Friday, August 31, 2012

The Tooth Fairy Ran Out Of Money

You know how children are somehow your genetic miniatures even in ways that shouldn't be genetic?  The first time Mister Man had ice cream, he picked up the bowl when it was empty and proceeded to lick it clean.  I swear he'd never seen me do that, but yet he somehow innately knew that when something's that awesome, you don't let a drop go to waste.

And then there's Little Miss.  Mister Man will let a tooth be loose forever before it finally falls out when there's barely anything left holding it on, simply because he's afraid of the pain - or he has to have me pull it because there's another tooth growing behind it.  Little Miss?  Not so much.  Suddenly late this spring, her two front teeth were gone.  You saw how I had to fake our Christmas card early, right?

I thought we were done with losing teeth for awhile.  And then in the middle of August, Little Miss announced that she had just lost another tooth.  None of us even knew it was loose.  Just like me, the second she got a loose tooth, she worked it until it fell out.  I now had a peg tooth daughter.

The Tooth Fairy's Dream

I asked if she had any more teeth loose.  She assured me she didn't, and I settled in to have at least a few weeks where I wouldn't have to worry about another tooth popping out.

The night before school started, Little Miss came downstairs with another tooth in her hand.  I stared at her in disbelief, but she truly had another hole where a tooth should be.  We are, by the way, hiring her out as a human jack o'lantern this Halloween if anyone needs one.

I sent her upstairs to put the tooth under her pillow in the special bag we have, as she does each time.  And then we all went to bed.  She said nothing the next morning, and it took me another day before I realized that the Tooth Fairy had not come.

As soon as she headed off to school, I sped upstairs to check on the status of her tooth.  I lifted the pillow only to find ... nothing.  There was no tooth.  I asked her when she got home what had happened, and she simply shrugged.  That's when I found out that she hadn't put her tiny little baby incisor into anything but instead just laid it under her pillow.

The next day, I did a thorough scouring of her room.

Sleep with everything on your bed... somehow

What can I say?  The girl likes to sleep with her toys.  All of them (including the cute cat).  I was lucky that she didn't have her rubber duck collection or Toy Story toys in bed with her, as she usually does.  Unfortunately, under no mattress, nor tucked behind no toy, nor rattling inside no mattress was a tooth found.

So now what?  The tooth is gone.  And the Tooth Fairy rule is that there has to be a tooth for an exchange, right?  The wee ones decided that Little Miss simply lost her teeth too fast and she ran out of money.  What's your theory?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Favorite Teachers Challenged Me. Did Yours?

It's Thursday, so it's time for another #VlogMom prompt, right?  This week, we're sort of sticking with the back to school theme.  I've written already about how I'm thrilled with the teachers that Mister Man has this year.  And I had some pretty special teachers myself.

This week's VlogMom prompt from Joyce Brewer of Mommy Talk Show is:

Who was your favorite teacher growing up, and why?

I'd love to hear about your favorite teacher, so tell me below!

Oh, and bonus points if you can find where my cat starts meowing in the video.  They won't leave me alone today, so I finally gave up.  He's sitting on my lap as I type and during the video was crouched next to me, demanding that I pet him.  Or else.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sweet Tomato Chicken - Tasty Tuesday!

So it's back to school.  That means that I now have to be even better about having meals planned out and started while the wee ones are at school - not because we're so much more busy now, after all, the wee ones' activities didn't stop during the summer, but because I need something to put in lunches the next day.

This summer I somehow discovered that Mister Man really loves plain baked chicken (he'll even eat it with some pepper,  yay!) with marinara sauce over it.  Go figure - this from my sauce hating child who thinks tomatoes were put on this earth as a form of cruel torture for him.  And no, I'm not joking.  This is called progress, people.

So last week?  I pushed my luck a little with a chicken crock pot dish on the first day of school because I was going to have to leave the house by one and not get home until after tae kwon do with not one but two starving children.  Whee.

Fortunately?  It turned out awesome.  And yes, it went in the lunchbox the next day, devoured by both the wee ones.  Phew!  And yes, I know the ingredients are a little unusual.  I accept that.  Just trust me that they turn out awesome.

Kid friendly awesome crock pot chicken recipe

Sweet Tomato Chicken

4-5 decent size pieces of chicken, bone in or not is your choice
1/2 c soy sauce
1/3 c brown sugar
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
1/2 t pepper
1 T tomato paste

Place the diced tomatoes in a crock pot.  Mince the garlic and add it, along with the pepper, soy sauce, brown sugar, and tomato paste.  If you're Mister Man and do truly believe that tomatoes are a cruel trick Mother Nature is playing on you, go ahead and puree them at this point.  If not, leave them in chunks to add some more texture to the sauce later and instead just stir the mixture until fully combined.

Puree the sauce if you have a tomato hater

Add the chicken and cook on low 4-6 hours.  Go ahead and cook up some rice so it's ready to serve with your chicken.  After it's fully cooked, it will be falling apart, which is just what you want.  Use tongs to break it up, then use a slotted spoon to scoop it out to serve over that rice.  Add as much or as little sauce atop this as you like.

Serve it with a green salad, and this is a perfect weeknight meal.  Yum.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bread. Is It Supposed To Do That?

I'm a bit of a food snob.  I'll admit it.  I blame some of it on the fact that I lived in Belgium when I was seven and eight.  There, we picked up fresh food each day because... that's how you do it.  The meat (aside from the horse that my mom accidentally bought early on in our sojourn there and couldn't figure out why it wasn't browning) was fantastic.  The bread?  Beyond so.  And oh the pastries....

Here?  Sigh.  It's really hard to find, and it's so expensive so often.

I look at the ingredients on the "fresh" bread loaves, and there are things I've never heard of before.  That's not the wonderful European bread I'm looking for.  The worst was last week when a friend dropped off a loaf of "European style, gourmet Italian" bread because she is going on a diet and bread doesn't figure into her eating plan.

We ate a few slices of it, but there was still some left over on Friday.  I went to pull out a slice to go with the goat cheese and smoked salmon omelet I had made for myself for lunch.  It was wonderfully still soft.  Orrrr maybe not to wonderfully.  Bread is supposed to go stale, but this was still pillow soft.  I squeezed it, mentally rolling my eyes.  Then I noticed the mold.  The bright green and pink mold.  The entire loaf was going bad but retained its not so natural dreamy soft texture.  Ew.

There are some wonderful traditional bakeries near me, and I patronize them from time to time.  And this is a good reason why I bake so much, I think.  At least I know what I put in my food, and it goes stale before freaky colored things start growing on it.  And that's assuming that mold even starts going on it at all.  There are some foods that just... keep hanging around.

Me?  That's not what I want to eat.  It's why I make most of my food from scratch at home.  It's why I avoid processed foods whenever possible.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to make toast for breakfast with some of my homemade sourdough bread.  And maybe - just maybe - I'll stop by a true European bakery for something special a little later.

When I eat, I want to love what's going in my mouth and enjoy it.  How about you?  What's your food philosophy?  Or better yet, what are your horror stories?

Book cover of The Baker's Daughter

In the interest of full disclosure, this post was part of the From Left to Write book club where we write posts inspired by books we read rather than true reviews.  This month's book "The Baker's Daughter" by Sarah McCoy was sent to me, but I received no compensation.  The novel follows a reporter in 2007 interviewing about German Christmas traditions and flashes back to Elsie's time living in Nazi Germany where she worked for her family's bakery.  As always, all opinions remain my own.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I'm Crying Today - In A Good Way

I haven't written much about Mister Man's school change.  I'm still frustrated about a number of things at the old school, but I'm so glad we moved him before the end of the year last year.  He's now at the same school as Little Miss (whoo hoo, first time ever they've been in the same school at the same time and they get to ride the bus!), and it's been good so far.

The "so far" is what I'm worried about, of course.  It's so easy for the early part of school to work because everyone gives the kids a little leeway.  The things that grate on nerves aren't yet grating on nerves.  And Mister Man isn't fully comfortable, so he's on his very best behavior.

I wrote earlier this week about the special needs introduction letter "Mister Man" wrote to his teacher explaining his strengths and weaknesses and sharing strategies that we know work well for him.  It was sprinkled with pictures, and the hope is to have them understand him better so that the year is smoother for everyone.

