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.



The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Review

Olympus OM-D E-M10 with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 EZ lens

Olympus OM-D E-M10 with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 EZ lens


You want a quick summary of what I think about the Olympus OM-D E-M10? For most users, it’s the best camera you can get for general purpose photography. It does everything quickly and smoothly and has all the features you’ll ever need in a camera. The micro 4/3 format strikes the perfect balance between size and image quality. It also has a boat load of lenses, the most of any mirrorless system.

Do you want a more detailed review? Please continue reading.

I like to start by thanking Charles from Olympus for letting me use the camera for an extended period. I shot this camera on many occasions and have even blogged about it couple of times (here and here), several months ago. If you read those early posts, you know that I often shot the E-M10 alongside my Fujifilm X100S that I purchased around the same time.

By almost every measure, the Olympus E-M10 is superior to the Fuji X100S. It focuses faster, the EVF works better, it’s more flexible and it has interchangeable lenses. I’ll give the Fuji the edge for high ISO quality and it’s probably a bit sharper. However, I’m splitting hairs here. For most people, you won’t notice a difference. Color wise, they both have their advantages. The reality is, however, for most users, the features and capability of the Olympus E-M10 will out weigh the slight advantage in X100S image quality.

So why am I shooting the Fuji X100S more these days than the Olympus? It has nothing to do with the capabilities of the camera, actually. The OM-D E-M10 is like the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Over the years, Honda and Toyota have honed their best-selling cars so much, that they’ve perfected the family sedan. There isn’t much that’s objectionable about them.

Soho Lounge, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Soho Lounge, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

On the Ledge, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

On the Ledge, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

In many ways, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 is like those perfected family sedans. You can’t go wrong buying those sedans or the E-M10. Understand though, that I shoot enough photos on practical cameras that I like to play with something different from time to time. The Accord and Camry are fine cars but their near state of perfection are, well, sort of boring.

That’s why other companies make quirky less practical cars, like the retro inspired VW Beetle or the Fiat 500. Using a practicality yardstick, the Japanese sedans will do most things better, but for a certain driver, the slightly impractical European cars are more fun. That’s the way I view the Fuji X100S. It’s quirky and a pain in the neck, at times. But that’s part of it’s charm. For most people, who aren’t camera nerds like me, I strongly recommend the E-M10. No doubt about it.

I bet you’re looking at those DSLRs aren’t you?

Like most people looking to step up into serious cameras, I’m sure you’ve been enticed by those inexpensive Canon Rebel watchamacallits or the Nikon D3xxx cameras. You certainly get a lot of bang for the buck out of those cameras. They also take great pictures, no question about it. But, I would strongly consider not getting them.

The Olympus E-M10 is going to be little more expensive, so if you’re on a really tight budget, it may not work for you. But, I can almost guarantee, if you’re like most people, you will enjoy the Olympus a heck of a lot more.

First, the performance of the E-M10 is more in line with mid-level DSLRs. It shoots pictures faster and it focuses quicker the the inexpensive DSLRs. But here’s the most important thing. The E-M10 is a lot smaller than even those entry-level DSLRs. I know so many people who end up not carrying their DSLRs because these cameras are cumbersome. They are bulky and they get in the way.

What good is a camera that you don’t want to use? Even my serious photography friends that all have DSLRs are starting to move to the smaller mirrorless cameras. While the DSLRs might be hanging on to sales, especially here in the United States, it’s inevitable that mirrorless cameras will supplant them. The relentlessly changing computer technology assures that these mirrorless cameras advance quicker than the comparably old tech DSLRs.

Do you want to take vacation videos along with those still photos? Keep in mind that most DSLRs don’t autofocus very well when in video mode. There are rare exceptions like the Canon 70D, but most DSLRs and casual home video don’t mix.

Jungles at Japan Nite, SXSW 2014 - Austin, Texas

Jungles at Japan Nite, SXSW 2014 – Austin, Texas

Mothercoat at Japan Nite, SXSW 2014 - Austin, Texas

Mothercoat at Japan Nite, SXSW 2014 – Austin, Texas

But aren’t DSLRs faster?

If you’re a serious sports shooter, the top end DSLRs still have the edge, in general, over mirrorless cameras. I’m talking about Professional DSLRs here that cost upward of $6000. But even this is changing rapidly. As for the Olympus E-M10, I’d say the casual weekend Soccer shooter should do fine. Certainly as well as an entry-level DSLR, probably better. For sports with more predictable movement, the Olympus will do an excellent job.

For random movements of a young child, which can be challenging to shoot with any camera, the E-M10 will do at least as well as an entry to mid-level DSLR. The fast focusing and the 8 frames per second makes it superior.

Sponge Bob Watches, Rodeo Austin - Austin, Texas

Sponge Bob Watches, Rodeo Austin – Austin, Texas

The Design

Olympus E-M10 Details
Olympus E-M10 Details
Olympus E-M10 Details
Olympus E-M10 Details

The Olympus E-M10 is the entry-level model of the OM-D line. It uses the same micro 4/3 sized sensor and mount as the entire OM-D line as well as the Pen line of cameras. It shares a family resemblance to the bigger and older E-M5 as well as the Stylus 1 super zoom. The angular black lines are part of the current Olympus design language — it works well to distinguish the brand from the other cameras. It’s not retro like Fujifilm and it’s also different from the softly rounded DSLR look.

The camera is built from a combination of metal and plastic. The two materials match closely and it isn’t always obvious to me which bits are made of metal. Overall, the camera has enough heft to make it feel like a quality product. Compared to the Stylus 1, for example, which is made of plastic, the E-M10 is clearly upscale. But it also doesn’t have that chiseled from stone feel of the flagship OM-D E-M1. This entry-level E-M10 compares favorably with entry-level DSLRs, which can feel very plastic-y, these days.

Being the baby in the OM-D line, it’s not surprising that the E-M10 is smaller than the E-M5 or E-M1. It fits my smaller hands well. People with large hands, however, may prefer the bigger OM-Ds. There is an optional grip that may help. I actually prefer this design over the older E-M5, which I’ll talk about in the next section.

For light kit zooms and prime lenses, the small E-M10 works great. But attach the premium Olympus 12-40 f2.8 zoom and the camera is not going to feel balanced. The lens is too heavy and bulky for the smaller body and the standard grip won’t inspire confidence. Of course, the lens is compatible and will work but it won’t be the ideal setup. That’s probably true for all the new f2.8 zooms from both Olympus and Panasonic. In a pinch, consider getting the optional grip, it integrates well and makes a significant difference.

The E-M10 has a built-in flash. I rarely use flashes and therefore I always get caught without the extra clip on units that come with the E-M5 and E-M1. I’ve personally experienced the “missing clip on flash” problem with my Olympus Pen E-PM2 and Sony NEX-5. For the rare times I need the flash, it’s nice to have it built-in and the low profile design on the E-M10 also saves space.

With a flip-up rear screen and EVF, the camera has all the required compositional flexibility. None of my actively used cameras have a flip up screen and I really miss this feature. The EVF (Electronic View Finder) while not as high-resolution as the E-M1’s (but equal to the E-M5’s), is certainly adequate. I was able to see my subjects clearly day or night.

The Ergonomics

Olympus E-M10 Details
Olympus E-M10v Details

While smaller than the E-M5, the E-M10 improves the ergonomics for most people, I believe. There were a few things that I didn’t like on the E-M5 — the shape of the front grip, the size of the rear grip and the accessibility of the Play and Fn1 buttons. Olympus did a good job to address all three areas.

Given the size of the camera, I always thought that the rear grip on the E-M5 was too small. The flip out screen took up valuable real estate and the control buttons and grip were squashed in a small area to the right. The play button, which I frequently use, along with the Fn1 buttons are tucked in a small, hard to access area above the screen and grip.

The E-M5 was not comfortable in hand, at least for me. The combination of its weight and undersized grip strained my hand. That, coupled with the hard to access buttons, turned me off from getting the camera. I actually ended up buying the entry-level E-PM2 instead, which ironically had a better grip and button placement.

The E-M10 fixes all these problems. The camera is slightly lighter than the E-M5 and the redesigned grip makes it easier for me to use. Back two years ago, if the E-M10 was released instead of the E-M5, I would have bought it. Even the awkward buttons have subtly been repositioned and juts out for easier access.

Image Quality

I’m not going to talk a whole lot about image quality because it hasn’t materially changed in the last 2 years. While Olympus made a few tweaks, the sensor and image processor on the E-M10 is basically the same as all Olympus micro 4/3 cameras released since 2012. The sensor was ground breaking when the E-M5 came out. Now, all cameras from the low-end E-PM2 up to the flagship E-M1 share the same quality. It’s the features and the external controls that change from model to model. As expected, the more you pay, the more bells and whistles.

The State and Paramount Theaters - Austin, Texas

The State and Paramount Theaters – Austin, Texas

I’ll just say that the image quality is wonderful, but you can judge for yourself, from the photos I posted. I took them all with with the E-M10. Make sure to click on the photos to see a larger version. Also, if you hover over each photo with a mouse, you can see the exposure details. I mentioned that the Olympus micro 4/3 cameras have basically matched the quality of the Canon 7D DSLR. Yes, I know that the 7D is a 5-year-old camera but Canon still sells it brand new and it has a large APS-C sensor. And actually, if you look at Canon’s newer APS-C offerings, you’ll notice that image quality really hasn’t improved much since then. So the current Olympus cameras match the Canon APS-C DSLRs.

