Climbing Florence’s Dome

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Florence’s Cathedral (and dome) at night — from Wikipedia; I don’t have any photos this good!

Although I have now (unfortunately) returned from my forays in beautiful Italia, I still have plenty to post! We took a phenomenal weekend trip to Florence and enjoyed delicious food (far better than Venice, I must say), art at the Uffizi, and gorgeous views from the top of Florence’s famous duomo (“dome”). The climb was a little rough — 463 steps in the most claustrophobic staircase I’ve ever experienced — but the views were well worth it. Some proof:

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Florence is a small city — at least compared to Rome — and is nestled in the heart of Tuscany. As a result, the food lives up to its reputation and the city is full of Italian charm. Today, it is a hotspot for high-end shopping as well as art buffs. Historically, Florence was a  vital center of art, and many of the city’s talent painters, sculptors, and architects were pivotal players in the Italian renaissance. (Florence was also constantly in rivalry with Venice, but more on that later.) This history is critical in understanding Florence’s duomo.

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The Duomo as seen from the Uffizi Gallery.

So a little history, courtesy of my art history class (and because it’s actually an interesting story): Florence’s dome — a massive structure perched on top of the gorgeous church of Santa Maria del Fiore — was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, the winner of a design competition in 1418 (he’s also buried in the church’s crypts). Although the (octagonal) nave of the church was completed in 1380, a dome was never put in place until after the 1418 competition. Why? Because the architects had built a church so large that no engineer knew how to construct a dome so massive.

ingressoSide entrance to the church.

facadeFacade of Santa Maria del Fiore (“Saint Mary of the Flower”).

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The bell tower of the church — dwarfed by Brunelleschi’s dome, to put things in perspective.

Traditionally, engineers would use a beam from a large tree which spanned the width of the dome’s base. This beam was essential to construct because it gave workers a platform from which to suspend tools. Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome, however, was so wide that no tree could span its width. So construction was halted until 1418, when Brunelleschi surpassed all other architects (including his rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had beat out Brunelleschi for a coveted contract to sculpt the doors of the church’s baptistry) with a genius structural plan: create a double dome. (*Okay, this is a simplification — there were many other architectural features that made Brunelleschi’s plan brilliant. But this is the core of it.) See a diagram below:

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Brunelleschi’s dome was finally built, and today a smaller dome is seen from inside the church, while a larger dome faces the outside. This shelled structure allowed workers to climb between the shells of the dome to finish construction — which is how we can climb to the top of the dome today. He also developed a new scaffolding system for workers to build inside the dome, which solved the problem of tool suspension.

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One of the flying buttresses which support the top of the dome.

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The duomo was completed in 1436. At the time, it was the largest dome ever constructed and remains the largest brick dome in the world. It is both an architectural marvel and a testament to the ingenuity of Brunelleschi — and it’s also one of Florence’s greatest (literally) tourist attractions. Although not nearly as popular as the Uffizi gallery or the statue of David, the dome was the highlight of my weekend in Florence and well worth the historic climb.

view2Have you visited Florence or climbed Brunelleschi’s dome? I’d love to hear about your experience!

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Rome in Black & White

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A couple weekends ago, I visited Rome with a few friends. (I also have yet to find quasi acceptable internet anywhere in Italy, hence why this post is a bit late in coming.) The city is very much one of both the past and present, effortlessly interweaving the energy of megacities like New York and Cairo with the quaintness of Paris. It can be both vibrant — during the heat of the tourism season — and calm — 4am at the Trevi fountain — and every street has its own magic. Rome is bursting with young professionals, and it is easy to make new friends in hip, up and coming areas such as Trastevere. The food scene is also to die for — perhaps it has been the excessive amount of Venetian tourist meals I’ve eaten in the past three weeks, but almost every restaurant we visited served mouthwatering fresh caprese salads and otherwise delicious fare. (If you’re interested in some recommendations, let me know!) Although an expensive trip, Rome is a city I’m glad I didn’t miss. I will be back here someday, exploring every beautiful little thing this city — a crossroads of ancient and modern — has to offer.

