Podcasts: What I’m Listening To in the Month of August

IMG_0243.JPGSo this is something that has recently taken over my life – podcasts are my new love! As I work in an ever changing industry (social media), these things have been invaluable for tips, tricks and keeping up-to-date!

My house has subsequently become a place of one lone voice – Adam, poor Adam – yelling for his now very distant fiancée as she swans about hanging out washing and listening to horror stories.

I’ve become accustomed to stuff flying in my general direction – soft stuff, mind, like a fresh roll of toilet paper or one of Ben’s used bibs – a desperate plea for attention.

Often, some disaster has happened – my son has filled his nappy, Adam’s smeared his face with courgettes, and the baby’s only gone and shoved his foot into the bowl (wha…?)

Sorry boys, but these podcasts are just too good.

So, if you’re interested in expanding your podcasting experience, here’s what I’ve been listening to in the month of September:

Instagram:

Hashtag Authentic – How could I not include this podcast by Instagram queen Sara Tasker? If you’re into everything Instagram, go check her out, because boy does she know her stuff. Not only that, but her podcasts are full of positivity and the tips she gives are really insightful. I’ve loved listening to the guests she’s had on, and discovered some amazing Instagram accounts I didn’t even know existed.

Hashtagged – This podcast is less about the technicalities of Instagram and more about the great content you should be producing for it. I’ve really enjoyed listening to the many photographers Jordan Powers brings on and seeing their viewpoints on the platform.

Business:

Soulful PR – I started listening to this podcast after reading Sara’s blog post on her favourite podcasts, and since I was in the peak of my podcast addiction, I just had to give this one a listen. I haven’t gotten around to the others yet, but I’ve really liked listening to Jan Murray’s informative podcasts, especially on social media, to help with my social media know-how!

Writing:

Sci-Fi & Fantasy Marketing – There are very few writing podcasts that I like, but when I stumbled across this one hosted by the prolific Lindsay Buroker I was instantly hooked. Their chats are really informative, and I’ve learned so much about the self-publishing world that’s helped me make some informed decisions on what to do with my own work. I highly recommend giving these guys a listen if you’re a writer – whether through traditional or self publishing – everyone can learn something new from these guys.

Just for kicks:

No Sleep – I hate scary movies, but I love scary stories – weird, huh? I started off reading the No Sleep threads on Reddit, then graduated to narrators on Youtube, and now listen to these guys whenever I get the chance.

And that’s it for August! Do you listen to podcasts? Listened to any on my list? Or are they any you think I should check out? Let me know in the comments!

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Why Should You Shop Small?

It’s official – I’ve become a bit of an “Insta shop” fan.

It started when I first started getting serious about Instagram at work – and then subsequently found out I was pregnant with my son. Don’t ask me how, exactly, because I honestly can’t remember, but I stumbled across the legging legends that are Fred & Noah. I became obsessed because – as someone who’d recently found out she was having a boy – I couldn’t find any high street clothes for boys that weren’t boring or drab, and their leggings were exactly what I wanted.

Fast forward a few months after my son arrived, and I was attempting to make my own handmade toys after successfully making a blanket. It was going well until I found out about CE marking, and all my plans suddenly ground to a halt. Frustrated, I turned to Instagram more and more, to look at the handmade items there, and I discovered a whole world of small scale businesses.

And wow, these businesses are doing some amazing things.

So… Myst needed some new clothes, and I went a little bit crazy. I got a bunch of things from several small scale businesses – a couple that I found on Not on the High Street, and some on Instagram. I’ll go into detail about what I got in my “handmade baby clothes” haul in another blog post, but for now I’d like to focus on why shopping small – if and when you can – is a good idea.

Right, so without further ado, here’s why you should shop small:

  1. It’s the little touches – Small shops go to such detailed effort to present their products, and why shouldn’t they? So much love has gone into these brands and their items that you can’t help but feel that they should be proud – very proud – of them. All the items I received were beautifully packaged, wrapped up in delicate crepe paper with branded stickers for their respective brands. Just look the lovely flourishes on this package from Olivia Grae Kids:

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2. The quality is incomparable – Pictures aren’t going to do these clothes justice, but they’re beautifully made, and so, sooo soft – take my word for it. Plus, many items from small scale shops are ethically sourced, organic, or both. Tommy and Lottie, for example, make their clothes out of ethical and sustainable produced cottons – materials that make it impossible to stop cuddling your baby!

