One of my dearest friends is expecting her third baby girl, and I had the honor of capturing this special time in her life. She is absolutely radiant, so it was easy to do. Here are some of my favorite images.
Shannon is the kind of friend who is game to wade into the freezing water, and pretends it isn’t creepy when I shoot her through branches from far away, all for the sake of my crazy vision. She’s a keeper.
I even freelensed a bit, just for fun:
I can’t wait to meet your sweet baby girl, Shannon!
(All of these were shot with my Fujifilm X-T1, with the Fujinon 56mm lens, in case anyone is curious.)
What does it feel like to have anxiety? I’ll tell you, and show you, how it feels for me. I have been participating in a self-portrait project this year, and these images are my attempt to both face it, and to explore ways to show how it feels, visually.
A few days ago, over coffee as we watched our daughters play together, a friend and I talked about social media. She mentioned that a family member’s Instagram always made her life look so perfect…too perfect. She didn’t like it, she felt that people wouldn’t connect with her family member, if she didn’t portray a life that felt more “real.”
I felt a pang of guilt: My house is spotless in every photo I post. My children and I are mostly put-together (aside from an ongoing pants battle with my youngest, in which she refuses to wear them). My photos reflect a beautiful, happy, nearly-perfect life. (My life is beautiful, I very much recognize that.) However, my life is far from perfect, far from lacking in daily struggles, far from lacking in the mess that is parenthood. I fully agree vulnerability creates connection. I connect that way in person, but does it also have to be constantly shared on my social media, for me to be “real?”
Motherhood is messy, and so is life in general. I share the blissful moments. Because the truth is, it’s what I want to share, and it is what people want to see. It’s the same reason people smile for photos. We all do it. Who really wants to see the ugly, in a space meant for recreation? Who wants to see photos posted of crying children, piles of laundry, a floor littered with Z-bar wrappers, and spilled lunch? We love seeing happy families and beautiful sunsets, and hearing beautiful, cute, and heartfelt stories. And that stuff is real, too. But maybe sometimes we do also want glimpses of that messiness, just to know we’re not the only ones. But my house isn’t usually clean because I want beautiful photos, it’s clean because I have anxiety that won’t rest.
I have shared my PPD struggles here on this blog at length, I candidly shared that same story in a documentary, and again many times while I was interviewed for the Shot on iPhone 6s Campaign last year. I’ve shared a bit of my anxiety struggles on Instagram, but does the “perfection” in a gallery of finished photos gloss over that? Do I have a responsibility to share that more?
Maybe I do. Maybe because millions of people suffer silently, and because I keep my own anxiety mostly well-hidden, I need to speak up.
I have severe anxiety. Not the kind people joke about like, “Oh, man, my house is so messy it’s giving me anxiety.” Like the kind where I can’t breathe if there is a speck of dust on my hardwood floor, and can’t focus if there’s a dish in my sink.
Often, when it’s bad, I wake up with chest pains so sharp, I worry I’m having a heart attack. There is a rising panic I feel in my stomach that almost never goes away. I go downstairs and before I can even make a cup of coffee, I clean. In a hurried, rushed, almost panicked way. I scrub my kitchen that I cleaned the night before, I dust, I fluff throw pillows, sweep, vacuum and mop, I scrub toilets, I make beds, and I spiral. I try to stop at about an hour of cleaning. I do this every single day, multiple times a day. I grasp at feeling centered, and believe that I have to be in clean surroundings for that to happen.
My friends from college will tell you that my dorm room was spotless. It was odd, maybe even a little funny to them, but what they don’t know is I can’t focus my chaotic-feeling mind if my surroundings are out of order. It’s a compulsion I can’t turn off. I have friends joke that they ‘wish they had anxiety like me so their houses would always be clean.’ It doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I do wanly smile as I think about how they don’t actually wish that at all.