But you can argue that Canon has fallen behind in the sensor race. Compared with Fuji, Nikon and Sony APS-C, in general, the Olympus’ high ISO quality trails by a stop. High ISO performance mainly comes in to play when shooting in darker conditions. I shoot my Olympus cameras up to ISO 3200. With the newer APS-C cameras like the Fuji X100S, I shoot up to ISO 6400. However, with the right lenses and image stabilization on the Olympus, much of this high ISO advantage can be minimized.

What all this technical talk says is that for most people, the E-M10 is more than enough camera. You shouldn’t have any issues with image quality.

Teutonic Beautiy, Congress Avenue - Austin, Texas

Teutonic Beautiy, Congress Avenue – Austin, Texas

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

Performers at the Bat Bar, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Performance

Speed

The latest generation of Olympus cameras are fast enough for everyday life. As I mentioned up top, unless you’re a serious sports shooter, this camera should keep up with you. I’ve read that the flagship E-M1 is faster, which isn’t surprising. I can’t personally confirm this since I didn’t test the two cameras side by side. Using the E-M10, however, I never felt the speed lacking in any way.

Image Stabilization

All of the Olympus micro 4/3 cameras have in-body image stabilization (IS). Some are better than others. The E-M10 has a 3-axis system that is somewhat detuned from the class leading 5-axis system on the E-M1 and E-M5. In actual usage, I found the E-M10 to be plenty good for my needs, a noticeable jump in performance from my budget E-PM2. On my E-PM2 with a 28mm equivalent lens, I got stable shots at 1/10 of a second to 1/15 of a second. With the E-M10, I got good shots at about 1/5 of a second. So that’s at least a 1 stop IS improvement.

Tossing Rings, Rodeo Austin - Austin, Texas

Tossing Rings, Rodeo Austin – Austin, Texas

Comparisons

DSLRs

I mentioned already that when compared to entry and mid-level DSLRs, the E-M10 compares very favorably, besting it in many ways. But it’s really the size advantage of the Olympus that’s the key. The body is smaller and the lenses are smaller. Smaller usually means more convenient and you’re more likely to bring this camera with you all the time.

I can’t tell you how many friends have just stopped carrying their DSLRs, both the serious camera nerds as well as the casual photographers. Sometimes, people get hung up on technical minutia. They might buy that big camera and big lens because of technical image quality measurements and then realize that it’s no fun to shoot. Also keep in mind that most users look at images on computer screens or make small prints. Under those conditions, those uber cameras with 24 and 36 megapixels is not going to make much of a difference.

Sony Mirrorless

The latest APS-C Sony cameras such as the Alpha a6000 compare very favorably with the Olympus E-M10. They are both priced about the same and both are very refined cameras. Sony has upped their focusing speed and it’s now faster than Olympus. With a bigger APS-C sensor, the high ISO low-light performance is also better.

The Olympus has the edge with its smaller size, particularly their lenses. Keep in mind that often, it’s the lenses that take up more space than the camera body. Lens size is primarily determined by sensor size. So the larger APS-C sensor on the Sony, causes the lenses to get bigger.

Micro 4/3 also has the most lenses of any mirrorless system, Olympus and Panasonic, as well as a slew of smaller companies, make a lot of compatible lenses. That’s one of the big issues with Sony, their lens selection is lacking, even 4 years after their mirrorless launch. Since Sony released full frame mirrorless cameras (A7, A7r, A7s), their lens development is now split between full frame and APS-C. For this reason, I lack confidence in Sony’s lens roadmap.

Fujifilm Mirrorless

Fujifilm uses APS-C sensors in their mirrorless lineup. Therefore, much of the same image quality advantages and the lens size disadvantages that I mentioned for Sony apply to Fuji.

The big difference is that, unlike Sony, Fuji has really concentrated heavily in lens development. Within 2 years, they released a full compliment of highly regarded optics that cover much of the desired focal lengths. I really applaud Fuji for doing this and their mirrorless lineup is certainly worthy of strong consideration. The prices of the lenses, however, are generally (but not always) a lot more expensive than micro 4/3. And while Fuji has a good offering of lenses, micro 4/3 still has a superior selection.

Performance, such as focusing speed, for Fuji, while improving quickly, still is behind Olympus. Their flagship X-T1 is a strong performer but its pricing is inline with Olympus’ OM-D E-M1. In the E-M10’s price range, Fuji’s offerings are not as strong for overall features and usage, though their image quality and high ISO performance will be superior.

Panasonic Mirrorless

I have to admit that I don’t have much experience with the Panasonic micro 4/3 cameras, though I do own several of their lenses. Panasonic has made a strong name for itself in video and its superior to Olympus in this area. Olympus’ primary advantage is in-body image stabilization which most of the Panasonic cameras lack. It’s an advantage for still photography, though for video I heard lens based stabilization is better.

Cowboys Waiting, Rodeo Austin - Austin, Texas

Cowboys Waiting, Rodeo Austin – Austin, Texas

Olympus OM-D E-M5

I’ve mentioned the E-M5 earlier in the review. It’s still a solid, albeit slightly older camera. Its main advantage is the 5-axis image stabilization and the weatherproofing. I already told you that I prefer the ergonomics of the E-M10.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

This is Olympus’ flagship and it’s significantly more expensive. You get a bigger, beefier camera with a solid build. Of course, you get the 5-axis image stabilization and the weatherproofing. It’s the best camera to get if you have the older, legacy 4/3 DSLR lenses — they work quickly on this body with the lens adapter. Because of its larger body and stout grip, it works well for larger lenses. Read my detailed Olympus OM-D E-M1 review.

Olympus Pen E-P5

The E-P5 is the top of line camera in the Olympus Pen series. It’s a bit confusing since Olympus has 2 lines, the OM-D and Pen but they share the same sensor. It’s really a matter of packaging. The OM-Ds, for now, have built-in EVFs and the Pen line doesn’t. The E-P5 is a beautifully crafted and retro inspired from Olympus’ old film Pen cameras. It’s built better than the E-M10 and arguably even better than the E-M5. I love how it looks and feels. Read my detailed review of the Olympus Pen E-P5.

Which would I prefer, the E-P5 or the E-M10? That’s a hard question. For the price, you certainly get more features with the E-M10. The biggest one being the integrated EVF. The E-M10 uses that same batteries as my other Olympus cameras, which is a nice bonus. The E-P5 uses different batteries.

But the Pen E-P5 is seductive in its build and looks. And the E-P5 also has the 5-axis image stabilization. It’s clearly a more premium camera, and when it was introduced, it was noticeably more expensive. Over the past year the E-P5 prices have dropped, to the point where both cameras are about the same price.

Strapped In, Rodeo Austin - Austin, Texas

Strapped In, Rodeo Austin – Austin, Texas

My Likes

1. A complete set of features for a good price
2. Good ergonomic controls in a small form factor
3. That Great Olympus color
4. Fast focus
5. Accurate Exposure
6. 8 frames per second
7. Solid 3-axis image stabilization
8. Good quality EVF
9. Tilting rear LCD Screen
10. Built-in flash
11. Great lens selection, best in the mirrorless market

My Dislikes

1. On and off switch placed inconveniently near the bottom rear
2. Would prefer stiffer control dials to minimize any unintended changes
3. Does not have an accessory port for external mics

Conclusion

There is little to fault the Olympus OM-D E-M10. It’s a highly refined camera which you can tell has been honed over years of improvements. In reality, very little separates the E-M10 from its slightly older and larger brother, the E-M5. And being 2 years newer, the E-M10 has some new features such as a newer image processor and newer firmware. It has HDR bracketing features, for example, that the E-M5 does not have.

It seems like Olympus added all the latest features, detuned the camera a bit (using a 3-axis IS system instead of the 5-axis, removing the weather sealing) used a slightly less expensive body casing and dropped the price. At $799 it has all the features most anyone will need and it’s solidly under the $1000 mark.

I would seriously consider this over any entry to mid-level DSLR. The image quality is in line with DSLRs and it so much more versatile and fun. The smaller camera is going to allow you to bring it to more places than a comparably bulky DSLR. In theory, a skilled photographer might be able to get technically cleaner pictures from an APS-C DSLR, but for most people, it probably won’t make a difference. Size and convenience wins.

For any one looking for a camera under $1000, it’s the camera I recommend.

Long Legs, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Long Legs, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

6th Street Acrobats, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

6th Street Acrobats, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

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Photographs taken with a Olympus OM-D E-M10 with a mixture of lenses. All photos taken in JPEG and processed using Apple’s Aperture 3. If this review is helpful, please support me by buying my products through Amazon or Precision Camera, you get the same price and I get a small commission.

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The colorful characters of Eeyore’s Birthday Party

2014 Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

2014 Eeyores Birthday Party – Austin, Texas

Eeyore’s Birthday Party is always a fun place for people photography. I once called it the Last Remnant of Hippie Austin. The event has been going on for some 50+ years but I’ve only visited the last three. I thought I posted something last year, but turns out I didn’t. When I compared this year’s photographs to 2 years ago, I noticed some interesting differences.

2014 Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
2014 Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

I’ve changed my style somewhat and while I’m currently on a saturated color kick, the main difference is due to the lenses’ focal length. Look at the photos from 2 years ago and you’ll notice portraits taken with a 90mm equivalent lens. There’s a formality to them, they’re more posed. The narrower angle of view concentrates attention directly on the single subject.

Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

This year, you’ll see more candids and even my posed portraits are more laid back, I think. With the 35mm equivalent lens, I need to shoot differently. I’m up closer to my subjects but I still include more of the environment.

Over the last couple years, I’ve come to realize that I like the 28mm to 35mm focal length. I still shoot 40mm and 50mm at times but that’s not my preference. And though on my urban architecture photos, I go wider to 22mm, 35mm is the ideal half way point for me.

Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

But of course, this means I need to get closer, to get into the action. With a 90mm, I can safely be at the periphery, peering in, without truly committing. This year, I had to get in the midst of the drum circle to get these shots.

Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

I was particularly mesmerized by this woman in black. She danced like she was possessed by the god of free spirit. She moved rhythmically to the changing percussive beat. I shot first at 1/250 of a second to stop the action. Later, I experimented with 1/30 of a second to create motion blur.

Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

Eeyores is now popular with photographers and many swarm the area with DSLRs in hand. Some come armed with two cameras with short and long zooms, strapped to elaborate holstering systems. I think that violates the spirit of this place. A single camera with a single lens is more in keeping. Extra points if you use a small camera with a diminutive prime lens.

Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

Why one lens? This is not a sporting event. It’s more about getting into the spirit of the place and becoming one with the crowd. A small camera up close seems like it just fits. I still have a ways to go. I still go dressed in civilian clothing. I’ve never been a costume person for any event, so it’s going to take a leap for me to truly fit in.

Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

But I like to think, in my own rigid way, I’m making progress. I feel that this year’s images are more relaxed and better captures the mood. A little slice of hippie Austin from a few months back, when the weather was still cool and the grass was still green. I’m trying to stay cool as the summer heat is finally starting to kick in this year.

Stay cool my friends.

Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas
Eeyores Birthday Party - Austin, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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Haiku Photo: W Hotel Staircase

W Hotel Staircase - Austin, Texas

Stairway to Music
Of concrete with added glow
Road to ACL

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Is this the ultimate small camera for HDR?

Patio at Cru, 2nd Street - Austin, Texas

Patio at Cru, 2nd Street – Austin, Texas

Realize that when I create HDRs, I do so because I like the results. I actually dislike the process.

Why? To do HDRs well, I need to use a tripod, which automatically slows me down. It’s something extra I need to pack and carry around, which usually gets in the way. I also have less freedom to compose and unless I’m careful, all the shots start looking the same since I’m shooting from the same height.

Shooting the 3 or more bracketed images takes time too, especially at night. Understand that the more time it takes, the less time I have to shoot other things. A 3 bracket low-light shot might take a minute or more. Consider that blue hour in Austin only lasts, at most, 15 minutes and the peak color is even shorter. Spend a minute or so per shot and I only get several good blue hour images per night.

Then of course, there is all that post processing on computer that needs to be done after I capture the shots. Fortunately, I’ve streamlined the process quite a bit and the software has gotten a lot better so creating the actual HDR image has become easier.

But today, I want to talk about the image capture side of HDR. How can I make it easier and more fun to take brackets on tripod? Well I’ve been working on the part of the equation too.

Colorful Fado, 4th Street - Austin, Texas

For a number of years, I’ve used Olympus micro 4/3 mirrorless cameras to do my HDRs. They are significantly smaller, lighter and faster than DSLRs. My preferred setup? An inexpensive Olympus E-PM2 with a 14mm f2.5 Panasonic lens and an optional wide-angle adapter. The image quality is pretty darn close to my big Canon 6D but infinitely more fun and faster.

Sullivan's in the warehouse district - Austin, Texas
Sully's on the Corner, Warehouse District - Austin, Texas

Consider too that as the camera and lens become lighter, the tripod can also shrink in size and weight. The total effect is significant. Also because micro 4/3 has deeper depth of field, my aperture can be larger and I still get everything in focus. That means that I can shoot faster because I use a lower f number. I use f5.6 – f10 range on the micro 4/3 rather than the f13 to f16 that I might use on a DSLR.

New Office Construction, Colorado Street - Austin, Texas

A couple of nights ago, on a whim, I played around with what might be the ultimate small camera for HDR. Precision Camera was nice enough to let me use the Pentax Q7 with the standard kit lens. Unlike the Sony A7 Review I did last month, this is not a proper “18 Hours with” review. I literally played with this camera for only a few hours. But what I created in that short time was eye-opening.

The Pentax Q7 on top a small tripod

I used the Pentax Q7 to shoot all of the HDR photos on this post. The Q7 is tiny and even smaller than my already diminutive Olympus E-PM2. Look at this thing, It looks totally ridiculous on my tripod, which is one of the lightest full featured tripods available.

The Q7 also has a smaller sensor, much smaller than the micro 4/3. Its 1/1.7” size is typically used in high-end compacts like the Canon G16. I know, I know you’re thinking “Wouldn’t that small sensor be too noisy in low-light?”. Well, I’m here to tell you that, surprisingly, no. Shot as a ISO 100 JPEG on tripod the images look fantastic.

Willie Nelson Statue, 2nd Street - Austin, Texas

Here’s the thing, because the camera is even smaller than micro 4/3, you lighten the load even more. It might be tough to find a decent tripod significantly under 2 pounds so it might not help with the tripod weight, however, the camera and lenses are tiny. You save space in your camera bag or you might not even need a bag. Extra lenses are so tiny that they easily fit in your pocket.

But here’s the biggest thing. Because the depth of field is so deep, I shot these HDRs at f2.8, which is the widest aperture I had on the kit lens. Instead of taking a minute or longer to capture the HDR brackets, I did so in 4 to 5 seconds, at most. I also didn’t need to precisely focus since, again, basically everything is in focus. I can’t tell you how quick and truly enjoyable this made the entire HDR capture process.

Trace at the W, 2nd Street - Austin, Texas

The standard kit lens has a 35mm equivalent from 23.5mm to 70.5mm. The crop factor is 4.7x, unlike micro 4/3 which is 2x. That means, for me, all I need is the kit lens. At 23.5mm, it’s wide enough for most of my shots, and I also have the flexibility of a 3x zoom range. Want to go wider? Pentax makes a small ultra-wide zoom with a 18mm to 28mm equivalent. Did I tell you that the Q7 is the smallest interchangeable mirrorless camera? Penxtax currently has 8 interchangeable lenses.

Jo's on 2nd Street - Austin, Texas

Is the image quality as good as micro 4/3 for HDRs? Very close but the Olympus is a bit better. First, the current Olympus cameras are 16MP and the Q7 is only 12MP. At 100%, while not noisy, there is almost an imperceptible ultra fine grain to the image. I don’t find it objectionable at all.

The biggest issue I found is probably due to the kit lens, rather than the sensor. If you look at the bright lights, you see a bit of flaring or coma. It’s not ideal but I can live with it — it gives a certain character to the image. Plus, I found that even an expensive Sony/Zeiss lens also exhibited this trait on the Sony A7 that I tested last month (more about his in a future post).

Finally, did I tell you the Pentax Q7 plus the kit lens costs only $350? Yup, you can get it here from Precision Camera or here from Amazon.

So, am I going to buy this camera? I’m very tempted, perhaps later in the year. I already own a boat load of cameras so I need to do some mental justification. I want to borrow this camera again for a proper “18 hour review” in the future. I’ll test other aspects of the camera to give you a full impression.

But here’s the take away. The Pentax Q7 is a heck of a small camera and heck of a lot of fun. And at $350 brand new, it is a lot less expensive than most HDR setups and it’s probably the most convenient.

Berry Austin, 2nd Street - Austin, Texas
ATM on Congress - Austin, Texas
Precision Camera
Thank you to Precision Camera for letting me borrow the Pentax Q7.

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I took the photographs with the Penxtax Q7 and the standard kit lens. You can support me by purchasing the camera through these links. You get the same price and I get a small commission. Get it here from Precision Camera or here from Amazon.

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SoCo and Kitsch: Experimenting and gradually losing the fear of color and contrast

The Stores of SoCo - Austin, Texas

The Stores of SoCo – Austin, Texas

I’m usually down in SoCo (South Congress) after hours, at night. But last Saturday, I went during the day with my sons. The stores were open and I got to explore the eclectic jumble that makes SoCo fun.

The Fuji X100S worked well. And while I’m now comfortable shooting the camera, with some 15,000 exposed frames, I haven’t always been thrilled with the color. The images onscreen look decent but they look somewhat wimpy when printed.

Lots of Skulls, Uncommon Objects - Austin, Texas
Doll in Library, Uncommon Objects - Austin, Texas

I like saturated color. I’m no film expert but from what I see, film seems to be more saturated yet with a subtle dimension. Digital looks flat and dull to me. That’s why I alter every photo on my computer, whether shot with JPEG or RAW. But, there’s a nagging feeling that the now colorful photos still look digital. Perhaps I need more experience in post processing? The X100S, while having excellent image quality, looks anemic, even when compared to my other digital cameras. It doesn’t always have that rich color that I really like.

Shopppers, Uncommon Objects - Austin, Texas

The wonderful color I’m getting from my 11-year-old CCD based Olympus E1, got me thinking. Is a CCD sensor truly better for color than the modern CMOS sensors? Perhaps I need to tweak my post-processing and experiment. I also admit that I’ve only lightly played with the in-camera Fuji film simulations. My initial tests were inconclusive, so I still shoot mostly in the default Provia mode.

Edison's Art, Uncommon Objects - Austin, Texas
Extra Letters, Uncommon Objects - Austin, Texas

All of the photos on this post are the results of my experimentation. I’ve increased mid-level contrast and added more vibrancy. The results seem promising. I haven’t achieved that film look but the X100S seems more in line with my other digitals. No doubt, I’ll tweak more, over time. My style will most certainly evolve as my tastes change and experience increases.

Incidentally, the Breda, Netherlands night photos I posted a couple of days ago also incorporates my latest post-processing settings.

