3 At-Home/Low-Cost Date Night Ideas

So it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and my husband and I aren’t exactly raking in the dough right now. It’s nothing we can’t handle; we still have enough to cover the bills and our day-to-day expenses, but going out for an expensive night on the town can be a little too much for us sometimes. That’s why I’ve come up with these at-home date night ideas that cost little to nothing!

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  1. Dinner and a movie – A new take on this old favorite! Cook up something together that makes you both really excited to eat! Make sure to eat at the table before you start the movie; the more time you have to talk to your partner, the better the date (in my opinion, anyway). You can have as much fun with this as you want – put on some relaxing music in the background, dress up the table with a centerpiece or candles – anything you want! Then pick out a movie that (again) makes you both excited to watch, pop the popcorn, and cuddle up for the next two hours!
  2. Couple’s retreat – This may sound like you’re about to pay a bunch of money on a hotel room and a 5-hour flight, but I promise it’s not what you think! You’ll need some prep-work before actually doing this one, but it’s worth it! Pick a day that the two of you can either take off of work at the same time or comfortably leave behind other responsibilities. Remember – you have to be responsibility-free for at least half the day! Decide ahead of time what “sessions” you’re going to have on this retreat – whether you need to focus on communicating more with each other, planning for kids, deciding what your next home renovation project is going to be – these could be anything! Pick your location – a state park (’cause they’re large), a shopping mall, a new city, etc. Then get out there and treat this like a real retreat! You should be communicating and enjoying each other’s company the whole time!
  3. Game night – This is my husband’s favorite! It’s exactly what it sounds like, but you can put your own spin on it. Play board games, video games, or some combination of the two. You could even go outside (if the weather is nice) and play a sport! The key here is to have fun with one another without the pressure of large life talks like a retreat would have you do. I always make a bunch of tasty apps and drinks to see us through the evening like we’re at a bar – ’cause after all, Monopoly is definitely better while drinking!

These three date night ideas are the ones that my husband and I have tried and have proven tried and true for us time and time again! I encourage all of you to step outside of the dinner-and-a-movie box and do something new. You might be surprised how much fun you can have just being at home!

Studio Searching

AAckkkk! I don’t have a valid indoor location to shoot portraits or recreational modeling sessions! How am I going to get a place like this?! Are there even places like this for freelance photographers? Can I still be a freelance photographer if I have a place like this? I’m losing my mind!

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All of these thoughts and more have been running through my head more and more frequently as of late. I know that some of my best work happens while I’m out-and-about with clients – shooting in various on-site locations. But I also know that the weather gets in the way of scheduled sessions often. And some clients are more comfortable going to an actual building location for their sessions. So I’ve been thinking that I need one central location to house these folks. But I currently live in a two-bedroom apartment – not a house with a basement or extra room that I could convert into a studio.

So I need to find a studio location… This is going to be difficult.

I know that I need a building where I can have a secluded space to control lighting, a window-lit space for when the outdoor lighting is just right on its own, and a small room or corner where I can house a desk for administration duties. I know this is going to be expensive, but I would rather pay less for this space than I do for my apartment. And it needs to be in an area where I can feel comfortable asking clients to drive to it and park near it.

I’ve been searching for a while now – listing any promising places we drive by in my phone. But I would also love to hear from you all. If you know of any spaces like this for rent, I would really appreciate you sharing with me in the comments below!

Don’t Quit

I know what you’re going through. I know how hard it is to keep working and trying and to  not get anywhere. You have to believe that someone understands. Because if no one understood then what’s the point in trying to talk about it? But you do have to talk about it.

I have experienced many hardships in my 23 years of existence. People I thought I could trust have harmed me. Others who I believed would help me have let me down almost every time. But there are a select few loved ones in my life who understand – who talk to me about it – and who do help me more than they know.

You think it’d be easier to forget about it all. You think it wouldn’t be so bad to go through life hardening your heart at every turn. But that’s not how this works. You need to let go.

Let go of pain and anger. Let go of grudges you’ve been holding with people who didn’t even know they had done something wrong. I know you do this – I did it too. Let go of worries that can’t be validated. Let go of toxic people you’ve been keeping around to make it easier to come up with excuses for being so closed-off. Let go of doubt that you can’t do something.

Once you make a promise to yourself – keep it. The worst promises are ones that we break for no reason at all. You want to lose weight for health reasons? That’s a pretty darn great reason. You want to start a business? Great, do it. You want to build your relationship with your family? Perfect, that’s always a good idea. But once you start these things, you have to remember that it’s not okay to give up. These are all great reasons to do wonderful things. They will change your life. Why would you want to give that up?

