Friday, January 31, 2014

Southwestern chicken salad with avocado dressing

I have an unhealthy love for giant salads. It's gotten so bad that on any given day/depending on where I'm working, I can tell you where the nearest and best salad is for your current budget and taste. Want an avocado? Whole Foods doesn't charge extra. Have a taste for greek olives? There's a spot on St. Mark's that gets them fresh. And don't get me started on the Chipotle Burrito Bowl.

The other day, I was hungry and craving a salad (as usual), but didn't want to leave the warm comforts of my apartment - so I put together my own version of a Southwestern chicken salad. I already had the chicken leftover from last week's roast chicken dinner, but I decided to experiment with a homemade salad dressing and it ended up elevating the salad to a whole new level of delicious.

For the dressing: In the mixing cup of your immersion blender, mix 1/2 an avocado (peeled),  2 tsp. apple cider vinegar, 1/2 tsp. honey, the juice from 1/2 a lemon, a tiny drizzle of olive oil, a dash of salt, and a healthy dash of ginger. If you're not a huge fan of vinegar, you can reduce the amount of apple cider vinegar, but I love the bite that it adds to things. Your dressing will initially be way too thick, so slowly add water (about a tablespoon at a time), until you reach your desired consistency.

For the salad: Toss 1/2 cup of (cooked) chopped chicken breast with corn and black beans, and add salt/pepper/spices to taste (I love me an Everyday Seasoning from Trader Joe's). Place the chicken mixture onto a bed of greens, adding sliced cherry tomatoes, shredded cheese, and a slice or two of avocado as decoration. Drizzle your dressing over the salad and add some cracked pepper for a final flourish. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Photo Tutorial: Making a banner collage for your blog

You may have noticed that this website recently got a little facelift! I'd been meaning to update the header for quite some time now, but only recently did I find a chunk of spare time in which to create the photo collage. In total, this project took me about four hours to complete - but about half that time was spent in trial-and-error mode, trying to figure out exactly how to accomplish exactly what I wanted. I'm insanely happy with the results and want to share what I learned so that you too can make your own awesome blog header (without wasting time figuring it all out)!

Some quick housekeeping before we get started - this is a tutorial designed for websites in Blogger, the blogging platform owned and operated by Google. I edited and created the banner in Picasa, (the photo software also owned by Google), so make sure you have downloaded and installed the appropriate software before you continue.

Step 1 - pick your pics
Select the photos you want to appear in your collage by scrolling through your photo library in Picasa and clicking on the desired photo. You'll see a tiny thumbnail appear in the down left corner of your screen; select the thumbnail and then click the green thumb tack to the right - that will hold that and any other photos you wish to include in the collage. Continue to look through your library and select the rest of the pictures you want for your banner (personally, I like an odd number of images). If you no longer want to include a particular photo, click the red circle to de-select the image.

Step 2 - create a collage
Once you've collected the images you want to use, select Create - Picture Collage from the top of the screen.

It'll automatically create a Picture Pile, which will look like a huge mess of pictures - this is completely ok, because you'll manually fix all this in just a moment. To the left of your picture pile is a bunch of settings - make sure that you've selected:
   -Picture Borders - just a picture without a border
   -Background Options - Solid Color (I initially chose black, then changed it to white)
   -Page Format - 4:3 Standard screen
   -Landscape - orient your design horizontally
   -De-select Draw Shadows
   -De-select Show Captions

Step 3 - crop your images
Next, you'll need to crop each of your images to the same size. Right click on each image, then select View and Edit from the options bar. This will take you back to the familiar Picassa editing page. Chose Crop from the lefthand menu, then select Add Custom Aspect Ratio from the dimensions menu. When the size prompt pops up, type in 435 x 910 - this allows you to create a consistent rectangular size for all of your images.

Select that size for your crop, then go ahead and decide what part of your photo you want to include in your banner. The three squares underneath the crop size allow you to chose the amount of zoom you want in your crop. It's up to you which you want to use, but I suggest keeping that consistent across all your photos as well. Use the Rotate button to turn the crop from Landscape to Portrait. Once you've set the crop to your ideal placement, click Apply, then go back to your collage by clicking the Collage tap on the upper righthand corner of your window. Repeat this cropping process for all of your pictures.

Step 4 - arrange your images
By now, your collage probably looks like a random assortment of rectangular images that might not even be the same size. Fix this by manually moving the photos into a line. The circle that appears when you click on a photo is what allows you to rotate and resize (move your mouse up, down, in, out, etc.). Make sure all your pictures are completely straight and the same size. When you make your line of photos, leave about two inches of solid color at the bottom for your eventual title. You will crop all the excess background at the end, so don't worry if there's too much white above or around your collage.

If you decide that you want a different picture, click the Clips tab to the left and choose another photo from your library. Alternatively, if you decide you no longer want a selected picture in your collage, just right click on that image and choose Remove. I ended up not using two of the photos I thought I'd include.