The first day, I picked the wee ones up from school because Mister Man had tae kwon do.  His teacher stopped me in the hall and told me he had a wonderful day.  She said he was "the sweetest kid, and he got along so well with all the other students, too."  Phew.  Those are the things that ease a little of the weight from my shoulders.

Happy boy

Yesterday afternoon, I received an email from the art teacher.  Apparently the social worker shared the letter I had prepared with the specials teachers, as well - something I appreciate.  I read it while sitting in the car in a parking lot while running errands.  Whenever I see an email from the school, I always have to read it immediately so that I can fully process it before the wee ones get home.

Dear Michelle,
A copy of Mister Man's letter was in my mailbox. You are a wonderful Mommy to help Mister Man learn to advocate for himself and know that although he doesn't look exactly like the other kids in the crowd, he is the beautiful person that God made him to be. I have a son like that too.
You can rest assured that here, at New School, we will love your babies no matter what. They will be taken care of with love and respect and dignity. In fact, we often love the quirky ones best.
I know that Mister Man had a hard time in my overfull summer school class a few years back, although he did make strides just during that short time. I have been working to make sure he knows that I think he is awesome just as he is. I try to let all my students know that the art studio is a safe place where they will be listened to any time.
Thank You, and I am completely psyched for a GREAT year!
Mrs. Art Teacher
Now that?  That brings tears to my eyes.  Completely unsolicited.  She had to go look up my contact information to send this.  They care.  And they get my kid here.  No wonder the end of the year for him was so smooth and peaceful and trouble free.

I heaved another sigh of relief, called my mom to read this to her, and then I finished my errands for the day with a smile on my face.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Wait, It's Back To School Already?

The wee ones are back in school.  I don't have a migraine.  Do you know what this combination means on a Thursday?  It means I'm finally putting up another #VlogMom post.  Appropriately, the topic this week is about back to school.

Jo-Lynne Shane from Musings of a Housewife asks:  Are your kids ready to head back to school?  What does your Back To School routine look like?  What is your biggest challenge? (Ha! I talked about my biggest challenge already yesterday!)  What are you most looking forward to?

So how about you?  Tell me about your back to school, and then go visit the other VlogMoms!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

And They're Off...

I just put the wee ones on the bus.  Today, it arrived at 8:25, and the thing I'm most excited about the fact that the bus looks like it will be coming 40 minutes later to pick them up this year than it did last year?  The fact that I get to sleep in longer.

But it hasn't exactly been a smooth journey to the bus.

Technically, Mister Man isn't supposed to be allowed to ride the bus, because we petitioned him into the school Little Miss attends as part of the Spanish immersion program she's in.  I'm supposed to have to drive him - anyone who petitions is.  However, there is a bus that stops in our driveway to pick up Little Miss.  And it has three students on it, including her.  Fortunately, I was able to negotiate with the district and bus company, and he's there with a fee.

On Thursday last week, this letter arrived.

School district #fail

Ok, so great.  We're supposed to go.  Oh.  Wait.  That part is blank.  It's ok, though.  We know the bus comes to our house because we're the only stop anywhere near us.  And the bus will pick us up at... oh.  Wait.  That part is blank, too.  Hmmm.

So of course I called the bus company.  The nice woman there told me that it would probably be about the same time as it was last year.  When I pointed out that sometimes the bus picked us up at 7:40 or 7:50 and sometimes at 8:10 and that one of the children who had ridden the bus previously was no longer at the school, which would probably affect the route since he lives ten minutes away.  She investigated and let me know that they were still working on those routes and that we'd get a call that afternoon.

Monday morning, I called again, still having heard nothing.  They were still working on the schedule.  I called later in the afternoon, and we finally learned that the bus would arrive between 8:10 and 8:15.  Phew.

A side note.  In the letter, you'll notice that it says that "if your child is starting kindergarten their (sic) route information will be delivered to you under separate cover at a later date."  So all kindergartners received this letter that tells them nothing.  And they'll get another letter printed later.  That's a waste of time (printing, stuffing) and money (postage).  As a taxpayer, that irks me.  Then I discovered that not only were the children in the Spanish immersion program receiving a blank letter, but every student in the district that doesn't ride a bus for whatever reason, including all others who petitioned to schools other than their home schools - and we have a lot of walkers for our neighborhood schools - received the same letter.  So now in addition to wasting time and money by sending useless letters, you also have very confused people calling the number listed, taking up time to answer questions that should never have been stirred up and annoying people.  Government at its best.  So when they talk budget cuts next year, I'm going to request that this be there, too.  It isn't a huge difference, but it's enough.

So back to our bus story.

Yesterday, we went outside a little before 8 so I could take the obligatory first day of school pictures.  Tell me they aren't adorable.

Smiling for the camera

At 8:26, I called the bus company.  Eleven minutes past the later time the bus was supposed to pick them up?  If it wasn't close, I would need to drive them to ensure they get there on time.  The line was busy, not surprising.  After seventeen tries, I got through.  And they tracked down the bus, which was fortunately only two minutes away by that point.

The bus pulled into our driveway.  The bus driver introduced himself and confirmed that he was picking up Little Miss.  Ummm and Mister Man?  Nope, he wasn't on the list.  I sighed and explained that he should be, and the very nice bus driver wrote him down.  It isn't a huge issue on the way to school, but he can't get on the bus (and what bus route; no one would even know) if he isn't on the list for the after school bus.  So I called the contact at the district again.  And left her a message.

It wasn't the worst issue yesterday, as I was picking them up to get Mister Man to tae kwon do on time (which we were still late to, oops).  And today I'm picking them up, too.  Tomorrow, however, he needs to be on the route.  I'm still waiting for that call back.

So how has government been working for you lately?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chocolate Pots de Creme - Tasty Tuesday!

Today is the first day back to school for the wee ones.  So the first thing I did after the bus picked them up (21 minutes late)?  I made chocolate pots de creme.  No, this isn't because I'm going to spoil myself - although the egg white omelet with smoked salmon and goat cheese that I'm going to make myself for lunch shortly might make you think otherwise - but because a friend has a birthday tomorrow.

And she's never had pots de creme before.

Well, ok, really this came about because when I was at her house on Sunday, she loaded me down with organic milk and cream from her neighbor that was about to go bad, and she wasn't going to use it.  Her only request was that if I made whipped cream or something yummy with it, that I allow her a taste.  Since her birthday is tomorrow, I promised to make her something yummy.  After throwing out a few suggestions, I mentioned the pots de creme, and she got a blank look on her face.

After explaining that it's a delicious yummy French custard, she was sold.  She didn't even let me finish my explanation.  So tomorrow, she's coming over, and we're going to eat our pots de creme.  That's why I put them in my extra large ramekins (what, you don't have three sizes of ramekins at home?) and only made a half recipe, which gave me four pots de creme.  So I can pretend like I'm spoiling my husband by surprising him with some tonight, too.   I'll just have to wait until the wee ones are in bed, as I know Mister Man - and he'd want his own, but I'm not sharing!

Easy custard cooked in ramekins

Chocolate Pots de Creme

4 c heavy cream
7 egg yolks
1/2 c sugar
1 T vanilla bean paste (my new favorite thing ever, but use a 1:1 replacement of vanilla extract if you don't have any... yet)
1 t espresso or java extract
1/2 lb bittersweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Place the cream into a heavy pot and scald it - heat it over medium until it starts to steam and a light skin forms atop.  You don't want to burn it, so watch this.  While you're doing that, chop your chocolate and add it to another heavy pot and heat it on low until it melts.

Cream is not boiling, just little bubbles and steam

At the same time, whisk the egg yolks in another bowl.  Add the sugar, espresso, and vanilla and whisk until light and fluffy.  Note that it will be brown and not your usually light yellow.

When the chocolate is melted and cream scalded, pour the cream slowly into the chocolate.  Add a little cream and stir until it's incorporated and continue to add the cream until it's all in the chocolate.  This is one time where you don't want to scrape the bottom of the pan.  If there is any burned cream, that's where it will be.  Yuck.