You don’t want to give that up. You’re just still holding onto those self-sabotaging habits from your past. The worst thing you can do for yourself is nothing. Get up. Get going. And get yourself on track.

My Photographic “Process” in Nature

Nature photography is one of those great passions of mine. I get satisfaction from it in a few different ways. Being out in nature by myself helps to calm me when I feel like the world is too big. It also ensures that I’ll get amazing photos for whatever project I’m working on – nature is already so beautiful that it’s pretty easy to photograph it well. Plus images of natural substances are so versatile that I can use them in a lot of different photography projects. All that being said, I do have a “process” for how I accomplish effective and evocative nature photography – if you can call it a process (it does change from time to time based on the environment). Keep reading to discover how I manage to get stunning nature images.

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There are a few things I consider with nature photography before I ever even take a picture on-site.

First Consideration: Location

Before I can take any pictures at all, I have to pin down exactly where I’m going to photograph. This is important because not all photo-sites are created equally. Photographing in the woods behind your house is a lot different than photographing in a large national park with various nature centers and greenhouses. Although both can yield beautiful photos, you want to give yourself the opportunity to collect as many project-ready images as possible (especially if you actually are planning to use nature images in photo projects or collections). I think very hard about what kind of images I want to make – water, natural resources, tree/plant-based, etc. Then I can make a decision on which location has more to offer in that vain of photographic content.

Second Consideration: Time of Day

100_5587I often photograph during golden hour – the hour after dawn or before dusk when the sun is at its lowest and gives a golden hue to the horizon. Actually, golden hour is my favorite time of day to photograph in nature as the light is already so perfectly diluted but still vibrantly golden that I don’t have to do much in the way of light correction (which saves me time later when putting together images for a photo project). However, if I’m going to photograph in a large canopied area (for tree or plant-based photos), then I may need to do so during mid-day when the sun is at its highest. This kind of lighting can create very evocative shadows when beating down through the tree-tops, and that’s the kind of thing I would want to take advantage of. There aren’t many times when I would photograph at night for nature projects because the temperature of moon lighting is a lot cooler than sun lighting; some of the things I’d want to photograph would need more vibrant conditions than this.

Third Consideration: Camera

Most of my nature photography happens while hiking – when I can expose myself to a lot of different phenomenon over the course of an hour to an hour and a half hike. That being said, I don’t really want to carry around a lot of heavy equipment while I’m hiking all over the place, so I will generally use my phone to take these kinds of photos. Folks who have never experienced what smart phone cameras can do now will say that this isn’t enough – that I need a professional camera for every occasion. To those people I say: “The joke’s on you because this phone is a professional camera.” For all intents and purposes, my iPhone XS Max does the exact same thing I would want my professional cameras to do when out in nature – with less of the bulk and weight. I may post a specific tutorial on iPhone photography – various apps to use, how to adjust certain settings, etc. – so keep a lookout for that!

Final Consideration: Photo Subjects

I need to know ahead of time what I’m looking for while I’m out there. Most of the time, I make tree/plant-based photos. Sometimes I research (which means scroll through Pinterest) different nature photography project ideas to get some inspiration. One such idea was to look for the “out of placers” – anything that looks like it doesn’t belong in this spot. That’s how I made the image below. (Notice the string-lights in the top right corner of the image during a snow flurry, making it hard to tell where this picture was taken!)

snow and lights

Once you take these four things into consideration, you’re ready to get out there and make some magic! Once I get to the site, I make sure I know my way around; if I’m at a park or public location, I do this by finding a park map and taking a picture on my phone so that I have it on-hand while I’m hiking. If I’m at a private location, I’m always with the owner of the land so I have their guidance to get around. Then I walk my path and take pictures of anything that even remotely matches my photo subject ideas from the final consideration above. By taking many pictures – even if they don’t seem that relevant at first – I maximize my photo pool later when I’m editing and putting together various photos for a project/collection.

And that’s basically it! I love nature photography so much, and I get super excited to hear others’ ideas about it. If you do something special when photographing in nature (or before-hand to prepare), share it in the comments down below!

2019 Home-Life Organization

I have a very strong desire – no, a very strong need – to live in an organized environment. If my living-place is disorganized, my mind is disorganized. There are times when all I can do is think about not knowing our upcoming meals for the week, or about that pile of mail on the desk that hasn’t been addressed in a month, or the fact that our apartment looks like it was hit by a toxic nuclear bomb.