I have an extremely hard time falling asleep at night. I can’t shut my brain off. I lay and contemplate all the sadness of this world. I imagine the ways I could die, imagine horrific things happening to those whom I love most. I feel devastated that my time with my children is limited by my lifespan, and worry that will be shorter than 90+ years. I can’t even let my children get in the car without me, without worrying it will be the last time I see them, and thus giving them long hugs and millions of kisses as I “for the last time” savor them. They are 3 and 5 years old, and I still worry about SIDS. I check that they are breathing in their sleep every single night. My husband took them camping a few weekends ago, and when I couldn’t get ahold of him for 2 hours, I absolutely lost it. I was certain a bear had mauled them, or that they had drowned. I imagine horrible scenarios every day–they intrude my mind.
The worst part is, I know this seems crazy, overreactive, out-there, even ridiculous. But knowing it doesn’t mean that I can turn it off.
Sometimes I can’t eat. Anxiety means an upset stomach and I just can’t. I am claustrophobic in situations where I can’t get out. I could be in an airplane hanger, but if I know the doors are locked, I will start to panic.
I often have to take some quiet alone time and retreat into my own world because I deal a lot with sensory overload. The constant “mommy, mommys!” refereeing, wiping booties, giving cuddles, over-scheduled lives, and pressure to do everything the right way, on top of feeling the sense of panic I can never shake, can be suffocating. It all makes me so exhausted. Not hopelessly exhausted, into my bones and unable to move, like with depression, but like my heart has beat enough beats for a week, in one day.
I can also be very irritable, a combination of the chest pains, noise, busy buzzing head, and exhaustion, and during those times have to work hard to keep my feelings from bubbling over and taking them out on my family. That’s the most important part to me: I don’t want my children or my husband to bear the brunt of this, but I know sometimes they have. That kills me.
And let’s sidebar about parenthood in general, today: We just can’t get anything right. We need to parent gently, but not have undisciplined jerks. If we actually try to discipline them, strangers in the supermarket either cluck at us, or might call CPS. We shouldn’t leave our babies to cry it out, but we shouldn’t let them be so needy and comfort them in the night, unless we “want” to be exhausted. We should feed on demand, but if we don’t get that baby to comply with a schedule, we’re idiots. Breast is best, but if you accidentally flash someone while trying to feed a flailing, screaming baby, you’re being provocative (breastfeeding is just oh-so sexy). We should baby-wear and develop secure attachments, but put that baby down lest we spoil her! We should give our kids freedom, but a nosy neighbor might call us in if we are more than 10 feet away from our children playing outside. We shouldn’t over-schedule them, but we’re dropping the ball if we don’t playdate and do Pinterest activities. We should make everything from scratch with organic beet sugar, but not be so uptight that we deprive them of sugar and being kids. We should work outside of the home so we set a good example, but by God, don’t let someone else “raise” our babies by putting them in daycare (because somehow that’s a thing people actually say). It’s a wonder that not every parent has anxiety.
I digress…(apparently, I have some energy on that.)
Through it all, the normal tough expectations we all face as parents of young kids, and the generalized anxiety, I pretend everything is great. I remain put-together. I work so hard to appear totally okay on the outside, but truthfully, sometimes I’m barely above water, putting on a tranquil mask, screaming and debilitated by anxiety on the inside. I hide this because of the disorder itself–the perfectionism part.
I hide this because as a stay at home mother who has the luxury of deciding to do so, I’m expected to be fulfilled and happy at all times. I do this because in our backwards society, stoicism and suffering in silence is somehow lauded, and showing emotion, showing sensitivity, is weakness. I do this because when it’s on the forefront of people’s minds, it colors their interactions with me. I do this because I don’t want to be treated as fragile, when I’m strong. Fighting this is brave and hard work, that requires a brute inner strength to rise out of the darkness; I am far from fragile. I do this because I am rational and reliable, and don’t want to be treated like I’m not. I do this because I want people to think I’m smart, not that my thoughts are compromised by a broken brain.
