Posts Tagged ‘Do It Yourself’

December 6, 2017

First Time Charm

My best photo shoot is usually my third. Unless it’s something I’m shooting on a regular basis, I usually take a few iterations to figure out the best settings to lessen the chances of unintentional blur (both depth of field related, camera shake and motion). So when I decided to try a modified low key maternity photo in front of the Christmas tree, I was pretty stoked to get this on my first attempt.

ISO 5000
F/36 (to produce the star light effect)
2 Second Shutter Speed

It was a difficult shot. I’m kneeling so my bump is against to the widest part of the tree (you can see the floor in the background to the right.) I had troubles sitting still for so long, and ended up leaning against Alexis’ training potty so I could hold my position better. Even still there’s a bit of noise, but it’s not horrible. Given the difficulty of the shot, I think the end result was rather impressive. I was using normal noise reduction, and could experiment with pushing it to the max. If I used a star filter (something I didn’t yet own) I could create the stars with a wider aperture and not rely on such a high ISO setting or long shutter speed. If this is what I got when I didn’t quite know what I was doing, imagine what I could get with a little work!

All other attempts have been flops.

The stars created with a small aperture are small and dense with 14 rays that don’t stretch very far from the point light. The star filter set I purchased produce a maximum 10 rays. I was hoping there wouldn’t be much of a difference between 10 and 14 rays, but the 10 rays looked mighty thin compared to the 14 rays. Adding insult to injury, the greater the difference in contrast between point light to the rest of the photo, the longer the rays. The end result? Long streaks of light that didn’t really look like stars stretching across most of the photo. The darker the photo, like these low key setups, the worse the filter stars looked.

With star filter

Results with increased noise reduction were ok, but not remarkably better.

Sadly for me and my perfectionist tendencies, the further along I get in this pregnancy the less energy I have to try for better photos. I’m also getting impatient with the still yet untrimmed tree (I worry the ornaments will detract from the photo) so I decided to declare this photo attempt done after five tries. I did take a back up shot with an increased the aperture (bye bye pretty point light stars) which at least doesn’t suffer from noise or blur. I’m convinced that somewhere out there is a program that can add stars to point lights after the fact. If it doesn’t exist now, I’m sure it will at some point.

In the mean time, I ran my best photo (above) through every single photo manipulation app on my phone. Here are my two favorite results.

The first is from an app called Camera+ using the faded filter. I love the nearly black and white look with the stars supplying little bursts of color. The color tone is a nice touch as well.

Next up is Prism with the Curly Hair style. It’s another mostly black and white image, this one looks almost like a drawing.

Tomorrow while the kids are at school I plan to trim the tree while blasting Christmas music. My goal: be done with my to-do list early enough that I can relax the week leading up to Christmas and get plenty of sleep before the chaos that is Christmas morning. I did it before, I can do it again!

November 10, 2017

Low Key Maternity Photography

How can I possibly be 32 weeks already? It suddenly dawned on me that despite approaching the midway point in the third trimester, the only “bump” photos I have are a handful of bathroom selfies at 8 weeks when I couldn’t believe I was already showing. I needed to fix that, and I waned to challenge myself to try at something different.

Low key photos are low light, mostly dark photos that emphasize shadow and shape. I tried to do low-key bump portraits while pregnant with Alexis, but couldn’t master the light. I’ve experimented with dark background, spotlight photos before using a desk/craft light, but the craft light wasn’t strong enough to take photos of a larger subject (like my bump.)

This time around I decided to get a long, skinny adjustable craft light since I can almost always use more high quality desk lamps. I settled on TaoTronics LED Desk Lamp since it allowed me to adjust both brightness & color temperature. As an added bonus, TaoTronics had a newer model so the one I purchased was on the cheaper side. As long as it’s a bright white light and the right narrow shape, any lamp will do. To further control the light I cut up the Amazon box it shipped in and made cardboard flaps. I taped a flap to each side of the lamp, to focus the light so it wouldn’t illuminate the wall behind me.

As a general rule of thumb the darker the photo, the more visible the ISO noise. To make this photo work I had to shot at a very low ISO setting, which means a longer exposure time. Unfortunately, unlike my previous spotlight attempts I needed to shot with the room dark. The larger the subject, the further back the craft light needs to be. The further back the craft light, the less bright the light is when it reaches the subject. I shot the above photo ISO 100, f/5, 1/13 a second. Normally I’m comfortable shooting at ISO 1000, but it was just too much noise.
The above photo is pushing the boundaries of what my 5 year old camera can do.