So I have challenged myself in 2019 to come up with new ways to achieve the optimal organization for my high-maintenance mind. And I think I’ve finally done it. Read on to learn the different ways I have given myself peace-of-mind and an organized apartment.

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The Living Room

Studies have said that the first thing you see in your home environment after a long day at work or a day out can set the tone for the rest of your evening. If you come home to a cluttered space and see it first thing upon walking in the door, then the rest of your evening may be spent in cluttered disorganization in your mind or emotions as well. That being said, the first thing I see when I walk into my apartment is my living room (which also includes my desk space as our second bedroom is currently my husband’s office/gaming room). I had to make sure that I had a system for keeping this space as organized as possible, so I came up with a few *little* things I can do each morning/night to make it so.

  • The Mail: My husband and I would traditionally throw the mail on the desktop when we got home for it to never be looked at again, but now it is separated out into categories in a paper organizer. This reduces clutter on surfaces and serves as a constant visual reminder that we need to go through our mail.
  • The Remotes: I still have to remind my husband that things have a certain place in our apartment, but he’s gotten much better about putting things back. However, I have a serious pet peeve that he constantly violates – the placement of the remote controls. They have a certain place and orientation on the end-table from which I can’t stand when they are removed. So every night before I go to bed and every morning when I wake up, I make sure that the remotes are exactly where they’re supposed to be. I know it sounds crazy and overbearing, but it helps me think clearly.
  • The Couch Pillows: The same thing above goes for the couch pillows as well. I rearrange/fluff/fix the pillows every morning and night. This helps keep the idea of a clean and put-together home which helps my mind be put-together as well.

The Kitchen

When I get home, after putting away my work bag and and coat/shoes, I head to the kitchen to unpack my lunch bag. If that space is also a wreck, the entire rest of the night is ruined as I try to salvage what’s left of the dishes and make sure the fridge is cleaned out. I experienced this most recently after our New Year’s Eve party; there were pizza boxes, empty bottles of what had previously been adult beverages, and plenty of dirty dishes scattered around the entire kitchen/dining room area. So I came up with a plan much like the morning/night check-in of the living room.

  • The Dishes: Every night, I make sure that all of the dinner dishes are in the washer as soon as I’m done eating. This way I can’t be tempted to get lazy and sit on the couch for an hour to make the excuse that I’m too tired to do them once it gets close enough to bed-time. Once the dishes are done, I immediately put them away. This ensures that the washer is empty for any dishes we use the next morning for breakfast. Speaking of the next morning: I will make sure that all of my breakfast dishes go immediately into the washer so they’re not sitting in the sink waiting for me when I get home. This way, the washer only has a few dishes in it and is mostly empty and ready to be used for dinner dishes. (It’s a cleaning cycle that I’ve honestly come to love).
  • The Fridge: Okay – I’m the most proud of this situation. I hated how our fridge would always fill up with stuff. We would have to deal with: expired goods from the grocery store that we didn’t get a chance to use before they went bad in a week, door shelves overflowing with condiments that we NEVER used, and no place to put drinks or leftovers. So I purchased these fridge organization containers and went to town. The top shelf is for milk, eggs, butter, and breakfast items. The middle shelf is for lunch meats, cheeses, and leftovers. And the bottom shelf is for drinks and have-to-be-refrigerated desserts. The crispers at the bottom of the fridge are for vegetables (in one) and (in the other) meat products that we will use within a day or two. (We keep meat products for the end of the week in the freezer so that they won’t go bad waiting on us.) My number one rule now is if you’re not going to eat it in a day or two, it doesn’t go in the fridge – meaning we can’t be just accumulating leftovers because that’s going to end with us throwing out a bunch of expired/gone-bad stuff anyway.

The Command Center

Yes, you read that right. I do have a command center. It isn’t a command center in the traditional Pinterest version of the word as it doesn’t include a mail section (since that’s near my desk in the living room) or cute inspo. But it works for us and for our purposes.

