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My Photographic Journey

Photo by Scott Stulberg.

I was just looking through my portfolio this past week and physically cringing at how bad some of my old shots are. I almost deleted them from my Flickr stream, but then I realized that each photo represents a part of my photographic journey.

My photography evolved a lot from the days when I use to take pictures of Pez, cupcakes, and interesting trash I found in my back alley. It seems so silly now, but had I not spent everyday shooting, learning, and exploring the world with my camera, I wouldn’t be taking the pictures I am taking today.

Superhero Pez

Super hero Pez. Canon Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/60, f/5.0, ISO 100.

I bought my first dSLR, the Canon Rebel Xti (400D), in November 2006. I had one lens other than the crappy kit one, the 50mm f/1.4, and I shot absolutely everything on it. From concerts to portraits to landscapes and nature I took that lens on many adventures. Unlike a zoom lens, a fixed prime lens forces you to physically position yourself to get the shot. That usually means getting up close, lying on the floor, or squeezing your body in crazy spots to get decent angles.

I spent almost a year shooting exclusively with the 50mm f/1.4. I couldn’t afford another lens, so I just had to make do with what I had. I think this forced me to learn the basics of photography (exposure, light & composition) and really know how to use my camera.

abstract of a large leaf with raindrops

Xti, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/320, ISO 200.

I shot almost everyday. I went on photowalks and started shooting things around my neighbourhood, and the beautiful landscapes of Vancouver. Whenever I traveled abroad in the next year, I took thousands of pictures. Some were good, some were meh, but the sheer act of taking pictures everyday made me a better photographer.

Photographing Chichen Itza

Photographing Chichen Itza, Mayan Riviera, Mexico.

Because I only had one lens at the time, and no money to buy another one, I started renting lenses for specific shoots or just for fun. For $35, I could rent a $1500 70-200mm IS f/2.8 for an entire weekend. I rented everything from wide angles to macro lenses to honking zooms, experimenting with different subjects and styles of photography.

lens flare sunset

Sunset Flare, Xti, 70-200mm IS, 70mm, 1/250, f/7.1, ISO 200.

red boots 6/365

Polish dancing boots, Xti, 70-200mm IS f/2.8 lens, 153mm, 1/80, f/2.8, ISO 200.

Bokeh & The Spider

Canon Xti, 100mm f/2.8 lens, 1/80, f.2.8, ISO 100.

Water <3 World

Xti, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 200.

I didn’t read many “how to” photography books (too boring) or take classes (too expensive), I just spent hours on Flickr and other photographer’s blogs. I connected with these photographers, asked them questions, shared my photos, and studied theirs.

I learned what I needed to improve on and what style of photography I liked. I was immediately drawn to colour and magic hour light. The subject matter I found most intriguing was people. But, people were not as easy to come by as trash in my back alley.

Jessie Farrell & Fancy Wallpaper

Jessie Farrell, Canon Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/30, f/1.4, ISO 100.

I begged everyone I knew to let me take pictures of them. And if they said no, I snuck candid shots when they weren’t looking. At the time, I was also spending a lot of time shooting Jessie Farrell (Canadian Singer/Songwriter) and her band on their first year touring Canada.

I followed them around snapping their performances, as well as the behind the scenes moments. I learned a lot about shooting in hectic places with really difficult lighting. This gig also connected me with other musicians who wanted promo photos for their websites and promotion.

Kylee Epp Promo Shot

Canadian Singer/Songwriter Kylee Epp, Xti, 50mm f/1.4.

Jesse Godin (Drummer) Promo

Jesse Godin, Xti, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 18mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO 100.

When I couldn’t find any people to shoot, I photographed animals. When I was traveling in Australia, I took a series of “animal portraits” of the fabulous creatures I found. Again, I only had one lens with me, the 50mm f/1.4, so I really get up close to these animals to fill the frame. This was ok with koalas, kangaroos, and lorikeets, but not so much for man-eating crocodiles and sharks.