If you want to attempt a similar photo, here are my tips:
– Where light color, possibly skin toned clothes. I tried this in a dark sweater and everything other than my hands all but disappeared.
– Use a Lower ISO settings to avoid noise. I know I said that before, but this is one instance where a little noise can really ruin your photo.
– Adjust the cardboard flaps (you can use masking tape at the tops and the bottoms) to control how narrow or wide the light beam is.

November 15, 2014

Half Naked Maternity Photos

Showing off the 39 week baby bump. I used the ios app Waterlogue to give it the effect of a water color painting, and to hopefully make the photo less objectionable to anyone out there who may object to half naked photos.

A little over two months ago I managed to take a pants-less maternity photo. It wasn’t intentional. I wanted to avoid the ugly full panel waste line in my photo so I opted to only wear an oversized sweater. I was using a camera tripod at the time, so I couldn’t see how I was framed before the photo, and ended up with a little bare leg. I loved it. There was something about showing a little skin that made me feel beautiful again, the kind of feeling I hadn’t really had since my last pregnancy.

39% of the maternity photos I’ve taken this time around have been sans pants.

I kept wondering what is it about being pantsless that made me feel better about my figure? If I’m pantsless you do get more of a sense of my figure. I’ve recommended form fitting clothes for maternity photography before. A while back I had read that women who gain a little weight tend to want to hide it with baggy clothes. But baggy hides all curves, which can actually give the illusion that you’re bigger than you actually are. I found that if I wore a t-shirt, it would hang off my chest or bump. You couldn’t always tell it was a baby bump under there. Coupled with baggy pants and you had no idea how big my hips and thighs were. Sometimes I just looked large. If I went sans pants in a photo, my legs looked really skinny beneath the giant belly. Or so I think, anyway.

I also found it somewhat empowering to show a little skin. I may be pregnant and have gained a bit of weight this time, but I’m still owning my figure. Confidence tends to photograph well.

The more I think about it the more it makes me a little sad that there’s such a stigma against taking even partially nude photos, even where you cannot see anything. There always seems to be the assumption that the intention is to take them for other people, to show off, or get the ‘wrong’ kind of attention. The photos I took made me feel great about myself at a time when I was otherwise self conscious. I have no intention of sharing any of them, besides the example above that has been significantly altered from it’s original form. I wouldn’t want anyone pressured out of taking a photo like this any more than I would want someone pressured into it. If your comfortable with it, and it will make you happy, go for it!

October 28, 2014

Maternity Silhouettes

In just two days I will be term, which means we’re rapidly coming to an end of the maternity photography window. Lack of free time and energy kept me away from my camera this time around, so I have fewer maternity photos, and definitely less variety. On the other hand, I’ve gotten much better with my camera. It takes me less practice shots to get some nice ones.

I really enjoyed doing silhouettes this time around, which is interesting given I was less pleased with my overall figure.


Cloned out the blinds in this one.

Paying close attention to posture really helps with these. Slouching, even just a tad, made the photo look frumpy. I even started stretching as much as possible to elongate my torso and smooth out some of the *aheam* less baby related bumps.

A near duplicate of last week’s photo, but with less of a clubbed hand holding the remote.

The other thing I learned to pay close attention to was my metering. If I did matrix metering the camera would select the most well rounded exposure where the view out the window wasn’t getting blown out. Alas that meant I was very dark, and most of the detail, especially the detail in my face, was lost. Of course the goal is to photograph myself and my baby bump, not the traffic behind me. I started with spot exposure and increased it as necessary. (See, I am learning! Last time I just strived for over exposure, this time I didn’t sacrifice depth of field to do it!)

I wanted to do a photo like this. It strikes me as the photographic equivalent of a bump cast. Alas, I do not have barn doors lighting. I thought I could kludge together a solution using the spotlight trick. My thinking was to create a large differential in light between two rooms, then open the door just a crack to let a sliver of light spill out. So far no luck. Turns out professional photographers tend to buy expensive gear for a reason.