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3. Personalisation – I’ve noticed some of the high street stores are starting to move more and more into this, so it has taken some of the novelty factor away, but you still can’t get the kind of personalisation that you can with a smaller brand – like this ethically sourced sweater from Rusks and Rebels (who, by the way, are big supporters of employing young adults with learning disabilities):

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4. The styles are seriously cute – As I said earlier, it’s pretty hard to shop for baby boy, mainly because shops stock far more girls clothes than they do boys – for reasons I’ve yet to uncover. Plus, most of the styles aren’t that exciting (though some are). Smaller brands tend to be unisex, or buck the trend of “gendered” clothing – which is something that’s annoyed me just as much as “gendered” toys. And hey, you wouldn’t be able to get this tee from Olivia Grae Kids, for example, on the high street… I’m pretty much in love with it, especially since we recently binge watched “Narcos”. Should’ve gotten the “Hug Life” one too!

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5. Customer service – Smaller brands inherently have exceptional customer service, because they’ve built their companies from the ground up and they care about each and every customer because it’s personal to them. If you’re shopping for baby things, many of the smaller shops are founded by parents themselves – people who understand where you’re coming from, what you need and are more than happy to help. This makes the whole shopping experience with them intimate – something you could never achieve with a high street brand.

I’m not suggesting that everything you purchase should be from a small brand – I’m suggesting that if you can, then you should. Many people will buy everything from the high street, which is fine – handmade items are more expensive (with good reason!) and it’s not always cost effective. But, if you can, and the uniqueness of handmade things is something that appeals to you, then by all means, fall down the rabbit-hole that is Instagram shops. Having one or two items to add to your little one’s wardrobe as statement pieces could be all you need to add a little excitement to their outfits.

At the end of the day, you have to ask: how many people are going to own the same thing? How much more use are you going to get out of a handmade and ethically sourced item, than something from the mainstream brands? How much care and attention to detail has been put into the items you’ve ordered? It’s something to seriously consider if these things matter to you. Shopping small is going to give you an experience – and products – that the high street just can’t compare with.

Now I just have to wait until pay day and think of a valid excuse to give my fiancé as to why we need more clothes!

Instagram Tips: The Ultimate Hashtag Hack

So this little tip comes from the geniuses over at FStoppers – and it’s going to make your Instagram life that much easier.

By now, everyone knows the hashtag “hack” of writing out your favourites in notes on your phone, and then copying and pasting over to Instagram when it’s time to post. Yet, I bet very few people thought about using the keyboard settings on their phone to create and even shorter shortcut. Yeah – you know those viral posts that did the rounds on Facebook a few years ago where some kids changed their mother’s phones to replace “no” with “hell yeah!!!”, that’s exactly what this is, but with hashtags.

If you going into your settings and select the “keyboard” section of your settings, and go in and select “replace text”, you can go ahead and copy your hashtags in and create a keyboard shortcut. You could literally reduce your hash tagging effort to typing out one letter (I wouldn’t recommend this – do one for an acronym that you’ll remember).

Using this method, you can have a selection of different hashtags ready to go in seconds – and have multiple acronyms for different pictures for variety.

If you’re not too tech savvy, not to worry, I’ve put together a couple of pics for you get your head around setting this up (if you’re on Android… sorry!).

Step one: Head over to “Settings” on your phone, and go to “General”.

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Step two: Select “Keyboards” and go into “Text Replacement”.

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Step three: In “Text Replacement”, copy and paste the hashtags you’ve saved in your notes or type them out if you don’t do that (…seriously, if you’re still tapping out your # this tip is going to change your life). Once you’ve done that, make sure to type in a shortcut you’ll remember: below I’ve just used the first initial of each hashtag here, but you can use whatever you’ll remember and is quick to type. For example, I tend to use “gtm” as the shortcut for the numerous ones I often use. I then have a completely different shortcut for the account I run at work – which is full of adrenaline and travel related hashtags – so completely different to my personal account.

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Step four: When uploading your picture to Instagram, simply type out the shortcut you’ve created – once it’s typed out all the hashtags will pop up above the keyboard as a suggestion, which you can tap, or you can simple press space after typing, and it will autofill if for you.

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Step five: And hey presto! You’re an Instagram genius, go tell your friends how awesome you are and amaze them with your Instagram know-how.

