Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography


Street Photography and testing the new Olympus at SXSW Interactive 2015

Everfest Portrait, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

Everfest Portrait, SXSW 2015 – Austin, Texas

I was in full street photography mode at the 2015 SXSW Interactive, last month. I wasn’t an attendee. No, I just find it interesting to shoot downtown when one of Austin’s largest events rolls in. I was sporting the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with the compact 17mm f1.8, a perfect setup for unobtrusive photography. The camera was on loan from Olympus and SXSW was one of many places I took the camera to test its capabilities.

I shot for some 3 1/2 hours from the evening into night. I started on 6th street, walked down to the trendy Rainey Street area and back again to 6th. Not surprisingly, the camera worked flawlessly. I’m quite familiar with Olympus micro 4/3 cameras so I knew what to expect. But there are improvements, after all, and the Mark II is Olympus’ latest and greatest. With every iteration one hopes that there are at least a few refinements along the way.

Handing Out Ears, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

I’ve talked at length about the new 40MP mode but that’s not relevant here. I was shooting on the street and the high-resolution mode requires everything to be locked down — shot on tripod. No. Focusing speed, image stabilization and fast frame rates were what mattered most, on that day.

JW Marriott Interior, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
JW Marriott Exterior, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

I’ve gotten used to super quiet shutters on my Fujifilm X100S and Pentax Q7 and I’m happy to report the Olympus’ Mark II implementation is even quieter. Along with the 10 frames per second burst, I could rip off multiple frames without anyone knowing. This works great for candid photography as you see here. But I could see it as a real boon for wedding photographers or anyone else that needs to be perfectly quiet. These refinements are something that Sony does not realize on their current excellent but noisy mirrorless cameras. The Mark II is all about refinement.

Pedicab Portrait, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
Short Bus Man, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

SXSW Interactive seemed livelier from my perspective. While I have no idea if the actual conference sessions were any better, I got a good vibe on the street. I like how the organizers combined the 6th Street and Rainey Street areas together to create a continuous flow. It increased the size of the venue which made it more free-flowing and open.

Taqueria Truck Ordering, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
Service with a Smile, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
Chicken Truck, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

Near Rainey Street, an ad hoc food truck park made for rich street photography. I like shooting in these places since the light from the trucks and the surrounding darkness makes for a moodier cinematic feel. Are food trucks a passing fad? Perhaps these images will date themselves like plaid polyester sport coats.

Merch at Bangers, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
Megan from Slurpee, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
Video Gamers, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

The bars and restaurants on Rainey continue to expand and have a unique Austin feel — different from the grungy and downscale 6th street but populated with hipsters. I like Bangers for its warm incandescent glow. The periphery featured low-key corporate sponsors but they fit in decently well into the overall mood. After years of shooting SXSW, maybe the impact of blatant corporate sponsorships no longer irritate. I just view them as part of the fabric, backdrops to the scenes I like to capture.

Bartenders at Bangers, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
Smart Phone Check in, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

I’ve had good success shooting between 1/20 to 1/40 of a second. Olympus’ in-body image stabilization works well and these shutter speeds give me a combination of motion blur and tack sharp results. Not always on the same image, of course, but it works surprisingly well.

Bartenders at Bangers, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

Coupled with the f1.8 lens, I was able to capture some truly low-light photographs. The image stabilization helps, no doubt, but the Mark II can really hold it’s own in these kind of environments. Back when I first started with Olympus with the E-PL1, I would’ve struggled. Slow focusing and noisy high ISO performance, no more. That was 3 or 4 years ago. The modern-day micro 4/3 world has changed enormously.

Pedicab Line, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
Iron Works from the Doorway, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

My friend Mark, who accompanied me for part of this street photography exercise, shot with his Leica M. The Leica M is no doubt a fine camera and a very expensive one at that. But I couldn’t help but have sympathy for Mark’s challenges. You see, while the Leica is capable of producing fantastic images, it’s doggone difficult to do so. While people say the equipment doesn’t matter, they are kidding themselves. It’s so much easier to shoot and capture images with the E-M5. Perhaps you can argue that modern technology is not as satisfying since it’s so much easier. And I can understand that sentiment. When I shot with the Leica M on 6th Street, I felt a great deal of accomplishment when I created a good image.

