come with smart phone proximity detectors. As soon as I picked up my phone, she forgot about the tree. We faked it by having daddy hold up his cell phone next to the tree, and just off frame. That is what she is looking at. I am an instagram photo fraud.

I need a new strategy. Here’s what’s working for me these days.

Stay put, do not chase. This advice is easier to follow if you are photographing something that can easily be repeated, like swinging. Babies ‘first’ anything? Much harder.

I find if I chase after my toddler most of my photos are of the back of her head. If I’m moving around I’m constantly in a spot that would have made for a good photo a few minutes ago. If you stay on one spot, the action eventually comes to you. You’ll get five killer photos, instead of oodles of ho hum photos.

The spot I picked for the chocolate bunny photos ended up being pretty lame. I was getting very typical (read: boring) kid eating chocolate bunny photos. Then Nicki did something unexpected. She went from the sitting position to flat on her tummy and offered Mommy a bite of the bunny. The end result was pretty magical, even if the depth of field was too shallow for the close up.

Use the camera in no longer than five minute intervals. Nicki loves, loves, loves dress up. She’ll go through her dresser, find her super girl outfit and ask to wear it. Yesterday she asked to wear her swim suit to daycare. While she can be quite the little ham, she will get bored with it eventually. I find that the first five minutes are the best expression wise. Once we hit that point I usually put the camera down and enjoy the rest of our play time without it. No sense getting everyone frustrated with the camera, especially for photos were the smile is no longer as bright.

Putting the camera down also gives me a chance to regroup. I can go through my photos off line to try and figure out where we’re going wrong, and how I can plan to do better next time. (I benefit so much from the chance to do do-overs.)

Strive for fun first, photos second. This one is pretty much a no-brainer. If Nicki enjoys an activity, she’s likely to want to do it again and be just as excited for the activity, which means I’ll have more opportunities for additional photos in the future. Nicki is less likely to be as expressive or cooperate for those future photos if the activity ever becomes not fun. Thus we strive for fun first, and photos second.

Lately I’ve been taking photos of Nicki in the swing. If the swing slows down too much, Daddy gives her a good push, even if that means blocking my shot of her with his hand. No push means no smiles, which makes for a lame photo anyway.

The great purge of 2014 continues. Well, actually it’s more like the great purge of 2013 has continued into 2014, since we started purging in preparation for our move last year. I’m determined to get everything organized before Ziggy gets here, to make our lives easier when we move. Given that we’ve never had everything organized, and always had a junk closet of some kind, that means making up for the last decade of procrastinating in five and a half months.

Elmo Mat
Our former non-slip tub math

One of the items in the trash bag today: the Elmo non slip tub mat. The tub in our guest bathroom already has a non-slip coating, so the tub mat had nothing to stick to. We can’t use it here, and given the prevalence of non-slip bathtubs we probably wouldn’t be able to use it when we move.

Yet, I am torn about getting rid of it. It’s Elmo. Nicki loooves Elmo, or Moe-Moe as she calls him. She fell in love with the little red Muppet at daycare. A few days after she discovered Elmo, I pointed out the little Elmos on the tub mat. Even though we had been using it for months, it was like she was seeing it for the first time. With wide eyes she exclaimed “MO-MO!” (how she used to pronounce Elmo) and then proceeded to point to each and every Elmo on the mat. Her excitement went away after a few days. She didn’t seem to miss the Elmos when they disappeared. Still she once loved those little non slip Elmos.

It’s still really hard for me to get rid of anything, despite my best efforts. I develop sentimental attachments way too easily. The memory of Nicki discovering those Elmos is sweet, but now that I have it written down and the pictures, I no longer need the actual mat. At least that’s the theory.

To help make the call of what should be kept vs trashed or donated, Domingo and I started applying three criteria to anything we own that aren’t using now:

  1. Could I see myself putting it in a shadow box one day?
    With 18 years ahead of me to build up mementos, space is always going to be limited. Sure, there’s always the hypothetical garage/attack, but I think that’s better suited for objects the kids become sentimentally attached to. After all, I’m sure I’ll be sentimental about them too.
  2. Are we more likely to use it again in the future than not?
    The ‘more’ is key. Just about anything can be repurposed. Although, probably not a tubmat.
  3. Is it hard(ish) to replace?
    • Would I want the exact same one or maybe a different mat to go with the bathroom decor? A fish themed tubmat may be appreciated longer, and individual decals that can be spaced out more evenly may be more practical.
    • Would it be relatively inexpensive to replace it with another one? Even if I want the same one there are number of retailers who will sell it in the $10-15 range.

We decided to get rid of it a week ago and I’m just now working up the courage to follow through with that decision. Alas, I don’t think it’s going to get easier.

This morning I had a data scare. I was backing up my photos from the zoo when I noticed my laptop could no longer see my external hard drive. That happens from time to time, so I did what I always do – unplug the drive and plug it back in. Nada. Tried a different port. Nope. Tried all 4 usb ports. Still nothing. Tried unplugging the power supply and rebooting the computer. Negatory. At this point I was beginning to wonder if my external drive – the one local copy of all my photos – had bit the dust. Turns out I had managed to trip the power strip, so the drive wasn’t getting power despite being plugged in. Phew. The scare was that kick in the pants I needed to start thinking about that home data cloud again.

When I last blogged about our desire for a home data center, Domingo and I were thinking we needed a rather hefty server. We now realize that’s over kill. We thought we needed the horse power to run virtual machines (VMs), however, we can always use the server to store the VMs and run them locally on our laptops. Thus the “server” will basically be a glorified wireless file repository.

Our home cloud sketch
The new plan.

The idea is that the home data cloud will house all of our permanent, archival type files: media, photos, etc. Our laptop hard drives will be more like working directories. When I take the files off my camera, for example, I’ll save the unedited RAWs to the shared directory in the home cloud. I may open a few directly on my laptop to adjust the color balance, lightening, etc, and then save the finished versions back to the cloud shared directory. From a user perspective, it’ll be functionally just like using multiple folders on my computers. However, because I’m using the shared drive, Domingo can access any photo or media file he wants as well.

The purple lines show how we expect to need to manually transfer files. Mostly we’ll be pushing files to the home cloud, but occasionally pulling them down. The green lines show what’s managed automatically by crash plan – including backing up our laptop working directories, backing up the archival data to crash plans servers, and creating local mirrors of all our data (effectively raid 1). As mentioned before, crash plan data servers are expensive to recover from and a “worse case scenario” type option, e.g. fire and earthquake. Mirroring gives us chance to recover from the more typical hard drive crash without having to pay that price.

The new game plan means we can cobble together our home data cloud with existing hardware and not spend a single penny.

Today I setup the 9 year old server (unix) and my 4 or 5 year old laptop with the dead battery and flaky AC adapter (windows). I then started the tedious process of transferring the files from each unix external drive, connected to the unix server, to a windows drive connected to the windows server. When it’s all finished, I will reformat the unix external drives and the server. By giving the server a fresh copy of a modern operating system it will be much less vulnerable to malware. We’ll have about 8 TB of disk space, more than enough space for multiple copies of everything. The windows laptop will be officially retired and sent off to an e-waste recycling center.

The process is going to take a while. The server only supports USB 2.0 or 280 Mbit/s. USB 3.1 can support 10 Gbit/s, which makes it roughly 36 times faster. Domingo keeps reminding me that we can get a desktop with USB 3.1 ports for sub $300, but given that it’s not my main computer that’s slowly churning away, I think I’ll just let the process crawl along. Our files are small enough that I doubt we’ll notice a difference in speed when using the file server anyway.