Monday, November 30, 2015

Why Writing a Book is Both Easier and Harder than I Thought It'd Be

 Image via

I've had the dream of writing a novel for as long as I can remember, a dream which was only fueled by almost all of my creative writing teachers telling me that they fully expected a signed copy of my first book when I finally got around to pumping it out. And because I'm human and love praise, I took the compliments and stowed them away, bringing them up again in my memory whenever I halfheartedly toyed around with the idea every January that maybe this year was the one in which I'd finally crack down and write that novel already.

Spoiler alert--29 years into my life, and I had literally made zero progress on a book of any kind.

Oh sure, I'd written short stories for assignments, occasional essays for writing contests, and endless blog posts (almost 1,000 to date, actually!). But I'd never written a book.

I came up with scads of reasons why each year was not the year: I was working on graduating from college! I would be too swamped with my first year of teaching! I had no real ideas to write about! I was preparing to have a baby!

Each excuse seemed like the perfect reason to keep pushing my dream aside, and eventually, it started to become one of those "ha-ha-remember-when-I-said-I-was-going-to-write-a-book" jokes that I'd bring up sometimes to Matt whenever he chided me for not doing more "real" writing (since he claims that blogging just doesn't count).

And while those excuses did hold some water (I guess), I found that even when I finally did strike upon an idea for a novel that excited me (based on a dream I once had) and even when I had some free time on my hands and even when I was meeting with Matt's family for one of our "writer's group" get-togethers, I still wasn't writing my novel.

I don't know what I was waiting for: maybe the beginning of a new year to push me in the right direction? Maybe a grand sign from the heavens that I needed to get going on my dreams for my life already? Maybe the auspicious lining up of the planets in just such a way that would guarantee me to win a Pulitzer with my first attempt?

What I hadn't expected was the way the whole thing actually went down: Matt had been working on his novel for months and months but was only writing a line or two on most days and seemed stuck in the process. Wanting to see him succeed and knowing that perhaps the only thing to motivate him out of this funk was a competition with me, I somewhat tentatively suggested the idea that we do a NaNoWriMo competition of sorts (NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, which happens in November and is a nationwide (worldwide?) challenge for people wanting to get their butts kicked into gear to write more). While we didn't set the usual parameters of NaNoWriMo (which would mean we'd each write 50,000 words by the end of the month if successful), we did manage to set up a bet that would mean that the winner of the competition would get $50 to spend on books and the loser would have to read a book recommended by the other person.

And while I'm pretty positive I won't be winning said competition (*sigh*), seeing as today's the last day and Matt's about 5,000 words ahead of me and planning to write all night, I AM pretty proud of myself, nevertheless.

For starters, when I began this month, I'd only written about a page on my novel, and it had taken me about 4 months to get even to that point (and I'd only write right before a writer's group meeting). Now, just 3 weeks after the beginning of the challenge, I'm at about 21 pages and am planning to get to about 25 pages by the deadline of 10:30 p.m. tonight. Sure, I don't exactly have a whole book, but I definitely have a solid start.

And you know what I've learned?

Writing a book is, in many ways, easier than I thought it would be. Before, I'd always drastically slow down the process by insisting that my draft basically be made perfect as I went along---I'd start out and write a page, and then I would keep going back to fix it and never go on. With this challenge, I couldn't afford that luxury; I just kept on adding and adding, with the full knowledge that I'd have plenty of time later to go back and edit. Forcing myself to just sit down and add scenes and words and pages without thinking too much about them is kind of freeing, in a way--because I'm not planning anything out beforehand (since I have no time to do so), I have often surprised myself by what comes up.

My other big problem with writing before (which goes hand in hand with what I said in the previous paragraph) was that I had set these massive expectations for myself. Because my teachers had often told me I was talented, I let those expectations cripple me into thinking that I wasn't allowed to produce pure junk some of the time. Do you know how impossible it is to only produce top-quality work? So, it goes without further reasoning that I wouldn't get far at all into any kind of novel because I never felt like my novel would be worthy of winning that Pulitzer, so why even bother?

But now I've shifted my focus--forget the prize being a Pulitzer or mailing off a bunch of signed copies to my old teachers or even publishing the thing at all--now my focus is on finishing what I started and finally reaching my dream of just having stuck with a novel long enough to finish it, which is something to be proud of in and of itself, in many ways.

