Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

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Off to Hawaii for a family vacation

Hula Dancer, Waikiki Beach - Honolulu, Hawaii

Hula Dancer, Waikiki Beach – Honolulu, Hawaii

I’ll be out-of-pocket for a little while. I’m going on a family vacation to Honolulu, Hawaii. I know it’s more fashionable to go to the more remote islands but Waikiki Beach works great for us. There’s a lot to do for the family and the city like environment gives me things to shoot. I, not being a nature photographer, will probably get board just taking pictures of palm trees.

Whenever I take these trips, the inevitable question is, what gear do I bring? You know that I have enough cameras that I try to tailor my gear to the occasion. So this is what I decided.

1. I’m bringing the Olympus TG-2 water proof point and shoot. I got this last year before my Cancun trip and it will be my main camera on the beach and in the water.

2. The Fujifilm X100S is going to be my main documentary camera (when I’m not playing on the beach). I’ve been happy with the fixed 35mm equivalent lens and it’s my highest quality camera.

3. The Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm f2.5 plus wide-angle adapter is also coming along. Yup, you guessed it. This is going to be my HDR, urban landscape camera, to be shot on tripod. I’m also bringing the small 14-42mm kit lens, just in case.

4. I’ll also bring the MacBook Pro, my light-weight tripod and all the other miscellaneous accessories that are required.

The miscellaneous stuff actually takes up a fair amount of space. That includes the 3 camera chargers, the big charger for the MacBook Pro and extra batteries. I’ve travelled enough now to know that every extra bit slows me down. Bring enough things and it becomes a boat anchor and diminishes the pleasure of traveling.

Everything I mentioned, except the tripod, fits nicely in the Tenba Small Messenger. I love this camera/computer bag. I use it to travel around the world. I’ll need to do a proper review of it someday.

I don’t check anything in. My small tripod fits inside my roller board. So I have two carry-ons. That’s the way I travel for business too. When I’m whisking through the airport, I just put the Tenba Messager on to of my roller board. Perhaps by luck, the metal handle of the roller board fits through the Tenba’s handle. That keeps it securely on top.

The total weight of the Tenba plus gear, 14 pounds. That might sound like a lot but on my previous trip to Hawaii in 2010, my photo gear weighed a whopping 25 pounds. Back then I shot the Canon 7D DSLR along with several lenses including the 70-200 f4 L. I stuffed everything in a LowePro backpack. I’m working to make this even lighter. The newer MacBooks weigh several pounds less than my old unit. So, someday….

I took the photo up top back in 2008 with the Canon Rebel XT and a 28-135mm lens. Despite the fancier gear 2 years later, none of the photos had the right combination of light and expression as this one. It’s my favorite Hula photo.

Now, in 2014, I’m shooting differently. No long and heavy telephoto lenses. No big DSLRs. I’m mirrorless and getting up close to people. I could bring my light-weight telephoto but I’m not going to bother. I never ended up posting any of the Hula photos I took in 2010. Perhaps they weren’t as important as I imagined.

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A macro lens can be great for portraits too

Cassandra at Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

In the previous post, I mentioned that a macro lens works great for other things. It’s not just for closeups of flowers and geckos. They are typically very sharp and can be used for general purpose photography. But with a 100mm equivalent f2, portraiture especially comes to mind. It will nicely isolate as well as flatter your subject.

I shot this portrait of Cassandra at Zilker Botanical Gardens with the Olympus 4/3 50mm f2 macro on a 11-year-old E-1 DSLR.

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Small slices of nature, and how I found color and structure

Flower Macro #1, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

Flower Macro #1, Zilker Botanical Gardens – Austin, Texas

Its been a fun and busy 3 days for photography. I went to Drink and Click on Thursday night. I went downtown with the Olympus guys for some street shooting on Friday night and yesterday afternoon, I attended the Olympus and Precision Camera sponsored day at Zilker Botanical Gardens.

For today’s post, you’re going to see something that I rarely do, macros. In fact, I think I played with a Canon 100mm macro lens once maybe 4 years ago. While the Olympus event was there to showcase the OM-D cameras and micro 4/3 lenses, Charles said he had the very special 50mm f2 lens with him. This lens is for the old DSLR 4/3 system, not the new micro 4/3 lens for mirrorless.

Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

From what I’ve read and heard, some people consider this lens legendary. A keeper even though the 4/3 DSLRs are no longer made. I was looking forward to using it. Conveniently, I had that Olympus E-1 that I got about a month ago.

You can also use it on micro 4/3 cameras, but you’ll need an adapter. It will focus really slow on the mirrorless cameras except for the OM-D E-M1, which also supports the more compatible and faster phase detect focusing for these older DSLR lenses.

Gecko Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

As you can guess, I’m far from a macro expert. It’s not what I do. Serious macro shooters bring tripods and extra lights so they can shoot at a large depth of field. I just shot these handheld in available light. Even so, I’m really happy with the results. The lens is extremely sharp and even on this old 5MP camera, the details look wonderful.

Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas
Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

Did I mention that I love the color on the E-1? Yeah, I know, that’s all that I’ve been talking about lately.

