I was on a boat last night on Lady Bird Lake.
It’s not actually a lake, it’s a river that is dammed up that flows through downtown Austin. Because everything for me is a PhotoOp, I brought a camera. Except I didn’t want to look like a total camera dork so I used my new Fujifim XF1 point and shoot. Just one camera, believe it or not. No big DSLR or even a reasonably sized mirrorless.
My main purpose was to take snap shots of my wife and maybe get someone to take a rare photo of my wife and I, together. But of course, the lure of night images and reflecting urban lights was more than I could bear. I had to take cityscape photos like everyone else.
Except everyone else used iPhones. A few actually had real point and shoots. Beyond the stylish looks of the XF1, I had some technology that no one else possessed, a bigger sensor and some trick photography modes hidden away in the retro design. The results I got were surprising.
Before we left dock, I coaxed the Fuji to shoot at ISO 400 and at 1/2 second. The results were quite spectacular as you can see above. Hard to believe this is a point and shoot. The Fuji does some special dynamic range expansion tricks in-camera. I used JPEG for everything and did some light post processing in Aperture 3.
Once we left downtown and headed east, it got dark quickly. ISO 800 was short-lived and I needed ISO 1600 or higher. I switched to in-camera black and white which handles the noise better. Even with a slightly larger 2/3 sensor, ISO 800 is my preferred top end. ISO 1600 works at times, in a pinch.
Shooting from the river gave a vantage point that I’ve never seen.
Photos around the Interstate 35 bridge were the most interesting. The XF1 has a special EXR mode that combines multiple images together to help reduce the noise or increase dynamic range. What resulted was artistic and minimal images. Low fidelity yet surprisingly satisfying.
Even the occasional ISO 3200 was acceptable in a grainy, Lomography kind of way. I’m trying to break out of my strictly low noise, high quality photography. These images are more about mood than anything else.
The boat cruise lasted 2 hours. We sailed east just past I35. Then we went west past the Lamar Street Bridge and docked back next to the 1st street bridge. It was a fun event with drinking, BBQ and some uncharacteristically different point and shoot photographs. I’m not going to give up my regular style but pushing the boundaries of a tool to see what happens is kind of interesting. Heck, if it’s fuzzy and grainy enough, maybe I’ll just call it art.
Note: I noticed that the Black or Red Fuji XF1 is still on sale at Amazon for an amazing $199. I couldn’t resist. I bought another one, black this time. I’m giving it as a gift. I think it’s an excellent point and shoot.
Austin hosted its second annual Formula 1 race this past weekend. I didn’t attend the race itself, but I went downtown to capture scenes from the Austin Fan Festival. Like last year, a section of downtown was blocked off for exhibits, concerts, food and anything else that would vaguely fit into the racing theme. It was a fun time, and for me, another chance to do some street photography which I probably find more interesting than shooting cars going around a track. Plus it was free. Better than spending hundreds of bucks on racing tickets. That’s a good thing since I can save my money and, what else, buy more gear.
Speaking of gear, I mentioned last week that I’m testing two new cameras. I’m still playing with the pre production camera that is on loan to me, but in the mean time, I wanted to talk about the new camera that I just bought, the Fuji XF1. Heck, even its name is perfect for F1 weekend. I went to Fan Fest last year where I shot with my Olympus E-P3. I went even smaller and lighter this year with Fuji’s smallest X branded point and shoot. I’ll do a full review of the XF1 and tell you what makes this guy unique in a future post. For now, lets just say that I’m very happy with the images I got with this point and shoot, even at night. Take a look at the photos and tell me what you think.
I was already downtown on Friday for a party and decided to check out Fan Fest. I snapped an image of a couple of women at the Red Bull – Infiniti display. This simple snapshot actually showcases one of my favorite features of this XF1. It’s something that reviewers rarely talk about. Just as a teaser, I’ll say that it blows away what my other “high end” point and shoot, the Canon G15, can do.
The highlight of the evening was the free concert by Foreigner. The lead singer was still going strong from this 80′s era British-American Rock Band. The photo at the very top was from the concert as well as these two images. The black and white was done in camera and tweaked in post. In fact, I shot all photographs in JPEG and I did minor tweaks with Aperture 3 afterwards.
Fan Fest did an admirable job by including everyone, especially kids. There were simulators and video games and slot car races. This is the closest I got to any kind of race track that weekend.
As expected, there were many fast cars on display.
Talks by actual F1 drivers. Here’s David Coulthard at the AT&T pavilion.
Certainly, there were numerous products being promoted with attractive spokes people.
Infiniti and Ford had displays. I like the style of the current Ford Fusion with its Aston Martin-esque grill. The red model looked nice under the colorful lights.
Austin seems to be in the midst of another building boom. I’m seeing a lot of cranes again.
There were loads of food and alcohol for sale with “slightly” inflated prices. I enjoyed the Chicken on a Stick grilling performance.
This is Austin after all so we had plenty of music. Red Bull had an upbeat club mix going all night, undoubtedly to make our European visitors feel welcome.
We also had street musicians with a more local Tejano feel.
Finally, there were several stages with live concerts. These guys were not as popular as Foreigner but they were great and I could get up close to the stage.
I had a fun night of photography and Fan Fest gave me something different to shoot. The Fujifilm XF1, for the most part, did an admirable job. I’ll talk more about it in upcoming posts.
I recently posted some Halloween portraits from 6th street that people seem to like. I could have gone with my conventional available light images that I usually take down on 6th street — the Canon 6D at high ISO does a surprisingly good job in low light. Available light shots, however, have a moody but soft look to them. Great for shallow depth of field street photography and romantic wedding photos, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted more of a crisp, dynamic look, different from my regular stuff.
I’ve included several new portraits on this post and you can click here to see the rest of them. As promised, here is the way I created these Halloween portraits.
Taking the Picture
Direct flash gets a bad rap but it can be neat when done in the right way. And you don’t necessary need a soft box or umbrella either, especially if you want that crisp look. The trick is to get the light source off axis, meaning you shouldn’t have the flash on top of your camera. This tends to flatten out features and you lose that three-dimensional look.
Your primary light source is no longer going to be the flash on your camera. There are several ways to do off camera flash. First, you need to use a camera with a hot shoe. You also need an external flash that can be triggered wirelessly or connected via a sync cord. Some camera companies have wireless flash triggering features built into their nicer cameras and flashes. You can certainly use this to get TTL metering which dynamically adjusts to the light conditions. These systems are proprietary so a Nikon wireless system will not work with Canon flashes, for example.
I went for the cheaper and more primitive manual route. While you don’t get the fancy TTL metering, manual flash exposure works great when the environment does not change. Since I was shooting at night, this worked great. The benefits of manual flash is that I can use inexpensive flashes and triggers and arguably get more consistent exposures if you do it right. It’s also manufacturer independent, so I can use the same triggering system on any camera that has a hot shoe.
I used the same inexpensive but reliable Cactus V5 triggers that I used for the Haunted House Photo Booth. My flash is a no frills house brand called Quantaray that was sold by the now out of business Ritz Camera. Any flash capable of manual mode should do, even older models. A nice unit that has is popular with the Strobist community is the LumoPro LP180. I have not used this model but it has even more features than my flash. I dialed down my flash to 1/64 power. After a couple of minutes of testing, I settled on ISO 250, 1/160 second shutter and around f3.2 to f4 in manual exposure mode. I also preset manual focus to several feet out. I held the flash in my left hand and shot with my right. If my camera has located in the center of the clock, the flash was held over my head at around the 10 o’clock position and angled towards my subjects which were about 3 – 5 feet away.
Camera wise, I used the Olympus E-PM2. I thought about using the Canon 6D but there were several advantages to using the E-PM2. First, I wanted a wide-angle view since I knew I would need to include groups of people. The only wide-angle I had on the Canon was the 24-105mm zoom, which combined with the 6D will be heavy to hold one handed. On the Olympus, I used my Lumix 14mm f2.5 (28mm equivalent) pancake lens which made for an incredibility light-weight setup, perfect for one handed operation all night. I could have also used the standard 14-42mm Olympus kit lens, which isn’t much heavier.
