Juniper Level Botanic Garden

My husband and I are always looking out for nearby locales we can explore together and feed my photography habit. As long-time residents of the city and frequent explorers of local parks, museums, and arboretums, it is hard for us to find previously undiscovered places.

A few weekends ago, we were thrilled to find out about Juniper Level Botanic Garden, a place we’d never heard of before, on our local TV station’s list of top public gardens in the area.

Juniper Level Botanic Garden is a 28-acre research, educational, and display garden, located in the southern part of the county, about 20 miles from downtown Raleigh. Plant Delights Nursery, which funds the garden, is located on the same property.

After making a spontaneous trek out to JLBG, we learned that visits are typically scheduled in advance unless it is an open garden day. We were lucky that there were no other events happening on the premises and the friendly front desk staff accommodated us.

The garden and nursery are quite impressive, with a rock garden, several water features, lots of sitting areas, and a gorgeous array of unique flowers and plants.

It would be generous to call us even beginning-level gardeners, but we both have an appreciation for plants and the hard work it takes to maintain landscapes. We left the premises with a plethora of imagery and a catalog chock full of information to help us learn more about the plants that thrive in our region.

JLBG is committed to expanding knowledge of horticulture through research and classes dedicated to raising awareness of best practices and dispelling gardening misinformation. Many of their lectures are available on the Plant Delights Youtube channel.

San Diego, California

A cliff overlooking the aqua and navy blue water of the Pacific Ocean.

La Jolla, California

Traveling has always been a priority for our family of three. As someone from a small town who had barely left my home state before going to college, I wanted my daughter to grow up knowing through first-hand experience that the world is vastly bigger than her immediate day-to-day surroundings.

Beginning when she was four years old, we started planning summer adventures in the U.S. and abroad. Our travels have included Hawaii, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Jamaica.

Since 2020, the pandemic has forced us to take a hiatus from our annual summer trips. As we look forward to possibly traveling again this summer, this post reflects on our last family trip in July 2019. 

San Diego, California was our destination. We unknowingly booked the trip for dates that coincided with the last few days of ComicCon. We were thrilled, upon our arrival, to get a flavor of the hoopla surrounding this international event. During our stay, we visited the famous San Diego Zoo, took a day trip to La Jolla, and went to a Padres game, our first-ever Major League Baseball game.

Sunset at San Diego State Park

Besides glimpses of ComicCon and experiencing one of the best zoos in the world, I will never forget the incredible sunsets we saw. This trip was my first time visiting the West Coast of the U.S. – and I’d always heard about the epic sunsets there. The nightly sunset views from Coronado Island where we stayed, and from Pacific Beach, where we went to see the sun set over the famous cliffs, were some of the best I’ll probably ever see in my lifetime.

To see more views of San Diego, check out the San Diego gallery on my photography web site.

What I Learned in My First 6 Months of Blogging

This month, I am celebrating my 6-month anniversary as a book and photography blogger. Sixty posts, 2,012 views, and 880 visitors later, what do I have to show for this milestone?

Well, I’ve had fun, explored my creative side, and made lots of connections with other writers, book lovers, bloggers, and photographers. But, most importantly for you, I’ve learned a few lessons you can benefit from if you’re planning to start a new blog or relaunch a stalled one.

So, before I break out the balloons and champagne to celebrate, here are a few words of advice for you.

Have some content banked before you start.

My bank of original photos has been a source of inspiration for post ideas.

At first, you are likely to be bursting with ideas and energy for your new blog. That’s a great place to be in, but be sure to pace yourself with posts. Resist the urge to post everything you create immediately and bank some of those ideas and posts for later. Trust me – you are going to hit a time when you’re short on inspiration or time to create new posts and you’re going to need to draw on your content bank in order to be consistent with your posting. When those times have hit for me, I have been grateful to have had a reserve of book reviews and photography to lean on.

Just start.

This one is for all of the overthinkers and over-analyzers out there who have a tendency to get stuck revving your engine at the starting line. Don’t wait until you have years and years of content stored up or until some magical date in the distant future. Why? The danger of waiting too long is that you run the risk of never getting started – and it would be a loss for your audiences not to get to read your perspective. This almost happened to me. I first had the idea for a blog in the mid-2000s but was overwhelmed by the idea of starting. I sometimes wonder where my blog would be had I just jumped in then. Don’t wait for the perfect time to get started – just get going already.

Speaking of perfection – it is highly overrated.

There will be things you can’t get perfect at first, no matter how hard you try. You may want to get into blogging because of a love of writing and connecting with others, but your technical skills aren’t the best. Or maybe you love showing off your web development and design skills but the writing part doesn’t come naturally.  For me, I struggle with troubleshooting formatting issues in WordPress. If I waited until I could figure out how to fix every minor alignment issue before posting, I’d never get anything posted. I’ve had to learn to get posts up to the best of my ability and accept I will make mistakes and that’s okay. It’s part of the learning process. The only way to get better at the parts that are a struggle is to do them.

For the wanna-be bloggers who haven’t taken the leap, what’s holding you back?