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The Colosseum

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View from Castel Sant’Angelo — Dan Brown, anyone?

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The Trevi Fountain

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St. Peter’s Square
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Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica
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Interior of St. Peter’s
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St. Peter’s Basilica
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The Vatican Museum
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The Vatican Museum
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The Vatican Museum
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Vatican Museum staircase
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Vatican Museum staircase
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The Vatican Museum
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Overlooking Piazza del Popolo
If you’re ever in Italy Europe, you should block off a few days to see Rome. There’s a reason it’s still one of the most famous cities in the world, and the atmosphere here is like no other. Don’t miss it!
Hope you enjoyed these photos! Soon I’ll be blogging about visiting Florence, food in Italy, and lots of other delicious/beautiful/awesome things — stay tuned!
{Images by me. Please do not use without permission.}

Hello, Summer (and Italy)

Canal Grande Chiesa della Salute e Dogana dal ponte dell Accademia

So this is exciting. This summer I will be studying abroad in Venice, Italy, land of the 20 million tourists. I don’t speak  a word of Italian (YET), but I’m looking forward to learning it. As fast as possible. Also on my to-do list: avoiding tourist rip offs, avoiding tourists (impossible, I know), and pretending I’m not a tourist. (You see, I loathe tourism.)

Anyways, given:

a) my propensity to sometimes neglect this blog (sorry)

b) the fact that Venice is gorgeous and full of history which is often overshadowed by its tourism industry, and

c) that Venice is probably on the eventual travel checklists of most normal individuals (if not — what’s wrong with you?),

I will be blogging about my experience at least once a week, posting photos and hopefully providing some tips on how to see the real Venice, not just the side reserved exclusively for unwitting, non-Italian-speaking Western tourists. (Disclaimer: this is contingent on whether or not I can convince anyone that I’m not a tourist…which is partially untrue, but I am there to study! So it’s, like, different, right?)

See you back here in a week or so. Ciao!

12 Steps to Better iPhoneography

instagram coverI was initially a little resistant to Instagram. (Yes, I’m a photo snob for no reason. Don’t you hate me?) Although it’s a simple app with limited editing options, it’s definitely a fun way to stalk people follow friends or self-proclaimed “iPhoneographers,” who actually take their work quite seriously — it’s amazing what someone can do with an iPhone today. Most of all, it’s convenient.

I thought it would be fun to share a few key I’ve used to produce really cool photos with my phone. Obviously this doesn’t apply so much if you use IG as more of a social app, but it’s always fun to test out what your phone is capable of. And it’s a great way to get creative (and play around with the basics of composition, lighting, depth of field, etc.), especially if you don’t have your own camera.

I’ve rank each part of this post in order from least to most involved/complicated.  I’ve also included some examples throughout (all my Instagrams) to help illustrate!

lighting1. Be conscious of lighting. If your photo is underexposed (dark), it will look grainy once editing. With an overexposed picture, parts of the image will be less clear. You can also play around with lighting to create contrast in your photos. The beauty of having a portable phone camera is you can practice with as many photos as you want! See above for a couple examples.

2. Take photos with your camera, not the IG camera. The quality will be better and you’ll be able to edit your photo on other apps as well (see #10). And make sure to use your camera’s focus by tapping the part of the image you want to highlight before taking a photo.

contrast filter3. Don’t abuse the lighting enhancement feature. This is the button that looks like a half dark, half light sun in your IG editing tools. It doesn’t really up the contrast, but it WILL blow out your picture. See the difference in the images above?

food filters4. Be careful with filters for food! Food is one of the hardest things to photograph (I struggle with it A LOT), regardless of whether you have an iPhone or a Nikon DSLR. Make sure you have lots of bright lighting to capture colors correctly, and choose a filter that doesn’t discolor food (Amaro is usually good). See the above photos — the one on the left is yellow-y and dark, while the one on the right is brightly lit (but not overexposed) and shows colors accurately.