At ISO 250, image quality was not a factor. But the smaller sensor on the Olympus has an advantage since it has more depth of field. I could shoot at a f3.2 to f4 range and get the entire group in focus. On the 6D, I would need to go at least to f8. Finally, I also was wary of bringing expensive equipment. I heard that 6th Street on Halloween was crowded and a bit crazy. I felt more comfortable using smaller and less expensive gear.
A couple of people commented how nicely the flash had blacked out the background. Well, in fact, shooting in this way does have the advantage of dropping out the ambient light. But it doesn’t always work perfectly and I resorted to a bit of artistic trickery to get the effect that I wanted. Yes, I did some post processing to mask my subjects from the background. Before I go into that, let me explain the shooting environment.
You have to understand that 6th Street was very crowded with wall to wall people. If I were able to direct people to an open area, then this technique would have worked much better, in camera. Or conversely, If I had set up a dark background, that would have been great too. Instead, I asked people for portraits as I walked down the street. I spent perhaps 10 -15 seconds per person and I didn’t have the luxury or desire to move and optimally position my subjects.
If lucky, I got a break from the crowds and I got a fairly clean shot like the vampire couple on the left. However, most of the time, it was more like the situation on the right. Masking and adding a black background was relatively easy — a different color would be a more difficult. I think that the post processing adds a level of simplicity that give sort of a studio feel to these street portraits.
There are many ways to mask away the background but I wanted to experiment with some new software. Topaz Labs makes ReMask which I’ve always wanted to test. It worked great. With some practice, I was able to do some fairly complex masking, certainly better than what I can do with Photoshop. Take a look at the example below. Masking hair can get tricky and her head dress made it even more challenging. You can tell ReMask did a great job with the subtle details.
How easy is ReMask? Well here is a Youtube video of how it works. I never even read the manual. All I did was look at this video and practiced a bit.
So there you have it. This is how I did those Halloween portraits. It was nice to break out of the usual mold and do something different. Perhaps I’ll use the technique again. Thanks for stopping by, I hope you found this informative and interesting.
For the last several years, I’ve meant to go down to 6th Street on Halloween night. This year I finally made it.
6th Street, Austin’s most famous entertainment district, is busy on regular evenings, particularly on the weekend. Halloween, as you can imagine, was off the charts. It’s the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. I was there from 9pm – 11pm yesterday and it was already wall to wall. As I was leaving, droves of people were converging from other parts of the city.
I wanted to create street portraits, particularly of the more interesting costumes. I also wanted to do it in a different way. I’m really happy with the results. It’s a look that I’ve never done before.
I’ll talk about how I created these in a future post. But for today, I just wanted to showcase a dozen images. I will say that I used my Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm f2.5 lens. As usual, hover over the images with a mouse to see the EXIF details. Then click on the photographs to see a larger version.
Now sit back-end enjoy the Halloween, 6th street style.
A few days ago I talked about what may be the ultimate haunted house made for an elementary school fundraiser. It was created for a one time, 4 hour-long, autumn festival at my son’s elementary school. The haunted house team asked me if I could shoot candid photos of the kids inside the house, as they get frightened by the wicked witch.
The project is more complicated that you might think but I took it as a challenge and to help a worthy cause. I thought about this for a month or so. I asked several knowledgeable photographers and the hardware guys over at Precision Camera. They all seemed sympathetic and wished me luck but they were clearly relieved that they weren’t on the hook to come up with a working system. So I decided to design a system myself. Well, I pulled it off and wanted to describe how I did it, just in case you might want to do something similar. There are certainly things that could be improved and I’ll talk about them at the end.
I had two large challenges. First, how do I take good photographs in a dark area with a good (frightened) expression on the kid’s faces. Next, how do I quickly transfer these photographs 20 feet away to be previewed and printed. I also wanted to do this as inexpensively as possible and ideally, not buy any new equipment. After all, spending money on gear with reduce profits for the school.
Taking the Picture
It turned out that I had all the gear I needed to take the pictures. I didn’t want to use my newest and most expensive equipment since there was a risk of it being damaged in a dark room with scared and running kids.
Next to the last room, in the witch’s castle, we cut an opening into an interior wall. The camera was setup on the other side and shot through the opening. The haunted house had a Wizard of Oz theme and we planned to have a costumed wicked witch pop up and scare the kids as their photo was snapped. What was difficult was anticipating how the kids would react. Remember, this was a temporary setup that would be used for only 4 hours. We didn’t have much time to test and tweak the design.
I used my old Olympus E-PL1 and it was perfect. It was an old camera that I rarely used and I had two bodies, just in case one broke. I wanted to use an inexpensive kit lens but the 28mm equivalent was not wide enough for the room. I had to use the Panasonic 14mm with the wide-angle adapter instead, which gave me a decent 22mm perspective. You can still get inexpensive, refurbished Olympus cameras for less than $200 at Cameta Camera (you have to check frequently since they go in and out of stock). And if you design the room properly with more depth, the standard kit lens might work for you too.
The E-P1 is not a fast focusing camera but this didn’t matter. I shot everything in manual mode. The camera was set for manual focusing so the shutter fired immediately. The exposure and the flash system was also setup manually. You don’t have to use an Olympus, of course. Any camera that has a hot shoe, and can be preset for manual flash and manual exposure should work. However, many inexpensive point and shoots probably won’t fit the bill. They typically don’t have hot shoes as well as manual settings. Certainly DSLRs will work, as well as many of the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.
I had 2 budget flashes that provided light. I set them to manual both at 1/32 power. This allowed the flashes to recycle immediately and save battery power. I triggered them using budget and reliable Cactus V5 transceivers. You need one transceiver per flash and you need to put one on the camera’s hot shoe. I wanted to use another flash to soften the shadows on the walls but the third unit I had powered down in energy saver mode after 5 minutes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t disable that function. I made due with 2 flashes.
I set the camera to ISO 400, f5.6 at 1/125 per second in manual exposure mode. The micro 4/3 sensor on the Olympus has a greater depth of field than a DSLR, so I got away with f5.6. On a DSLR, I would use a smaller aperture (larger f number). I had the camera on a tripod and I used gaffer’s tape to attach it to the wall. The setup was easy enough for child to use. All they needed to do was push the shutter button at the right time.
Here is what the Olympus E-PL1 shot with the two radio triggered flashes. This is what the Witch’s Castle looked like just after it was setup. As you will see below, it was in sad shape 4 hours later.
Transferring the Photograph
The Eye-Fi card has two modes, direct mode from camera to computing device or through an existing Wifi network. This turned out to be the most complicated part of the whole system. I wanted to ideally use direct mode but the range was limited, perhaps to 10 feet and that’s not going through walls. If I had a typical photo booth where the photo was taken only a few feet away from the computer, direct mode should work fine. In my case, I needed to go through several walls and a good distance away so I would need to use the network mode.
At home, on my Wifi network, everything worked great. Transfer speeds were decent and the photos flowed effortlessly from camera to computer. However, at school, it was a nightmare. I wasn’t able to use the school’s WiFi network probably because they had certain network ports blocked and restricted. I improvised by using an old Apple Airport Express Wifi router. I effectively made a wireless LAN (local area network) at home and brought it to the school to get the setup working.
Setting up the wireless LAN was also tough. I’ll spare you the details but here is what I did. To setup the Apple Airport Express and the Eye-FI card you need an active internet connection. I temporarily connected my Airport Express to the cable modem and got everything configured first. Then I disconnected from the internet. This workaround allowed me to have a self-sufficient wireless LAN, not connected to the internet. When I got to the school, I powered everything on and it worked… mostly. I’ll go into the challenges later.
Preview and Printing
The Epson XP-800 is discontinued so it might become hard to find. It was replaced by the XP-810. While I prefer the older Artisan line, the printer did a solid job and printed high quality photos quickly.
