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New Blog

November 9, 2010

They say that when you start writing, you don’t really know what you’ll wind up writing about.  I didn’t.

After keeping this blog for more than six months, I started writing about photography.  And it just felt right, in a way that writing about sewing and crafting never did.

So I moved to a new blog name, Rachel Shoots, and I’ve been posting a lot more photos.  I have no idea whether anyone reads this blog, but if you do, head over there if you’re interested.  I doubt I’ll be posting here anymore.

Pentax 18-55mm: Kit Lens Love

October 28, 2010

Kit lenses don’t get a lot of respect.  They don’t have the low light capability of fast primes.  The optical quality isn’t on par with more expensive lenses.  They’re not remarkably wide or remarkably long.

But my kit lens has one serious advantage: it’s there.  Kit lenses are cheap, compact and lightweight.  And thus, I’ve taken the kit lens along when I’ve left my larger or more expensive lenses at home.

So, here are my favorite pictures taken with my kit lens.

Poppies in Anchorage, Alaska

Amsterdam at Night - 18mm f/3.5 1/6 sec

Boats in the harbor in Naxos, Greece - 21mm f/9.5

Topaz, my grandmother's tabby - 55mm f/5.6

Swiss Flag in Luzern - 35mm f/9.5

Prayer Stones in Everest Region, Nepal - 55mm f/11.0

Sunrise in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

Sunrise in the Annapurna Region, Nepal - 33mm f/8.0

Pentax SMC-FA 28-70mm f/4.0

October 23, 2010

I got a new toy in the mail yesterday.  I’d been frustrated with my other zooms.  Their optics are good, but they all end or begin around 50mm.  50mm is one of my favorite focal lengths for family photography, so it was awkward.

I decided to get a zoom that started around 28 to 35 and ended around 70 to 100.  I scanned the list at Stan’s Pentax Site and, liking the reviews of the 28-70mm f/4, bought one off for $86, including shipping.

I got to take it out yesterday and here’s what I found:

  • It gives great colors and contrast.
  • Auto-focus is fast in bright light.  (I haven’t used it yet in low light.)
  • Bokeh is good at 70mm, but a little ugly at 28mm.

28mm f/4.0 - This is what I mean by not-so-lovely bokeh.

Ike on the merry-go-round - 28mm f/4.0

70mm, f/4.0 - At 70mm, the bokeh is much nicer.

Maple leaves - 65mm f/8.0

The quality of the bokeh relates to shape of the aperture.  Ken Rockwell has a good explanation here.

Looking down the lens as I fiddle with the aperture ring, it makes perfect sense that the bokeh would be prettier at 70mm than at 28mm.  At 28mm the aperture is an octagon, at 70mm the aperture is a circle.

So, if I want portraits, I’ll zoom in.  (Really, if I want portraits, I’ll use a different lens.)  But overall, I’m very pleased with this lens.

My Lens Menagerie: Part 1

October 21, 2010

Unsurprisingly, my first lens was an 18-55mm f kit lens.  It’s fashionable to bash kit lenses, but I’ve been happy with mine.  However, I quickly learned what it would do well—snapshots in good light—and what it wouldn’t: everything else.

Indoors, my kits lens is pretty bad.

I began to research prime lenses.  At the time, the cheapest new prime lens Pentax sold was their SMCP-FA 50mm f/1.4 for about $150**.  That was too expensive for me.  Instead, I decided to buy a old SMC-M 50mm f/1.7.

I knew the lens would be manual focus, but I was too inexperienced to understand the difference between SMC-M and SMC-A lenses.  Because my new (well, new to me) lens had no “A” on the aperture ring, the camera couldn’t control the aperture.  The Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes didn’t work.  I had to shoot in Manual mode with “step down” metering.  There’s an explanation of what I’m talking about here.

My parent's dog, Honey, shot in low light with f/1.7

The 50mm took good pictures, but it was such a pain in the neck to use that I decided to keep looking for a more modern (and more expensive) autofocus prime lens, and eventually settled on the Pentax SMCP-FA 35mm f/2.0.

This was during the Hoya takeover of Pentax and production had fallen behind demand.  Nothing makes you willing to pay a higher price for something like not being able to find it at all.  By the time I’d tracked down a 35mm f/2.0 online, my sticker shock at prime lenses had worn off.

Ike, taken indoor with the 35mm f/2.0

Boy, am I glad I bought this lens when I had the chance.  Since then, Pentax has stopped manufacturing this lens all together.  They’re replaced it with the Pentax SMCP-DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro, which has gotten rave reviews, but is stop slower and a lot more expensive.