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Did you like this? Let me know here or on Instagram if this has been helpful – if so I’ll keep an eye out for more useful Instagram tips, tricks and hacks to make your life that little bit easier.

Should I Tell My Son I’m Adopted?

My biological father died a few months ago.

The messy history of my parents’ divorce and subsequent battles is long, and not something I want to remember. It’s something I wanted to hide from my younger half-brother and sister for years, until my mother suggested that perhaps it would be better if they knew.

It was a throwaway line, here and there, when my sister was old enough to understand, about how her mother had been married to another man before, and they had had me.

I realised with each passing comment that my sister didn’t seem to care – it was her reality – and it didn’t change our relationship in the slightest. Outside of that, we didn’t talk about it. I didn’t want to. The issue disappeared from our minds, only rearing its ugly head every few months or so when the topic was unavoidable.

And then I was pregnant.

The thought of him knowing terrified me – just as much as it had done when my mother had fallen pregnant with my sister. I begged her to hide her swollen belly, convinced, in my very young years, that he would take her away like he did me.

I was paranoid that he would turn up on my doorstep, after all these years, expecting to see a child that – beyond his tenuous genetic links – he did not know. My fear was not unfounded – my parents to this day have never moved – and I had seen him drive by the house once when I was a teen.

If impending motherhood taught me one thing, it was that it wasn’t about me anymore – it was about my unborn child, and I couldn’t put him through what I had experienced.

In the end, my Step-Mother proved that it really wasn’t that difficult to find me.

I wish she hadn’t.

Her desire to let me know of his death wasn’t borne of some willingness to do the right thing, no. It was borne of resentment, bitterness and pain – a pain that makes people do horrible things. It only affirmed my conviction that removing both of them from my life was the best thing I could have done – for me, my son and the rest of my family.

But, after all of this, I keep coming back to the difficult question of whether I should tell my child – when he’s old enough – about the man who had been, biologically, my father. I don’t want to – that man is not the man who raised me, who queued at midnight to get me the latest Harry Potter, or wrote me a Valentine’s Day card each year and slipped it under my door. He didn’t take me to rugby games, or scold me when I did wrong, or dunk me in the sea as a terrible joke – no. The man I consider to be my “real” father is the man who adopted me when I was 14. He’s the man who’s loved my son from the moment he knew of him, and dotes on him like any grandfather would.

I know, one day, that it’ll be an unavoidable conversation – a painful recollection of half-forgotten memories, but I owe him that much. I owe him the truth.

I just hope he understands.

How to Get More Organic Followers on Instagram

Like most social media platforms, Instagram has become one of those places where having a substantial following and/or likes is a huge boon. For personal accounts you can (if you’re clever) turn it into a business by becoming an influencer, or, for business accounts, help boost your brand awareness, and, sometimes, sales.

As a social media marketer at Virgin, I was introduced to the company’s dormant Instagram account in the hopes that gaining attention on the platform would lead to better brand awareness and customer engagement. There were a measly 32 followers – most of them colleagues or spambots – and no pictures. Unlike the other accounts I was put in charge of, here I had the chance to start of with a clean slate.

I grew that account to over 6,000 followers in 6 months, and if you’re serious enough about Instagram, you could too.

So, here are my top strategic tips for succeeding at the social media behemoth that is Insta, without too much effort:

  1. Follow people – This sounds like an obvious point to make (and I’m going to make a lot of these), but you’d be surprised just how many people push out their Instagram pictures without following many (if at all) people, and then wonder why their picture isn’t getting likes, or why their follower count doesn’t grow. Social media is all about being social, and this where many (particularly businesses) fall flat – if you want people to interact with you, it has to be a two way street. Follow accounts that are similar to yours, or ones you simply like. Follow big ones, and follow small ones. When the owners of that account get a notification saying they have a follow, they might check you out and like what they see.
  2. Like pictures – Seriously. Look up hashtags that relate to what you post on your feed and like those pictures. You don’t have to like everything that pops up under “recent”, just the stuff you like. Or, you know, you can like pretty much everything if you want to, just don’t look spammy. The posters of those pictures might get curious as to who’s liked them and check out your pictures. They may like a few. Think of it as an organic “like for like”, without appearing desperate or spammy.
  3. Answer comments – Imagine you’re sat in the lunch room at work, and you talk to your colleague sitting next to you, only to be completely ignored. Then that colleague starts talking about something completely different. Rude, isn’t it? Chances are you won’t want to interact with that colleague much after that, or not at all. Same applies to social media. If it’s something you can easily reply to, just do it. Even if it’s a thanks, or an appropriate emoji. If people know that they can leave comments and get a response from you, they’re going to be more likely to stick around and comment on future posts. You might even hit it off with some well placed banter, and bam, a new relationship is born – and who knows what that might lead to, collaborations? Useful Contacts? Don’t let an opportunity like that pass up.
  4. Hashtags – Okay, so now we’re going from the (seemingly) obvious to more of the nitty gritty technicalities of gaining followers on Instagram. Everyone knows to use hashtags, and how to do so properly, but many don’t take strategic advantage of them. What do I mean by that? Well, say you post a picture of coffee (hey, this is Instagram after all), and your hashtags are: “coffee”, “cafe” and… I don’t know, let’s say “Starbucks”. These are your go to hashtags right? Right. Which means that everyone is using them, you’ll be on a well searched tag and be more likely to gain likes, etc. Except, no, no you aren’t more likely. As a general rule, popular tags like these three are going to be so saturated, your post is going to be drowned under the mass of all the other posts popping up under “most recent”. You might get nothing for your efforts. How do you overcome this? Become niche. When typing in your hashtags, make sure you check exactly how many other posts there are under that tag. As a rule of thumb, use 1-3 of your tags on bigger hashtags (those in the millions), 3-4 on medium ones (think around the 100-500k mark), and then about 3-4 on smaller tags (about 10-70k is good). People are more likely to be deliberately looking for something under the smaller tags if they’ve searched it, and you might be what they’re interested in. Not only that, but the main reason for doing this is get yourself on the “top posts” portion of the page. In the smaller tags, there’s much less competition, meaning you only need to get a handful of likes to pushing your post up into “top posts”. Once it’s there, it’s going to be the first people see when they search that tag, meaning they’re more likely to like it. If you’re lucky, this could have a domino effect – people notice it first on the smallest tag, which gives your post enough likes to push it up to “top posts” in a one of the higher tags, and so on.
  5. Post Regularly – It doesn’t have to be three times a day, or even once a day, like many of the big accounts. You just need to post to a schedule that suits you. I’d recommend something along the lines of “one day on, one day off”. Running a company account only during working hours, I stick to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as main posting days. This gives me a good spread over the week, enough to remain a presence, but not too much to seem overbearing. Making sure you post regularly is a good habit to get into, to avoid lulls were your account becomes dead. Inactivity is a quick way to loose followers, as once you do update, some may be reminded that you haven’t posted in awhile, and unfollow. Who wants to follow an account that posts once in a blue moon? It’s simply dead weight. Besides, posting regularly, using strategic hashtags will increase your follower count that much quicker.
  6. Get a Business Account – I’ll admit, the insights you get through the newly built-in feature for Instagram isn’t anywhere near as impressive as specialised programs you have to pay for, but it does help. Getting access to this information will help you figure out (roughly), who your established audience is, and what posting times are likely to be optimal for you. Who knows, you might find out that your audience are largely abroad – and you can adjust your posting habits accordingly.

 

So that’s it for my top tips on how to gain Instagram followers. I have plenty of other tips and tricks to up your social media game, so be sure to stick around by following me on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages!

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments and I might feature your suggestion in a future post.

7 Baby Things You Didn’t Know You Needed

If you’re a new parent, or a parent-to-be, congratulations! You’ve graduated to the most trying period in your life, where you’ll spend more time picking boogers out of your child’s nose than you will having an adult conversation.

So, with that in mind, here are 7 baby things you didn’t know you needed, because hindsight’s a wonderful thing.