I considered bringing my Epson Artisan 810 that I used at home. This all-in-one printer has been very reliable and it prints great looking photos. Unfortunately, it was a little bulky and I no longer had its box. I decided to buy a separate printer for the project that I would pay for. Epson just discontinued that Artisan line and I bought an XP-800 instead, which was also on clearance and was the closest to the older Artisan printers. The XP-800 improves the black text printing over the Artisan but for almost everything else, I prefer the older printer. The image quality is close but the XP-800 has a bunch of annoying features that, while appear fancy, just gets in the way. For this project though, it worked fine.
Note: The Olympus natively shoots in a 3 x 4 aspect ratio like many point and shoots. I set the camera to a 2 x 3 ratio, which is typically used on DSLRs, so that when printed on a 4″ x 6″ paper, I wouldn’t need to crop the image.
The Olympus E-PL1 worked like a charm. It was more than fast enough and the people were in focus. The setup was easy enough and automated for a kid to take a picture reliably.
The low-cost flashes and the flash triggers never missed a beat. I shot about 350 photos and there was never a misfire and to my surprise, we didn’t run out of battery power. I did bring extra AA and AAA batteries.
I did change batteries once on the Olympus, which was expected since the WiFi transfer used additional power. I had 4 fully charged camera batteries so I was prepared.
The printer worked well and printed a 4 x 6 fast in less than 20 seconds.
When the Wifi was speedy, the entire process worked well.
In the dry run, before the kids started, everything worked great. The biggest challenge and the weakest link was the WiFi photo transfer. Sometimes it worked quickly and other times, it would grind to a halt. Definitely not the behavior I saw during testing. The only thing I can figure out is that there must have been signal interference. The haunted house had several computers and other electronics within close proximity of the Apple Airport Express.
Because of the lack of time and to be expedient, I ended up placing the flash units at waist level on tables in front of the camera. For a 2 -3 person group, the flash exposure worked great, for the most part. If I had a large group come though, I sometimes got more shadows than I liked. Depending on how people stood in the room, people at the head of the line would partially block the light for the people at the end.
What I would change
The Apple Airport Express I used was an older model so I would consider getting a more modern Wifi router and units with big antennas. I’m not sure if that would have fixed the problem but it would certainly be worth a try. I did discover in testing that the WiFi performance was the fastest when the Wifi router was closest to the Eye-FI card.
While I reduced the quality of the JPEGs to shrink the file size, (the file was about 2MB), when I had the performance problems, I should have also decreased the JPEG resolution. It doesn’t take much to print a 4″ x 6″ so a much smaller file, at a lower resolution, would have transfered faster.
I would mount the flashes higher up on the walls to reduce shadows.
I would have a barricade to keep a minimum distance from the camera setup to the place where people would walk through. This would ensure a more consistent flash exposure.
Finally, I would work with the designers to create a larger room that is closed off on both sides so we have a self enclosed area to capture the people. This will reduce the speed of people passing through.
Given the constraints in time, equipment and testing, I think the project went well. The haunted house and the photography was new to everyone so we were all learning on the fly and improvising.
I hope you found this setup interesting and perhaps this writeup will give you some ideas, if you are ever asked to do something similar.
Several months of planning. Several days of building. And several hours of fun.
My kids were lucky to go to a really good public elementary school here in Austin. Every Autumn, just before Halloween, they have their very elaborate and profitable fund-raising carnival called the Hoot. This is not just some random collection of inflatable rides. The school, the PTA and a huge crew of volunteers go all out. One of the most popular attractions is the Haunted House, put on by the 5th grade parents.
We had an architect, interior designers and other creative parents planning this for months. They transformed a portable building, usually the music classroom, in the Haunted House in a matter of days. I helped out too this year, doing the photography inside the attraction. I came up with a fairly elaborate system which I will discuss in an upcoming post. My involvement though pales in comparison to all the hard work that went into this place. Today, I wanted to share the inside of this Wizard of Oz themed Haunted House.
I shot these photos in the short window just after it was completed and before the first kids started going through. This year’s design was particularly sophisticated and, dare I say, artistic in many ways. Keep in mind that this was all built for a 4 hour event. At the end, it would be torn down and converted back into a regular elementary school classroom. The amount of effort put into this project was truly impressive.
As the first photograph shows, we start in Kansas in Dorothy’s house. This is the first room, where the kids enter. Pushing past the working screen door and you get to the tornado room. You are outside in the field with the storm cellar to the right and the twister visible front and center. There are fans blowing in here create that stormy and windy feeling.
This was my favorite room. It had a minimalist, “art installation in a museum” kind of feel. I wish I could have shot this from a higher angle looking downwards instead of the other way around. My main tripod was already pressed into service for my photo project so I had to use this old short tripod that just happened to be in my car. At eye level, the white ceiling fades from view and you see the simple, artistic details in this room.
Incidentally, as you might have guessed, I used HDR, shooting 3 images at 2 stops apart. Most of the rooms were very dark and I needed a tripod to keep everything aligned and steady. I used my usual Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm and wide-angle adapter.
After going through a dark hallway decorated with corn stalks, you arrive in the land of Oz. You can see the good witch off in the distance. There are several more rooms and hallways until you get to the yellow brick road that leads through the forest. After, you pass through a room where you can see the Emerald City in the distance, projected from the back via a computer controlled projector. Next you get to the witch’s castle.
The castle is where I shot the photo of the kids that passed through. The objective was to get candid shots of them being frightened by the Wicked Witch that pops out of the window. Then, there is a final dark passage that has closing doors on either end, where the zombified Dorothy appears (we took liberties with the original story line).
Hidden from view, and located in the center of the building is the control center where all the technology and actors resided. Throughout the entire experience, there were sounds of screams, dialog and music that added to the mood. The 5th graders, wearing costumes, slipped in and out of hidden passageways to both scare the kids and get to their pre-set positions. Beyond all the designing and building it was a momentous scheduling job as the actors changed shifts every 30 minutes or so.
Once it started, I was too busy to take it all in. I was manning the photography which kept me busy. As usual, the line for the Haunted House was long and wrapped around the corner. The kids and older folks seem to enjoy it. I’m glad I was a part of this creative crew and truly impressed with the teamwork.
Coming soon, a post about how I did the photography in the Haunted House.
Go photograph the world from your neighborhood. No plane tickets and passports required. If you have limited time or budget, going to these cultural events allow you to step into another world while staying at home. It’s excellent for photography too. I can practice, make mistakes and hone my street shooting, locally, without any pressure. I can experiment with a new technique or new gear. And it’s wise to do this before you go on that expensive international trip, if the opportunity ever presents itself. About a half-year after I went to this parade in 2011, I got an unexpected chance to go to India and Singapore. Shooting in those foreign lands was much easier because of the experience I gained here in Austin.
The Parade Route
For my first parade in 2011, I used my, then new, Olympus E-PL1 with the 20mm Lumix lens. I just started down the one camera, one lens journey, moving to lighter cameras and less gear. I’ve modified my equipment style slightly but have stayed true, for the most part, to the less is more philosophy. This year, I brought my Canon 6D with the Canon 40mm pancake lens. The 40mm view worked so well last time that I decided to do the same again, although with a different camera. I also packed my Olympus E-PM2, mainly as a video camera, since the 6D doesn’t autofocus adequately when shooting video.
Before the Parade
I shot in and around the parade terminus on 5th street when I realized that I was an hour early. I decide to make the 1 1/2 mile walk to the start of the parade on East 6th street. And it was worth it. I got a behind the scenes look at the preparation. I also ran into some of my photographer friends that I haven’t seen in a while. Austin is still small enough that I constantly bump into people I know.
My week-long trip to Cancun this summer gave me a tiny bit more background on the history of Mexico, from its Pre-Columbian roots, the Aztecs and Mayans to the Spanish influence. I recognized the similar elements at the parade as I did at the tourists spots in Mexico. Though ironically, I probably got to interact more with the true culture here in Austin, compared to the decidedly more isolated resort and tourist experience in Cancun.
