Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Point-and-Shoot 101: Focus

Many weeks ago I posted a blog on Point-and-Shoot cameras describing some simple uses and settings that often go un-utilized. Today I'd like to take that a step further and show you some additional tips on focusing and depth-of-field.

I've always been a fan of a blurred-out-background (or foreground) when shooting in macro, this setting is usually a flower symbol on your camera, but knowing how this actually happens within your camera will help you remember how to make it happen in the photo while using the camera's innate tools.
A camera is like the pupil on your eye; to let in more light, it grows; to let in less light on a bright day, it shrinks. There are two tools on the camera that make this happen: the F-Stop and the Aperture. The F-stop is the hole size of that "pupil", or shutter opening, however it seems backwards: the larger the number, the smaller the hole... eg: f5.6 will let in a TON of light and raise your aperture (the time length of shutter opening) to 500 or higher, making the shutter open 1/500th of a second. FAST. The higher that number, the faster the shutter opens and shuts, making the picture super sharp for action shots. To capture humans, the lowest that aperture number can be is about 1/60. Opposingly, if you set the f-stop to a high f18 or 26, the hole will be tiny, letting in a small amount of light, and thus lowering your aperture timing to a slower snap such as "30" or really 1/30th of a second.

That's a mouthful, I know, but here's what it boils down to: the smaller the f-stop, the wider the refraction, and thus, the wider range of focus. Remember, the smaller f-stop is the higher number.

Most point and shoot cameras have a manual or partially manual setting allowing you to change one or the other or both of those settings. But if you don't want to mess around with numbers, watch what the numbers do when you put it on the macro (flower symbol) setting versus the landscape (mountain symbol) setting. Macro will be f5.6 and 1/500 (or so), getting only what's 5 or so feet in front of you in focus, while landscape will get everything in focus (elluding to the mountain ranges hundreds of miles away) from here to eternity, and the settings will look more like f18 and 1/60 (or so).

In addition to Macro, there is also usually a "portrait" (head symbol) setting that will do similar to the Macro setting, what's in the distance will blur out, leaving you with a nice focused face that the background doesn't distract from.

Now get out there and fool around with those numbers- what I were taught in college was to take a small notebook with me and make notes of the photo number and the setting I chose. While the digital age gives us the tools to look immediately, the viewfinders don't always show you the smaller detail, so I'd suggest doing this as well the first few times you play with these settings so you get the feel of the results. Writing things down often sinks them in for me.

Shoot often to shoot well!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Gluten Free for Psoriasis

Recently I've been putting my researching brain cells to work on studying the Gluten Free way of life. Since the age of 14 I have had psoriasis, and recently it's been showing signs of progression to psoriatic arthritis, a progression that occurs in about 20-40% of the cases (studies are still incomplete, although the reverse is 80% of PA patients have had psoriasis, so the two are definitely linked). I've been tested for allergies in the 1980s (none), and I'm a pretty natural consumer as well, so I don't use body products with harmful ingredients like parabens or sulfates. Herbal and homeopathic remedies and dead sea salts have all helped reduce my inflammations, but have never eliminated the disorder completely. I was vegetarian for 7 years in the 1990s, and that never cleared up my psoriasis either.

Because of its progression I've started researching the diet and how it relates to the disorder, and stumbled upon several articles and studies that now link it to Celiac Disease, or gluten intolerance. I also found success stories through diets made of raw food, gluten free, sugar free, lactose free, and rich in omega oils like flax and cod liver.

The list of associated conditions from eating gluten is extensive. In my research I've found that gluten affects psoriasis and eczema, gout, autism, addictions, dermatitis, anemia, auto-immune disorders, IBS, epilepsy, depression and anxiety. Our sensitivity to gluten increases as we age, and untreated, it can lead to cancer.

Since we belong to a community-supported-agriculture club and get a lot of fresh vegetables weekly, and the summer months usually make me crave lighter foods, I embarked on a Gluten Free Diet about two weeks ago. Before doing any research, I'd always figured gluten was a very hard thing to avoid. And in reality, it is in everything from bread to ketchup, so for those who rely on restaurants, it is indeed quite hard to avoid unless you stick to salads (without croutons!). But upon reading more about my options, I actually became excited about trying this for a few months because we typically do eat a lot of the same things over and over.

The results however are undeniable; the psoriasis on my elbows is fading. Granted, I've gone off EVERYTHING except natural sugars, eggs and white meats, so I fully intend on reincorporating foods back into my diet once the spots are completely gone to see what flares up, and will comment back on this post with updates.

But in just a couple weeks, the cooking has been fun. So far I've made tapioca (with soy milk), which I never knew was so easy, double chocolate cookies (gluten and lactose-free but not vegan), which I never knew tasted so good, blueberry cornbread muffins (best when fresh apparently), and french bread, as well as dozens of meals and party-goods that were already in my recipe banks that were gluten free like hummus (with veg instead of tortillas) and sweet potato casserole (gluten free version below).

