Mandi Makes a Podcast Playlist

I’ve been a podcast listener since the first time I owned an mp3 player. Stories that draw me in make it easy to forget how many miles I’ve walked (Oh look, the kids are asleep in the stroller!) or how many miles of trim I’ve painted in our new house (Wait, it’s 1AM already?!). So many people have asked me about my renovation playlist, and while I am the avid listener to very specific genres of music, it’s really my favorite podcasts that have gotten me this far in my quest to transform our 1980s house into my dream home.

I wanted to share some of my favorite podcasts with you, as well as specific favorite episodes from each one. Some of these may be a bit cliché (This America Life, what can I say— I love it!), and admittedly I don’t often try new tv shows and radio shows, because I really know what I like and don’t like wasting my time. So if you have any new suggestions, I promise I’ll give them a look!

RadioLab is the perfect podcast for those who enjoy exploring their curiosities, from the human mind to the human immune system, from social constructs to social injustice, from Cuban punk music to the American judiciary system— the way the RadioLab team researches and compiles each episode is thorough and engaging. This podcast perfectly combines entertainment with learning opportunities, and just might be my absolute favorite! It was impossible to narrow down my favorites! So I’ll share my top six. (And I would share more if I wasn’t afraid of overwhelming you.)

Worth / “This episode, we make three earnest, possibly foolhardy, attempts to put a price on the priceless. We figure out the dollar value for an accidental death, another day of life, and the work of bats and bees as we try to keep our careful calculations from falling apart in the face of the realities of life, and love, and loss.”

The Buried Bodies Case / “In 1973, a massive manhunt in New York’s Adirondack Mountains ended when police captured a man named Robert Garrow.  And that’s when this story really gets started. This episode we consider a string of barbaric crimes by a hated man, and the attorney who, when called to defend him, also wound up defending a core principle of our legal s

ystem.  When Frank Armani learned his client’s most gruesome secrets, he made a morally startling decision that stunned the world and goes to the heart of what it means to be a defense attorney – how far should lawyers go to provide the best defense to the worst people?”

Patient Zero / “The greatest mysteries have a shadowy figure at the center—someone who sets things in motion and holds the key to how the story unfolds. In epidemiology, this central character is known as Patient Zero—the case at the heart of an outbreak. This hour, Radiolab hunts for Patient Zeroes from all over the map. We start with the story of perhaps the most iconic Patient Zero of all time: Typhoid Mary. Then, we dive into a molecular detective story to pinpoint the beginning of the AIDS, and we re-imagine the moment the virus that caused the global pandemic sprang to life. After that, we’re left wondering if you can trace the spread of an idea the way you can trace the spread of a disease. In the end, we find ourselves faced with a choice between competing claims about the origin of the high five. And we come to a perfectly sensible, thoroughly disturbing conclusion about the nature of the universe … all by way of the cowboy hat.”

Remembering Oliver Sacks / “When Radiolab was just starting out, Robert asked Dr. Oliver Sacks if he could help us, maybe send us a few story ideas. Over the years he has shared with us stories of chemistry, music, neurology, hallucinations and more, so much more. Because Oliver notices the world and the people around him with scientific rigor, with insight, and most importantly, with deep empathy. ?When he announced a few months ago that he had terminal cancer and wasn’t going to do any more interviews, we asked him if he’d talk with us one last time. He said yes?. So Robert went, as he has done for 30 some years now, to his apartment with a microphone, this time to

 ask him about the forces that have driven him in his work, in his unique relationships with his patients, and in his own life.”

Nazi Summer Camp / “Reporter Karen Duffin and her father were talking one day when, just as an aside, he mentioned the Nazi prisoners of war that worked on his Idaho farm when he was a kid. Karen was shocked … and then immediately obsessed. So she spoke with historians, dug through the National Archives and oral histories, and uncovered the astonishing story of a small town in Alabama overwhelmed by thousands of German prisoners of war.  Along the way, she discovered that a very fundamental question  – one that we are struggling with today  –  was playing out seventy years ago in hundreds of towns across America: When your enemy is at your mercy, how should you treat them? Karen helps Jad and Robert try to figure out why we did what we did then, and why we are doing things so differently now.”