Parading Down 6th Street
The parade started exactly at 6pm as we walked westward towards downtown. We travelled along East 6th Street through the traditionally Hispanic and African American parts of town that appear to be gentrifying at a rapid pace. The sun was low and the shadows were long which made it difficult to shoot. I tried to use the shadows as design elements but mostly I did my best to avoid them, opting to, when possible, shoot in the even shade.
Traditional Aztec Dancers, somber, painted Catrinas and colorful costumes blended for an eclectic mix. I’m sure the Segways are not very traditional as well as other elements that are not familiar to me, but it’s a parade and it’s an excuse to have fun. Local Congressman, Lloyd Doggett even made an appearance. As we made it past the bars of 6th street, the fumes of alcohol and the party spirit must have infected the crowd. The level of dancing and rhythmic music seemed to amplify.
As a photographic challenge, using a single 40mm prime lens might be fun. But it definitely made me work harder — I had to get close to make interesting images. I couldn’t just stay on the sidelines and zoom in. I needed to dart into the parade and momentarily join in to capture my desired framing. Having a zoom particularly a 70 – 200mm has its advantages though. Make an easier shot is not the main goal, rather, getting a shallower depth and isolating the subject would be my main objective. I would also be able to compress the distance between the dancers to get an entire different kind of framing. Perhaps next year, I will use a single zoom.
Dancing in the Street
As we turned the corner on to Congress Avenue, the main North – South street in downtown, the parade morphed into a block party. Dancers and the drummers took over and the spectators joined in. Austin sure likes to have fun and the carefree spirit pervaded.
On of those new Capitol Metro double length buses passed by with the skull decorations. A nice touch.
While I shot exclusively with the Canon 6D during the parade, I began to mix in the Olympus E-PM2, initially to shoot video of the party like atmosphere. I also took some still images and, I admit, I really like shooting with the Olympus a lot more than the Canon. It’s not just a matter of size. I find that the exposure metering on the Olympus is superior and since I can compose using the back LCD, it allows me to shoot in a more free form way. This style of shooting also blended better with the mood. Having a big black DSLR to your face seems to remove me from the action. It works for sports shooting, when I need to concentrate on one subject. But here when the people are dancing around, the small light camera felt like a more modern and apropos device to capture the action.
The Olympus E-PM2 video quality is serviceable but ultimately a bit of a let down, especially after using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-P5. The E-PM2 video hunts too much and I see more compression artifacts. It still works however to get a quick video of the action.
As the light levels fell, I came into my element. Shooting at dusk and into the night is what I really like. As sunlight is replaced by the man-made urban lighting, the city comes alive for me. The Olympus does a pretty good job but I didn’t bring my f1.4 lens. This is where the Canon 6D shines with its high ISO capability. Even with my f2.8 pancake lens, I was able to shoot in the moderately dim.
Patricia, the woman in the skeleton costume was still dancing. She was a constant source of amazement and I offered to send her photos, if she was interested.
I absolutely love the warm glow on the mother and daughter’s faces as they previewed images from a photo session. It’s one of my favorites.
The Aztec dancers were still at it. I knew the light levels were too dim to get a clear shot. I decided to take the opposite tack and go for maximum (hand-held) motion blur. I switched to the Olympus, which has in-body image stabilization and set the shutter to 1/10 of a second. It took a bunch of tries with this hit or miss technique, but I created an image that I like. With both motion blur and some camera shake, the net effect is one of movement. The lovely purple nicely contrasting against the yellow ambient lighting.
Finally, I snapped a well dressed couple on Congress Avenue as I made my way back to my car. Shot here with the city as the backdrop and the ubiquitous technology in hand, it came out great at ISO 10,000.
I must have walked 4 or more miles and my feet were starting to tire as the cool air finally filtered into Central Texas. My back and shoulders held up though. I was able to carry my 6D with the 40mm lens plus the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 in my usual compact Domke bag. A nice, really compact setup. Not quite one camera and one lens like two years ago but not that far off either.
Here are all of the photographs I took at the 2013 Austin Dia de los Muertos Parade. There are extras I didn’t include in this post.
During the evening and especially one the weekends, it’s a fun place to people watch and a good place for street photography. Unlike 6th street, which is populated by colorful people (i.e. drunk college kids, the homeless and various people eking out a living), you have more families, tourists and hipsters. You lose a bit of that edgy urban feel but it’s a safer and more friendly for a mainstream audience. You can catch both, if you are so inclined. SoCo closes up early for Austin, usually by 10pm. 6th, on the other hand, doesn’t get going until 10pm.
If eclectic details and colorful lights are more your style, SoCo has that covered too. While I enjoy street photography, my first love is colorful urban landscapes. The place comes alive for this, from the evening into night. There is enough neon and worn, old buildings to add a level of authenticity and interest. The suburbs in the U.S. are boring and many of its city centers are not much better. I think SoCo is interesting, both photographically and for regular people, precisely because it’s different. It is not the homogenized, often duplicated chain store experience.
My friend Dan came in from California. He’s a photographer too so we had a mini photo walk last week. We ate at Hopdoddy, my favorite burger place, which is really an upscale burger restaurant. The only downside to this place is the wait — there’s usually a line out the door. While there are many great restaurants in SoCo, I tend to gravitate towards well executed basics. Hopdoddy gets my burger vote and across the street, Home Slice is one the best New York style Pizzerias in town. Unfortunately, the wait at Home Slice can be equally bad.
I shot the Allens Boots image, for example, at a 34mm equivalent which compressed and narrowed the angle of view more than my usual wide-angle photos. It allowed me to cut most of the non-descript building and concentrate on the interesting neon elements.
I’ve been lucky enough to review some expensive cameras recently, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Olympus E-P5. They are fantastic cameras and I enjoyed them immensely but my personal Olympus is still the low-cost E-PM2. It’s easy to get wrapped up in gear talk, I’m certainly guilty of it, but you don’t need fancy cameras to take great pictures. The Olympus E-PM2 with lens now costs about $450. This camera is more than enough for most people. I shot all the photographs, except the first one, with this standard kit lens. I hope you will agree that this camera and lens combo can make excellent images. Of course, the technique had something to do with it too. These photos were all shot on tripod at ISO 200 and I used HDR techniques to blend images together. I use HDR to increase the dynamic range and boost the colors that I like to emphasize.
This is a photoessay of a 2 block stretch of South Congress Avenue. SoCo is not very big. But there are so many interesting details, it’s very dense, photographically. The first photo of South Congress Cafe is located near Monroe Street. The photos follow a northerly progression, ending up at Guerro’s located at the corner at Elizabeth Street. Look at the map and you can tell how close these stores actually are.
I remember Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds from 20 years ago. This vintage clothing store was around before vintage was cool and when the SoCo area was a slum. It’s nice to see the gentrification of this area has not driven out all the old businesses. Believe it or not, there used to be a Nissan Car dear around here too. I forget the exact spot but the area has surely changed.
Many of these stores, including Tesoros, have wonderful window displays.
Crossing over Elizabeth Street, you get to Guero’s, a popular Tex-Mex Restaurant. We got there just as they were cleaning up. Normally, they have outside seating under the awning. The place looks extra clean with the tables and chairs removed. The building is wonderful, with tons of character. The inside is neat too.
On the other side of building, there is an ultra colorful neon sign. I think of it as a SoCo landmark of sorts. Hopdoddy’s is just north of the colorful sign, so we came full circle.
Parking in SoCo can be challenging at times. There is diagonal street parking on Congress Avenue but this fills up quickly during peak hours. There is neighborhood parking but many spots are permit only, so watch out.
We parked in a lot behind Hopdoddy’s. You can get the parking ticket validated for a free hour or so when you eat there. We stayed longer so our fee was $5. Just as we were ready to go, Dan and I saw this beautiful neon sign and its colorful glow. We had to breakout the cameras one last time.