Step 5 - finalize your collage
When you have all your pictures lined up in a fun and fantastic order (this is the first thing that your readers will see when they visit your website, after all!), click Create Collage on the lefthand side of your window. You will now be viewing your collage in the picture editing screen. If you want to make any changes to your collage, click the Edit Collage tab at the top of the screen. If not, this is where you can write your blog's title on the bottom of your collage.

Step 6 - add text to your collage
Click the Text button on the lefthand side. Choose your font, size, and color, and place your cursor where you want the text to appear. Then start typing! Do you want to include just your blog's title, or do you want to add a short description as well? For the purposes of this exercise, I pretended my blog was about beaches and palm trees (probably because it's still 12 degrees in New York City and if it stays like this for one more day I might lose my mind...but I digress). When you're satisfied with the text, click Apply.

Step 7 - crop your final image
One more thing to do in Picassa - crop your image to include the text. Click the Crop button on the lefthand side and you'll be taken to that same cropping page you were on before. This time though, select Manual from the drop down menu - this will allow you to manually adjust your crop to include only what you want (i.e., just the picture and text, no other blank space). Draw a rectangle around your image, and then adjust the edges to your desired crop. Use the preview function to make sure your crop looks just right, and then click Apply.

Step 8 - export your photo
Now you need to get your photo out of Picassa. Click Export on the bottom of your screen. The window that pops up will allow you to chose where you want your photo to end up (I sent mine to my desktop), and it will ask you what size you want your image - make sure you resize your image to 900 pixels - otherwise it will be too large to use as your header.

Step 9 - make that banner yours
Open Blogger in your internet browser, and make your way to your list of posts. Click the Layout option in the lefthand column, and then edit your Header. Choose to upload an image - select your collage, and make sure you choose Instead of Title and Description, otherwise you'll have double titles. Save your settings, and enjoy your new look!

Monday, January 27, 2014

52 photos/weeks 1-4

1. A frozen walk through Washington Square Park during the first round of Polar Vortex 2014

2. Looking out my bedroom window on a very rainy morning

3. Afternoon tea at Bosie Tea Parlor

4. While wandering the Chelsea art galleries, I turned a corner and saw this piece by Claire Fontaine. Instant love.

52 photos is my personal challenge to take one awesome picture per week in 2014. All photos were taken by me and my iPhone 5s and if edited, with Snapseed and/or Instagram. Follow me - @maspad - to see these and many more pics!

Friday, January 10, 2014

right now

Continuing my love affair with coffee and cereal

Getting lost in stories about getting lost - this book and this book proved impossible to put down

Trekking my way through a frozen city with the help of my new galoshes!

Loving weekly date nights aided by crock pots and Top Chef

Sipping my newest favorite smoked wheat beer

Redecorating a bedroom wall and supporting independent artists in the process - I just couldn't say no to this one and this one!

Wanderlusting after this delicious-sounding city

Wrapping myself in more layers than I'd ever thought possible

Counting down the days to my next beach-y getaway vacay (32 to be exact!)

Embracing my nerdy iphoneography ways with photojojo's newest polarizing lens

Triumphing over the winter blues with old friends and warm bagels

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

365-photo-a-day - December - and some final thoughts

union square - artichoke - looking up - met museum christmas tree - birthday smiles
biscotti - bangs! - met staircase - sweet potato chips - midnight mass
christmas present - urban tree - pretzel time - christmas cheer - brunch
pharos in waiting - foggy day - szechwan houses - empty gallery - park sitting
smooches at midnight - christmas corner -bryant park - morning light - coffee time

Well, I did it (sort of). I actually stuck to my plan to try to take one photo per day in the year 2013. How did I do? Not too bad, really. I did not end up with exactly 365 photos, but I got pretty damn close - 352, to be exact. That's only 13 photos shy of my goal, which equals a 96% if this were a high school math test. And in my high school, a 96% equaled a solid "A."

Your goal should reflect your lifestyle
What did I learn from all of this nonsense? Well to start, I learned that setting a goal of taking one photo per day for an entire year turned out to be an impossible goal for me to achieve. My lifestyle, schedule, location, and career was not conducive to my plan. I often spend days on end in darkened theaters with people who, for legal and publicity reasons, cannot just have their pictures taken by any old assistant with a photography habit. As a result, my photos tended towards the things I could take pictures of, which was often the same five subjects - sunsets over my balcony, Union Square (the greenmarket and surrounding buildings), my feet, lots and lots of food, and museums. Not at all a terrible selection of subjects, but how many times can one person really photograph a slice of pizza and call it interesting? I also occasionally ended up using multiple photos from single outings. I tried to be sensitive to just how many I was using (15 photos from one excursion was unacceptable, for example), but there were months in which one long #touristforaday session resulted in three or four final photos.

