Category Archives: Tips

5 Tips for Taking Great Outdoor Portraits

Today, we’re thrilled to have Tony Murray guest posting for us.  Tony is an extremely talented photographer who is most well known for his landscape photos.  He has won numerous photo contests and has had several photos featured in Outdoor Photographer.  Although he would never admit it, he’s also amazing at taking pictures of people.  He is incredibly skilled at using natural elements and lighting to enhance his portraits, and we’re thrilled to have him with us today.  I’m sure if the rest of you are like us, you’re always looking for ways to capture the beauty that you see in your family and in nature, on film.  Tony is here to show us how!  He also happens to be Mason and Chloe’s uncle (lucky).
He is currently working on an amazing project that you can read about here.  

As a photographer I am often asked how to take better photos, especially outdoors.   To be honest, there is no one thing that is going to make you a better photographer except taking thousands of photos and learning from your errors.  However, there are lots of tips and techniques that can easily turn a regular snapshot into a great photograph.  Here are a some of my best tips:

#1.  The first and most important thing when taking portraits, no matter if you are indoors or out is to focus on the eyes.  The first thing people look at when viewing a portrait is the eyes and so as the photographer you should always focus on them to make them as sharp as possible, making the person in the photograph appear to be looking out.

#2.  The second thing that can help to make a great portrait is to use a wide-open aperture on your lens to create a shallow depth of field.  When viewing portraits we want the subject to stand out from the background, not blend into it.  For example, if I were at a busy park taking photos of Mason and Chloe I would want to see them in the photos and have the background out of focus. I wouldn’t want to see the crazy family reunion at the same park and have those people in all my photos.  To achieve this shallow depth of field open your aperture to the widest it will go, typically an f/stop of f/1.8-f.3.5.  You can also achieve this look by using a telephoto lens and while standing further back zoom in on your subject.  Either way you do it a shallow depth of field is key when taking portraits.

#3.  When shooting portraits the mid-day sun is typically not your best friend, there are often harsh lighting elements or shadows and too much contrast.  So making the best time to take photos to be in the early morning or late afternoon.  This however is not always possible, especially when you are out with the family and just want to take some photo NOW.   Taking advantage of overcast days or utilizing shade can simply fix this.  Clouds and shade act as nature’s light diffusers, allowing for nice, even lighting that you can take photos in any time of the day.

#4. The fourth, and most misunderstood aspect of outdoor portraits is to use a flash.  For over 90% of my outdoor portraits I use a flash, seriously.  Using a flash, even in the day, can even out lighting, acting as a fill light.  It also helps to separate your subject from the background.  The pop-up flash on your camera is effective to about 15-25 ft depending on ambient light, and can its power output can easily be adjusted in your menu if it is producing too much or too little light.  There are also external flashes that allow for more effective, higher quality light that has the option with most cameras to be fired off camera, allowing you to have a portable portrait studio wherever you go.

#5. The last tip I have is to use the environment.  Use whatever you have available to you to add to the context of your photo.  Whether you are in the city, in the country, or in the mountains you can use your environment to add depth to your photo, giving it a new feel and look.
While all these things will help, the best advice I can give is to just shoot.  In the age of digital cameras it doesn’t cost you anything if you spend a couple of hours, taking 1,000 images, and none of them turn out, but you will learn and the next time your photos will be that much better.

Thanks for sharing with us Tony!  Check back in the next few weeks as Tony shares more great photography tips with us!  To view Tony’s portfolio, visit his website here.  

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Posted by on November 16, 2011 in How to, Photo of the week, Tips


Emergency Preparedness: A great excuse to get more gear

For some reason, this year has been the year of power outages around here.  Normally, the power rarely goes out, but this year we’ve had several times when the power’s been out for hours at a time.  Okay, I know that’s not a HUGE deal, but when you have a hungry family, it kind of feels like the end of the world (why does our power always go out around dinner time).  These are the times when we’re grateful that we have good camping gear.