HIM Movie Promoters, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas
6th Street Motion Blur, SXSW 2015 - Austin, Texas

But the world moves on. DSLRs are great but old tech, so are Leicas, even the digital ones. The mirrorless cameras are smaller, more nimble and have real world features that make them more fun to use and help get the job done. With more mirrorless iterations than perhaps anyone, Olympus continues to refined the experience with their newest E-M5 Mark II.

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I took all photographs with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II hand held with the Olympus 17mm f1.8 lens.

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

SXSW Sunset - Austin, Texas

SXSW Sunset – Austin, Texas

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

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

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

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

See you soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water Sports and the Skyline - Austin, Texas

Water Sports and the Skyline – Austin, Texas

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

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

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

Skyline Rises over the Congress Avenue Bridge - Austin, Texas

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

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

Lucky with the Mamiya 645E - Austin, Texas

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

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

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

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

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Finding new places to shoot in a growing Austin

Residential Development, Rising - Austin, Texas

Residential Development, Rising – Austin, Texas

I need to find new places to shoot in Austin. It’s easy to fall into set patterns and end up shooting in the same places all the time. I realized this when I posted my post Christmas color photos. I think the images turned out fine but they’re nothing new. Congress Avenue to 6th Street. It’s a route that I always take and I’m sure even the out-of-towners that visit this site are starting to recognize the same places.

Luckily, Austin is a growing city with new buildings and new angles to explore. I recently rediscovered the area around the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge on the western edge of the Central Business District. I started to shoot in that area, especially during the day, but I’ve yet to apply my night-time HDR technique. I went down last week to see what I could find.

Seaholm Redevelopment - Austin, Texas

I must say that this part of town is really developing into a nice residential area. It’s quiet, for now, with not many bars and restaurants. That may change once the Seaholm Power Plant redevelopment finishes. Curiously there are several fitness related stores and gyms in the area. No doubt catering to its proximity to Austin’s Hike and Bike Trail.

Skyline from the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge - Austin, Texas
Gentle Curves of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge - Austin, Texas

The Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge is also part of the Hike and Bike Trail and it connects the two halves of the trail on either side of the river. The bridge affords some nice views of the growing skyline but it also works well as a leading line that curves its way towards the new residential towers.

The Residences Beyond - Austin, Texas
Sandra Murida Way - Austin, Texas

I also explored around the bridge from ground level. I managed to find some atypical angles that worked especially well with the wide-angle lens on the Pentax Q7. Austin is growing large enough that I need to get off the typical routes to find new and interesting compositions.

Well Lit Park - Austin, Texas
Bold Red Sign, Seaholm Power Plant - Austin, Texas

A park separates the residential district from the new Seaholm redevelopment. I remember seeing the glowing “City of Austin Power Plant” ever since I moved here more than 20 years ago. The plant was shutdown in 1989 but the building stood proudly, undeveloped for all these years. I had a unique opportunity to photograph inside Seaholm 4 years ago. It was years before redevelopment but plans were then being made to use this structure as a centerpiece. It’s nice to see that the redevelopment is now in full swing. It’ll be fun to photograph once it reopens and perhaps the developer will let me shoot the same angles that I captured 4 years ago.

A Train Runs Through It - Austin, Texas
Two Towers - Austin, Texas

The bridge you see over the park is not the Pedestrian Bridge. It’s a larger rail road bridge that carries freight and the occasional Amtrak train. A train passed as I was shooting this, which you can see as a blur atop the bridge.

There’s still raw undeveloped patches which, no doubt, will be nicely integrated in the neighborhood. This brightly lit tower is nearing completion and there are plans for a lot more residential and office towers. The 2nd Street District will eventually connect to this area and bring a much-needed east to west pedestrian flow.

Under the Train Tracks - Austin, Texas

Beyond finding new places to photograph, one of my rationals for shooting here is to document the development. In a few years, this place is going to change tremendously. Nice to have the before photographs for historical comparisons.

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

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