Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography


Morning Blue Hour in Waikiki

Morning Blue Hour in Waikiki - Honolulu, Hawaii

Morning Blue Hour in Waikiki – Honolulu, Hawaii

I finally started organizing my Hawaii photos from a few weeks ago.

As you may recall, I brought 3 cameras on my trip and here are the final picture counts. The Fujifilm X100S with 2219 shots. The Olympus E-PM2 and TG-2 came in about the same with 899 and 963, respectively. At 4081 total images, it’s noticeably less than the 6,500 photos I took in the Netherlands. And out of the 4000 or so photos, a majority are family snapshots.

I didn’t do as much “serious” photography, opting more to both document and enjoy my family vacation. But as you can imagine, I did get some alone time. My keeper rate was lower than usual, however. I was probably more distracted than usual (or less determined, photographically) and didn’t see as well as I usually do.

I’m not a morning person, which usually works fine because the city life that I photograph is more lively at night. But due to the magic of jet-lag, I was up earlier than normal. Blue hour, which I often talk about, happens in the morning too. Here is a rare, for me, blue hour photo from paradise, snapped at 5:31am.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Make sure to click on the photograph to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details.

Comparing sensor size, image quality and the fun factor

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade – Austin, Texas

There’s always a lot of chatter on the net about sensor size. Some people insist that full frame is the only way to go, perhaps because it matches the classic 35mm film size. Other people say the world has changed and full frame is no longer required. That APS-C or even smaller is more than adequate, image quality wise. I always find these discussions amusing. People talk about sensor size but they don’t talk about the tool in relation to the requirements. And by requirements, I’m not trying to get all businessy. You may have stringent requirements for high-resolution photos for a paying customer or your requirement may be as simple as having fun taking pictures.

Where do I fall in the sensor size debate? All over the place, as you can see. You know I own a lot of cameras and I realized that I own and shoot with practically every sensor size from full frame, downward. Here’s a list of my current cameras, arranged from larger to smaller on the sensor size scale.

Sensor Size Camera Type Make/Model Resolution
Full Frame (35mm) DSLR Canon 6D 20 MP
APS-C Compact Fujifilm X100S 16 MP
APS-C Mirrorless Pentax K-01 16 MP
APS-C Mirrorless Sony NEX-5 14 MP
Micro 4/3 Mirrorless Olympus E-PM2 16 MP
Micro 4/3 Mirrorless Olympus E-P3 12 MP
Micro 4/3 Mirrorless Olympus E-PL1 12 MP
4/3 DSLR Olympus E-1 5 MP
1 inch Mirrorless Nikon 1 J1 10 MP
2/3 inch Compact Fujifilm XF1 12 MP
1/1.7 inch Compact Canon G15 12 MP
1/2.3 inch Point and Shoot Olympus TG-2 12 MP
1/2.3 inch Point and Shoot Panasonic ZR-1 12 MP
1/3 inch Smart Phone Apple iPhone 5S 8 MP
Paramount Theater Color - Austin, Texas

So what can you conclude from this list? First, of course, that I have too many doggone cameras. Also, you can tell from the various makes that I’m brand agnostic. I use cameras that fit my needs or piques my interest.

I’ve added an assortment of photos from these cameras on this post. You can hover over each image with a mouse to see which camera I used. With all of these modern digitals, you can make good images, at least at web sizes. As I found out recently, even the 11-year-old 5MP Olympus E-P1 looks great at this size. When talking about image quality, you got to go back to the requirements. What is your target output? How large? What is the purpose of the photo?

Javelina Outdoor Seating, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

Do they need to be printed 8 feet by 10 feet at high-resolution? Are they going to be used only on the web? Perhaps they are just going to be on Instagram or Facebook? If shot correctly, all of these cameras will make good quality 13” x 19” prints, except for, perhaps, the 5MP E-1. I’ve tested this with my own printer to prove it to myself. I wonder how many people actually print large?


There is no question, keeping all non-sensor factors aside, that a larger sensor creates better image quality. They also have better high ISO performance and create a shallower depth of field which can be nice for portraits. But there’s a lot of photography where shallow depth of field is not preferred. Think landscapes, for example. Or try to take a group photo with shallow depth of field.

Performing at the Bat Bar, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

I’m known for shooting street scenes at night so I’m constantly using cameras in challenging dark conditions. There are techniques and technologies that allow one to shoot in the dark, even with a small sensor. I’m not just talking about tripods, which certainly work, but can be cumbersome. Look at this image above. I shot it with the Nikon J1, with a “paltry” 1 inch sensor, which was panned by camera enthusiasts. I too was surprised that with good image stabilization and the right settings, it produces outstanding photos at night, with the kit lens. I especially love its dynamic color.