Rainbow Lorikeet

Rainbow lorikeet, Xti, 50mm f/1.4mm, 1/100, f/2.0, ISO 100.

Sleepy Kangaroo

Sleepy Kangaroo, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/5.0, 1/250, ISO 100.

Lovely Currumbin Koala

Koala. Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens.

I also experimented taking artsy shots with the LensBaby Composer. I’m not the ‘artsiest’ photographer. I’m more inclined to make photos as realistic as possible, which is part of my debate with HDR photography (which I did learn how to do by the way :P). Nevertheless, this lens gave me a new perspective on the types of shots I could get with my camera.


XSi & LensBaby Composer.

Painter's Lodge, Campbell River

My first HDR :P

After a while, I got bored of just taking pictures of things that I was just observing and wanted to create shots I could control. I was also modeling at the time, so I took particular interest at my own shoots and started grilling every photographer I worked with about lighting.

This is when I discovered David Hobby’s Strobist blog. The DIY off-camera photography he was doing and talking about was exciting, challenging, and oh so sexy.

Super Summertime Strobe Setting-up

Setting up the strobes for a summer shoot.

It took a while to accumulate the gear I needed to take great portrait shots; 3 strobes (580EX & 2x430EX, two umbrellas, stands, & the Alien Bees Cybersync Remote System), and a long while to actually learn how to use it.

I won’t lie, when I first started using strobes I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was even kind of scared of them, so I asked people who knew what they were doing, and watched and learned. I found a few settings that worked and practiced a lot. Once I’d learnt the basics, I started to experiment, sometimes even on the job (shh.. don’t tell), but usually taking pictures of myself.

Then, Alex Lindsay of TWiP (This Week in Photography) asked me to fly down to San Francisco be a guest on his popular photography podcast. I really felt like a n00b photographer then especially compared to one of my heroes, photojournalist, Steve Simon. I felt like I hadn’t done anything of note, just taken some nice photos. In fact, I’m sure that at first I was interviewed more for my modeling talents than my photography. My Flickr stream did contain more pictures of me than by me.

Lisa in Jamaica Sunset

Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/100, f/4, ISO 100.

Being on TWiP was a huge wake up call. I realized then, that if I wanted to be a photographer, I had to step up and know my stuff. I couldn’t rely on being a pretty girl with a camera that took pretty pictures. I had to get down and dirty with photographic theory, photoshop, the technical specs of my gear, and build a portfolio with content in a style that I wanted to actually work in.

I was inspired by photographers like Nick Onken, Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally who had unique and strong styles and got hired to to do major commercial work in this style.

Beautiful Shauna

Shauna, Canon XSi, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/3.5, 1/200.


Canon XSi, 24-105mm f/4.0 lens, 45mm, 1/100, f/4.0, ISO 100.

Zara with 2 Strobe set-up

Zara set-up shot.

I decided I wanted to shoot portraits, beauty, and fashion. I really needed models to shoot portraits, beauty, and fashion photography. I bought a second awesome prime, the 85mm f/1.8 and put up a profile on the social networking site “where professional models meet photographers, ModelMayhem. I’d found some great models to work with and I booked four for the next week. A Canon Canada Rep was nice enough to send a XSi (450D) loaner to me, so I had an extra body on these shoots.

Rockin' Bella

Bella, Canon XSi, 85mm f/1.8 lens, 1/125, f/2.8, ISO 100.

I really wanted to push myself to see if I could actually create the images I wanted. After the first shoot, I realized I needed a professional makeup artist and a stylist because I am absolutely rubbish at these things. So I brought Mika (MUA) and Tami (Stylist) on board.

They helped me develop the concepts I wanted to shoot, and make sure all the details (hair, makeup, clothes) were there.


Sexy Stephanie, Xti, 85mm f/4.5, 1/125, ISO 100.

Stephanie backlit setup

sexxeh steph

Canon Xti, 85 f/1.8 lens, 1/200. f/4.5, ISO 100.