And maybe my brain is broken a little bit, but it’s not irreparable. Doing the work to get better is what’s responsible for the creativity that’s filtered in since I had my beautiful daughters, dealt with PPD, and now this. The silver lining is a depth that is hard-won, and only possible to experience once you’ve seen that darkness. It allows me to see the light in ways that I never noticed before, because I didn’t have to. I see shreds of hope when it would be easy to decide all is lost.
I don’t want anyone to misunderstand: Anxiety doesn’t mean no happiness. It means a struggle to feel anything but fear. I have many, many happy moments and as I get better this time around, my awareness of them, my ability to feel them, increases.
Why am I sharing this, both the photo project and the rambling explanations? I share because it’s cathartic. If I get some of it out, maybe my mind will feel like it doesn’t need to hold onto so much of it. I don’t want or need sympathy, I want this disorder to be met with more knowledge and understanding. I don’t want special treatment, in fact I want to be treated as the same person everyone who knows me, has always known, because I’m still her.
I share it because millions of people suffer with it. Because every single time I talk about PPD or anxiety, my DMs and email inbox are filled with messages from people who tell me they identify and don’t feel so alone. Because I want people to know it’s OK to talk about it, and OK to talk to me if they want.
Living with anxiety, I am still valuable, a damn good mother, wife, and photographer. We are capable people and mental health issues, as long as we do the work, don’t diminish that.
I share this because I’m alright, and there may be more times where I’m less than alright again in the future, but I’ll get through them. Anxiety is a secret panic that can feel so lonely; I don’t want it to feel lonely. We’re in this life together and I want to help.
Ok, I was the second shooter. But as much as I have had a love affair with photography over the last 3 years, this solidified it for me. I have never experienced the magic of capturing people in love this way before, and I’m addicted to freezing that emotion in time forever. I’ve resisted moving into the professional sphere, but I keep getting pulled to it, and I think it’s time I’m honest with myself about how much I love being able to hand someone an image that makes them cry (happy tears). So, I’m going to make myself available…a little more available, to shoot a few sessions or weddings a year.
Now on to these lovebirds: I had never met Casey and Calvin prior to their wedding day, because I was added on as the second shooter. It was a pretty amazing experience to get to know them through my lens. How much they love each other was palpable for everyone in their presence. They are humble, Jesus-loving, kind, and considerate. So much of their day was focused on thoughtful details: letters written to one another before the ceremony, self-written vows, and meaningful touches that made their day even more special.
They decided they didn’t want to do a first look, so the first time they laid eyes on each other was when Casey walked down the aisle. It was beautiful to watch Calvin’s face as he saw his bride.
Their friends were such fun people, and it was evident how much they supported this union, and were so happy for their friends. The groomsmen got silly in the forrest, and then coordinated a shot watching the couple from the side of the barn, just after they had been married. They also had a surprise for the couple, and with the help of the officiant, photobombed the first kiss!
After the ceremony we had a moment to capture some portraits of the newly-wedded couple, and they couldn’t stop kissing each other and laughing. It was embarrassing how many times I reminded myself not to cry, and just shoot. I did cry a little during the dances, especially when I caught Calvin’s mom wiping tears away while she watched her son and new daughter dance.
I hope they cherish these images as a reminder of their truly magical day. As a stranger with a camera—I felt it—and I can only imagine the depth of the happiness they felt. I hope the moments I caught do their day justice.
Thank you, Calvin and Casey, for letting me be part of your amazing day, and I wish you the happiest life together.
Emotional, candid, moody, full of love, that’s my style, and I can’t wait to share it some more.
Ever since the beta for Portrait Mode came out last Fall, I’ve been shooting a ton with it, and learning how to make the most of this amazing feature. I can get photos with it that I never thought possible with a phone, but it can be a little finicky to use. Here are my best tips to get great shots with Portrait Mode on the iPhone7+.
My first tip is make sure your light is really, really good. This seems obvious, because it’s true for all photography, but Portrait Mode is touchy, and if the light isn’t bright, the photos come out grainy. It’s extra weird-looking when this happens, because the blurred background has no grain, and is totally smooth, only the in-focus subject will show grain. To avoid this, shoot outside, or very close to a window, during early, strong daytime light.