Now you'll do the same to the eggs to temper them.  Using a measuring cup, add a little of the chocolate cream mixture to the eggs while whisking to ensure the eggs don't scramble.  Add a half cup or so in total, which will bring the eggs up to temperature.  At this point, you flip.  While whisking, pour the eggs into the chocolate cream and keep whisking until they're fully incorporated.

Pour hot liquid slowly into eggs while whisking

Place your ramekins into a baking dish.  Using that same measuring cup (yay, no extra mess), scoop out the pots de creme mixture evenly into the ramekins.

Use a measuring cup to get liquids into the ramekins

Place the baking dish into the oven, and using a liquid measuring cup, pour water around the ramekins - careful not to get any in - until the water is about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the ramekins.

The pots de creme need a water bath about two-thirds up the ramekins

Bake the pots de creme at 350 degrees for 25-35 minutes (or a little longer if you make them extra big like I did).  When they are set on top but still jiggly in the middle, they are done.  Let them cool, then place in the fridge until you're ready to enjoy them.  All I'm missing is a little vanilla bean whipped cream and some chocolate shavings.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Special Needs Teacher Introduction Letter

We start school tomorrow.  Mister Man is in a new school - one he attended for a just a few weeks last year.  The teachers there don't know him, and with his special needs, there are strategies that will help the teacher - and him - if both know them from the start.

So what's a mom to do?  I put together a little book about Mister Man.  It's four half sheets of paper, stapled together, that includes both pictures and text.  It tells a little about him - his strengths and weaknesses, along with things that we know help him.  The point of it all is to make a quick and easy introduction for the teacher - not reports that she has to wade through, but instead a portrait of an actual child.

Special Needs letter to start the year

I am bringing a copy for his teacher, as well as one for the social worker and the specials teachers - especially gym - so that they can better understand and work with him.  It's short and doesn't include everything, but it's a decent primer.  And next year?  I'll just update it with new skills and learnings, and his new teacher will have one, too.


Dear Mrs. B,
My name is Mister Man, and I am so excited to be in your class this year. I attended New School for just a couple weeks at the end of last year, as I attended Old Catholic School before that. I know many of the rules of New School, but not all of them, so please help me remember!

My mom says that I’m a really sweet kid, which has its pluses and minuses. I always want to help someone or stick up for them, but I don’t always do it in the best way. My heart is in the right place, though.

I love to learn, and I can’t wait for school to start. I am a “fact kid” and it’s so much fun to share what I know – or what I think I know. That’s the problem. I don’t always know everything I think I do, which can sometimes be hard in group situations where not everyone has my opinion.

My sweet kid

Reading is one of my favorite things to do. In fact, if I have free time, that’s what I usually do. In the past, teachers have rewarded me with reading time when I finish my work, but unfortunately a lot of times that means that I rush through my work and don’t give it my best effort. If we’re reading in class, I get really wrapped up in it and sometimes get curious about what’s coming next, so I forget to stop when I’m supposed to, or I’ll page ahead when you’re talking to see what I can learn. Feel free to take away my book to keep me on task. It helps me remember to do what I’m supposed to.

We love to read

Organization isn’t my strong suit. Sometimes, I forget to write down my assignments in my assignment notebook, or I don’t write down enough information to figure out what I am supposed to do when I get home. If you can check briefly to ensure I got down the important things, I’d really appreciate it – although I’m working hard on getting better at this!

Forgetting to write down assignments

I sometimes struggle with impatience, too. Remind me that you’re the teacher, and I’ll remember that you’re in charge and that this isn’t something where I always know what’s coming next or what the right answer is. It’s more because I’m so excited than any actual disrespect, so please understand that. I like to do things my way, which I know I can’t always do.

Because I think I know what’s coming next, sometimes I don’t actually read the directions on my assignments or read all the parts of a problem. Sometimes having me highlight the directions or labeling them 1, 2, 3 for steps helps. Or have me keep my paper upside down while you give instructions, so I’m not tempted to start working before I know what I’m really supposed to do.

Math is a lot of fun, and I like to do computations in my head. I don’t tend to show my work as often as I should, and sometimes that means I get problems wrong when I know the answer. I’m working on slowing down and showing my work, but sometimes I don’t think I need to. And as much as I love the concepts of math and enjoy them, doing quick computations and then writing them down (a la Rocket Math) is hard for me because I struggle with my fine motor coordination and the connection from my brain to my hand.

And yes, I do have issues with fine motor. I know how to hold a pencil, although I need a reminder to “hold my pencil the right way” – which really improves my writing. I haven’t quite decided that neat handwriting or even capital letters make much of a difference, so I have to be reminded to write “small and tight” but I absolutely can do much better handwriting than I will usually show you. Keep pushing me.

I can hold a pencil the right way

I love to be challenged and engaged. When I’m learning something new, I’m happy and focused on that. Sometimes I get down on myself and frustrated when I don’t know things, but I’ve learned a lot about how to keep working hard and have positive results in the end. Sometimes, I need a reminder about that.

Socially, I struggle sometimes. I’m not quite on par with the rest of the third graders, but I’ve made huge strides. I want to be their friends, but sometimes in play, I don’t know where that line is and so don’t know when to stop. I don’t have that instinct. I do know that when someone is bothering me, I’m supposed to walk away and then tell an adult if they still don’t stop.

I tend to talk louder than I should, although a pinching motion with your fingers reminds me to turn the volume down. I also forget to look at people when I’m talking, and I rock back and forth when standing. Reminding me of “eyes” and “rocking” helps me realize what I’m doing. I also jump up and down when I’m excited, but I’m trying to remember to stop that. Every once in awhile, I’ll chew on my shirt, too. Usually that’s because I’m anxious about something. Remind me that I’m doing it, and I’ll stop. My mom thanks you!

I’m also not super coordinated, part of my issues with motor planning and fine motor skills. Gym is hard for me. I run awkwardly and slowly, and my hand eye coordination leaves a bit to be desired. For that reason, I don’t love sports, which sets me apart from my peers. I do Tae Kwon Do, though, and I love it. I know that it’s not ok to demonstrate it in school, however.

White belt

I’m learning still to deal with frustration and failure, as I know a lot of my friends are, too. I’m getting better at it. Before, I wouldn’t want to even try something if I thought I would fail, but now I usually will try at least three times before I get frustrated – and sometimes even longer than that!

If I don’t answer you right away or am in my own world, touching me on the shoulder and saying my name reminds me to stay in the classroom instead of thinking deep thoughts. It’s the best way to get my attention. 

I’m excited to be at New School and in your class this year, and I can’t wait for it to start. Please be patient with me, and when I’ve done something wrong, if you can explain what I did that was wrong, that will help me, as I don’t always know why I got in trouble, just that I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. 

Sincerely, Mister Man, 3rd Grade

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's Not A Smart Phone Park

We've spent the last week in Florida.  We had a lot of fun in our last hurrah before the start of school - and now I'm scrambling to do all the school prep I haven't done over the past week - and I am going to do a few write ups of our experiences at some of the new parks we hadn't been to previously, with a slant towards the perspective of taking someone with special needs to the park.

Overall, we had a blast.  Most of us anyway.  I noticed that whenever the wee ones were on a ride at Legoland (many are truly designed for little kids and parents can't join them), my husband was constantly on his phone.  Apparently my reluctance for him to join the smart phone age was well justified...

Husband on the phone

Rather than watching the wee ones cavorting - in this instance, driving in the Ford Motor School Driving Test, heading the wrong way down streets and blowing past stop signs they swear they didn't see - my husband was checking the weather.  Or maybe Facebook.  Or maybe reading news.  Or who knows, maybe it was online poker.

For him, watching the wee ones have fun and sharing in their enjoyment is something he wasn't raised with.  His parents didn't interact with him in the same way that my parents did - nor do they interact with the wee ones when we visit.  It's a completely different style of parenting, and from my perspective, it's not a fun or filled with joy.  It isn't that it's wrong, but it's not how I am.

I've given up trying to change him, for the most part.  The second he's finished eating, he's up clearing dishes and moving on to the next thing, regardless of how many of the rest of us are still eating and trying to enjoy a family meal.  When he plays a board game with the wee ones, it's about getting to the end of the game instead of having fun along the way - you don't want to be the one having a conversation when it's your turn! And that's all he ever knew.

