Christmas Eve!!

It’s Christmas Eve! It’s Christmas Eve!!! Sometimes I think that I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day because of the anticipation and all of the traditions I associate with it. Growing up, the Christmas Day festivities were usually over by 10 AM, but on Christmas Eve we’d play a ton of Christmas music, put up the tree, drive around looking at lights, and watch the classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This year is particularly exciting because I get to teach all of my favorite traditions to Trey and learn some of his.

On the more intimidating side, I also have to learn how to make my family’s traditional recipes. We have three really traditional Christmas recipes: Christmas Bread (my mom was 50 before she was entrusted with that recipe, though, so it’ll probably be awhile before I am allowed to try it ;-) ), Christmas Rolls, and our special sugar cookie recipe. Originally I was going to try to make both the rolls and the cookies, but the directions for both were a little overwhelming (who knew that cookies could be complicated?). Instead, I decided to try the rolls and learn how to make the cookies next year.

Here are all my supplies complete with Spotify set to a Christmas playlist =)

Christmas Rolls_0001

*Note the package of yeast. This was my first time ever working with yeast and I was super scared it wouldn’t rise.

Christmas Rolls_0002

But they did rise! They’re not nearly as pretty as my Mom’s or Grandma’s, but they’re still yummy =)

Christmas Rolls_0003


Do you have any Christmas Eve traditions?

Better Photography with ANY Camera: Exposure

Last week on Better Photography, I briefly went over the aspects of exposure. Perhaps too briefly. So for the next couple of posts I’m going to break each aspect down and really show you what I was talking about.

As I mentioned last week, exposure is the brightness/darkness of an image. The photograph on the left is over-exposed, the one in the middle is (more or less) correctly exposed, and the one on the right is under exposed.


I say more or less correctly exposed, because correct exposure is somewhat subjective. In general the objective is to expose the image so it appears most like how the human eye saw it in real life. Of course, photography isn’t just used for documentation, and artists tend to have their own ideas about how things should look, whether it’s technically correct or not. That being said, a good exposure generally has some areas of true black as well as some areas of true white.

Now how do you get an exposure? Well all cameras give you an automatic exposure, most allow you to adjust that exposure, and some give you options such as Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual (we’ll be talking about those last three in future posts). Automatic exposure works quite well in most situations: taking pictures of the kids, taking pictures of your garden, taking pictures of the tiger at the zoo, etc. Auto exposure works by averaging out the tones in the image and adjusting them so that they average out to neutral gray.

I took a pair of black shorts and a white t-shirt and laid them next to each other for this illustration.


This pictures is properly exposed. The camera read the dark tones on the left side of the image and averaged them with the light tones on the right side of the image to make neutral gray. Because neutral gray is 50% black and 50% white and the real life scene was 50% black and 50% white, the picture came out right. If you adjust the real life ratios, however, the camera doesn’t do so well.


In this picture the shorts were a much larger percentage of the picture. In order to still get an image that averaged out to neutral gray, the camera had to lighten the dark tones of the shorts and completely over expose the white shirt. Now you know that the shorts are supposed to be darker than that, but the camera doesn’t have any idea what it’s shooting. The shorts could be gray for all it knows.


In this picture, the shirt is a larger part of the frame, and you can see that it is almost the same color as the shorts were in the previous photo. It’s a little bit lighter simply because the edge of black along the left side adjusts the average.

Ok so what’s the point of this, other than if you’re photographing a white shirt with a black pair of pants you should divide the frame equally to get a proper exposure? Most cameras give you an exposure adjustment option that looks something like this:


or like this:



and it’s usually called exposure compensation. With this tool and your understanding of your camera’s auto exposure, you can actually get the exposure you want. Pretend you’re taking a picture of the white shirt and you want it to actually look white. Well you know your camera is going to try to make the whole image gray (darker than what you want) so you can just go to your exposure compensation and make it a couple notches (stops for the vocabulary experts out there) brighter. How many stops? Well that’s going to depend on your situation, but with a little trial and error (and a very patient shirt), you should figure it out pretty quickly ;-)

Here’s a real life example for people who don’t routinely photograph their laundry:


This is the auto exposure of my supposed-to-be-black Labrador waiting for his piece of cheese. See how he almost looks chocolate instead? Yeah, so I turned my exposure down a bit, and took this shot.