(And once that's finished, THEN I can worry about publication if I still want that.)

So here's the secret: I've learned that all it takes to write a book is the discipline to sit my butt in a chair and make the words come out, whether they're horribly cliche or bordering on brilliant.

Amazing insight, right?

Now the real test will be whether I can manage to keep up the habit after our little competition is over with...

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Friendsgiving + Matt Always Decorating Our House + Other Things

Before this year, I honestly never knew "Friendsgiving" was its own concept--I mean, when I had the idea last year to get a bunch of our local friends together for a pre-Thanksgiving night of feasting and games, I was naive enough to think that I had somehow come up with the most brilliant idea ever. Because, after all, if one day of feasting on turkey and gravy per year is awesome, then two must be even better, right? And due to last year's event being basically just that, we decided to continue with the tradition this year as well.

Imagine my surprise then, to see a bunch of people on Facebook shelling out praise for this idea of a "Friendsgiving" and even my own sister re-dubbing our get-together this year as such.

Ah, well. Even if I didn't come up with the concept, it was still a blast although it did mean we were a bit sick of turkey by the time the actual Thanksgiving holiday rolled around 5 days later...

This year, the actual holiday of Thanksgiving Day was spent with my family. (As I'm sure many married couples do, we have "on" years and "off" years with each of our families to try to divide our time as fairly as possible.)

I'll have you all know that between our Friendsgiving and normal Thanksgiving, I personally made ten dozen homemade (like, from scratch and everything) rolls. Because if there's one thing I can definitely get behind, it's that there should never be a shortage of carbs at a feast, especially carbs that involve copious amounts of slathered butter.

Raven also enjoyed her fair share of food-loaded fun by trying a bit of mashed potatoes and lots of bites of her mama's homemade rolls. The rest of the time she enjoyed being passed round and round the room as almost all the aunts, uncles, and grandparents took turns holding her (as well as some of her little cousins).

I have a sneaking suspicion it's because people think she's kind of cute.

The rest of the time was spent on a new tradition my mom started two years ago (when we did Thanksgiving with her and my stepdad last), which is decorating gingerbread houses.

Something you absolutely must know about me---I am probably the least crafty person in the history of the world. I avoid crafts and little intricate handiwork like they're a contagious virus. Therefore, after putting a couple blobs of frosting on our gingerbread house's chimney and halfheartedly sticking a few lemonheads on it for trim, I basically dubbed myself official photographer and observer of everyone else, thus ensuring that Matt would basically be decorating our house on his own, for the second year.

Sorry but not sorry, dear.

Other non-crafty people used Raven as an excuse to get out of frosting duty.

I think they were onto something...

But in all honesty, I love the new tradition. (Mostly because I love to see how much more candy ends up in the mouths of everyone than on the houses, but still...)

And the best part of it all was that I got to enjoy it with a full five-day long weekend that only involved minimal amounts of grading.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed!

Hope all of you enjoyed the holiday as well. Now I just need to figure out how to keep the baby out of the Christmas presents until the 25th...

Monday, November 23, 2015

Raven: 7 Months

These monthly updates seem to be coming later and later than they should, which must be a sure sign that time seems to be passing by quicker and quicker.

I am now finally beginning to understand why other bloggers stop doing these updates after awhile (and I don't even have a second kid as an excuse!)--it's like every time I blink, she's another month old already.

But here she is at 7 months (well, 7 months and a couple days, at least as far as when these pictures were taken)...

Quick Stats
Weight: about 16 lbs.
Height: about 26.5"

Clothing Size: She is officially at the awkward stage where almost all the 3-6 month clothes are too snug, and almost all the 6-9 month clothes drown her.
Diaper Size: just starting to phase out of the Size 2's.

