Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

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Precision Camera University, SXSW and what I did for Spring Break

Precision Camera University Models - New Braunfels, Texas

Precision Camera University Models – New Braunfels, Texas

I didn’t officially attend PCU (Precision Camera University) but I was there for a several hours yesterday. Once a year Precision Camera puts on a fun event down at a resort about an hour south of Austin. It lasts 3 days and attendees get in-depth instruction in photography. The sessions tend to focus on portraiture, however, something that I’m not actively working on. Of course it’s always fun to shoot models so I snapped this candid of the entire crew before I headed home.

PCU at T Bar M Ranch - New Braunfels, Texas

I was there to return the OM-D E-M5 Mark II to the Olympus guys. Brett kindly let me use the camera for the last several weeks. It was fun to hang out with the camera reps and addition to Olympus I talked with Fujifilm and Sony. Canon and Nikon were there too but I was less interested since they still haven’t embraced mirrorless.

I played with Fuji’s Instax instant cameras and printer. They brought these fun toys in addition to their more serious digital offerings. Instax is the new Polaroid. Their cameras and printer spit out small, low-res analog prints which magically develop in a few minutes. I was particularly curious about the Instax Share SP-1 which prints images sent to it from smartphones via WiFi.

Instax is decidedly low resolution, but they have a certain analog charm. The Fuji guy said that sales were great and they were a hit with the SXSW crowd. I’ll have to play more with these in the future. At 80 cents per print, they’re certainly not inexpensive, but they’re fun for parties. I printed these from my Instagram library. I do wish they had a square format like the old Polariods which would be perfect for Instagrams. Cropping precisely framed images is a bummer.

Last week during Spring Break, the entire family went to Las Vegas. We had a good mix of hiking and night life as you can see from the Instax prints. I shot like crazy with the Olympus E-M5 Mark II and it didn’t disappoint. The 40MP high-resolution mode at Red Rock Canyon worked well while the 5 stop image stabilization worked brilliantly at night. I’ll have a full report in upcoming posts. Of course, I brought other cameras too, as you might have expected.

Samurai Dynamites at Japan NIte 2015 - Austin, Texas

Finally SXSW is winding down in Austin. I missed the bulk of it due to my Las Vegas trip but I still shot enough to be satisfied. I attended Japan Nite on Friday, SXSW’s Japanese music showcase. As usual, there was a mix of wacky groups, heavy metal and alternative music. The E-M5 Mark II was there too and I shot it differently, with a zoom lens of all things, and it produced a lot of winners. The zoom made things easy and the lighting and the camera performance was good enough that I did need to use a large aperture prime lens.

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It’s SXSW season again, time for more photography, of course

SXSW Sunset - Austin, Texas

SXSW Sunset – Austin, Texas

The light and sunset were nice tonight as SXSW (South by Southwest) kicked off today. It’s Austin’s big multimedia, film and music extravaganza. I was downtown with my friend Mark shooting the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. No playing with high-resolution settings tonight. Just one lens, no tripod and I was in serious street photography mode. And, for a big change, I only used one camera, if you exclude the iPhone.

Cesar Chavez street was decked out with a faux Bates Motel and the new 1000 room JW Marriott was fully operational to greet the onslaught that will overload Austin for the next two weeks. I did a fair amount of shooting tonight and will do more next weekend. I’m going to be busy for the next week but will be back with much more to talk about.

This HDR photo is imperfect but I’m happy with the result. It was hand-held and considering the movement of the camera and the people, the software did a decent job. Sometimes you’ve got to go with what you have. The dynamic range was such that I knew a single exposure won’t do the scene justice.

With SXSW, the Austin Rodeo and new cameras to play with, I’m going to be busy with lots of content. It’s too bad that I keep on falling behind with the other blog topics. I still have more to talk about regarding the Big Bend trip, the recent trip to Japan and the slew of other photos that I shot last year. I’m not optimistic about catching up, anytime soon, but I’ll try to vary the content to keep things interesting.

See you soon.

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I took the photograph with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II in JPEG, since the RAW converter is not available.

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Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II in San Francisco: Exploring high resolution

Golden Gate Bridge from the beach - San Francisco, California

Golden Gate Bridge from the beach – San Francisco, California

One of the new, standout features of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is its high-resolution feature. It uses sub pixel gymnastics to generate 40MP JPEGs or 64MP RAW images. I’ve already talked about it here, with example photos of the high-res mode vs the standard 16MP mode. In this post, I’ll discuss when and where this mode can be most useful.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I shot some iconic scenes. Landscapes, perhaps you can call them fancy snapshots, from this beautiful city. Simply stated, this high-resolution mode requires stillness. Non-movement. The less movement the better. You need to shoot the camera on a tripod but equally important, your subject needs to have as little movement as possible. But what does this mean? Are there special situations where some movement can be acceptable? Read on and find out.

So much of photography is about freezing action. Not just obvious activities like sports but everyday life is a buzz with movement. That means everyday snapshots and street photography won’t work in this high-res mode. Still lifes and interior architecture may be a natural but how about landscapes? That’s what I wanted to explore in San Francisco.