Gecko Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

I’m not really a flower kind of guy, at least not yet. I noticed that my dad really likes to take pictures of them. Perhaps that’s what I’ll be shooting when I get older, like father like son? Anyway, I looked at these flowers more for their structure and color. Kind of the way I approach architecture, which is what I like to shoot.

I started off too far and as I got the hang of the macro, I kept on getting closer. Color and shape, that’s what I was looking for.

Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas
Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

After I returned the macro, I noticed that they also had this huge 50 – 200mm f2.8 – 3.5 zoom. It’s also an older 4/3 DSLR lens and part of their Pro Grade weather-resistant lineup. Keep in mind that for 4/3 (and micro 4/3) this lens is a 100mm to 400mm equivalent. I used this lens to isolate and also shoot macros. it’s a chunky lens but worked well on my old E-1.

Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

The two lenses see differently but they both produced some great results. I’m more impressed than ever with my 11-year-old DSLR. I’m tempted to get the 50mm macro. Its compact size and water resistance would make it a good match for the E-1. The only problem is, I’m not sure how often I’ll be doing macros.

However, in my next post, I’ll show you that a 100mm equivalent macro also works great for other things.

Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas
Flower Macro, Zilker Botanical Gardens - Austin, Texas

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I took all photographs with the Olympus E-1 in RAW and post processed with Aperture 3. I used a combination of the Olympus 50mm f2 macro and the Olympus 50-200mm lens.

Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.


I finally got to play with a Leica M the other day

Marie with the Bear, Russian House - Austin, Texas

Marie with the Bear, Russian House – Austin, Texas

I went to another Drink and Click. I’ve often talked about these fun social/photography events and the one last Thursday was even better than usual. Both Olympus and a Paul C Buff, an off-camera strobe company, brought gear to play with.

It was good to meet Charles and Brett from Olympus, again. They’ve been nice enough to loan me cameras that I’ve reviewed on this site. In fact, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 review that I just finished last week was due to a self-imposed deadline. I wanted to complete it before I met Charles. I had the camera for a long time but was just too wrapped up in other things to complete the review.

A chest full of Olympus Gear - Austin, Texas

The Olympus folks came with an impressive array of bodies and lenses. The entire OM-D line, the E-M1, E-M5 and E-M10 were well represented, along with almost every Olympus micro 4/3 lens ever made. The cameras were popular but I didn’t partake. I was busy recording behind the scenes video. If I’m ambitious enough, I might put together another movie in a few weeks.

The main point of this post, however, is to talk about the Leica M. I finally got to play with it for about an hour that night. One of the participants, Mark, very generously let me use his. Luckily I had an extra SD card so I that can scrutinize the results afterwards, on my big screen.

I shot the Leica M Typ 240, the newest M, with the 28mm f2.8 Elmarit lens. It’s not something you see everyday. The body and lens combo runs upward of $9000.

Colorful Critter, Russian House - Austin, Texas

It’s easy to be dismissive or cynical about Leica. At this point, the cameras are well out of reach for most people. They are relegated as rich-man’s toys or for really passionate collectors. Only a few of the working photographers that made them famous in the 60’s and 70’s could afford them today.

I’ve certainly had my fascination with Leica and their legacy. I’ve mentioned before that my Fujifilm X100S is a nod to the retro and affordable Leica. People will correctly point out that the X100S is just an expensive and retro-looking compact camera — It’s not a true range finder. But at $1299, I find it a more palatable choice.

The current M is the newest of a line that extends back to the first M3 in 1954. The first two digital Ms, the M8 and M9 were more like film cameras with digital guts. Indeed, when I used a M Monochrome (sort of like a black and white only version of the M9) once at a Leica Store, the thing made some weird whirling noises which distinctly sounded un-digital.

By contrast, the new M is a modern digital camera, in a distinct Leica sort of way. Using it was still strange and very different from any other digital camera I’ve used. It’s extremely chunky and in many ways, very clunky. Leica fans mention how tactile they are. I found it an ergonomic mess. At least it had easy access to exposure compensation which the M Monochrome buried deep in its menu. Perhaps Leica thinks real photographers shoot only in Manual exposure mode?

Model Shoot at Drink and Click, Russian House - Austin, Texas

To Leica’s credit, the features are really pared down, especially for a digital camera, so it’s easy to figure out. It’s just that I find the physical controls hard to use. The main control dial on the back, for example, is placed in an awkward position. I’m sure with more use, its quirks will become second nature. After all, you know how I complained about the Fuji X100S, when I first got it. After several months, the work arounds for its failings have become automatic. That said, the Leica M is an extremely different beast.

Like the film cameras of yore, the lenses must all be manually focused and the exposure metering is rather primitive. You really have to be deliberate about using this thing. The bar was so dark that I could hardly tell if I was focusing it correctly. It was a rough place to get familiar with a range finder. It’s like jumping into the deep end. I inadvertently changed that aperture dial from f2.8 to f4, I noticed later. That’s a big mistake, especially in such a light starved venue.