Alter Egos, Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds - Austin, Texas
Machine from another era, Goorin Bros. - Austin, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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Breda, Netherlands at night

Gold and Blue - Breda, Netherlands

Gold and Blue – Breda, Netherlands

You knew it was coming, didn’t you? The urban night-time scenes? Until now, almost all of my postings from the Netherlands were from the daytime, which is unusual for me. As you know, I like the night-time in the city.

Being a tourist in a foreign country, it’s inevitable that I shoot more during the day than usual. Compared to the regular tourist, however, when they wind down after dinner, I’m just getting started on my second half of my photography. Breda was easy because the town is small and the hotel was nearby.

I shot these throughout the week. During the weekdays, I still went out at night to shoot after work, even if I was tired. It wasn’t a big deal though. Photography is relaxing for me, even when I’m in a directed, “gotta get the shot” mode. I would go out and eat and strolled through the center of town, getting both my creative fix as well as getting much-needed exercise.

A Touch of Blue and Purple - Breda, Netherlands
Classic Hallway - Breda, Netherlands

I walked like crazy and my Pedometer App registered 10,000 to a high of 20,000 steps in a day, which is anywhere from 4 1/2 to 9 miles. I’m glad I had a light camera with me — no bulky and heavy DSLR to slow me down. While my feet might have ached a bit, my shoulder and back held up well.

Corrine at Dinner - Breda, Netherlands
A Table by the Window - Breda, Netherlands
Cafe Corenmaet Interior - Breda, Netherlands

I also had the pleasure of exploring the city with Corrine who was on a business trip from Shanghai. I met her at the hotel as we both checked in at the same time. We did some touristy exploration of Breda, which doesn’t take long. We also had a few pleasant dinners together.

She was patient as I snapped my photos throughout our city exploration. Luckily by then, I was pretty fast at shooting the Fuji X100S. The camera worked well for taking her portrait in the very dark Cafe Corenmaet as well as shots of its moody interior.

A Bus at Breda Casino - Breda, Netherlands
Breda Casino at Blue Hour - Breda, Netherlands

Leave the pedestrian only center of town and you have cars and buses that loop the central core. Traffic was still light and I probably saw more bicycles than cars. This impressive building is the Breda Casino, which appears to be stylishly modernized. Notice that artistic windows inset into the brickwork. No gambling for me. I was too busy taking photos.

Closed Shops by the Grote Church - Breda, Netherlands
Wok to Go - Breda, Netherlands
Crowded Outdoor Seating - Breda, Netherlands

All of the shops closed early except on Thursdays. But the bars and restaurants are open late. The outdoor seating bustled with people into the night. My previous Breda post showed a quiet place with no people, but that was early in the morning. I like a place that doesn’t shutdown at night. I was actually surprised with the amount of activity, given that Breda is such a small city. Perhaps the Dutch are night owls like me.

Studio Dependance - Breda, Netherlands
A Night on the Town - Breda, Netherlands

The bars and clubs clustered around the big Grote Church in the center of the city. These places had bright color but were more subdued than 6th Street in Austin. Most of the places were really small but people were packed into the bars and I saw some lively dancing.

Coyote Ugly - Breda, Netherlands
Orange Flags - Breda, Netherlands

I was more of an observer and had just a couple of beers. I was definitely more interested in documenting the city instead of partying the night away. That’s the problem being somewhere for only a short time. I feel compelled to use my limited time for photography.

In Austin for example, I would more often pop into the bars and relax with a drink. I don’t have the time pressure there since I’ve been to 6th Street often and I really didn’t have to shoot any more photos.

Purple Facade - Breda, Netherlands
De Markt - Breda, Netherlands
Grote Church Illuminated - Breda, Netherlands

While I think I got the feel of the place, I certainly could have stayed longer. That’s the great thing about photography on business trips. Instead of being all alone in some business hotel cooped up in the room, I get to explore new places. It certainly keeps me entertained during the non-work hours. It also helps when it’s a charming place like Breda filled with endless details to photograph.

Golden Warmth - Breda, Netherlands
Felicia Bruidsmode - Breda, Netherlands
Closing Time, The Burger Bar - Breda, Netherlands
Old World Night Scene - Breda, Netherlands

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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An estate sale and contemplating my legacy of photographic clutter

Furniture for Sale, Estate Sale - Austin, Texas

Furniture for Sale, Estate Sale – Austin, Texas

I went to my first estate sale a couple of days ago. It was mildly saddening. So many of us in the affluent West spend time buying things and work the many hours required to pay for these items. Inevitably, these precious things become fodder for pop-up junk sales.

A neighbor mentioned that the estate had a lot of photography related items. I was curious so I went. By the time I got there, I saw some old film gear and endless boxes of slide carousels. No doubt the owner was a serious photographer but mostly in the film world. There were a couple of really old digital point and shoots, completely overpriced. I think it’s really risky to buy gear in these situations, especially digital. You have no idea if they work properly. I would prefer to buy from a reputable local store or a place like KEH where they offer money back guarantees.

What did interest me, however, were the books. There was a sizable library of photo books, both portfolios of famous photographers as well as how-to guides. The collection was telling. Books on early versions of Photoshop and how to move from film to digital. Did the owner successfully make the jump to digital? Of course, I’ll never know. Most portfolios focused on landscapes or on the Western U.S. I saw no books on street photography, for example. I guess you can tell a lot from someone’s collection.

Photography Books found at an Estate Sale - Austin, Texas

I found 4 books of interest and at a couple bucks a pop I added them to my personal collection of clutter. There’s “Avedon’s at Work in the American West”. Presidential photographer David Hume Kennerly’s beautiful black and white collection shot on a medium format Mamiya 7. Ansel Adams’, The Making of 40 Photographs. The only color book was from famous landscape photographer, Galen Rowell.

I thought about my legacy of photographic clutter. Instead of stacks of Kodak carousel slide boxes, I’ll have plastic external hard drives, completely useless without power. At the rate I’m going, I’ll have a bewildering array of digital cameras with no discernible connection. Perhaps my heirs will find this blog and try to make sense of it.

Someday in the future, my “junk” might be auctioned off at a fraction of their original prices. My photo stuff will be bought by someone who will then add it to their pile of junk. On the other hand, digital retains very little value so my cameras might be trashed altogether. Perhaps the books that I bought today will be worth more than the digital cameras I often write about.

Photographic Clutter, Estate Sale - Austin, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Olympus E-1 in RAW and post processed with Aperture 3.

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360 Bridge Fireworks, the 2014 edition

Red, White and Blue, Fireworks over Lake Austin - Austin, Texas

Red, White and Blue, Fireworks over Lake Austin – Austin, Texas


A couple of friends and I went to the 360 bridge yesterday. What do you do when it’s the 4th time you’re at the same place taking photos of the same thing? You change things up, photographically, both with the gear and the technique.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly good way to wrap up the 4th of July and it’s more convenient than the downtown location. This year though, the downtown venue was switched to the Circuit of the Americas F1 racetrack, many miles to the east, because of ongoing construction. When I started receiving hundreds of extra hits on my blog about last year’s 360 Bridge Fireworks, we realized things may be different this year.

We got there 30 minutes earlier than usual, just in case. The weather was remarkably comfortable, especially for being in Central Texas in July. Sure enough, the crowds started earlier and crested to a level I haven’t seen in my past visits.

I brought the same camera, the Canon 6D with the same 24-105mm f4 lens. In the previous years, I took multiple brackets, not unlike HDR, so that I can merge the fireworks and the ground to create a more dynamic image. The ground requires more light to brighten the murky shadows but the fireworks themselves need less of an exposure to capture color and detail. It’s an effective technique to merge two photos but requires an extra effort in post-processing.

With an ample supply of images in my library, I experimented this year. Would I be able to take a single shot and manipulate that to get something desirable? I was going to push my RAW file to discover the limits of dynamic range.

But wait. How would that ancient 5MP CCD sensor on my Olympus E-1 do? From my previous outing, that camera looked like it was no slouch in the dynamic range department.

There I was, a “mirrorless camera guy” with two DSLRs in front of me on tripods. On the left, the 11-year-old 5MP Olympus E-1. On the right, the modern Canon 6D with a 20MP full frame CMOS sensor. The focal lengths differed, a 28mm equivalent on the Olympus and 24mm on the Canon. Let’s see how they did.


Olympus E-1 before

Canon 6D before

I shot both at roughy the same exposure settings and I caught a very similar fireworks burst for comparison. You can see that the RAW exposures are roughly equivalent. Both cameras were set at ISO 100. The Olympus was a f8 for 10 seconds. The Canon at f10 for 13 seconds. I cropped the Canon photo to approximate the Olympus’ composition.

Fireworks over Lake Austin (2014) Olympus E-1 After - Austin, Texas
Olympus E-1. After
Fireworks over Lake Austin (2014) - Austin, Texas
Canon 6D, After

I post processed to match each other as closely as possible. I preferred the out of camera colors of the Olympus so I used that as the benchmark. The results? Surprisingly similar but with one large caveat. This is where the old Kodak CCD sensor in the Olympus showed its limitations. Despite shooting at ISO 100, the 10 second exposure of the dark scene rendered uniform red, green and blue hot pixels. The random and distributed nature makes them look like stars in the night sky. Alas, I also see these “stars” in the water and every place else in the image.

It’s a shame, really. Without these hot pixels, the results would be very desirable. Not surprisingly, the 6D has high-resolution and low noise — it’s technically superior. But I still prefer the colors and feel of the Olympus. Amazingly, the dynamic range is a close match. Consider that’s with a 11-year-old sensor that is nearly a 1/4 of the size of full frame.

I’ve been beating the drum over the years for high ISO performance, like many others. But the CCD performance makes me want a modern, higher resolution version that I can shoot at low ISOs. Something, of course, that is also affordable. I don’t know of a camera that fits the bill.