Steph set-up shot

I also knew I had to become fluent in Photoshop (CS4), so I buckled down and learnt how to use it. I spent days perfecting images, learning techniques, watching every retouching tutorial on Lynda.com and finding out the best and most efficient ways to retouch and process my images. Once I’d mastered the basics, I started to explore different processing styles.

I spend hours scouring photographer’s portfolios and flickr to find inspiring shots and trying to emulate them. Through this process I learnt all kinds of PS ninja tricks and started to develop my own style.

franziska's rainbow eyes

Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/2.5, 1/100, ISO 100.

I could shoot, light, and make sweet pictures. All I needed was a kick ass camera. I’d spent 2 great years with the Xti, but I’d grown out of it. I needed something full-framed and powerful, so I bought the Canon 5DMKII. I’ve never looked back.

Jesse Tucker, guitarist, singer & songwriter

Canon 5DMKII, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/125, f/5.0, ISO 100.

Jesse Tucker set-up

After 2 1/2 years, I feel like I’ve perfected amateur photography. Now, I’m ready to work as a professional. And so my next photographic journey begins! Wish me luck!

Nicole's Baby Blues

Canon 5DMkII, 85mm f/1.8 lens, 1/80, f/2.2, ISO 100.

*i don't love you anymore*

5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/500 at f/5.0, ISO 100. Natural light & white reflector.

Questions? Comments! You know where to leave ’em.

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  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 9:59 AM

    What a great story! I really like how your photos tell the story as well as your words. Best wishes for the new career. I look forward to following the progress of your new business!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 1:38 PM

    You’re kinda my hero.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 1:42 PM

    Awesome Post! I enjoy your point of view on TWIP alot; I feel a great deal of empathy with your journey.. i’m going though a very similar one myself. I like your blog alot; keep up the good work

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 14, 2009 at 2:13 PM

    @Robb Shirey: It was a cost issue, but the 430EXs work great and they’re smaller and lighter which can be great if you want to travel light.

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 14, 2009 at 2:15 PM

    @Mark: w00t! I know you’re photography would take a giant leap with the 5DMkII. The detail you get with the 5D is totally worth it.

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 14, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    @Tawcan: Prime lenses have better glass and are sharper. The 85mm is pretty long on a cropped camera. You can see in the Stephanie behind-the-scenes shots, how far I am from the subject. But it is a beautiful lens. Great for portraits if you have enough room.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 3:02 PM

    Very, very good job, thank’s for your pictures. You’ve made a great progression.

  • Reply
    Joe C
    August 14, 2009 at 3:03 PM

    “A Canon Canada Rep was nice enough to send a XSi (450D) loaner to me, so I had an extra body on these shoots.”

    Lisa, how did you managed to get Canon Canada to send you a XSi as a loaner to you?

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 4:23 PM

    Very inspiring. The fact that you’ve only been doing this for less than 3 years is incredible to me. Most people don’t get that good at photography in their lifetime, nevermind in 3 years. I bought my first D-SLR in February, hopefully I can acquire half the skill you have.

  • Reply
    Craig Colvin
    August 14, 2009 at 5:39 PM

    Great post! My journey has been similar, started about the same time, and I’ve been following your blog along the way, growing along with you. You have made tremendous progress. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 7:52 PM

    Do you have tips or resources for shooting manual with a dslr? I know of the sunny 16 rule but the resources I have found only cover iso 100. I realize that much of learning to shoot manual is trial and error but a guide to get started would be nice.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 9:07 PM

    Awesome article…and keep up the good work…will continue to follow & and see how you progress

  • Reply
    Luke Turner
    August 14, 2009 at 10:57 PM

    Lisa, you’ve been an inspiration ever since you first started to appear on TWiP. Reading this post has made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

    I’ve been shooting for almost a year, 90% on my 50mm 1.8. Just started to play with strobes… hardest part is finding people to shoot. I suppose it helps if you’re not naturally a shy person!