Playing God / “When people are dying and you can only save some, how do you choose? Maybe you save the youngest. Or the sickest. Maybe you even just put all the names in a hat and pick at random. Would your answer change if a sick person was standing right in front of you? In this episode, we follow New York Times reporter Sheri Fink as she searches for the answer. In a warzone, a hurricane, a church basement, and an earthquake, the question remains the same. What happens, what should happen, when humans are forced to play god?”

I feel like this podcast might be the “Parenthood” of podcasts, which makes me slightly hesitant to put it so far at the top of my list of favorites, but hey! I’m not here to be cutting edge, just to be honest about what I enjoy listening to. And while my friends would chat about how they laughed and cried during the most recent amazing “Parenthood” episode (may it rest in peace), I would be over here asking if they had caught the most recent “This American Life” episode. Yep, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and your heart and mind will be a bit more open after each show that Ira Glass hosts.

Tell Me I’m Fat / episode 589 / “The way people talk about being fat is shifting. With one-third of Americans classified as overweight, and another third as obese, and almost none of us losing weight and keeping it off, maybe it’s time to rethink the way we see being fat.”

It Says So Right Here / episode 509 / “Everyone knows you can’t always believe what you read, but sometimes even official documents aren’t a path to the truth. This week we have stories of people whose lives are altered when seemingly boring documents like birth certificates and petitions are used against them. And a family wrestles with a medical record that has a very clear, but complicated diagnosis.”

Prom / episode 186 / “While the seniors danced at Prom Night 2001 in Hoisington, Kansas—a town of about 3,000—a tornado hit the town, destroying about a third of it. When they emerged from the dance, they discovered what had happened, and in the weeks that followed, they tried to explain to themselves why the tornado hit where it did. Plus other stories that happen on Prom Night.”

My Pen Pal / episode 246 / “Stories of very unusual pen pals, including a ten-year-old girl from Michigan who befriends Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.”

You may be seeing a theme, here. I love hearing peoples’ stories, and The Moth is such a fresh way to experience them! Story tellers stand up on stage and have a few minutes to tell their stories to a live audience. Sometimes it’s about a childhood experience, overcoming obstacles in life, or a fun story about adolescent phone calls with an actual rock star. Every podcast is such a fun, refreshing listen!

School Night / A teenager does a newspaper review of an Iggy Pop album and gets a surprising response.

The Pieties of Perspiration / Adam Gopnik battle liberal guilt with his son in a sauna.

I love listening to Fresh Air to get a glimpse into the hearts and minds of my favorite actors, musicians, and writers, but also to find out about interesting stories and people that are completely new to me. Giving people a space to tell their story and ask the questions we all have, or some that we haven’t considered, interviewer Terry Gross recently celebrated 30 years of on-air experience with Fresh Air. Here are some favorite episodes of mine that come to mind, but don’t neglect to scroll through the archives to see what jumps out at you! There’s a lot there to love.

Aziz Ansari– On “Master of None” and How His Parents Feel About Acting

Lynsey Addario– Twice kidnapped, photographer returns to war zone: “It’s What I Do”

Peggy Orenstein– “Girls & Sex” and the Importance of Talking to Young Women About Pleasure

Jeff Guinn– “The Road to Jonestown” Nearly 40 years later, Jonestown offers a lesson in demagoguery

If you’re interested in the human psyche and how it affects our personal lives and our society, or maybe you want to hear about some interesting true stories where differing personalities and ways of thinking dictated the plot, you must give Invisibilia a listen! It’s compelling, engaging, and kind of feels like a happy medium between RadioLab and This American Life.

Reality / “How is it that two neighbors can look out their window at the exact same thing, and see something completely different? This is a question many people in America are asking now. We explore it by visiting a small community in Minnesota, called Eagle’s Nest Township, that has a unique experience with the reality divide: some of the people in the town believe that wild black bears are gentle animals you can feed with your hands, and others think they are dangerous killers. This divide leads to conflict and, ultimately, a tragic death. So, is there a “real” truth about the bear, or is each side constructing its own reality? In part two we look at attempts to escape these self-made constructs. We follow one man’s epic experiment to break out of his reality bubble. And one woman’s epic-in-its-own-way experiment to break out of her species bubble!”