(The 15th piece of cheese isn’t nearly as interesting as the 3rd… I want to play!!)

With a more patient subject, I would have picked an exposure in between the two that I shot, but the whole “sit, stay, stay, NO! sit, stay, Ugh! sit. Good boy! stay. good boooy, stay, no!” routine was getting old, and as long as you’re not too far off, exposure is an easy thing to adjust later. It’s always best to get it right in camera (and it saves you a ton of time later), but at least you know that it’s not the end of the world if you didn’t nail it perfectly to begin with.

These are my adjusted versions. You can tell that the originally over-exposed image looks less “edited” but you can’t fix the slight blurriness in his eyes from the slow shutter speed. The originally under-exposed image is more contrasty and brightening it increased the visibility of graininess in the shadows.


Well that pretty much covers exposure in the general sense. Let me know if you have any questions, and next time we’ll be talking about aperture!


Lucy // Charleston Baby Photography

Meet Miss Lucy! She’s a little over two months old and loves to smile (right up until you pull out a camera ;-) ) She loves her lion toy and thinks her hands are yummy. Mommy thinks she might be a piano player when she grows up because she has long fingers, but no matter what, Daddy knows she’ll be an NC State fan =)























Better Photography with ANY Camera: Christmas Lights

Today we’re doing a special Christmas edition of Better Photography! Susan wanted to know how to take better pictures of Christmas lights, and I figured that, at this time of year, that might be something a lot of people are interested in. Plus we just decorated out tree last night, and I want to show it off =)

In these examples I’ll be using our Christmas tree, but the same techniques should apply to lights on your house as well. I started out in a fully lit house with my camera on auto:

Christmas Tree_0005

Gross. The flash went off, and on-camera flash almost always looks bad. Plus the whole point was to capture the lights, which are completely overwhelmed by the flash. Ok so let’s try it again with the flash turned off (still on auto).

Christmas Tree_0006

Still gross. Now you can see the lights, but it’s all blurry. Pause for a quick lesson in exposure.

Exposure is the lightness or darkness of an image. The automatic exposure on your camera wants the tones (blacks, whites, and grays if you were to make your image black and white) of your image to average out to neutral gray (50% black). If you were to photograph an entirely white scene (think snowman in the snow), it would come out gray. If you were to photograph an entirely black scene (think black kitten on a black bedspread), it would come out gray. For most everyday photography, however, it does quite well. Your camera has three basic ways to adjust the exposure of a photograph: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Aperture is the hole through which light enters your camera. Ever made a pinhole camera? The pinhole is the aperture. Unlike a pinhole camera, the size of the aperture on your camera is adjustable. Wider aperture = more light = brighter exposure. Smaller aperture = less light = darker exposure. The aperture also effects the depth of field as we talked about in the Composition article.

Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open when it takes a picture. On the pinhole camera the shutter is the piece of cardboard you put over the hole, and the shutter speed is the number of seconds you left the hole uncovered. On your camera the shutter speeds are fractions of a second, but the same theory applies: longer shutter speed = more light = brighter exposure and vice versa. Shutter speed is also what creates motion blur. A fast shutter speed can freeze an athlete in midair, while you can use a slower shutter speed to create cool blur of a waterfall.

ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. If you’ve ever taken pictures with film, it’s the film speed. A higher ISO is more sensitive to light so it creates a brighter image, while a lower ISO is less sensitive and creates a darker image. Higher ISOs also lead to graininess in a photograph and, in general, a poorer image quality.