  1. Sleeping bags – When your little one is fresh out, they really don’t do much. Bundling them up in blankets and swaddling is pretty easy, so you figure you’ve got this covered (you’ll get used to my pun addiction soon enough). Then one day they realise they can move those podgy little arms and legs, and before you know it, they’re an escape artist. No blanket is too tight, no swaddle too snuggly. And you spend half the night just trying to cover them back up, especially in those winter months. Then one day you stumble across sleeping bags for babies, and you have a mental breakdown in the middle of Mothercare because you realise you’ve been doing it all wrong.
  2. Vaseline – Forget Sudocrem, when that baby first comes out of you, those poos are the worst. Coating your baby’s bottom in Vaseline at nappy changes helps prevent it from firmly sticking to their bottom, and make your job just a little easier.
  3. Pre-Sterilised and ready to go bottles – If you give birth in a hospital, and are bottle feeding, you’ll no doubt be given these. The disposable bottles are already sterilised, as well as the milk, so all you have to do is open up the teat and attach to the bottle. Seeing as your little one could be wanting to feed every 30 minutes to 3 hours, these things are a lifesaver if you’ve got some waiting at home because they literally take seconds to make. For the first 2 weeks, Baby Mystery would wake up every 40 minutes for a feed, and, being sleep deprived, bumbling idiots, these things helped us keep the last of our sanity. They’re pricey, but worth it – think of them as a necessity!
  4. Dooky – Prams are pretty useful, but a lot of them seem to be a bit useless when it comes to the hood shielding your mini me from the sun. Many parents resort to draping a muslin cloth over the pram to get the worst of it off, but with them being so thin they often get blown away. You can buy clips to keep the muslin in place, but they aren’t very effective. I chose to invest in a Dooky, which not only proved invaluable for my pram, but the car seat too. It has multiple clips that you attach to the hood of either your seat or pram, which keeps it firmly in place and gives good coverage. Also, it has additional ties at the bottom, to stop it from blowing up with the wind. These can also be tied up on your handle bar, to not only keep the sun off, but keep air circulating. It’s not a necessity, but it does make your life easier.
  5. Pram Storage – It happened to me one sunny afternoon – my fiancé had driven to work with the main pushchair in his car boot, and I was left with the backup pram – a Maclaren. Maclarens are awesome, don’t get me wrong, but when your little one is tiny and needs it lying down, or they’ve fallen asleep, you have no hope in hell of getting into that basket. Say hello to awkwardly clutching your purchases to your chest once you realise this at your local Tesco Express checkout, with everyone behind you tutting and rolling their eyes. Get pram storage – it can’t hurt. Worst case you finally have somewhere to store your coffee as you stumble about in a daze.
  6. Maternity pillow – If you haven’t needed a maternity pillow until now – damn you. No, but seriously, it’s pretty useful – not just for helping you sleep at night when pregnant, but also for when baby arrives as it makes the best nursing pillow (and it’s cheaper than buying a pillow specifically for that). Whether you’re bottle feeding or breastfeeding, it’s perfect for tucking under your elbow for added support, and to prevent muscle ache as you hold your little bundle of adorable dead weight.
  7. Delta Baby Travel Bag and Carrycot – Don’t bother with a changing bag – get this instead. Now I never actually got one of these, but by god I wish I had. It’s a bit too late for me now to sink that kind of money into something Baby Mystery is in the process of growing out of, but at least I can help some of you out by letting you know about this amazing product. So, one of the most awkward things I found out about being a parent intent on continuing their social life was that, after Baby Mystery had outgrown sleeping in his car seat and wanted to lie down flat, there was nowhere to lie him down. Just short of bringing in a muddy pushchair into the houses of my friends and family (rolling it all over their lovely beige carpets) I had to make do with clutching my “non-cuddly” baby to my chest as he cried himself to sleep. Having one of these would have been a lifesaver!

Is there anything I missed?  Do you have any weird but useful items that made life with a baby that bit easier? Let me know in the comments!

Instagram Tips: Should I Get Lenses For My Smartphone?

So you want to up your Instagram game without investing a buck load of money in a professional DSLR camera? You think that clip-on smartphone lenses might just do the trick. But are they really worth getting?

Over the weekend, whilst walking around town, I spotted some camera lenses designed for a smartphone in a local shop. At first I didn’t really think too much about it – but it dawned on me that they could be incredibly useful, especially if I wanted to get into more landscape iPhone photography.

So I got them.

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1. Olixar 3 in 1 camera clip lens for smartphones and tablets.

At £9.99 for a pack of three different lenses, the cost wasn’t too bad.

I was a little dubious at first, inspecting them through the packet, as they looked a little too plastic for my liking.

But, surprisingly, once out the packet, I realised that they were definitely not plastic, and satisfyingly weighty for the price paid.

The pack also included a handy little bag to keep the lenses in, and two caps to keep them from getting scratches. All in all, it seemed worth the purchase so far, and all really nice quality.

