Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Every Mom Should Own a Sort-of-Fancy Camera

Buying a $400 camera in 2008 was the best purchase I ever made. Babies don't keep. They grow up and become high school seniors, and get accepted to colleges like my son did this very week.

I am not a professional photographer. I am a hobbyist, a housewife, completely self taught and I have loved watching my kids grow up behind my camera lens. You can click on any of the photos in this post to see them full size.
Nikon D7000, ISO 200, 18-200mm lens at 75mm, f/5, 1/1000 second
Ilene on the Big Island of Hawaii playing her beloved ukulele.
I am strongly encouraging all the other moms and dads, especially of little ones, although it is never too late, to buy a nicer camera, learn a few basic photography skills, and capture your kids playing on a sandy beach at sunset in a bit-of-a-nicer way than your camera phone can (sorry it's true) before the kids are grown and gone.
Nikon D7000, ISO 320, F/5, 18-200mm lens at 40mm,1/6400 sec
Building sandcastles in 2013 on the Big Island of Hawaii.

If you want to start capturing your kids' childhood, I have just three tips to help you get on your way in the photography world:

Advice tip #1 You don't have to spend a fortune on the camera.
Nikon D40, ISO 200, 35mm lens, f/1.8, 1/3200
A broken stick becomes a Harry Potter wand
This is my first camera pictured with yours truly in 2008, the year I bought it. It is the Nikon D40 and I paid around $475 for it with the kit lens. It's not even made anymore but used they run around $140. A great starter camera. I still own it as a back up.

The camera below is my 2nd camera I bought in 2013. It is the Nikon D7000. I just sold it last week.  Here it is with the Nikon 35mm 1.8 lens attached in this photo. Best lens for your bucks!

Below is my 3rd and newest camera as of December 2015. It is the Nikon D750. After eight years of a photography hobby, this is where I am at now. A high-end, full frame dSLR. Giddyap!

I mention the above cameras only to illustrate that you can great photos no matter your budget. Whether you have $200 to spend on a used camera or $3,000 to spend. Knowledge is first, camera is second.
This is a basic kit lens that allows you to zoom in on kids and get great candid shots.

The above picture is a kit lens. You can get great photos with a kit lens. A kit lens is usually a basic (cheap) lens that comes with your dSLR camera. The above lens didn't come with the camera but the camera store had it on sale for $50 if I bought the camera. I just sold it for $75. I would say I got my money's worth.

A used camera with used lenses is a fantastic option.  I have sold camera equipment whenever I upgrade to fancier stuff. A basic dSLR camera is all I could afford 8 years ago. We were in a new house and money was tight. At the time, in fact, my Nikon D40 was all I needed as I didn't know a single photography term back then. I didn't know Aperture from Auto-Focus but I was willing to learn.

Nikon D40, 55-200mm lens at 78mm, ISO 200, f/4.5, 1/320 second, edited in Adobe Lightroom
You don't need a fancy location, your backyard will do just fine.
Advice tip #2 You can learn all you need to know on YouTube and blogs.  The above photo is not perfect, but to me it is priceless despite the basic 6-megapexel camera. Look at those faces eight years ago and you'll know the definition of priceless. I took that shot five months after I bought the camera. At that point I had learned enough about photography from You Tube tutorials and blogs to know that my skills mattered more than the camera. I knew that photographing children down on their level always makes a better photo.  So I took that photo laying on my elbows in the grass, in our backyard, just like the kids were doing.

I love Fro Knows Photo, especially his quick tips. He is hilarious. And I do recommend his Beginner's Guide to Getting Out of Auto, which costs around $60. His Quick Tip videos contain some of the same content. I also love Chelsea and Tony Northrup, maybe even more than Fro.

When I was just starting out I also loved the blog tutorials at I Heart Faces and Pioneer Woman. Read, read, read and you'll learn, learn, learn.

Nikon D40, ISO 200, 55-200mm lens @60mm, f/4.5
Hallie, age 5, admiring blossoms in Pennsylvania

Below is another shot from a few years later in 2013 (in our backyard again) where I also used the same rule--getting down on their level. I also made sure I blurred the background by using a low aperture. Once I bought my Nikon 35mm 1.8 lens I hardly used the others anymore. I love LOVED it that much--for portraits of my kids, photographing products for my website, and low-light indoor photography.

