Making an Instagram Book Just Got Easier

There are a billion ways to turn your Instagram images into books. Some are easier or more convenient than others, but if you're a control freak, you like things done a certain way. So awhile ago I wrote a big ol' post about exactly how to turn your instagram photos into a book, and have used the process to make four volumes of books containing roughly 1000 instagrammed images. They are awesome (if I do say so myself). Here's a photo of all four books: insta01

(They're made by Blurb. You can use this link to save $20 on your own bit of blurb/instagram awesomeness.)

The only part of the process that I've been less than 100% satisfied with is collecting the Instagrammed images. Up until now, I've been downloading my entire archive (from InstaArchive), then separating the photos that I've added since making my last book so I can include the newer ones in the new book. Not a huge pain, but not as convenient as it seems like it should be.

Happily, I've since discovered the IfThisThenThat website. It allows you to set up what they call "recipes" which are like little formulas that can do awesome things—like archive your own Instagram photos for you. In my case, I set it up so that every time I post a new image to Instagram, my IFTTT recipe will grab the photo and put a copy of it in a designated DropBox folder for me. Score! My set up looks like this:

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Now, every time I'm ready to make a new book (I do so about every 250 images), I don't have to sift through my whole archive to find the new stuff. I just download them from my DropBox! When I'm done, I empty the DropBox folder, and I'm all set to start shoot for my next  book!

For the step-by-step on the whole process, check out my earlier post.

Have fun!

Thirst Relief Mentor Auction

I'm honored to be participating in Thirst Relief International's annual Mentor Auction again this year. If you're not already familiar with Thirst Relief and the amazing work they do, prepare to be blown away.

Their mission is to "overcome death and disease resulting from the consumption of contaminated water by providing safe, clean drinking water to those in need around the world."

Founded in 2005, Thirst Relief operates in nine countries to launch sustainable water projects in impoverished rural areas and urban slum communities.  100% of public donations go to their various water projects and amazingly—$5 provides 25 yrs. of clean water for one person.

Want to get in on the action and give yourself something to feel really great about? Make a donation to one of their projects —OR— get your bidding on to win a 90-minute mentoring session with yours truly (along with a copy of my Wicked Fast Wedding Workflow Guide and my InDesign Tutorial Video)!

Check out this video to learn more about the work they do, then feel awesome while you set the auction bids on fire! I'm looking forward to connecting with the highest bidder!

PS: Better hurry!  Bidding closes Sunday night (Feb. 3rd) at 10pm CST!

Thirst Relief Short from Anton Lorimer on Vimeo.

How to Turn Your Instagram Photos into a Custom Printed Book

*** This post has been updated to make it even more awesome! *** Let's be real.

I appreciate scrap booked labors of love as much as the next gal, but honestly, if my future (yet-to-be-conceived) children are to have any chance of having their memories live on in an analog format, I can't carry on with the fantasy that someday I'll make scrap booking a regular part of my life. Maybe for a special gift, but definitely not a monthly/yearly thing.

Thankfully, I found a painless alternative.

I've been stewing about how I can make it easy to make sure that our family memories (and bits of daily life) have a life beyond a dusty ol' pile of hard drives.

(This is one of my favorite What the Duck comic strips by the genius Aaron Johnson)

I generally recommend that each time you download photos (whether from your phone, or your "real camera"), pick your 10-20 favorites and order some prints. When they come, just drop them in a photo storage box. Getting fancy with glue and scissors is nice, but totally not required.

Of course, if you're like me, as diligent as I am with taking care of client images, when it comes to my own personal photos—I'm lucky if I download them 3 or 4 times per year. In fact, I've gotten to the point where—like lots of folks—most of the time, the only camera I have with me is my phone.

And the most action my personal photos ever see is if they happen to get posted online via Instagram, etc. So it made the most sense to find a way to make a book from my Instagram images.

And since sifting through my entire photo collection in search of the images I happened to post to Instagram is not likely to happen (like trying to find a needle in a haystack), I was on a mission to find a better way.

Enter Blurb. There are a lot of book-making solutions out there (especially when it comes to Instagram and other social photo sharing sites), but many leave much to be desired in terms of design flexibility, ease of use, and product quality.

Having been a Blurb fan for years, I already knew that I wanted them to print my books, but the online tool they provide for printing your Instagram images has some sort of bug that jumbles the images out of order if you try to add more than the default of 52. And since I was planning to include roughly 250 images, this was a serious concern. (This is really too bad, as otherwise this tool would be so great!)

Blurb also makes a book plug-in for Lightroom, but after playing around with it for awhile, though the interior page layout options had what I wanted (a single square image per page), I found the cover layout and material options to be limiting (compared to the choices Blurb offers elsewhere) and ultimately I wasn't able to cobble together the book in the specific way I wanted. So, I turned my attention back to Blurb's free desktop application (called BookSmart).