Screen shot 2011 10 30 at 9.47.40 AM Ski NewsPhoto found here

Two weeks ago, our area got our first snowstorm.  AWESOME!  Except it had been so warm that many trees had not lost their leaves yet, and branches were breaking all over the place.  Just after lunch, the power went out.  As the sun set and temperatures began to drop, the power was still not on.  Not wanting to pay to eat out, we cracked open a window and cooked on the camp stove.  That night while all our neighbors were using candles or flashlights, we used our Coleman rechargeable lantern which could light up a room (dimly).  When our kids went to sleep, instead of worrying about them freezing, we put on their beanies, and tucked them into their awesome North Face mummy bags.  The next morning when we woke up, the power was back on and the house was toasty again.  Would we have been fine without all of our camping gear?  Probably.  However, having everything that we needed for an emergency, on hand, kept us calm and cool.

Although this is the off season for camping, it’s a great time to evaluate what your family has and what you might need, both for camping and emergencies.  For us, it’s sometimes difficult to justify spending money on gear, but if it is multi-functional, it’s easier to justify.  Here are a few pieces of gear that we think are important to have on hand for an at home emergency (even if you don’t plan on camping):

  • a warm sleeping bag
  • flashlights and extra batteries (a lantern is a bonus, but not necessary)
  • a camp stove with extra fuel (we usually keep at least 6 canisters on hand)
  • first aid kit
  • multi-tool/pocket knife
In addition to that, it’s important to have food and water on hand in case you cannot leave your home or the stores aren’t open (that happened a few years ago here).  We have a large amount of food in storage and keep enough drinking water on hand to last our family 2 weeks.
The Department of Homeland Security also recommends that every person have, at very minimum, a 72-hour kit.  At the very least, your 72-hour kit should contain the following (found here):
  • One gallon of water per person per day. This means at least three gallons of water per person.
  • Sufficient non-perishable food for three days. Ideally, these foods will be lightweight and high in energy. If you pack canned foods, remember a can opener!
  • Prescription and non-prescription medications. Include a spare set of glasses, if you need them.
  • Battery powered portable radio. This may be your only source of information during a disaster.
  • First aid kit. The small camping kits work well. Remember to get enough supplies for the number of people who may be using them.
  • Personal hygiene items.
  • Clothing and bedding. A spare pair of socks and a space saver blanket would be a minimum.
  • Special items such as baby needs or contact lens supplies, etc.
  • Personal comfort items. Books, games, personal electronics, etc.
Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security has a more detailed list found here.  With winter upon us, being prepared in an emergency is essential, especially if the weather is bad.  Although you cannot prevent emergencies, you can prepare for them, and stock-up your gear stash along the way!
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Fear, Ideas, Tips


Should kids eat snow?

Last week I got to teach Mason’s preschool class (we do a coop).  For at least the first 15 minutes of class, all the kids wanted to talk about was the newly fallen snow.  In the end, we came to the consensus that EVERYONES favorite activity to do in the snow was to eat it (gotta love that group mentality).  By the time we finished school, both kids were begging to play in the snow, so I started the laborious task of getting all their snow gear on.  Playing in the snow is awesome, but getting everyone’s warm clothes on is something I absolutely hate.  After what seemed like forever, I sent the kids outside thinking they’d spend a few hours happily playing.  As I was getting my boots on to join them, Chloe comes in the house, puts some snow in a cup, and starts ripping off her snow clothes as fast as she could.  The same snowclothes I had just fought to get her to wear.  “Chloe, what are you doing!”  “I a big kid Mommy.  Big kids dus eat snow.”  I always knew that my kids would learn obnoxious things at school, but she’s just two!  There was no changing that stubborn little mind of hers!

This got me thinking – “should kids be eating snow”.  Well, the simple answer is “we all do it and we’re still alive, so why not!”  Good one.  It’s easy to get our kids to not eat the yellow or brown snow, but what about the white fluffy stuff all over the ground?  Here’s what Helen Suh MacIntosh, a professor of environmental health at Harvard University had to say about it here:

“It turns out that snow is a fairly efficient pollution collector when it is in the air. Snow is formed by water vapor that moves in clouds in cold air. As the water vapor moves in the cold air, it can stick to a tiny piece of dust and then have other water molecules attach to it, forming a crystal. Once formed, the crystal can continue to grow and can stay in the air for hours before it falls to the ground. It is during this time that the snow crystal can collect or “scavenge” pollutants that are present in the air.  The types of pollution that the snow can contain vary by location, but could include metals, acidic pollutants, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The amount of pollution in white, fresh snow is generally related to the amount of local pollution that is emitted into the air, of which traffic is a pretty good indicator. As a result, pollution is snow is low in rural areas and is higher in cities and other areas with a lot of traffic.”