Four years have past between the above photo and this one below. See what I mean by priceless? My kids will never be that age again. I am so glad I took the time to learn how to take pretty good photos while they were still little.
Nikon D7000, Aperture Priority, ISO 250, 35mm lens, f/1.8, 1/2000 sec, edited in Adobe Lightroom
I love how a breeze was blowing hair across Hallie's face. 
I took the photo below using the 'rule of thirds'.  I could have taken it with Ilene centered, but it wouldn't have been as interesting. 

Composition will change everything when you are a beginner. If you are too scared to get out of Auto mode yet, at least focus on composition for a while. Composition is way more important than your camera or your lens. As Fro says in this quick rant, "a crappy photo, is a crappy photo, is a crappy photo."
Nikon D40, ISO 200, 55-200mm lens at 66mm, f/4.2, Manual mode, edited in Adobe Lightroom
Photos during golden hour (one hour before sunset) are the best for glowy lighting.

Advice Tip #3 You have to edit your photos. For the love of all that's holy and decent in this world, Please. Edit. Your. Photos. I prefer to shoot in RAW but even if you choose to shoot in JPG, you have to edit the photos. It's the difference between blah and Rah!

Nikon D750, ISO 800, Tamron 24-70mm lens at 70mm, 1/1000, f/2.8, edited in Adobe Lightroom
Ilene in 2015 looking very grown up. And cold as daylight is almost gone in December.
I started out using Photoshop Elements for editing and then three years ago made the best decision ever to switch to Adobe Lightroom for editing. Lightroom is easier and faster. And it keeps track of every edit you ever make to your photos so it is easy to go back and re-edit old photos as you learn new editing skills. Many of the old photos in this post were re-edited because my skills back then were seriously lacking. Get Lightroom! I just bought Lightroom 6 for $150 but you can do the online version for $10/month. I like these tutorials for Lightroom.

Wrapping it up.........

My main goal has been to capture great photos of my kids because let's face it, babies don't keep. They go from littles playing football.........
Nikon D40, ISO 200, 55-200mm at 95mm, f/5.0, 1/400 sec, edited in Photoshop Elements
Nathan age 10 camping and playing catch with Dad
To taking beautiful girls to Prom in just a handful of years. Eight years to be exact from the photo above (2008) to the one below. (2015)
Nikon D7000, ISO 500, 18-200mm at40mm, f/5.6, 1/100 sec, edited in Adobe Lightroom
Nathan age 17 heading to Provo High Prom
I hope this has inspired you to get a new/used camera, or get the one you already have that you may not use, learn a few skills, and capture the fragile moments in life. I am happy to answer any questions in the comments section. Happy shooting!
Nikon D7000, ISO 200, 18-300mm lens @ 27mm, f/5.6, 1/20 second, edited in Lightroom
Me and my girls at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, California 2015

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Quick and Dirty Meal Planning

I cook dinner almost every night, at least 5 times a week. We are a very busy and active family of five, just like you. Well, I don't know if you have 5 in your family, but I do know everyone is stinkin' busy these days.

Here's what I used to do....skip this paragraph and the next now if you don't care. You shouldn't care. I used to dinner plan by the month. Hated it. I mean it was useful when the kids were tiny and I would rather chew broken glass than take them to the grocery store. But there wasn't much flexibility.

So I switched to dinner planning every 10-12 days, kind of a stepped-down version of monthly. I made 5-7 dinner plans that I could rotate around bi-weekly. Initially this took days to do--to write down everything I knew how to cook or could cook from cookbooks. In this case I tried to have some easy prep meals with more complicated weekend meals on each Menu. The only problem is, I eventually wanted to try more and more new recipes so I trashed this method too.

Here's what I don't do:
1.  I do not scan Pinterest for recipes. They never work. Ok 90% of the time. Unless you know the bloggers recipes always work, do not be lulled in by Pinterest recipes! Pinterest and blogs have their place in meal planning, but not in 15-minute meal planning.
2.  I do not rip recipe pages out of magazines anymore. I just lose them.
3.  I do not go to the store without a dinner list. I used to go to Costco, spend $150 on groceries and then still have nothing to actually make for dinner.
4.  I do not read recipe books while dinner planning. More on that below.
5.  I do not plan lots of side dishes. More on that below.