Flip the Script / “In this episode we look at situation where someone flips the script – does the opposite of what their natural instinct is, and in this way transforms a situation. Usually when someone is hostile to us, we are hostile right back. The psychological term is “complementarity.” But then in rare cases someone manages to be warm, and what happens as a result can be surprising. The episode starts with a story about a dinner party in DC, when an attempted robbery was foiled by… a glass of wine and some cheese. Then we travel across the pond, to Denmark, where police officers are attempting to combat the growing problem of Islamic radicalization with… love. And finally, we talk to a man who attempted to flip the script on one of our most basic animal functions: finding a mate.”

Do Listen Twice is a ten episode series created to promote the film Don’t Think Twice. This American Life Host Ira Glass teams up with comedian Mike Birbiglia to present his favorite stories that Birbiglia has told on the podcast over the years. This series had me laughing out loud while staining lumber for hours alone in my dining room.

Okay, so if you were on the internet at all in 2014, you’ve heard about this true-crime podcast. If you never listened to season one of Serial, what are you waiting for? The story explores the details of the murder of teenager Hae Min Lee and attempts to explore the possible innocence of the young man Adnan Syed who was convicted of murdering his ex girlfriend. I never got into season two of Serial, but season one consumed my podcast listening during the fall it was released!

From the creators of Serial comes the podcast series S-Town, which begins as a true-crime story about a possible murder cover up in a small Alabama town, but develops into an interesting look at the life of an eccentric recluse who befriended radio journalist Brian Reed and polarized the people in S*** Town, Alabama.

You Must Remember This is a podcast that explores the lives, scandals, and forgotten history of Hollywood’s golden age. Basically, this podcast was made for me!

I began listening to Snap Judgement last year, and was intrigued by the Halloween episodes. I also loved the recent one about the one-legged wrestler that I caught during a Saturday afternoon trip to the hardware store. It was definitely a parking lot moment. (All of you NPR listeners will appreciate that. Ha!) 

Malcom Gladwell explores history from angles other historians have forgotten or have left hidden through time in this podcast, Revisionist History

A friend recommended I listen to this podcast after we had been talking about myths and legends that we really hope were real. I loved listening in on the meandering conversations about The Mothman on Astonishing Legends, and my imagination is still running wild!

4 Ways to Fabulous(ly Cheap) Parenting

budget parenting tips

budget parenting

As a new parent, it seems like everywhere you turn there’s a new gadget or cute gizmo that your kiddos need. In the hazy excitement of my most recent positive pregnancy test, I found myself wondering, Should I get a Mamaroo? Oooh my baby would look so sweet in a precious little bonnet! And what kind of stroller should I get? Will I need a bigger vehicle to fit all this stuff?! Cue panic and budget crisis. I’ll be honest, even though it was my second, I found myself very tempted by all things baby this past time around the pregnancy block. If I didn’t have a budget laid out for me on paper and if I hadn’t been restricted by a certain number of dollar bills in an envelope marked “baby,” I could certainly see how this new little one might’ve cost me an arm and a leg.

For instance, I bought a pack of diapers this week for ten dollars and thought, Didn’t I just buy a ten dollar pack of diapers just a few days ago? Woah, that’s over $500 dollars each year potentially, or much more if my baby has inopportunely timed poops! Yikes! Kiddos are expensive! But then I remembered we’ll be switching our newborn to cloth diapers as soon as her thighs are chunkier, and then I relaxed a little. I remembered all the sneaky ways we’ll save money so I can afford a pretty baby bonnet here and a Natursutten pacifier there.

