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Aspiring Photographer’s Gift Guide 2013

I get so many calls and texts this time of year from family and friends wanting camera suggestions for their loved ones.  I will give my best advice here on what you might want to purchase for someone who is just getting started as well as sharing what is currently in my camera bag for those who already have their cameras and are wondering what to purchase next:)

If you are looking for a great entry level SLR, at a FANTASTIC price, I would really suggest this:

Canon EOS Rebel SL1-This is supposed to be the world’s lightest, most compact SLR. My first SLR was a Canon Rebel and I still use it from time to time when I am wanting to travel a bit lighter.  Since mine is around 7 years old, I am guessing this new model is much, much lighter and more advanced than mine, so it should be a great choice for a beginner.  I don’t typically recommend buying the camera that come with the kit lens, but I believe there was only about a $15 dollar difference in price to get the kit lens rather than the body only, and I would say the kit lens is worth that much (I wouldn’t give much more than $15 for it though).

Probably the main question I get AFTER my friends have gotten their DSLRs is how to get that “blurry background look.” First off, to get the results you want from your camera, you are going to need to learn to shoot in Manual mode, where you set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO yourself, instead letting the camera haphazardly choose it for you.  Put simply, you can achieve that blurry background look, or bokeh, using aperture.  Second, the kit lens included with most of these Rebel dSLRs is pretty limited in what you can achieve aperture wise, so I would HIGHLY recommend this lens:

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4– It was so much easier for me to learn to shoot in manual mode once I purchased this lens.  It will shoot as wide as f/1.4, and makes shooting indoors in lower light situations much more feasible.  A lot of people are put off by the fact that this lens won’t zoom.  While there are situations where you can’t get as close to your subject as you’d like and you really need a zoom lens, most of the time you can just move yourself closer or further away from your subject to achieve the look you are going for.  I still use this lens 80% of the time, and for almost all of my paid portrait sessions.  Once you have this lens, you will never wanna put that kit lens on again, which is why I wouldn’t even bother purchasing it with the camera unless it is just a few dollars more than the body only.

If you do purchase a new lens, I would recommend purchasing UV filters for them.  (All lenses are different sizes, so make sure the UV filter you purchase will fit the lens you have.)  UV filters serve two purposes, 1. To filter UV rays and 2. To protect your actual lens from surface scratches.  I would much rather replace a $15-20 filter than a $350+ lens.  This Tiffen 58mm filter is just right for that Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens.

Okay, honestly if you are just getting started and wanting to learn photography, the lens and camera above are ALL I believe you need.  Really!  It’s that simple.  So many people think photography is about great gear and of course, gear is fun and some things will achieve better results than others (see:  “kit lens” above) but nothing can replace knowledge and practice.  Cameras don’t take incredible photos, people do.  You will most likely not be able to reap the benefits of more professional gear until you get the basics down anyway, so if you are on a budget (as I assume most everyone is), you CANNOT go wrong with those items.

On that note, to help you learn how to shoot in manual mode and what all this aperture and shutter speed stuff all means, I would recommend this book, Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs With Any Camera. I think that title is pretty self explanatory.  I am really tempted to order this myself because the copy I have is the older edition and was based mostly on shooting film, sorta pre-digital camera era.  It looks like the new one has more info on digital photography.

Now I will share what gear I CURRENTLY USE:

Canon EOS 7D Digital SLR Camera Body

Several years ago, I decided to buy a new camera body.  I was planning on buying the Canon 5D, Mark II which is a full frame camera that was sort of the professional standard at the time.  I really wanted that full frame, but the more I looked at the 7D, the more I knew that it would be my best buy.  For one thing, it was half the price of the 5D.  But what really sold me was its performance in low light with great ISO capability.  This really sold me as one of the main complaints I had with my Rebel was the noise and grain at its greatest ISO setting which was just 800.  The 7D goes up to 6400 ISo!!  The thing I shoot most is my own family and they are very often not sitting right in the most perfect natural light.  Early Christmas mornings, birthday faces lit mostly by candlelight and basketball games come to mind.  I have been really, really pleased with it.

Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens (mentioned above)

Canon 24-70 f/2.8 II USM

This is the lens I keep on my camera around the house.  When the kids are doing something and I wanna capture it really quickly, I like to have the zoom lens handy.  The wide end of this lens, 24mm, is great for getting photos of them indoors in tight spaces or when I need to be at arm’s reach of a little one.  It can get those shots, whereas my 50mm standard would be too “close,”  It also performs really well in low light.  It’s just a great all purpose kind of lens.  This is also the lens I used on the days I lugged my camera equipment to Disney World.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to switch lenses and I wanted a lens I knew would be able to capture a variety of moments in a variety of environments.

Tamron AF 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 SP Di II LD Aspherical (IF) Wide Angle Lens

The reason I own this lens is for my husbands real estate photos.  He shoots the wide angle HDR photos that make rooms look stunning.  Having great photos of your property definitely helps get showings, and showings are the only way you can sell your house.  So that is why we purchased this lens, BUT it has been fun playing around with the wide angle and I have gotten some neat shots with it.

Canon Speedlite 430EX II

This is the flash I have.  I honestly rarely use it, I much prefer working with available light, but it does come in handy when your kid insists on having their birthday party at a glow-in-the-dark bounce house place or something…:) I will probably need it for a nativity play in the coming week.  Definitely something I am glad to have in my arsenal, because when you need it, you need it.  Just don’t need it that often.

The next lens I buy will most likely be:

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 iS II

 

I’d like to have this lens for shooting kids at the beach or in the pool.  Places where I prefer not to get too close.  It would also be handy for outdoor sports:)

Boys Gift Guide 2013

I have really enjoyed reading through some other bloggers gift guides this year, but I haven’t seen many for gifts for boys.  I have two boys, the oldest being seven, and I honestly am at a loss as to what to get them this year.  It seems like they have everything!  At least that’s how I feel when I’m picking toys up off the floors everyday!

This list is comprised of things our boys already have that have been big hits.  Tried and true.  So if any one else out there is struggling like I am, maybe this will help out. I tried to steer clear of electronic type gifts, because I think it goes without saying that most boys would love a Kindle Fire, iPod or Nintendo DS if they don’t already have one.  Please feel free to add comments with your gift ideas, I really need some:)

I also get A LOT of questions about photography equipment this time of year, so I will try to post a gift suggestion guide for that tomorrow.

(To purchase any of these items online, you can just click on the name of the item in blue, but I’m sure a lot of them are available at your local toy store.)

1.  Perplexus Maze Ball-  (Ages 6-99)  This was a birthday gift for my oldest son last year, and we pretty much all love it and play with it.  None of us have yet to master it.  It is a 3D maze where you twist and flip the round puzzles around to guide a little BB sized ball along the path from start to finish.  I love engaging toys like this.  There are several different versions of this toy, but this is the one we have:

 

2.  Klutz Star Wars Folded Flyers– (Ages7 and up)  This is a really cool book of paper planes.  They aren’t just any old paper planes though.  They are pretty complex and really, really fly it includes the full color custom designed papers that once folded look just like the star wars ships.  This is such a great activity for a rainy day.

Here are a couple of assembled ones:

3.  Rainbow Loom-(Age 6 and up) So I thought this was sort of a girl thing, but apparently the boys like it too.  It is probably the hottest kids gift this year.  This was also a birthday gift and I cannot count the hours our oldest has spent making bracelets out of the little rubber bands.  He has made Saints bracelets, LSU bracelets, UT bracelets.  He likes to take them to school and trade with his friends.  It really is the gift the keeps on giving.

4.  Headlamps- What kid doesn’t love a flashlight?  And one that attachs to your head leaving your hands free to build Legos??  Perfect!  These are great stocking stuffers.

