Monday, July 25, 2016

How to Take Better Photos

     Eight years ago, I bought my first DSLR and decided I wanted to pursue photography.  I didn't have plans to make any money from it, but just wanted a new hobby that I could enjoy that also allowed plenty of room for learning and growth.  I've never had any formal training, and pretty much learned everything I know from the glorious internet or fellow photo enthusiast friends.  DISCLAIMER:  This post is about my personal style of shooting, and how I aim to take better photos and grow as a photographer.  This is just my approach, and by no means am I saying this is the best approach.  

     For me, a good photograph has two things going for it - exposure and composition.  I like to see a good balance of highlights and shadows, and of course something about the photo has to draw you in.  There are so many resources about how to get good exposure, so for this post, I will focus on composition.  In order to get good composition, I try to recycle these three ideas (and I'm sure they're nothing new to most people).  When I'm shooting, I try to use one of these concepts to create a pleasing composition in my photos.  They are:  the rule of thirds, simplifying, and using a different perspective.

The Rule of Thirds - Anyone that has ever dabbled in photography has probably heard of or used the rule of thirds.  Even our cell phones have this combination of two horizontal and two vertical lines to help us take better photographs.  If I'm struggling to take a good photo, I always fall back on this rule and try to frame my photos so that the subject or point of interest falls on one of the intersections of the vertical and horizontal lines.  Will it always make for an amazing picture?  No.  However, it will still probably look better than if you were to just point your camera at something and just click. 

Simplifying - There are some people out there that are naturally "artsy".  I am not one of those people.  Despite this, I feel like anyone can get better at photography with tons of practice.  You have not practiced enough until you have 20 photos of the meal you're about to eat, I always say!  I think photos that use negative space to simplify and showcase its subject are particularly striking.  You can combine this with the rule of thirds and get some pretty cool images.  I also really like how simplifying the composition makes for a very clean image with less distraction. 

Using a Different Perspective - If I can't get a good composition going with the other two techniques, I'll rely on taking the picture from different perspectives aside from where I am standing.  I'd try taking the photo from above (very popular with food photography), from a lower perspective (which looks particularly cool if you are photographing small children - it's like seeing the world from their eyes), or from the perspective of a bystander (this lends itself to a very photo journalistic feel when done well).  This may seem strange, but sometimes I'll ask myself, Where could someone be hiding in this setting, and what would this scene look like from where they are?  Then I'll go there, and try to frame the shot. 

Simplifying with lots and lots of negative space

Rule of thirds, against a simple faded backdrop

Lower perspective and rule of thirds

Rule of thirds against a simple backdrop

     When I was scouring for images to include in this post, I came across a bunch of photos from 2008 of my red and leopard print shoes (that I can't believe I'm admitting to owning on the internet).  I still remember my cell phone ringing that day, and it was my best friend on the other end.  She asked me what I was doing, and my response was simply, "I'm taking pictures of my shoes."

     I truly believe the only way to get better is to keep practicing and to not be afraid of trying something new.  Practice taking photos of inanimate objects if you are shy, or go somewhere new (near or far) if you're adventurous.  I love working on my photography even in the most mundane settings.  What are your favorite tips/techniques for taking better photos? I'd love to hear them! 

     Happy shooting! :) 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review - Hello Kitty Pop - Up Cafe: Irvine, CA

     Two years ago, I attended the first ever Hello Kitty Con 2014 in the Little Tokyo neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles.  I remember large crowds, long lines, and all things cute and adorned with Hello Kitty.  One of the cutest things I saw was the Hello Kitty Cafe, but unfortunately I did not get a chance to try it.  You can imagine my excitement when I found out they were having a pop-up cafe in Irvine, CA.  Their official grand opening was July 15th, but I heard there was a soft opening and decided to beat the crowd (and by beat the crowd I mean waiting in a 20 minute line as opposed to a 45 minute line).  

(Photo taken with my Fujifilm x100)

     So the doggies were packed into the car with their stroller, and we were off to hunt down the Hello Kitty cafe.  

(All photos taken with my Canon G7X.)

     I'll be honest, I'm not such a foodie that I was dying to try out any of the food and drinks they were offering.  I pretty much just wanted to take some pictures of the cute things they had to offer - like these cookies. I want to throw a party and give away these cookies as favors.  I'd want to bake and decorate them myself... y'know, because I have so much time on my hands.  

     Aside from my Starbucks mugs from Berlin and London, I am technically on a mug ban.  You don't know how badly I wanted to buy this cute, overpriced Hello Kitty mug!!!  That little happy meal-esque to go carrier was super adorable as well.  At the time, I thought you had to buy something that would warrant needing the carrier in order to get one, but I discovered later that you can buy just the carrier for $2.  It's not a bad price if you're a Hello Kitty fan, I suppose. 