Yes, parenting takes sacrifice. No, children aren’t free. But do they cost a fortune? Only if you want them to! (Okay, we’re not counting hospital bills here!) I’ve had some readers reach out to me for my honest take on how to plan for a new baby in a family budget. While I don’t have an exact monthly dollar number that it costs us to take care of our two littles, I do have some ideas on the cost of parenting during the early years and how you can be a fabulous parent without breaking the bank.

cloth diapers

reusable baby items

reusable baby items

The number one way we saved money on supplies for our children is to use cloth diapers. In these modern times cloth diapers really are a wonder! We use both velcro XS Bum Genious infant diapers for the early days and one-size Fuzzibunz that Lucy currently still uses. I love the Fuzzibunz because they have separate exteriors so if they become damaged (and they have), you at least can salvage the inserts and the replaceable elastic. Velcro tends to wear out, so I prefer diapers with various snaps that ensure a custom fit. Our Fuzzibunz diapers also have replaceable and adjustable elastic to customize the fit around the waist and legs. As I mentioned, they have inserts (cotton or super absorbant hemp) which absorb liquid while the fleece lining of the exterior keeps your kiddos bum soft and dry. When the diapers get dirty, throw them into a lined (with a reusable liner) trash can and wash them when it’s convenient for you, or subscribe to a laundry service.

Are they stinky? Yeah, they can start to cling on to the stink, and when they do, you just hang them out on a line and the smells and even the stains disappear like magic! Promise! Are they expensive? Yes— at first! But compared to the cumulative cost of disposable diapers, you will save lots of money with cloth. And you can even buy used cloth diapers to cut the cost significantly. We did, and I don’t regret it one bit! $350 for our entire cloth diaper collection. Just think about all the money you’ll save, plus the impact it will have on the environment by cutting back on waste.

cloth diaper supplies

reusable baby items

Similarly to cloth diapers, you can buy reusable wipes or even just cut cotton flannel into squares to make reusable wipes (more on that at the end of this post). You can purchase small wet bags for in your diaper bag and use an old wipes bin at home to store the cloths that you’ve soaked in a mild solution for using during diaper changes.

reusable baby items

My cousin introduced me to using cloth nursing pads, and while they didn’t work so well when I leaked a lot in the first month of nursing, they worked nicely further into our nursing experience. I went through over 60 disposable wipes (I like Lansinoh the best) in the first 4 weeks of this kiddo’s life, so you can imagine how the cost and waste of disposable nursing pads add up.

budget parenting tips

reusable baby items

reusable baby items

Unless you have money to burn, and feel the incredible impulse to do so, there is no need to buy all your baby things used! In fact, it’s borderline irresponsible, in my opinion. There are some things “they” advise you to buy new for the safety of your child, like a crib and a carseat, because you just don’t know the item’s history and wear and tear might make it less safe. Other than that, garage sales are the way to go, I’m telling you! Secondhand stores are nice too, but you’ll never beat the prices of baby things that you can find at garage sales, in my experience.

reusable baby items

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of being pregnant or adopting and wanting to buy all the cute things! There seems to be a product for everything these days— even cute little drying racks with grass and trees for airing out bottles after washing. (I use a dish towel on my counter, but that’s not to say I haven’t been tempted by the cute drying racks!) I thought it might be helpful to talk about what I ended up regretting purchasing and what I’m glad I splurged on. This goes beyond common sense things, like the fact that babies don’t need robes, special hooded towels, or custom-sized bath tubs (when you have a kitchen sink). Those are all cute baby gift ideas, but here are a few things a mom will really enjoy using!