Milestones Reached:
  • Can army-crawl anywhere her heart desires
  • Can hold the "plank" position for longer than I can, basically (and pretty much does a downward-facing dog in her attempts to figure out "normal" crawling)
  • Looks for/goes after a dropped or out-of-reach toy
  • Can go from a sitting position to a crawling position
  • Is starting to try and push herself up to a standing position when held in someone's lap or against a firm surface
  • Has started eating some finger foods, like small bits of bread and crackers
  • Says "dada" and "mama"
  • Chews on her toes (although I think she might have been doing this at 6 months and I just forgot to mention it)
  • Can easily get past the "barriers" of cushions and blankets we put out to reach the computer cord (the most coveted "toy" of all)

Physical Appearance:

We found out at Raven's doctor appointment a few weeks ago that she's actually slimmed down a bit--she used to be about 50th percentile for weight, and now she's only about the 25th or so. Her hair is now so long that it only fuzzes up with real effort (and if it's pretty clean), and although it's still a golden brown color, it does seem to be getting darker by the day. Her eyelashes too, which have been on the long side for awhile now, are also starting to get a bit more darker and more noticeable. But she's still got the most perfectly chubby cheeks that just don't quit, which are absolutely made for kissing.

What I Love About This Stage

Play time is a two-way street now; not only does Raven now interact with whatever we're trying to do with her, but she also often initiates play, such as slowly putting her fingers near my mouth so I can "eat" them. She also loves being tossed up in the air and splashing in the bath, and her excited babbling every time she sees her daddy after he's been gone awhile is just about the cutest thing you'll ever see (she also excitedly kicks her legs and arms out, as if letting her enthusiasm permeate every part of her little being).

I also love that she's on a pretty fixed schedule, which means that we can count on putting her down for bed around 6:30 - 7:30 without any worries, knowing that she'll sleep until at least 6 AM (when I go in to kiss her goodbye before work), or sometimes even later (like 8 or 8:30, whenever I don't go in and wake her up on my way out). We also had a bit of a hard time getting her to eat enough several weeks ago, but she seems to be over that hurdle now, which makes feeding times a lot easier (especially since she can now finally put down a jar of baby food in one sitting, whereas before we'd have to feed it to her over 3-4 feedings).

She's still quite an easygoing, happy baby (especially after enjoying a good nap), and each day brings more adventure and discovery and laughter at her little antics. I'm especially loving the vast range of facial expressions she is developing, which often make us laugh out loud.


Over the past month or so, she seems to have developed a bit of separation anxiety, which means she often starts fussing whenever we put her down on the floor to play (which she used to never do before for us). Usually we'll just sit down by her on the floor and play with her for a minute before getting up again, and often that will work to stop the fussing, but not always. She especially seems to do it a lot more with me, which kind of makes me wonder (in my Mom Guilt way) if it's because I leave her most mornings to go to work and then don't reappear again for 9 hours.

Her constipation has gotten a little better since we've been trying harder to be more consistent about feeding her solids every day (although we're definitely not perfect at that still). And lately, either because of all the constipation or because she ate something her body couldn't tolerate yet, she'd developed bleeding little cracks on her bum, which are just the saddest. Luckily, she's a total champ when it comes to pain, but I still feel really bad that she has to deal with those.

Things I Don't Want to Forget:
  • The first time she figured out how to splash in her little bathtub (we haven't graduated her to the big tub yet)--she did it once, then got so excited and did it again so hard that I pretty much got drenched.
  • Her laughing at me every time I make a popping sound with my mouth to get her attention
  • The way she kind of ducks her head and almost tried to hold in her laughs rather than just letting them out full-force
  • How she smiles every time I try and get her to repeat "mama" back to me (after she's just been saying "dada" or something else)
  • The day when she kept saying "mama" over and over again and Matt said "dada" to her, and she just laughed and said "mama" all the more emphatically
  • Reading the Dr. Seuss Alphabet Book to her and hearing her laugh every time I do the "B" page (although she loves the whole book and listens with fascination to the rhythm of the rhyme and meter)
  • The amazement Matt and I still feel at her obsession with the movie Frozen. If she's being particularly fussy and we have to do something else (like prepare dinner), that movie does wonders---she doesn't sit still for too long with any other movie, but she'll sure stay put and sit and watch that one for pretty much the whole duration. 
  • The way she loves to scratch my arms and upper chest (ouch!) with her razor-sharp little nails
  • How sometimes I wonder if she really understands what we're saying--I'll say, "Mama's hair is not for pulling," and she'll almost always drop my hair (and pretty gently, too). Or when we say, "Where's Dad?", she'll almost always start looking around and smiling when she finds him.
  • The fact that she's finally ticklish and giggles adorably when we tickle her under her arms or on her sides. We've got to get a video of it soon.