5.  Don’t overuse frames. You can turn this feature on and off using the frame editing button, but in general they only detract from your photo.

cropping6. Crop carefully. IG uses a square format, so keep in mind that you’ll be cropping to those proportions as you’re taking photos on your phone. Pay attention to the way the subject is framed and the way your eye is drawn across the image. You’ll get better at creating good compositions with practice! In the above example, the photo on the left is far too busy and it is difficult to figure out the subject. On the right, positive and negative space are used relatively well, and the focus of the image is clear.

blurring7. Use focus to create depth of field. You can use your camera focus to do this (which is more effective), but you can also fake/enhance depth of field with the blur feature on IG. Just be discriminating with when you use it — if you can see the edges of the blur clearly, you should probably skip it. The image on the right disguises the added focus on the subject’s face, whereas the blur on the right just makes zero sense.

8. Layer filters. Play around with different filter combinations to create your own effect. To do this, start with a filter of your choice, then screenshot the entire image. Editing the screenshot by cropping to the original photo and choosing a new filter to layer on top. You can do this as many times as you want!

9. Use Statigram to view your photos online. Statigram is an Instagram web viewer where you can sign in with your IG login to view your photos, and view and like friends’ photos. You can also enter Instagram contests. It’s ultimately just an easier way to view your pictures if you’re an avid user. They also collect stats for you based on your Instagram usage (ie, number of likes, favorite users, favorite filters, etc).

beautified10. Use external apps to help with the editing process. There are many external apps that you can download to edit your photos before instagramming (or just to use for fun!). A few (free!) apps of note:

  • PhotoGrid — lets you grid multiple photos in one frame (you may see these on Instagram sometimes)
  • PS Express — short for PhotoShop express. Super easy to use, but gives you greater editing features (ie, brightening and contrast) that you won’t find on the IG app.
  • Photosynth — awesome app for taking easy panoramas.
  • Photo wonder — developed to slim features and smooth blemishes, this app also works to smooth out harsh edges and noise in photos with non-human subjects. It definitely can help add the right mood to select images (see photos above).

11. Print your shots with Printstagram. This web app is a great way to share your photos! The prices are super reasonable, with 24-48 prints for $12 or a set of two 50-photo minibooks for $12.

12. Consider using add-on phone lenses to enhance your iPhone’s photo-taking capabilities. Photojojo (an awesome site for photo junkies) has a great selection of these, ranging from $20 to $25 each. They also offer a flash attachment for $30 or a macro lens band for $15. I’m just a little bit obsessed.

Have you tried any of these techniques/apps to edit your iPhone photos? If so, I’d love to know. Happy editing!

DIY: How to Make Handmade Postcards

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Snail mail is one of my favorite things to receive. There’s nothing like opening your mailbox and (after sorting through all the junk catalogues and bills) finding a letter from one of your best friends, or even a Christmas card from distant relatives. There’s a quality to handwritten mail (and postcards, short as they may be) that just can’t be surpassed with smart phones, Facebook, and tweets.

As far as postcards are concerned, they’re super easy to send and require much less effort than letters, but are just as wonderful to receive! In my experience, the funnier and shorter the message the better — the dull (and jealousy-generating) “We’re in Ireland, it’s so beautiful here! Miss you!” will never beat something hilarious or an inside joke. I’ve gotten some pretty funny postcards from friends, and I’ve saved every one.

Postcards are not only a great way to catch up with faraway friends you haven’t seen in ages, they are also super easy (and economical) to make — chances are you can create an endless amount of original and beautiful postcards without spending a dime. They’re fast, too, which means you can mess up over and over without wasting time or money, and you can perfect your postcards to a design you love. So, without further ado, here’s my guide to building gorgeous do-it-yourself postcards for friends and family!

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Supplies

With just a few simple ingredients, you’ll soon be on your way to creating your own snail mail confections!