     My dogs were really excited for this venture. 

     Obligatory cute cookie pictures. 

Here's what I thought:

Presentation (5 out of 5 stars) - I won't deny Hello Kitty her 5 stars here. The people that put this own know how to produce cute stuff.  Photographically, it is a dream, and honestly, that's why I was there.  If you want cute factor, you will find it here.

Quality & Taste (3 out of 5 stars) - Here's what the pop-up cafe loses points in my opinion.  I had the strawberry mint lemonade and the hello kitty donut-looking sugar cookie.  While both looked cute in presentation, I didn't think they tasted very good.  I saw my lemonade being "made", and it was basically store bought lemonade mixed with some strawberry pieces and mint.  If it weren't for the cute plastic cup it came in, I would be hard pressed to pay the $4 for it. The $4.50 cookie was even worse.  I am by no means a great baker, but I know I could bake a better tasting sugar cookie.  It tasted factory-made  and very generic - nothing special about the taste, and on top of that, it was hard and brittle. 

     Basically, if you love cute Hello Kitty stuff and aren't concerned with getting something extraordinary when it comes to taste, you should definitely check out this pop-up cafe.  I don't know how long it'll be around, but the "pop-up" suggests that there will be an end in sight.  

     However, if you're hoping for something that not only looks gourmet, but also tastes gourmet, you will be disappointed.  For the prices they are charging, I don't think the taste is up to par.

     As a side note, I went during a weekday in the early afternoon, and the Irvine Spectrum was packed with people.  Wasn't expecting that!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review - Skyroam Global Wifi Hotspot

     After we confirmed our flights for Berlin and London, one of my first thoughts were, How will I be able to use my phone and go on the internet?  I'll admit, I didn't do a whole lot of comparison shopping.  My friend Matt had a global phone plan for his smartphone, and in addition to that, he had the Skyroam hotspot device.  I looked at the reviews on Amazon, and everything seemed legit.  I thought that for $99 (which includes 5 free days of service) was a great deal.  Please note that by "a great deal", I mean a great deal for internet when you are doing limited short-term travel.  For anyone that does long-term travel, I would suggest finding a better, more cost-effective alternative.  Since I was sold on the Skyroam, and that's what I ended up buying, my review pertains only to this device, and not this device in comparison to other devices.  Also, yes, I considered just finding mobile hot spots at cafes and bookstores, but I really wanted to be able to use everything on my phone at any time during the trip.

     I purchased my Skyroam from Amazon.  I am a loyal customer and have yet to have a bad experience with Amazon.  Since we would be gone for about 12 days, I figured I would have to use up the 5 free days that came with the device, and then purchase additional days.  Someone mentioned that each day of service costs $10, but I discovered later (when I had to renew) that if you are willing to buy the service in 5 day increments, you can buy 5 days for $40 ($8 per day instead of $10!).  Each day is a 24 hour period.  For example, if you authorize usage at 5 pm today, your 24 hour coverage ends at 5 pm tomorrow.  You'll notice that you're not getting any signal while you're trying to Instagram something, and then see the notification on the Skyroam that your service has expired.  

     Originally, my plan was to spread out the 5 days of usage over the 12 days, give or take an additional purchase of service here and there.  However, I quickly found out how sick my internet addiction was, and ended up buying service for all 12 days I was away. 

Here's what I thought:

Quality (4 out of 5 stars) - The order arrived within two days since I did expedited shipping.  Leave it to me to wait til the last minute to take care of something like this.  The packaging was nice and secure - definitely not cheap looking.  However, when you open the box and see the device itself, I rated it only a 4 out of 5 because I felt the materials used to make the device could've been more substantial.  I also felt the screen on the device seemed outdated, and while the menu was manageable, it did take a little while to figure out how to navigate through the menu.  When my friend Patty helped me with it (when I was trying to renew service), I noticed how quickly she went through the menus, but we won't count Patty because she is a techie and lives for this kind of stuff. Remember, my review is from the perspective of someone who's never used something of this nature before. 

It comes with a USB charging cable that you could plug into a wall plug, or charge right from your laptop or battery pack.  I charged it several times from my Anker battery pack and had no issues. 

Performance (4 out of 5 stars) - I didn't think the signal was exceptional.  It definitely wasn't as good as my wifi signal at home.  However, when I needed to post something on Instagram, or check out what was going on at home on Facebook, it did the job.  On a few occasions I did Facetime with my dogs (yes, you read that correctly), and the reception was pretty good.  