Here's the Step-by-Step

  1. Download your photos from Instagram. You can use something like InstaArchive to download a .zip file of your entire collection. After you make your first book, I suggest creating a recipe with IfThisThenThat (IFTTT.com) so you can have your instagrammed images sent to your DropBox Account where they'll already be waiting for you in a nice organized folder (this is my favorite method). Unfortunately, they'll only be sized to 612px x 612px. Don't panic. We'll deal with this in step 3.
  2. Sort and renumber the files. Use Bridge or Lightroom (or whatever works) to renumber the images. They should already appear within Bridge in chronological order, but if with long goofy file names, there can sometimes be problems with file order, so I always make sure to renumber.
  3. Batch upsize them. Bummer that the archived or DropBoxed images from Instagram are so low res. (it will be ok, breathe!) Use a quality plug-in to scale them up without tearing a hole in the universe. I use Alien Skin's Lightroom plug-in called Blow-Up (they have a free trial as well as a verion of the plug-in for Photoshop). I size my images big enough to print 4x4 @300ppi (1200 x 1200 pixels).
  4. Decide on a page layout. Choose one of the existing layouts in Blurb's desktop application and drop in your images. Or, for more control—build your own layout.

    I wanted a single image per page with plenty of white space around it, so I wrote a Photoshop action to build out each 4x4 image with a nice white background to fill out a 7x7 page. You can write your own, or download my custom action here (for a 7x7 book). Then batch run the action on the whole folder via Bridge.

  5. Design a cover. You could use InDesign (recommended), Photoshop, or do it directly in BookSmart (Blurb's free desktop application). I'm a control freak who wants a consistent cover design for all my books, so I designed accordingly (using InDesign) and will swap the images (and colors) with each "edition." I also included a place for volume/date information to note the time span for each book. For example, Vol. One reflects the fall of 2011 through the spring of 2012. Additionally, I included a photo of both Emir and I on the back to quickly document how we change over time. In the future, that image be a whole family photo. If you have InDesign CS4 or newer, you can download my front/back cover InDesign templates here. Drop in your own photos, edit the text, and export to jpg.
  6. Put it all together in Blurb's BookSmart. It's easy to load the photos, select them all, then drag and drop onto the first blank page and you'll see the rest will auto-complete, building your book in minutes, no matter how many pages you have. (Their limit is around 284 pages or so, so if you have more than that, plan to split it across multiple books.)

Enjoy!

 PS: Save 20% on your Blurb books through Dec. 8th with the code ANY20

A Personal Battle: Living with OCD

I don't usually get quite this personal on my blog, but what the heck—sometimes you just have to put yourself out there and trust that it will be for a good reason. Besides, it's entirely possible that someone may even find what you have to say helpful, encouraging, or even—dare I say it?—inspiring. I hope that's the case.

The truth is—I have a confession to make. I am far from perfect. (Well geez... Don't act so surprised!) It's a well known fact that no one is perfect, but that doesn't stop us from trying, does it? I'm as guilty as anyone else when it comes to thinking that I might actually be Super Woman, but the universe has an annoyingly stubborn way of reminding us that we're all human.

I run a successful business. I'm a published author. I have a wonderful family and a rich life filled with more rewarding experiences than I could count, which I wouldn't trade for the world. But alone, in the privacy of my own mind, I'm waging war—fighting a constant battle against Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

More than a torturous condition that very few people understand, OCD is listed by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 most debilitating disorders around. Having kept my battle private for more than 22 years, I've decided to open up and go public in an effort to help others and spread awareness after a recent and especially bad flare up that began in October of 2011 (just as Emir and I left on our bike tour) and roared to epic proportions this past February as we got serious about wanting to start a family. The reinvigorated battle lead to my recent TEDx talk called, "Anything is Possible, and That's the Problem. Or is It?"

The talk explores the ways in which our beliefs shape our realities (however distorted they may be), and how we can all benefit from a wider perspective and more balanced thinking. Check it out:

If you or someone you know is suffering, it's easy to end up in a very dark place if the OCD goes untreated. Find a therapist (who specializes in OCD), ask your doctor about medication, and get some good books. These are my personal favorites:

When in Doubt, Make Belief by Jeff Bell Part memoir, part therapy, this is a great place to start.

Devil in the Details by Jennifer Traig An intelligent and tragically hilarious memoir.

Nowhere Near Normal by Traci Foust Another eye-opening (brilliantly written and humorous while simultaneously tragic) memoir that helps to put things in perspective.

Perhaps I'll share more details of my own battle someday in a future blog post, but for now here are some things worth knowing:

  • OCD is not a personality trait. Preferring to sort your closet by color, alphabetize your music collection, or keep your house exceptionally tidy because it makes you happy—is not a symptom of OCD.
  • Statistically, there are people in your life who have OCD and hide it well. Share this post and these links. Spread awareness.
  • There are a number of highly successful and creative people who have gone public with their OCD including: David Beckham, Justin Timberlake, Cameron Diaz, Megan Fox, and Leonardo DiCaprio (who famously played another famous OCD sufferer, Howard Hughes in "Aviator,"). Super geniuses Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein are also thought to have suffered from OCD.
  • Although there is no cure, symptoms can be managed with medication and/or therapy. If you know someone who suffers, encourage them to get help. It can get better!
  • Learn more here.

Making Time for Creativity

One of the mistakes I made early in my business, was forgetting to budget time into my schedule for myself to recharge, recalibrate, and dare I say it—relax. I was shooting like a maniac on every day of the week, with multiple sessions per day and one or two weddings every weekend. Ba—nanas.