September 4, 2014

First Aid Kit

A while ago Domingo and I started discussing the need for a first aid kit. Our toddler is constantly coming home from daycare with “owies” and since getting her her first tricycle a few weeks ago, we’re sure she’ll start getting more “owies” at home too! I don’t like the idea of prefabbed kits. I wanted to put together my own.


The Box:

I ordered the Stack-On SBR-18 17 Compartment Parts Storage Organizer Box from Amazon for $6.77. Like with the battery box, I wanted something with removable partitions so I could more easily customize it with the first aid supplies we needed. I also wanted something red, because, well, it’s a first aid kit.

The box was a bit bigger than I expected, which ended up being a good thing. Just packing the things we already had around the house (band-aids, a plastic squirt bottle to wash out scrapes, Neosporin, anti-itch cream, antiseptic wipes, medical tape, and ace bandages) the box ended up pretty full! I intend to aid Bactine, and gauze pads. I’m sure the SBR-13 at $2.96 would have worked out as well. My primary goal was to store band-aids, Neosporin and Bactine. Everything else was a nice extra.

I am not pre filling the squirt bottle. I don’t want to let the water sit and risk growing bacteria – that would defeat the purpose of washing out the wound in the first place! We do have a bottled water on hand, as recommended by the red cross, since we live in earthquake country.

The Bag:

The bag is actually the plastic bag that held the waterproof mattress cover for Nicki’s new twin bed. I rarely discard resealable plastic bags items tend to ship in. You never know what will come in handy! Right now the bag that had my boppy pregnancy pillow is being used to store canvas tote bags, and I have the stuffed animals from my childhood in the big square bag that the foam tiles came in. This bag is just the right size for some instant hot and cold packs, and some additional water squirt bottles.

I’m not 100% sure that keeping the instant hot pad is a good idea, and I may remove it at some point. I don’t believe it can melt the plastic bag. (It shouldn’t get hot enough to burn skin – right?!) Use caution if you decide to store an instant hot pad.

To finish it off I used red Washi tape ($2.99 from Target) to make the iconic health cross symbol.

Dr. Mommy’s Owie Stickers

After creating our initial first aid kit I kept coming back to the band-aids. I liked the idea of having a fun collection of band-aids for Nicole to pick through. Her owies typically aren’t too sever, so if I can distract her from them (like by offering her fun “owie stickers”), I’m sure she’ll forget about the actual owie.

While the band-aids themselves may have interesting designs, the wraping they’re stored was plain and not see through. That takes all the fun our of picking a band-aide! So I needed to keep the box so she’d have some idea which band-aide she was choosing from. I decided I needed yet a third box and went with this card storage box. At $5.52 it felt a bit pricey, but it got the job done nicely.

August 18, 2014

Battery Storage Box

battery storage box
Battery Storage Box

I’ve been in love with this idea since I saw it on pinterest: A box with removable compartment dividers to store all your batteries. I had previously looked into buying battery boxes off of amazon or the container store, but they were all fixed sizes boxes. If I was running low on C batteries, that space would be wasted. We also had some non standard batteries for toys & camera equipment that I wanted to accommodate.

Every website I saw that described this particular image referred to the box as a “tackle box”. The box they used may have been a tackle box, but I spent enough time in JoAnn’s and Micheal’s to know a standard craft box would suffice. For the kinds of batteries we have, we needed something roughly 2.5 inches tall (About the size of a standing D battery 2.5 inches). I settled on the Creative Options brand, “deep utility box“. Regularly $8.99 on sale for $5.39 at Micheal’s. Online prices for the box are rather ridiculous. I recommend visiting your local craft stores and seeing what they have. If you don’t have a local craft store, you might have luck at a office supply store, Target or Walmart. Just make sure what ever box you do get is tall enough for your batteries, or at least has wide enough compartments for them to lie flat.

battery storage box

This particular box has three rows, the first row (closest to the latches) cannot be compartmentalized. I’m using that space to house the extra dividers and odd shaped batteries.