Ok now back to our blurry Christmas tree photo. Without the bright light of the flash to brighten the image, the camera needed to make some sacrifices to get a proper exposure. It probably turned its ISO up as high as possible without creating an overly grainy image. It probably set its aperture as wide as it could, but it still had to slow down its shutter speed to a point where my hand was shaking too much to create a sharp picture.

So I improvised. For the next picture I leaned against a wall, tucked my arms in close to my body, and breathed out slowly while the shutter was open. I also used my camera’s 2 second timer to eliminate the shake caused by pressing the shutter button. (The camera’s timer generally defaults to 10 seconds for self portraits, but you can usually change it in the menu to something shorter.)

Christmas Tree_0007

Ok so definitely not gross, but I think we can do better. I didn’t really like the huge shadow on the wall from our living room ceiling light, and I wanted the lights to stand out more because I was really taking a picture of them more than the ornaments or the tree itself. So I turned off all of the lights in the house, used my timer, and breathed slowly again.

Christmas Tree_0008

Now we have a picture that’s about the lights, but it’s really dark. Auto exposure has a limit to how slow of a shutter speed it will choose (just like it has limits to its ISO). This is probably as far as you can get with a phone camera (at least with my phone camera), but if you have any kind of dedicated camera, we can go one step further.

I mentioned earlier that aperture effects the depth of field (the amount of distance that is in focus). Well it can also make lights twinkle. A wide aperture will create very circular lights (like the ones above), but a small aperture will turn the lights into little stars.

If you have a camera with no manual settings, you can put your camera on “landscape” mode and set it on a tripod (or kitchen chair, or beanbag, or step ladder, etc) and it should choose a smaller aperture. I say should because my point and shoot is having bigger problems than batteries, so I wasn’t able to test this option :-(

If you have a camera with an “Aperture Priority” mode (usually designated by an “A” on the dial), you can set a small aperture (such as f8) and your camera will automatically choose a shutter speed that it thinks is appropriate. You will want to use some form of stability and the self timer, but your camera may still choose a darker exposure than you would like.

If you have a camera with a “Manual” mode (usually designated by an “M” on the dial), you can set a small aperture and a long shutter speed. Since you’re using a tripod of some sort and photographing a stationary tree (if your tree is moving this won’t work at all and you may want to think about buying a new stand ;-) ) you can use a really long shutter speed and still get a crisp image. I used a 20 second exposure for the following image.

Because you’re choosing both the shutter speed and the aperture, you may be concerned about getting a proper exposure. If you have manual setting, your camera probably also has a light meter of some kind on the display (to tell you if it thinks the image is too dark or bright). You can flip through your camera manual to find where the meter is and how to read it since every camera is different, or you can just use the trial and error method since your tree isn’t going anywhere and you don’t have to pay for each picture =)

Christmas Tree_0009

This is my final tree picture and I’m pretty happy with it. The only thing I don’t like is the background cluttered with the window and the two cords. I would have preferred to shoot the tree from the left side, so that the tree would hide the one cord and I would only have a plain wall in the background. That would have required moving the couch, though, and I really didn’t have anywhere to put it. Also some presents and a tree skirt might have helped…

Anyway, I hope this answered your questioned, Susan, and if anyone else benefited that’s a bonus =) Oh and by the way, I love hearing your suggestions, so if you have any burning photography questions or ideas for future Better Photography posts, please let me know!

It’s Christmas Time!

This is Trey and my first Christmas together, so we don’t really have a set of traditions to follow yet. All he knows is the way his family celebrates, and all I know is the way my family celebrates, but this year we’re getting to do things our own way! I’m really excited about starting our own traditions, but I think not being around our families makes it a little harder to get into the Christmas spirit (the seventy degree weather probably isn’t helping either, but I refuse to complain about that :-) ) This past weekend, however, we went shopping for lights, wrapping paper, and a wreath. Then we went to our church’s incredible Christmas show on Saturday night, and last night we went tree shopping!