Grain isn’t all bad though, and there are ways to disguise it if you capture a shot you love in which the subject is a little grainy. Converting to black and white seems to work well, because it feels natural for a black and white photo to have some grain.
Another trick to disguise grain is to add more grain in, when you edit. I like to add grain when I’m editing in Lightroom, and on my iPhone edits, I use apps like film-simulator RNI Flashback, and up the grain level and add some dust, to create texture all over the image, including on the blurred, smooth background.
Sometimes grain just isn’t a deal-breaker. Both of these shots below have a lot of grain on the subjects, because I shot straight into the sun, and my daughters were in the shadows. I still loved the images, grain and all. If you’re like me, and you like shooting into the sun to attempt to capture sun flare or rim light, just remember it will cause significant grain. You have to decide if that bothers you or not.
One of the biggest caveats of Portrait Mode, is that you have to be positioned within 8 feet of your subject for it to work, and you also can’t be too close. This makes it tough to get the effect, and also get a pulled-back, full-body portrait. One day it snowed, and I wanted to capture my girls, their snowman, and some of the falling snow. I had to be very careful to move back enough, without going too far, to remain able to use the depth effect.
I also made sure that my girls were positioned in a straight line, the same distance from the camera, so they were both in-focus. If one would have been farther back, she would have been caught in the depth effect blur. Below is an example of what the effect looks like when the subjects are not the same distance from the camera. It’s a great tool if you want to isolate one subject, but something to think about if you want everyone in the shot to be in-focus.
You’ll notice in the black and white shot above, the background blur is a little messy around my in-focus daughter’s back, where the pebbles are. The busier the background is, the harder it is for Portrait Mode to get a precise line around a subject.
For a crisper focus-to-blur transition in Portrait Mode, a simpler background works the best. Things like rocks, sticks, branches, and leaves, can be tough to get a precise line around your subject. The images above are a perfect example of this. The depth effect line is wavy around my daughter’s head, hair, profile, and the leaf in her hand. I ended up preferring the non-Portrait Mode version for this shot. (It’s a great feature that when using Portrait Mode, the iPhone7+ also snaps a non-Portrait Mode version at the same time.)
The depth effect, in front of a busy background is still worth shooting though, even if it isn’t always exactly perfect, it can still look wonderful. Take the shot below, in front of the Winter branches. The line around my model’s head, and her shoulders and arms, isn’t perfect, but the overall image is still beautiful, and I much prefer this version to the regular, non depth-effect version my phone also captured.
Because it works so much better in very bright light, another thing I’ve noticed with shooting Portrait Mode, is often, the light parts of my images will get blown out (i.e. the lightest spots are pure white and have no details). It’s important to use the exposure adjustment to avoid this. To do that, simply tap as you do when you’re ready to focus your shot, and when the yellow box pops up in the screen, slide your finger downward, to the right of the box, where the little sun icon is. That will darken the overall image, or underexpose it. Even if it seems a little dark, do this just until there aren’t any hot spots– you can always brighten the image when you edit it, but you can’t add missing details back in. Whenever I shoot in harsh sunlight, for example the lines that window blinds make, I am sure to underexpose the shot.
It seems to me, that it takes a little longer to lock in the focus when using Portrait Mode, and also, it takes the camera longer to snap the shot, especially if trying to take shots back-to-back. Be aware of this, and have patience: let the camera focus all the way, before snapping, or you’ll end up with nothing in-focus at all. Burst-mode is also not an option in PM, so if you really need to capture an exact moment like blowing candles out, and you want to use a burst, turn PM off.
Sometimes, I think people believe PM is magical and will immediately produce a better image. Be cautious of relying on gear, no matter which camera you shoot with. Utilize the effect only when it will add value to your image. If the background is completely plain, like flat against a plain wall background, or a baby laying on a blanket being shot from above, it may not be necessary to use PM at all, and could also cause unwanted grain. If the background contributes to the story, blurring it too much would take away from the image. If the lighting is dark, and you really want a clear shot, I wouldn’t use it, and would instead take advantage of the regular photo mode’s improved low light abilities. The best part is, the screen gives you a live-view of your shot, so if you’re unsure whether PM is beneficial to your shot, toggle back and forth and see, before you press the shutter button.