    Thank you for this post, and keep up your amazing work!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 11:50 PM

    Wow.wow.! This amazing .i like it.!

  • Reply
    John Szakmeister
    August 15, 2009 at 3:13 AM

    I’ve only been following you on Flickr and Twitter for a short while, but you’ve been building an amazing portfolio. I love your style!

    Thanks for sharing your history! I can actually afford more lenses, but I too have been just using a 50mm (only f/1.8 though) for the past 8 months or so. It’s taught me a lot, and I’d encourage others to do the same.

    Good luck going pro, not that you’ll need it! :-)

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    August 15, 2009 at 9:44 AM

    Mamacita! que buena te vez en esta foto…
    Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/100, f/4, ISO 100.

    keep shooting.. you re the best…

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 15, 2009 at 2:00 PM

    @love this post: The last time I was hanging at the TWiT Cottage I did a brief, “What’s in my bag?”, but I’ve never done a post, so I’ll add that to my to-do list!

    @Ben Drucker: ha! Got me. I always grip it from the bottom unless I am using my left hand to block light to grab focus. I shoot a lot of back lit shots so I tend to use this method a lot. I’m not sure if there is another way to do this, other than get an assistant to shadow the light for me. If you know of a way I’d love to hear it!

  • Reply
    August 15, 2009 at 2:04 PM

    Wow, within this short time you really found your own style. I’m a bit jealous, I have to confess. But in a positive way. I now have this “I can do it, too”-feeling. Thanks for that!

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 15, 2009 at 2:13 PM

    @kadajawi: As you can see from most my set-up shots, you can get great shots using one strobe, a set of triggers, and a shoot through umbrella. You don’t need much. I suggest looking on Craigslist for used flashes. You’ll probably be able to find one way cheaper than in the store.

  • Reply
    August 15, 2009 at 2:25 PM

    I envy you. Good luck!

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 15, 2009 at 2:28 PM

    @MeM: good idea about the narrated slide show! i’ll try to do that soon.

    @Stephen Christian: I think my number one complaint with my old photos is composition. And that is something you can definitely learn. My other complaint is that I didn’t know how to process my shots back then. Good processing can take a photo from dull to amazing. I think most of the magic in a photo comes in post. And if you are good with ze code, then surely you can figure out how to use PS! Good luck.

  • Reply
    August 15, 2009 at 2:48 PM

    @Lisa: Thanks :) I’m not in the US, but we have good forums for second hand camera gear, I will check that. Still a student though, but as soon as I earn some money :P

    I agree, you can learn composition to a certain degree (there are people who just don’t get it, you need some talent for it too!). I think mostly you need to practise, as you said. I have taken about 22000 photos with my point and shoot and in the year that I owned my DSLR I’ve taken about 21000 photos or so. I’d like to say that I’ve improved with each photo, same goes to PS (although I am now almost exclusively using Lightroom).

    Now I’m curious: How many photos have you taken Lisa?

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  • Reply
    Cathy LaFever
    August 16, 2009 at 10:24 AM

    Thank you, Lisa, for inspiring me to learn and grow.

    I am 6 months into my first DSLR and really appreciate your candor and wisdom. I wish you continued success and happiness.

    My very best to you,
    Cathy LaFever, Los Angeles, CA

  • Reply
    August 16, 2009 at 9:57 PM

    Hey! I just wanted to say I think you’re amazingly talented, and that I enjoy reading your blog. It’s really made me want to invest in a camera and start dabbling in the world of still photography!

  • Reply
    August 17, 2009 at 12:16 AM

    Hi Lisa,
    I’m on a similar Photographic Journey, though I was a Brooks Trained Photographer for the Navy. Most of my experience was from the front seats of A-6’s, F14’s and Helicopters and in the portrait studio but I got burned out on all that. Now I’m rediscovering my love of Photography with the recent purchase of the Canon 5D MarkII. I just need to start posting my pics on Flickr… do I make them smaller than 21mp?

