The day after I took these Halloween portraits on 6th Street, I went to the F1 Fan Fest. The Fan Fest is a way to bring a little of that Formula 1 racing excitement to downtown Austin. I’ve yet to go to the F1 races themselves but I’ve made it to this downtown event 3 years in a row. It’s a place for street photography and a chance to capture something different in Austin.
Of course, year to year, things don’t change much. After 3 years, everything seems about the same except, perhaps, it was a bit smaller this year. Part of the challenge is, as the downtown continues to grow, the open lots for special events decrease. I think at least two previous parking lots are now active construction sites, soon spawning more high-rise towers, I imagine. I wonder what’ll happen to this event when all downtown lots give way to higher tax generating structures.
I listened to more concerts this year than in the past. The Fan Fest sets up multiple stages with live music throughout the day. I happened upon an interesting and eclectic band from Brooklyn called Red Baraat, and stayed there for the entire show. I even went retro and bought their CDs instead of an electronic download. Of course, what always entices me is the shooting opportunity. Give me some colorful lights at night in an urban atmosphere and I’m game.
I also stayed much later than expected and went to the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts concert, the headliner for that night. I can’t say I’m a Joan Jett fan, per say, but she made her mark in the 80s so I identify with and recognize her music. I noticed a lot of folks that were near my age. I know Ms. Jett is older than me, but from my vantage point, the dark-haired, black leather clad singer looked and sounded the way she always did. Perhaps it was a collective way for all of us middle-aged folk to have high school flashbacks.
I got in late but slowly inched forward as the crowd shifted. I especially like it when I capture the beams of colorful light. I snapped a number of frames perfectly lighting the audience. I only brought one camera, the Fujifilm X100S, with a 35mm equivalent lens. My Olympus with the 50mm f1.4 equivalent or even my DLSR with a slew of lenses would have gotten me closer via a telephoto. Ultimately, though I’m satisfied with what the 35mm point of view gave me.
Missing this year was the big Infiniti car race venue. Maybe it fell victim to the lack of space or maybe the return on investment wasn’t there. Gone also was a large Fiat display that I remember from years past.
The energy drinks where out in force. Both Red Bull and Monster had elaborate setups to entice the crowed. I guess if you can’t drive F1 cars, you can feel the alternate buzz from their sugar and caffeinated concoctions. Of course they had attractive spokespersons and pumped up music. Monster cross promoted with the X Games skateboard demonstration.
Between the late night / early morning Halloween shooting on 6th Street the night before to another late night at the Fan Fest, I was worn out. At least I got about 5 miles of walking on each night. The photography distracts me from all the walking so I guess it’s a decent way to get some exercise. I considered going to an East side Dia de los Muertos parade the next day but decided to bag that. Even I have limits on the number of photography events per weekend.
It was a film free weekend too. I might be curious about film but I’m still practical. Digital is a lot easier at night and I still find it more desirable for fast-moving or fast changing action. It’s kind of nice to use both and I’m not such a purist that I restrict myself to either side of the divide.
I mentioned that I was testing a new film camera during my first ever University of Texas football game. I shot most of it with the Olympus E-PM2, a small mirrorless digital camera, my workhorse when I want a smaller camera with the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. But you know that I’ve been on a film kick lately.
I recently got a Nikon 35Ti, a high-end compact camera from 1993 with a fixed 35mm f2.8 lens. It was a premium compact which sold for $1000 back in the day, which is equivalent to about $1650 in today’s dollars. I got this slightly worn, titanium clad camera from Adorama for $265. Like the Rollei 35, which I picked up for a song, it’s possible to get very nice film cameras for a fraction of their original prices.
The Nikon 35Ti, unlike the Rollei 35, is a fully automatic camera with a sophisticated Nikon matrix meter and auto focus. It’s easy to shoot and unlike a SLR, it’s very compact though without the capability of changing lenses. It works for me since I love the 35mm focal length. In a way, this 35Ti is like the Fujfilm X100S of its day. They look very different, with the Fuji sporting a faux range finder treatment, but they are fundamentally compact auto focus cameras with a similar fixed focal length.
So why the attraction to film in this age of nearly perfected digital cameras? It’s all about the color and the feel. 35mm film is grainier with less resolution and it doesn’t perform as well in low light. By most modern standards it just doesn’t measure up. However, I’m fascinated by film’s character. I shoot differently too. When each shot costs real money, I’m more discriminating. I don’t necessarily think it makes me a better photographer, but it does impose limits which makes me try harder.