How about you?  How were you raised?  Do you follow the same tenets of child rearing that your parents used?  And what's your take on hanging out on smart phones around your children?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Creme Brulee - Tasty Tuesday!

Yes, I know.  It's summer.  And it's still hot and yucky most places in the country.  My general rule is that my oven doesn't go on, but I make exceptions sometimes.  There are days when it's cool in the morning, and I know I want a special creamy and cool dessert.  And so I present you with creme brulee.

Is there anything better than that crunch of the sugar shell and then the luscious interior that leaves you licking your spoon and wanting more?  This is such a great summer dessert.  There's even the fun of playing with fire when making it - all the better!

And yeah, it is sorta easy.  Way easier than you would expect given what you pay for it in restaurants.  Four ingredients.  That's it.  Really.

Creme brulee for dessert tonight

Creme Brulee

4 c heavy cream, not ultrapasteurized
8 egg yolks
1/2 c sugar
2 vanilla beans*

*Vanilla beans are awesome.  I love them.  Use them.  But if you can't, go ahead and use 2 teaspoons of vanilla bean paste, my new favorite ingredient

Cut the vanilla beans in half, and use the back of a knife to carefully scrape out the seeds.  If you are not using the seeds, skip the vanilla for now.  Add the cream and the seeds to a heavy pot and turn the heat to medium.  Add the beans, too - why not; it just adds more flavor.  Scald the cream, which means you want it to start to steam and have a few tiny bubbles but do not let it actually boil.  When it just barely starts to have a skin form, it's done.  Remove the vanilla beans and scrape them one last time to get any more seeds out, adding those to the cream, too.

The tiny bubbles at the edge let us know the cream is ready for creme brulee

While the cream scalds, prepare your eggs.  Separate the whites from the yolks (save the whites for meringues or angel food cake or a whole bunch of egg white omelettes).  Place the yolks into a large bowl and whisk them until they're incorporated.  Add the sugar to the yolks and whisk until the yolks are lightened in color.

When the cream is scalded, add just a couple tablespoons of cream to the eggs while whisking the eggs to temper them.  Add a little more cream and keep whisking.  Once the eggs are brought up to temperature, add the remaining cream, still whisking so that you don't cook the eggs.  Scrambled eggs in cream? Eww.  If you didn't use vanilla beans, now is the time to add your vanilla bean paste.

Whisk the creme brulee mixture to keep it from cooking the eggs

Place six ramekins into a baking dish.  Ladle the creme brulee mixture into the ramekins.  To minimize how much I need to carry the liquid, I do my ladling with the baking dish sitting on my stove over my oven.  Smart me, right?  Once they're evenly distributed, place the baking dish in your oven.  Then, use a tea kettle to carefully add boiling water to the baking dish so that it covers at least two-thirds of the ramekins, being sure not to spill any of the water into the ramekins (see, me being smart again).

Using a liquid cup measure makes for easy pouring and distribution of creme brulee

Bake the creme brulee for 25-35 minutes, until the centers are just set.  It will take longer if you let the cream cool before mixing it with the eggs.  Once baked, let the ramekins cool in the fridge.  When you are ready to serve them, sprinkle a good layer of sugar (brown sugar is awesome - just sayin') atop the creme brulee and use a torch to melt the sugar, starting in the center and then carefully circling out to the edges.  Don't make your crust ahead, but the rest can be done a day or two in advance and kept in the fridge.

Use a sifter to sprinkle the sugar atop the creme brulee

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Power of Visual Storytelling

Yesterday, I wrote about the first session at the Blographer event I attended.  The information provided by Amanda Bottoms and Eric Cobb on how to make your photos blogworthy had to many tips and tidbits in it.  It's going to take me some time to play with them all, but I'm looking forward to it.  This session on visual storytelling featured another Amanda - Amanda Padgett - along with Rachel Devine.

The only downside to this session?  I had to scoot about a half hour before the session ended, so there was more information that I wasn't able to capture.  What I did get down on "paper" though, was helpful to me, and I hope it will be to you, too.

The Power of Visual Storytelling

Rachel Devine - Sesame Ellis (@SesameEllis)
Amanda Padgett - Everyday Elements (@amandapadgett) 

Amanda - Erin and Amanda Bottoms really set us up for this. They kept saying, "You'd better talk about that" so now we have to. We want to relate visual storytelling and photography to the writing process. A writer comes up with the story and then they do drafts and they edit it. You should have the same process for your photos to have the same impact for your readers.

Joel had asked if I would like to speak with Rachel, and I was familiar with "Beyond Snapshots" and I was intimidated because Rachel is huge and gifted, but she lives in Australia, so we’ve been working together in the morning and at night. We found out quickly that we are very different, so the best way to describe that is that we’re dusk and dawn. We have a lot in common, but we are very different. You're going to hear some ways that Rachel does things and the way that I do things; take that back and chew on it and decide what works for you.

Rachel - We just talked a little about the storytelling process. I'm a photographer and an accidental blogger. I started my business in Los Angeles in 1995, so I photographed for companies like Target and the like. I had a child and started photographing her; that story will come a little later on.

The storytelling process isn't just throwing images up on the blog. I have a rhyme or reason to it, and we're going to teach you to have beautiful stories represented in your images as well as your writing. I'll talk a bit about photo theory that most people don't talk about. There is a lot on the mechanics of the camera, but not often about the multi-dimensional and broad photo theory. I want to talk about why it's important to bloggers. It's a visual medium.

We wanted to poll the room - who is a photographer by trade? Do you blog as well? Who's a blogger by trade? Who here is DSLR, point and shoot, camera phone? Basically, this applies to everything and everyone. It isn't just a fancy camera thing. If you do have one, we encourage you to learn how to use it. 

Great visuals will bring in your audience and up your numbers. That will bring in sponsors. RSS feeds - you can read an entire post in an RSS feed, but you’ll click on a photo to see it better. Pinterest - craft, food and mom bloggers. I'm talking to all of you. You're not going to pin an ugly picture. If your sauce isn't lit or photographed right, no one is going to make that meal.

It applies to every type of blogger. The images will increase your reader engagement and have them come back. They will want to read your story and wait for your posts, which goes into numbers again. We're talking stats, which gets you sponsored posts and reviews. If a company gives you a product, they want a good photo of you using it in your home.

Digital content creation creates a spoke content for blogs. The brands can push out to their social media, and it's more personalized than ads shot in studio. I did this, and for me, then the company wanted to buy the images - they're beautifully shot, but real, and using the product. I've been employed to shoot a big brand's bloggers' kids wearing their clothes. I'm working with a bunch of different agencies to bring more of this to market.  I'm a brand ambassador for a lens company. I love the brand, and that's another thing that comes out of it.

Building your brand - it's real and your life. People know what I tell them about me and what I show. They keep coming back, and I'll tell you a bit about my story next. My clients as a professional photographer come through my own blog. It started when I got postpartum depression when I had Gemma who is now 7 1/2. It wasn't talked about in the States, and I joined Flickr. I didn't want my clients seeing my digital photography because I was afraid they would see the real me going through postpartum depression.

I just last year split into two place with Rachel Devine Photography, which is the professional stuff in addition to the Sesame Ellis I've been forever. I clawed my way back from postpartum depression by using Flickr to show the images. The twins were IVF, so I was going through fertility problems and not telling anyone, so I decided to just start sharing images on Flickr of that journey. The response I got back was that it helped me and it helped them.

I want to help solve problems, which is the "Beyond Snapshots" book. Rarely will I post a client shoot on my blog, but when I do, my stats go down. I want to talk to real people, people who are going through the real things. I'm now an expat and have gotten a lot of great feedback on that.

If you are selling anything, people are going to buy from friends. If they see you as a friend or as someone they know - and I mean people coming back to your blog or crafts or food - they will follow those stories. It has to be your story, not dramatic.

All three of my kids have Instagram accounts. We try to accept that its' a digital world, and we do our best to keep them safe. I moderate comments because I get a lot of trolls. Knowing your story means knowing you to your readers. If they trust you, that's how you can monetize your blog or just have people keep coming back.