Foreigner Concert, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

How about this photo from a compact camera. Not bad for something that easily fits inside a coat pocket.

Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California

If you do use a tripod and HDR techniques, you can create images like this which expand dynamic range and challenge cameras with a sensor of any size. Having shallow depth of field seems to be the holy grail for some users but in a landscape photograph like this, having everything in focus is usually desirable. I find it easier to make this picture with a micro 4/3 sensor than with full frame. The naturally deep depth of field on the Olympus allows me to shoot this image quicker which has tremendous benefits.

ROT Rally Parade #3, 2012 - Austin, Texas

Then there is the fun factor, which many people and camera reviews seem to ignore. On an absolute scale, the Canon 6D shoots higher quality photos than the Nikon J1, but I can tell you that the J1 is a lot more fun to shoot. It’s smaller, lighter, focuses faster and shoots quicker. Or take the Olympus TG-2, my waterproof camera that I used on the beaches of Waikiki and Cancun. It’s towards the bottom of the list, image quality wise, but in those harsh environments, it’s the ideal camera. I don’t care how good of a photograph a camera will take, I’m not going to have fun if I worry about salt water sprays and sand particles getting lodged in the lens.

House Park Stadium Sunset - Austin, Texas

Finally there is convenience. Regular people, unlike the photography enthusiasts that visit this site, have practical concerns. Is the camera easy to use? Convenient? Have acceptable image quality? Can I share photos immediately? Most regular people have already migrated to smartphone cameras. They are inexpensive and always accessible. I admit that I’ve been a camera snob and didn’t take smartphone cameras seriously until recently. But used in the right way, they make satisfying images, even for someone picky like me.

A Moody Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco, California (iPhone 5S)

I’ve realized a few things that ultimately changed my mind. First, smartphone cameras continue to improve and, especially under good light, their images have really approached good enough for most everyone. The best place to view these photos are directly on the phone, not necessarily on websites or in large prints. That’s fine because most people’s requirement is to shoot for Facebook or Instagram. Even grainy low light images become acceptable on the small retina displays which people always carry. The 4 x 6 snaps and albums are dead. People have all the pictures they need on their handheld computers that answers phone calls and records memories. A paper album can’t compete with that.

Long Ceiling, Xcaret - Mexico
Jeweled Doorway, Hole in the Wall - Austin, Texas

And talking about fun. I can shoot, select, post-process and upload these smartphone images almost anywhere. Camera manufactures put WiFi on their purpose-built cameras but they are too cumbersome. The smartphone will always trump regular cameras for convenience and fun. Again, it comes down to requirements.

I like to have high quality photos viewable minimally on 27” displays. That’s why I still use purpose-built cameras. But as you can see, I’m open to adopting smaller cameras when the need arises or when it’s more convenient. That’s my benchmark, 27” or larger, except for my iPhone photos which are generally targeted towards Instagram.

So the sensor size argument is silly and simplistic. Next time you hear people arguing about sensor size, ask them what their requirements are and how much fun they want to have. Only then can you intelligently talk about what cameras are right for the situation. Do you really want to lug that hefty 36MP Nikon D810 with the beefy f2.8 zoom lens to take Instagram photos? It’s the best right? After all it’s full frame.

An Assortment of Neon, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Gold and Blue - Breda, Netherlands

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I have 14 cameras listed in the table above and I have a photo from each camera. Hover over the photos with a mouse to see which camera I used. Click on the photograph to see a larger version.

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This blog is now four years old and it’s starting to reunite my brain


A few weeks ago, when I was in Hawaii actually, this blog hit its 4th birthday. I’ve been at this thing as long as it took to get my undergraduate degree. In some ways, I’ve probably dedicated more energy into this endeavor than my formal university education. That may be an exaggeration, but sometimes it feels that way.

So why do I expend so much energy on this thing? I’ve thought about this a lot.

Our analytical left brain works hard to optimize our thoughts for making a living. I’m guilty of this and I’m not proud to admit that my university education was meant as a vehicle for getting a better job, instead of the pursuit of knowledge. But there is so much more to life. Quite unexpectedly, working on this blog has begun to breakdown the walls to the creative and emotional right brain.

What good is making a living, if there’s no emotion and passion to live it?

First through photography and now through this blog, I’m tapping into the long dormant creative side that most of us have mothballed since childhood. And as I slowly jack hammer the wall that separates the two halves, I’ve realized that life can be so much richer. Photography trains me to see. The blog helps me to express.