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2. Pack include 3 lenses – fisheye, macro and wide angle.

Impressed, I snapped the the case off my phone, screwed the fisheye lens into the clip, and popped onto edge of my phone… and was promptly disappointed.

Unfortunately, as the lens protrudes away from the iPhone’s camera, you can see the black, circular outline of the lens itself. This isn’t too much of an issue if you like this as a stylistic choice, but personally I’d like the fisheye-effect without having an ugly, black line circling the edges of my pictures.

If you’re like me and hate this effect, you can position the lens to have the camera as central as possible to minimise the amount that the edges of the lens are visible. You can also get away with choosing the square photo option in camera mode if you have an iPhone, but this limits you if you’re uploading to Instagram (mainly because with a full picture you can crop/angle your picture to look exactly as you want before uploading, which you can’t do if it’s already formatted to upload straight to Instagram). You could also be crop the black circle out of your picture after you’ve taken it.

The fisheye lens also suffers from glare if there’s too much sunlight, creating a white ring around the picture of you have it at an angle, or it is particularly sunny, which can potentially ruin a picture – especially if this isn’t the effect you want.

Otherwise, it doesn’t blur as I’ve heard some other fisheye lenses made by other brands do, and gives a nice, crisp photo.

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3. Fisheye lens vs same picture without.
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4. Fisheye lens cropped to get rid of the black circle.

The second lens I tried, a wide angle one, suffers from exactly the same issue as the fish-eye, and although the black rim is somewhat less visible, it is still noticeable. Again, this can be cropped out if desired.

Apart from that, it does the job, giving the camera a nice enough wide angle shot that would be perfect for landscape pictures.

At this point, I wasn’t too hopeful for the last lens, a macro. Yet, when I popped it on, it didn’t have either issue the other two did. It actually took some really nice photos, with no noticeable imperfections, and I’m excited to see what kinds of photos I can take using it.

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5. Macro lens for smartphone.

So, is it worth getting a set of clip-on lenses for your smartphone?

If you’re simply dipping in and out of iPhone photography, using it to up your Instagram game, then grabbing a cheap, novelty lens kit like this one is a great place to start. In all honesty, most of these kits are rather hit-and-miss with when it comes to the wide angle and fisheye lens, but the macro lenses are definitely worth grabbing.

If you’re really serious about getting into iPhone photography, getting lenses you can use with your iPhone is something to consider. However, if you want to be certain of the quality of the pictures you’re taking – especially if you’re after a fisheye or wide angle lens – you’re going to have to hunt around for much better quality lenses. It’s also worth taking into consideration that you’re going to have to spend a little more to get ones that could produce photos of a professional standard.

Do you use lenses for your smartphone photography? Did you go with a cheaper alternative, or invested a bit more? Let me know in the comments!

Winter, Work and Motorway Traffic

I miss outside.

This morning, as our car came to a slow stop behind the crowd of motorway traffic, I watched as a lone Defender crested the hill in a nearby field. Steam settled around it as the engine cut out, and the door swung open. The farmer pulled himself from his seat, casually slamming the door closed, and looked to where the motorway stretched out like welted scar before him.

In that moment, I envied every breath he took of the air around him. I felt the bitter bite of the winter air in my own throat, and wished I could breathe it in deeper. The thought made me hesitate. I wondered, as he surveyed the bottom of his field, perhaps even the line of traffic sat at the bottom of it, if he envied me the air I breathed. Was he, in that moment, wishing he was sat in the lazy warmth of my car, feeling the heat of too much blood pulsing through his fingers?

At University I was often outside, wandering about in the bitter cold and complaining about how miserable life was. My daily excursions were mostly out of necessity as I didn’t have a car, and couldn’t afford the bus. I moaned incessantly about spending over an hour a day walking between the University’s main campus and the tiny, one bed flat I shared with Adam. I resented him his hour long commute by car to his University; thinking it was as easy as it was warm. I moaned about not having anything to fill that hour with, other than stupid fantasies of winning the lottery. I moaned that I was at least 5 minutes late everywhere.

Now I find myself severely missing the ability to up-sticks and walk around outside when I feel like it. I didn’t realise this until winter fully set in – when I was getting up early and getting back late – that I completely missed the sun altogether. For three months solid, the only sunlight I had was on the weekends.