Dan said he was ready to come back again. Next time we’ll cover the area north of Hopdoddy’s. I will most certainly do a followup post if we do. The question is do we get a burger again or go for some pizza?
A new photography exhibit opened recently at the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus, here in Austin. The show is titled, “Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age”. It chronicles the history of the legendary Magnum photo agency from the start to the present day. There are beautiful black and white prints from noted photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa as well as other lesser known but talented members of Magnum. I was glad to see photographs from Elliott Erwitt and Eli Reed, both of whom I’ve had the honor of meeting in person.
Anyone in Texas interested in classic photography, especially the street and documentary variety should go see the exhibit. While they also show recent works, for me, it’s the old black and whites that really resonate. I spent a quiet contemplative Sunday afternoon studying the masters.
You snake, generally chronologically, through the exhibit and end up at the present day. They display the newest digital media including iPad Apps and a Tumblr blog called “Postcards From America” which you can see here. Call me uneducated (photographically). Call me old school. But these new images don’t do it for me, especially compared to the old black and whites. My reaction, Meh. What do you think?
I originally had an entirely different plan for Sunday, by the way. I was going to the Texas Photo Festival until the much-needed, but violent rainstorm changed my plans. A foot of rain overnight caused some flooding and even cancelled the last day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. With steady showers forecasted all day for Smithville, I decided to stick closer to home.
I enjoyed the previous exhibit, Arnold Newman Masterclass, more. I really liked the deep dive the Ransom Center did on one man’s career. However, Radical Transformation is interesting in its own right. I spent about 2 hours there and I’ll probably go back again. I have some time, the exhibit runs until January 5, 2014.
Perhaps I will see you there.
One of the slick new places that opened in Austin, that makes us collectively think that we are no longer in a secondary market, is Top Golf. I’ve heard breathless excitement about this new fun place from Dallas. Turns out Houston has one too and the establishment is not even out of Texas. Top Golf is a UK-based company that is building upscale driving ranges with a twist. Combine a night club like bar and a restaurant with an upscale driving range on which you can play games and you begin to understand the premise of this place.
I am not a golfer. That last time I tried was over 25 years ago. Even back then, I played 18 holes with a 5 iron and a putter, so you know how serious I was about the sport. At least to my credit, I tended to whack the ball straight down the course. Except with only a 5 iron, I needed to do a lot of whacking. So why did I got to Top Golf? To take photographs of course.
When invited by friends, they insisted that I needn’t be a golfer. Luckily I wasn’t the only one. I got to socialize, have a few drinks and eat some tasty bites. The key for me, of course, is that I got to take photographs. Photography is up there, high on my fun scale, so I don’t care if I was at St. Andrews in Scotland — I would be capturing images instead of stroking that little white ball.
I took my Olympus E-PM2 with my usual wide-angle and a tiny table top tripod. This was going to be my compact HDR machine. I didn’t bring my usual full size tripod since I wasn’t sure if the Top Golfers were amenable. I also had my Canon G15 as usual for miscellaneous shots that I converted to black and white.
It turned out that a couple of non-golfers also liked photography so we talked shop as I snapped some images. I can’t tell you much about how the golf games worked but I saw some great shots that flew so far that even my photography trained eye lost track. I’ve lived in Austin for 22+ years but get the feeling everyday that I no longer live in that small College town. Top Golf has 3 levels of driving ranges like the kind that I saw in land strapped Tokyo. The only difference? The surrounding area is still mostly nature as opposed to a solid wall of high rises. We are safe from that. It would take untold centuries of development in Austin to reach Mega-Tokyo like densities… I think.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 now has in camera HDR processing. If memory serves, this is the first time Olympus has added this feature to a micro 4/3 camera. The recent Pens, the E-P5, E-PL5 and E-PM2 include an HDR bracketing mode which does not actually generate HDRs inside the camera. These bracketing modes make it easier to take multiple photographs at different exposures.
As you may know, I’m sort of an HDR aficionado and know a good deal about creating them. I’ve honed my style and technique over the last several years. So how does the in camera processing compare to what I can do manually?
There are many styles of HDR so your opinions might differ. I prefer a natural and realistic rendering. I like lots of color with sharp details but generally dislike the heavy, grungy tone mapped looked. Based on this, I’m not a fan of the E-M1 in camera processing. See how the the neon sign is blown out and the details of the walls, diminished.
The camera has two different HDR settings, shown below, unedited JPEGs straight out of camera. These HDR settings and the HDR bracketing modes are easily accessible from a labeled button on the top left of the E-M1. Even after post processing the Olympus HDR JPEGs, however, I wasn’t able to get them looking the way I liked. I tried to add more contrast, for example, but couldn’t get the crispness I desired.
The image at the top is the HDR I created manually. I used the E-M1 bracketing feature, 3 images at 2 stops apart. I used my standard process, creating it using 3 separate programs. I use Photomatix to blend the 3 photos into a single HDR file. I optionally use Pixelmator to layer blend parts of the HDR image with the original exposures. Finally, I use Aperture 3 to sharpen, set color temperature, saturate and apply the final touches. In most cases, it takes me about 10 minutes to create one manually. I usually use RAW photos but used JPEGs in this case since I don’t have a RAW converter for the E-M1.
Keep in mind that the look of a HDR can vary quite a bit depending on what is being photographed. Shooting nature during daylight might work a lot better, for example. I didn’t have time to extensively test this feature but the several HDRs I’ve created that night had a similar look. These urban night landscapes are my favorite HDR subject so that’s the kind of photos I used.
Finally, my Sony NEX-5 from a couple of years ago also has in camera HDR. I prefer the NEX-5′s in camera processing a lot more, though the Olympus user interface is a lot better. I wish I had the time to shoot the same scene from the Driskill Hotel. That would’ve been an interesting test.
Yesterday, I dedicated a post to black and white photos of downtown Austin, taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M1. Here are more photographs I shot on the same day, this time in glorious color. I take all my photographs in color and decide during post processing whether to convert some to black and white. I have a taste for crispness and dynamic images. For photos that have mediocre or uncertain color, I opt for black and white and increase the contrast and texture. But when the sun goes down and the lights come up, and you are in the right place, the color becomes lively.
6th street is definitely one of those lively places.
Beyond all the grunge, colorful characters and the unpredictable nature of city life, I’m most amazed by the capitalism on 6th street. In many ways, the U.S. has become a two entity system. Certainly, we have a two-party political system but this extends into business too. Consider Home Depot and Lowe’s. Office Max and Office Depot. FedEx and UPS. Walmart and Target. Costco and Sam’s. And finally Coke and Pepsi.
But on 6th street, there are a multitude of bars and restaurants completing together in a vivid marketplace. An efficient marketplace to supply drinks and entertainment to college kids and tourists.
The businesses on 6th street uses various weapons to snare their customers. Music is a big tool of course, with almost every genre represented. There are cheap drinks and junk food. Attractive hosts and hostesses. And of course, lots of color and character to visually attract with both gaudy as well as cool minimalist designs. There are old favorites that are around for years, others die quickly and get resurrected even quicker.
It’s best to visit 6th street at night when the darkness hides the shabby feel of most of these venues. In the stark reality of daylight, these places don’t add up to much. But mix in some darkness, colorful lights and throngs of people in various states of inebriation and it makes for a visually rich target.
The E-M1 handled the blue lights and the performance at the Bat Bar very nicely. This place has windows that open to the street, where you can shoot the performers from the rear. Here are some images of this unusual guitar and cello combo that piqued my interest. I even shot a video which came out great — gotta love the cello player puffing away.
Esther’s Follies has been around forever and I’m glad to see them going strong. Home of comedy and political satire, their performance is both visible from the street and the stage and props are extended on to the sidewalk.
Pedicabs are fairly new to Austin but they seem to get more elaborate, undoubtedly to attract customers. Finally, there is always an interesting mix of people, some groups celebrating special events such as bachelor and bachelorette parties. I’m not sure what these boa ladies are celebrating but they look like they’re enjoying themselves.