This went on for about three years before I finally got my act together. When I think back to that time, I still can't quite figure out how I managed to hold it all together, but I'm grateful that I was able to grow from the experience.

These days, I have a much better grip on things and regularly make it a point to give myself lots of breathing room for all kinds of passion projects—photo related and otherwise. While it's not always easy to look at your calendar and simply draw a big ol' line through days, weeks, or even months at a time, it's one of the most rewarding things you can do for yourself. The payoffs can come in the form of increased focus, new and expanded ideas, and of course—creativity.

Recharging my batteries also means that I'll have more time, attention, and energy to devote to clients, enabling me to provide them with the best possible experience.

Like most things, if you don't allocate time for "taking time off," it's unlikely to happen. With this in mind, I've blocked out the rest of 2012 to devote time to several writing projects, travel, teaching, and hopefully—lots of nephew squeezing. :) I look forward to sharing my adventures along the way!

Before you go, check out this TED Talk from Stefan Sagmeister who shares the value he's found in routinely taking an entire year "off."

Baby Oscar & Company

Nephew # 4 came into the world just over a week ago, and I was finally able to catch up with him at home with my camera. Look at all that hair!

After a snack break, it was back to sleep...

Big brother Dominic wanted some face time too...

In fact, he was so inspired, he picked up his own camera and played along. A quick learner, he could be heard repeating things I had said like, "Turn this way," or "Open up your shoulder." So funny!

Gina and Roy's house has this huge window in the living room.... making moments like this possible.

Dom was sporting a new haircut yesterday, making him look so grown up!

So much fun! xoxoxo

I'm a Tia (Again)! Bienvenidos a Oscar Luis Furr!

Oscar is already one in a million—he was actually born on his due date. My sister Gina and her husband Roy arrived at the hospital about 5am, and Oscar arrived a mere 1.5 hours later! I can't wait to head back over later today and get a better look at him. He was eating within 15 minutes of his first breath—incredible!

Dominic was soooooooo excited. He could be heard proudly (and repeatedly) proclaiming, "My baby brother!"

Oscar gets checked out by the pediatrician (Oscar was not too happy about having been interrupted while eating!)

This is my favorite—the look on big brother Dom's face when he walked in the room and saw mom with baby brother Oscar. LOVE!

So glad Oscar is here! Can't wait to get some quality snuggle time with him soon!

When Was the Last Time You Played in the Rain?

We're all anxiously awaiting the arrival of Dominic's baby brother, and having been in San Francisco all week, I was glad he didn't show up while I was gone! As soon as I got home, I headed over to my sister's house to hang out and squeeze in some quality Dom time before the baby comes. When it suddenly started raining, I suggested we find Dom's rain boots and go out to play. This is precisely why I love having the S95 in my purse—it's on-hand and available for spontaneous moments like these!

Voicemail Happiness

Birthdays are a big deal when you're a kid. We may not remember when we turned 1, but our parents probably do. Turning 5 was another milestone, and you knew you were cool when you turned double-digits. When I turned 13 and became a teenager, I actually wrote a note to my parents apologizing in advance for whatever drama my teenage years might hold. (Who does that!?)

Turning 15 meant you got a learner's permit (mine came with a typo that made me 24 instead).

Turning 16 meant you could finally drive without your dad in the seat next to you, grinding his teeth every time you let the clutch out too quickly (or not quickly enough). (Pst! Love you Doad! :)

Then you turn 18. 21. And—30.

Then, you just turn... wait? How old am I again? I'm lucky if I actually remember my birthday when it arrives...so to figure out how old I am, I usually have to resort to math. That—or ponder the age my siblings are, and then add the correct number of years. :)

So this year, I've done the match, and apparently, I just turned 32. I'm grateful for all the Facebook posts, cards, twitter/text messages, and—voice mails. Particularly these three:

My mom was the first to call today, which makes me smile. How sweet is her voice? I love her to pieces. (And now you know that my parents call me "Pumpkin.")

Bday Singing from Mom (mp3)

This one is from my aunt. I love it when she (and the rest of my family) calls me "Kharita." (This is, of course, in addition to "Pumpkin," which is reserved exclusively for my parents' use.) My aunt was followed by mi Abuela (grandmother)—who calls me Princesa (as well as "Kharita) and speaks to me in Spanish. I treasure it. She also sent me a card, like she has every year for as long as I can remember. Her handwriting is impeccable and instantly recognizable.

Bilingual Birthday Wishes (mp3)

Then, my brother-in-law, Adis, called and put little Haris on the phone. The sound of his sweet little voice saying, "Happy birthday Khara!" made my heart melt.

Birthday Wishes from Haris (mp3)

That was so much fun. I'm already looking forward to 33! :)

They're Back!

After completing her Ph.D in Oregon (and an internship in Iowa), my sister Gina, her husband Roy, and their son Dominic are proud Lincolnites again! I stopped by to help them with the aftermath of the move, and couldn't resist a few shots (with my beloved S95 compact camera). Dom is at the age where in order to get him to lay down with his head on the cushion, I had to ask him not to lay his head on the cushion. Worked like a charm. I'm onto you Dom!

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Dom is such an expressive little guy... he always makes me laugh. :)

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After a nap, he wanted some mama-snuggle time...

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So glad you guys are back!