One thing I’ve loved doing that is specific to PM in mobile photography, is playing with shallow depth of field and varying perspectives to create that, within the confines of Portrait Mode’s capabilities. I like to shoot from above and just get a sweet, upturned face in-focus, while the rest of the body blurs away. Or, I’ll choose to focus on something unexpected, like little feet, or a treasure held in hands.
I love to take window reflection photos, but be careful when doing this using PM. Sometimes, especially when shooting a reflection from the side of a person, the reflection also gets blurred out, or partially/ fully disappears. Sometimes that works for the image, other times it weirdly looks like the person might be a ghost with no reflection! I either turn Portrait Mode off, or adjust my angles until the reflection is there. It’s easier to shoot reflections from above because it makes it less tricky to get both the person and her reflection the same distance away from the phone, so that they are both recognized by the camera as subjects, and I don’t lose one to the blur.
Below, you can see part of my daughter’s face is missing in her reflection. Portrait mode got a little confused about half of her face being background, but because I got an eye, and the deck created leading lines right into her face, I still like the shot.
For this one below, also shot from the side, I had to lean so close to the glass that my nose was almost touching it, to get both of “me” to be the same distance away from the lens, to let the depth effect recognize us both as subjects in the image. Otherwise my reflection was part of the blur effect and disappeared completely.
And lastly, Portrait Mode isn’t just for people! I’ve also had fun playing around and shooting all kinds of things, creating interesting perspectives, and adding visual interest.
Overall when using Portrait Mode, pay the most attention to your light. Learn when the feature will add to the image, and when it’s best not to use it. Play around, try new things, and test its limits. Don’t let its restrictions intimidate you, instead thrive by pushing those limits to see what you can do with them. With a little understanding and patience, using your “little” phone camera, you can create some strong, print-worthy images.
I forgot to mention this last month! Earlier in the Summer, in July/ August, during Colombia’s Feria de las Flores, 2 more of my iPhone images were up on billboards! They are the following 2 images, shot on my iPhone6s Plus, with my macro Olloclip, and edited with VSCO Cam for iPhone. It was such an honor to once again be included in an iPhone campaign.
I don’t know how they do it, but Apple finds the nicest, smartest, most fun people to work for them, and my experience hosting the photo walk last Wednesday evening was so great! Not only was I supported by an amazing team of talented individuals, the community members who joined us for the walk were such interesting and talented people.
Right off the bat, a gentleman who attended the photo walk, came up and told me that he had read my reviews on here, on both the Fujifilm X100T, and the iPhone6s+, and went and bought both! He’s been a photographer for decades, and felt that my insight was valuable. I was floored, flattered, and so happy he came to the photo walk. (Jim, if you’re reading, email me so we can keep in touch! Also, I’ll have a Fujifilm XT-1 review for you soon.)
I had the complete honor of getting to know so many great people, photograph them, and even be photographed a few times. We had 3 activities planned for everyone to really learn to focus on light and how to capture beautiful portraits. It felt like, as we walked around together looking for the perfect places to complete each assignment, that we were all in it together: not only did I try and teach everyone my own techniques, I learned so much from everyone else. It reminded me of the thing I love most about photography: each person has his and her own way of seeing the world, and a unique way of capturing it. Having insight into that process is so valuable as a photographer, to continue to learn and grow.
I only wish that we would have had more time at the end for more editing, but we had so much fun out shooting in Yerba Buena Gardens that we ran a little short on time. I know that seeing how others edit their shots is helpful, so I’ll give a play-by-play below of how I edited some of my favorite shots from the photo walk:
Laurie is a pediatrician with curly teal hair, beautiful blue eyes, and a fabulous personality. I so enjoyed snapping her portrait in the dramatic, dappled sunlight of the late evening. I made sure to have her turn her head just enough toward me, to get her eye in a little pocket of light, and I waited for an in-between moment to catch a soft, genuine expression. The wind blew her hair across her face, and over to the side, and the trees in the background continued the line of her hair, splaying out to the right, and it was a perfect, natural, dynamic, yet soft moment.