Boat Trails on Lake Austin - Austin, Texas

The photographic fun doesn’t stop after the fireworks. As the boats drift home, a bulb exposure makes some entertaining motion trails. This one was at 137 seconds.

I still prefer the blended image that I did in years past. The single post processed photograph didn’t match the dynamic range of a blended and manipulated image. But this got my thinking. What’s the dynamic range like on a modern CCD sensor? I’m not crazy enough to plunk down piles of money on a digital medium format system but it would sure be fun to play with one.

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Firework photographs taken with the Canon 6D with the Canon 24-105mm f4 L lens and the Olympus E-1 with 14-42mm kit lens.

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Happy 4th of July: The beautiful reds from a community get together

A pair of dogs, 4th of July Party - Austin, Texas

A pair of dogs, 4th of July Party – Austin, Texas

Happy Independence Day to my American readers. Here are some images from a typical 4th of July party. I noticed a lot of beautiful reds, captured especially well by the Olympus E-1 that I’ve been playing with recently. Unlike yesterday, where I shot dim and moody photos at night with a tripod, today’s daytime shots were all handheld.

A Patriotic Centerpiece, 4th of July Party - Austin, Texas

The E-1 is an ancient 11-year-old camera but its Kodak CCD sensor intrigued me. Some like the old CCD sensors better than the modern CMOS — they claim it has better color and more of a film like quality. I don’t have enough experience with film to really compare but I do notice a difference in color rendition.

Well Grilled, 4th of July Party - Austin, Texas

This E-1 DSLR is ideally suited for daytime use. For maximum quality, I need to stay at or below ISO 200, though in well-lit places, ISO 400 will also work.

Brownies with Color, 4th of July Party - Austin, Texas

I experienced a sense of freedom not having to use a tripod and the good light made the autofocus work a heck of a lot better. I made a mistake though. I forgot to reset my exposure compensation from last night, which I realized half way through. I was one stop over on this image. It recovered well in RAW though.

Watermelon Slices, 4th of July Party - Austin, Texas
Lightning McQueen, 4th of July Party - Austin, Texas

I must say I’m really liking the colors. I have complained about the reds on some other cameras, such as the Fuji X100S. I think these look swell.

Have a great 4th of July weekend.

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I took all the photographs with the Olympus E-1 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 new (old) camera goes to Drink and Click at Rainey Street

Textured Fence, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

Textured Fence, Rainey Street – Austin, Texas

I mentioned in my previous post that I just got a vintage Olympus E-1, a 11-year-old DSLR with a 5 megapixel sensor. As you can guess, since it’s my newest (old) camera, I’ve been shooting it a lot. It can be a bit challenging to use, especially at night, which I’ll explain below.

Javelina Outdoor Seating, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

Do you notice anything different about the color and the overall feel of the photographs? I see it clearly on my 27” monitor but I’m not sure if it comes through on these smaller web sizes. You can also click the images to get a larger view. The E-1 uses a different sensor technology that’s rarely used anymore, a Kodak CCD. All the new cameras use CMOS sensors.

Some say, CCDs have a different kind of look from the modern sensors. I was curious so It’s one of the reasons I bought the camera. But shooting this antique requires more effort. Anything over ISO 400 is very iffy but really it’s good to stay at or below ISO 200. That means at night, I need to use a tripod. I shot these at ISO 100.

Rainey Street Sunset - Austin, Texas

I haven’t done any scientific tests but I swear the dynamic range on this sensor is better. I exposed for the sunset enhanced clouds and the foreground cars and building were mostly black. The RAW post-processing was able to pull out all this detail from the shadows. It’s a little rough but surprisingly acceptable.

Textured Fence at Night, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

As it gets darker, focusing slows down and quickly becomes unusable. The viewfinder is not large enough to manually focus. Also, the image preview on the 1.8” LCD screen is so fuzzy, I can’t check focus on that either. I’m basically flying blind. It’s still easier than film though, at least I can get an estimate of exposure from the rear screen.

Javelina Entrance, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Mixed Facades - Breda, Netherlands

I shot these last night at Drink and Click on Rainey Street. The late evening rain added some extra character to an already neat part of town. Rainey Street is filled with bars converted from once residential houses — each one is unique. We started at Javelina and moved next doors to Craft Pride a couple of hours later.

As usual, I really like the casual and social aspects of Drink and Click — it’s not your typical photography meet up. Everybody is laid back and it was the perfect place for me to catch up with friends and methodically shoot the Olympus E-1. I suggested that we should have a vintage camera night.

And although vintage film shooters may scoff at a relatively new 11-year-old camera, digital doesn’t have the years of fine tuning that film went through. I would argue that a digital camera from 2003 is more primitive than a film camera from 2003. Regardless, I’m enjoying the color and feel of these E-1 photographs. I believe they have a more mellow appearance.

The Glow at Craft Pride, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Interior, Craft Pride on Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Olympus E-1 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.



Diving into digital camera history

Paramount Theater Marquee - Austin, Texas

Paramount Theater Marquee – Austin, Texas

I mentioned last week that I was moving into a fun but dangerous territory for gear acquisition. I recently purchased two cameras, one about a month ago from Precision Camera, the other got delivered this week from KEH, a place specializing in used gear. I’m having so much fun shooting the camera from KEH that I’m starting with that first.

I shot the photograph above with an Olympus E-1. A 11-year-old DSLR with a 5 megapixel sensor. It’s ancient (by digital standards), primitive and slow — and I love it. You didn’t expect a mirrorless camera guy like me to get a DSLR, right? Well this camera is kind of special, for many reasons. I’m not going into the specifics just yet — you’ll have to wait for a future post. Olympus historians, however, will know why this camera is so ground breaking.

The July 4th, Independence Day holiday is upon us and I’ll be shooting the E-1, among others, to see how it does. How can this ancient compete with the young whippersnapper digitals? I think you’ll be surprised. I have great hopes, at least. We’ll see how it measures up.

I told you I’m getting into some wacky cameras.

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Breda, Netherlands: A small city with irresistible charm

Cobbles and Charm - Breda, Netherlands

Cobbles and Charm – Breda, Netherlands

Living the typical suburban lifestyle in the United States, it’s easy to forget how charming cities can be. Even living in Austin, which is probably better than many places in America, one realizes we have a ways to go.

Breda, in the southern part of the Netherlands, is a small city of about 180,000. It’s smaller than some bedroom communities in the U.S. But what’s different from many modern, car based cities is the density of development. The central area is remarkably compact with many of the daily necessities within walking distance – courtesy of urban development pre-automobile. For an urban photographer, it affords endless details.

Moat and Bridge, Breda Castle - Breda, Netherlands

From the train station to downtown, you pass through the very green Park Valkenberg, which I enjoyed capturing in an earlier post. Right next door lies Breda Castle and other historic buildings the mark the start of the man-made. It even has a moat which rings the castle and the rest of the central downtown.

Shiny Cobblestone - Breda, Netherlands

The cobblestones add pleasant visual texture but was a hassle for pulling wheeled luggage. But seen at night, especially when wet, they give that extra sparkle that makes these places special.

Repeating Windows and Delicate Trees - Breda, Netherlands
Mixed Facades - Breda, Netherlands

Structures blend seamlessly from government buildings to apartments to restaurants. Most follow a uniform scale that makes them harmonious. There is enough facade variation to add interest but enough consistent structure to enforce a sense of order.

Grote Church Exterior - Breda, Netherlands
Grote Church and Cafes - Breda, Netherlands

The large Grote Church dominates and anchors the city — most of the night life congregates around it. Unlike Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, which is surrounded by the famous red light district, Breda’s signature church is surrounded by restaurants and bars. It’s a lot more accessible and family friendly. Of course many have cafe style outdoor seating.

Empty Cafe - Breda, Netherlands

I asked many Dutch if Breda is a regular city or more upscale than normal. I got different responses and I couldn’t form a definitive opinion. What’s evident is that, while this place would be viewed as a high-end neighborhood in the United States, it’s one of many nice places in the Netherlands. Imagine all the detail and interest of Disney’s Magic Kingdom without the references to fantasy characters or amusement rides.

Giant Tree Counter Balances - Breda, Netherlands

It’s a real place with real people who live, work and shop there everyday. For a city slicker, it might be a bit small and the quaint architecture might ultimately not suffice. But I had a heck of a fun time for a week. It doesn’t have a lot of tourist attractions and that’s fine by me. I’m always more interested in seeing and documenting the real, everyday places, at least here in the Netherlands. In America, the equivalent “real and everyday places” would be strip malls and suburban tract homes which, somehow, wouldn’t be the same.

I shot many of these early in the morning on Saturday, so it’s deceptively quiet. Several hours later the cafes would be full of people. The area near the church was especially active and well into the night. It’s where the people partied.

Ever Present Grote Church - Breda, Netherlands

I know several Dutch living in the U.S. and asked them why they left. Didn’t they like the finely crafted charm, meticulously layered over centuries of development? They all mentioned how terrible the weather was. Dark and gloomy in the winter with all that rain. It turned out that I was there during the good time of the year but even I got to experience the wetness for 6 of the 11 days.

On the plus side, I got to take some great night shots in the rain. Here’s one that I took in Amsterdam. I’ll do more rain-soaked and beautifully reflective posts from Breda, in the near future.

Majestic Structure, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Cafe and Bike - Breda, Netherlands

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG 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.



6th Street Blues: A creative experiment in video


I’ve been thinking of making a video for a while. But it’s been an uphill battle — my resistance has been strong. Unlike still photography, where enthusiasts can create professional quality, video is so hard to do well. My perfectionist self made excuses to not even try.