The device allows up to 5 people to be connected at once (including yourself, of course), and obviously the more people that are connected, the slower the signal is.  At one point, someone wandered off too far and lost signal (this of course led to about 30 minutes of searching for people).  I don't know what the exact range is in order to get good signal, but I can't imagine it to be very far. Because of this, everyone stuck by me most of the time. 

One thing I want to point out is that this device gets very warm when in use.  I'm sure that I should've turned it off at night, but because I am lazy, I basically charged it at night and left it on for almost the entire duration of the trip (minus when we were in flight).  There were times I could feel the heat coming from my backpack because the device got so warm.  It wasn't scorching hot, but warm enough that you could feel the heat.  If you've ever used those hand warmers that campers use that come in the foil packets, that's about as warm as it got.  

     Overall, I was quite pleased with the Skyroam.  It got the job done, and I would definitely use it again on another trip.  What I really like about the Skyroam is the ability to buy days as you go.  I know some people prefer to get a pay-as-you-go phone when traveling internationally, or maybe get a different sim card, but for me that required too much effort.  The set up for the Skyroam was simple and easy for someone that doesn't consider themselves a techie.  Once your device is charged and powered on, you just follow the on-screen directions to set up your account, and you're ready to go! Once your 5 free days runs out, you just buy more days, and keep going.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

London, England - Day 12: Going Home

     Seriously, next time I need to take into account the days spent traveling.  I felt so robbed the morning we left, like we needed just a few more days to see/do everything we wanted to.  For the first time, I saw the backyard garden area of our Airbnb and wished I had spent more time there in the evenings. 

     The trip to Gatwick airport was relatively painless.  It involved a bus ride and one train ride.  Matt and Patty decided to Uber it since they didn't want to deal with their luggage in transit.  I kinda enjoyed the public transit and knew I'd miss it once we were home. 

     Throughout our time in London, a fellow photographer friend kept recommending that we eat at this place called Nando's.  We had passed by Nando's many times throughout our trip, but we always had other dinner plans, had just eaten a meal, or had somewhere to get to.  Once we arrived at Gatwick, we dealt with a very nice man at the VAT counter and a very rude lady the Norwegian ticket counter. It was relatively busy, so we decided to find a place to eat where we could just sit down with our stuff.  Once we took the escalator up to the second floor, low and behold - Nando's! 

     These olives didn't seem like anything special, but they actually were very tasty... and expensive LOL.

     I am willing to make an educated guess that these sauces are part of the reason why Nando's is as popular as it is.  When I got my food, my suspicions were confirmed.

     I wasn't extremely hungry so I ordered a kid's meal.  This is what came in the kid's meal.  Honestly, it felt like an adult meal, and it was so good.  It tasted like the perfect blend of eating healthy and eating not so healthy.

     When I first got my "drink", the guy at the counter handed me this small bottle.  What the heck is this little thing?  A shot of something, perhaps?  I found out later that I was supposed to pour it into a cup with water, as it was a concentrate of an apple drink.  It was delicious!  (Are you tired of me saying everything is "delicious" yet?  Maybe I just like food LOL.)

      After eating, I didn't want my feet to swell inside my sneakers, so I ended up buying a pair of Nike flip flops in one of the shops.  I'm SO glad I did because my feet were BEYOND swollen when we landed at LAX.  I belonged on the Flintstones, trust me. 

     Our food on the flight back was nothing to write home about.  Luckily, I was too tired to really care.  Mental note:  Fly with a better airline next time.  

      I realized when we landed that I was just thankful to be back home safe and sound.  I have no qualms about flying usually, but this was my longest flight so far (about 12 hours), and I'm glad I survived.  

     Speaking of survival, let's face it - all of us were probably secretly surprised that we didn't kill each other or become Lord of the Flies on this trip.  It's not easy spending an extended amount of time with the same people, but somehow we made it!  I can't wait to see everyone's photos!

     Here's to hoping that the next time I see these clouds, it's on a flight to France.  Also on my radar is Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia), and Iceland.  It's been almost a month since we got back, and I still miss Germany.  I enjoyed London, but because everyone spoke English there, it didn't feel foreign enough for me.  In Germany, everything felt so foreign and new, and it was all so exciting. Can't wait to return one day. 

     If you've made it this far, thank you for following along on this journey with me!  As much as I try to capture the experience from my own perspective, there's nothing quite like actually being there.  This trip, if anything, has only awakened my sense of adventure, and given me a hunger for new experiences!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

London, England - Day 11

     We've made it to the last day.  The weather in London did not disappoint.  This has happened to me several times on trips where the weather was less than stellar for most of the trip, and then on the last day before leaving, the most amazing clouds emerge, and it's photo-taking heaven! This was one of those days.