Spinach for Breakfast?

Over the past year and a half I've been doing a lot more reading about food, nutrition, and how to avoid the perils of the standard American diet. My journey lead me through a string of truly life changing books (listed at the end of this post), and ultimately found me at the grocery store this Sunday with a new recipe to try. This is what I filled my cart with: undefined

The soup I planned to make called for juicing 5 lbs of carrots (the results of which can be seen in the pitcher below) and 2 bunches of celery (instead of using vegetable broth). I'd never used our juicer before, but it was pretty darn amazing! You drop in some carrots and magically—out squirts a bunch of carrot juice! (Look out David Copperfield—I was a magician in my kitchen this weekend!)

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The whole soup included the carrot/celery juice, 8 zucchini, 4 onions, 3 leeks, oyster mushrooms, split peas, lentils, kale, cashews... and some spices. I'm a huge vegetable/soup fan... but was skeptical at first (kale!?). Happily, once it cooked down, it started to smell amazing, and with 10 servings, it will last Emir and I at least a few days.

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My latest book also included a recipe for a spinach/chocolate smoothie. It sounded too interesting to pass up. The ingredients are:

  • 2 cups of frozen blueberries
  • 1 banana
  • 4 dates (pitted)
  • 1/2 cup almond/soy/hemp milk
  • 1 tbs ground flax seed
  • 2 tbs natural/unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 5 oz. of spinach (This is MUCH more than you think! Roughly 3 huge fists full...)

I wasn't sure if the drink would be blue from the berries, brown from the cocoa, or green from the spinach... but as you can see for yourself in the photo below, it's pretty dark. It's also—DELICIOUS!!!!! Emir and I have had it for breakfast and a night time snack every day since. We ran out of blueberries this morning and substituted half the frozen fruit with strawberries. Also good. :) Can you believe there's 5 oz. of spinach in there? (We weighed it out on a scale... it's quite a bit more than I would've guessed.)

undefined If you're curious and want to get started with a healthier diet, here's the books I read (in the order I read them... which I think was helpful....)

  • Skinny Bitch - Pretty extreme, great if you need a pretty stern kick in the pants  to kick your bad habits :)
  • In Defense of Food - Fascinating exploration of food, culture, and putting our society in perspective
  • Eat to Live - A good review with some delicious recipes (like the chocolate smoothie above and the yummo cancer fighting soup)

All in all, I've had a ball in the kitchen while exploring healthier eating options. I've learned how to prepare leeks, oyster mushrooms, and have come to love tofu, dates, and even spinach for breakfast. :)

A Joyous Tuesday?

The sun is shining, my to-do list is filled with exciting things, and—I lost close to 5 lbs. If that doesn't inspire a blog post, I don't know what does! ;) Have you ever had the feeling of being completely, 100% over overwhelmed with joy? Not just on your wedding day, or the day your child is born—but on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday? I find myself struck right now. I'm not sure why—it could be any number of the countless things that I am grateful for on a daily basis: my one-of-a-kind awesome family, the work I feel honored and privileged to do, the people who are part of so many different aspects of my life, and the exciting calendar of events stretching into 2012 and beyond.

My guess is that whatever it is, it probably isn't related to the dead bird the cats dragged into the house this morning... but it could have something to do with the clean-up number I did on my inbox today, or the fact that I turned in the final version of Chapter 9 last night.

Who knows? Right now—I'm happy to just ride the wave.

I'm celebrating with a latte. Happy Tuesday everybody!

Gettin' My Yurt On

It was roughly three years ago when I first heard the word "yurt." According to wikipedia, a yurt is portable, wood lattice-framed dwelling typically used by nomads in central Asia (commonly associated with Mongolia). And though it is technically portable, it's definitely more home-like than tent-like. I liked the sound of it, and started researching them. What they're made of, how they function, how we might build our own... and even contemplating buying an acreage and putting up a yurt until Emir and I could get around to building our next home (that may take awhile....).

Thankfully, this past weekend (only three years later), I finally got to experience one first hand. Our friend Jason is a professional outdoor adventure leader with the University of Nebraska - Lincoln who regularly takes people (students and non-students alike!) on all kinds of amazing experiences. He and his wife Christina are living-breathing adventure/fitness advocates who ooze a contagious passion for an active lifestyle that will absolutely (and happily) infect anyone who comes in contact with them (they are directly responsible for the fact that I started running last year, which in turn got Emir into running too). So naturally, when they approached us and said, "Let's take a fun trip somewhere!" Emir and I responded with a resounding, "Absolutely!"