  • Reply
    August 17, 2009 at 10:55 AM

    It’s a while i’ve been following you

    I really enjoy reading your adventures :)

    Best of luck,

    Davide, Pescara, Italy

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 17, 2009 at 4:28 PM

    @Joe C: A Canon rep found me through my blog and the newspaper I write for. I do a gadget column once a month, so I get loaners of all the new Canon cameras. I know. *huge perk of my job*

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 17, 2009 at 4:29 PM

    @Todd: I upload my shots on Flickr as max 1024 Width. Any bigger and they take ages to load, especially for people with slow internet connections.

  • Reply
    August 17, 2009 at 5:41 PM

    Lisa, thank you for this post. As someone who only recently started taking pictures with a DSLR (Canon XSi), and who is also slightly overwhelmed by the amount of information that needs to be assimilated before you can take decent shots, this post really helps. It reassures me that everyone starts at the bottom, and you evolve into a good photographer. I’ve been following your posts for the better part of this year, and really appreciate you spending the time to help some of us who are not so experienced! I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts as I evolve into (hopefully) a decent photographer!

  • Reply
    August 18, 2009 at 6:44 AM

    Thanks for sharing your journey. It is inspiring.

  • Reply
    Rick RB
    August 18, 2009 at 7:18 AM

    Lisa. Such an awesome story to read… you have made some great shots and I look forward to following your work in the future.

    I currently have a bridge camera (or super zoom) Sony H50…would really love a DSLR (5dMk2 Please ..dream camera).. but as fund wont allow yet… I am looking to push myself to see what I can do with current equipment.. and to hopefully forge a name for myself as a future photographer. Its always interesting to read others journeys and to see how they have developed. Best of luck for the future.

    Oh would love to see what you could do with the video mode on the 5Dmk2.



  • Reply
    August 18, 2009 at 9:07 AM

    I stumbled upon your site through another site called 100 best photography web sites.
    I almost clicked out of your site when I though, oh man…this is going to be about another woman talking about her kids, and her little Canon Rebel.
    But I was pleasantly surprised to see such good shots and your presentation was pretty good too. It helps to have beautiful models to photograph I’ll tell ya that.

    I can say after 10 years of photography, I’ve never had anyone loan me a camera body or lens.
    You’re quite attractive and I would love hanging out with you going on photo shoots too.
    I’ve tried to get other photographers earlier in the beginning to help me or let me shoot with them or tag a long or answer my questions but no one would go for it, guess I wasn’t “pretty enough”. HAHA

    I use to be a cosmetologist and I did at one time like to shoot models from Mayhem, but I found that many women became dictatorial about the photos and not showing up for shoots.
    One of the funny things is that I did my first photo shoot with a model with a point and shoot. The next camera I had was a Minolta 7i and then a Canon 20D, now I have a Canon 50D…just don’t have the $$$$ for a 5D MII and prime les’ so I also have had to rent.

    Thanks for your story, feel free to drop me a line too.

  • Reply
    August 18, 2009 at 9:13 AM

    @Tim: PS. I used a 50mm kit lens and 70-300mm Canon lens and got some pretty nice shots. But would love to have a few prime lens’ too.
    Twitter me back @tcphotodesign_ or @tcphotodesign

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  • Reply
    August 19, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    Good luck with all your photographic journey you are starting! And thank you for sharing your experience and discoveries of what you have gone through, what it took to be where you are now. Very inspirational!
    Thank you!

  • Reply
    August 19, 2009 at 8:04 PM

    I feel silly repeating what others have said but i feel so strongly about your post that I must let you know about it. I, too, find your journey very inspiring. Your skills have grown by leaps and bounds. Your motivation and hard work are challenging to me. But most impressive of all is the self-awareness that pours from every paragraph you write. You have a tremendous gift. You know yourself, you’re honest with yourself, and you maintain a healthy perspective. That’s stuff that’ll be benefiting you and everyone you come in contact with long after your circumstances, looks, and any other transient things have long since changed. It’s an honor to even know OF you! Much success and happiness as you turn this exciting new corner in life.

