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Friday, July 31, 2009

Review & Giveaway: Sears Portrait Studio

Well the intrepid folks at Sears Portrait Studio thought it would be a good idea for me and the Hubei Wrecking Crew to come on down and evaluate their services. So who was I to argue? Just kidding, actually I did argue, many times, citing my passion for photography, my anal retentive nature, and (most importantly) my children's high energy levels and extreme intolerance for photography studios. Actually I stressed this last point several times. But they were undaunted and assured me that they were up for the challenge and did, indeed, want to hear what we thought. So we scheduled a session, I browsed the web site and picked out a fun beachy setting, then I got the girls all gussied up and off we went. Here's the skinny:

The Bottom Line

Sears Portrait Studio gets an "A" from our family. Honestly, they knocked our socks off. The girls liked them, I liked them, and everyone loved the pictures. Seriously loved them. The studio did a great job and really listened to my dire warnings about the twinados—they had two photographers there on our job, one to take the photos and one to wrangle the kids. It worked out so perfectly. Here are a few of the shots:


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Some of the other shots, as well as a quick collage I made, are here if you want to see them.

Things I Liked

  • Mobility: The camera was totally mobile. With a wheeled, adjustable tripod, the camera could instantly move in any direction, angle, etc., or be taken off for worms-eye views, etc. Really important with two wiggly, fast-moving twins.
  • It Just Worked: The equipment worked flawlessly. Oh man, soooooo nice, and so not the experience I've had with previous chain portrait studios. This is make or break for us. If the equipment malfunctions, you miss the shot. And trying to get the girls to recreate whatever they were doing that was awesome and cute, well forgeddaboutit.
  • Speed: The photographers kept things moving at a very fast pace (always key with young children), and adapted to what the girls were doing as they went along. For example, Ree was supposed to hold her sunglasses at one point, but instead put them on (and looked adorable) and they didn't even blink. Just allowed her to show her own personality.
  • Hands-On: The wrangler was funny, personable, and not afraid to touch Ro and Ree, rearrange poses, tickle, slick down stray hairs, make a fool of herself, whatever. The two photographers were also intuitive enough to realize that Ro and Ree responded much better to the girl. So the girl took the lead on wrangling them and interacting with them, while the guy took the pictures.
  • Skin: The flash setup and resulting skin tones were spot-on, without any editing. Yay!
  • No Shot Limit: Sears Portrait Studio had no limit on the number of shots they could take or view. No Limit!!! Have you used the chain photo studios? Just when your kiddos are starting to look awesome, you hit the 6-shot limit in the online interface and everything grinds to a halt while you view the images, decide which are keepers, and delete some to make room for more shots. No limits is so superior and so much better for the flow with young kids that I just don't even know what to say. :-)
Things that Could Be Improved

  • Don't Email My Password: When I created an online account with corporate Sears Portrait, so I could view and share the photos with family, they sent me a confirmation email that included the username and password I had chosen. The hair on the back of my neck goes up when big companies do this. In this day and age, with all the digital ID theft going on, it just shouldn't be happening. (Again, this wasn't the local studio, this was done by corporate.)
  • Faster Prints: It takes about two weeks to get your photos if you order matte instead of glossy. Not a big deal, but if you've got a specific deadline, like the holidays, don't forget to schedule early (or just order the glossy finish, which you can get immediately in studio).
  • Looking Directly at the Camera: Ok, this one is seriously minor, but I wish the wrangler had positioned herself a smidge closer to the camera so the girls weren't looking sideways in some of the shots. I know this was primarily a result of having two folks in there, one to photograph and one to wrangle the kids, which was a huge advantage with the twinados, so I'm not complaining AT ALL, just mentioning it as a tiny area for improvement.
  • Processing Time: The actual photography time was very fast (maybe 30 minutes), but then it took a fairly long time to get everything in the system, choose the pictures (primarily my fault since I liked them all), process the order, and print the CD. My mom was there with me, but if she hadn't been I just would have done the portraits, then come back later without the girls to do all the choosing and processing. Easy to do, just keep that option in the back of your mind if you don't have help with you.
  • Direct Phone Numbers: The corporate Sears Portrait Studio web site doesn't give local studio phone numbers, only the main corporate phone number. I had to wait on hold for 8 mins 25 secs before the corporate rep answered and gave me the local number. Yowza! Do you know how much damage the twinados can do in that amount of time?
My personal tips for a successful portrait session with your kids

  • Do not, I repeat do not, arrive early (any waiting time in the beginning can directly be subtracted from the amount of time your kids will cooperate during the session).

  • Decide ahead of time on a tiny bribe for cooperation, and don't be afraid to show it at various times during the session (bribes can be miniscule, say a half a stick of gum, two M&Ms, a small toy, or playtime at grandma's, whatever resonates with your kiddo).
  • Use only one outfit and one background if you know you're going to want to frame a collage of pictures for your wall or the grandparents' wall—this way you'll get the most possible shots to pick from.