Last Wednesday morning we climbed into a van with another couple of great friends and headed west to the backcountry of Colorado for a weekend of cross-country skiing, good food, good friends and... a yurt. undefined The inside of the yurt had three sets of bunk beds, a propane powered stove for cooking, some firewood, a table and folding chairs, and a wood-burning stove. undefined No processed garbage or canned junk food, each couple would be responsible for a home-cooked/healthy meal. Christina & Jason cooked up our first dinner of whole-wheat pasta with fresh vegetables in an incredibly yummy sauce. The next morning Emir and I whipped together some buckwheat pancakes with 100% real maple syrup. For lunch we ate pitas stuffed with fresh veggies and that night, Paul & Stephanie put together an unforgettable veggie & peanut stew that disappeared in record time. undefined Learning to cook and wash dishes without running water was actually... fun. undefined The wood-burning stove kept the yurt more than warm enough while serving double duty and melting the continual supply of snow we placed in the large soup pot on top for drinking water and washing dishes. (See below.) undefined When we weren't cooking... we were skiing. I had only ever down-hill skied before, so the whole cross-country thing was entirely new to me... but after wiping out a few times (and stepping through a few snow banks that reached up to my waist) I'd say I caught on fairly well. :) undefined The scenery was gorgeous! The feeling of gliding over the snow while surrounded by sunshine and tall aspen trees was surreal. undefinedundefinedundefined The view from the entrance to the yurt was breathtaking, day or night (that's the outhouse in the bottom left corner). undefined undefined Of course, we had to have a little head-lamp/night time/long-exposure fun! :) undefined If your tail is wagging and you're thinking to yourself, "I'd like to go on an adventure!" Check out the current trip schedule and see what tickles your fancy. Jason and his staff lead folks on all kinds of trips like rock climbing, canoeing, camping, and biking. No experience/equipment required, they will get you the full hook-up! The pricing is unbelievably reasonable and... you don't have to be a university student... everyone is welcome!

The Closest I May Ever Get to Appearing in a Music Video...

A few weeks ago I got an email from my friend Lan Bui who had this fun idea to make a lip dub video with a bunch of photographers who have enough loose screws between them to actually go through with something like this. :) (Just one of many reasons why I love this industry so darn much!) When I found out the song of choice was "Firework" by Katy Perry, I thought it was pretty apropos, considering we were all getting ready to head out to WPPI, one of the biggest (and most fun) conferences in the industry, where pros from all over the world come together to be inspired, share with others and continue the quest to master their craft.

Some of the cast gathered in the Los Angeles area to do a group shoot, while others filmed their segments remotely and sent in the finished files for editing. My segment was filmed locally at Marz in dear ol' Lincoln, Nebraska... you can see the result at 00:51 and again at the end.

Huge shout out to everyone involved... The Bui Brothers rock it again! :)

Camel Trekking: Morocco's Sahara Desert (Erg Chebbi/Merzouga)

We knew when we booked our air travel to Morocco, that seeing the Sahara Desert was at the top of our list. The dunes of Erg Chebbi are some of the largest and most picturesque... but, how to get there from Marrakech? Scrapping our plans to rent a car, we bought two last-minute bus tickets from Marrakech to Merzouga and settled in for the 12.5 hour ride (yes, you heard me right... 12.5 hours. yikes!). The bus itself was pretty nice... it was the mountains that made the trip rough (just ask my stomach). But, we were able to make it to Merzouga without getting lost, we reduced our carbon footprint by not driving personal transportation, and... we saved the cost of the (pricey) car rental and gas. Not bad!

If you want to see the desert on a camel trek, there are countless ways to do so.  A quick google search will turn up lots of websites eager to help, and a simple stroll through Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech will have your head spinning with offers from personal tour guides.

Luckily for us... we had Moha. I found him through Google and we exchanged several emails before we left for the UK conference. All I knew was that he seemed like a good guy, and that he ran a hotelof sorts somewhere in the town we would be leaving from (Merzouga) to start our camel trek into the Sahara.

We had originally planned to rent a car and drive to Merzouga over two days, arriving in the afternoon, just in time to jump on the camels and head into the dunes... but now that we had traded our rental car for bus tickets... we would be arriving a day early... and had no place to stay.

Thus, from my ever helpful iPod touch, I emailed Moha the morning before we got on the bus and told him we'd be arriving early, and asked if we could crash at his hotel. Without a wifi connection (and no cell phones) we had no way of knowing his response, but when we pulled into the bus station at 9pm that night... I saw his smiling face waiting for us through the window, and knew that we were in good hands.

To say that we lucked out when we found Moha would be putting it midly. In fact, Moha, and our stay at his hotel (Le Petite Prince), is largely responsible for making our trip the fantastic experience that it was.

After we got settled, Moha had dinner waiting for us!

This map of Morocco shows the distance we traveled from Marrakech (on the left) to Merzouga (on the right).

After we filled our tummies, we headed out back to get a glimpse of the dunes in the moonlight, and decided to snap a couple quick pics.

The next morning, we got a better look at where we were staying... adorable!

Cats are welcomed visitors in Morocco, and being cat lovers... we felt right at home. This little guy hung around the hotel and happily (or not so happily) posed for this photo.

The patio at our hotel...

The rooms...

The tile work was impeccable and everything was impressively clean. The whole place was extremely comfortable... we felt right at home.

After a quick run, we got cleaned up and Moha took us to have a look around town. He showed us the community gardens and the self-regulated  irrigation system they use where every plot is assigned an hour time slot. The canal runs through the middle, and when it's your turn for the water, you just remove the dirt dam and let it flow into your field. When your time is up, put the dam back and the water runs down the canal to the next person's field.

Back at the hotel, the crew had shown up and was working on putting in a new, extended patio. With the sun up, we could see just how close we were to the dunes we'd be hiking over in just a short while.

With turbans in hand (er... on head), we were ready to go! Camel trekking, here we come!