In the last year, my interest in writing continues to grow. I’ve started dabbling in poetry (Haiku) for the first time. I’ve created my first video. I’ve enjoyed tweaking the look of the site and made a major design change last September. These activities feed my creative side.

But, old habits die hard. My analytical mind is fully present on this blog too. Pavlovian conditioning reinforces equipment oriented posts since they generate the most views. The quest for a larger audience may be misguided, especially if this blog is meant purely as a creative outlet. But life, of course, is more complex than that. Sure the blog soothes my desire for creative expression but that doesn’t mean I don’t want a larger audience.

I’m in an active struggle to balance gear talk with photography and creative expression. The uneasy blending that I’ve been working on is to wrap stories and ample photos around cameras I talk about or review. Truth be told, my equipment reviews are a devious attempt to showcase my photographs on unsuspecting readers. People come to find out about a camera and they are presented with my photos taken with said camera. I hope, dear reader, that you don’t mind.

I have no idea what the fifth year will bring. I’ll continue to break down the walls to my creativity. Hopefully you will find this interesting. Perhaps you too will find ways to tap into what interests you.

Thank you for your continued visits.

Photo Essay: 2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight – Austin, Texas

I wasn’t going to the hot air balloon launch last Saturday. I had no desire to wake up at 5 in the morning. But it was 4:30am when I finished processing and writing about the Leica M camera that I shot on 6th Street the night before. What the heck. I took a quick shower and headed towards Mansfield Dam for the 24th Annual Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight.

I was there, in the same place, 3 years ago — that was my first launch. Its gotten a lot more crowded since then. I was concerned when I saw a line of tripods setup at the perimeter. Were they restricting access because of the crowds? Unlike 3 years ago, I didn’t bring a tripod. I was determined to capture the events, “street photography style” with one camera and lens. You guessed it, with the Fuji X100S. In order to do this, I needed to get in close. I didn’t have the luxury of a telephoto lens.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

Luckily, as the preparations proceeded, people freely mingled between the balloonists. The defensive line of tripods was self-imposed. I was breaking through to get into the action.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

Do you know how they launch these giant vehicles? After everything is hooked up and the material rolled out, they use a stout fan to blow air into the balloon cavity. They hold the mouth open for easy air access.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

We’re in Texas, after all.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

At a certain point, they turn on the gas burners to fill the balloon with hot air. Since the hot air rises, the balloon begins to float upwards. The reclining basket begins to stand erect. Things get exciting, photographically, when the flames come alive.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

They started this process near sunrise so it wasn’t very dark. It would’ve been interesting to capture the glow in the dark.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

The balloons take off quickly. This multicolored one was up and away, a lot quicker than expected.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

All told there were about a half a dozen that took off that day. A small event compared to the ones in New Mexico but my friend Steven said this one was more accessible. He went to New Mexico to photograph those giant 100+ balloon launchings and he said the traffic was challenging. This small one in Austin was perfect for me. Relatively close to home, I got back by 9am and slept until 1.

From downtown street photography on 6th Street to a balloon launching out in the Hill Country, it was a busy 12 hours of shooting last weekend. Either I’m getting lazier or I’m seeing better but I ended up using one camera and a single 35mm equivalent lens to shoot everything. At least I got to travel light.

Challenging Patriotism, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Bachelorette Party, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
A Big Margarita, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3. If you find these reviews and stories interesting, please consider using my affiliate links for any future purchases.

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

Shooting on 6th Street: Comparing the Fujifilm X100S to the Leica M

Ann Shoots the Band, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Ann Shoots the Band, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

The Fujifilm X100S is no slouch.

It doesn’t have the pedigree or the history of the Leica M series cameras but at $1300, you can buy nearly 7 of them for the price of the Leica M and the 28mm f2.8 Elmarit lens. I got to use both cameras at the same time last Friday on 6th Street. A couple of days ago, I wrote about my thoughts on the Leica M with plenty of examples. This time, I’ll do the same for Fuji X100S. All photos in this post are from the X100S.

Keep in mind, this is not going to be a head to head comparison. That won’t be fair. I’ve only shot the Leica M for a couple of hours, with at most, several hundred frames. I’ve had the Fuji since March and have shot close to 20,000 pictures with it. It takes a while to get to know a camera and optimize its usage and image post-processing. That said, I’ve tried to include similar photos, when possible. You can compare these images to the ones I took with the Leica M.