The study went on to say that although these pollutants are present, the amount of pollutants are very low.  The verdict that they shared is that freshly fallen white snow is usually safe to eat (as long as it’s not bucket-fulls).  However, we should encourage our kids to avoid eating colored snow or white snow that has been on the ground for a while.  Thank goodness, because while eating snow isn’t the best thing in the world, I won’t be stopping my kids from doing it anytime soon!

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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Skiing, Tips


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Maintaining my Sanity

Having little kids is like being on a roller coaster. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s scary. It always goes by way too fast. 90% of the time I go to bed at night wishing that I’d had just a few more hours that day, or gotten just a few more things done. Sound familiar to anyone else? When Chloe was born, I suddenly felt as if my life were no longer my own and I was on constant Mom duty. Being a mom is awesome, but sometimes, I just need to be Jessica.

What do I do to maintain my sanity? I try to get up an hour before anyone else (even Andrew). It may sound trivial, but it makes all the difference. Despite the long to do lists that pile up around here, this time is just for me. My favorite thing to do then? Go for a good run. It helps me clear my head and start my day off right. The positive endorphins somehow find a way to creep into the rest of my day and make me a happier mom and wife. Other days, I read, or blog, or spend some time rowing, or on a really productive day, I sew! Right now I’m counting down the days until next weekend when daylight savings time changes and I can enjoy the sun during ‘my time’.

I actually think that this is one of our secrets to getting out on adventures with our kids. Andrew and I each have our own time to work on things we want to do. This is almost never when the kids are awake. That way, when we’re with the kids, we can actually spend our time doing something productive together. It also gives me time to think about what kind of things we want to get out and do together and some goals. Time to think about each child and their needs, without them constantly needing something.

Go ahead and give it a try. Maybe it won’t change your world, but it might just save your sanity for one more day.


Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Ideas, Misc, Tips


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Great deal on tough clothes

10/28 Update: All kids wear from MK’s has been removed from their site for the time and placed on Zulily at an even better price.  Act fast, deals here go really quick.  

Now that fall is here, we’re into pants season.  I hate pants season for one reason…Mason.  It’s like the kid knows he’s wearing pants and looks for any possible way to get holes in them.  Last weekends favorite was running and sliding on his knees whenever he found a non-carpeted floor.  Totally awesome.  At this rate, he’ll need a new wardrobe by New Years.  ARGH!!  Well thanks to Masons incredible ability to destroy pants, I’ve been searching for something tougher than he is.  I thought about making him wear some brown Carhartts all winter (not my favorite style) until I remembered the Mountain Khakis that all my brothers live in.  They swear that they’re as tough as Carhartts, but that they’re something you’d actually wear and like.  I was stoked when I found out they make kids pants too.

Here’s what they say about their B’s Original Mountain Pants: “Kids will be kids, so we made a high quality pant to keep up with their busy schedule, from playtime to naptime. With reinforced heel cuffs and chap-style knees, these bad boys beg for skids, slides and burnouts. All the while, they’re super comfortable on tender skin.”

Sounds like the perfect fit for Mason!  Sad story though.  Mountain Khakis is phasing out their kids line (of course, just when I find out it exists)!  Act quick though, there are still some left and they’re a screaming deal at over 50% off!    Go check them out!  Hurry!

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Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Clothing, Tips


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Getting your kids to like skiing

Recently, we received a great question from one of our readers and we wanted to share it with you.

“Does anyone have a kiddo who just doesn’t seem to like the cold weather?  Our middle child just whines whenever we go out.  I really hoped skiing could continue to be a family event.  How can I encourage her to give it a try?  I don’t want to force her to ski but if we are all going, we aren’t leaving her behind.”

As much as we all want our children to naturally like the things we like, what happens when they don’t?  What do you do then.  Well, here are a few ideas to help answer this question, that I’m sure all of us will face in some form or another over the years.

1.  What if you have a child that doesn’t like cold weather?  Well, as with all things, talk to them about it first.  Is there something that they do not like about cold weather?  Did they have a bad experience with it?  Get questions like this out of the way first so see if the problem may be something different.