Other Notes (Mostly for Myself):

I always think on our walks outside in the stroller that she'll do what she does in the house and get all excited about all that there is to see. But nature seems to have the opposite effect on her; it totally calms her down. During the tricky hours between about 4:30 and 6:00 (when she's fighting the nap that's started to become "optional"), I often will take her out on a walk to calm her down. She loves being outdoors.

Another unusual thing that's been going on is that she used to love the carseat (probably because it always meant a change of scene), but now that she's super mobile and can get around wherever she wants almost, she's starting to resent being put in the carseat sometimes (especially if she's the least bit tired/hungry/cranky). If we're good about bringing a couple toys for her to play with during that time, it's usually a little better.

She also has developed a fear of loud noises, which she actually didn't mind or even liked before, like the the sound of the blender or the vacuum. This morning, for instance, when I had her in my arms while making a breakfast smoothie, she buried her face  against me every time I turned the blender on. It was both endearing and totally sad.

I also have a sneaking suspicion based on the rate that she's going that Raven will be walking by about 9 months old...Oh, and we're totally terrified to put up a Christmas tree because we're sure we'll be having to pull her away from it every two seconds. Maybe we'll have to create a blockade out of bins or something...

 Happy 7 months, baby Raves! (Well, almost two weeks ago, anyway!)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Celebrating My Inner Harvest

The past week or two has found me hurtling full-throttle towards burnout (despite my best efforts to thwart it), and I was all set to write a rant-type post about how this always seems to be the hardest part of the school year for me, when I found a beauty of a post that talked all about taking the time to reflect on our "inner harvest" this season. The post encouraged me to look inward at what I've "grown" and "harvested" since spring, and since that's a much better use of my time than wanting to throw up over how many papers I still have to grade over the next week, I'll run with it.

I haven't taken much time lately to celebrate my victories, large and small. (Because, of course, it's hard to celebrate victories when you're so laser-focused on your to-do list and all the factors looming over your head that you can't seem to control.) But if I look back at everything I've "grown" since spring?

Pretty amazing, actually.

For one thing, I birthed a small human, who is quickly becoming not-so-small (and who is scooting around and around with fire and determination in her eyes that no obstacle shall prevent her from reaching whatever small object she is going for). And while I can't take credit for Raven's accomplishments, I AM pretty proud of myself for feeling overall pretty well-adjusted to this whole new-motherhood business.

Seven months ago, I didn't know how to breastfeed, change a poopy diaper in any small amount of time, effectively rock a baby to sleep, or know three different ways of heating up a bottle. Now I do. So that's crazy to think about.

I also have managed to slowly but surely start getting myself back into some sort of physical shape despite having an autoimmune disease that attacks my muscles and even managed to train for a 5K  (and run the whole thing!) despite often feeling dreadful muscle weakness. Interestingly enough, when my doctor said that he thought the muscle weakness component of my disease was in remission, he mentioned that he thought that the fact that I "stubbornly kept exercising" might very well have had something to do with it since I wasn't giving my muscles much of a chance to get weaker.

And let's not forget that I (mostly) successfully made the transition from full-time stay-at-home mom to working-like-a-madwoman mom without too many tears or freak-outs, and as I mentioned before, I'm actually feeling overall pretty positive about the balance I've struck between teaching and my home life, which is something to be proud of, indeed.

And craziness of all crazies (how I've managed not to brag about this already, I can't even fathom--probably due to aforementioned grading/hurtling-toward-burnout frenzy)--

I am writing a book.


Writing a novel has been on my life's to-do list for so long, it's almost become one of those quaint notions you think will never actually happen but like to joke about sometimes. Well folks, thanks to a NaNoWriMo competition with the husband, I have managed to write almost every day for the past 2+ weeks, and I now have over 11 single-spaced pages of a novel and an annoyingly proud feeling about the whole thing.

This is a Big Deal.

Plus I've somehow managed to read anywhere from 20-60 pages on most days, even with the craziness that is my workload.

So there you go---not bad for an inner harvest, indeed. Feeling pretty proud of myself, actually :)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

What It Takes to Not Gain Weight on Prednisone

 (pic from about a month ago, since I apparently don't get myself in front of the camera anymore)

If you've been following my blog for a few months, you might have noticed that I stopped doing "Body After Baby" posts on my postpartum weight loss progress.

My excuse?

There hasn't been any progress, at least not to anyone else's eyes.