Take this photo, for example. The film and my post processing has really brought out Texas’ burnt orange. I joke that I probably see more fall color in this shot than I’ll ever get in Austin. I used Kodak Portra 400 film and added additional saturation via digital post processing. Portra typically has muted colors that work well for portraits but I find that I can amp up the saturation which satisfies my taste.
Here are two pictures of the same scene. Ignore the differences in framing. The Olympus digital image on the top is at a 28mm equivalent and the film image on the bottom is at 35mm. While I think both photographs are equally colorful, they have a different look and feel. Notice how the orange seems to stand out more in the film photograph — there is a liveliness to it. On the other hand, digital has a sharpness and precision that the film lacks. One isn’t necessary better than the other and one isn’t necessarily more accurate. It’s all a matter of taste.
For me though, I’ve been trying to move away from accuracy in my photographs. That may sound strange but let me explain. I’m not a product photographer, luckily, where accurate color and realistic representation of the subject is paramount. I’m trying to create images that convey a mood or feeling, perhaps in a way that a painting would. Paintings are not judged by how accurate they look, rather they usually try to provoke an emotional response. I know that I have a ways to go, but this is what I want to do.
So is using film a gimmick? Is it like using filters in Instagram to make something look different? Well I certainly hope not but I suppose it’s possible. All I know is that, for now, film evokes a different response for me and I’m hoping that it does so for my visitors. It’s something that I’ll explore for a while and incorporate its effects into my soup of photographic knowledge.
As for the Nikon 35Ti, I’m going to keep it. The first roll gave some strange and inconsistent results and I was afraid that it wasn’t working properly. What you see here is what I shot on my second. The camera is small and easy enough that I can concentrate on framing. It’s not bulky like my Canon Rebel T2. And while shooting everything in manual on the Rollei 35 can be instructional and even fun, in a challenging kind of way, I want something more accessible for my daily film shooter. I’ll let you know how the Nikon 35Ti works out.
In the 23 plus years I’ve lived in Austin, I’ve never been to a University of Texas football game. I got that opportunity this past weekend. My wife graduated from the University but it’s also been 20 years since she’s gone. We both had a great time, thanks to my friend Mark who generously gave us the tickets.
As you can tell, we had excellent seats. My wife remarked, as a student, she was stuck way up there in the nose bleed section. While photographically, a super wide-angle or fisheye would have rendered some interesting compositions from way up there, I was glad to have these seats as a football spectator. I didn’t do much exploring. I was content to take occasional snaps from where we sat.
And as much as I enjoyed the football game, I was equally entertained by the band, the flags and the spectacle that surrounds the game. The precision of the marching band and the pageantry of the flags made for more interesting images, I thought. At least from this level. While I also shot the game, I like the photographs from the pre-game more.
My gear selection, which always involves an interesting set of calculations, centered on being unobtrusive. The UT stadium allows detachable lenses of less than 10 inches. I remember vague, anecdotal comments of people being restricted from bringing “professional” cameras so I purposely went small to fly under any radar. I brought my Olympus E-PM2 with kit lens which looks small and non-threatening enough. I paired that with a small film camera that I recently purchased that I’m in the midst of reviewing. All told it was a humble setup that fit comfortably in my small Domke bag. In retrospect, I wished I also brought my Olympus 40-150mm. The security bag check looked much less imposing than I imagined.
The afternoon was a success though, both for the Texas Longhorns and for my wife and I. Texas beat West Virginia soundly 33 to 16. We had a great time and I got to take snaps of the event. Nothing fancy. I wasn’t shooting on the field and had no illusions of being a sport photographer. All that I was going for was some nice pictures to remember the event. I even pressed my iPhone 5S into service for a decent looking in-phone panorama.
It occurred to me that a compact super zoom would’ve of been an ideal camera. Something small that wouldn’t raise the suspicions of guards on the lookout for wannabe pro photographers. Ironically, with all my different cameras, I don’t own a single super zoom. Nope, I’m not in the market for one either. After shooting for months with a fixed lens 35mm equivalent Fujifilm X100S, the 28mm to 84mm equivalent Olympus setup felt more than enough from my needs.
I went to 6th Street again this year for Halloween. Since it coincided with Formula 1 weekend, it was crazier than usual, which is really saying something. Not only did we have a larger than normal amount of wacky Austinites, we had an international crowd witnessing the spectacle.