And while your idea of a good time may not be shooting 6th street, just imagine, you can substitute it for any place in the world. It could be the big city lights in Tokyo, the cobblestone streets of Europe or the dynamic street life in India.
The E-M1 with the 12-40mm f2.8 makes a potent combo. With comparably small size, weather proofing and a versatile large aperture lens it may be a perfect all in one solution for travel photography. The body and lens are ideally suited for each other. I also have no complaints about the image quality, I’m sure you will agree.
For most people, the E-M1 and the 12-40mm might be all you need. However, micro 4/3 has the largest selection of lenses in the mirrorless world. For people who want to stop action in dark places, like me, carrying a second lens, a fast prime works great. There are a lot to choose from such as the Olympus 17mm f1.8, the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 and the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4, which is what I used that night. Olympus and Panasonic together now offer a lens selection that is approaching Canon’s and Nikon’s. If you are considering an E-M1, keep in mind that you’re not just getting a camera body, you are buying into an ecosystem, a very diverse one.
Here are black and whites from the second day of E-M1 testing. I received my loaner, a pre production OM-D E-M1, from Olympus on Wednesday. On Thursday, I tested it at Drink and Click, a photo walk / social event, which I posted yesterday. These photos are from Friday night. I headed to the heart of downtown Austin and shot along Congress Avenue and 6th Street, despite some heavy rains. I figured, since this Olympus is weather sealed, it should be fine.
By the time I got there, the rain had mostly stopped so I really didn’t get to test the weather resistant seals. For the first half of my test, I started with the pre production Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 lens. As much as I like to shoot with primes (non zooming lenses), It’s nice to have a zoom to get alternate framings, especially for architecture. Though I’ve travelled these streets often, the 24mm to 80mm equivalent gave me extra range to explore new compositions.
I shot architecture down Congress Avenue, the main north-south street through downtown. As I turned the corner on to 6th, my subjects began to shift from buildings to people. 6th street can be a rich area for interesting people — a haven for street photography. But even on a Friday night, this most famous Austin bar district doesn’t come alive until at least 9:30pm. The bars and streets are empty, getting a breather and preparing for the onslaught that would happen in a few hours.
Shooting with the 12-40mm certainly makes it convenient — I’ve never used a constant f2.8 zoom before. The big aperture makes this practically a do it all lens. Standard kit lenses have variable apertures that range from f3.5 to f5.6., which means these cheap zooms collect 2 to 4 times less light. They work fine for day light but as evening approaches or you try to shoot indoors, you quickly run up against its limitations. You are forced to break out that nasty flash, which is what most people do. And unless you use advanced flash techniques, even DSLR photos with flash look only slightly better than a point and shoot.
A f2.8 zoom and good high ISO performance, like the E-M1 has, may eliminate the need for flash in many cases. You’re still going to need flash in a dark restaurant but evening shots in the city or indoor photos at normal lighting levels should work fine. The problem with f2.8 zooms however, are the size of them particularly on DSLRs. Sure wedding photographers and photojournalist use them because they have to but these lenses are not for the faint of heart (or for people with weak backs). But the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 is different. Because the micro 4/3 sensor is smaller, the lens can also be smaller. For about the size of a kit lens on a DSLR, you can have a full-fledged f2.8 zoom. That is one of the big advantages for the micro 4/3.
If you don’t need to catch fast action at night, then the 12-40mm zoom may be all you need. I used my f1.4 prime for night street photography. But even a dark street scene like the one below will be possible with the f2.8 zoom. All you have to do is slow down the shutter and boost the ISO. The E-M1′s built-in 5 axis image stabilizer will allow you to hand hold in marginal light.
I shot a lot last Friday night. For my next posting, lots of color from 6th street. When the sun goes down and the evening lights begin to glow, I’m in my element. We will see how the OM-D E-M1 does for urban night photography, my favorite.
Conveniently, the day after I got my OM-D E-M1 test unit from Olympus, Drink and Click was having their biweekly meeting. Drink and Click is a combined photo walk and social drinking event that started in Austin. It’s become popular with chapters popping up around the world. I thought it would be fun to test the camera there and to show off Olympus’ flagship to a bunch of photography and camera enthusiasts.
The light level was rapidly dropping as I got to Rainey Street, a new hip area in downtown Austin. What was merely a residential neighborhood a handful of years ago has turned into a street with converted small bars and towering condos. Unlike the other entertainment areas in Austin, Rainey Street has a smaller more intimate feel. It almost feels like going to a party at someone’s house. I love the texture here along with the irresistible glowing lights.
Meeting at the Javalina Bar turn out to be a lucky choice. In addition to our photography group, the place hosted a 1920′s style murder mystery party complete with gangster and flapper costumes. It added yet another level of visual interest that made for wonderful photo opportunities.
In addition to the brand new Olympus 12 – 40 f2.8 Pro lens, I also brought the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4. The combo worked well together and the camera and two lenses fit comfortably in the small Domke F-5XB bag that I typically use. I felt especially lucky when Charles from Olympus said that I have the only copy of the 12 – 40 lens in Texas. While the E-M1 itself will be released to the public in a few weeks, this pro lens won’t be available for a couple of months, according to Amazon.
So how did the camera work? Splendidly. As you can see, even in this very dark place, I was able to make some decent, moody photos. I shot in JPEG + RAW since the RAW converter for Aperture 3 is not available. In this lighting and with the JPEG processing, the images look cinematic to me. ISO 3200, no problem. Even at ISO 4000 and 5000, the noise is well controlled. With JPEG, the camera applies noise reduction so the images are typically softer than in RAW, but viewed at full size on a 27″ monitor, they look good.
The video mode worked well and improves with every iteration. It seems to work better than on the Olympus E-P5 that I tested recently. I think that magical, all in one, stills and video shooting camera has finally arrived. I shot this clip inside and in some horrible light. The camera did a great job, certainly better than my camera work shows. I moved around and zoomed and things stayed in focus. The 5 axis image stabilizer works wonders for video and unsteady camera operators.
As nice as a constant f2.8 zoom is with this first Olympus Pro zoom, under these conditions, having a f1.4 prime is really handy. I started shooting with the 12 – 40mm zoom but switched to the 25mm f1.4 as it turned to night. The zoom was the hit of Drink and Click though. Like some of the Olympus primes, when you pull back on the focus ring, the zoom goes into manual focus mode. I set the camera to magnify and focus peak. Turn the focus ring and you get some high-tech aids to nail manual focus really quickly. I passed the camera around to several people as they loved playing with this feature.
Beyond the manual focus aids, the camera was received very positively by the photographers. Last meeting someone brought the Panasonic GX7 and along with the E-M1 this week, the enthusiast crowd is being treated to the latest and greatest mirrorless cameras. I sense there is a shift happening in this group. Unlike the general population in the U.S. where DSLRs still rule, members have converted or eyeing mirrorless. Juan Gonzales, who founded Drink and Click, actively uses his Fujifilm X100S. He said possibly with the next generation of Fuji interchangeable X cameras, he is ready to ditch his Nikon DSLR. Several of the other members already use the Olympus micro 4/3 too.
I may be reading too much into this but it was telling when I talked a Nikon user. I was showing him the great features of the Olympus E-M1 when I asked him what camera he used. He said sheepishly that he has the Nikon D600. “Isn’t that the new full frame Nikon?”, I asked with a bit of confusion. “That’s an excellent camera”, I added. “Yeah”, he said “But it’s so heavy”. Wow, I thought. Perhaps the mirrorless revolution that I’ve anticipated for a while, and has taken over Japan, is finally starting in America. While the OM-D E-M1 is large by Olympus micro 4/3 standards, it still compact compared to the typical DSLRs.
Consider this. The pro grade, all metal, weather resistant E-M1 body with an equally well-built metal and weather resistant 24-80mm equivalent, with a constant f2.8, is smaller than an entry-level DSLR kit. I’ll talk more about this camera in future posts but I can tell you that it out performs my Canon 7D both in shooting and image quality. The mirrorless world is evolving at the speed of Moore’s Law. The old guard, Canon and Nikon, are constrained more by physics (think flapping mirrors) and to a larger extent, by tradition.