Now I don’t know the traditions behind your family’s Christmas tree, but I have a strong preference for live trees. Don’t get me wrong, fake trees are way more practical (not such a fire hazard, no needles to vacuum, it stays green as long as you want to keep it up, it’s cheaper, etc.), but there’s just something about going out in the cold to cut down the perfect tree, the way it makes the whole house smell like Christmas, and even the mess that the needles make on the floor that I love.

Trey’s never had a live tree, but he was willing to indulge me, so we went looking for a tree farm. Except we live in the city and Google maps indicated that the closest tree farm was halfway to Columbia. Ok so maybe we wouldn’t be cutting down our own tree (it’s not like it was cold anyway), but picking one up from Lowes just seemed wrong. And then we passed a tent on the side of the road filled with trees! It reminded me a lot of the pickup trucks filled with vegetables that you see sometimes, so we pulled in.

A big signed indicated these Frasier Firs were from the mountains of North Carolina…

Ok maybe not exactly like the pickup trucks. Still they were nice trees, and it was a lot better than Lowes. Plus they had all the trees named =) Vinnie was our favorite, and so far, the dog seems completely uninterested. Here’s hoping that lasts once the decorations are up ;-)

Cole’s Day at the Doctor

Yesterday Cole man had his appointment, the appointment that all male dogs would dread if they had any idea what was going on. Thankfully, he had no idea what was going on so he was quite happy on the ride over. He was even more happy when we arrived at a place filled with interesting doggy smells, and he couldn’t contain his excitement when we walked inside to find a line of new friends, all eagerly bouncing about while their owners attempted to fill out paperwork. Ah the bliss of ignorance.

Cole’s last few hours of manhood

Of course picking him up that afternoon was a much different scene. He had a giant cone on his head and was obviously a bit tipsy. He walked out quite sedately… into the wall. I suppose the difference between floor-to-ceiling windows and an open door is a bit subtle, but I think it’s one he normally would have figured out after the first collision.

Once we got home he was like a much older, calmer version of himself. He laid around quietly while we cooked dinner, washed dishes, and even built a table, strewing the floor with his favorite cardboard toys.

His pain meds must have worn off this morning though, because he’s back to being crazy and seems quite unaware of any difference =)

Natalie // Charleston Baby Photography

Little Natalie Grace was born on October 31, and she is already so full of spunk!

Laurin and Michael, I had a blast working with you this weekend, and I hope you love the pictures =)

Better Photography with ANY Camera: Composition

After lighting, composition is the most important thing you can do to improve your photography. Composition is how you communicate the focus of the image to your audience. Good composition is like a well-formatted paper with headings and paragraphs while poor composition is more akin to a long block of 12pt font.

Of course in order to write an appropriate heading, you first have to know what the paper is about. Digital photography and cheap memory cards do not make “spray and pray” an acceptable shooting method. Think before you shoot and know why you’re taking a photo. What is it about the sunrise that makes it so beautiful? Is it the clouds lit up with color or the tall grass turning orange as it waves in the breeze? By all means include both aspects, but the composition will be stronger and your viewers will appreciate your focus if you give one more frame space than the other. I was fresh out of sunrises setting grass on fire this afternoon, but you can see the same basic principle with the lovely pond out back.

Once you know what your focus is, composition becomes a simple matter of highlighting it. Now there are a number of rules for highlighting a focal point based around the Golden Ratio (including golden rectangles, golden triangles, and the golden spiral),


but for simplicity’s sake we’re just going to briefly cover the Rule of Thirds, because it’s the easiest to understand and put into practice. The Rule of Thirds divides the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, resulting in nine rectangles.

Once you have that image in your head, you simply place your subject along one of the four lines or at one of the four intersections, and voilà, you have a better photograph!

Three other techniques that can draw attention to your focal point are leading lines, tone/color, and depth of field.

You’ve seen the picture of the teenage girl standing on the railroad tracks? Those are leading lines. The converging lines of the railroad point to the subject. In the same way (though not nearly so cliché) the bands of black, white, and gray on this piano converge and point to the hands playing it. It’s good to remember that lines can be distracting as well, so try to avoid power lines cutting through heads or yellow topped chain link fences running across your photo.