For the more experienced bloggers out there, what would you add? 

My Happy Place

A small wooden pier with a yellow, peach and turquoise sunrise sky overhead.

It only takes a few seconds of looking through my galleries, posts, or feeds to discern that I’m a fan of the beach. Sunrise or sunset, winter or warm weather – it doesn’t matter the season or hour. All are good times for strolling the shore, snapping pics, and clearing my mind.

When I’m struggling mentally, there’s something about looking at the vastness of the ocean and hearing the sound of the waves that puts everything in perspective for me. If it is an injection of wonder or joy I need, I can usually spot an energetic dog or free-spirited toddler frolicking on the beach.

The beach has also proven to be a source of creative inspiration. Beach sunrises, sunsets, and waves have been obvious catalysts for interesting – and commercially successful – photos that have caught the attention of buyers and national outlets like The Weather Channel. 

A Christmas tree made out of sand. It is decorated with red and tan seashells and a starfish on top.
Impromptu beach scene featured on social media

Things like piers, seagulls, shells, clouds over the water, palm trees, ships, random sandcastles, and even thick fog have also provided an endless source of photo inspiration. One of my most successful photos on social media was an impromptu capture of a small sand structure shaped like a Christmas tree and decorated with seashells.

Time by the ocean has also inspired my writing, my career, and other creative endeavors. The name of my blog came to me and my husband during a long walk on the beach last summer. Laying on the beach has also sparked ideas for essays, marketing strategies, and articles.

I am fortunate to live within a two-hour drive of the beach, so it’s an easy day trip if I’m in desperate need of a few hours in my happy place. But, even if I can’t physically get to the shore, I’ve found that looking at photos or watching videos from previous trips can have a similar effect.

Where is your “happy place”? Wherever that place is, I hope you get to spend time there soon.

Why Photography is a Great Hobby

In honor of National Hobby Month, this post explains why photography is one of the best hobbies you can choose. Whether you are looking for a new pastime or you need more reasons to justify your photography obsession, this post can help.

Here are four reasons why photography is one of the best hobbies for anyone:

  1. Photography can be done anywhere.
Pink gladiolas against a blue sky.
Backyard photo inspiration

From still life indoors to people walking on the street to the small wonders of nature, everyday life offers an endless source of photo inspiration. The flowers in my backyard, my goofy dog, and even my bookshelves have made great photography subjects when I couldn’t leave home to take pictures.

And, you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to get started. Most smartphones come with excellent digital cameras and basic editing tools built-in. Be sure to check out my tips on getting the most from your smartphone camera!

  1. Taking photos for fun relieves stress.

Taking photos can be a great stress reliever. Nothing gets you out of your own head faster than looking through a lens. Getting behind the camera forces you to be in the moment and observe what is around you. Anxiety over impossible deadlines, paying bills, or the dumb thing you said at work gets drowned out by focusing on capturing the scene in front of you. 

Close up of a magnolia blossom
Photo from a lunchtime walk to destress from work.

For me personally, relieving stress has been the biggest benefit of taking up photography. If I’ve had a bad day at work, heading outside with my camera helps me leave the stress behind. There’s something about capturing a breathtaking sunset, an expansive sunflower field, or the delicateness of a magnolia blossom that helps me put everything in perspective.

  1. Images give you a way to express yourself.

Humans are creative beings and we all have stories to tell. Photography is a fantastic way to express yourself and tell these stories. Color choices, framing, lighting, composition, and editing are just a few of the tools you can experiment with to give others a window into how you see the world. 

I tend to have a positive outlook on life and I enjoy spreading happiness and cheer. This worldview is expressed in my photography through bold, brightly colored landscapes and images that capture small moments of joy.

  1. It pairs well with other interests.

Like fine wine pairs with cheese, photography goes well with so many other hobbies, skills, and interests. Whether you like to hike, write, or travel, photography can enhance your existing passion or talent. 

Photography has been the perfect companion hobby for one of my other hobbies–writing. Writing has been a lifelong hobby of mine, but I was finding it challenging to find a regular outlet to exercise my writing muscles. I was also having trouble finding new ideas for things to write about. My photography explorations have inspired writing prompts. Sharing my photography has also given me the chance to build new writing skills through drafting captions, alt tag descriptions, social media promo text, and blog posts.

Similarly, if you travel, birdwatch, or hike for fun, photography can help you capture and preserve the sights you see.

For the photography lovers out there, what reason would you add? 

And for those who want to take up photography but haven’t yet, what’s stopping you?

Sunday Scene: Chinese Lantern Festival

One of the things I love most about being a photographer is the new experiences it has brought me and my family. 

Over the last two years, the three of us have sought out and visited state parks, nature preserves, and historic sites that we wouldn’t have otherwise visited so I could refine my photography skills. 

The Chinese Lantern Festival in my home state is the most recent example of an opportunity we wouldn’t have considered before my photography obsession.

My husband, who accompanies me on almost all of my photoshoots, read about the exhibit online and thought it would be a perfect opportunity for me to practice my nighttime photography. 

