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My first Big Bend Trip: A city boy is going to the big open country

Planning the Big Bend Trip - Austin, Texas

Planning the Big Bend Trip – Austin, Texas

I’m going to the country. This may not be a big deal for most, but for me, it’s a momentous occasion. You see, I was born in New York City and lived mostly in big cities. Actually, Austin is one of the smaller places I’ve lived. When my family goes on vacation, we go to larger urban areas to recharge.

My situation is a source of endless fun for my friends. After all, I’ve never been camping, never been on a horse and never done other typical outdoorsy activities. Not to say I haven’t lived life though. I ask my nature-loving friends if they’ve ever ridden on the outside of a subway train before. Well anyway, that’s back when I was in high school and they frown upon outdoor train riding in NYC now.

from Austin to Big Bend Map

I’m going to Big Bend National Park, all the way on the South Western end of Texas near the border with Mexico. A photography expedition and a workshop of sorts. My friend Alex Suarez is leading it. Between him and the other participants, we have a lot of experienced people and a total of 8. It will take at least 7 hours, not including food and rest stops.

hiking boots

It’s been interesting preparing for it, mainly the non-photography gear. I’ve gone to REI more than I ever have, picking up comfortable hiking boots and assorted knickknacks. So, I’m going to a desert in the dry season in a middle of a drought and the forecast says it’s going to rain? Are you kidding me? Back to REI for some weatherproof pants.

I even “invested” in a new camera backpack too. A nice Thinktank Streetwalker Pro which seems perfect for the gear I plan to bring. When I travel on planes and through cities, I go light with a small messenger style bag and mirrorless cameras. This trip is different. We’re going by car (minivan actually) and it’s going to be packed to the gills with everyone’s photo gear. We’re supposed to be hiking too, which got me a little concerned. Remember that bit about never being in the country?

I’m going to say it right here, before the trip, that my gear selection might be a colossal mistake. But, I’m doing it. I’m taking 5 cameras! Crazy right? I know. And not all of them are the small mirrorless variety.

Thinktank Backpack

First up, I’m bringing my Canon 6D with the 24-105mm f4 lens. It’s my highest quality digital camera and I’m going to use it for landscapes. I also have an old manual focus Tokina 19 – 35mm which I’ll use for night, wide-angle shooting. Big Bend is supposed to have the darkest skies in the continental U.S., I want to shoot the Milky Way. Oh, did I mention that I’ve only seen the Milky Way once or twice in my life? Stargazing in NYC, not good.

I said in my previous post that I’m getting into Medium Format Film. So, I’m also taking my Mamiya 645E with 3 prime lenses. I now have a 55mm, a 80mm and a 150mm. In 35mm terms, they equate to a 35mm, 50mm and 93mm focal lengths. I’m really curious how medium format film compares to my full frame (digital) Canon 6D. How are the colors? The detail? I think Big Bend will be a wonderful landscape test for both cameras.

I’m also bringing my Nikon 35Ti compact film camera. I get to shoot it along side the big film camera — with the same film. Kodak Portra 400, which I always use and Fujifilm Velvia 100 slide film, which I’ve never shot. Slide film is more challenging than negative film so I’ll see how that goes.

film

I’m taking my ultra compact Pentax Q7 system with 3 lenses. I’ll have the 40mm equivalent prime but also the 18 – 28mm and 70 – 210mm equivalent zoom lenses. The entire system weighs a mere 1 pound. Ironically, I’m going to have the most reach and flexibility with the lightest system. It will be fun to document the trip and I might even use it for landscapes.

Finally, I’m bringing the Olympus OM-D E-M10. Charles from Olympus let me use it along with the wide-angle lens. I’m going to do something special with it, which I’ll talk about after the trip. It will be neat if it actually works.

So there you have it. My crazy kit for my first ever landscape excursion. I won’t hike with all my gear but with tripod and water, the backpack is still going to be 20 pounds. Much more than I’m used to carrying since I’m usually a light and nimble mirrorless guy. We’ll see. As I get tired, I might shed gear on subsequent hikes.

Wish me luck, I should be back Sunday.

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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Moving beyond full frame, I’m now shooting medium format

Water Sports and the Skyline - Austin, Texas

Water Sports and the Skyline – Austin, Texas

You know I’ve been playing with film lately. Well, I’ve taken the next step. I’m now shooting medium format. I’m dipping my toe in the water and have experimented with the first two rolls. Boy, am I liking the results.

I’ve always heard how great medium format is, and I’ve been curious, but was intimidated. I would love to shoot medium format digital, but even with Pentax’s ground breaking 645Z, we’re still talking $10,000 for body plus lens. And the other companies, think $20,000 and up for their setup.

Film, of course, is different. I conveniently get to take advantage of all the people who have abandoned film for digital. Except, as I learn more about the film, I think I’ve gotten the better deal. I consider myself a technologist but I have to admit that old analog tech has some wonderful advantages.