Rounding out the prime lens collection is a used Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro that I bought for macro photography, but mostly use for outdoor portrait photography.

Juno, taken with my 90mm f/2.8

**One financial crisis later, the dollar has fallen against the yen and the 50mm f/1.4 retails for $360.  I should have taken my savings out of the bank in the spring of 2008 and invested in Pentax lenses.

I Shoot Pentax

October 20, 2010

I learned to use an SLR camera the old fashioned way: I bought a used film SLR and signed up to take an evening class at the local art center.  I recommend it.  I didn’t learn anything I couldn’t read in a book, but it forced me to take pictures every week and most importantly, I got weekly feedback from the instructor and the other students.

For a year, I continued to use my film SLR.  Or, more accurately, I didn’t.  I meant to, but it was inconvenient to buy film and then get it developed.  I finally did what I should have done from the start: I bought a digital SLR.

One of the first pictures I took with my K100D and kit lens

I walked into Penn Camera in downtown DC and walked out with a Pentax K100D and a kit lens.  Why Pentax?  I wish I could say that I thought it over, but really, I bought a K100D because that’s what the man behind the counter wanted to sell me.

I hadn’t had my new toy long when I realized Pentax isn’t a standard choice.  Most people approach SLR cameras as a dichotomy.  Canon or Nikon?  Nikon or Canon?  Shooting Pentax is like taking German in high school.

I like Pentax.  I’ve come to appreciate its outsider status.  Since I haven’t used Canon or Nikon, I can’t say how it compares to them, but I’ve never been anything but satisfied with my K100D.

The Christmas card photo from 2009, taken with my Tamron 90mm f/2.8

How did my garden grow?

September 30, 2010

Summer is over.  The tomato vines are withering, my flat boots are out of storage and I’m already dreading the day it’s too cold for Ike to play outside.

So, how did my garden grow?

Besides the onions, all the vegetables are from the garden.


It was a great summer for tomatoes and peppers.  Favorite pepper varieties: Godfather and Sweet Gypsy.  Favorite tomato: Sungold.

I also bought an heirloom tomato (can’t remember the variety).  It was extraordinary, but the first tomato wasn’t ripe until mid-September.  Lesson learned: read labels on tomato plants.

4th of July and Sungold tomatoes

Basil and oregano grew like weeds!  And yes, you can direct sow basil if you wait until late spring.

The strawberry and blueberry bushes thrived.  Hopefully we’ll get more berries next summer when they’re bigger.

Just okay

The zuchinni and squash plants produced well, but I should have planted all squashes and skipped the zuchinnis.

I spent $3 each on two eggplant plants and had just three eggplant fruits to show for it.  They were good, but next year I’ll just buy eggplant at the market.

The cucumbers died mid-summer.  I expected them to; there’s a wilt that’s widespread here in Michigan, but it was still disappointing.

We planted three varieties of peas, but only one seemed to grow.


The radishes never got round. Ditto the scallions.

The spinach didn’t seem to sprout in the first place.

My carrots grew, but it turns out carrots aren’t any better out of the ground than out of a bag.  At least, mine weren’t.

Ike’s Bedroom: Green, Blue and Wild Animals

September 9, 2010

A few weeks ago I posted a long laundry list of tasks that I wanted to complete.  Well, I can check two of them off: finishing Ike’s bookshelf and hanging quilts in his room.

For those of you who are new to the blog, Ike is my toddler son.  Let’s take a look around his room.

The quilt was made by Ike’s grandmother (my dear mother-in-law) and it was really the jumping off point for the room.  She knew that I wanted the room to have bright colors and involve animals, so she planned the quilt accordingly.

So, what exactly to we have here:

  • The animal menagerie includes my husband Steve’s old toys, souvenirs from my trips to Australia and Thailand and, yes, stuffed animals that were actually given to Ike.
  • The I-K-E letters are from JoAnn Fabrics.  I spray painted them to match the room.
  • The dresser is from an unfinished furniture store; we finished it ourselves.
  • The bookshelf was (mostly) made by me with some crucial help from Steve.  I painted it with oil-based enamel paint.

And here’s the rest of the room.

  • Ike’s crib is solid wood, no dropside.  I made the sheet.  Making crib sheets turns out to be incredibly easy and good excuse to buy a few yards of a fun print.
  • I made the curtains out of leftover fabric from the quilt.  I lined them with white muslin to help block out the sun and keep them looking nice from outside.
  • The frog quilt was made by my aunt for Ike’s first birthday (or was it Christmas?).
  • The chair is a lazy boy recliner.  My mom insisted on getting me a comfortable chair to nurse in, and she turned out to be absolutely right.