It’s started to get light enough now that when I leave home in the mornings, it doesn’t feel ridiculously early. And if I’m quick getting out, I can often come home just as the sun’s going down. It’s lightened the mood considerably.

Yet I still couldn’t stop thinking about the farmer on top of that hill. I spent the day wondering why it affected me so much – why I suddenly spent my lunch break taking extra deep breaths of frosted air that stung the lungs as I walked to the post office.

It struck me as I sat in the car waiting to pick Adam up. Actually being outside wasn’t what I missed.

The past few months, since starting full-time work, going outside has merely been for one purpose: to get from point A to point B. I’ve been so deeply focused on moving forward, that I’m on constant autopilot. I end up in places without really remembering how on earth I got there in the first place.

And it’s not just my outside wanderings that are on autopilot – my life for the past 8 months has largely consisted of simply getting to the next step in life: get a job, move house, save for a mortgage, prepare for baby… and so on.

I’ve stopped acknowledging the journey I’m taking to get there. For example, I keep crossing off the weeks until my son is born, and not actually taking a moment to myself to just enjoy being pregnant.

At university, going outside wasn’t just about getting to and from home – I spent a large chunk of my journey lost in thought, and that often led to moments of clarity, and in turn, creativity. I haven’t had that the last few months.

I’ve promised myself, if there’s anything I do differently going forward, it’s to stop and take stock of everything going on around me. From now on, I’m not going to worry about where I’m going, but rather, appreciate the journey of getting there.

What about you? Have you been busy recently? How do you enjoy the little moments? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Review: “Dragon Age: Inquisition – Trespasser” (SPOILERS)

Bioware’s latest DLC for their award winning game is – quite frankly – the only DLC you need for this game, as it serves as a kind of epilogue to the main campaign. Having said that, it isn’t perfect, and has its flaws.

After the post-credit scene of “Dragon Age: Inquisition”, there has been much speculation as to further DLC – with many ironically dubbing it “Wolf Hunt”. Much of this revolves around Solas, one of the companions from the base game and potential love interest to the game’s protagonist, and what he plans to do after the events of “Dragon Age: Inquisition”.

“Trespasser” answers such questions, amongst many others – mostly to do with the lore of the Dragon Age universe. In terms of narrative, it was brilliant to gain more of an understanding of how the elves fell, quite spectacularly, from grace. The notion that much of their culture was built on the skewed physics of both the Fade – the dreaming world – and the waking world being one and the same is unexpected, but incredibly interesting. The idea that their apocalypse came about with Solas’s necessary introduction of the Veil – which separated the two dimensions, and thus sundered the physics of most of the environments they had created and dwelled within – is highly original. Talking to the archived memories of some of these elves, you really get a sense of the unadulterated panic they must have felt as parts of their world collapsed around them – leaving them stranded on islands that only the waking world could support without the alternate physics of the Fade.

Patrick Weekes also deserves a special mention, as some of the dialogue for Solas towards the end of this DLC is so poetical, it’s acoustically beautiful. This coupled with the heartfelt voice acting by both Alix Wilton Regan and Gareth David-Lloyd in the penultimate scene (should you have a female, British voiced Inquisitor), makes for an emotionally loaded climax – even if the relationship between Solas and the Inquisitor is nothing more than platonic.

Predictably, with the potential to romance Solas, there are equally heart wrenchingly tragic outcomes for some of the romances, and more bittersweet happily-ever-afters for others. The latter did feel a little too fan-serving in some regards (Cullen, I’m looking at you), but was actually quite satisfying, especially if you were still smarting from romancing the above-mentioned elf on your first play through. In fact, the relationships between the Inquisitor and their followers is one of the stronger parts of this DLC – it felt rewarding to see most of their stories resolved in some way, and for the Inquisition to bow out with fitting goodbyes for most of the characters.

As to this DLC’s flaws: the general combat, whilst following the same schematics as the rest of the game, does feel a little too difficult when compared to the base game. The Quanri warriors are often quite overpowered in this DLC, too much so when you consider that when you tackle this epilogue even a couple of levels over the recommended amount, you may still struggle. Having taken the difficulty setting down (the first time I’d felt it needed to be) it still felt frustrating, and more time consuming than strictly necessary. I found myself towards the end of my play through (as a rouge assassin) turning invisible so I could skip the mass onslaught of Qunari mages and assassins heading my way. This increased my use of the tactical camera, forcing me to think more strategically than I would otherwise do, but given the faults with the tactical camera – such as places the camera struggles to reach – this can get a somewhat irritating.