Just before I left, Mike, one of the members of Drink and Click brought over his homemade $100 portable lighting rig. He handed me a radio trigger and he held a flash and umbrella combo that works great for impromptu portraits. After a few tries we got the exposure dialed in and I called Christy and her friends to model for us. I increased the ISO to 1600 hoping to capture more ambient light but it was pretty dark. It was a fitting end to a fun night with a very social photography crowd. The E-M1 performed admirably and I’m planning to put it through its paces during the short time I have it. Stay tuned for more E-M1 observations over the coming week.
Yesterday I posted one of my favorite high ISO photos. I took it in a dive bar next to the University of Texas campus. The bar, aptly named Hole in the Wall, is a nasty place to shoot bands. Dim lighting with a bright picture window as the background, makes it suboptimal. But I was up to the challenge when Mike invited me.
The bar itself is fantastic, especially if photography isn’t your purpose. It has the broken down and worn look that oozes character. These venues aren’t unusual in Austin but not common within the ubiquitous American suburban sprawl. As I’ve gotten into photography, I seek these places out. The newer developments typically don’t have the details that make an interesting photograph.
The camera handled the backlighting fairly well, I only need to boost exposure compensation about 1/3 of a stop. The details out the window blow out but I get that decent exposure on the musicians. Setting shutter to 1/100s which means that I needed high ISOs even before nightfall.
After dark, the dim lighting means, really high ISOs and slower shutter speeds. 6,400 or higher is not unusual. I’ve gotten acceptable images at ISO 12,800 on the Canon 6D. There is a bit of added texture as the noise increases (even with full frame) and I like it better in black and white. I shot these several months ago when I first got the 6D. I was in test mode back then especially to see how high I could push the ISO.
Mike’s been shooting and testing too. His choice, the Fujifilm X-E1. The Fuji despite having a smaller APS-C sensor does well in these dark places. You can see his blog post here with his X-E1 shots.
I got a twofer that night. Red Dirt Rebellion played the first half and many of the same members played the second as the Swamp Bats. The intimate crowd and the easy-going feel reminded me of old Austin. Hippies and college students together sharing a beer and good music. Towards the end Steve, on guitar, strolled off the stage, around the bar and even popped outside. I followed with my pumped up ISO.
The 6D handled the color well — it has a mellow richness. But the grainy high ISO black and whites fit the place and the mood. I decided to include both because I couldn’t decide.
It was a fun time, relaxing and low-key as I didn’t have to fight the downtown traffic. And as I mentioned yesterday, having a usable high ISO performance is a good thing. It enables images that were unthinkable a few years ago in digital or something not possible with film. It’s certainly fun to push the boundaries of your tool, but it is all in service of capturing that image you want. That, of course, is the most important thing.
I occasionally read camera reviews where they say anything over ISO 3200 isn’t necessary. That no one really needs this kind of high ISO performance. I’m here to tell you that, that’s bull. This is what you can do when you have a clean ISO 6,400. Even at 100%, there is only a slight bit of graininess. Viewed on a 27″ monitor at full size, it looks lovely.
I shot this at a place called the Hole in the Wall on Guadalupe Street next to the University of Texas campus. I was there listening to a band with my friend Mike when I saw her dreaming by the bar. This place was dark, really dark. Not only was this shot at ISO 6,400 but I was using a 35mm lens at f2 with a 1/30 second shutter speed. The bluish light on her face and stools was coming from the doorway and windows at the front of the bar. A delicious mix of ambient light, both natural and man-made.
Moody and dark, kind of like the big city in the evening — it’s the kind of imagery that makes me happy. Shot with the Canon 6D, this is why I got a full frame camera, to make these kinds of high ISO shots. As much as I love the Olympus Pens — and while their high ISO performance has improved markedly — they struggle to do this and with this kind of clarity. The shallow depth of field from a full frame also gives it a different kind of feel compared to a camera with a smaller sensor.
I really don’t enjoy using the DSLR as much, on so many levels but I do like a full frame’s high ISO performance. I still shoot the Olympus mirrorless for fun and travel, but when I need to kick it up a notch in the ISO department, I bring out the Canon 6D.
One last set of model photos before I turn my attention to something else. Ready for the 2nd installment of “Color or Black and White, which do you like?”
I did the first of this series last month, a street photograph from San Francisco. This time, it’s a portrait with two radio triggered strobes with a black back drop. There was a large soft box on the left and a smaller fill light on the right.
I shot a bunch of shots of Keli in the living room, this is my favorite from the strobe setup in the garage. In this case, the black and white, really didn’t simplify anything, like it usually tends to do. But it definitely alters the mood. I think they both work but which do you like?
Chime in with your opinion. Which do you like better the color or the black and white version?
The toughest place I shot during Jake’s surprise birthday party was by a glass door, next to the living room. With a wall immediately behind the model and a light source mainly on one side, I was at a loss of how to make this place interesting and to get a good exposure. A little post processing and a black and white conversion made all the difference.
What I really needed was a reflector on the left side to add more fill light to the shadows. There was a reflector handy but no one around so I went with what I had. While it looks fairly bright, the light was falling fast. These were shot at ISO 2500 and I bumped the exposure compensation up 2/3 of a stop. On the positive side, the door glass was frosted so it acted somewhat like a soft box.
I lifted the shadows a bit in post but making these monochrome really changed the mood. The shadows now work and add mystery rather than being a liability. Kalan had these wonderful dramatic poses and a beautiful profile. These portraits are very different from my usual. I didn’t pre visualize these but I’m glad I tried them. I came up with something unexpected.
I mentioned yesterday that I went to a fun, photography themed birthday party, over the weekend. I took a bunch of photos, as usual, and I wanted to share some more that I liked. Though it was challenging, my favorite area to shoot was in the living room on the chaise lounge. It was lit by available light instead of strobes like a couple of the other sets.
But it could have been a lot worse. When the shooting started, Keli was already lounging on the chaise. A stylish but dim light hung overhead. Behind her, closed window shades, which made for a cluttered background. And did I mention it was dim? I was getting 1/40 of second shutter at ISO 3200. I had my 24 – 105mm f4 lens with me. I was starting to regret not bringing a faster prime lens.
I changed things up though. And it made all the difference. First, I scrunched myself in the corner so that I now had the open room as the background instead of the blinds. This allowed me to improve the background and throw more of it out of focus. Then I realized that it was still bright enough that if I raised the shades, I could get some nice indirect light from the windows.
With the shooting angle and the lighting fixed, I had a blast shooting Keli and afterwards, Kalan. The photos came out decently, I think, though I still needed a fairly high ISO to get adequate shutter speeds. The Canon 6D helped in this regard since I could confidently go to ISO 3200 without worrying about image degradation.
We had 4 models rotating between the 4 sets so I didn’t have the chance to shoot everyone here. I also wanted to play with the strobe setups. But this location gave me the most to work with. A black backdrop and strobes are fun and gets that serious model look but I tend to like more casual setups. The living room made this possible. And though it required me to change it up a little, I’m happy with the way it came out.
I was invited to a surprise birthday party for Jake this past weekend, organized by his wife Ashli. It was a photography themed birthday party. Beyond the coordinated black and white snacks and the rolls of film used as a centerpiece, the real fun was taking photos of the models that Ashli hired.
Jake is part of my circle of photographer friends in Austin. It was nice to meet some of my other buddies at the party. But I had to admit, I had a blast shooting the models. It’s been a while since I’ve done portraits and while you know I love to shoot cities and architecture, there’s nothing like shooting some beautiful models from time to time.
There were 4 models and 4 separate photography areas. The studio out in the garage had the most elaborate setup with a large black backdrop and a huge soft box, all radio triggered of course. There was another two light setup in a bedroom and two more naturally lit areas in the living room.