Twin Peaks View #1 - San Francisco, California

I headed from the airport directly to Twin Peaks, where I could capture a dramatic city. This, apparently, non-moving view would be a wonderful place to test the camera — the minute details of a dense city, an excellent subject for high-resolution. But as I discovered, the world moves a lot more than I ever imagined.

First, there are the cars. The curvy road leading up to this vantage point had a steady stream of vehicles which I attempted to eliminate. As you drill into the details however, you notice that streets are filled with movement. And while the yellow wildflowers added a nice foreground element, those too become blurry with a slight wind.

Twin Peaks View #2 - San Francisco, California

I zoomed to 40mm (80mm equivalent), concentrating on the houses and the skyline, hoping to reduce the sources of the movement. But even here, upon scrutiny, there’s the small things. The ever-present cars, the slight sway of trees and the fluttering of flags.

There in lies the challenge with this feature. By definition, I think, you use high-resolution to to revel in the details. Perhaps you want to print really large or maybe you want to crop in extremely tight. On a regular screen, even at 27 inches, or at standard print sizes, you won’t see a difference — for most subjects the default 16MP mode is more than enough. Go to the effort of shooting at 40MP and you get pickier and that’s where you may detect the tiny blurred movements with the odd mesh like texture. I’ve shown a detailed example of this “mesh effect”. It’s a consequence of the sensor shifting, taking 8 photographs of a moving subject and merging them together.

Chinatown Details #1 - San Francisco, California
Chinatown Details #2 - San Francisco, California

I headed to Chinatown for lunch and urban landscapes. Unlike my usual city photos, I sought out static subjects, creating, if you will, urban still lifes. Chinatown worked especially well for details, grungy and full of character.

Chinatown Fire Escape #1 - San Francisco, California
Chinatown Fire Escape #2 - San Francisco, California

The mid-day sun creates harsh shadows but I used it to good effect, I think. Nothing says “old school tenement” to me than fire escapes. I love the patterns.

Transamerica Alleyway - San Francisco, California

This is my favorite urban composition of that day. I like it aesthetically and it also works well with the strengths of the high-resolution mode. Nothing is in motion so I get no unintended blurring effects. Also, I manually shot three exposures to create this high-resolution HDR. The automatic HDR bracketing does not work when set on the high-resolution setting. I had to shoot and then change the exposure compensation between each frame.

Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California
Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California (hi-res)

For my last stop that day, I headed to Battery Crosby for a late afternoon to evening shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Here I discovered another challenge. It was windy up there on the bluff and the tripod vibration adversely affected the high-resolution mode. I do admit that my tripod, while generally adequate, isn’t a super heavy-duty Gitzo. Perhaps a beefy tripod would not have the same issue.

Also, not surprisingly, I lost detail on the ocean with its constantly moving waves. It didn’t just effect the waves breaking on the beach but throughout the entire ocean. In this comparison, the normal photo is on the top and the high-res on the bottom. Click on the photos to view them larger and you’ll see the ocean is sharper in the lower-res version.

I was pleasantly surprised when the high-res photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge turned out wonderfully after sunset, as seen at the top of the post. That was one of the last shots I made that night and the beach was so dark that I needed a flash light to find my way back.

Why did this photograph work? My guess is that the long exposure, smoothed over the details in the water and combined with the darker exposure, hid much of the mesh texture. Upon close inspection, in the water highlights, I see some mesh texture but it’s really subtle. Also, it’s less noticeable on my 15” retina MacBook Pro display. Which probably means, in real life, you have to print really large, in excess of 30 x 40 inches to notice any anomalies.

Redwoods, Muir Woods National Monument - Mill Valley, California

I was ready to write off doing landscapes in high-resolution when I shot this. On a separate trip, I went up to Muir Woods National Monument, a Redwood Forest just north of San Francisco. The air was so still that I had no problems shooting in high-resolution.

So what does this all mean? For the still life photographer, the high-resolution mode is going to be fantastic. And under the right conditions, it’ll work for landscapes too. Ultimately, it’ll depend on how large you plan to view the image. The bigger question is, in these days of smaller displays, where would you effectively use all these pixels?

In my head, I romantically imagine my beautiful high-resolution urban still lifes printed obscenely large and hung in a gallery. That’s the best way to appreciate the power of this feature. The reality, I’m afraid, is that people will continue to see smallish web sized images and have to take my word on the camera’s performance. But believe me when I say, when done right, the details you get with this high-resolution mode are breathtaking.

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I took all photographs with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II in JPEG, since the RAW converter is not available.

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



I’m off to California and I’ll be testing the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Bar Performance with Drama, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Bar Performance with Drama, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

I’m leaving tomorrow for a week in California. I’ll be working for most of the trip but will try to squeeze some photography time up in the City by the Bay. Yup, San Francisco. I’m bringing the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, the small Pentax Q7 system and possibly a small film camera.