So I’m releasing this video knowing full well it’s far from professional. But I’m happy with the results, for the most part. I think it’s a notch or two above a typical home movie. I guess the important thing is that I’m taking creative risks.

I filmed it using the Nikon J1 that I brought at the beginning of this year. It’s a really fun camera and I’ve taken some great shots with it. Part of the reason I wanted the J1 though was for the video. I noticed that the autofocusing video was very smooth and the saturated colors gave it more of a cinematic feel. But there was a problem. I wanted to shoot at night but the standard kit lens was not bright enough. Sure it did decent low light stills with a slow shutter speed but the video wants a 1/60 second shutter.

So I got myself a new lens. The 1 Nikkor 18.5mm f1.8, which gives a 50mm equivalent view. I was hoping the bigger aperture would capture enough light to film at night. You know that’s my preferred venue, the dark urban streets. The only downside? The 18.5mm doesn’t have image stabilization — I certainly lost the smooth flowing feel of the kit lens. But at least I could shoot at night.

I used Apple’s iMovie, a consumer video editing tool. I’m not ready to tackle the more serious Final Cut Pro application just yet. iMovie had a video stabilization feature that works surprisingly well and happily it took the jitters out of my non-image stabilized footage. The video was shot and posted in Full HD but it looks soft to me. No doubt the Nikon J1 is far behind the class leading Panasonic GH4. But for now, it a small inexpensive camera that fills my video needs.

So here is a video view of East 6th Street that I shot last Saturday. It was a typical night. I’m sure you’ve seem many of my photos from there but the video certainly adds a different dimension. I hope you like it.

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Moving into a fun but dangerous territory for gear acquisition

As you can guess by now, I have a lot of cameras, mostly digital. I got rid of a few cameras last year but replaced them with newer ones, so my total camera count went up. But now I’m moving into a fun and potentially dangerous phase of gear acquisition. My past camera purchases were governed by some degree of logic. I had a particular set of needs and I found devices that best met them.

The reality is that I have all the cameras I’ll ever need for the type of photography that I do. Sure, if I were asked to shoot the next Olympics, I would bust out the credit card for a Canon 1DX. But I feel reasonably sure that this won’t happen.

What I’m doing however, is shifting from practical to quirky. These new cameras fill no logical hole in my equipment arsenal, I get them because they’re fun. And that’s dangerous. Dangerous because my equipment wants are now totally disconnected from any sense of reality. Think of it as the pin hole-ification of my equipment choices. Pin holes create a neat effect, but is it practical?

The first shift towards this new-found reality happened with the Fujifilm X100S. Yeah, it was a present to myself for my 50th birthday but did I need it? No, of course not. The camera was frustrating, challenging and I’m learning a lot. It was the main camera for my Netherlands trip and I’m happy with the results. I grew as a photographer by using it. But, viewed logically as tool, I really didn’t need it. I could’ve easily bought an Olympus 17mm f1.8 lens instead. It would’ve been cheaper.

I learned that every camera pushes me in a certain way, especially if it has noticeable limitations. It’s these limitations that forces creativity. I’m no longer looking for that perfect uber camera. My random assemblage of devices fulfills my basic needs. It’s now time to experiment.

That’s the benefit of not being a Pro. There is no mental calculus required to justify my purchases. There’s no accountant that expects a return on investment. I’m an amateur and it gives me freedom.

I’m going to come clean. Yup, I’m suffering from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). The only justification I can offer is that at least I’m not buying expensive Canon L lenses. No, my purchases are more fun (and less expensive) than that. I bought a camera a few weeks ago from Precision Camera and I bought another one today, online. I’m entering a new realm. I’m going to collect interesting, unique, quirky and somewhat historic cameras. I’ll blog about them, of course. And as expected, I’ll shoot the heck out of them too. After all, despite all the gear talk on this blog, photography is the most important reason I’m doing this.

I’m sure you can’t wait to see what wacky cameras I come up with.

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18 Hours with: The Sony A7 Review

Coyote Ugly Promo, 2014 ROT Rally - Austin, Texas

Coyote Ugly Promo, 2014 ROT Rally – Austin, Texas

I’m trying something new. If it works out, I’ll do more.

I’ve been talking to my friends at Precision Camera. They had some kind words to say about my blog and my camera reviews and we hit upon an idea. What if I borrow a camera overnight and do a quick review? From the time they close on Saturday till they reopen Sunday afternoon, there’s about 18 hours. I can see how the equipment performs and I can review it though my own unique perspective.

Understand that 18 hours is not very long. Some of my more extensive reviews take a week or more of shooting and a considerable time putting my thoughts together. These “18 Hours with” reviews will be different. I’m not going to test every feature, just stuff that interests me. As you know, I like urban environments, typically at night. So that’s my lens in which I see the world.

2014 ROT Rally #27 - Austin, Texas

I suspect coverage will skew towards mirrorless, the interchangeable lens variety as well as high-end point and shoots — you know that my interest in DSLRs have waned. The good news is that I’ve used a lot of mirrorless cameras so I’m pretty quick at sizing them up. I know what I like and how it compares to the others. I take real photos, not test shots, for my reviews and judge cameras by how they work in the real world.

Why I picked it

Sony A7
Sony A7 with the 28-70mm kit lens which is considerably larger than the setup with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8 that I used.

The Sony A7 along with the A7r are the first full frame mirrorless cameras (I’m not including the Leica digital rangefinders). They made quite the splash when they came out late last year. I went to a Sony in store demo but the setup didn’t adequately test its capability. How good are the cameras in the real world, at night down on 6th street? I wanted to find out.

The ROT Biker Rally was in town and was perfect for testing the A7. I opted for the less expensive A7 instead of the A7r since the former is known to focus faster and it’s better in low light. The night before, I was busy shooting the ROT Rally with my Fujifilm X100S. It was Saturday night and it was time to see how the Sony A7 would do. Just for fun, I brought two other cameras — the Fuji X100S and my Canon 6D with the 35mm f2. The A7 sported the Sony Zeiss 35mm f2.8. Thus all 3 cameras have 35mm equivalent prime lenses, perfect for some low light street shooting.

The Design and Build

The A7 is amazingly compact for a full frame digital camera — noticeably smaller than my Canon 6D, which is one of the smallest full frame DSLRs. It about the size of an entry-level DSLR but with a much thinner body. It’s a tad larger than smaller mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX line (or the new Sony Alpha a6000) but about the same size as the Olympus OM-D E-M1.

Sony continues with its tradition of creating cameras with modern designs. No nostalgic throwbacks. However with a pronounced EVF hump, it echoes the traditional DSLR shape, albeit one with sharp angles rather than the soft molded look of modern DSLRs. It’s an attractive design with a beefy grip when paired with the smaller 35mm prime lens. It’s a nice size that worked well for me even though it’s larger than my typical mirrorless cameras.

2014 ROT Rally #28 - Austin, Texas

The downside of full frame however, are the larger lenses. While the 35mm f2.8 prime lens is diminutive, attach the 28-70mm zoom and equation changes dramatically. And the larger the lens, the more I worry about the grip size. A grip that is beefy for a 35mm prime, suddenly seems lacking as the lens size grows.

The A7’s body feels like it’s mostly covered in plastic. While adequate and the body had enough heft, it doesn’t feel premium. It doesn’t seem cheap by any means, but somehow I get the feeling that Sony try to reduce costs to get it within a certain price point. That said, at $1500, Sony did an amazing job. It’s the least expensive full frame digital camera. Is the build quality a deal killer? Absolutely not. It’s just that it doesn’t delight me like some other cameras do. The Fuji X100S with its metal body, for example, just feels more substantial in hand.

2014 ROT Rally #29 - Austin, Texas

User Interface

What makes the Sony particularly enjoyable is the flip up rear screen. Many cameras have them these days but none of my actively used cameras do. My Sony NEX-5 is on display, gathering dust for the most part, also has a flip-up screen and I miss it. Combined with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) for bright day time shooting, the Sony A7 is easy to use in any light.

The Sony EVF is bright and works properly unlike my Fuji X100S which gets dim in bright light. I have to admit that the crystal clear optical view finder on the 6D still looks better in daylight. Once it gets dark, however, the EVFs rule. Optical gets too dim and its day time advantage is lost.

2014 ROT Rally #30 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #31 - Austin, Texas

If all you’ve used is the Sony A7, the button placement and controls seem reasonable. There is a separate exposure compensation dial and the main dials make it easy to change the necessary exposure settings. But when compared to the 6D and X100S, I find some of the controls frustrating. To be sure, if I used the Sony longer, I would be better acquainted, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Sony seems like it was designed more by engineers rather than photographers.

Here is an example. On the Fuji X100S, I hit one button to zoom to 100% view. Hit is again it goes back to the normal preview. At 100%, I can use the 4 way job shuttle to quickly look check focus on the entire image. On the Sony I hit Fn2 button to zoom in, if I hit the button again, I continue to zoom in. I need to hit a different button to go back to the normal preview. The Fn2 button is placed in an awkward position and there’s more button pushes required compared to the Fuji.

The onscreen menus use the Sony Alpha DSLR layout, which is wonderful. The old NEX interface was a mess and I’m glad Sony moved away from it. The on-screen display still seems busier than I like with lots of cluttering icons but luckily I can remove all but the most important exposure settings.

Overall though, the camera is usable and easy to understand. Being mirrorless, I get the option to use the EVF or tilting rear screen which makes shooting so much more fluid and fun compared to the traditional DSLRs like the Canon 6D.