Sharing stories broadens your audience. Instead of showing me recipes, show me your kitchen. Expand to create your story. Show me the farmer's market. It can still be your brand and your topic. Don't tell me about it, show me. I really want to see things - I don't have a lot of time to read. The same holds true for fashion bloggers - show me a thrift shop, walk me through your shopping. Personal blogs are not faceless magazines. This is you. A personal blog is your story, so share it and expand on it. Crafters, show me your crafting room, or focus on different things. Every Wednesday, maybe do something else. It's still your story, and you can show people that they're not alone. There are other people like that out there.

I photographed the door (shown in the picture on the screen) and didn't think about the fact that the initials of my twins were on the door, because we didn't say the twins' names. Things like that can spur conversations with your audience unexpectedly and people were guessing the names like crazy. We announced that they were twins by Gemma holding a pink and a blue pacifier.

Gemma saved for over a year to save for an iTouch, so we created a savings jar and I did a craft post on how to do that. What is visual storytelling? It has purpose. That is the one word that sums it up. If you take away anything from this, it's purpose. When I started the infertility journey, you have to give yourself shows and can't do it on your belly button, so I shared details showing my shot marks. It's a way for me to heal and for other people to be healed. That's purposeful shooting. It does include time focusing on technical elements.

If you have a vision in your head and can't make that photograph look like what's in your head, it's frustrating, so know your camera. A DSLR has all these controls and so figure them out and use that tool to tell what you want the story to be. Think about other photographs and what they tell you. Knowing my settings and being ready for it with what story you want to tell, that's how you get the photos you want. Happy accidents happen, but being ready is more important.

Identify what works in a photo. As photographers, we have the frame, what we put in it, what we don't, where we put it is all key. Think within that box and try to get it in camera, but yes, you can crop later. I try to spend as little time editing as possible. I want to get the pictures right in camera.

My goal is no clutter in my photos; they are the repeating characters you don't need to know. Learn what to leave out by simplifying. What's outside the frame is not featured for a reason, and that makes a stronger image. This is the real important part: What does it say to you when you first look at it? What you see may not be what is meant to be told. Your viewers may have a different background, so you have to build up context for them. That's why you keep telling your story over and over again.

My mom is 85, and she's getting ready to move to Australia (photo shown on screen of an older woman in a bedroom folding clothing, shot from a distance through the doorway). I was visiting my mom and saw a reflection in a mirror or her in her bedroom, and I saw the aging and the passing of time, and if I keep telling that same story over and over, it will come through. But you can sometimes just have fun and practice to revise your own vision by breaking free from your normal process.

If you are telling someone else's story, you can't separate yourself from that story. I'm putting my views on it, but that's what we do, and it's fine. Tell a story when you're traveling from your point of view. When it's not a struggle is when you know you're getting it right. Occasionally people will see something like that and be surprised, but if I completely changed my style and everything looked like this, then it wouldn't be my style.

Camera therapy is my process. It's what I call my storytelling process, and it might not apply to you, but it works for me. Everyone can identify an image that is poorly shot where the story gets lost, but the real thing is teaching the eye. People say you can't teach the eye, but then dance classes would be steps and music classes would be scales and writing classes would be spelling and grammar. Most photography classes are just teaching you how to us your process. Enjoy the process and learn.

If you get a process, and mine is camera therapy, I think about what I want to say and I prepare. I know ahead of time what the lighting will be or bring the right lens. Then take a deep breath because it's just pictures. Push yourself to look at things from different angles and think about how you can take it better. Don’t just keep taking the same photo over and over again. You can do that with your own photography and get to know your subjects to create characters. Gemma thinks she's hot stuff, and you tell the story of the character's you've developed.

I'm going to suggest two books. The first is "Bird by Bird" that is an amazing book on process. Think of ABCD. A is action - What is going to happen in the photo? It's your purpose and your message. That's what's most important. B - Background - This is your background. What are you bringing to the story? C - Content - It's your focus - what are you putting in the picture, what are you leaving out of the frame? D- Development - What's happening with the story and develop those characters? This is your story and your protagonists. Develop them, and tell people about your characters. Show them your characters, and that's how you create a visual story.

Amanda - I wanted to tell me story. I started blogging in 2008 when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. This whole blogging thing seemed like a good way to keep my family members in the loop with what's going on with my dad. I would share pictures of my dad and update them on his progress. Not long after that, I saw other people's blogs, and their pictures looked a whole lot better than my camera's photos. My husband didn't want to buy me a big camera because he was convinced I'd never use it.

When I started, I had everything dead center with the head in the middle. When my dad died in 2009, about 6 weeks later, I went out and bought a camera because life is short. This is something I had wanted to do and didn't want to lose a moment. If you shoot on auto, you have an expensive point and shoot. I put my camera in manual and figured it out. I started teaching workshops on Photoshop Elements, and that's how I'm here today.

People have the story on paper. With a writer, they want to write the best they can, they want to get it out as best they can to start with because the editing process is hard. Do the same. Get the best image possible out of the camera.

The things you need to focus on are exposure - you need a well exposed image - focus, light, composition, proper equipment, setting image limits. Cheat sheet: that has tips for every one of these items and how to correct every one of those things.

Exposure really really matters. If you put a photo on your blog that is dark, people are going to want to see it better. There is an exposure triangle: the ISO, aperture and shutter speed. If you aren't controlling those things, your camera is going to try to make a best guess. It won't be right. There is a big difference between too slow of a shutter speed and too fast. Set your ISO, set your aperture, and then use the wheel at the back to set your shutter speed when you're shooting in manual.

Backlighting is beautiful, and people really love it. You have got to know how to shoot and set the exposure for the person though, or the person is going to be really dark. You have to control the shutter speed to capture the movement. You need to have a fast shutter speed to capture action.

What about focus? Focus seems like a really simple topic. I'll just get it in focus! I am surprised by how people don't know that you can move the focal point of a subject in your camera. There is a menu of closest subject, matrix, and single point. I recommend having it on single point and you can choose where you focus. Pay attention to that. That's how you can do the aperture changes with the background blurry.

What if your photos are out of focus? I always say, "Can I see the EXIF data?" There is a lot of information and your shutter speed, and I find that it's almost always too slow for the moment. Your shutter speed needs to be roughly double the length of the lens you're using if you're hand holding and not using a tripod.

Rachel - Make the light for you. Don't just move around, and be sure to use the natural light. My favorite thing in the world is the big foam core boards. I love to cut holes using an X-acto knife so I can have the light come through it and then bend it down over your item. It looks like it's lit with a giant, very expensive soft box. I have examples on my Facebook page. Check Beyond Snapshots with all sorts of tips on various topics.

Aperture and bokeh
Aperture affects the exposure in terms of how small/wide the opening is to allow in light. With f3.2, the focus will be just on the horse's head and the tail is already out of focus (photo of a toy horse sitting on a counter). At f8, you can see everything that's in the background because it's in focus. It impacts the depth of field. This goes to storytelling. Is what's in the background important? If not, you can use depth of field to get rid of what's not important. I'll often shoot at f3.2 or f4.

A big difference is in the distance from me to my subject and my subject to my background. I'm further away from my subject, and the background is somewhat in focus. I move in closer, and the background is more creamy and out of focus. The distance is key. Pull your subject from the background and you get in closer. If you zoom in, it works even better. I love it.

When you're composing and crafting your picture, the composition can be so off that you can't save the photo. Compose it correctly in camera; it does matter. Alter your positions; don't just take the same photo over and over again. Don't just shoot down at children, but get to their perspective. Think of the rule of thirds, which I'll show in just one second. Look for leading lines that draw you into your focus of the photo. 

Negative space
Get your subject in one part of the photo with nothing else going on in the photo, which will really draw the viewer to your subject. Sometimes, fill the frame with your subject. Use a natural frame for the photo.

What not to do?
Tilts gone wild. You don't want to make it so severe that your subject that looks like they're falling off the world. Tilt a little can be fun to give a little different perspective. Tilt with reason and purpose. Be careful with it.

Have the right tools
Lenses do matter. I don't want to tell you to go into debt for a camera or lenses, but they do matter. The new cameras all do what you need them to do. The Nikon and Canons are great. You need to get a different app for your smart phone, though. I use Camera Plus.