Skyline Rises over the Congress Avenue Bridge - Austin, Texas

I actually started shooting medium format before my trip to Japan. But with all my other posts, I’m just getting around to talking about it. It all started late last year, when I saw a beautiful used Mamiya 645E at Precision Camera. It was in fantastic shape and a complete kit with a 80mm lens was just $375. I jumped at the chance. The fine folks at Precision showed me how to load the 120 film and operate the camera. My feeling of intimidation dropped considerably.

Wondering how medium format is different from 35mm film or digital, image quality wise? I was and that’s the reason I wanted to play with it. The best way to describe medium format is that it has the sharpness and detail of digital but with the wonderful color of film. Viewed at 100%, there is still a slight grain, but it’s very mild, certainly a lot smoother than 35mm. On my 27 inch monitor, full screen, the detail is eye-poppingly sharp but with the mellow warmth of film.

Lucky with the Mamiya 645E - Austin, Texas

Of course no camera test will be complete without Lucky. The Mamiya 645E was a relatively inexpensive camera (for medium format) when it was introduced 15 years ago. It was an entry-level model which cost less than $1500 for a complete setup. It’s not the most refined camera but perfect for getting into the format, inexpensively. Well the mirror slap from the camera was so loud that poor lucky neatly jumped out of his skin.

He got used to it and I took a few more frames. Hand holding this beast indoor is not optimal but I got this terrific shot. The depth of field is ultra shallow and the details, ultra crisp. I’ve been using Kodak Portra 400 film since I’m most familiar with it.

I’ll talk a lot more about the camera and will show interesting comparisons in upcoming posts. It’s interesting, my range of cameras are broader than ever. I’m now shooting with this fairly large medium format DSLR but also with the small sensor Pentax Q7. In a strange way, the two cameras compliment each other. The Q7 is very small, fast and free-form. The 645E requires discipline and precision. It’s fun because I shoot differently and learn skills which, I believe, strengthen each other.

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I took all photographs with the Mamiya 645E on Kodak Portra 400 film. Scanned by Precision Camera and colors enhanced digitally with Aperture 3.

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Introducing my new micro blog, on Tumblr

atmtx Q


I started a new blog, a micro blog actually, on Tumblr.

Over the years, my main blog has morphed into bigger posts with lots of photos and text. My micro blog is simple — photos take center stage. I already have over 100 images from Japan with lots of dark inky black and whites. It’s my attempt to do something new and to share images created exclusively with the Pentax Q7. I call it atmtx Q.

atmtx Q

I’ll have a lot of photos from Japan and beyond and most of them will be exclusive to atmtx Q. My Instagram is shot only with the iPhone and this new Tumblr site will be only be with the Pentax Q system. I shoot more free-form with the Pentax and I want a more free-form way to display those images.

Please take a look and tell me what yo think.

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Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum: One of my favorite places in Japan

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum – Yokohama, Japan

Walking into the nondescript building near Shin-Yokohama station, you have no idea about the special world that lies deep within. At street level, you see ordinary exhibits that talk about Ramen, the Chinese noodle that’s made a big impact in Japan and who’s popularity has now spread to the U.S. It’s a museum dedicated to Ramen, how interesting can it be? Down a set of unassuming stairs, however, get ready to be transported through time.

This was my second visit. I loved it so much that I needed to go again, a couple of years later, this time armed with a tripod and wide-angle lens. Yup, I wanted to create detailed HDRs.

Truth be told, I’m not even a devoted Ramen fan, though not surprisingly, this will be an excellent place for Ramen aficionados. Sure I like the noodles well enough but I can equally be happy with a bowl of Vietnamese Pho. Instead, what I really like are rich urban environments. How strange that this place, more than many places in Japan, gave me a visual feast.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan
Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan

Walk down those ordinary stairs from street level and time begins to warp. You hear faint music and the rumble of trains. You notice that the walls become dingy and the posters, old. You realize that you’ve walked out of a train station and right into 1958 Japan. Shops line the streets — an Ice Cream Parlor, a camera store, bath houses and restaurants. All vaguely familiar but old. An alternate universe from nearly 60 years ago.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan
Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan

It feels like being in an episode of Star Trek where a hidden portal or holodeck has morphed the world around you. The glittering 21st century suddenly and unexpected yanked and replaced with an early modern society. You recognize the gadgets and the lifestyle but it’s distinctly pre-digital. Yes, you’re in an elaborate “amusement park” but one that Disney’s Imagineers would be proud. The detailing is fantastic and for an urban photographer, paradise.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan
Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan

Hidden within the faux-store fronts are real Ramen restaurants. Many from all over the country. The world is unexpectedly large, on two levels. Stairs lead from the “time portal”, down to a courtyard which resembles the typical shopping districts that surround train stations. It’s easy to forget that you’re actually in a basement, several levels deep under modern Japan.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan

It was only hours after I got my new wide-angle lens for the Pentax Q7, used in conjunction with an ultra light but slightly rickety tripod. Luckily, it was adequate for creating HDRs, in my realistic style. I wasn’t sure if tripods were allowed so I purposely used the most unassuming setup possible — nobody said anything.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan

A few years ago, on my first visit, I shot standard photos with my Olympus. While satisfying for most, I came here again to use my full HDR treatment. This place deserved it. Admittedly, my appreciation for cities and the man-made may be unconventional but for anyone with a similar interest, it’s a must.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan
Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum - Yokohama, Japan

I wonder what the Japanese think of this museum and of the late 50s in general. Was it a happy and heady time? It was a mere 6 years before the Tokyo Olympics, when Japan rapidly grew into a superpower. Ironically, when I shot these photos in 2014, it was also 6 years before the next Tokyo Olympics. Modern, bustling Japan, while vibrant, has clearly peaked. Its economy, stuck in an on and off recession for 25 years.

Perhaps more than just a museum, maybe it’s a feel good illusion where the Japanese can be optimistic. A far away time when the economy and the country’s prospects looked limitless. For me, it’s a set where I can experience the romance of made up history wrapped in a controlled and convenient urban veneer. Not a bad way to spend a cold and rainy afternoon.

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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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.



Mirrorless cameras trends in 2015 and forecasting the future


Several years ago, when mirrorless cameras made their appearance, en masse, it was unclear who would buy them. Would low-end, point and shoot users move up to a better camera or would it be DSLR owners opting for a lighter system? In the beginning, most manufactures tended to play the middle but skewed towards entry-level. Turned out, they guessed wrong.

Now the successful mirrorless companies have steadily moved to the higher end. All cater to either DSLR owners scaling down or getting a second, lighter system. Let’s look at the mirrorless companies garnering the most attention, Olympus, Fujifilm and Sony.

Olympus started with the lower cost and smaller Pen cameras but they found greater success with the premium OM-D line. Starting with the E-M5 but breaking through with the E-M1, Olympus has steadily brought higher-end mirrorless cameras to market. The same goes for lenses. With the low to mid-level lenses covered, Olympus is busy filling out their Pro line, weather-sealed, constant f2.8 zooms.

Fujifilm has built a noteworthy lineup of X cameras, starting with the unexpected success of the X100. They quickly moved into interchangeable mirrorless cameras with matching premium lenses. And while they have some entry-level X-M1 and X-A1 cameras, they don’t seem to garner much press. The top end X-T1 gets all the love.

Sony started with the low to mid-level NEX 3 and 5 and moved up the ladder, over the years. While they make the highly regarded Alpha a6000 (and lower end models) it’s the full frame Alpha 7 line that attracts the attention. Along with their partnership with Zeiss, I expect Sony to fill the gaps in their lens lineup with nicer glass.

I almost consider Panasonic more of a video player these days, rather than for still photography. They too get the most attention with their top of the line GH3 and GH4 cameras. Their solid, smaller cameras never seem to gain any notable traction.

Pentax is the odd duck. Their Q system is the least expensive but has a surprisingly satisfying line of lenses. While I’m sure they will always remain a niche player, their small camera is designed for serious photographers. It’s odd. It has a compact sensor but features that are clearly aimed for the experienced. There is a passionate following that have discovered this jewel of a system, including myself.

The two big guys, Canon and Nikon appear to be lost. Clearly their mirrorless offerings where created deliberately to not compete with their DSLR line. They were hoping to cater to the point and shoot move up crowed. As we saw, this was a mistake. Canon’s EOS M was dead on arrival. The Nikon 1 system is better and has potential, but unfortunately doesn’t have the lens selection to attract the serious move down DSLR crowd. Both companies have stated that they are now taking mirrorless seriously with new models on the way. But are they truly willing to release premium cameras and risk cannibalizing their DSLR sales?

So how about the future? I expect more of the same. Olympus, Fuji and Sony will continue to build on their strengths and plug their weaknesses to take on Canon and Nikon via mirrorless. They don’t have a choice since their DSLRs never broke through the Canon and Nikon hegemony. Most of the point and shoot crowd will, if they haven’t already, move to smartphones. The few wanting to move to a better camera will opt for the large sensor compacts like the successful Sony RX100.

I’ve been predicting the slowdown of DSLRs for years but it finally appears to be happening. Perhaps that’s why Canon and Nikon are starting to take mirrorless seriously. While Canon and Nikon are the most recognized in the camera world, will their brand be strong enough to overcome their mirrorless deficits?

The others have a big head start in lens selection. And I would argue for the serious shooters — the kind that would replace their DSLRs — they need a strong selection of quality lenses. Legacy Nikon and Canon glass may work, but are you getting the benefit of a mirrorless system? No, not really. Adapting old DSLR lenses to mirrorless is just a stop-gap. The big question for the big two will be, are people willing to accept this stop-gap as a viable solution? We’ll see.

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