  • Get the kids comfortable, then discreetly step out of the kids' eyeshot. Your kids will focus on the photographer and camera, plus they'll usually listen better to someone else (at least for a few minutes). Step back inside each time they change poses or whenever your kids get a little unruly.

  • If your kids are difficult, be honest and let the studio know ahead of time. Say it several times if you're really worried, and suggest that they put their best photographer on the job or even have two folks there (one to wrangle, and one to snap away).
The Giveaway!

One Salsa in China reader will win Sears Portrait Studio’s Silver Collection Product (a $260 value), which includes 10 custom “mix and match” portrait sheets, your choice of two collages/composites, and one 10x13 wall portrait. Plus, you get a CD of your original images with copyrights and up to 10 standard enhancements, such as black and white, sepia, vignettes or borders. To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post with a creative idea (a prop, an outfit, a background, a location, whatever) for Ro and Ree's upcoming 4th birthday portraits. One entry per household, US residents only. Entries will be closed at 8am on Friday Aug 7, 2009, and the winner will be drawn at random, announced, and notified by email that same day (so make sure your profile has an email address or I've got some way to contact you). The winner has 48 hours to respond or a new winner will be chosen.

**** Comments for this giveaway are now closed and winner will be announced shortly.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Italtrike review: The coolest ride at the park

The folks at All Modern Baby were kind enough (brave enough?) to ask if we'd like to review a product from their company. I traded a few emails with them saying that the girls are rough, tough, twin destructo machines, and they kept reassuring me that they really, really did want to hear what we thought. Alrighty...

So I let the girls browse through the online catalog of furniture (which includes those incredible rounded modern cribs in the Stokke Sleepi collection), fun toys that you wouldn't find in standard toy stores, strollers from Maclaren and Bugaboo, and beautiful bedding and decor. After much deliberation, the girls picked this neato ergonomic trike called the Italtrike. Cool! The package arrived a few days later. Can you even guess how excited the girls were?

TubaDad had LOTS of help assembling the bike (you can feel my sarcasm, right?). He persevered despite the hundreds of darting little fingers, and in pretty short order the bike was ready to roll. Setup was actually really easy, in part because TubaDad is a whiz at that type of thing, but also because the bike was made very well and assembly was quite intuitive. (TubaDad is one of those folks who won't read directions unless he has too. Sigh...)

Both girls were dying for a shot at the trike, but somehow little Ree got first crack at it. Doesn't she look proud?

Ro was next, and, of course, wanted her seatbelt firmly fastened. That girl is a nut about safety. (No idea who she learned that from.)

She went round and round—so fast! Until her pesky sister grabbed hold and demanded a turn.

The girls have been riding the heck out of that trike ever since, and we even took it to the park this weekend. Ro immediately commandeered "the good bike" and left her sister in the dust:

She loved the speed, the smooth ride, and of course dropping her sister on the open road.

Ree was actually pretty happy to let Ro have the Italtrike. I think she likes the security of being a little lower and slower on her old bike right now (she hasn't been super brave lately).

It was cute to see how many looks and smiles our intrepid riders got when they parked against a little tree.

And the brake on the Italtrike came in very handy quite a few times. This picture was taken just as Ro jammed on the brake and stopped while Ree flew into the side of my car. Oops.

Which brings me to the things I like about the Italtrike:
The brake is perfect for preventing head-on sister crashes (well most of them, anyways), the bike is eye catching and just plain fun to look at (it comes in orange too), the wheels are nice and big and give a really smooth ride, the pedals power the back wheels via a chain so the bike is pushed rather than pulled (nice boost of power), and the sunshade knocks out the worst of the rays.

And the things that could be improved:
DSC_1524The black squishy seat cover shrank in the sun so it left a small, gluey rim around the seat (because of this, Ro said the seat needs to be softer and it sticks to her skin when she's riding in just a bathing suit). The sunshade could be a little tougher—I know, I know, this is probably a twinado thing, but our girls reach out and try to use it as a handle when one twin is riding by, and it whips back and forth and is going to either hit one of them in the face or be ripped off.

My conclusion: Love it. Fun, really well-made, and twinado-tough. Wish I had another one in orange to stave off the to-the-death sister fights that will eventually come.

Ro's conclusion: Um, I yike it. It goes fast. Cause the pedals are easier. I yike how it has a seatbelt that goes all the way 'round you, cause I don't fall off. The brake is good. Cause it makes me slow if I'm going to crash into the wall. I wish it was pink.

Ree's conclusion: Um, it's kind of weird that it gots a attached seat belt. And how did Daddy make it? I don't yike going really fast, I just yike going a yittle bit fast. I yike da sunshade and I yike da brake. I wish it could be yellow.