Making of a Christmas Card, 2022

I really had no idea what I was going to do about a Christmas card this year, or even if I wanted to do one. I have less free time this year, and I wasn’t really feeling it. There is a big part of me that wanted to do a jump cut to February.

Still, a tradition is a tradition, and so, at the beginning of the month, I was wracking my brain trying to come up with an idea. I didn’t get as frantic as I did in 2013 — I have more confidence in myself now that I’ll figure out something — but I was definitely feeling bereft of ideas.

And then, one day, I was looking at pictures with Mum, and for some reason, I decided to look at my iPhone pictures. And there is was, a picture I’d taken with the iPhone last year:

Ornament on Christmas tree
Ornament on tree, taken with my iPhone 12 Pro

Looking at it, it was nearly perfect. The only thing that bothered me was that you can see my hands holding the phone taking the picture. So I took it into Photoshop, and cut the hands and phone out of the picture, using Content Aware Fill, in several steps. I also bumped up the contrast a bit because printing on card stock tends to flatten the contrast a bit:

Christmas ornament, with the reflection retouched away
After retouching my reflected hands out of the red ball

Content Aware Fill is an amazing thing. It took me maybe two minutes to take care of it; I remember when it would have taken me hours.

Then it was time to lay out the card. Once again, I used two-up card stock, using Apple Pages to lay it out. Vertical cards are actually laid out sideways on the template, so I just grabbed one of my older cards, replaced the images in them, updated the date on the back, and then had to decide on typography.

This year, I decided on white Bodoni 75 with a thin outline and drop shadow for better separation, placed directly on top of the picture. I removed the borders on the text box this year. I’m pleased with the way it came out — the type fits well with the picture, and it looks almost like a book cover.

The hard part this year was what to say inside. This has not been a good year for me or the family, because of Mum’s situation. Do I use the space to send a Mum update? But I send cards to a variety of people, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone I send cards to. And a single message isn’t appropriate for everyone. In the end, for the pre-printed part, I went with the classic “Merry Christmas & Best Wishes for a Happy New Year”.

And here’s the finished card:

Finished 2022 Card Cover - Picture of a Christmas tree ornament with Merry Christmas laid over it.
Finished 2022 cover

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunrise at Castle Island

Today is the last day of Daylight Savings Time for 2022. The trouble with the tail end of DST is that sunrise is really late – 7:24 this morning, It been really sucking on workdays for the past few weeks; I normally get up at 7 on days that I work from home, and 6:30 on days that I go into the office, and I hate having to get up in the dark.

This morning though, I figured… If I get up a little after six, I can be over at Castle Island before 7 and be there before the sun comes up. I did not set an alarm; if I blew the wake time I figured no big deal, but in fact I did wake up around six, and hauled myself out of bed and onto the road.

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Fall Foliage, 2022

This has been a frustrating October. I came down with COVID the day after my niece’s wedding and even though I had a three day weekend the following weekend, and we had gorgeous weather, I still felt crummy enough, even after a week, to not want to do much of anything. It wasn’t a serious case; it just felt like a bad cold, but it hung on for about ten days. So last weekend, I moped around the house looking out at the gorgeous weather, and hoped that it would still be nice the next weekend, and that I’d finally be over the COVID enough to be able to do something fun.

It was, I was, and I did.

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Sunday Morning, Charles River

One of the things the fall brings is shorter days. The earlier sunsets are the most noticeable, but sunrise is getting later too. In June, sunrise was around 4:30-ish, now it’s around 6:30, and will be getting later still over the next six weeks, until Daylight Savings Time ends.

This later sunrise makes it easier to haul my sorry behind out of bed to see the sunrise. I tend to wake up early anyway — 3:30 – 4:00 is not uncommon, but usually I just roll over and try to go back to sleep.

I decided this weekend to see if I could get up early enough to be on the Charles River for sunrise. It’s something I’ve been thinking of doing for a long time. Since downstream faces East, I figured I could get some decent pictures.