I had thought we had a ton of AA batteries. A while back when we had a Costco membership (6? 7? years ago) we bought one of those mega packs. Turns out we’re down to our last seven! I thought we also had AAA batteries. It wasn’t until I was putting together the box that I had a vague recollection of maybe using the last ones on a toy. Now I know what I need to stock up on so hopefully we won’t be caught off guard again!

battery storage box
Nicole investigating the box

Another big win? It’s defacto child proof. Or at least more baby proofed than the previous method of leaving batteries in the packaging. When I was taking the photos of the box she came up to investigate. She couldn’t open the box she grew bored with it and ignored it.

August 3, 2014

DIY Bath Toy Organizer

DIY Bath Toy Organizer
DIY Bath Toy Organizer

I thought I was really clever with this one. That is, until I checked pinterest this afternoon and noticed many others had come up with the same idea I had. Oh well. At least I can rest assured I’m in good company.

We had two issues when it came to bath time: (1) too many toys, and (2) a safety beam that’s just begging to be a concussion instrument.

When Nicki was young she had a bunch of bath squirters. We could fit most of them into the stacking buckets her aunt bought her. Recently, we also bought her bath letters set since she can’t get enough of the ABCs. Suddenly we had too many bath toys to store even remotely neatly. We’re in a two bathroom apartment, and Nicki’s bathtub is the one that’s shared whenever grandparents stay over. We needed a quick way to remove the toys so the shower was usable for adults.

The other concern was the safety bar. Nicki is generally good about sitting in the tub, but the bar is a little too inviting, and she occasionally likes to investigate it. It’s also at the wrong height so sometimes when she stands up to signal she’s ready for out she comes pretty close to clonking her head on it. We needed some sort of padding to keep her away from the bar.

That’s when I got the idea to attach plastic buckets to the bar to act as a buffer. Now if Nicki stands up, she’ll bump into the far-less-likely-to-cause-a-concussion bucket long before she bumps into the bar, and we have a place to store all those toys. We needed very deep buckets to both hold all the toys, and to hang mostly even since the bar’s a good 1.25″ from the wall.

The deeper the bucket (side ‘A‘ of the triangle) the shallower the angle to the wall (θ)

We found these at Target for $5.99 a piece. They’re not exactly the most fetching baskets, but they’re plastic so they won’t rust and have holes so they’ll drain water. We attached them with left over shower curtain hooks.

DIY Bath Toy Organizer Buckets
The Buckets

From pinterest it seems that dollar tree buckets are much more popular. They’re a bit shallower than what we used, but if you put a tension shower curtain rod close to the wall, would work great and be a bit cheaper. I suspect when we move we’ll go this route. At least I hope we don’t have another safety bar in our kids’ bathroom.

Nicki had a blast taking all the toys out at bath time. She was so enamored with the baskets, she even put the toys away when it was time to get out!

Addendum: Looks like I am not as clever as I thought I was. Nicki loves her basket, but now she wants to stand in the tub to inspect all the toys! We ended up buying a shower curtain rod after all.

Second Addendum: The shower curtain rod is gone. Just 3 months after we started using it I noticed it was beginning to rust on the inside. I’m not normally a super crunchy, no chemicals type, but rust is pretty high up their on the bad list. We’re back to using the safety bar. Nicki stands occasionally, but the tub at least has a no slip liner and we’re working with her to stay seated.

June 10, 2013

DIY Graduation Photos

It’s Graduation time again, which means another photo opportunity!



Commencement itself is going to be crowded. Between the other graduates, family and honored guests, it’ll be hard to find a good secluded spot for photos without passerbyes. Campus is also far away, so it’s going to be a long day, even though the actual ceremony isn’t too long. I don’t want to tax the patience of my family (including Nicki!) by trying to cram in photo time as well. It seemed our best bet for graduation photos was to make a separate trip to campus. Domingo took the day off from work, so we drove down to pick up my cap and gown together with Nicki in tow. Our plan was to leave the house just before Nicki’s morning naptime. We hoped she’d nap in the car on the way to campus, be up for photo time, and nap as we returned home. Car naps aren’t ideal, but they’re better than no naps. At least that was the plan.

Nicki woke up before 6 am, so no one was rested for the long day ahead of us. We decided to use Domingo’s car since his car seat which has better head support and we wanted her to be as comfortable for the long ride as possible. As we were getting ready I noticed the right strap had somehow become twisted to the point where it no longer seemed safe. The strap couldn’t be fixed without first removing both straps completely, and in order to do that I had to readjust pretty much everything. It was a giant pain, setting us back a full half hour. Nicki then refused to sleep in the car for the majority of the trip, only falling asleep for the last 30 minutes.