Nearly 2 years ago, I tested and reviewed the then new Olympus Pen E-P5 with shots from San Francisco. I’m looking forward to putting the Mark II though it’s paces. I’ll shoot street photographs but will also test the high-resolution 40MP mode.

Here in Austin, I’ve been shooting the Mark II and even recording short videos. There’s a lot to like about the camera. Every iteration of the Olympus micro 4/3 cameras adds a new level of refinement and gets closer to perfection. Is it perfect? No. Nothing is, I guess. There’s still a few things that I wished worked better. I’ll certainly talk about those in the upcoming review.

The photograph up top, I shot it on 6th Street, a week ago. I really like how the E-M5 Mark II handled the colors and light. I shot it in JPEG with minor post processing. The 17mm f1.8 works really well for this kind of thing.

I’ll be back in about a week, hopefully with some decent photographs from San Francisco.

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I took the photograph with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II in JPEG, since the RAW converter is not available.

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Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II: So you want high resolution? How about 40MP?

Dome Ceiling, Texas State Capitol - Austin, Texas

Dome Ceiling, Texas State Capitol – Austin, Texas

I’ve been shooting the brand new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II since Friday and it’s been interesting. It’s kind of neat to use a camera before it’s available in stores, thanks to Brett from Olympus, for the opportunity.

This Mark II version brings a couple of big improvements and a host of small tweaks. One notable feature is the new high-resolution mode that generates 40MP JPEGs and 64MP RAW files. It uses the newest sensor shift technology to make 8 1/2 pixel passes, and combines them in camera to generate high-resolution images. This is strictly a tripod only feature, you can’t hand-hold the camera in this mode. But done right, it’s quite amazing.

Charles and I went down to the Texas State Capitol on Friday to do some testing. Both Charles, who works for Olympus, and I were sporting identical E-M5 Mark IIs with the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. The building was a good subject since it has loads of detail and doesn’t tend to move much in this seismically stable part of the U.S.

Because the camera effectively makes multiple passes to create the image, it doesn’t work well for subjects that move a lot. The camera needs to remain stationary and so does the subject, for the most part. But, it’s not as limiting as I thought, especially for someone like me that frequently uses a tripod. As you may know, I often shoot urban landscapes at night. The high-res mode works like a long exposure. You see motion blur but it may work out OK, depending on the situation. More on this below.

Dome Exterior, Texas State Capitol - Austin, Texas

Look at this example of the State Capitol. The flags are blurred because the high-res mode has combined multiple 1 – 2 second exposures together on that windy night. The net effect is similar to a single long exposure, with of course an immense amount of detail. Also, because the camera is taking multiple pictures, the exposure times for each photo get added together. I read somewhere that the “time penalty” for the high-res mode is about a second, but that’s true only if you have sub-second shutter speeds. Since I shot at ISO 200 at f8, the whole process took a lot longer.

Let’s look closer at the results. Viewed full size on my 27” monitor or on my 15” retina monitor, the regular and the high-res images look identical. We need to zoom in or print them super large to really see the difference.

Dome Resolution Comparison - Regular
Dome Resolution Comparison - High-res

There are two ways to look at the output. First, let’s look at both versions at 100%. Notice that the high-res mode is larger because it shoots at 7296×5472 pixels instead of the standard 4608×3456. What you’re looking at is the ceiling of the Texas State Capitol’s dome. It’s a 950×633 pixel crop from the center of the frame. Reference the first photo at the top of the post for the full image.

Exterior Resolution Comparison

The other way is to set the output of both photographs to the same resolution and compare the details. That’s what I did here. I took the high-res version and shrunk it to the same resolution as the standard-res (both at 4608×3456 pixels). What you’re looking at is a side by side comparison of the shrunken high-res version and the standard version. Both are at 100% crops from the center portion of the photograph above (again at 950×633 pixels). I’m sure you can tell which one was originally the high-res version.

Flag Movement Comparison

Here’s one more comparison. Same methodology. This time, I’m at 100% on the waving flags. The standard exposure was 1.6 seconds long. The high-res version is more blurred since it combined multiple 1.6 second exposures. If you look closely, you might notice a fine mesh like pattern on the waving flags. I suspect the pixel shifting and the subsequent merging process created these artifacts. These don’t look too bad, but look at the next image.

Flag Movement - High Res

The mesh like pattern is a lot more visible at 100% on the high-resolution version. This is an extreme example since there was quite a bit of flag movement and I was shooting with a slow shutter speed. The photo may still work, depending on how large you plan to output the image. But the more movement you have, the more mesh like artifacts you’ll probably see. So shooting on tripod doesn’t ensure perfect shots — much depends on the subject. Even still landscapes might have a certain level of movement due to wind, for example.

So is the high-res mode worth it? I think so, especially for someone like me who is willing to use a tripod. There’s a lot more testing I want to do. How does it work in extremely low light? How does it work for HDRs? During the day with a fast shutter, this high-res mode should work much better, I imagine. I’ll do more tests and report on them, so check back.

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I took all photographs with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II in JPEG, since the RAW converter is not available.

If you find these posts 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.