Bar Performance #2, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

I feel like I’m starting to hit my stride with the X100S — the images are starting to match my expectations. Along the way, I needed to get familiar with the camera and learn how to work around its weaknesses. I also tweaked my post processing to bring out richer colors. The thing with the Leica M is, though, I was able to get rich colors from the beginning. Perhaps the Aperture 3 DNG RAW converter does a good job. The Fuji RAW processing, while getting better, has been a challenge for many people. Since I’m getting the look I want, I’ve just decided to shoot it in JPEG and not worry about RAW.

Photographers in Action, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
A Kia on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

JPEGs typically have noise reduction at high ISOs. The Fuji does a great job, I shoot it up to ISO 6400 and it looks good. But inevitably the details are softer at higher ISOs, a concequence of noise reduction. It’s not terrible but when compared to the RAW Leica files, there is a noticeable difference.

The Leica’s photos are sharp but gritty. ISO 6400 works but may be too harsh for some and they might want extra noise reduction. I found that once in a while, even at ISO 5000, I saw some banding.

The question is, do you prefer low noise or more detail? I think most people will prefer’s Fuji’s processing — it more closely matches the expected norm. And of course the JPEG processing can be tweaked to your preferences. That’s something I have yet to explore, I’ve shot my JPEGs with the default settings. More stuff to play with in the future.

Bar Colors, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Many, including me, compare the X100S to Leicas — the Fuji has that retro range finder look. But the Fuji is really just a fancy compact camera with a fixed lens, not a true range finder. And the X100S apes the look of the old Leicas like the M3. The modern digital M, while retaining the general shape is now streamlined, minimalist and larger. It feels like design has trumped ergonomics to some extent. The exposure compensation dial, for example, is placed awkwardly and hard to use.

ATM Glow, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

The Leicas have legendary, uncompromised build quality and the modern M is no different. It’s larger and heavier than expected though still small compared to full frame DSLRs. The X100S by contrast feels small and almost inconsequential. It is not cheap by any means — made of magnesium alloy — but next to the M, the two feel like they are in different leagues.

The M feels like it built for the next 50 years (though I wonder how long the electronics would last). The Fuji is just a solid, well made camera. But for small and compact shooting, the Fuji has the edge.

Lacey and Brittany, Bikinis Bar on 6th - Austin, Texas
Lacey and Brittany, Bikinis Bar on 6th - Austin, Texas

According to reports, the Leica M has greatly advanced from previous M8 and M9. That said, the electronics still seem behind. The Fuji, while I hardly consider class leading in electronics, is still more responsive.

It’s a totally different experince shooting the two. As I mentioned previously, I pretty much used all manual controls to set exposure and focus on the Leica. It’s time consuming but I’m guessing with practice, it should become a lot easier. Like the X100S, and more so, the M requires a lot of hands on time.

The Fuji works like a compact camera with auto-focus and good automatic exposures. I’ve complained about its lackluster focusing but taking a cue from the Leica, perhaps I should use manual focusing, particularly at night. For some inexplicable reason, the Fuji does a poor job contrast detecting horizontal details.

Bike Repair, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Shakespeare's Balcony, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Compositionally, the biggest difference was the 28mm vs 35mm perspective. I’ve gotton so accustomed to viewing the world at a 35mm Fuji equivalent that the 28mm on the Leica seemed strange. I like 28mm, it’s just after 20,000 snaps, 35mm is burned inside my brain. With the 28, I need to force myself to get in closer. Maybe more than the framing, it’s the working distance to the subject that feels foreign. Of course with the Leica, I can change lenses. The X100S only comes with a 35mm equivalent, though there are now adapters to get a 28mm and 50mm.

Lacey at Bikinis, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

East 6th continues to attract me photographically. There is enough grit, details and people to be an ever-changing palette. We usually make a couple of passes along a five block area. After shooting a portrait of Lacey and Brittany earlier, I shot this environmental portrait of Lacey on my subsequent pass.

Jeff Socializes, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

I also like this portrait of Jeff, another in a circle of local Austin photographers.

Challenging Patriotism, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Bachelorette Party, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
A Big Margarita, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

As much as liked shooting with the Leica, it took a lot of concentration. I needed a lot of mental processing to create those images. The Fuji is now easy. Ironic since 6 months ago, I complained about a similar thing between the easy Olympus and the then challenging Fuji.

I imagine with enough time, the Leica would also become “automatic” in manually setting its controls. I think it’s part of the fun of using such a camera. You feel like you are intimately involved in the creation of the image.

The Leica M at this point was a fun diversion, thanks again to Mark for letting me use it. The Fuji is now my primary camera, until, inevitably, I get another. For now it’s working great and as you can see, more than capable of creating late night urban photographs.

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3. If you find these reviews and stories interesting, please consider using my affiliate links for any future purchases.

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