     Our first stop was at city hall.  Jon wanted to photograph the inside of city hall, and after looking up some photos online, we all agreed it may be worth it. Unfortunately, once we got there, we were told that there was a meeting in session and that we wouldn't be able to get to where we needed in order to take pictures inside.  Sadness. :( 

     The day before when we first saw Covent Garden, I made a mental note to spend some time here because I found it so nice and peaceful.  I just wanted to grab a snack and a drink and enjoy the atmosphere.  For a place I'd consider touristy, Covent Garden is so relaxing.  I definitely recommend it for people watching.  
     I saw Matt drinking this in Potsdam, and decided to try it.  OMG, it is delicious!!!!! :-O  I need to go to Cost Plus World Market and find this stuff!!!

     My almond croissant with a side of hazelnut cream.  You can taste the heavenly butter used to make these.  It's almost worth gaining the two pounds you'd gain from eating this. :o) 

       Shoot first. Eat later.

     Erik and Jon's meat pies looked so good that Patty and I decided to go get some for ourselves.  It was at the lower level in a place called Battersea Pies. 

     SO.  DELICIOUS.  I can still taste it. Mmm...

     Making sure my postcards are ready to go out!  If you already got yours - you're welcome!  And if you haven't, I either didn't send you one, or the post takes super long with postcards as I discovered with postcards I sent from Germany!

     Laduree goodness. :o)

     Londonitis is ON, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have some knick knacks I don't really need lying around hehe...

     Next stop, the transit museum!  The tube is so impressive, that I knew I would find the transit museum interesting.  However, one drawback is that you can't really sit or touch many of the vintage forms of transportation on display here.  That was one of the perks of the NYC transit museum in Brooklyn.  They had pretty much every old subway car on display and you could sit in them and take photos - all for a much lower price, too!  

     Me, Patty, and some lady I don't know LOL.

     When you are overseas, it's really weird to hear about things going on back home (such as the story that unfolded about the boy killed by an alligator at Disney World.)  You feel a bit detached from the news, and while it gave me perspective on how we view world news, it also made me understand how others might view our news at home. 

     Next stop - afternoon tea at Sketch!  I found this place through Youtube, and had always been wanting to come here.  It is definitely an interesting place!  When you first walk in, there is a hopscotch game on the floor - my kinda place! :o)

     There were red lights circulating around one of the rooms.  They were like the lights some DJs use at weddings during the dancing, but these were fewer and only in red.  They reminded me of sniper red lights.  It scared Jon.

     Tea selection.

     I loved all the quirky china they used! So cute! We found out later that for about $200, you could have your own single serving set! Needless to say, I did not come home with this LOL.

     So when the waitress was explaining how the afternoon tea works to us, we were ecstatic when she mentioned the tea and food was pretty much all you can eat.  You just ask them to bring more if you want more of anything.  We soon realized that even though the sandwiches and pastries looked small, they were quite filling.  We filled up fast.  Aside from a refill of my rose black tea, I don't think I ordered any more food.  No one else did either!

     So "clotted cream" is basically butter, we discovered.  It's delicious, fatty, rich, creamy BUTTER!!!! Mmm....

     Never underestimate the deliciousness of butter and jam. 

     When these showed up, we didn't know what to do with it.  We definitely took photos of it, but were waaaaay too stuffed to eat it all. 

     So one of the things Sketch is known for are their quirky bathrooms.  You go through these double doors and there are two staircases that wrap around a bar (see below).  When you get to the stop of the staircase, you see these white pods.  The bathroom pods are unisex, and when you go inside the pod, you hear a soundbite of a spaceship taking off.  Yeah, I know. WEIRD.  I felt like when I flushed the toilet, something else amazing might happen.  It did not.  

     That girl behind me looked at me kinda funny when I was taking photos inside, but I know she took photos, too! 

     One of the many framed sketches (get it?) lining the walls of the afternoon tea room.  You can probably guess which one was my favorite. 

     A quick stop at Poundland before going back for some rest and packing.  Seriously, this is one of London's hidden gems, I tell ya!

     Going to miss this view so much. 

     Da Water. 

     Our last night of long exposures were by Millenium Bridge.  

     It was quite some time before the sun set and we could shoot during blue hour.  I couldn't believe the trip was coming to an end.  I seriously need to find a job where someone pays me to travel and take photos of people, places, and food.  If you've got any openings, hit me up!