5.  Blast Zone Inflatables-  (Ages 3-12)  [So, WARNING:  This is obviously much more expensive than the other gifts.  In our house this would be one of those group gifts that are given to all the kids, not just one individual.] I love inflatables.  We live in the city and have a fairly small yard, so I love that this can be inflated for a few days of fun and put away when we want our yard back.  We purchased the HyrdroRush Water Slide pictured below last summer and we used it all the time.  I wanted to rent an inflatable slide for a party we were having, but learned that most of the commericial inflatable rentals were too big for our small yard.  For just a bit more than the rental fee, I could purchase this slide which is the perfect size for our yard.  It was so great on hot summer days. If you live in a cooler climate, it might seem sorta weird to purchase this in the middle of the winter, but it can be used dry as well and the “pool” area can be filled will those fun ball pit balls.  Plus, this is just one of MANY awesome inflatables Blast Zone makes, and there are plenty of “dry” options like bounce houses and bounce/slide combos available.  I can really vouch for their quality.  I researched these things forever before making this big purchase and they seem to get great reviews and have the best residential quality bouncers you can buy.  This one is really great for boys or girls.

6.  The Action Bible– (3 years and up) If you are the sort that does the 4 gifts thing (something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read) , this might be a good book option.  It’s the Bible written as a comic book.  It’s really, really cool and visual, which is perfect for boys.

 

7. Lego Brickmaster Books-You can never go wrong with Legos for boys.  I love ALL of the books in the Brickmaster Series, Ninjago just seems to be the really hot thing right now.  But we have the Star Wars and City versions of these as well.  What is so great about these books as apposed to other Lego sets? In the words of Buzz McAllister in Home Alone, for three reasons: A.)  They include the minifigures (Lego men) that our son considers to be the best part.  2.) Rather than just being able to create one model, they include instructions for multiple models that can be built and disassembled using the included pieces. and D.)  They are priced really well.

8.  Disney Headbanz Game-(Ages 5 and up)  We had a lot of fun with this one last Christmas.  Each person wears a Mickey ears headband, and on their turn they select a card to place in the headband.  They don’t see which object or character is on their card, and they have to ask the other players questions (Am I an animal?  Am I blue?)  until they guess who they “are.”

9.  Collapsible Fabric Teepee– (Age 1 and up) This is such a fun present.  I bought one of these tents from a local dealer at our city’s Christmas craft fair a few years ago.  I feel like I got an awesome deal on it, because I think I only paid around $50 for it.  It takes all of 2-3 seconds to put up and take down. It tucks right into a closet when the boys aren’t using it.  It’s a great little reading spot. Ours is red and navy but this one on etsy looked fun:

10.  Ninja Turtle Dreamlight-Again, kids love things that light up…We don’t actually have this exact Dreamlight, we have the penguin one, but when my son spotted this one during a recent Walmart trip he said he was really bummed he hadn’t waited another year to get his Dreamlight, because he wanted this one instead.

 

 

Real Party: Elias’s Fourth Birthday Party

We love it when we get the opportunity to feature real life parties from our customers!  We created Elias’ superhero invitation for his fantastic party.  This post was originally posted on the blog The Mom Creative, written by Elias’ mom, Jessica Turner.  Go check it out for tons of great creative inspiration on everything from parties to scrapbooking!

If a superhero party is on your child’s wish list, I hope this party provides some inspiration for you (please consider pinning this post!).

 

Invitations
I looked on a variety of invitation sites, but couldn’t find an invitation that I loved. Thankfully, I found an amazing design from The Patty Cake Press on Pinterest. The shop owner was a delight to work with – and she lives in Nashville! She graciously provided me with the design files for Elias’s party and I was thrilled with them. (Invitation designs are $16 and thank yous are $10.) I had them printed using a Groupon I had from Picaboo.


Location
We had the party at a local park, so everything had to be portable and easy to set up. It took us just over an hour to set everything up. The playground was also great for the kids to play on as the arrived to the party and before we played games, ate cake and opened presents.

Attire

We asked that all attendees wear superhero apparel. Elias wore a custom Superhero in Training t-shirt, which I ordered using a Groupon from Red Envelope. I made Adeline a tutu to go with her Wonder Woman onesie (tutorial coming soon). Matthew and I both wore Batman t-shirts – thank you Old Navy!