Some basics you’ll need:

  • 4×6 inch blank flashcards or 4×6 inch template
  • Cardstock — white is preferable, but you can experiment!
  • Scissors
  • Colored pens, pencils & markers
  • Metallic Sharpies
  • Mod Podge/glue (Mod Podge is really preferable because it acts as a sealant)
  • Glue brushes
  • Food coloring
  • Plastic disposable cups
  • Old magazines & newspapers

Optional but fun:

  • Colored ribbons
  • Needle & thread
  • Metallic paints
  • Watercolors
  • Sequins
  • Artists’ paper with various designs
  • Old photos
  • Old film
  • Fortune cookie fortunes
  • Anything else you can think of that could theoretically be glued to a postcard

I’ve separated the remainder of this post into two parts: I’ll start with the basics, then go over some more detailed instructions for the example postcards I’ve used here.

The Basics

Step One: Prepare your work surface. Since you’ll be working with glue and sharpies it can get a little messy, so you’ll want to put down an old newspaper to prevent getting any glue on your desk or counter. You’ll also want a plastic disposable cup with a little whatever to store your brushes in between dipping them in glue. Additionally, a few paper towels isn’t a bad idea.

step2 {Tracing a 4×6 postcard onto cardstock}

Step Two: Cut out a 4×6 piece of white cardstock, or glue two 4×6 index cards together (they tend to be flimsy, so you’ll want to reinforce them for the mail). When you add layers to your postcards they will also become thicker. Make sure the glue is even and get the corners! Be careful not to drip too much glue on the back because you won’t be able to write over it.

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Step Three: Prepare the back of the postcard by drawing a line down the center as shown (I prefer to draw mine a little to the right so I have more writing space) and then by drawing 3-4 perpendicular lines on the right for the mailing address. I just eyeballed these and used a ruler for a straight edge — don’t worry if they’re not all perfectly in-line. You can also make little designs on the back around the edges or just leave it plain. (And yes, that is my super cool presidential ruler, circa second grade.)

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{An example background made of magazine text blocks}

Step Four: Decide what you’re going to put on the front and gather the necessary materials. You can do a simple design or you can make a postcard from a specific place (I promise this looks cool regardless of whether or not you’ve actually been to Paris, Italy, or wherever). You can cut out magazine ads or words, draw something and cut it out to use, color directly on the postcard, or create multiple layers to your postcard using more cardstock (more on this technique later). Either way, I recommend gluing down a basic background first — whether it’s colored newspaper, shimmery art paper, or a magazine ad — to serve as the canvas for your design.

Step Five: Finish adding layers to your postcard. Give the entire front a coat of Mod Podge — this will act as a sealant and waterproof your design for any tumultuous experiences in the U.S. postal system. Important: do not coat the back. This will back it impossible to write on. Also, be careful going over colored pens — they may run.

Step Six: Write and address your postcard, pop a fun stamp on it, and send it in the mail!

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Specific Designs & Techniques

Here I’ll provide examples of some of the cards I’ve made and details as to how you can achieve the same result.

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Postcards from Magazines

One of the easiest ways to create postcards is to grab a stack of fashion or travel magazines, cut out one (or a few) of your favorite pictures and words and layer them — you can make a detailed collage or keep it simple, as I’ve done here.

For the New England postcard, I used a Ralph Lauren add and cut my own strips of cardstock to glue on top. This is an easy way to add text to your postcards without writing directly on the background. Finished with sparkly Mod Podge.

For the shoes postcard, I used metallic paint and a thin brush to paint over a Calvin Klein ad. If you find a simple image from a magazine, it is fun to add details to it using this method. I would recommend a metallic Sharpie for this — it is much more precise and easy to work with than metallic paint. Finished with a cut-out word and sparkly Mod Podge. Also: this postcard doesn’t make much sense, but I still like it. Point is — yours don’t have to make sense either. Just let your creativity lead you where it will.