Find beauty in the everyday.
I was lucky to have a handful of fantastic travel opportunities in 2013 - Las Vegas with the girls, a quick trip to the Jersey shore, the family lake house in Tennessee, a weekend in Portland, and Florida (twice!). But I realized that it would be too easy to just stock up on pics of palm trees and call it a day. I wanted this project to be an accurate reflection of my entire year - so if I only spent four days in Vegas, then I could only use four photos from that trip. As a result, my challenge became finding the photographable moments in everyday life. With this in mind, I quickly started adjusting my schedule a little bit here and there so that I could take even a few moments really take in my surroundings. I began getting off the subway two or three stops early and taking the long way to work, pausing in parks along the way, which allowed me to literally stop and smell (and photograph) the roses.

Not everyone wants to be photographed. Not everything should be photographed.
There were so many moments this past year that in my head, just begged to be documented. But in reality, it would have been in poor taste to whip out my phone, demand that people cease their conversations and hold their exact pose, possibly move a lamp because it's casting a weird shadow, and then spend five minutes making sure I got the exact photo I wanted. There is a fine line between snapping a quick group photo at a bar and being that girl Instagramming every last french fry on the table, and I tried really hard to not cross it. Photography can also be an intrusive medium. There were countless times when I'd be sitting down to a meal with a friend and think, "oo, this would make such a great photo!" but then realize that the friend sitting across from me was all sorts of sweaty from having just come from yoga/the subway/a one night stand/a terrible dance call and absolutely did not want to have his or her picture taken, knowing that it could quickly end up on seven different social media.

Good lighting is key
Low and/or incorrect lighting turned out to be one of the biggest factors in my lack of photo-taking. Darkened bars, blue-light-only backstages, terrible overhead fixtures in my apartment, and grey and unforgiving skies plagued me almost every day of 2013. Hundreds of photos were taken and immediately discarded due to poorly-lit environments, and even though I eventually discovered a really convenient spot on the floor of my new apartment that turned out to make for some great food photography, I learned that day-to-day life is usually accompanied by some really bad lighting. A large aspect of this project was using photographs that I felt proud to call my own. This didn't mean that every single picture had to be National Geographic-worthy, but blurry, noisy, and badly-lit photos just wouldn't do.

Inspiration in the digital age
An unexpected benefit of this project came from Instagram. Previous to 2013, I had posted only three photos to my feed. It wasn't that I was against the site, I just felt like the last thing I needed in my life was another social media distraction. But when I decided to embark on this year-long journey, I chose to make Instagram my platform - and I'm insanely happy I did. First of all, I was able to use the hashtag search function to find other people who were also taking on 365-challenges. I found and followed a lot of people in the beginning right away, but over time saw their pictures dwindle and then eventually disappear all together. I'm not ashamed to say that there was at least a little bit of prideful competition within me when I realized that I was still posting almost daily in the later months of the year. I also found endless amounts of inspiration by following both friends and strangers whose photography I admire. Lifestyle bloggers, food photographers, a traveling sketchbook, and a German doodler are just some of the artists I've discovered and now learned from over this past year. It's said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and Instagram makes it so easily wonderful to learn from the best.

Practice makes better 
I am pleased to say that I became a better photographer during this past year. While I have no concrete measure of this fact (my three most "liked" photos each got 12 likes - an utterly dismal number by Instagram standards), I can objectively and personally say that I noticed a positive change in my photography by the end of the year. My angles became more confident, my use of negative space became greater, and my point of view became clearer. And that might be the biggest thing I can take away from all of this - I spent a year of my life honing a skill through study and repetition, and it shows. I took hundreds more photos than I normally would have because of this project, and as a result I have a handful of pictures that I am truly proud to call my own.

What's up next for me?
I will not be repeating my 356-photo-a-day project in 2014. It was actually pretty stressful to always be looking for that perfect picture, and as I mentioned before, my life doesn't really allow for those daily photo ops. If I wanted to live a life of making the monthly numbers, I would have become a car salesman. I will, however, be giving myself another photography challenge for the upcoming year - but this time, at a rate of one photo per week. The name of the game in 2014 is editing - I now know that I can produce over 300 photos that I deem printable. But what would happen if I force myself to edit those 300 down to just 52? What makes one picture that much better than all the rest? What constitutes a really good photograph? I foresee some hard choices - do I include the slightly odd and offset photograph that perfectly captures a moment only I remember, or do I choose the crowd-pleasing and absolutely stunning sunset-over-the-beach? (I dream big). We shall see :)

365/Photo-a-day was a personal undertaking to capture one photograph per day in 2013. All photos were taken by me and processed with Instagram, Snapseed, PhotoToaster, and/or the new A Beautiful Mess app. The images were compiled using Picture Collage Maker Lite. What to see my pics as they happen? Follow me @maspad on Instagram!