Here's what I definitely do:
1. Plan 4-5 meals for the week.
2. I make sure at least 2-3 are fast meals, under 30 minutes total. (On the weekends I allow myself the treat of planning more elaborate meals and I make special trips to the store for those kinda meals.)
3. The others 2-3 recipes can not exceed 1 hour total unless it's a slow cooker meal or unless it can be prepped earlier in the day. Afternoons are insane when you have teenagers.
4. Make sure the meals have a variety--some meat, some vegetarian, some pasta. Would I prefer pasta every night? Yes, but my thighs would not.
5. Have a written list. Duh.

My current method is what I call the Quick and Dirty and here's how it works:

On Monday morning during breakfast I pick a cookbook I already love, or two cookbooks, no more, and turn to the pages I previously had marked with flags. (I read cookbooks like novels with Post-it flags while I watch TV at night.)

Do not just thumb through books! That's a time killer! You have to have things marked already in books, or maybe keep a running list of things you actually know how to make without written recipes, etc. (For me that would be tacos, spaghetti, etc) I really believe this is the bottleneck in the whole process of meal planning.  Do not skim through books! You'll spend 1-2 hours skimming, get frustrated, quit, and eat quesadillas all week.

I also keep a running list in the front cover of many of my go-to cookbooks. These are recipes I have already tried that were a success and I would definitely want to make again. Scanning these lists makes the process even faster.

I also try to just think of yummy things I really wanna try and go to America's Test Kitchen websites and search out that recipe and hope they have it. No one paid me to say this--I spend $70 bucks a year to subscribe to their websites and it's the best money ever spent. My tummy is so much happier. Plus if I do ignore all my rules and go to the store without a list I can quickly open the the Cooks Illustrated app and search out my favorites.

This was last week's menu. In the upper right hand corner of the page you can see where I wrote down four meals I want to make. (I never plan more than 4-5 dinners for a week because sometimes there is not time at all to cook, sometimes we go out to eat on the weekend, or sometimes I hate my family and I say "Screw you have cereal". 

On the left I write out the ingredients I need to shop for to cook that particular meal. I keep each meal separate because sometimes I can not find a particular ingredient, or one of the ingredients is too expensive, so at the grocery store I'll make the executive decision to trash that meal and therefore nix buying anymore ingredients in that section.

The asterisks are ideas for side dishes, depending on time, they may not happen. I keep lots of vegetables in the fridge so I rarely write down my sides. Remember this is Quick and Dirty Meal Planning, don't get bogged down in the details. If you have your main dishes planned the sides take care of themselves as time permits--bagged salad, sliced fruit, frozen peas.

Don't make the rookie mistake of thinking every meal has to have every dish planned out. Martha does not live in my house or yours.

However, I am flexible (see the screw you comment above) so if I see whole chickens are on sale, and I swear they never go on sale, I must roast chicken that week. I simply must. So butterflied roasted chicken became our 5th meal last week.

This planning process, if you can call it that, takes 15-20 minutes. That's all. And obviously it is only for dinner. I do not meal plan breakfast or lunch unless it is a special occasion.

For all other non-dinner groceries I need I keep a running list on the "Paperless" app on my iPhone. U update it throughout the week as we run out of staples.

If it's a good week I grocery shop at two stores--usually at the local grocery store and Costco. Otherwise, I hit the regular grocery store if there's a time crunch. Or if I just don't have it in me to go to two stores. Remember Quick and Dirty--you should be able to shop at just one store.

Then my list gets folded up and stuck to the refrigerator for the week for reference.

I mark the page for each recipe so I can easily find that recipe again. For this particular week all my recipes came from one book The Make-Ahead Cook and America's Test kitchen websites.

And that my friends is how this busy mom plans a week of home cooked meals in 20 minutes a week. We do not eat out. We do not order pizza. We don't have any good options for pizza delivery in Provo Utah anyway. They all bite. For those lazy days we eat quesadillas, or pancakes and once-in-a-while leftovers. My family won't eat leftovers anyway. It makes me angry.

Please keep in mind I have been cooking dinner for 21 years. If you are just starting out at menu planning, try as hard as you can to think of what will work for you. Maybe cooking just 2 dinners a week is all you can take at first. That's ok!

Eating at home is always healthier, cheaper, and I believe yummier. You can do it!

In case you are curious, here's what we ate last week:

Black Beans Chili with Corn Muffins

Sesame Noodles made with leftover roasted chicken and Asian Slaw (just a bag of cole slaw and Asian salad dressing):

Chicken in Foil with Potatoes and Carrots

And Slow-cooker Beef and Barley Soup. I forgot to take a picture of that one!


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