Don't buy the kit lens for your camera. You want a 50mm f1.8 or a 35mm f1.8 are great lenses. When you have a macro, you can get in super close, not that you should all the time. A 60mm f2.8 is an affordable macro to do that. Other brands are good, but the most help can be found for Nikon or Canon.

Rachel - I come from a film background, so I tend to be precise. I would shoot an entire session on two rolls of film, which is 72 frames. Who here shoots hundreds of frames in a session now? You don't need to take hundreds. Get a small memory card and dedicate it to this - take 72 frames, and take pictures like your lens in back is broken and you can't see what you've shot.

Do it with no in camera deletion. Record the lighting and what you were doing at the time. Figure out your f stop and shutter speed. Don't even look at the back of your camera. You'll get to 72 so fast, but this will force you to be careful. You have to slow down and force yourself to think of what you're doing. Explore your city or take your kids on a scavenger hunt.

Amanda - I go out once a year to shoot with other photographers in Savannah where I could come back with 150 images and another photographer would come back with 1,000. She had to go through editing for 1,000 photos. That time matters. When someone writes a story, the editing is where you get to the right story.

You hate to see typos in a book. There has always been an editor going through books to kill off the run on sentences. They add elements, too, to make it more interesting. They make more exciting verbs or adverbs to liven up your story. Editing will do that for us. It takes a so so image and brings it to life.

The basic workflow is to import, tag and select. How are you managing your files so you can find them? If you use editing software, you can tag your images so you can find them easily later. I can find just about any photo I've taken in the last three years because of this.

Go through and select the pictures you want to use right away, the ones that are going to tell your story the best. Then you correct the problems. Almost all photos have some problem that needs to be fixed, white balance, composition, exposure. We'll possibly add some creative effects. Then well crop or recompose the photo. We'll sharpen the photo before resizing and possibly watermarking. Tip sheet: http://bit.lyhelpsheet

And yes, there was more... but this is where I had to leave.  My favorite tip?  Tagging the photos.  You have no idea how often I am searching for a photo I know I took but can't find easily.  If you have the rest of this session, please let me know!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ten Ways To Make Your Photos Blogworthy

Before BlogHer in New York, I attended Blographer, a first time event put on by Adorama.  It was a full day session focused on photography, specifically blog photography.  And you all know I can use all the help I can get in that area!

The first session was on ten ways to make your photos blogworthy, featuring Amanda Bottoms and Erin Cobb.  I learned so much that my head is still spinning.  And the almost two hours of this session?  It wasn't nearly enough.

Erin - You might know that in the south we say "Bless your heart," but here's the more authentic Huntsville. It is "God love her," so you can use those two things. "Bless her heart, but she doesn't know what she's doing up on stage, bless her heart."

I'm going to tell you a little about my blog and my journey to where I am now. I started to blog when my daughter was born in 2006 - for my mother, and that was it. I was in Colorado and had a baby. I never had any aspirations beyond that. I had a little point and shoot and that was great. I wanted something better, and it went from there.

About 10 months after I started blogging, a picture I took of my daughter won the BabyGap contest. Then all of a sudden, people cared about my blog, so it started getting hits and my friends and friends of friends started saying, "Can you take pictures of my child?" I decided I will, but you have to pay me. I started a photography business and moved to Alabama. I have a blog for my life and a blog for my business. 

Huntsville is the land of engineers - the largest per capita in the country. How do you know an outgoing engineer? He looks at other people's shoes. How do you know an outgoing blogger? She looks at other people's phones....

 Amanda - I am a full time blogger. I also live in Huntsville with my husband and two dogs. My photography and blog are both food and travel oriented. My blog focuses a lot on food, travel, and landscape, with a lot of desserts. That's what I take pictures of.

Erin - Empower your images to tell your story. I'm going to tell you a little about each of my blogs. The Pig Bear is my personal blog. I feel like whatever you're blogging about, food, shoes, engineers, work, kids, you have a story to tell. You have to have something you want to say to the world. The Pig Bear is the story of my family's life. There is a constant theme that runs through the blog, that life is fun and quirky and real and colorful. That's the story of my personal blog.

When I say it's real, we know everyone's' life has crappy stuff in it. I try to document that a little, but that's not what I want to remember about my life. I do blog positively knowing that my children will read it someday, and I want them to know that I treasure them. This is the story I want to remember.

My other blog is my business blog. My clients can go to my personal blog and my friends and readers can go to my business blog, but I keep them separate. I don't want my client's grandmother to have to read about my four year old's fit. The story I want to tell here is about a fun, exciting client experience.

I'm conscious with both these blogs who my audience it. On my personal blog, it's still my mom and my sister, and my friends and the guy who googled pig bear. On the business blog, it's my clients, my potential clients, other photographers, and the most important audience for me is the potential clients. I want to blog about this fun and engaging client experience to make people want to call me. If you know the overarching message you want to get across, you already know the images you need to capture and how you need to reinforce the story.

I always want to keep the things that I share in line with my overarching story. We want to remember that we're happy, that my house is warm, that we're quirky. And that we're real. The picture of my child crying is real, and we have to remember that, too. I try to feel the realness, too. On my business blog, I want to keep it engaging and fun. What mother of a teenage boy doesn't want to see her son mugging up with her to the camera? That's what I want to show on my business blog.

You know the story you want to tell, and now you have all these tools in your toolbox to tell that story. The trick is how to tell that story to your advantage. You've got perspective, the way you approach the scene in front of you - high or wide, close up or not, you've got shutter speed and aperture, you've got composition and storyboards - the series of images you use to reinforce your story.

A little about perspective. 
When you approach whatever you are photographing, before I take that shot, I am thinking, "What do I want to tell? What is the story here? What do I want to tell?" If I were sitting right here, there is the story that the girl in front is scared and everyone is staring at her, so I'd want to take a picture of me up front with some of us in the audience. I'm not just shooting everything. I'm thinking about what story I want to tell and then finding the images for this.

This picture (on the screen during the presentation - showing a baby in focus with the top of a little boy's head who is holding the baby) is about Baby Jude and being loved and adored. It's focused on him with my son there but not showing the child loving on him. About five minutes later, this is Ephraim loving on Baby Jude (focused on the boy's face, with the sleeping baby in the picture but not the focus), so it's focused on him and his face with Jude there just to show what he's loving.

You can use objects in your view to show your perspective. Having a door in the background really gives that perspective of peeking around a door. Closer in really gives that perspective of being a part of the scene. Really focusing on the eyes with a big aperture will give you a lot of attitude from the subject of what she can do.

Find the Best Light 
Amanda - One of the best tools you have in your toolbox is the light. Finding where the light is coming from, how it hits your subject, honestly it's not something I thought about at first. I didn’t see where it showcases the highlights and the shadows. It took a long time for me to learn to take the best photos to evoke emotion.  I have to find the best light in my house and move things to that area. It can take things from dull and flat with flash lighting to dramatic if you have shadows and highlights.

This is my kitchen (another photo onscreen), where I take most of the photos in my house. That's good since I take a lot of photos of food. I get a lot of natural light from the big window. I get the sun in the morning. Right after the sunspot goes away, it's completely flooded in the room. I turn off all other lights in the house because you don't want any competing light because that's going to mess up your white balance. I like to have the light just flooding the picture.  If I don't have enough light, I will move the table by the window to get as much light as I can possibly have.

Here's an example of a picture I took in that lighting. The light hits the food directly from the side and highlights the chocolate. What's also great about the table is I love being able to just walk around the table and look to see where the light is hitting. The first picture shows the light hitting it from the side. The next photo has it hitting from the back where it has shadows in the front where it then highlights the frosting on the macaroons.

Every picture you ever drew of an apple has the shiny spot on it. We drew it in because our brains know. Find the shiny spot - the interesting highlights - to take the photo. Light coming from the top just isn't as interesting as light coming from the side or backlight. If you don't have a good shiny spot, look for the shadows. You can see them up front on the won ton wrappers, because if you have front lighting, you can't see the dimension as well.

That's indoor lighting. Now if you're outside, look for some shade to take pictures, but you want to treat it like that big window. Look for a lot of sun and then move just out of it into shade. You don't want to see a bright patch of sun in your background because that will be way too bright. It's the same type of light as indoors with full natural light. Then walk around and see before you even take your picture to see where the best light is. That way you can take 8 instead of 50 photos to get a winner.  Look to see where the highlights are hitting the subject. Have the person look at you to see where the catch lights hit their eyes, and that's where you want to take that photo.