Decor
My goal was not to have commercial party decor, while still have elements to appeal to Elias’s love of Spiderman. Here were the main elements:

City backdrop

I painted a city backdrop using a 6×9 canvas paint drop cloth. I painted the entire thing blue, then added the black building, light and dark yellow windows (using a sponge brush to keep the windows uniform) and white clouds. I used regular paint that you can get at Home Depot (most of it I had around the house). In retrospect, we should have put grommets across the top, but we just put slits and then rope through it.

This was the perfect focal point for the party. We took lots of photos against it and put a chair in front of it for Elias to open his presents.

Pow! Bam! Zap! Signs

To go along with the backdrop, I bought wood “talk bubbles” at Michaels and painted them to look like they were from comic books. I used chipboard letters from my scrapbooking stash so that the letters would be uniform.

I also painted several with chalkboard paint that kids/parents could write on.

I then hot glued dowels to the backs of them.

I wish I had gotten more pictures of these – they were so cute!

Bunting

I love, love, love making buntings for parties, so when I saw the idea to make one with comic book pages, I had to do it! It was super easy because I cut entire books with my paper trimmer. I sewed them together on my sewing machine in about 30 minutes.

We hung it across the park pavilion.

Tables
I covered the tables using plain paper, which I have found to be a cheap and effective alternative to plastic table cloths.

I mod podged a frame using old comic books and put a picture of Elias in it. I found the Spiderman bucket in the dollar section at Target. The star paper products were 4th of July clearance at Target.

Capes

All the kids got handmade capes when they arrived at the party. I made them using felt (18×28) and cut various shapes for the backs (thanks to my amazing friend Brittney, who I could not have finished them without!).

I adhered the shapes with stitch witchery, which was faster than sewing, but still tedious. I sewed the velcro on each cape to ensure it stayed (they make iron-on velcro, but I have read that it doesn’t stay long-term on felt.)

I made the capes in stages over a weekend- cut them all, cut all the shapes, adhered all the shapes and sewed on the velcro.

The capes took HOURS to make. Collective time was about 20 minutes a cape and I made 25 (!!!), so if you plan to make capes, give yourself plenty of time.

Cake

I bought a Spiderman cake at Kroger for Elias. In the past I have made his cakes, but I knew with our busy schedule this summer, I wouldn’t be able to do it. The cake was delicious and Elias loved it, which is all that mattered.

Games
I planned two games for the kids – a superhero obstacle course and pin the superhero mask on Elias. Both were easy to execute and the kids had so much fun.

For the obstacle course, we had the following stations:

  • run through the hula hoops
  • ball toss
  • tunnel crawl
  • knock down the “buildings” (painted foam from several mac computer screen boxes)
  • tie up the bad guy (Matthew wore a mask and the kids tied him up with toilet paper)

The kids ran through the whole thing in just a few minutes and did it several times. The buildings and bad guy tie-up were the favorites. You could easily use small boxes if you can’t find foam. I loved that the foam had holes that looked like windows. Originally I thought the kids could jump over the buildings, but they ended up being too high, so we did knock ‘em down instead!

Once the kids were finished, they all got star bubble necklaces – another Target clearance post 4th of July find!

For the pin the superhero mask on Elias game, I printed a 13×19 photo of Elias and laminated it.


I cut small felt masks out and ran them through my xyron 5″ creative machine (if you do this, be sure to burnish the mask so that the adhesive sticks well to the mask). Then, when it was time to play the game, each kid was given a mask. We peeled off the paper, covered their eyes and let them stick the mask on the picture of Elias.

The kids thought it was hilarious.

All in all the party was a huge success!

Thanks so much to Jessica for sharing Elias’ party with us! It’s so rewarding to see the party that we design invitations for.

Don’t you just want to go plan a party now?! We are loving the comic book bunting and the “Pin-the-Mask-On-The-Superhero” game with Elias’s photo.  Such great ideas! What was your favorite part?