It takes a full list of alternatives to supplement the starchy behavior of gluten, which is used for thickening and flavor; so the initial impact was on my budget. You can get 5 lbs of white flour for only a couple dollars, and I spent about $30 on rice and tapioca flour, xanthum gum, and potato starch. The xanthum gum being the most expensive at $13 for 2 cups, but it looks like it'll last me a year. The other thing worth mention is that while you use several cups of flour for cookies, my double-chocolate cookies used a lot less flour (1/3 cup) and the nuts, raw sugar and chocolate were enough to make the cookies solid.

Breads are a little different, but are still much less dense than gluten breads, so the flours will go further. In addition, what I like is that the foods all taste lighter, not as filling, although just as rich.

Here's a start at the links I've found and recipes I've made so far.

Also, my cooking bible, The Joy of Cooking, also has some gluten free suggestions, and an online center as well, and ironically, the first recipe that pops up right now is gluten free!

I welcome any suggestions for websites and recipes that you all have as well!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

DIY Tomatoes, Topsy Turvy, Part 1

This summer we're trying that "as seen on TV" Topsy Turvy Tomato grower because our growing season is ridiculously short and we needed to be able to bring them back inside in September easily. Right now ours isn't very heavy, and we only put in 1/3 of the dirt to keep it light as well. We'll see how heavy it gets in late August!

But it brought me to wonder, can't you build one of these on your own? It's essentially a plastic container with a hole. The topsy turvy is a round cylinder, hole at the bottom, wires at the top holding it up. It drains a lot of water so it needs to be over a towel or outside.

In thinking of what plastic containers have holes and handles, you could easily build one of your own with a milk jug (best for its handle maybe), 2-liter bottle, or a wide cardboard tube lined with a garbage bag. The TT came with a styrofoam bumper for the hole so water and dirt wouldn't drain out- so cutting one of those is a good idea too, although FYI, we didn't use ours.

But once you find a casing that works, you slide the tomato starters (ours were about 6" tall, smaller is better) into the hole and then fill in from the top with dirt. Painless!

So for the cost of 2 small plants, dirt and fruiting fertilizer (a must for continually fruiting plants, we believe), you can skip the $29.99-as-seen-on-TV Topsy Turvy and make your own.

I'll check back in with this topic later on and let you all know how it does in Colorado... and if it does great you can bet we'll be making our own next year!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

5 Tips for Outdoor Events

Summer is always filled with outdoor fun, whether it be music festivals, chili cookoffs, Shakespeare in the park, or the kids' soccer tournament, if you're outside all day, you need to prepare.

This month we'll be at the Mile High Music Fest, Red Rocks Amphitheater, and Saratoga Performing Arts Center in addition to some of our local outdoor fun. Here are some of our priorities for outdoor events.

1. Ice water. For events that allow you to bring in water, icing it down overnight in the freezer is key. It melts all day and provides a great cooling drink for a hot day outside. Most of you who live in the south do this anyway for yourself, but make sure to hop online and check the rules at your chosen festival, all of them are different. Most allow you to bring in unopened bottles, and you can insist they crack the seal to prove it if the labels are falling off from moisture.

2. Bug spray. I'm not a big fan of DEET. It's poisonous, in an aerosol can, and it smells awful. Three strikes for me, especially if you have kids or sensitivities. Downright TERRIBLE for kids with autism or epilepsy! But I get MAULED by bugs. It took me forever to find something natural that works on me, and I've tried and tested these products from Colorado's mosquitoes to Costa Rica's sand flees. It works!

Aroma Pharmica formulates several body wash and lotion blends, but the one titled "Breathe" with eucalyptus, lemongrass and cedarwood does the trick. I wash and lotion with this, and then use her "Shoo Bug" spray as a last defense.

3. Umbrella. Sometimes the simplest defenses are the best. This one plays double duty for me at an outdoor venue to block the sun and precipitation if there is any. I like a medium sized umbrella that's pretty light but with a long arm so it can strap into backpacks or onto lawn chairs.

4. Yep, lawn chairs. Essential. Although sometimes blanket will be enough, and easier to carry for sure, so depending on coolers and what else you're toting in, definitely consider a chair for yourself. One with a beer holder is even better!

5. Spray bottle with lemon or peppermint. As if the ice water wasn't enough, last year we got so scortched the first day of the Mile High Music Fest that we brought a spray bottle (empty, but if you can fill it with ice, do - we couldn't) with a couple drops of peppermint essential oil in it and sprayed everyone down every chance we got. Essential oils have great lasting power, so even though we filled it up 4-5 times throughout the day, the refreshing aroma lasted.

Last, make sure you have everything you need if you can't re-enter the park; pack full of snacks, phone, camera, 45 sunblock, visor or hat, comfortable waterproof shoes, chair or blanket, umbrella, water, inhaler, and even an energy boost like Emergen-C, energy bar, or just a banana. And if you're planning on drinking alcohol, drink twice that in water to stay hydrated.