If you're ever outside and want to get that beautiful landscape shot with a bright blue sky, shoot with the sun behind you, hitting whatever you want to photograph. Shooting towards the sun will give you a white blown out sky. Turn a 180, and you'll have a bright blue sky that's illuminated with gorgeous shadows and reflections. For outdoor shooting if you do want to have the sun behind someone, use the popup flash on your camera. The bright light coming in will make the person completely silhouetted. 

Expose for the light. Take your camera to where you can just see the sky and hold down the shutter to focus, then move down so items are silhouetted as you want. It depends on what you want to see. Move your subjects to the light.

This photo was taken in a pitch black restaurant where we could barely see the food (gorgeous picture of a dinner that looks fully lit). We want to go out to eat during normal times, but we want to take pictures of our food anyway. You could always use your flash, but I like light coming in from other directions. I have the candle that I moved closer to the food. There is a bright light to the side, where I had a friend turn on her phone to illuminate the food, and it looks like daylight. Most phones have a flashlight app, but that would be too harsh. Hold it at a high angle, to a blank browser page so it's a white screen.

Be Consistent in Style & Skill 
Erin - I feel like when I am about to click on Amanda’s blog, I know exactly what I'm going to see. You have an expectation of a brand and what you'll get from it. Use GAP, Diet Coke, and Google as examples. You know how it will make you feel.

Every person is a brand; every baby has a blog. Did you know that two years ago, 92% of two year olds and under had an online footprint from a picture or a name on the internet? When someone sees you coming, they have a thought about how they're going to feel about you, what you're going to say, or how you're going to say it. It's the same thing with your blog and the pictures you put on your blog.

It could not be more important for you to be consistent with your style and skill. There's nothing more frustrating than not knowing how many pictures they're going to put up or if they're going to be good or not. Really establish who they are and what they do. You have an expectation. When my clients come to my business bog, they know they'll see cute families and girls, adorable babies, and happy images.

First, set the expectation through your images what their experience is going to be, then live up to it every time. On my personal blog, I’ve established that story. It's going to be warm and fun and engaging. It's going to be a story in the photos. You're working with this in every post to live up to the expectation to reaffirm the brand. You may not think you have one, but you do.

Don't forget about that little bit of fun and spark every now and then. Even Coke has Vanilla Coke or Coke with Lime. Don't forget about that element of surprise. You know the product is reliable, but there's an extra little fun sometimes. You can do that on your blog, too, and it will help keep them coming back.

Use Aperture to Focus on Important Elements 

Amanda - One of the tools you have is aperture. There are things you want a lot in focus and others that you want just a little in focus. Let me tell you a little about aperture; it controls whether you have a lot or a little in focus, if it's a blurry background or whether you have it all in there. If you have a small number (f2.8) it's open wide and the background will be blurry. If it's a larger number, then it will be all in focus. It's AV in Canon and A in Nikon (and Sony) then turn the dial down as far down as you can go. One of my favorites is the Canon 50mm 1.8 lens that's about $100. It's how I get the backgrounds to beautifully blurry.

When you're doing a blurry background, make sure it's an interesting background. If it's just a white or solid background, it won't have bokeh or be interesting. A picture of perfume sitting in front of a ton of jewelry is reflecting light off the beads. Look for repetitive objects, trees and bushes are fabulous and Christmas lights are great, too. Set it up before you take your shot. That's what makes great bokeh.

If you want everything in focus, you can go up to 22. Turn the dial all the way up to do that. It's a narrow aperture with just a little light coming through, so you need a lot of light to come through. That will bring everything into focus. This is something that I use a lot for landscapes. I want the story to include everything. One of my favorite things about using a high F number like 22 is that if you're taking a picture of the sun or any kind of light, it will create that awesome sun flare. It works all the time whether it's coming through trees or shooting straight at the sun. It works at night with streetlights, too.

Use your Shutter Speed to Dramatically Freeze or Blur Motion 
Amanda - You can use shutter speed to tell your story to either dramatically freeze or blur and slow down motion. When I go outside and I want to take photos of action, the first thing I do it put my camera in Shutter Priority Mode - TV in Cannon and S in Nikon (P for Sony). If you see inch marks on your screen, that's actually seconds for your shutter speed. You need a lot of light because the shutter doesn't open as wide. I turn it to 500 and, you'll capture the action. A high number is a fast shutter speed and it will freeze. The camera will handle everything else but the shutter speed.

On the flip side of that, you can use an extremely slow shutter speed to create a dramatic motion effect, but you need a tripod or something to keep it steady. It's recording the whole time the shutter is open for a quarter of a second or five seconds or thirty seconds. Nothing else in the background (of a photograph shown on the screen) moves but the water, so the background is in focus but the water is blurry. If you move at all, then it won't work. This is great for places that are action central where you don't want to have people or cars in the photo but instead shows the image you want to see.

If you're going to use a tripod, use a quick self-timer mode like 2 seconds or something. Any shake or movement on the camera will shake or blur it. Even pressing the shutter button will shake the camera. I press the shutter then get away from the camera while it's taking so the camera has time to steady itself.

The next time you're taking a photo, think about what images might benefit from a slow shutter speed. If I'm going to do photos of water, I love a slow shutter speed because it gives a slow dreamy effect. The water is choppy and looks flat with no interest to it. There are always railings in places I seem to go, where I can turn on the self-timer and set the shutter speed and let it record. It makes a more interesting picture. If you shoot in manual mode, you can up the aperture to get sunburst, too.

Select Images That Support Your Style/Brand 
Erin - You've taken all these pictures and now need to choose which ones to share that support your brand. I feel like I can see a picture on the Internet and know Amanda took that photo. There is a very signature look. I know that feels daunting if you aren't super familiar with your camera. If you’re consistent over time and figure out what you like, you'll find what's consistent with your brand.  Once you have defined your style and brand, work with each post to enhance and strengthen it. Whatever your style is, make it your goal that your images be instantly recognizable even without your name attached.

With a blog, you don't really know exactly who is reading your blog. You can look at Google stats, but it doesn't tell everything. When it comes to blogging, think about the story first - and mine typically are of children, family and people. I just don't take photos, or care to take photos, without people. I typically know the story I want to tell.

Do you ever see interactions where you want to freeze them and they're so poignant or special or funny? That's the story I want to grab. I don't necessarily know the tone that my blog post will take. I don't know when I take that picture of my kids snuggled in the bed on a Saturday if I’m going to go funny or poignant with it. It's when I'm editing the photos that I really start to form the tone and post in my mind. I take the images and know the story then craft the post around it.

The tone influences the number of images I share and the order in which I share them. If I'm doing a story about my day in New York or Blographer, then I'll share a lot of pictures and punctuate it with information. Storytelling posts do really well with lots of images. The sweet or poignant stories tend to not need as many images.

Some of the blogs I really like frustrate me because I feel like a quarter of the way through the blog post, it has already told the story and it just goes on and on. It feels like I already know this story and it's just too sweet. If it's sweet, keep it short. It gets too heavy when it's serious. Keep it short. With storytelling, you can use more images to tell the story. This is my husband and daughter playing soccer. My daughter has learned to do the "What's that?" to my husband who plays the fool for her.

Oftentimes, leaving an image out can do more for your blog than putting it in? Does this image support my story without being redundant? It may just be so cute and a different angle, but no one cares if it's a different angle. Be sure that each image you choose supports without retelling. Does it bring something new to the story?

Is it safe or anonymous enough to be respectful of friends and family? Everyone has a different line, and you have to know that. Most people I'm photographing know that I'm going to put things on the blog, and if they don't want up, they'll tell me. Nothing will make your images less blogworthy than friends and family not wanting to be up there.

Shoot with Skill and Edit for Impact 
Erin - I’m going to tell you something embarrassing about me. In 2005, my daughter was born. I learned everything my point and shoot, including shooting in manual mode. I knew all it could do. Then I decided it was time for a new camera and got a Canon Rebel. I had no aspirations to be a photographer, so I started researching online. I had no idea that Photoshop existed. I didn't know about image editing at all. I saw these pictures, in a time where oversaturation was big, and I spent a good six months working my camera to look like these photos that I know now had been edited.

