Butterfly Season at Brookfield Zoo

Butterflies at Brookfield Zoo | theinspiredparent.com

We just started seeing a few butterflies in our yard over the last week or so. Once our purple coneflower (Echinacea) starts blooming, the fun seems to begin & we’ll most definitely start capturing images of these lovely little creatures as they start hanging around our garden.

In the meantime, we popped over to Brookfield Zoo this week — we have an annual membership — and one of our favorite things to do in the summer is to visit their butterfly exhibit (Butterflies!). The enclosed, screened-in outdoor exhibit is near the North Entrance to the zoo. Inside, you’ll find regional plants and flowers — both annuals and perennials — and have the opportunity to observe a couple hundred butterflies up close & personal during your encounter. Each season, they have over 40 different species of butterflies in the habitat, and you’ll typically see approximately a dozen different species (or more) during any given visit.

They have signs up in the exhibit showing which butterflies you’ll see that particular day and it truly is a wonderfully relaxing experience and fun for all! Just be very careful as you’re walking around — some of the butterflies like to take a flying break on the warm, paved floor. Many people think those are injured or deceased, only to see them “wake up” and fly off once again.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll have a butterfly or two land on you! It’s well-worth the extra $3 fee (non-members) or $1.50 (members).

Here are a few photos of the pretty little ones we saw this week. We’ll head back and check out the Butterflies! exhibit every couple of weeks and will share more of our photos as the season progresses — hopefully we’ll find a few new species we haven’t seen before!

Happy Summer Fun!

This one is a White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae). Some were more blue than others and some had brighter edges.

This one is a White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae). Some were more blue than others and some had brighter edges.

Not 100% certain, but I think this is a Polydamas Swallowtail.

Not 100% certain, but I think this is a Polydamas Swallowtail.

Love watching the Swallowtails. We get different varieties in our yard, too. Can't wait to see which ones appear this year!

Love watching the Swallowtails. We get different varieties in our yard, too. Can’t wait to see which ones appear this year!

This little one had a unique flying pattern - was happy to capture a photo when he finally took a break from flying!

This little one had a unique flying pattern – was happy to capture a photo when he finally took a break from flying!

We could watch these all day. Swallowtails come in many different varieties & it's a lot of fun to see the differences when you can see them in one location.

We could watch these all day. Swallowtails come in many different varieties & it’s a lot of fun to see the differences when you can see them in one location.

Another lovely little Swallowtail. :)

Another lovely little Swallowtail. :)

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Amazing Fireworks – Tips & Tricks for Fantastic Photos

‘Tis the season for festivals, summer events, outdoor concerts & breathtaking fireworks displays that go hand-in-hand with summer nights. While those are all awesomely fun, my favorite part is capturing amazing photos of the fireworks.

When researching how to take the best photos of fireworks you’ll find information about taking them with a point-and-shoot style camera or your phone (where most people suggest using the “Fireworks” mode that is likely one of the built-in settings), but if you’re looking to step up your game a bit and happen to have a D-SLR, that’s when the fun truly begins!

Fireworks Tips & Tricks | theinspiredparent.com

First of all, if you have a D-SLR, for all that is good in the world, do not shoot on Auto. If you haven’t already done so, take a basic photography class so you can learn how your camera works & what the settings mean. A lot of people think “hey, I have a nice camera so now I can take nice pictures.” Even the nicest cameras can produce crappy pictures if you rely on the Auto setting and act as if it’s just a fancy point-and-shoot camera. Learning your equipment and some photography basics will greatly improve your images and that is the ultimate starting point. If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars on a nice camera body and solid lenses, then be sure to invest in a few classes! You’ll be so happy that you did!

Off my soapbox and on to shooting fireworks!

Loved having the outlines of the people in the shot - adds an extra bit of visual interest!

Loved having the outlines of the people in the shot – adds an extra bit of visual interest!

Fireworks - Photography Tips & Tricks | theinspiredparent.com

Many of the guides you’ll find online suggest using a tripod, shooting with a low ISO of 200 or so, with an aperture ranging between f/8 to f/11 and using a longer exposure time of a second or two. Shots using that method will give you some lovely blurring effects. That said, there are times when I don’t want to haul my tripod along (or certain venues where they aren’t allowed) and other times where I want to stop the action without as much blur, depending on the style of shot I wish to produce.

Without using a tripod you can still get stunning shots of fireworks by holding your D-SLR in hand, as long as you tweak a few things in camera and then tweak a few more simple things during post-processing.