best baby splurges

practical baby purchases

  1. Infant positioner- A seat like the Bumbo or the Baby Snug are perfect for helping little ones sit up straight when they have the desire but haven’t the muscle strength yet. They’re great with a tray for play time but are really wonderful for feeding your baby solids before she can sit well in a high chair. I found my Bumbo for $1 at a garage sale, believe it or not!
  2. Nursing Stool– I never understood why this was a thing until after long stints of nursing in the rocking chair. Their angled top is perfect for comfortably lifting your legs to create a nice surface to rest baby on and bring her closer to your chest while nursing. It’s one of those things that you’ll understand once you get it, and your back will thank you!
  3. Ergo Baby Carrier– It’s one of the most (if not the most) ergonomic baby carriers on the market that are designed best for baby’s body and for the wearer’s comfort. They are easy to strap on, unlike wraps which are sometimes a hassle to put on in public. Wearing a baby helps develop the bond between mother and child and is also wonderful for running errands hands-free and for getting things done around the house when all your baby wants is to be held. Just keep in mind that you need a special insert for babies 7-12lbs.
  4. Travel Bottle Warmer- Sometimes you need to warm a bottle but are stranded with only a vehicle and no way to acquire hot water. This bottle warmer plugs into your car and slowly warms a bottle (about 20 minutes ought to do it) so while it will take a little forethought, it will save you from a hunger disaster more than I can say! It has a timer too so you won’t overheat the milk.
  5. Baby Swing- People swear by the Momaroo for their colicky babies, but I found just a simple inexpensive swing from a secondhand store was all that our children have needed. I tried going without a swing for a while with our first child because I just didn’t want another big baby item in my house. But when I finally broke down and got one I was amazed at how it could put both of my children to sleep when I couldn’t.

practical baby purchases

  1. Boppy Pillow– It’s nice to have baby lifted by pillows of some sort while nursing, but you can easily just use stacked throw pillows. Or, if you have the money to buy a nursing accessory, do yourself a favor and buy the My Brest Friend pillow instead! It’s easily one of my favorite supposedly needless purchases and makes nursing comfortable for my and my baby.
  2. Stationary Baby Seat- I bought this Fisher Price vibrating seat from a garage sale, but end up using the swing instead or the Bumbo as they get older. While it is a nice seat, I’ve found you really don’t need to have both a swing and a stationary seat, and the swing is a life saver so it wins out in my mind.
  3. Breast Pump- Turns out our insurance would have paid for one, but I didn’t know that at the time. Agh! I did get a Madela Pump in Style and adore it, but I guess I could’ve saved my money for something else.
  4. Bottle Warmer- I still end up overwarming the bottle in the warmer, and find that microwaving a bowl of water and then submerging the bottle into it is the best way to go.
  5. Baby Food Freezer Containers- At first I thought I would just use cheap Rubbermaid containers, but these OXO containers are perfectly sized for appropriate mealtime portions and are great to drop into my diaper bag to take on the go. Also, their square shape makes it easier to pack a bunch into the freezer or to stack in the refrigerator. But you know what? I ended up just pouring the purees I made into ice cube trays, popping out the frozen cubes of food, and storing them in freezer bags. Then I could mix foods together (like sweet potatoes with avocado or apples with barley) easily without having to defrost an entire container and then mix into a new container.

 Multi-Use Baby Swaddle

practical baby purchases

practical baby purchases

One of my very favorite baby items are these Aden + Anais swaddle blankets (as seen on Juniper above). These lightweight and semi-stretchy square cloths are great swaddle blankets, but they also are perfect lightweight blankets to use in the summer, to lay underneath baby to protect surfaces from spit-up or leaky diapers, to tie around your neck as a perfect lightweight nursing cover, for draping over the carseat for shade or privacy, and they make a handy burp rag to drape over your shoulder after feedings. That’s six uses for just one cloth! Besides one nice, warm baby blanket, I’ve found the muslin swaddle to replace many of the other textile accessories that usually end up on a baby registry.

best baby activity centers

baby play stations

Soon you’ll discover that your baby wants constant entertainment and you might not be up for the task. That’s why it’s nice to have the following toys:

  1. Walker– Walkers are also a great way to help your child practice walking before she can do it on her own. But come on, she’ll be walking soon enough, there’s no need to rush the event (and the baby-proofing of your house)!
  2. Floor Mat– Great to encourage tummy time to build your baby’s muscles. Laying on a blanket on the floor can get quite boring, or so I’d imagine! But a basic quilted blanket will really do just fine, honestly.
  3. Baby Gym– A baby gym is nice for when your baby is relegated to laying on her back most of the time (because she can’t sit up), but then she’ll quickly want to be sitting up constantly, playing with any colorful gadget and gizmo you put in arms’ reach. It’s a great toy you’ll only use for a small window of time.
  4. Johnny Jump-Up– Johnny-jump-ups are fun for babies (and fun to watch), but your kid will never know what she’s missing if she doesn’t have one.
  5. Exersaucer– The exersaucer helps your child practice balance, lets her sit up, and entertains her with seemingly endless toys within her arms’ reach. But they take up lots of space and are usually eyesores.