In addition, whilst most of the characters are afforded their own resolutions, making it seem largely like a final farewell, depending on your earlier decisions in the game, some aren’t given such a luxury. Iron Bull’s story, should the Chargers die, seems particularly shocking and somewhat forced. At the very least, it feels as if more time should have been given to the character at this point in the story. His betrayal, and consequential death at your hands, feels like a significant plot point that should have been developed further than it actually was, especially if the Inquisitor and Bull were romantically involved, or friends.

There are other points in this DLC were things feel rushed, such as Cullen’s sponatenous proposal (seriously, you’ve been dating two years during a time of peace, and you decided that the best time to get married is when there’s another impending war… er, okay), or not enough time was given to it, such as the Exalted council. The politics of Dragon Age is what makes the games different, and it felt as if there could have been more scenes about the Inquisition’s impending deconstruction.

Overall, “Trespasser” is a good addition to the base game, adding to the lore and depth of the events that preceded it. Despite this, it does regularly feel as if it should have been longer, and would have worked better as an expansion instead.

★★★

Do good games need to make us care?

A recent addict of the role-playing game Dragon Age: Inquisition, the latest edition to BioWare’s Dragon Age series, I was pleasantly surprised. 20 hours into a game that can take another 130, or more, I realised something rather rare; I cared about the non-playable characters (NPCs) that accompanied my main character throughout the game.

In the Dragon Age series your playable character has the opportunity to choose how they respond to NPCs in both cut-scenes and the semi-open world, similar to previous BioWare titles. You can even affect the outcome of their individual stories. Encouraging one of your advisors to kill a traitor, spare him or simply not intervene can have a lasting impact on that character. Each character has their own story thread, like the abovementioned, which ties into the main story of Inquisition. Some of them, if the right actions are taken, can even end up in a romantic relationship with your character, or, as I found out to my amusement, each other. Depending on your actions, and how the story evolves over the course of the game, NPCs can even end up befriending, loathing or being indifferent towards you. Not everyone will like you; each character has their own personality and will either agree or disagree with your actions… and they will remember them too! By the end of my first play through my main character had made a best friend, two enemies (one of which promptly left the game due to anger) and romanced the commander of her forces.

The characters in Inquisition certainly feel real. It was as if they had their own lives beyond that which I saw on screen and it made me think: why does this seem so unique? Surely this should be a normal feature of the immersive experience, right?

Not necessarily. Prior to my discovery of Inquisition I had been playing Monolith Productions’ Shadow of Mordor and whilst I enjoyed the Nemesis system, whereby enemies will remember how, if at all, you offended them and react accordingly, the story and character development was lacking. The premise behind why the main playable character, Talion, takes to killing Orcs is to seek revenge for the murder of his family and himself. Upon his resurrection Talion finds he has merged with the spirit of a dead elf who hopes to uncover the truth about his identity. The two set off to achieve their respective motives so they can both rest in peace.

Albeit not original, the premise has the potential to flesh out the game as a believable and immersive experience. My experience, however, leads to me to believe the narrative and character development were an afterthought. Talion’s family are not developed beyond the initial tutorial phase of the game, making them seem mere tools for the player to learn how the controls work. Thus, when they died in what is supposed to be a traumatic experience for the playable character, sparking his murderous rampage for revenge, I could not have cared less. What’s more, I found myself not particularly caring about the dead elf, Celebrimbor, and his story either. Both main characters felt undeveloped. The main story missions were uninteresting and dull, compelling me to avoid them. Instead I spent my play-through wandering around aimlessly and seeing how many Orc commanders I could take out.

Both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Shadow of Mordor have brilliant gameplay, but one has far superior narrative and character development. Perhaps that is why Dragon Age: Inquisition championed Game of the Year at Game Awards 2014. It shows just how important good writing is to video games and the overall player experience. However a well-written game is also dependant on having equally good gameplay. A good story does not redeem a mediocre game, as recently released Order 1886 proves by feeling little more than a relatively interactive movie. The relationship between a game’s writing and its gameplay is a symbiotic one and should be treated as such by developers, rather than sacrificing one at the expense of the other.

(Original article can be read here.)