Unfortunately, the camera felt kind of interesting. I wished that I totally hated it so that my lingering fascination with Leica can, once and for all, be extinguished. But, I’m on a quirky camera kick. It started with the Fuji X100S then I got the 11-year-old Olympus E-1. I kind of enjoy the challenge of taking good photos with different kinds of digital cameras (I’ve yet to be bitten by the film camera bug) Some people say how they like the M for its small size and low profile, especially for street shooting. Ironically, while that might have been true during the film era, these days, the camera is quite big. Not as big as DSLRs but it’s certainly stout compared to all my mirrorless cameras.

That said, the M does have a full frame sensor. And compared with full frame DSLRs, it is smaller, though harder to hold with a lack of any grip protrusions. It’s a totally unique camera and for people who like to experience something different, it’s fascinating. Leica is truly unique in the camera industry.

Model Shoot at Drink and Click, Russian House - Austin, Texas

Then there’s the image quality.

Judging purely but the high ISO noise metric, it’s not class leading. In fact, in one sense, it’s disappointing. It’s probably about 1 stop less in performance than my Canon 6D.

But then I noticed the color — they’re beautifully and richly saturated. I shot in RAW DNG format and did less post-processing than usual. I wish I had photos from other cameras to make direct comparisons. Perhaps under the same lighting, other cameras would do just as well or even better. But I couldn’t help but notice that I like these colors, at least the ones I shot that night. I’m preoccupied with color these days and the “Leica look” certainly seems intriguingly different. The dynamic range also seems to be good, which is convenient because the metering got tricked and it underexposed on several occasions.

I find the images usable up to ISO 6400, give or take. There’s an extremely fine digital grain which looks different from other cameras. ISO 3200 looked weaker than I expected but 6400 didn’t degrade very much. All photos were shot at ISO 3200 except the first one, which is ISO 6400. What do you think?

Two things really stood out. The first is the hand hold-ability of this camera. There is no image stabilization but I consistently got sharp results at 1/8 to 1/12 of a second. That’s nearly 2 stops under typical shutter speeds. The Leica has an extremely quiet and vibration resistant shutter and I think the heft of the camera also helps.

Alison at the Russian House - Austin, Texas

The second surprise is the extreme sharpness of the photos. Even at ISO 6400, the fine digital noise maintains a level of detail better than my other cameras. I use the Fuji X100S up to ISO 6400 but, with the JPEG processing, the details become soft. Leica has always been famous for extremely good optics which seems to be helping here along with it’s different approach to image processing. So while its absolute high ISO quality is not the best, its color, dynamic range, sharp details and hand-holdability makes up for it.

Even with my recent string of gear purchases (or maybe because of them?), I’m not crazy enough to get a Leica M. Perhaps at 1/3 the price, I would be willing, but its lofty price is something I can’t wrap my head around. But using it, even for this short time, was very revealing. Leica does things in a different way.

I bought the Fuji X100S for my self when I hit 50. Perhaps when I hit 60 or when I retire, I can get myself something even more special. Heck, a used M should be a lot cheaper by then and at this point in my life, I’m more happy buying, yet another camera, instead of getting a fancy car.

But then there’s reality. I just found out that my car insurance premium doubles if my older son starts to drive next year. And of course, there’s always the looming specter of paying for college (for two kids!). That’ll come soon enough.

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I took all the photographs with the Leica M Typ 240 with the 28mm f2.8 Elmarit lens in RAW and post processed with Aperture 3.

Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.


The View from the Boardwalk

Skyline Sunset from the Boardwalk - Austin, Texas

Skyline Sunset from the Boardwalk – Austin, Texas

Austin recently opened a boardwalk of sorts. It floats above the river and forms an extension to the hike and bike trail that graces downtown. What’s good for the runners and bikers are also great for photographers. The architects thoughtfully created several areas that jut out, away from the traffic. Perfect for placing tripods.

My friends, Alex and Rusty invited me downtown to shoot the growing skyline. It’s a new vantage point that I’ve never seen. I thought it might be fun to shoot it with my old and new Olympus cameras, the 11-year-old E-1 DSLR and my HDR mirrorless workhorse, the E-PM2.

Skyline from the Boardwalk - Austin, Texas

I’ve talked a bunch about my new-found fondness for the ancient 5mp Kodak CCD. It has a color that’s different from modern CMOS. I’ve discovered that for longer exposures, even as short as 5 seconds, I would get hot pixels. My guess is that the heat in Texas adversely affects the CCD — I read that heat tends make them noisy.

I shot the first 2 with the E-M1. The next two are HDRs with the E-PM2. Once it got dark, I put away the old DSLR — I knew the images wouldn’t satisfy — the modern mirrorless took over. I zoomed out as night progressed. From a 52mm equivalent to 34mm, to 28mm and finally to 22mm.

Skyline from the Boardwalk - Austin, Texas
Skyline from the Boardwalk (wide) - Austin, Texas

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I took the first two photographs with the Olympus E-1 in RAW and post processed with Aperture 3. I took the next two with the Olympus E-PM2.

Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.