2014 ROT Rally #32 - Austin, Texas

Image Quality

Image quality, as expected, is excellent. The 24MP sensor and the Zeiss lens gives sharp results. Viewed at 100%, there is certainly more detail from the A7 compared to the Canon 6D or Fujifilm X100S. No surprise there, the Sony has the highest resolution sensor out of the 3 cameras. Shot at night and at high ISO, however, Sony’s advantage diminishes. The increased noise and or JPEG processing really negates the resolution advantage.

I shot the Sony in RAW + JPEG so that I can compare both. Initially, there didn’t seem to be a huge difference between the two. As expected the RAW had slightly subtle colors and smoother transitions but with more noise. The A7 does a very good job in retaining detail and sharpness in JPEGs while cleaning up the noise at high ISOs. I feel comfortable using both depending on the circumstance. But then, I noticed that for certain photos, RAW made a big difference. The example below is especially egregious and needed saving via the RAW file. For some reason, the color and exposure of this group portrait was really out of whack, one of the rare misses. The photos on the left are the originals and the post-processed, on the right. Notice how much better the RAW processing is over JPEG.


JPEG before

JPEG after

RAW before

RAW after

But it isn’t consistent. Sometimes, I prefer the A7 JPEG over the RAW. Contrast this with the Canon 6D where I aways shoot RAW. If found that the Canon JPEG processing is weak and I can easily get better looking photographs by processing RAW files. It’s the opposite with the Fuji X100S. Its JPEG processing is very sophisticated and I opt to use JPEGs over the RAWs.

I’ve been critical in the past about Sony’s colors. My first mirrorless camera was the Sony NEX-5 and ultimately I moved away from it, towards the Olympus, because of how the NEX rendered skin tones. I found that the colors tended more towards a bluish-green which, even shot in RAW, I found hard to correct. No such issues with the A7. Color was generally good and roughly in line with the other cameras. Any colors I didn’t like, I was able to change by post processing either the RAW or JPEG files.

2014 ROT Rally #33 - Austin, Texas

Exposure on the A7 for JPEG was very good, probably the best out of my 3 cameras. But then I noticed the RAWs were noticeably underexposed. The in-camera JPEG processing considerably brightened the shadows. So the way I shoot might change depending on whether I plan to shoot JPEG or RAW. Most of my photos had zero exposure compensation and when adjusting it was generally 1/3 stop up or down. The Canon 6D was the most inconsistent and exposure metering was something I aways had to keep in mind.

Canon still wins the high ISO contest with decent photos to ISO 12,800. I shoot the Fuji up to ISO 6400. The Sony was somewhere in between. But with the Canon and Fuji, I have F2 lenses, a full stop faster than Sony. Thus the reality is that the Fuji really can complete with the full frame Sony in low light.

Image quality is a tricky thing because there are so many factors. This is where shooting a long time with a given camera really helps. You instinctively get to know the type of conditions and settings which yields the best results. It took me many months to really optimize my X100S image quality and I’m sure that will only get better with time. This is were a 18 hour test has its limitations. If I owned the Sony A7 and used it consistently over many months, its image quality will also improve. That said, I have to admit that the Sony image quality didn’t really WOW me. To be sure the photos looks solid but somehow they seemed flat to me. It’s not something that I can explain empirically, more of a feeling that I get looking at the photos.

I’ll talk more about image quality in a separate, upcoming post. I’ll have examples from the same scene, from each camera.

2014 ROT Rally #34 - Austin, Texas

Exposure Settings

I usually shoot Shutter Priority these days. I typically set Auto ISO and cap it at an acceptable maximum value — 12,800 for the A7. I would then change the shutter speed depending on the subject. I may shoot a stationary subject at 1/30 of a second, a portrait at 1/60 of a second and street photographs at 1/125 to 1/160 of a second. Why? Well, if the camera is smart enough, at slower shutter speeds, the camera uses lower ISO values which increases image quality. Thus I indirectly control ISO via the shutter speed. I also use exposure compensation if I need to tweak the exposure.

This method works great for most of my cameras including the Olympus, Fujifilm and Canon. These cameras are smart enough to increase the aperture when it gets darker before increasing the ISO. Not so with the Sony A7. Even though I have a f2.8 lens, the A7 insists on keeping the aperture at f4 and continues to increase ISO. This is dumb. The A7 treats the fast prime like a kit zoom.

Aperture Priority on the camera does some funky things too. I had a case where I set the aperture to f2.8 in a dark bar and the camera insisted on keeping a 1/160 of a second shutter speed even at ISO 12,800. I think a 1/80s or 1/60s shutter speed would make more sense while dropping the ISO to a more reasonable 6400 or 5000.

The only way to ensure optimized Auto ISO values was to shoot in Manual were I set the Aperture and Shutter values. The downside with this approach was that exposure compensation no longer worked. So there was no easy way to change exposure, if I needed to. Because I was set to Auto ISO, whenever I change the aperture or shutter, the exposure remained the same and the ISO value changed instead.

2014 ROT Rally #35 - Austin, Texas

Focusing

The focusing was fast and enjoyable both during the day time and night. No complaints. I really didn’t see my Canon 6D do any better. So for the most part, for non-sport events, mirrorless is on par with the traditional DSLR. Certainly, the A7 is faster than the X100S, which is one of my grips about the leisurely focusing Fuji.

I made a mistake though. I had the A7 on multi-point focusing and I really should have picked single point — I usually use the center. But the multipoint worked so fast and it seemed like it was doing the right thing. Upon closer inspection, there were some issues.

Full frame, even with a 35mm lens (especially at f2.8), requires precision focusing. When I shot a portrait, for example, the multipoint focused on the person but not the face. So While the body was in sharp focus, the face was a tad soft. Even when shooting a street scene from a distance, picking a specific point would have been advantageous. When shooting further away, the A7 multipoint focus switches to an area focus, which I found deceptive. While his may work for large depth of field point and shoots, for a full frame camera, you might end up focusing on the unintended.

2014 ROT Rally #36 - Austin, Texas

Shutter Sound

The Sony A7 got some flack about a loud shutter sound. Though not nearly as bad as the higher-end A7r, the A7 is nevertheless louder than expected. Outside, on a noisy 6th Street, no problem. Shoot in a quiet place and the shutter click gets distracting or attracts attention. The Canon 6D’s shutter is more muffled and pleasing instead of Sony’s sharper clack. The Fuji X100S is dead quiet and is much preferred by me these days.

2014 ROT Rally #37 - Austin, Texas

My Likes

1. Compact size for a full frame mirrorless camera
2. Lowest priced full frame camera (as of mid 2014)
3. Great image quality
4. Very strong low-light, high ISO performance
5. Fast focusing for everyday usage
6. EVF and tilting rear screen give many composing options
7. Compatibility with A mount lenses with adapter

My Dislikes

1. Dumb exposure settings behavior
2. Plastic body does not give a premium feel
3. Small number of full frame E-Mount lens
4. High ISO performance does not match Canon’s full frame
5. Loud shutter sound

Recommendation

For most people contemplating a full frame camera, I’ll recommend the A7. Have a bunch of Canon or Nikon lenses, the decision gets harder. If all you have are a few kit lenses or lenses compatible only with the crop sensors, then I wouldn’t worry about your glass collection. Get the Sony. The mirrorless cameras are smaller and more fun than the traditional DSLRs. They work just as well as DSLRs, for the most part and they do better autofocusing video.

That said, the Sony A7 is not a sports camera. If you want an full frame action camera, DSLRs still rule. Canon and Nikon have more lenses and more top end performance — there are still tangible reasons for owning and using a DSLR.

2014 ROT Rally #38 - Austin, Texas

I still wonder about Sony’s commitment to lenses though. Sony’s working hard, creating interesting and unique cameras, which get a lot of attention. Sony needs the buzz, to complete with the entrenched big guys, Canon and Nikon. But they still have not broken through and established a camera identity.

They were making excellent progress on mirrorless APS-C cameras such as the NEX 6 and 7 but now with the addition of full frame, what’s their commitment to the smaller sensors? Sony still does not have a full line of lenses for mirrorless and they are lacking especially in larger aperture primes.

Contrast that with Fujifilm, who within a few years, have built out a highly regarded set of lenses for the X line. They appear to be committed to APS-C and have not split their attention by trying to come out with different products in an apparent shot-gun approach. They have wisely concentrated on building up a complete solution.

As for Sony, only time will tell.

2014 ROT Rally #39 - Austin, Texas
Precision Camera
Thank you to Precision Camera for letting me borrow the Sony A7.

For me?

I have enough high quality Canon lenses that it made sense to go to with a Canon full frame DSLR. But what if I didn’t have those lenses or decided to start fresh? The A7 would be a possibility and if I had it, I wouldn’t need the Fuji X100S.

But the bigger question is whether I need to go to full frame at all. Full frame gives me two things. High ISO performance and shallow depth of field. For the type of shooting I’m doing now, shallow DOF is less of a concern. And while the Sony A7’s high ISO performance is good, it’s not much better than the Fuji with a f2 lens.

Given my current gear though, it’s clear that the Sony A7 has not impressed me enough for me to want it. Ultimately, it doesn’t do any more than what my Fuji X100S will do (I am not interested in zoom lenses). The Canon 6D, while not as enjoyable, still takes superior photographs and there is a much larger lens selection.

My conclusion. The Sony A7 is a fine camera, but not a game changer for me.

2014 ROT Rally #40 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #41 - Austin, Texas

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Interested in getting the Sony A7? Support me but getting it at Precision Camera or Amazon.com. You get the same low price and I get a small commission.

