Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Getting your passport can be one of the most exciting parts of your trip!

My Passport!

In March my husband and I started planning our semi-annual trip to Canada to visit his mother and I realized that, because we got married last year, I'd have to update my passport to reflect my new last name. I downloaded the form, filled it out, and read on the instructions that it usually takes 6-8 weeks, but could take up to 10 weeks to get a new passport. So, I counted up the days until our trip in May and found that I had 77 days, so I did not expedite my application for the additional $60 charge.

Now, when I applied for my first passport ever it took about a month for me to get it. So, around mid-April I began keeping an eye out for my passport whenever I went to the mailbox to get the mail. But, April came and went, and a couple weeks into May I began to worry. We had over $2,000 in plane tickets and our trip was to begin on the 24th. So, I started looking into checking up on my application.

The first thing I found was that you can check your passport status online, but all it told me was that my application was "in process"... The other option was to call their customer service numbers, but it said they'd only speak with you if your trip date was 14 days away or less. Mine was 3 weeks away, so I marked my calendar and continued to keep an eye on my mailbox.

2 weeks before my trip I still didn't have my passport, so I dialed the passport agency's number. I listened to their loooong messages about how busy they were due to the passport rules change. When it finally got to the part where I'd wait for a customer service representative, it instead hung up on my because there were already too many people in the queue. So, I dialed and dialed until I was able to get into the queue. When they answered, I was promised that it'd be expedited, but told to call again in 2 days to be sure. "Easy for you to say" I replied. But, again I marked my calendar and waited.

The next time I called I learned that pressing "9" after the "I'm sorry, we're busy" message would put you back to the beginning of the recording so you didn't have to re-dial. I also learned that just pressing the buttons for the options you wanted cut off the long recording and got you to the point where you'd get in the queue or get hung up on quicker. So, I went around and around in their phone tree until I got into the queue and got a person on the phone. The rep said it had been expedited, and told me to call back in 2 days to make sure they were working on it.

And so it went, me calling every 2 days and them doing nothing (or little) and asking me to call back again. When it was 6 days before my trip date, I decided that more had to be done. I googled for other things I could be doing to speed the process up. I found several people who claimed that calling their Representative's local office helped them. So, I called.

The interesting thing about calling my Rep's office -no phone tree, no getting hung up on, no waiting in a queue. I got a personal contact, and SHE called ME with updates! I highly recommend calling your Rep if the clock is ticking down on your upcoming trip!

In the end, though, I got my passport less than 24 hours before my trip! It turns out that they are processing passport applications by trip date rather than first-come-first-served and that includes expedited applications. Expediting means very little at this point. It's all based on trip date. More than once I wished I had lied about my departure date. Just by a couple days. They never asked for verification, and I would have slept a lot better in the few days before my trip!

Blah, so my vacation started out quite exciting, but at least I made it. I have a feeling that there are others who aren't as lucky. Or... there soon will be. The passport office needs to step things up. Their rules are creating this backup! If they can't keep up, they should repeal the rules until they can. It's insane that in this "free" country we're unable to travel freely as we did just months ago) to our neighboring countries.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Motivation, improvement, and the making of "You crack me up".

You crack me up.

(click on the photo to view it on my Flickr page where larger sizes are available)

There's a growing number of people subscribing to the thought that having a goal of taking and posting a photo a day to your web gallery can help your photography improve by leaps and bounds. I tend to be a person who drives past photo opportunities because I don't like stopping the car, or I don't pull out the camera because I only have a half hour until I have to do something. So, I thought I needed the little extra motivation that a "photo a day" goal would give me.

So, last night was to be "Day 2", but Ed and I got back from dinner late and we only had an hour before we were supposed to be in bed, so I thought "Great, I failed "photo-a-day" on Day 2"! ...I started getting ready for my shower while thinking of something photo-worthy that I could either get quickly tonight or at least get a photo for tomorrow. Several things crossed my mind, but nothing good until...

While washing my hair, I looked up at the cracking paint on the ceiling of our bathroom. The stupid guys who flipped our house used cheap paint in the bathroom and the steam from the shower has it coming off in sheets. Blah. I hate painting. Seeing it cracking and peeling cheeses me off. Showers used to be my little retreat, a place where I could relax, but that paint and the future work it symbolizes stresses me out every time I take a shower. But this time I smiled...

A few weeks ago I noticed this heart-shaped patch of bare ceiling where the paint was peeled completely off. What was frustrating before, though, had become really interesting now. -I had my photo op! -I quickly finished my shower so I could grab my camera.

I only took about 8 photos because I was running out of space on my memory card and didn't have time to go through and delete stuff. (I'm really militant about getting my 8 hours of sleep!) But, I framed it 4 different ways and exposed it a couple different ways for each to ensure I'd get a good shot. Then, I went to bed.

When I got to work, I downloaded the photos and they were a little "blah". -I couldn't get the balance right between getting the paint a warm white-ish tone, but leaving the ceiling (the inside of the heart) warm like the incandescent lighting made it look. I played and played with it, but in the end I had to make 2 layers in Gimp and use the erase tool where I wanted the warmer color to appear. -It took me about 4 hours in software playing with it before I got a result I was happy enough with to upload.