If that sounds like a lot of junk to clutter up your house and cost you money, well— it is! I suggest selecting one or two and ditching the rest. I’d recommend getting a gym for the early days and then an exersaucer for the rest of her pre-walking days. If you can only manage to buy one, the exersaucer will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Here’s a nice toy that combines the fun of the jump-up with toys of an exersaucer. But again- you can save a lot of money by looking for something at garage sales.

DIY Baby Linens

diy baby supplies

diy baby supplies

The ultimate DIY baby food is breast milk*, but once you start your kiddo on solids, you’ll quickly see the dollars add up if you are buying canned or pouched baby food from the store. Yes it’s super convenient to buy baby food at the store, but it’s also not difficult to set aside some food from the adult dinner you make to throw into a magic bullet blender for baby. It’s also a great idea to set aside time once a week to make a huge batch of purees to pop in the freezer. While you’re waiting on food you have to cook before pureeing (sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, peas, apples, barley), you can use that time to blend up or mill food that can be pureed raw (bananas, avocado, blueberries, melon). You’ll be amazed at how much food you can crank out in a couple of hours.

*If you aren’t able to nurse your little one, did you know there are breast milk banks where you can receive donations?

diy baby supplies

As I mentioned before, you can easily make your own baby wipes or burp rags with flannel fabric, or you can make disposable wipes if you don’t have access to laundry facilities. You can also get into slightly more complicated DIYs like making bibs or bed sheets, which are great options for the selective mom who wants stylish or vintage bedding (made from deadstock linens) for baby. Here’s a list of DIYs I found across the internet that are super helpful:

  1. Disposable baby wipes from White House Black Shutters
  2. Reusable baby wipes from Amy Green
  3. Dish towel bibs from Mommy Savers
  4. Crib sheets from Spearmint Baby

diy baby supplies

These are things I haven’t gotten into making myself but would like to try soon! Apparently making these items will save you money, so here are some DIY posts I’ve saved for my own personal reference.

  1. Cloth diaper detergent from Elisa Loves
  2. Disinfectant spray from Clean Mama
  3. Diaper Rash Cream (safe for cloth diapers) from Diaper Wrecker

I hope this post has helped put the cost of parenting babies into perspective for you! If you have any money-saving tips or advice on what products to buy (or not buy), I’d love to hear them!

Lighting Tips & Tricks for Bloggers & Photographers

Learn how to take the best photos with both natural and artificial light. Learn what to buy and how to set things up at home.

Ah, blogging in the wintertime. The light fades quickly, and bloggers scramble to take photos before the darkness of evening strikes. But guess what, you guys? You don’t have to worry about lighting any more! Three years ago I decided to invest in some lighting equipment for my Etsy shop so I wouldn’t be shackled to shooting during daylight hours only, and also so the quality and crispness of my photos could improve dramatically. It took me quite a while to figure out what the heck I was doing and what equipment I should buy. So I thought I’d make it easier for someone else starting out in studio lighting to understand what to purchase, how to set up a photo shoot, and how to effectively use lighting equipment to mimic daylight.

Here are a few tips and tricks for lighting your blog and product photos using artificial lighting- plus, tips for utilizing window light if you don’t have the money to put towards a lighting setup just yet.

Learn how to take the best photos with both natural and artificial light. Learn what to buy and how to set things up at home.

The photo above was taken using only artificial lighting from my studio strobe flashes. Because of the brightness of the lights I used in my setup, I was able to take the photo at a higher shutter speed, at a lower ISO, and at a wider aperture, increasing the sharpness and quality of the final image. Without artificial lighting, I’m forced to shoot on sunny days, near a window, and still have to deal with issues like shooting at a high ISO (decreases image quality), using a low f# (found in expensive lenses, and makes it so only one point of the image is in focus), and worrying about camera shake with a low shutter speed. Check out the equipment I use below, and then take a gander at how I set it all up.