Our camel trek group consisted of Emir and I, Moha and our pro camel wrangler, Ali.

We hiked as the sun set, eventually reaching our camp site where we enjoyed dinner (courtesy of Moha!) before building a bonfire and turning in for the night.

The next morning we awoke to the gorgeous view of the sand dunes...

and... breakfast!

We found a snowboard in the dinner tent and couldn't resist putting it to good use. :) Coming down the dunes was 100x easier and more fun than going up... that's for sure!

After playing around for a bit, it was time to move on. Moha had plans to take us to see the lesser known "Black Desert" of the Sahara.

We didn't know much about what the plans were for the rest of the day, other than that we were supposed to be having lunch with a nomad family who apparently lived somewhere in the Sahara's "black desert." As we got closer, we started seeing things like this, which I later realized belonged to the children we were about to meet.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, we arrived at this family's homestead. I wasn't sure what was happening or why we were there... all I knew was that these people didn't have very much... and we had baskets full of food. So... I asked Moha if we could give it to them. We were planning to hike to an Oasis to have dinner and spend the night before returning to the hotel the next day... but we decided to cut our camping trip a day short, giving this family the food we had planned to cook for dinner that night.

The family consisted of a single woman and four beautiful children who all looked to be under the age of 5 or 6.

They make their home in the desert, living in these various tent structures. From what I could tell, this big one was a sleeping tent, and the other (smaller) structures served as a kitchen, among other things. I marveled at the family's resourcefulness and ingenuity...

I'm assuming these are some of the kids' toys... including little camels made out of cloth and wire...

After packaging up the food and leaving it in the tent for them, I found the kids off playing in the desert...

After we headed out, we stumbled across more of their toys...

We hiked about 1.5 hours back to the dunes before stopping at an oasis for a break.

One of the people we met on the road had said, "You will find people everywhere in the Sahara. Like, even if you break down in the middle of the desert, someone will appear, out of nowhere, to help." When we landed at the Oasis, I felt like I had a sense of what he meant. Here, in what truly felt like the middle of nowhere, was this refuge--- complete with tents, a proper toilet, and even a Coca-Cola, if you so choose. In fact, you could even rent skis and snowboards here if adventure called!

While at the Oasis, we ran into the British couple that was camping at our same hotel. They kept us laughing with stories of their camels and the tales they've collected over four months of traveling across Europe (and Africa) in their RV.

With the sun getting lower in the sky, and at least an hour or two to go before arriving back at the hotel, we started the last leg of our trek back to the hotel.

As I've said before, our desert guide, Moha is largely the reason we enjoyed our trip to the desert so much. He picked us up at the bus stop, made sure we had great food, a warm place to sleep, and even arranged our departing bus tickets before personally walking us to the bus station and waiting around to see us off. He taught us how to play the African drums, introduced us to what he calls "Berber whiskey" (green tea with a dash of absinthe), and showed us the land he lovingly refers to as "Mama Africa" with a  passion that makes us eager to return again.

Thank you Moha!

In the middle of our 12.5 hour bus ride back to Marrakech, we stopped for a break and I caught this sight that so perfectly captures the beauty of the area. Bright blue skies, the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains, the warm browns of the other Atlas mountains, punctuated by the colorful architecture of the city below.

Will be be back? As they so routinely say in Arabic, inshallah. Inshallah. :)

PS: If you want to see the rest of the photos from this part of the trip, you can find them here.

Marrakech, Morocco: Photo Safari in North Africa

After presenting at London's Society of Wedding & Portrait Professionals conference, Emir and I added an additional continent to our journey when we hopped a quick flight down to Marrakech, Morocco. I've been itching to explore Morocco for quite some time and with such great prices on carriers like Ryan Air (2 round trip tickets from London to Marrakech for a total of only $160 USD!) and easy access from London, how could we not?

Our first look at Africa was from the air. We found out later that most of the green fields we saw from the plane were either oranges, olives or dates.

We decided to stay at a riad in Marrakech's ancient kasbah (an older, walled part of the city) instead of a traditional western hotel located elsewhere. Best. Thing. EVER! Riad's are like homes with a small number of rooms instead of a hotel, whose room numbers may number in the several hundreds. It creates a feeling of comfort and personal connection that is hard to find in any other way.

Traditionally, riads are hidden treasures featuring 3-4 rooms with windows serving up generous portions of natural light from the central courtyard/garden. They are true havens of peace and serenity in an otherwise buzzing part of the city.

Our riad's driver met us at the airport and gave us a tour of our surroundings while taking us through the gates into the kasbah.

We stayed at the riad Maison Mnabha where we were treated to incredible breakfasts of fresh fruit, breads, jellies and my personal favorite: fresh squeezed orange juice (If you've never tasted fresh squeezed, it is drastically different than what you buy at the store. Simply amazing!), all served on the gorgeous roof-top terrace.

The view from our roof-top terrace.

Are you kidding me!? Look at our room! The level of attention to detail and ornamentation was out of this world. (The place was also absolutely spotless. Clean, clean, clean!)

The main receiving room where we checked in was lavishly decorated with lanterns, rugs, columns, etc... and at night, it becomes even more inviting as jazz tunes flow from the stereo and light patterns dance on the walls from the countless candles strewn about. (This room heavily influenced our current obsession with lanterns. We happily brought some home from the shops that line the streets of the kasbah.)