In the end, I love the photo. The lesson learned is that it doesn't take a lot of time to take a good photo or a magnificent place to find a good opportunity. Just keep your eyes open, and having a goal of a photo a day can be a helpful way of motivating yourself to take more photos, which many suggest will speed up your learning curve by a lot!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I bought a petite blythe!

American Blythe

(Proof that I'm a girl!!!)

I ran into Blythe dolls on Flickr and got hooked on them. The originals go for hundreds to thousands of dollars, and even the new ones (or the Pullip dolls) are $80. Either way, I have enough expensive hobbies, and I'm not about to pay that kind of money for a doll, so finding the "Petite Blythe" dolls (about $25 shipped from Japan or Hong Kong) made me a happy camper.

The problem, once ordered, is finding new clothes for petite blythes. The regular-sized Blythe dolls have many outfits available and they are easier to make clothes for since they are around a foot tall. The petite blythes are 4 inches tall, and their bodies are tiny, so making clothes is difficult. (And for someone like me who has never attempted making clothes at all, doesn't know how to sew, and doesn't own a sewing machine -it just ain't gunna happen.) So, I needed an alternative.

Searching ebay revealed maybe 6 made-for-blythe outfits. I only liked one. It cost about $15. The only other option I found was searching for 1:12 scale doll outfits -there are a few, they're made for doll house dolls, so most are quite old fashioned looking. Again, I found one I liked for around $15.

Not happy with my limited blythe wardrobe, I headed for Toys R Us. It turned out that they had quite a large doll section, so I spent my time looking for dolls and/or clothes that were around the same size (in body) as my blythe. Here's what I bought:

1.) A Holly Hobby doll set, which contained a doll dressed in jeans (I was hoping for jeans!) and a t-shirt as well as a pair of shorts, another t-shirt, and a pair of work boots. There was another pair of shoes, but they looked like clown shoes :-P The rest was junk -stickers, a mirror, a dog, etc. But the set was $10. In the end, the jeans were about 3/4 of an inch too long, but it was easy to cut them and I used superglue on the ends so they wouldn't fray. Whee! Jeans!

2.) Baby Bratz clothes. You know those horrible Bratz dolls, yeah, well, they have cute clothes, but they are too big. Luckily they're now making baby bratz, which are about the right height, but much bigger around. -It didn't matter they had such cute clothes, I bought a little punk outfit as well as a cammo skirt and "Bad Boy" shirt combo. $6 each. So cute, I didn't mind parting with the money for these either!

So, if anyone else out there is looking for clothes for the Petite Blythe, there's a couple options for you!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Butterfly shot

See the full size here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erica_marshall/489021262/

I got home last night and I've been itching to get out and do some "real" photography, but time hasn't really allowed it, so I grabbed the camera and decided to try to make do with whatever might be available. Our lilac tree is in full bloom, so I headed towards it to see if there might be a new angle or something interesting to catch out there. I didn't find much.

I poked around a pine tree on the other side of the yard that is showing signs of a yellow-bellied sap sucker using it for food, but so far I haven't gotten a glimpse at the bird, just the holes it leaves behind in the tree. :-(

After taking a couple of photos of pine cones, I headed back towards the lilacs, and began playing with angles and light as the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. All of a sudden, something flittered around my head. I looked up and saw a butterfly. It was so windy, though, that the poor thing couldn't stay on a bunch of lilacs for very long without getting blown off. Whenever he picked a spot that was low enough, I'd start taking pics. Many came out dark because the area was in shadow and the sun was low (it was probably an hour until sunset).

To brighten up the shot, I set the exposure compensation at +1, and chased the butterflies around some more. -There were actually 2, and they were different varieties, but I never got a usable photo of the 2nd one.

Finally the wind died down a bit and this guy was able to stay on a single, low, flower bunch for a little bit. I lined up the shot and found myself shooting into the sun. It was okay, though, I liked the effect, and with the exposure compensation, I figured he'd come out exposed fairly well. -I was right!

I did nothing to the shot in post-processing except a very slight (1/2 the default) unsharp mask in Gimp. No cropping was done, although some people on my photography list have suggested a crop. I like it as-is, though.

After uploading it I noticed that the shutter speed was 1/50, which means it's amazing it came out as sharp as it did since it was taken with a 100mm lens, and the rule is that anything below one over the focal length (1/100th of a second in this case) is too slow to hand-hold, and I hand-held this shot! Oh well, I like breaking the rules...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Colored Smoke "How-to"

This isn't the greatest example ever, see Jameela's Flickr site to see some better smoke photos, but here's how you achieve the effect:

You need:
  • Any camera in any mode (having your flash on is recomended, though)
  • Something non-reflective and black to use as a background
  • Incense (to create the smoke)
  • A light source (I used my Canon 30D's on-camera flash and the darkness of my backyard as my light source and background, and it resulted in a kindof flat photo in comparison to Jameela's which was taken indoors with a light source in addition to her on-camera flash).
What to do:
  • Set up the incense infront of the black background
  • Take tons of photos being careful that autofocus isn't focusing on the background rather than the smoke and that your shutter speed is high enough that the smoke isn't blurry)
  • Download your images to your computer and open one of the "good ones" in an image editing program of your choice.
  • Find the "Invert" option. This will invert the colors, giving you the white background.
  • There are many different ways to create the colored smoke. Gimp has a "Colorize" tool, saturation adjustments can help too, experiment to find what works for you.