The truth is, I had been losing about a pound a week steadily since about two weeks postpartum, a fact I was feeling pretty happy about (although I would have liked the weight to come off even faster, of course, but I was trying to be realistic). All of my plans with losing the weight seemed to be going, well, as planned, and it seemed that nothing was standing in the way of my weight loss--I was all set up, in fact, to be back at my pre-pregnancy weight by six months postpartum if I continued at the pace I'd been going at.

Enter my autoimmune disease diagnosis, along with its accompanying prescription for a corticosteroid called Prednisone. Enter the seemingly impossible uphill battle of fighting the almost-inevitable weight gain that comes as a result of taking a steroid at high doses for several months.

It's kind of been the pits.

For people unfamiliar with the medication, Prednisone basically takes over your body's production of cortisol, and it works to fight against the inflammation in your body by suppressing your immune system's response. It can be a lifesaver in dealing with whatever disease it's been prescribed to combat, but it sure comes with some nasty side effects, two of which are a redistribution of fat in your body (especially in your face, stomach, and the back of your neck) and gradual weight gain.

I've been half-joking recently that I never knew how vain I was until I started taking Prednisone--apparently I was used to feeling at least semi-attractive and semi-in-shape most of the time, because taking a medication that actually has side effects called "moon face" and "hump back" has been a very bitter pill for me to swallow (pun intended). Awhile back, I was determined to lose weight on the Prednisone no matter what it took, but despite all my efforts, I have not lost an ounce of weight since being put on Prednisone almost five months ago.

However, I have managed not to GAIN any weight either, which apparently is a small miracle while being on this particular medication (as anyone who has ever been on it tells me frequently, as does my doctor).

So, in case anyone else in a similar situation is wondering what it takes to maintain your weight while on this drug, this is what I've had to do:

- When I was on especially high doses (I started out at 60mg daily), I had to basically cut out sugar and most carbs. I didn't buy bread for months, and I stopped eating breakfast cereal for the most part, too.

- Since my autoimmune disease has a muscle weakness component, I was pretty limited on exercise, but I did regularly exercise under the limits prescribed my doctor, which meant jogging/walking a mile or two when able, taking regular walks with the baby in her stroller, and doing a hip-hop aerobics class once a week.

- As my time on the medication increased, my dosage went down, but it also became more and more difficult to keep the weight off. I eventually got permission from my doctor to keep my calorie count around about 1800 calories a day (once I was down to about 20mg/day, and after being on the medication for two and a half months, I was granted permission to start training for a 5K (but not to set any speed goals). I also basically cut out all red meat and started going meatless for about half my meals.

- Currently, my dosage has finally been tapered down to 5mg every other day, which is the dosage that many people say is when it becomes a little less difficult to fight the weight gain (perfect timing for the holidays!). I still eat around 1600-1800 calories a day, most of which come from good sources of protein (like yogurt, chicken, beans, even fish sometimes) and fats (like avocados and cheese) rather than carbs. I will usually eat a little bit of sugar every day, but I try to keep it at no more than about 150-200 calories. As far as exercise goes, I wear a Fitbit every day and tend to get around 8,000 steps on most days. I also do that hip-hop aerobics class on Tuesdays, take a 25-30 minute walk once or twice a week with Raven (often up a hill or two), and take a 2.5-mile (or so) run on Saturday mornings. I've also finally been cleared to start doing some weight lifting in the past couple weeks, so I've been gradually incorporating a bit of that into my schedule, too.

For the first several months of my time on the medication, I was super frustrated that I was putting forth all this effort and not losing weight. Had I been doing all this at any other point in my life, I'd be dropping at least a pound a week, easy. But with time, it's just kind of become my new normal, and I'm trying not to freak out about it too much. Sometimes, when I'm tired of not being able to eat like I'd like to or I feel like I want to sit on the couch and veg out instead of exercising, I'm tempted to just give up on the whole thing and let myself go until I'm finally tapered off the dang stuff already (especially since the medication also has the side effect of increasing your appetite).

But I think the biggest thing keeping me going with it is that I've always considered myself to be a pretty slender person, so this new body I've been dealing with lately just doesn't feel like "me," and I'm determined not to let it become a permanent part of my identity. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but it's the truth.