With our children, the times that they whine the most in cold weather are when they are just plain cold.  Remember that kids are little and it’s more difficult for them to maintain an even body temperature than it is for adults.  Because of this, we highly recommend that you buy your kids GOOD gear for playing outside.  Although those $5 gloves from walmart, are oh-so-tempting when you tally up the cost of winter wear, remember that you’re getting what you pay for.  We’ve had many people suggest to us that if your kids are going to be doing anything serious outside, you should buy them the same quality gear as you would yourselves.  Starting with a good baselayer (not made of cotton) is essential, and then build from there.  Take extra care to keep fingers, toes, and faces warm, as those are the places that usually get hit first!

Want more ideas on how to keep your kids warm?  Check out these articles by Brave Ski Mom, an expert on skiing with kids.  Keeping your kids hands warm, How cold is too cold for skiing, and How do I keep my kids feet warm.

2.  How do I encourage my child to give skiing a try?  Well, hopefully, once you tackle the cold issue, the issue of skiing should be an easier one to handle.  Our biggest suggestion to you is to make it fun.  When our kids are first starting out with skiing (this will be Mason’s 4th season), I felt like almost no skiing got done.  We essentially played games with the kids the whole time that we were skiing with them to get them to see how much fun it is.  If you were to ask Chloe what she does when she skis, she would tell you “ski and say wee”.  She has no idea that skiing is a sport, to her it’s a game.  In fact, last season was the first where I felt like we actually got some real skiing done with Mason.  Why am I telling you this?  Because if you don’t take a lot of time to make skiing fun, your kids will likely not enjoy it.

If you continue to struggle getting your child to like skiing with the family, try a group lesson.  Many kids do much better around their peers than around their parents.  This will give your child a chance to work on their skills without dealing with family stresses.  Another great option is to bring a friend along on your next ski trip (or better yet, invite a whole family).  This may help your child relax and want to show off some of the skills that they have.

Mostly, don’t give up.  For us, we decided long before we had kids that skiing as a family was not optional.  Because of that, we’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that our kids really like skiing.  In the summer, they strap their skis on and scoot around the grass (totally their own idea).  In the fall, we watch ski movies together, take drives up to the mountains to check on the snow, and let them help pick out some of their own gear.  In the winter, we buy massive amounts of hot chocolate for the millions of breaks that we will take with them.  And in the spring, we’re all smiles because not only have we had a great time as a family, but our kids are one step closer to being the little rippers we’ve dreamed they’d become!

Have more questions?  Please keep them coming.  We love to hear from you and will try to answer any questions you may have.


Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Skiing, Tips


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How to Deal: Tantrums on the Trail

Every kid has them.  Every parent hates them.  You know what I’m talking about – TANTRUMS!!

When you have little kids, tantrums can be an almost every day occurence.  After surviving Mason as a 2 and 3 year old, I feel like I should be given a medal for withstanding all his screaming.  I felt like he was a time-bomb all the time.  Tantrums are truly a force to be reckoned with.  Recently, I was talking with one of my friends about her 2 year old.  She could not understand what was wrong with him.  He would have several tantrums a week and they would often last for an hour or two.  Well, rest assured, mothers of screamers – your kids are about as normal as they come.  Unfortunately, for everyone, tantrums are a big part of the toddler years.  Between the ages of 2 and 3, kids are really trying to figure things out and understand how they fit in with everything around them.

According to the Mayo Clinic “A tantrum is the expression of a child’s frustration with the physical, mental or emotional challenges of the moment. Physical challenges are things such as hunger and thirst. Mental challenges are related to a child’s difficulty learning or performing a specific task, or difficulty using words to express thoughts and feelings. Emotional challenges are more open to speculation. Still, whatever the challenge, frustration with the situation may fuel a child’s anger — and erupt in a tantrum.”

Now why are we talking about this today?  Well, if you have a child who is very prone to tantrums, it can quickly put a damper on your outdoor adventures, or halt them altogether.  Who is really crazy enough to willingly put themselves miles from civilization with a screaming toddler?  The thought is enough to make even the most patient parent run from the room.

While tantrums are not totally avoidable, here are a few tips to deal with tantrums on the trail.

Read On


Posted by on October 10, 2011 in How to, Misc, Tips

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