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  • Dry-erase Boards: On our fridge in the kitchen, I have a dry-erase calendar and a dry-erase week-at-a-glance board that I use to track my husband and I’s out-of-house schedules and meals. The calendar is how we know (if we haven’t already communicated it with each other) that one of us won’t be home at the normal time. The meals board serves as a way for us to meal plan (and sometimes meal prep). Ever Saturday night or Sunday morning, we get together in front of the meal board and think about what we might want to have for dinner each day of the coming week. I then use what’s on the meal board to build a Sunday afternoon/Monday evening grocery list. This process has become quite technological ever since we got an Amazon Echo for Christmas – now I ask the AI on my counter to build the list for me.  🙂
  • My Household Planner: I don’t know if I consider this “my” planner because it does serve the household in general. But I’m the only one who really ever updates it… So I went to the Container Store (as you know because you’re following my Instagram account…and if you’re not then you should be…@gray_graph) and got a bunch of stuff from their planning aisles. This stuff I used to put together this household planner. I also used my computer and Microsoft know-how to come up with customized inserts for the planner. I’ll be posting a walk-through of the planner on my YouTube channel soon so keep an eye out for that, but I won’t share everything here as this post would be twice the size. I will tell you the general gist of things though and that’s that this planner contains a section for my husband and I to track our finances, a section to keep track of household chores that need to be done regularly, a section for a running to-do list based more on general things than on cleaning, and a few other sections relating to our recurring activities/commitments/etc. This planner stays in my home right next to our “command center” – I do not take it out of the house because it contains some sensitive information and because I just like to have it on-hand while I’m cooking or what-have-you at home.

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And that’s basically what I’m doing to keep my home organized this year. I always get super motivated to do this kind of stuff right around the turn of the year – as I’m sure most of you do as well. If you have routines you’re starting this year to get more organized or to keep your head-space clear in other respects, please share them with me in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year! It’s that time again – when a lot of people start to think about how their lives are going to be different in the New Year. They wrack their brain for ways they can improve, and then come to the conclusion that something needs to change. So they come up with what have been called “New Year’s Resolutions” to help them turn those thoughts into actions. I’ve come up with my own resolutions for the New Year, but I didn’t do it the way most people would – just a list. No, no. If you know me, then you know I had a step-by-step process to write out my resolutions. And here it is…

Step 1: Find Out What’s Lacking/What Needs Improvement

You can’t change part of your life without knowing exactly what needs to be improved upon or why you should change it in the first place. I sat down towards the end of December and made a list of all of the things I’ve been doing that haven’t met my standards of living a successful or fulfilled life.

Step 2: Clear Off Anything on the List that Isn’t Coming from Your Own Head

This one seems unclear, so let me explain a little more. You need to make your own choices for your own reasons; it’s important that the list of things you need to improve be what you actually think needs to improve – not what your mom, your partner, your second-cousin-twice-removed-on-your-great-grandfather’s-side told you to fix. So cross off/erase/black-out anything that isn’t truly from your own thinking about your life. (And don’t pretend that you didn’t write some stuff other people told you to do – everyone writes something like that.)

Step 3: Come Up With Your “New”

Okay – so you’ve got a list of stuff to improve. But that doesn’t help you unless you know what those improvements really look like. Hence step three – writing out what each fix truly looks like in your everyday life. Think about what you want to be doing a week, a month, or half a year from now. Pin down exactly what you’re doing in this improved life as a result of changing/updating/fixing your list items from steps one and two. Be specific! Then…

Step 4: …Write Your Resolutions!

Now that you know what your improvements look like, you can list out what you’re going to do to achieve those improvements. Resolutions are like goals – you need to make sure that you have them in order to really get anything done. But to make sure that you’re reaching these goals efficiently and effectively, you should go the extra mile to make sure that they’re SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound).

We’ve already got you covered on the R part (you made, like, three lists already making sure this stuff was relevant to you). Now you have to make sure you cover the SMA and T parts. Your goals need to be specific to your lifestyle – day-in and day-out of you. You need to have a clear method of measuring your progress towards those goals. Of course your goals have to be achievable – you don’t want to set the bar too high because there needs to be visible improvement in order for you to stay motivated. And lastly, you need to assign time-frames to each goal – the amount of time in which you’d like to achieve each thing.

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I know this sounds very methodical, and that’s because it is. Most people tend to skip right to the last step and just write out basic resolutions about surface-level things they think they want to change about themselves. But that’s not the best way to go about it. You need to make sure that you’re writing these resolutions with the intention of actually doing them! And to keep that intention clear in your mind throughout 2019, you might just have to get a bit methodical.

Click below to read my 2019 New Year’s resolutions!

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New Website Layout

Merry Christmas!

I know it’s been a while. With how much stress I’ve had to deal with lately, I’ve been MIA from the blog. I’m hoping that a refreshing new start to the New Year will help with that, but in the mean time – here’s a Christmas present for you (and for me): I’ve refreshed the Gray Graphics website to get a jump-start on things! You’ve probably noticed that already seeing as how you’re most likely reading this blog post on the website itself…

Anyway, go explore the new layout! Let me know what you think in the comments section below 🙂