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Incorporating Your Drawings

It is also possible to create your own drawings or designs (I recommend doing this on pieces of 4×6 paper or index cards so you have a rough idea of how they’ll look once transferred to the postcard) and make them part of your postcard. Colored pencil is also great because the colors won’t run, even if you liberally apply Mod Podge.

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For this butterfly postcard, I drew this butterfly freehand and colored it in with some pencils. Then, I cut it out with scissors, leaving a white border — you don’t have to leave a border, but it’s all about how you want your final postcard to look. I had already prepared a piece of 4×6 cardstock with colorful yellow and gold artist paper glued down as a background, and I simply glued the butterfly design on top. Finished with a thin metallic paint coat around the butterfly and a sparkly Mod Podge sealant.

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Using Dyes

The main technique this particular postcard makes use of is the application of food coloring. You can get the same effect with pricey artist inks, but for the purpose of making basic postcards you really don’t need to be spending that kind of money. Food coloring is also great because it doesn’t dry out over night. I used neon food coloring to achieve the colors on my postcards; I imagine regular food coloring will come out slightly different.

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For this design, I used an index card to paint the background before gluing it to another index card to form the whole postcard. You will want to make the painted part separately and let it dry first, because the food coloring will soak through. To make the inks, use a plastic disposable cup for each color of food coloring. Put in 10-15 drops and add very small amounts of water slowly. Use a brush and a spare index card to test the color — you may want it darker and thicker (less water), or lighter and more watery (more water). You can see the amounts I used for about 15 drops/cup above.

Next, simply use a brush to add color — don’t be afraid to let it get messy! I only used one brush, and I just dipped it in water before switching colors. Once the dye dried, I added a few splashes of gold paint and finished off the postcard with an old fortune cookie and matte Mod Podge.

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As you can see, I added some details to the back of this card. In this case, I had gotten some splotches of paint on the back and didn’t want to glue a second backing on (although that is always an option, so don’t worry!). I just dabbed some gold paint over the mistakes and drew some swirly flowers over it with a thin Sharpie. Problem solved!

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Using Newspaper

The same food coloring method used for the previous postcard can also be applied to newspaper — simply open to a sheet of paper (preferably one with a lot of small print) and swipe on the dye. Let dry before cutting out and gluing on to your postcard.

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To complete this card, I colored over the newspaper with black Sharpie and did a more graphic design. This is a really easy method — you don’t have to make a “New York” postcard, but you can just doodle over the newspaper with Sharpie! To give the card a polished finish, I used the matte Mod Podge.

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Postcards with Multiple Layers

Using multiple layers of cut out cardstock is a really easy way to add dimension and depth to your postcard and also maintain clean lines.

First, decide on the design you want and sketch out your layers on a 4×6 card (I’ve only used one extra layer here, but you could probably make something really awesome with a bunch). Skyline silhouettes often make good layers. Cut out your layer carefully and arrange over a second 4×6 index card — this will form your postcard. Color both the layers separately — for this design, I used a dark blue marker for the background and then colored in the top layer a light pink. I detailed both with blue ink and gold paint after gluing the layers together. Finished with a heavy coat of matte Mod Podge to keep the layers together and waterproof the design.

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Adding Embellishments

This multi-layer postcard uses the food coloring dye technique and is tied up with a pretty ribbon.

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To create this postcard, I drew on a blank card with pencil and then black Sharpie/colored pens, and used a light coat of the dye over the drawing. I glued an extra layer above the drawing to frame it. To add a bow like the one here, first tie it from ribbon and then secure with a needle and thread. I know, I know…it’s a pain. But glue — even hot glue — is NOT going to hold up in the mail. after sewing the ribbon on, you can glue a new back onto your postcard to hide the knot from the thread.

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…Now all that’s left is to write a short message on your card and pop it in the mail! Your friends will appreciate it, especially now that you have a stack of gorgeous homemade postcards to send them. You can also try making more by printing out your favorite photos and gluing them to an index card — whatever you choose to do, the combinations for these are endless. So get writing!

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this post — please let me know your thoughts by dropping me a comment below!