The Basics:
Several details come into play as far as the settings to use — how much ambient light is nearby, how close you are to the action, what camera body you’re using and which lens. You’ll need to do some instant fine-tuning during any fireworks show, so it is vital that you know your equipment and understand your settings. For years, I’ve shot in Manual for everything, as well as in RAW format. That gives me the most control over what I’m shooting and the way I handle noise reduction and other levels during post-processing. Since I shoot RAW, I generally keep my white balance on auto since I can always tweak things in post.

Using examples from the last two years of some images I captured on the 4th of July (two different locations), all were shot without a tripod by handholding a Nikon D600 using either a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens or a Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D lens.

My ISO for all of the shots ranged from 2000 to 6400 with most at 6400. For the super bright shots at the end of the shows where a gazillion fireworks were being blown off at once, I would lower my ISO or adjust my aperture or shutter speed. I typically kept my aperture between f/4.5 to f/5.6 with my shutter speed around 1/100 of a second. This stopped some of the action but left slight blurring at times, and gave me the effect I was looking for based on my style of shooting.

Amazing Fireworks - Photography Tips | theinspiredparent.com

General Composition & Focus:
I used a combination of auto-focus and manual focus, depending on the situation. Some of my favorite shots ended up having the outlines of the audience in the frame — I liked the extra bit of visual interest. For those particular images, the people were seated on a slight hill, maybe 6-8 feet higher than where I was sitting. For most of those shots, I was shooting horizontally to capture the people on the hill. For some of the others, I shot vertically to capture the fireworks that were exploding a bit higher in the sky.

Amazing Fireworks - Photography Tips | theinspiredparent.com

Amazing Fireworks - Photography Tips | theinspiredparent.com

Post-Processing:
After downloading these particular photos, I handled my RAW processing in Lightroom to take care of my noise reduction, tweaking the sliders for blacks & shadows (making them a hair darker) and on a few of the bright ones, very lightly tweaking the sliders for whites & highlights. After that, I exported the shots to Photoshop to do any minor levels work & to perfect the sharpening on those I planned to print. Ultimately, these were very minimally processed — no major bells and whistles as I did my best to get everything as close to perfect in-camera.

Final Reminders & Tips:
1. This may seem obvious, but make sure your batteries are charged and you have lots of room on your memory card(s). The luxury of digital photography is that you can shoot a gazillion images and easily delete the not-so-great ones (which would be quite expensive if you were shooting tons of shots & paying for the film to be developed, only to have a few keepers).

2. Know your equipment. Whether point-and-shoot or D-SLR, learn your equipment so you know how to quickly change your settings on-the-fly. You don’t want to miss the action by staring at your camera trying to figure out how to tweak things. This takes time — be patient with yourself, take a photography class (or three) and keep at it. Eventually you’ll be changing those camera settings on what feels like auto-pilot.

3. If shooting fireworks without a tripod, try to keep your shutter speed around 1/100 to avoid camera shake (yes, there are caveats to this rule, but this speed seems to be safe speed for most people).

4. Most importantly: practice, practice, practice! When you’re done with that — practice some more! Play with your settings and have fun!

One of my favorite photos I've taken of fireworks - shot at the Taste of Oak Brook in Oak Brook, IL.

One of my favorite photos I’ve taken of fireworks – shot at the Taste of Oak Brook in Oak Brook, IL.

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Magnificent Medieval Times!

We were recently talking about taking our 7-year-old to Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament and so I booked tickets for this past weekend as a Father’s Day surprise for my husband. He and I had been there with adult family members about 15 years ago. The show’s format was basically as I remembered, though this time, the yelling and screaming and cheering for our knight and chanting our knight’s colors “Red & Yellow! Red & Yellow!” all while sitting with our excited, bouncy kid, made the experience even more fun.

Magnificent Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Our closest Medieval Times is in Schaumburg, IL — a suburb outside of Chicago. There are currently nine locations in total (eight in the U.S. and one in Canada). I often see coupons/discounts online for the show and by doing a quick web search, I found a “summer discount” of 40% off each ticket and applied the coupon code at checkout. Discounts vary by location and days of the week, but if you are flexible with dates, you can definitely find some great deals for the show.