You’ve also seen the black tree in a field of snow? Any small bit of contrasting tone or color will draw attention. In a crowd of black umbrellas you’ll notice the red one and yellow rain boots will stand out in a busy city scene. In the same way, that stop sign in the background of your family photo is going to be a distraction as is the one dark smudge on the white table cloth you use as a backdrop for your ebay sales.

Depth of field refers to the amount of distance that is in focus. Most landscape shots will have a depth of field encompassing many miles, while a macro shot of a lady bug may only have a fraction of an inch in focus. The viewer’s eye will naturally be drawn to whatever is in focus, so having less stuff in focus simplifies the image. With a cellphone camera (at least with my cellphone camera) there’s not really anything you can do to change the depth of field because it was designed to have everything in focus all the time. With pretty much any other camera, however, there are a lot of things you can do so that only your subject is in focus.

  • You can zoom in. Even if you stand further away to keep the composition the same, a longer lens will have a shallower depth of field.
  • You can stand closer. This works with your eyes too- try looking at your hand close to your face vs at arms length and notice how whatever’s behind it becomes more/less in focus.
  •  If you have a camera with manual controls, you can set a wider aperture. Even cameras that don’t have manual controls usually have “scene modes” where you can choose between portrait, landscape, macro, etc. With those cameras, portrait mode is usually designed to automatically pick a wider aperture.

And one last point: composition not only highlights your focus (though this is the main hurdle) but it also makes use of the entire frame and is complete within itself. A photograph is (oftentimes) a 2 by 3 rectangle. That’s all the space you get, so you want to make sure you’re using it to your full advantage. Don’t be afraid to fill the frame with your subject, but also consider using the rest of the frame to tell more about your subject. A person very small in a mountainous landscape is more powerful than either the mountains or the person on his own.

In addition to fully using the entire frame, remember you cannot go outside it. A person walking needs room to walk within the frame, a person looking needs room to look within the frame, leading lines shouldn’t lead you to the edge of the frame, and don’t crop people off at major joints.

Well I think that about covers the basics. All of the lake/flower pictures were taken with my cellphone, and the other examples are old photographs taken with my Nikon. Shooting the examples multiple times seemed redundant for this topic, and I was trying to keep a long post somewhat manageable =)

Making Things Grow

My first encounter with fresh herbs was last spring when my roommate found a delicious looking recipe on Pinterest. Amazingly it appeared simple as well as delicious so we made the short walk to the grocery store and acquired the necessities, including fresh basil. It was, without a doubt, the best meal I cooked in college (granted my usual pbj isn’t much competition).

Since that day I have tried many recipes that call for fresh herbs, and I’m often frustrated by the selection at my local “grocery” store. There was one time that I had to visit three different stores just to find basil. On another trip they had basil, but it was far from fresh. A different recipe called for a small amount of parsley, but at the store I had to buy a huge handful, which, quite naturally, went bad in my refrigerator. Why couldn’t they have all of the main herbs, fresh and loose, so you could get exactly what you needed?

When we moved into the house, I quickly noticed the extra wide sill on the the kitchen window. How perfect would it be to have a little herb garden on this window sill? I could just pluck the herbs I needed as I was cooking and nothing would ever spoil or be wasted! Of course I knew nothing about what it really took to grow herbs. My mom has an incredible green thumb, so I was always able to simply enjoy her efforts instead of learning how to do it myself (kind of like cooking…)

In any case, Trey decided I had talked about growing herbs for long enough, so when I came back from Seattle I had five little pots of planted herbs! I guess now would be a good time to learn how to take care of them =)

These are supposed to be cilantro and oregano,

sweet basil,

and parsley.

The chives haven’t sprouted yet, so I’m pretty sure I killed them :-( Oh and a white fuzzy mold keeps growing on the top of the soil even though I rarely water them and have them in the sunniest spot in the house? Anyway, I’m pretty psyched that they actually sprouted and I hope they live long enough to make it into a recipe or two!

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