Exploring the area, we walked down some other quiet streets before hitting the kasbah's main drag, eventually leading us out through the gates and into the rest of the city.

We headed towards the famous market square known as Jemaa el-Fna to marvel at the musicians, snake charmers, and countless "souks" (shops).

The colors were astounding... I was in photograph heaven! Traveling only with backpacks, we weren't able to bring much home with us (though we did end up packing (and paying for) a 9kg box of treasures to fly home with us). Of all the traditional goods/wares the local artisans made, my favorites were the lanterns. We managed to bring home a few. :)

The shop owners and local artisans are more than just crafts people... they're incredible sales people. Here, I couldn't resist a classic henna tattoo and a mosaic mirror. :)

After spending the morning in the market, we were ready for lunch and needed to find our way to the bus station to get tickets for the next day's journey east to the Sahara... so we asked around and continued exploring the city while en route. Our path brought us past the city's opera house...

and down one of the main streets, lined on both sides with these orange trees!

We found the bus station, bought our tickets and celebrated over lunch before heading back to the market square to see it come alive in a different way at night. On our way back, we saw this gorgeous sign letting us know we were headed the right direction.

Headed back to the market, we passed "Cyber Park" (kind of like NYC's Central Park) with free wireless!

Back in the market square, things were getting busy!

One night, a few days later (after returning to Marrakech from Merzouga and the dessert), we decided to go out for a schmancy dinner to enjoy our last night in Africa. Around the corner from our riad was by far, the most over the top, lavishly decorated restaurant I have ever seen or even heard of. La Rotonda features ancient antiques and collectibles from around the world, stylishly showing them off in an upscale eatery that appears part restaurant, part dance club, part... museum.

They were quick to point out that their guest list has included folks like Penelope Cruz, Matthew Maconaughey and even Hilary Clinton. I offered to let them put photos of Emir and I on their 'star wall,' but they didn't seem interested... go figure. :)

We found the people in Marrakech (and Morocco in general) to be incredibly outgoing, very friendly and quite welcoming. Already can't wait to go back! (PS: If you're hungry for even more photos from Marrakech, check out my FaceBook album.)

Speaking at London's SWPP

Well.... fancy that! Yours truly was invited to speak at the UK's Society of Wedding & Portrait Professionals (SWPP) annual conference in London and it was everything I hoped it would be, and more.

The conference was held at Hammersmith's Novotel hotel (lovely!). After presenting, Emir and I headed out to explore the city. The weather was classically cool and rainy, but surprisingly warmer than we expected. (All of these images were captured with my new Canon S95... traveling light, I made the conscious decision to leave my big rig at home.)

Buckingham Palace.

I'm in love with British phone booths, even though I'm guessing few people use them anymore...

Everyone I talked to told me I should ride the London Eye, but alas, it was closed for maintenance while we were there...

Making use of 'night portrait mode' on my S95 with the London Bridge in the background.

The bridge from the north bank (I think...)

Big Ben.

Fountain at Trafalgar Square.

View looking out at the street from Trafalgar Square.

Of course, one of the best things about our trip was all the people we got to see, including Emir's cousin Nela and her husband David who live just north of the city and came in to meet us for dinner and celebrate Emir's birthday!

We *finally* got to meet my dear friend Carly who I first came to know through an email she sent me, then a phone call, more emails, twitter messages, and finally in person! What a treat!

Scoring points for the most surprising encounter, after I had just finished my first presentation where I had literally just recommended to everyone in the class that they rush out to buy Robin's book, Emir and I walked out the door, turned the corner and ran into Robin while crossing the street! I knew she was in England working on her Ph.D, but I had no idea she was near London, let alone in Hammersmith. So fun!

After London, Emir and I jumped on a train and headed west to Wales to connect with our friends Amy & Matthew. Emir met Amy when she was presenting at a conference he was attending in Chicago, after which he started following her on Twitter. But-- he did so while unknowingly signed in to my account. When I started seeing her tweets, I was like, "Who's this?" We've been great friends ever since, finally meeting in person on this very trip!

Matthew & Amy's adorable neighbor Sylvain, drove us around the next day on a sightseeing tour of Swansea, Wales (Catherine Zeta Jones' home town!). It was gorgeous!

Sylvain claims to be 70 years old... but I'm not sure I'm buying it... look at her! She was a spit fire. So full of life, she had recently returned from a trip she took (by herself, at age 70!) to Kuala Lumpur. I love this woman.

Emir looks adorable... as usual. Totally unfair... the man requires zero primping. Pft!

We were honored to witness this sheep crossing while driving back to town.

Just the girls---What fun!

We left Swansea and headed back to London where we caught a flight to north Africa's Morocco (separate post all its own). When we returned from Africa, we had another day to spend in London before coming home and were finally able to connect with my cousin Joel, his wife Martina, daughter Phoebe and my aunt Maria Elena... who had all just welcomed new baby Zoe to the world. What fun!

After our brief visit, we caught the train back to the city to grab a quite bite (I love this napkin from Pret... I was impressed by the UK's selection of healthier fast food options), before...