There are three upgrades to the basic tickets — the King’s Royalty Package, the Celebration Package  & the Royalty Package — they include various levels of priority VIP seating and other fun extras such as group photos & announcements by the King during the festivities. We went with the least expensive upgrade — The Royalty Package. This gave us Priority Castle Access, VIP seating, Priority Seating Access, Knight’s Rally Towels, Cheering Banners and VIP Lanyards. The package was an additional $12 per person and was worth it as we truly did have awesome seats & it was quite fun using the rally towels & cheering banners during the show.

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Doors opened 75 minutes prior to our 4:30 p.m. show. They recommend getting there as early as possible after the doors open to obtain the best seats — they are assigned once you arrive at the castle in whichever category you purchased. It’s quite the brilliant strategy on their part from the sales standpoint, as it gets show-goers in the castle nice and early in hopes of obtaining the best seats & that means there is more time to browse & buy souvenirs & drinks while meandering through the castle before the show begins. There are several kiosks with everything from light-up swords to fancy crowns to toys and decorative figurines and more. They also have a few bar areas set up where you can purchase beverages of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties to take with you while you explore. You can even pre-order bottles of wine for during the dinner show.

Although you are slightly bombarded with things to potentially purchase, it was a lot of fun arriving early. They do some pre-show festivities during that hour in the Great Hall. For those who pay a bit extra, you can participate in a knighting ceremony — we didn’t purchase that experience, but it was fun to watch. The actors did a great job with the pre-show theatrics and getting everyone pumped up & excited to be there.

After we watched several guests participate in the knighting ceremony, we decided to explore the castle. They have some neat artwork in different areas as well as various historic artifacts on display. We strolled through one section and ended up running into the Royal Falconer along with a beautiful, 9-year-old falcon named Liberty who was going to perform in our show. It was very cool for the kids (and their adults!) to see the falcon up close and have the chance to ask lots of questions & learn about how falcons were used back in that time period. Arriving early was worth it for that experience alone.

Medieval Times Royal Falconer | theinspiredparent.com

The Royal Falconer & 9-year-old Liberty. It was wonderful having the chance to see the falcon up close before the show and to learn more about these gorgeous creatures!

You can also see the horses ahead of time if you head to another area when you first arrive, but we didn’t get over to that section of the castle in time, so the horses were already “backstage” prepping for the performance. We’ll definitely head over there early on our next visit.

If you have time and are interested, there is a Torture Museum at the castle as well — I hear it’s pretty cool so we’ll have to check that out down the road. We skipped it this time around since we figured it might be a bit too intense for our little one.

Just as we finished up talking with the Royal Falconer, they announced that the doors to the arena were opening. Since we had purchased one of the VIP upgrades, we were allowed to enter the arena right away. The servers were fantastic and ours, in particular, was great fun! He joked with the kids in our row every time he came by and got a great reaction when he told our daughter and the little boy she was sitting next to that the chicken he was serving was actually a baby dragon like Spike from My Little Pony. That got huge “eewwwwws” from all the kids as well as lots of giggles!

Our awesome server (center) took part in the opening ceremony & he made sure to wave to our section to get all of us cheering for the Red & Yellow Knight. He made our dining experience such a treat!

Our awesome server (center) took part in the opening ceremony & he made sure to wave to our section to get all of us cheering for the Red & Yellow Knight. He made our dining experience such a treat!

The food was great — I remembered it being tasty last time as well. The kids all got a kick out of the fact that there are no utensils so you have to eat everything with your hands & drink your soup out of the bowl without a spoon. The meal consisted of garlic bread, a super yummy tomato bisque soup, roasted chicken that was perfectly moist with a still-crispy skin, corn-on-the-cob, herbed roasted potatoes, two rounds of select beverages (our choices were cola, lemon-lime soda, iced tea & lemonade). For dessert, we had an apple turnover & they served coffee as well. During dinner you can also order other beverages from the bar, for an additional charge.

I won’t spoil the theme & background story of the show, but as for the logistics, each section of the arena is assigned a specific knight who is yours to cheer on to victory. We were seated in the section for the Red & Yellow Knight. We were also technically able to cheer on the Green Knight and the Blue Knight since they were on our side of the arena as well, but had to watch out for the Yellow Knight, Black & White Knight and the Red Knight…they were our foes.

Go Red & Yellow Knight!!!!!

Go Red & Yellow Knight!!!!!

Red & Yellow Knight - Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

The two-hour show includes demonstrations of Falconry, Horsemanship, Weaponry & Jousting. Some segments of the show are in tournament format — knight against knight — and some other parts add to the drama of the overall story. In addition to enjoying the various games & battles (the sparks coming from the swords during the battle scenes were a huge hit!), we all really enjoyed watching the horses.