I am grateful he bought tickets for us during the recent holiday break. We were blown away by the incredible artistry in these magnificent displays crafted from silk by Chinese artisans.

I especially loved the variety of structures, which included butterflies, peacocks, sea turtles, and a dragon, and how the bold colors of the lanterns glow against the dark night sky. It was an immersive, magical experience we were fortunate to enjoy on an unseasonably warm winter night.

What kinds of new adventures have you had because of your hobby?

Best Sunsets of 2021

Photography has helped me realize that no matter what happens, I have the opportunity to experience a beautiful ending every day by watching the sunset.

Each one of these nightly displays is different. Some are soft and subtle, while others are bold and brilliant. My personal favorites are the deeply dramatic ones. But, every one of these daily closings is remarkable in its own way.

As we say farewell to 2021, I wanted to share some of the best goodbyes I have had the chance to witness this year. All photos were taken by me with a Canon Rebel T7i.

3 Tips for Taking Better Camera Phone Pics

Taking great photos doesn’t require a lot of special equipment. In fact, chances are you already own a pretty amazing digital camera — your smartphone! Some of my best images have been taken with my cell phone, without any fancy add-ons or attachments. 

Here are my top three tips for taking stunning photos with your cell phone:

  1. Turn on gridlines – Composition is often the difference between a good photo and a great one. One of the easiest ways to improve your composition is to use the gridlines in your phone’s camera app. The points where the gridlines intersect correspond with where the viewer’s eye will be drawn. Having those points visible when taking a photo will help you frame your best shot on the spot and cut down on editing time later.
Taken with a Google Pixel 3a
  1. Resist using the built-in zoom – The built-in zoom feature in your mobile phone camera app operates differently than zooming in with a film or DSLR camera. Your mobile phone uses digital zoom, while a film camera or DSLR camera uses optical zoom. Digital zooming often results in grainy, pixelated or blurry photos. Try stepping closer to your subject instead of tapping on the zoom button. You can and should use the “tap to focus” feature in your camera app, though! It will help make sure your phone’s lens is focused on what you’ve chosed as your subject.
  1. Experiment – One of the best ways to create amazing shots is to experiment with the features in your phone’s camera app. These features include different lighting effects and modes, such as portrait or nighttime modes. Play with these settings and use them in unexpected ways. For example, the portrait mode on my phone’s camera is intended to be used primarily when taking photos of people or pets, because it softens the background and highlights the subject. However, I’ve found that it works great for landscape photography, creating a soft zoom effect that can’t be easily achieved in other modes or with editing. Similarly, night mode can be used at other times of day to create cool effects.

I hope you find these tips useful. Let me know if you try any of them, or if you’ve discovered any cameraphone tricks of your own!

The Great Outdoors

Photo by Flash Mama Photography

I have a confession to make: I’m not really an outdoorsy person. Odd, I know, considering I’m a landscape photographer. But, up until I started taking nature photos in 2019, I was much more comfortable in the cozy, temperature-controlled indoors. I’d take occasional walks with my family and friends, and enjoy a few beach days here and there. However, if given the choice between spending time inside or outdoors, I could always find a reason to stay inside. 

In the summer, it’s too hot out there, I’d say. Alternatively, in the winter, my excuse was “I don’t own a coat.” The fall months always seemed too busy, while spring was written off as too pollen-y.

Over the last few years, I’ve realized how much I was missing out on by staying inside. The beauty of sunrises and sunsets are the most obvious things I wasn’t experiencing regularly. I was also missing out on endlessly interesting cloud formations. On butterflies dancing among wildflowers. On how a great blue heron presides over different spots at a local lake. On the way their unique bark patterns make each tree seem like it has its own personality.

Learning to love and enjoy time outside and in nature has been one of the greatest rewards of becoming a landscape photographer. I’ve replaced my excuses with photos of thousands of these wonderful moments — so many that a quick scroll through my phone would make you wonder if I actually live in a forest.

What has been the most unexpected reward for you as an artist?

Adventures of a Soccer Mom

In addition to being Flash Mama, I am a soccer mom. Watching my daughter play goalie is one of my favorite things to do.

As much as I relish seeing her on the field, long practices, half-time breaks in the action, and odd windows of time between games also mean there are long stretches with nothing to do.

Shortly after rediscovering my passion for photography, I began filling this downtime with taking pictures. Whether it be oddly shaped trees in the parking lot, flowers along the field, or the field lights at nighttime games, I enjoy challenging myself to find something interesting to photograph.

This image was taken during halftime on a shadeless turf field located in an industrial park. With no trees, flowers, or vegetation of any kind, I was struggling to find anything interesting to photograph. I looked up to see if there were any clouds in the sky (there weren’t). But, then I saw an airplane flying pretty low overhead. 

It turned out that we were near the airport. Soon, several planes started to fly by. I managed to capture this image of one of the planes appearing to soar above the sun. 

With a pretty inexpensive zoom lens, harsh sunlight and no tripod, the image isn’t perfect. Still, it reminds me that sometimes you can create something lovely out of less than ideal circumstances!