  • Reply
    August 20, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    I just bought a T1i to get into amateur photography, this was a very motivating post to just get out there and take photos. Thanks.

  • Reply
    clarke thomas
    August 20, 2009 at 4:31 PM

    great storyline, I’ve followed a similar path. I learned on p&s & SLR cameras, & decided to jump head in on the DSLR front. Thankfully my job (at the time) fueled my ability to get a 5D MkII & a few lenses. I’m more of a landscape/travel photographer; for some reason don’t care too much to shoot people(know idea why). I’ve been following quite a few people on flickr, & have learned much from them….2 of them fueled my passion to get a a 16-35mm lens. (my favorite lens)

  • Reply
    Brad Ruggles
    August 21, 2009 at 7:15 AM

    Ok, I know you get this a lot but your pictures just plain ROCK! Every time I check back here I’m both inspired and depressed. Inspired…because you make it look so good and depressed…because I need to make more time to get out there and shoot.

    Keep up the amazing work.

  • Reply
    Brad Ruggles
    August 21, 2009 at 7:17 AM

    Oh, I almost forgot…I saw you in a promo video the other day for a Tap Tap Tap iPhone app (say that fast 5 times). I was like, hey! It’s Mostly Lisa! I know her! You Internet celebrity you! ;-)

  • Reply
    August 21, 2009 at 3:19 PM

    Great Post, just a few weeks ago I went through you entire photostream! It was very inspirational since I’m new at photography. The Kangaroo shot is amazing. I also like your portrait work a lot. I just need to find people to practice on. My wife is running out of patience ;)

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 22, 2009 at 8:12 PM

    @kadajawi: how many pictures have i taken? wow. a lot. that is for sure. I’m already up to 4,000 on my 5DMkII, 6,000 with my iPhone, 12,000 with my old Xti, and thousands of others on the loaner cameras I take. Not nearly as many as you though! :D

  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    August 22, 2009 at 8:16 PM

    @Jay: haha! it’s always hard to coax loved ones into posing for the camera. i like to carry sugary snacks in my camera back to lure them into my frame :P

  • Reply
    August 22, 2009 at 8:36 PM

    You make me cry! You have gone on and are embarking on a journey I wish to achieve one day. <3

  • Reply
    August 23, 2009 at 3:13 AM

    Haha, yeah, I’ve been travelling a lot for a while (Finland, China and Southeast Asia) and tried some street photography, shooting from the hip etc..

    If you want to take photos of friends and family members what I do is to sit there prepared with the camera and to take photos once in a while, while in a conversation for example. At first they are annoyed or pose for me (with one of those lovely fake smiles ;) ), but after a while they will me much more natural and don’t care about me taking photos, then I can really start, looking for interesting moments/faces. Of course that are different photos than those that Lisa makes, but I have made some photos that I’m proud of this way. Oh, and of course I’m using a 50mm f1.8 for this, and you can still try to find the best possible light/viewing angle (without flash).

    Wow, 6000 with an iPhone is quite a lot too.

  • Reply
    Robert (Happy) Hanna
    August 24, 2009 at 8:51 PM

    You have beauty in your eye, mind, walk, style, and photography, in my opinion – so it is not surprising to find it in your blog.
    I am not financially able to commission you to come to Hawaii and do a shoot, or I would consider it.
    If you are ever in Honolulu I will pose for you and your camera to your heart’s content. Photography has been a hobby all my life, but my profession was as a trial lawyer and appeals specialist based in New Mexico before I retired to Hawaii about six years ago. I think I might still be photogenic and Hawaii is Paradise..
    You are cordially invited – ANYTIME.
    Much Aloha

  • Reply
    Robert (Happy) Hanna
    August 24, 2009 at 8:55 PM

    P S I just noticed I really need a ‘gravatar’
    I hope you can help.
    I will give you my ‘get out of jail free’ card.
    If you haven’t at least visited in Hawaii – you could say that you have never really lived…

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