 Food blogger photography tips for artificial lighting

Strobes vs. Continuous lighting: Some photographers choose to shoot with continuous lighting, but I don’t because it uses a lot of energy and puts out a lot of heat during a photo shoot. Strobe flashes put out bursts of light only when you take the photo, and then recharge for the next photo. This is more energy efficient, but it also isn’t great for action shots, because if you take a photo too quickly after the previous one, the strobes will not have charged yet, and the subsequent action photos will be dark. So, strobes- great for product photography, not toddler photography. Also, the bright flashes probably aren’t good for babies. But this isn’t portrait photography tips, it’s blog and product photography tips!

Bouncers & Diffusers vs. Light Umbrellas: When I started out on my studio lighting adventure, I bought a lighting kit that came with umbrellas. I wish I hadn’t. I quickly found out that the umbrellas weren’t going to give me the even, diffused lighting quality I desired, so I bought these two big softboxes instead. Well, time went on and I found out through trial and error that even the softboxes weren’t giving me that diffused lighting that one might find in a bright, white, open space. Since I couldn’t afford to rent out a studio space with the openness, big windows, and white walls I wanted, I began to experiment with bouncing my strobe lights off of large white foam boards in my own living room, and loved the look I got. The only problem was bringing home the huge pieces of foam board from the store (I borrowed my parents’ van), and then storing them at home when I wasn’t using them. Finally, I purchased two huge reflector/diffuser rings that collapse for easy storage, and I couldn’t be happier! The light I get from them is pure white, and they’re super easy to use.

Below you’ll find the equipment I use the most with links for buying them on Amazon. They are inexpensive compared to better brands, but they’ve served me well. This is all you really need for a nice studio set up for nighttime blog photo shoots and product photography in your own home. The prices listed below are what I pay with my Amazon Prime membership- the prices may be different for non-members.

  1. TWO STROBE FLASH LIGHTS / $62.48 each
  2. REMOTE TRIGGER + TWO RECEIVERS / $32 for the set
  3. TWO SUPER CLAMPS / $29.99 each
  5. TWO PAIRS OF LIGHT STANDS WITH CARRYING CASES / $30.96 for a set of two

Strobe light set up for product photographyFood blogger photography tips for artificial lighting

To get started, set up your subject how you want, but I like using a white backdrop (either white paper, mat board, or foam board) and a white “table top” I made for photos. Now set up four light stands, and screw your strobe flashes onto the top of two of them. Attach the remote receivers into the backs of the flashes and set their frequencies to match each other and to match the hot shoe flash trigger (found in the set I linked to above) that you’ve slipped to the top of your camera where an external flash might go. Set one light directly to the left of your photo setup, and point it towards the photo. You can vary the height of the light according to your desires, but I like this side light to be situated lower that the other light. Now, look at the dial on the back of that flash you just set up, and make sure it’s set as low as it can go. Place the second light diagonally in front of the subject you’re shooting. The photo shows this light situated somewhat close to the subject, but in actuality I shoot with it a bit further away, in front and to the side of the subject. Point the light upwards and away from the subject, and set the dial on the back to mid-range.

Now, pop open the two collapsable diffuser/reflector rings. The diffuser/reflector ring that I linked to above is great because it’s actually 5 things in one- it has a gold reflector, a silver reflector, a black “flag,” a white bouncer, and, if you unzip and remove the cover, it reveals a white light diffuser. Put the super clamp on top of your remaining two light stands, and attach the diffuser on onto one stand, and the reflector on the other stand by fitting the straps of the reflector rings into the super clamp. You will use the white light diffuser in front of the side light, just about two feet away from the light, in between the strobe flash and the subject. Position the white reflector/bouncer (these terms are interchangeable for my purposes) in front of the other light, which should be pointed towards the reflector/bouncer and away from the subject. This setup will result in a soft light coming in from the side, and a nice, even light coming in diagonally from the front of the subject. The front/diagonal strobe should cast light that is slightly brighter than the side light, creating natural looking shadows in the final image.