No breakthroughs in photographic creativity for me this year. Since I like the “shot on the street” but “studio like feel” I created last year, I applied the same technique. If you want to give this a try, you can read about how I did this here.
Of course, it’s unpredictable who will show up. It’s kind of exciting and disappointing at the same time. I like the costumes I captured last year better but I think my technique has improved somewhat. I basically preset everything manually including the focus, exposure and flash power which makes it very quick. The only frustration? The camera settings occasionally get knocked as I jostle through the crowds. If I do this again, I might use gaffer’s tape to keep the focus and exposures locked in.
So here is the 2014 edition of Halloween Portraits on 6th Street. You can click on the image to see a larger version and hover over with a mouse to see the photo details.
I got back my second roll of film the other day. I wasn’t crazy about the results, at first. I’m in the midst of an experiment with film. One that I started recently with a 45-year-old Rollie 35 and a new box of Kodak Ektar 100. The unexpectedly good results from that camera hurled me into more experimentation.
If you are familiar with my work, you know that I like saturated colors. I use HDR, not to create technicolor clown vomit, but for richly saturated “realistic” images. My exploration of film is for the same end goal — rich colors — though through a different process. I see the colorful portraits from Steve McCurry and I’m mesmerized. I’ve come to find that much of that unique color is through Kodachrome, a film which is no longer manufactured or being developed. In fact, Steve McCurry shot the last roll of Kodachrome which was documented through National Geographic. You can see his images here. And while Mr. McCurry is known for portraits, he also shoots urban landscapes. This is what really interests me.
I’m not trying to replicate a certain style, rather I’m trying to capture a richer, more organic look. For all the love I have for digital photography, I feel that its images look clinical. This may work well in certain cases, but the analog softness also entices.
I shot these photographs with a modern Canon Rebel T2 film camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400. Portra, as the name suggests, is geared more for portraits. To that end, many of pictures on this roll were of people and family snapshots. The Rebel T2 is as easy to use as a modern digital camera, other than not getting a preview on a LCD screen. It takes none of the fiddling and manual setup that is needed for the Rollei 35. On the other hand, this computer controlled plastic tool has none of the charm of an old camera.
Being a portrait film, Portra’s colors are more muted than Ektar 100. I knew that going in but wanted to see what it looks like. My first reaction — disappointment. For a person who likes a lot of color, even more than what Ektar gives, Portra was way too muted. Of course, it also had none of the richness of Kodachrome. My outlook changed when I discovered how to apply the right amount of post-processing to create the look I wanted. It wasn’t perfect for every photo but my results are promising enough that I’m keeping an open mind about this film.
No photographic test would be complete without Lucky. I shot him with a 35mm lens probably wide open at f2. His brownish fur was dull before post processing.
I shot Bethany with a 85mm f2, wide open. Post processing has also transformed these portraits from muted to dynamic. I’m happy her skin tones still look natural, even after greatly increasing saturation. Oh, and her hair, yup it was really that red. Portra seems to live up to its name. Skin tones, at least in good light, appear accurate. All I need is some digital post processing to bring out the film’s full potential.
I created candid portraits on 6th Street of women who work at Bikinis Sports Bar. They were more than happy to help me with my film test. Their skin was more yellowish-brown than I liked but Aperture 3 was able to improve the colors.
Would Portra work for non-portraits? Yes, I think. Especially with post processing. Ektar only comes in ISO 100 which makes night work difficult without a tripod — ISO 400 on Portra makes it easier to hand hold especially with a fast lens. I noticed more motion blur with the SLR at slow shutter speeds. A rangefinder or even the Rollei works better, there’s no mirror slap to add unwanted vibration and movement.
The final tally? All photographs came out and there were no true duds. I suffered motion blur in those dark handheld photos, especially of action on 6th street. It probably makes more sense to shoot night action, such as live music, in digital. Unless I use black and white film, that is, and really push the ISO sensitivity. That might be fun to do in the future.
A few portraits achieved something special — something that I think goes beyond what my digitals have produced. One in particular, of my kids, is a true keeper. If I squint long enough, the color, texture and grain has the feel of Kodachrome, perhaps a bit better. I’m using digital post processing to achieve my look, but that’s okay. I’m not a film purist. I see no problem combining the look and feel of film with the power of digital photography.
More tests to come.