I'm really glad I did this though because it taught me to shoot with skill. When I discovered Photoshop and I can edit, that's great, but I still know how to take that photograph. My editing philosophy is that Photoshop is like makeup. It works best when it looks like you're not using any. You don't want people to walk into a room and say, "Wow, did you see her eyeliner?" You want them to notice your eyes.

If you really like to go for it in Photoshop, then go for it. I sell a Photoshop product that teaches people to use it like I do, so I'm not bashing Photoshop. I want images to point back to your story and not to the editing that you did. You want them to notice your image.

Lighten to emphasize Detail 
Amanda - The first thing is the light. I personally think that most photos need a little bit of lightening. You can do this in editing photo tool you have from Picasa or just uploading it somewhere. Everyone is going to have a tool to lighten. It's when it's a little bit brighter that lets you emphasize your detail and enhance it. You don't want to do it too bright because I look at blogs and look at things where it's just too bright all the time.  It's always ok to shoot just a little darker than you think because you can fix that. You can't really do too much when it's too bright and light.

Train your eye to recognize proper white balance 
Amanda - There's nothing worse than seeing a picture that is great but just a little too blue or just a little too yellow. All I do when it's a little too blue is add a little warmth. It looks like I also lightened it or saturated it, but I didn't. It instantly adds so much to just add a little warmth. If a plate has anything white in your photo, use that as your guide. If you aren't sure, start playing around with a photo to see what makes it look better or worse. If it's too yellow, you can cool it down a bit, which will help you see the colors a little better. The items just pop out a little bit more just from adjusting the white balance.

Finally - Prepare properly for the Web 
Erin - Back when I discovered about editing, I learned about RAW. Photographers have a huge debate about this. I started shooting in RAW. I kept dumping all these RAW files with no in camera processing with all the original data in there, which gives you more freedom to change them, but then all I was doing was to go into a RAW processor without touching any of the sliders and turning them into .jpgs. That wasted so much time for me. And now I shoot for the last 5 years shooting in jpg.  I say this because RAW is a superior file type. It is. But if you find yourself pulling your RAW files into your converter and not doing anything with them, save yourself time and heartache by shooting in .jpg.

The last thing is preparing for the web. Karen Russell lives in Oregon and teaches online and in person. I went out to see her about two years ago about my editing processes. We spent time together, and it was great. "There was something else," she kept saying that I was doing to make my photos better. After days, we decided to do a post about me being out there. I started to prepare mine for the web. And that's where she figured out what I'm doing differently.

I think that there are bloggers who don't know that you have the option to prepare your file for proper display on the web. It resizes to a smaller file size so it uploads faster, and when you put them up there that way, it looks just a little softer and smoother. The web does something different from when you print it.

If you sharpen it properly for the web, suddenly you'll figure out how much better it looks. I have a web sharpen action that I will give to anyone who emails me. Do some research into this if you aren't already properly preparing your images for the web. There are benefits and drawbacks to this. One of the benefits is that you can upload them faster because they're smaller. If people were to download your images to your computer and print them, then they can't print a 16x20 from your web file because it will look terrible. Another benefit is that your images will look sharper and display better for your audience.

A drawback is to think about the purpose of your blog. If your purpose is to document your blog and then slurp it and put it into a blog book that you can save as your family history. If you have resized all your photos for the web, every single one of your files will have to be replaced manually because you will get messages that they won't print well. If your purpose is to present your images in the best way possible or you don't mind putting in the extra time, then go ahead and do this. As far as the optimal pixel size, it depends on your blog and whatever site you're putting them up on. Amanda will discuss this.

Question and Answer
Audience: Do you watermark your photos? 
Erin - On my personal blog, I have given up the fight on my personal blog because it takes a lot of time. I do not watermark my images. I try to make them inaccessible by disabling right click. There is a great picture of mine with a couple horrible quotes that is floating around the web. Those sorts of annoying thing happen. On my business blog, I have my logo on every picture that is resized for the web and has a border around them. I don't know if this is the right answer, but it's what I do.
Amanda - I depends on what image you want to present. If that's what you want to do, go for it. A lot of cameras now will include your copyright information on every picture you take.

Audience: As a photographer and a blogger, are you calibrating your pictures for print?
Erin - I am calibrating my pictures for print. Unless you're a photographer, no one else notices it or cares.
Amanda - My philosophy in life is to get it to 95%, and that's good enough. I get it there and then just don't care about that last 5%.
Erin - I am a professional photography making my money from selling pictures, Amanda is a professional blogger.

Audience: With both a personal and a business blog, how do much time do you spend?
Erin - I've toyed with putting them together. I do a sneak peek for every session, and I do three sessions a week. I also do some filler things. I try to blog on my personal blog every other day or so, but that falls to the side when I get busy. I spend 5 to 6 hours a week blogging. My business has been in my house until last month, so now I'm trying to really recommit my evenings to things I want to do, so I blog on my personal blog more often.

Audience: Do you ever put personal stories on your business site?
Erin - I may put some there.  For example I may tell them that I came to New York. I do have a link saying that this is my personal blog if you want to click on it. I want them to have a choice. A lot of my clients do read my personal blog, but I don't want to confuse the grandmothers. When they come to see the sneak peek of their child, I don't want them to have to read it (my personal blog).

Audience: When did you start to figure out how to blog the personal stuff after you just started the blog for your mom? 
Erin - For me, it has changed. My voice isn't the same, and it's constantly changing. I am growing as a person, so I find myself influenced by other blogs I read, but I think I've found my confidence in myself after the GAP casting call, maybe about a year later.
Amanda - I have always been a blogger. I was a blogger when I was like 14 years old. We didn’t have Facebook back then. I was your typical 14 year old who wanted to plaster photos all over the internet. I used Geocities back then. I traveled a lot back then, too. I had family and friends all over that I wanted to keep in touch with, and I found the internet. I honestly did exactly what I'm still doing now. I put photos up and write about it. I met my husband when I was 20, and I was still keeping it up. For our one year anniversary, he bought me the domain name kevinandamanda. Even then, I had readers that I didn't know - not friends and family. I think two things to remember are that you have to talk about what you want. It's not real if it's not you. You won't enjoy it. Say it how you want to say it, how you would tell a friend. Sometimes I get stuck with the writing part. The photos are the voice of my blog. I pretend like I’m calling a friend on the phone. Also, your readers will let you know what they expect from you, so it's a balance. If I post 50,000 travel photos in a row, I know they want more food.
Erin - When Ephraim turned 2, we bought Someday someone will google him, and he can do what he wants with it someday.

Audience: How do you manage your SEO when you have a work blog and a photography blog, assuming you put your real name on both blogs? 
Erin - I'm not an SEO expert, but I want people to come to find my business blog when they google "Huntsville children's blog." I don't care if they google my name and find my personal blog because there is a link to my photography blog.
Audience:  Do you use other social media to promote your business blog?
Amanda - Yes, I use them all. I use a Facebook fan page. I use Twitter, but I resist Pinterest. I tried to resist Instagram. I'm addicted to that. If I could only use one social media, it would be Instagram. I do like Facebook, but the voice of my blog is photos, so I like the places I can share photos. I don’t do a lot of updates, but I'll share photos or a link back to my blog with what I'm sharing that day. Twitter does not come naturally to me. If I weren't a blogger, I don’t think I'd be on Twitter. It's not my thing, but I use it because it's where I can talk to other bloggers. I have found a lot of bloggers may not answer your email or Facebook, but they're good at answering on Twitter. I will promote my posts every time I write a new one, but I use Twitter to talk to other bloggers to build a relationship and network with them.

Audience: What do you use to publish?
Amanda - I use WordPress now.

Audience:  When you take pictures of other kids or when you travel, do you worry about that?
Erin - For my business, they’ve all signed a model release. I don't always ask friends and family, but they know that's what I do, so I figure they'll tell me. I'm cautious about what I share. Six years old is too old to show in underwear.
Amanda - We have someone talking about street photography later. That would be the person to ask.

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