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



One of my favorite cameras, available for only $200, for the next several days

Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California

Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Crosby – San Francisco, California

See this photo of the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge? I took it with the the Olympus E-PM2 with the standard kit lens. I just noticed that the camera and kit lens is now available for only $200 for the next several days. The Olympus OM-D cameras get much of the press these days but this budget priced E-PM2 has the same sensor and pretty much the same image processor. That means that the image quality is the same from this camera as the more expensive options.

How do you get the deal? Click on this link and enter the SUMMER20 coupon code when you check out. The deal ends on June 25, 2014.

There are good deals on other Olympus cameras and lenses too, including the OM-Ds. Just navigate around the site to find what you like, including the E-PM2 that I like so much. Inexplicably, the body only E-PM2 is priced higher than the one with the kit lens. So make sure to pick the camera that contains the 14-42mm lens.

Keep in mind that these are factory reconditioned by Olympus so these are not brand new. No problem. I’ve bought several factory reconditioned products and they work great. Olympus also gives you a 30 day money back guarantee and a 90 day warranty.

Here are some more photos I took that day in San Francisco. These photos are HDRs where I blend 3 images together in post processing on my computer. The newer Olympus cameras, including the E-PM2, have a really nice HDR bracketing mode where you can take 3, 5 or even 7 images. This makes it super easy to capture the images. Later, you use HDR software such as Photomatix to blending your pictures together.

I’ve often mentioned that the E-PM2 is my favorite camera for HDRs because of its small size and high image quality. Now you can get the camera at a really low price.

Wildflowers and the Bay at Sunset - San Francisco, California
http://www.atmtxphoto.com/Blog/Creative-commons/i-Skr2FJv/0/XL/san-francisco-ca-battery-crosby-stairs-XL.jpg
Golden Gate Bridge Up Close, Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California

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I took the photographs with the the Olympus E-PM2 camera with the 14mm-42mm kit lens.

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



Haiku Photo: Mexican Motorcycle Acrobats

Mexican Motorcycle Acrobats, 2014 ROT Rally - Austin, Texas

In close formation
Mexican Acrobats ride
A motor ballet

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The 2014 ROT Biker Rally with the Fuji X100S

2014 ROT Rally - Austin, Texas

2014 ROT Rally – Austin, Texas

I’ve been going to the ROT (Republic of Texas) Biker Rally for several years now. Each year I bring a different set of cameras as my equipment and tastes evolve. This year the Fujifilm X100S was my main camera, no surprise there. I’ve been shooting the X100S quite a bit recently and blogging about it with regularity. After using it extensively in the Netherlands and logging close to 14,00 photos, I feel like I’m getting the hang of the camera.

You may recall that when I started shooting with it back in March, I was still getting my bearings, preferring the familiarity and comfort of the Olympus micro 4/3 cameras.

2014 ROT Rally #2 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #3 - Austin, Texas

Like in past years, I got down there early before the main parade — 6th street is where many of the bikers congregate. Often, it’s the place where people proudly showoff their bikes. This person probably had the most unique motorcycle there and it garnered a lot of attention.

2014 ROT Rally #4 - Austin, Texas

With increased familiarity with the Fuji X100S, I’m experimenting. This one with some extra flare. JJ Abrams would be proud.

2014 ROT Rally #5 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #6 - Austin, Texas

I headed over to Congress Avenue for the pre parade activities. These bikini clad women handed out ROT Rally flags. You can see the flags proudly on display by the couple at the top of the post.

2014 ROT Rally #7 - Austin, Texas

These three are part of the Texas Roller Derby. They did street acrobatics as well as handed out discount coupons.

2014 ROT Rally #8 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #9 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #10 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #11 - Austin, Texas

After many years of the same format, they changed the ROT Rally Parade this year. This created a kink in my photography plans since I was expecting, out of habit, the same parade route. In past years, the motorcycles would do a slow pass up and down the street and then park. This year, they greatly extended the parade and did a single, higher speed pass down Congress Avenue. That made it heck of a lot harder to capture the motorcycles. I was forced to improvise by manually pre focusing, and upping the shutter speed to 1/500s and 1/1000s. It took a bit of futzing but it turned out decently. As a big plus, the new route allowed me to get the Texas State Capitol building as the backdrop.

With such a fast shutter speed and with the evening light, the last two photos jumped to ISO 6400. The Fuji did a good job with the detail. I generally keep 6400 as my upper limit for the camera. I also think my familiarity with the X100S helped me to successfully improvise. I’m actually amazed how many scenes I captured with a single 35mm equivalent lens.

2014 ROT Rally #12 - Austin, Texas

New for this year, Austin setup a second ROT gathering site south of the river at the Austin American-Statesman newspaper building. The parking lot was transformed into a vendor, food and concert space. I walked down there with my photographer friend Dave, who I met during the parade. If you know Austin, you know they always setup live music stages for these kinds of events. After all, the city brags that it’s the “Live Music Capital of the World”. Friday night was no exception.

2014 ROT Rally #13 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #14 - Austin, Texas

It took the opportunity to do some street shooting in and around the food booths. I always like the glow of lights at night and the X100S does a good job with them.

2014 ROT Rally #15 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #16 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #17 - Austin, Texas

I also started experimenting with the flash blending. Fuji has something called Super Intelligent Flash on many of its cameras where it does a really good job of blending the right amount of fill flash with the ambient light. It’s actually one of the reasons I bought the X100S but something which I haven’t tested much until now.

The portrait of the Mexican Motorcycle Acrobats came out great at ISO 2500 and at 1/30s. The next two were at ISO 5000. The first one is fair but a bit soft — it also has a slight depth of field issue shot at f2. The second one came out better. Overall though, given how dark it was, it did a fantastic job of lighting the subject and maintaining detail in the background.

2014 ROT Rally #18 - Austin, Texas

I headed back north to 6th street, that’s were I figured most of the action will be. The ROT participants where thinking the same too. Groups of them rumbled up Congress Avenue towards the bars and night life.

2014 ROT Rally #19 - Austin, Texas

6th Street is always, shall we say, festive on the weekends. But during ROT Rally it gets amped up. This year though, because the venues were split into multiple locations, 6th was not as packed. It think it lost some of it’s craziness which might have been part of the city’s plans. I have to admit that I like the previous years better.

2014 ROT Rally #20 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #21 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #22 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #23 - Austin, Texas

That’s not to say that the 6th Street bars don’t have of plenty of attractions to entice customers. I find this place to be one of the most intense for sheer capitalism. The bars complete vigorously to pull in customers.

2014 ROT Rally #24 - Austin, Texas

In years past, I came down with my HDR setup, complete with tripod, to photograph the glowing bikes. HDR works particularly well in these cases. I’ve done enough of these shots that I decided to forgo the HDR, it also saved me from carrying a tripod. I did, however, try get an extra pop by using the Fuji Intelligent flash. It works great for objects too, not just people. While perhaps not as striking as the HDR, I think it came out pretty darn good for a single exposure in JPEG. More than anything, it’s the shallow depth of field that gives this shot a different look. After all, I was hand holding it in the dark at ISO 5000 at f2. Not bad.

2014 ROT Rally #25 - Austin, Texas

Here is another example of flash blending. I wanted to light the dark bikes in foreground and balance it with the background neon.

All told I was there about 4 hours last Friday night and walked about 7 1/2 miles according to my Pedometer++ iPhone app. That’s good because these photo walks are one of my main sources of exercise, sad but true. Stay tuned, I have a lot more ROT Rally coverage this year. I did some extra special camera testing the next day, comparing the performance of 3 cameras. Look for that soon.

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG 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.



Park Valkenberg: A bit of nature for an Urban Landscape Photographer

Morning in Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Morning in Park Valkenberg – Breda, Netherlands

I had the pleasure of walking through Park Valkenberg on many occasions during my week stay in Breda, Netherlands. When I first saw it, it was a breath of fresh air for a weary traveller that spent an afternoon in the big city of Amsterdam. The park is located between the downtown and the train station so every time I passed through, I would snap a few more photos.

Picnic in Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Lighthouse, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Now I realize that this is not exactly the wilderness — It’s a highly groomed city park. But with the tall trees and lush green grass surrounded by a canal, it was the perfect amount of nature for this former New York City boy. And for an Urban Photographer like me with photos of lots of buildings and the gritty city life, this bit of greenery might be a rare treat on this blog.

I shot all photos with my Fujifilm X100S. A quiet camera with a single 35mm equivalent lens. It fit the mood well in this serene place.

Whimsy, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Fountain and Mist, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Parks in Austin aren’t this green, it is a semi-arid place after all. But it’s the highly manicured look that really appeals to me. The sense of order, in once sense, has that architectural feel. The green belts and parks in Austin are decidedly more wild with lots of undergrowth. The excess brush and plants adds too much noise. Perhaps a skilled landscape photographer can artfully lessen the visual clutter but it’s something that I haven’t achieved or worked on very much.

Remembrance, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Remembrance Day, held on May 4th, pays respect to fallen soldiers and civilians during World War II. Here are the flowers that were left, captured the day after the ceremony.

Breda Castle from Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Reflections at Breda Castle - Breda, Netherlands

Next to the park, across the canal is Breda Castle, a site with some significant history. For me, it was a nice man-made contrast to the surrounding park.

I realized the canal that flows around the park and the castle also surrounds the entire old part of town. I imagine it was part of the defense system back in the old days. While beautiful and peaceful now, I wonder what it might of been like when it needed to defend the city from foreigners. These days, the foreigners are tourists like me, armed only with cameras, marveling at the blend of old and new, the man-made and the natural.

Majestic Structure, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
http://www.atmtxphoto.com/Portfolio/Netherlands/i-pHmdSBB/A

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG 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.