Catching the evening performance of WICKED! Woot woot! I've been meaning to see this show forever and just couldn't seem to make it happen until now.

Great conference, great city, great friends & family. A truly special trip. If you want to see even more photos from the trip, click here. :)

NYC for Some Book Writing TLC

We left for New York on Friday morning, and Thursday night found me in a fit of stressed out frenzy, desperately wanting to cancel the whole thing so I could stay home and enjoy four gloriously peaceful days to get ahead on all the projects on my plate. Surely that would be more relaxing than driving an hour to the airport, taking a shuttle, catching two flights, another shuttle, a 1.5 hour train ride followed by a subway jaunt, only to repeat the travel mania on the way home a few days later (getting back super late, with an early start on the agenda for the next day, of course). Emir, on the other hand, knew that if I we canceled... I'd be equally bummed about having missed out on the great trip we had planned (not to mention some of the sample files for my book), so... we made a midnight trek to the store to grab a few last minute items before coming home to fret a bit more about which bag to take (or not). Seriously. It was almost comedic. Roller bag(s) or backpacks? A camera bag, or just tuck all my gear inside my clothes for cushioning?

Ultimately, we finished packing just before we left the next morning, fitting everything (for both of us) into a single carry-on roller bag (yes!). We even got my laptop in there so I could write along the way! (My camera gear came along in a purse/bag from Epiphanie)

We spent our first day strolling from Central Park West towards downtown. We shot along the way, snapping examples for my book and a few group shots for tourists who asked.

As expected, the city was swarming with mobs of people anxious to do some holiday shopping, and it wasn't uncommon to see lines of people waiting to get inside stores that had already reached capacity.

Not a fan of the mob scene, we crossed some shots off our list at Grand Central Station before jumping on the 2 and escaping to the quiet promenade of Brooklyn for lunch. LOVE.

We strolled Brooklyn for awhile before deciding to walk back to Manhattan across the infamous Brooklyn Bridge.

How funny is Emir? I don't know what I'd do without him...

More from Manhattan...

The next day we awoke to the sound of rain and and decided to spend the morning working at the neighborhood Starbucks before heading back downtown to B&H (deserving of a blog post all its own) and later, show tickets to "American Idiot."

After the show, we played with my new S95 in Times Square at night before devouring some more NY pizza and cheesecake, later heading back uptown to catch some z's.

I'm so, so, so glad we went after all. Emir is a saint. Thanks love.

My kind of Disneyland

To say that Emir and I spent a ridiculous amount of time at B&H's flagship store in Manhattan on Sunday, would be an embarrassing understatement. When I say ridiculous, I mean… We were there for over four hours. Trying to decide between Canon's G12 and S95, we stayed busy testing every conceivable camera body/camera bag combination we could come up with, trying to think of every imaginable shooting situation we might encounter while traveling, hanging out with friends, or just in daily life when I might not have have (nor want) my 5DmII with me. It was my first time seeing the store live and in person, and I'll admit… I was giddy. Emir laughed while I exhibited a child-like wonder that easily rivaled any kid's first visit to Disneyland, which is not as far fetched as you would think.

There were doormen, greeters and even drinks and snacks… all from staff who, in their matching green B&H vests, literally resembled little green elves, delivering holiday joy with three simple words, "Welcome to B&H!"

As we wandered our way through the entrance, the impressive signage made finding what we were looking for easier than spotting a costumed character in the Magic Kingdom. Over 235,000 different items, and I could get to what I was looking for in a matter of seconds. Unbelievable.

Eventually, the dreaded announcements began. "Ladies & gentlemen, B&H will be closing in 45 minutes." Followed by, "Ladies and gentlemen, B&H will be closing in 15 minutes." Finally, they started turning the lights off (literally) and we were forced to leave. We did have a Broadway show to catch, so I guess it was good that they kicked us out, or I'm sure we would've missed it.

As we made our way to the front door with our order ticket in hand, we were awe struck by the famed B&H over-head conveyor-belt system as it magically delivered items from the stock room to the check-out counter, just for us.

It seems silly to think that a 'super warehouse' of camera goods could be considered a 'featured attraction' in a city as jam packed with entertainment and cultural treasures as New York, but… it just is. Or, at least, it was... to me. :)

I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes them so different from the countless 'camera/computer/electronic' stores the line 5th Avenue and Broadway anywhere from 32nd to 48th Street. Why is B&H so monstrously huge, successful, and efficiently well-run, while other stores seem to struggle (despite the fact that one of them managed to get $35 out of me for a 4G SD card--arg!)?

Does it all stem from a single wise decision made waaaay back in the day when they first started? Is it related to personal connections and good negotiations that eventually lead to a loyal client base that exponentially expanded? Maybe it's just the unbeatable combination of great product knowledge, easy accessibility and a company culture that is reminiscent of everyone's mysterious and aloof uncle that you can't help but love.

The guys who answer the phones are hands-down my favorite. The way they say, "B&H, how can I help you?" in their thick New York accents with only faint interest but intense efficiency, makes me laugh every time I think of it. (I once got wrapped up into a long and detailed personal conversation with one of them, who I later ran into at an event in Kansas City… and he remembered me. By name.)

Might be worth taking the kids. Maybe you could convince them that it's Disney's Magic Kingdom of the northeast?