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Making of a Christmas Card, 2021

It took me a little while to come up with an idea for the card this year. I did take a second look at some of the Christmas light photos I shot in 2016 for the card that year; as it turns out, the same pictures I decided not to work with then, still didn’t speak to me now.

There is also a part of me that is getting tired of creating a new card each year; at some point the card will be a photo of all the prior year’s cards in a basket, and that will probably be the last one. I’m not quite at that point yet, though.

Mum and I got our COVID booster shots at Walgreens a few Saturdays ago; when you get a vaccine dose, you have to stick around for 15 minutes just in case you have an allergic reaction so that they can respond to it. So we fumfed around the seasonal aisle there, and they had a gingerbread house kit. I saw it, and went hmmmm.

Comes a week later, and I still hadn’t gotten any other ideas, so I decided to do it. So I went back to Walgreens and picked up a gingerbread house kit. I realized I needed something to act as a snow surface, so I went over to Michael’s to find some fake snow. I could not find any, and I couldn’t find a single staffer in the store who wasn’t running a register to help me. So I picked up a bag of white cotton, and some deer figurines and miniature trees.

Putting the kit together was pretty simple — the only surprising part was how long it took, because there were several points where you glue a couple of pieces together with icing, and then have to let it sit for 15 minutes while the icing set.

The photography was a problem. What I should have done was pick up a piece of white posterboard to act as a seamless background. What I did do was use the “desktop studio” I got a couple of years ago. It’s basically a 16″ x 16″ x 16″ lightbox, with a small pair of halogen lights to be positioned outside the studio, with red, black, white and blue backgrounds. The sides of the box are intended to diffuse the light to provide a nice soft illumination of the object inside.

Unfortunately, the studio was a little too small for the gingerbread house. It was hard to frame the picture so that the sides of the studio were not too visible. The backgrounds are not really seamless, since they came folded, and have a number of creases. I managed to get a couple of pictures, and then decided to try repositioning the lights outside the studio. While moving the right side light, the cord on the left side light got pulled, it fell off the table, and blew the bulb. So now, I had to live with one of the shots I already had.

None of them were particularly good; this one was the best of a bad lot:

Original picture, taken inside the desktop studio

It’s reasonably evenly lit, but the background is very visible, and the rightmost tree is crooked, and the cotton is pretty sparse in the left front. This turned out to be a fairly major Photoshop job.

First step was to do some basic color correction and lightening of the image.

Second step was to run a Gaussian blur against the background. I selected the area behind the scene, and run a strong blur against it.

Next, I used the stamp tool to even out the cotton “snow”

I’d created two different exposures of the photo when I ran the picture through Camera Raw; now I copied the left side roof from the darker version and combined it with the lighter version, where the roof was burned out.

Then I selected the rightmost tree, and rotated it a few degrees counter clockwise to straighten it out. I ended up using parts of the original layer underneath the working layer, but it ended up OK, even though I probably didn’t do it the right way.

The background was still too dark, so I masked the scene, and started lightening the background, to get it whiter.

Finally, I added some decorations and lights to the trees, then masked out a vignette area around the edges so that the photo would fade to white when printed on the card.

Then I brought it into Pages, using one of my prior year’s templates. When I printed it out, I found the background was still too dark. I ended up just making most of the background part of the scene transparent, so that when laid over a white background, it was white. In hindsight, I should have just extracted the scene from its background, and called it a day. I’m not thrilled with the little vestiges of the blurred background around the scene.

The next problem was what to put inside the card. The only card stock I could find at Staples when I went was half fold card stock, meaning the cards would be full size. I worked off my 2018 card, renamed the file, and changed the images inside. Unfortunately, I just haven’t done much interesting this year, so picking the pictures was hard. I ended up choosing half the pictures from our time on the Cape, and the last couple from a kayaking trip on the Charles.