Something that's also helped when I've gotten frustrated is to remind myself of a few things--firstly, that I'm grateful that there is a medication that can be used to treat my condition and that it has been working on the part of my disease that has to do with my muscles. (In fact, at my last doctor appointment, my doc ventured to say that he thought the muscle weakness portion of my dermatomyositis was in remission, which means that I'm now cleared to up my running distance slowly each month to whatever mileage I want to work toward.) Secondly, even though I feel like I haven't seen any obvious results of all of my discipline and hard work, I actually have made progress--I can now run a mile about a minute and a half to two minutes faster than I could when I first started running again after having Raven, and I can also run for quite a bit longer without stopping---the distance of a 5K, actually. And I'm slowly but surely working my way up. Also, I couldn't even do one full push-up when I was in the throes of the disease, but now I can do a round dozen. Sure, these accomplishments seem like nothing if I compare my body to what it could do about two years ago. But considering everything I've gone through, I've got a lot to be proud of.

(And it's good to remind myself of all this so as to keep myself at it, seeing as I still have at least a month to go until I taper down again, and who knows how long after that until I'm off the stuff entirely...)

If anyone is reading this who is also on this medication, I hope this helps to give you a little hope that it is possible to maintain your weight while on Prednisone--you just have to be willing to be consistent and diligent in your daily choices, no matter how frustrating it gets. (And by all means, feel free to commiserate with me in the comments!)

Friday, November 6, 2015

How to Take Portraits of Your Kids at Home

Something I've heard a lot of people say since I joined the photography business world is that they would love having more professional pictures taken of their families, but that they just can't afford the prices (which I totally understand!). I've also had quite a few people tell me how much they love the monthly portraits I do of Raven and wonder how I go about doing it.

Well, whether you're looking to save some money by doing your own portraits of your kids or just looking to improve at documenting their life in photos, look no further---

Here are 9 tips for taking better portraits of your kids at home:

(Note: most photos used as examples, with the exception of the ones under the editing tip, are straight out of camera or have minimal edits done to slightly correct the exposure so that you can see the difference of applying that tip without the use of an editing program) 

1. Choose a neutral background for your shot.

I always do Raven's monthly shoots in our bedroom because we have a white bedspread and white walls, so it provides a perfect backdrop for ensuring that all the focus is on my subject. If you don't have a white bedspread, a white sheet will do just as well. You could also experiment with the look of other colors as your background, such as pale blue or yellow or maybe even a pastel pink.

The key is to make sure that your background color isn't so bright that it will distract from your subject (which would knock out any bright colors or patterns). The other key is making sure that the background is uniform, meaning that there is only one background color in the shot. That's why sheets work so great because they're inexpensive, and if you want to do a colored sheet as your background, you can tape part of it up against the wall to make sure that the background color is the same throughout the shot.

Shot without a neutral background (notice how the background distracts from the subject):

 Shot with a neutral background:

2. Take time before the shoot begins to remove anything from the background that might be distracting. 

If you've taped up a sheet to the wall, this might be partly taken care of already, but you're going to be taking pictures of your subject from all angles, so make sure you've removed as many objects (like books or papers or toys) from your background as possible. Also, make sure that your closets and other doors are closed since open doors distract as well.

Half the battle of getting great portraits is taking care of your background, so make sure you're paying attention to what could possibly end up in your shot.

(the shot below would have been a lot better if I'd actually remembered to close the closet door beforehand...)

3. Plan the shoot for a time when your subject will be well-rested, well-fed, and in a generally good mood overall. 

When your kids are really young (like babies), this won't be too difficult to plan. When they get more of a will of their own, you might want to "disguise" the photo shoot as an activity or game of some kind so that they'll be more on board (like maybe making this the one time they're actually allowed to jump on the bed or having them twirl around or show how high they can jump).

 (Just to show proof that Raven is NOT always the epitome of the happy, smiling baby during our photo shoots)
4. Think of shots that will showcase your child's personality and the current milestones they are experiencing. 

For babies, this means showcasing new skills like rolling over or sitting up or even just them blowing bubbles. For older kids, it might mean showing off their braces or having them show off a new dance move or sports technique they learned. Generally, the less "posed" you make them be, the better the shot.