A full belly later, an opportunity to explore new places while walking and she was a content baby, although a tired and not an overly smiley one.

Alas, I didn’t like the way most of these turned out. I like the two above, but in most I have a weird expression in most of these trying to entice a smile from Nicki. Think deranged clown. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the popped hip to support Nicki makes the gown especially unflattering. We did the woods/bridge photo first. When we got to the vista I adjusted the shutter speed, but didn’t really think about the aperture. That’s the ocean behind us yet despite it being a clear day you can’t tell because the aperture is too large. boo

Some things I have learned:
* This one came from the woman distributing the caps and gowns: Use a pin to attach the hood. The hood is so heavy it kept falling back against my neck and I felt like I was being strangled with it. Next time I’ll pint it to the front of the gown to keep it in place.
* I draped the PhD hood over my shoulder a bit like a cape in the top photo. It makes the hood more noticeable, and helps with the strangling problem.
* Where dark pants, or at least dark shorts. I figured since the gown was supposed to be tea-length, you wouldn’t see my shorts. Except the zipper starts at thigh level, and a pop hip can reveal the color of your shorts like in the second photo.

While there’s a part of me that wants to try again, it doesn’t seem fair to Nicki. We have a local park that has a similar back drop to the hills on campus (just not the sweeping vistas, ocean backdrop or iconic bridges and redwoods.) We may make a family outing there and try for a full family photo, Domingo included. It feels a little like cheating since the photos wouldn’t be on Santa Cruz campus, but no one has to know. (Shh, don’t tell).

Last week I posted some things I learned going off auto mode on my camera. But what if you’re not neck deep in the camera-setting-obsessed build-a-set-at-home momtographer-crazy-pool like me? Here’s my number one go to trick for taking photos of Nicki that dosen’t involve any camera knowledge. In fact, to emphasize that you don’t need expensive camera equipment or software, all photos in this post were taken with my cell phone and completely unedited. Not even to adjust the brightness.

Without further ado…


Cute, right? She’s looking out the airplane window and smiling. It’s safe to assume I’m not climbing over another passenger to take this photo. (I’m a crazy mom-tographer, not an obnoxious one.) I’m sitting in the same row as Nicki who is safely strapped into the window seat. That means Nicki is in-between the window and myself. If she were truly looking out the window, we’d be seeing more of the side/back of her head.

In order to capture this photo I’m using the same simple trick behind the holding the pyramids illusion. The human eye is really good at judging relative distances in 3-d. That’s why someone far away looks far away, and not just small. A 2-d projection of a 3-d object (e.g. a photograph) can trick our minds’ eye into interpreting the image differently. In this pyramid photo it looks like the man is looking at the pyramid in his hand. Of course, the pyramid is just far back, and the man in the photo is looking off camera at nothing at all. Since Nicki is a baby I can’t just tell her where to look. That’s where Domingo comes in.

In my airplane photo I’m actually in the aisle seat. Domingo is in the middle seat, leaning in front of Nicki to entice a smile. She is looking at Domingo and smiling.

A pullback. Ignore the quality of this photo. I wouldn’t share it, except that it shows how we made the top one work.

The window is about four inches above her head. I’ve rotated the camera about 30 degrees to the left so the window appears level with Nicki’s face and positioned it so Domingo is off frame. Voila, the illusion of looking out the window.

There are five possible axis to move your camera: up/down, left/right, toward-subject/away-from-subject, rotate and tilt.

Here she is with great grandma. If Nicki were truly looking at Grandma, we’d just be seeing much more of the underside of her chin. She’s looking at Domingo, standing off frame and making faces at her.


In this one she looks like she’s in the Christmas spirit, even though she’s clearly not looking at anything in particular.

I posted an edited version of this one a few ago.

For this photo I’m lying on my stomach, holding the camera about eye level (maybe Nicki’s shoulder) and have tilted the top of the camera ever so slightly toward Nicki so that the tree and presents are in a better position relative to her in the photo.

This trick doesn’t just work for babies! Back in my maternity photography days, I recommended looking six inches in front of the bump for a more flattering angle.

February 26, 2013

Off Auto


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.

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