Inside of the card

For the text, I decided to riff on the subject matter and wished people a Merry Christmas and a “Sweet” New Year.

Once again, I decided to include Mum on my cards. People we both knew got a card from both of us, and I basically let her decide what I would would write. She doesn’t have enough dexterity to sign them anymore. For the cards from me alone, I wrote more of a note. I had most of the cards finished and in the mail by the first week of December.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

Nantasket

With the gales we were having today, I figured it was worth a trip down to Nantasket to see the ocean. As it turned out, the wind was from the west, so, while the tide was high, the ocean was pretty flat. On the other hand, the normally protected area to the west of the Hull peninsula was pretty stirred up. The clouds were dark and dramatic, with a squall line approaching from the west.

Leaf Peeping on the Charles

Fall foliage is such an ephemeral thing; one moment all the leaves are green; then in August, the first “traitor trees” start turning color, then one day, most of the trees are in full color – they still have most of their leaves, but they’ve turned color. Then, a few days later, the bonds holding the leaves to the trees start to break, and the leaves start to fall, leaving the trees barer and barer, until nothing is left except the oaks, grimly holding onto their dry brown leaves.

This weekend was pretty much peak season around here, and the weather was pleasant, so I took the kayak out for a trip along the Charles in Dedham – I didn’t have time for a longer trip as I had to get home to make supper. It was gorgeous.

I put in at the landing by the Dedham Recreation Center, and paddled downstream through Motley Pond, down past the Route 109 bridge to just short of the Bridge Street bridge. Along the way I saw a bunch of young mallards; the heads of the males were a deep rich green. Judging by their size, I’d guess this was their first time in adult plumage. On the way back, I spotted a snowy egret and a bunch of painted turtles by the entrance to Motley Pond.

Motley Pond is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more like a spot where the river spreads out a bit. Unlike the Basin, between Boston and Cambridge, the Charles is pretty narrow here, no more than 15 feet in some spots. At Motley, the river widens out; there is also a sandbar island in the middle, and you can often spot waterfowl there.

I haven’t been on the kayak much the past year. It was great to take the boat and the camera out for a few hours.

Brickyard Pond, Barrington, RI

Near the midpoint of the East Bay Bike Path you pass a large pond, Brickyard Pond. The pond is large, about 84 acres, and, from the bike way seems quite wild, as it’s ringed by marsh grasses and has several small islands covered with marsh grass and trees. In fact, it’s man-made – it was the site of a clay quarry used to make bricks that eventually filled with water.

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Sunset and Moonrise over the Charles

This Saturday night was a full moon, and I decided to take the bicycle, tripod and camera into town for a ride around the river. I got in just at the tail end of sunset, when the orange was still glinting off the Boston skyscrapers, but fading. I parked where I usually do, on the Cambridge Parkway, balanced the tripod on the bicycle’s handlebars, and set off westward along the Cambridge side. Once past the Longfellow Bridge, I set up the tripod and took some sunset pictures. Then I asked Siri, “What time is moonrise”, and she replied, “Moonrise on May 19th will be at 8:59 PM.” That’s kind of a weird reply, I thought, since it was still the 18th. But I decided to pack up the tripod, and come back a little later when the moon was out.

Then I noticed a little glowing cloudiness around one of the buildings across the river. “This looks interesting,” I thought, and set the tripod back up. Then it dawned on me — the moon had already risen today, and was just starting to clear the buildings.

As it got darker, I shifted my position upriver a bit, and got some pictures of the river and the moon. It became more difficult to get an exposure of both the buildings and the moon, so as I crossed the Mass Ave bridge, I tried a couple of high dynamic range pictures with both the Nikon and the iPhone.

It took me a while, since I still was balancing the tripod on the bike’s handlebars with one hand, but I eventually got over the river and to the Esplanade. As part of a recent renovation, they’ve installed cool blue lights underneath the bridge’s arches.