Bonus Tip: When I'm shooting portraits of older subjects, I'll actually have the person talk to me while I'm taking pictures. Not only does it relax them and make them focus less on the awkwardness of posing, but you can actually get some really amazing true-to-nature shots of people because they'll naturally be making the same faces and gestures that they normally would, which are the best kinds of things to capture.

5. Don't be afraid to get close!

Often, the only difference between a good shot and a great shot is your proximity to the subject. Often, getting closer to your subject (or "filling the frame," as it's referred to in photography) is a more surefire way of getting a shot you love.

6. Think outside the box with your angles.

Often, because we're so used to doing it, we ask someone to stand (or sit) straight-on to the camera, smile, and we take the picture. While you might get a couple decent shots by doing this, they will be far from exciting (or even very flattering). Try having an older subject move their nose to one side or the other so it's not directly full-on to the camera, and experiment with the body positioning so it's not full-on facing front either. And definitely don't trap yourself into thinking that your shots need to even be "posed" at all! Usually, it's much more effective if you simply move around a subject (capturing various angles) while he/she is engaged in an activity of some kind, such as twirling, rolling over, playing with a toy, etc.

Going along with this, make sure you try shots of your subject standing (if he/she is able), sitting, and even lying down. Also, when a subject is standing, give them something to do. Since a standing pose is usually the most awkward for the subject, have them do something like lean against a wall, put their hands on their hips or in their pockets, run their hands through their hair, or do more unconventional things like do a few dance moves, tell you a funny story, or jump in the air. I've had subjects do all these things in shoots, and it never ceases to surprise me how much better the shot is when I tell the subject to do something kind of silly and allow them to loosen up a bit.

7. Choose natural lighting if at all possible.

If you're doing your shoot indoors, try to shoot during the day, and turn off all overhead lights and open up all windows (and doors, if they aren't going to be directly in the shot) in order to let in as much natural light as possible. Natural light is SO much more flattering, and it gives a much nicer overall "tone" to your picture.

Here's a shot with indoor lighting turned on (note the yellowish tint to the skin and slightly odd shadows on the face:

Here's a shot with indoor lights turned off and windows open:

8. If you have a DSLR camera that shows you where the camera's focus is, make sure the focus is always on one of your subject's eyes (usually the one closest to you is best).

This is one of the most useful things pointed out to me by one of my photography instructors, and it's made a world of difference in my shots. It might take a little more maneuvering and planning, but the end result will always turn out better. (I can't tell you how many shots I've done that were thisclose to being amazing but that I didn't like as much because the focus was just slightly off of the eyes).

Shot without the focus on the eyes:

Shot with the focus on the eyes:

9. Take the time to edit your favorite photos.

If you're willing to spend a little money, Lightroom and Photoshop Elements are relatively affordable options that will give you a huge bang for your buck. If you're a student or teacher, you can get Lightroom from Amazon for only about $70. And Photoshop Elements is even cheaper--about $55 on Amazon. (In case you're unfamiliar with Photoshop Elements, it's basically a much simpler, more user-friendly version of Photoshop that includes many of the main elements of full Photoshop but at a fraction of the price. If you're not looking to go pro anytime soon, Elements is a fabulous photo-editing tool that has both beginner (guided) and advanced options for editing your photos.

If you're looking to go free all the way, there are tons of free photo editing apps and sites to check out. My favorite free website is PicMonkey, which allows you to easily manipulate things like brightness and contrast, change the coloring, make a photo black and white, etc.

Also, a fantastic resource for beginner editors who don't know the ins and outs of an editing program like Lightroom or Photoshop is what's known as "actions" in the photo editing world. Basically what you do is you download an "action" for Lightroom or Elements that you like, and you apply it to the photo. The "action" is a series of saved presets, so it does all the editing and touching up of a photo for you, with minimal or no input needed on your part. A great blog that has a ton of free actions is The Coffeeshop Blog. You can also purchase actions through various photography companies or blogs for a small(ish) fee (usually from about $25-50 for a package).

On the left is the straight out-of-camera shot, on the right is with the action "Peachy Matte" applied (from the Coffeeshop Blog), which doesn't require any Photoshop Elements knowledge.

 The straight out of the camera shot:

With the "Enduring Love" preset from the Coffeeshop blog (with just pushing "ok" on the first feature that pops up):

Hope you found some useful tips in this little how-to post. I hope to be seeing a lot more pictures of everyone's cute kids/pets/families now!
01 09 10