The price of the tickets was more than worth it just to see the reaction of sheer amazement from our daughter when the first horse came running out through the fog…her jaw dropping to the floor paired with her long, drawn out vocalization of “WHOA….they are BEAUTIFUL…!!!!!!” was priceless to us. The horses truly were stunning & their gentle gracefulness was lovely to see.

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Gorgeous horses, beautiful costumes, great show!

The Royal Falconer & Liberty, who we met pre-show, did a fantastic job during their performance. It was really cool watching Liberty soar throughout the arena and overhead, as well as work with the Royal Falconer.

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Our Red & Yellow Knight didn’t win this particular tournament, but he sure was fun to watch! Our daughter was quite happy that he threw a flower to her during dinner, too. :)

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

The six knights ready to compete!

The six knights ready to compete!

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Of course there has to be a villain…the mood sure shifted when he was around…and at the end he appears to have been captured, but you won’t know for certain unless you go and see the show!

Medieval Times | theinspiredparent.com

Medieval Times - Capturing the Villain | theinspiredparent.com

We will definitely head back again and this time we won’t wait another 15 years. As we were leaving the show our daughter asked if we could come back the next day. We told her that maybe we’ll go back this fall for her birthday…in this case, maybe is definitely a “yes.” We look forward to surprising her with the timing of our next visit.

Hope you have a chance to see Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament sometime soon! It is well worth the ticket price & a great way to spend a few hours with family or friends!

 

 

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Great Plants for Spring Color

Lilacs getting ready to bloom at a local park and Lady's Mantle in our yard after the morning rain.

Lilacs getting ready to bloom at a local park and Lady’s Mantle in our yard after the morning rain.

Ah, spring has officially sprung and all of the lovely plants are blooming and the buds on the trees are popping open. I love seeing all of the new growth this time of year (even if it makes my allergies kick in a bit). Seeing those pale greens and yellows at first…then all of a sudden some happy little daffodils & tulips start popping up and it’s so nice to get outside and start exploring.

Late last week we had two mornings of overcast skies & a light drizzle — perfect for capturing some of these early spring plants — so I threw on my rain jacket & went on a couple of rainy morning strolls with my camera.

Love the different colors when planted in a large group.

Love the different colors when planted in a large group.

Yellow Tulips | theinspiredparent.com

We live near a pretty park that is known for growing many varieties of lilacs. A few lilacs like the ones in the cover photo were just starting to show signs of deep purple blossoms getting ready to pop. Masses of daffodils were blooming and some of the tulips were just starting to say hi. :) I will definitely head back there over the next couple of weeks as more tulips & lilacs begin to bloom.

Found these little treasures at the park - so pretty!

Found these little treasures at the park – so pretty!

Love the ruffles on these daffodils!

Love the ruffles on these daffodils!

Last fall we planted some daffodil bulbs in our backyard — two pretty varieties to add some cheerful color to the areas where our purple coneflower and shasta daisies will bloom later this summer. We’ve really enjoyed having the early-season color from the daffodils in that bed this year.

One of the varieties that we planted in our backyard. It's a long wait when you plant the bulbs in autumn, but such an exciting treat once they bloom in spring!

One of the varieties that we planted in our backyard. It’s a long wait when you plant the bulbs in autumn, but such an exciting treat once they bloom in spring!

A little early for the wonderful lilac scent, but that will be happening very soon by the looks of these!

A little early for the wonderful lilac scent, but that will be happening very soon by the looks of these!

Lady's Mantle - one of my favorites! | theinspiredparent.com

Lady’s Mantle – one of my favorites!

The photo above is of one of my favorite perennials — Lady’s Mantle. I shot this image last week during our morning rainstorm. I first noticed this little gem many years ago in Toronto at Casa Loma where they have a huge bed of it — the sprinklers had just gone off and I was intrigued by the water droplets on the leaves. When we moved into our house, Lady’s Mantle was at the top of my list of plants I wanted to add to our yard. I still love the way the leaves look after it rains — especially on the baby leaves that are just starting to sprout.

These are just a few of the happy plants I saw the other day. I also adore magnolias, but the timing wasn’t quite right to capture those the other morning since it was quite windy. Hoping to get some new shots of those very soon and will definitely keep shooting more of our plants as they start to bloom so I can post more of those throughout the season.

What are some of your favorite spring plants?

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