Food blogger photography tips for natural and artificial lighting

When you take photos using this strobe flash light setup, you will need to practice and experiment with the settings on your camera. Because the strobe flashes are way brighter than the lighting in the room, the light meter on your camera won’t help you select your camera settings. You should definitely have your camera on a manual setting, and start with your shutter speed set somewhere between 150 and 200, because that’s the speed that should sync with the speed of your strobe flashes. Use your camera’s manual to see how to change the shutter speed on your camera if you’re unfamiliar with the manual setting. Your f# can be low if you wish (as long as your strobe flashes aren’t too bright), but I like to keep mine around f/2.5-f/3.0, so that there is still a nice depth of field, but more of the photo is in focus than what you would get with a lower f# like f/1.4. Once you have the shutter speed set to around 180, and your f# is where you want it, then take a few photos, adjusting your ISO until you get the lighting just how you want it. Your ISO will probably end up being really low, which will result in some very high quality images.

Don’t be afraid to play around with the positioning and power level of your flashes until you get the shadows just how you want them. I like to move the strobes out further than my setup photo shows, but you might not be able to do that if you’re working in a small space. If you have pure white ceilings, you might try pointing the front light up to the ceiling to bounce the light off the ceiling for a really nice diffused light. Just be aware when bouncing light that if what you use to reflect the light isn’t a neutral white, it will cast its hue onto your subject matter. 

Food blogger photography tips for using natural lightFood blogger photography tips for using natural light

Owning lighting equipment has literally changed my life as a DIY blogger. I can now take photos and work on projects whenever is convenient for me, regardless of the light (or lack thereof) that’s coming through my windows. If I start photographing a subject in the morning, but finish photographing it in the evening, my artificial lighting setup guarantees consistent lighting in all of my photos. But if you can’t afford to acquire this whole setup right away, I would definitely suggest starting out with a light bouncer/diffuser like this. It’s a good size, it’s portable, easy to store, and will give you a perfect neutral light in your photos, unlike the warm white of foam board. All you need is some natural light!

On a typical day, especially in the Summer when the light is brighter, I shoot photos using only the light from the largest window in my house. I set up my subject on our dining room table, which I push close to the window. If the light coming from the window is very harsh and bright, I place a diffuser ring in front of it the offending beam of light. I prop up a white mat board behind my subject and then set up the white bounce side of my other ring reflector opposite of the window, so that all of that beautiful light can bounce back onto the darker side of my image. 

Natural light food and product photography tips

Above you can see three unedited versions same image, taken within minutes of each other using the same exact settings on my camera. The first image uses just the light from my window, which creates a nice image, but uneven lighting from one side of the image to the other. It would do in a pinch, but I prefer a brighter image without such dramatic lighting. So for the second image, you can see how different the same setup looks using the white bounce side of my ring reflector. It seems like I took the photo in a gorgeously lit room, but in actuality the lighting in my dining room is less than ideal, so the ring reflector is my photographer’s life saver!

The third version of this image uses the “black flag” side of my ring reflector, which creates a moodier image. The black flag absorbs light from the left side of the image, resulting in dramatic shadows, a lighting effect known as chiaroscuro. This look is great for use with dark backgrounds and a sumptuous subject matter, like chocolate cake drizzled with ganache and topped with a luscious ripe cherry. Yummm! Chiaroscuro is great for emphasizing drama, but seeing as how I’m probably dramatic enough without dark shadows, I usually prefer brighter images for my photography, so the white bounce gets used most often in my work.

Creating dramatic shadows in food and product photography

Natural light food and product photography tips

I hope this guide has been helpful for any beginning photographers or bloggers who are looking for more flexibility in their work and studio arrangement! This post is the beginning of a photography miniseries on Making Nice in the Midwest which is designed to help bloggers make their work even better. I originally planned this series to be an online class available for purchase, but instead of asking you to pay for the class, I thought I’d make the content available to you for free, but I’m sharing the equipment I use with affiliate links. If you enjoyed my tips and want to purchase your own equipment, doing so by following the links in this post will give me a small percentage of that sale and help pay for more content like this at Making Nice in the Midwest.