To edit this image, I first uploaded it into VSCO Cam, and used my favorite color filter in there, Preset A6. A6 lends a very natural, beautifully-toned, not-overdone look. I used it at full strength, and then added just a touch of sharpening, by going up +1. I also upped the exposure by +1 because she had been in the shadows, and I wanted to make sure to have some visible detail in those shadows. The filter also darkened the image a bit, and I wanted to counteract that.
Lastly, I opened the image up in Snapseed and used the brush tool to up the exposure at +.3 strength, to slightly brighten the iris of her eye and make it pop just a touch more.
Caitlin is a girlfriend from high school who surprised me by attending the photo walk. She also was kind enough to model her gorgeous self for me to snap a portrait. I noticed the lines on the side of a building made a really cool grid, and had some light hitting it from the side. I had Caitlin line up specifically next to the line vertically cutting a third of the photo, making sure to include the horizontal line above her head to frame her, and had her turn her face to the sun.
To edit, I used my trusty A6 filter in VSCO, and sharpened +1. The light was so perfect on her genuine, smiling face, and her black jacket contrasted so beautifully with the light gray wall, that I didn’t have to do much at all to make this photo dynamic.
At one point, we all went behind the waterfall and found some awesome light streaming through the cascading water. Beautiful Khadijah was kind enough to model for quite a while, as a ton of us snapped her portrait. I tried to wait for other people to not be in the background of my shot, but it wasn’t happening, and I didn’t want to lose the little sun light in the top right corner, so I shot the photo anyway. I loved how there were flecks of water crossing between Khadijah and my lens.
To edit, first I wanted to remove the distracting person walking in the background, and the waterfall light in the bottom of the frame. To do this, I used Pixelmator’s repair tool.
Next, I used RNI Flashback to apply a filter. RNI Flashback is such a special app, and I’ll write an entire review dedicated to it soon, but basically it mimics what it thinks real film chemicals would do to your photo, and it never recreates the same filter twice, ever. It brings out such amazing tones, and it did so with this shot. Once I applied the RNI Flashback processing, I opened the photo in Snapseed to very gently brighten up her face just a touch, by using the dodge and burn tool at +5, and swiping over her face just once. I also used the saturation brush at +10 strength and painted over the orange light in the photo to make the light stand out. I cropped the photo just a touch, because the background behind her to the left of the image, was distracting.
This lovely lady, Chelsea, let me borrow her ExoLens with a Zeiss telephoto lens that isn’t even out yet, and it was gorgeous! I loved the way it made it possible for me have such a lovely out-of-focus background, for a portrait taken with iPhone. I think the result is so high-quality. I want one of these lenses now!
Because of the cool, retro vibe of Chelsea’s round sunnies, I thought a film look would be perfect. I used RNI Flashback, lowered the grain and dust to halfway, and sharpened just a little bit.
I really enjoyed the first activity we did as a group, which was shooting in square, because I rarely do that. It was cool to reframe my thinking and play with the symmetry of the shape, focusing on architectural lines to help me enhance my subjects. Usually I’m photographing my babies, in natural areas like fields, so it was very different and very fun to shoot adults next to buildings. I think it’s important to remember to try things that aren’t your usual style, and move a little bit out of your comfort zone. You may find you enjoy shooting more styles than you thought!
Overall, I want to thank Apple, Jeff, Mike, Ian, Tom, all of the Apple Store Union Square creatives, and everyone who came and made the photo walk experience valuable, memorable, and fun. It really was such an honor.
(If you enjoyed these step-by-step edits, I am wrapping up an ebook all about iPhone photography detailing how I shoot and edit. I’ll release it soon!)