This was the first time I got to shoot the Canon 6D for portraits. I used the versatile 24 – 105mm f4 as my only lens. The focal range works nicely for portraits as well as candid party shots. I tried hard to shoot the models at at least 70mm, for a more flattering view, but I didn’t always succeed. Part of the problem was the available space to back up. But the more likely culprit is that I’m naturally a wide-angle shooter. Between my street photography and architecture, I’m usually set way under 50mm.
I have a tendency to shoot wide and move in closer. This, of course, is not the preferred way to take portraits. The smaller focal lengths distort — not at all good for faces and body parts. Go with the longer focal lengths and the distortion works in your, or the model’s, favor. At 70mm or more facial features get compressed which tends to flatter most people. Also when you zoom in, you tend to get a shallower depth of field, which better isolates the subject from the background.
Being a full frame camera, even at f4, I can get some decent shallow depth of field. The 6D’s high ISO performance really helped too. For the natural light shots, I had to up the ISO to 2000 or more as the lighting levels dropped. The sets lit by strobes were, of course, fine. I set my camera to ISO 100 for those. I’m also really pleased with the performance of the 24 – 105mm lens and the focusing of the 6D. Most of my images were tack sharp, the focus locked on the eyes, which is generally a good practice with portraits.
The strobes were setup by the other photographers so all I did was shoot. I found the natural light shots more challenging from a lighting perspective. Ultimately though, it’s the non-technical details that make a really good portrait. Knowing how to pose a model, which I don’t really know how to do, and most elusive of skills, building rapport. Making the person feel comfortable so that they loosen up and they go beyond the typical model poses. That’s where I would like to be someday. For that, I know that I need to practice a whole lot more.
Every year, my son’s elementary school gets invited to the season opener of the local high school football game. A rivalry of McCallum Knights vs. the Anderson Trojans at the Taco Shack bowl. Last year, I shot it with my Panasonic point and shoot — I was in the midst of testing what I could do with a modest camera. This year, I did the opposite. I brought my newest and biggest, the Canon 6D.
I didn’t go whole hog though. I opted not to use it with my 70 – 200mm zoom lens. There were a few of those and larger lenses on the field, attached to monopods, set up for sports photography. I, on the other hand, went for the smallest lens Canon makes for DSLRs, the new 40mm f2.8 pancake. My main purpose was to take snapshots of my younger son on the field during half time. The focal length also works great for some street style documentary photography.
So here a some assorted images from the high school football scene. I wasn’t really setup for capturing the action on the field. I almost regret not bringing at least my 24 – 105mm f4 but the 1 stop advantage of the 40mm helped in those dark places.
I didn’t get the brilliant sunset like last year. I was sitting on the wrong side for that anyway. It goes to show the opportunity trumps equipment. But the high ISO quality of the 6D works great for stopping action and I get a level of clarity not possible with a regular point and shoot. Part of the fun using different types of cameras is to take photographs geared to the strength of each device.
Lucky is proud to present the Olympus TG-2, the third and last of my recent new cameras. It is a chunky point and shoot and it has the worst image quality of all my recent cameras. Why did I get it? Well it has some unique features.
You know that I’ve been on an equipment kick lately first buying the Canon 6D, then the Canon G15 and now the TG-2. I’ve also got rid of a few cameras so my total camera count remains steady. While these may seem like random purchases, I actually have put some thought behind them. At least that is what I tell my self to justify all these acquisitions.
The Olympus TG-2 is designed survive a 7 foot drop, temperatures of 14 degrees and the pressure of 50 feet of water. Yes, it is one of those Tough cameras. I’m not much of an extreme sports kind of guy so this camera is going to have it easy, lounging around by the pool or the ocean. But it fills an important niche, to capture the candid moments of summer, without worry.
It’s a surprisingly quick camera, JPEG only and I’m taking on a trip to Cancun, Mexico in a couple of days. I have the Sony TX5, my first waterproof camera from about 3 years ago but this one improves on it in several ways. First, it has a f2.0 lens at its widest 25mm focal length. A true 1080P high def video and the most amazing macro capability of all of my cameras. Its 12 MP sensor is the newest generation and even for its tiny size, it does acceptable shots up to ISO 400 and I’ve even pushed it to ISO 800 in a pinch.
The old TX5 goes to my younger son, who has bugged me for a camera. This little Sony with its strong build will be perfect for a young boy. Here you see him jumping into a pool, with the TX5 to document his plunge. Black and whites come out really crisp and the lower dynamic range and large depth of field really gives a sharp look to these photos. At 100%, even at the base ISO 100, there is noise reduction smoothing going on. It’s definitely not going to win any image quality competitions but I think it will be a fun camera.
I’ve only use the TG-2 a couple of times so I’ll do a more extensive writeup when I get back from my vacation. So far, it’s worked well at a pool side party and a boating trip. I really don’t expect to use the camera too often. The Canon G15, certainty destroys it in image quality, so it won’t be my daily carry around camera. But as you can imagine, it should be the perfect ticket for the beach. After all, just a few misplace grains of sand and the G15′s power zoom becomes history not to mention the constant threat of water.
Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail. Multiply the focal length by 6.25 to get the 35mm equivalent
Tradition dictates that Lucky, our family dog, need to be involved in any new camera acquisition. So here is Lucky reluctantly posing for my new Canon G15. The G15 is a high-end point and shoot nearly at the top of Canon’s range. They also have a G1 X, which is the most expensive PowerShot, but that one’s a dog. It has a focusing system in the same league as the EOS M (before the firmware update). So effectively the G15 is the best and highest end point and shoot that Canon makes.
About a month ago I mentioned that I had bought two more cameras in addition to the Canon 6D. The PowerShot G15 is one of those cameras — I’ll also reveal the 2nd new camera by the end of the week. These cameras join a crowded collection of devices that is filling every niche that I can define. The G15 is destined to fill the daily carry around camera role, the one currently occupied by the Olympus XZ-1.
As much as I like the XZ-1 and I shot with it quite a bit during my travels — there was one thing that ultimately nagged me — I mentioned it in my Olympus XZ-1 review. Even at ISO 100, its lowest setting, the image quality was a bit lacking. There is a little bit of noise and the color is hesitant. For most people, I think its image quality is fine. For me, I found that it just quite didn’t deliver the quality that I wanted my casual “serious” work — the kind that I happen upon during my daily life.
The G15 is clearly better. At ISO 80, the quality is very nice. It’s nearly indistinguishable from my higher end cameras other than it tends to have more depth of field. Compared to the XZ-1, it might have about a stop of better high ISO noise performance. The G15′s ISO 800 kind of matches the XZ-1′s ISO 400. This allows me to make more acceptable images in marginal conditions. I’ll do a more thorough comparison between the two cameras in a future post. Keep in mind that the XZ-1 is nearly a 2 year old camera. The newer Olympus XZ-2 has performance similar to the Canon G15. It’s just that I had an opportunity to get this Canon at a great price.
I’ve been secretly shooting with the G15 for about a month now. I had the camera at the ROT Rally and used it along side the Canon 6D. Don’t worry, while I’ve added a couple of Canons to the mix but I’m still enjoying and committed to the Olympus cameras too. Though, ultimately, I really don’t care about camera companies and camera models. I care more about what capabilities they give me as a photographer.
So here is a mix of photos I’ve shot in the last month. There is a lot of variety since I try to carry it everywhere. I also shoot photos out my car too, though rest assured that I’m doing so at red lights. I noticed this beautifully waxed red Mustang. The owner was looking at my strangely. Quite understandable. Why would some one be shooting out their car, with the window rolled down? Heck, I’m sure more people would’ve been alarmed if I used my DSLR in this way. So is it called street photography when I shoot out the car? Maybe road photography?
I’m sure I’ll be posting more from this camera as I capture the casual, unscripted moments of my life. Capturing these are fun especially if its something that is unexpected and unusual.
Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail. Multiply the focal length by 4.66 to get the 35mm equivalent
I was out in the hot sun on Sunday doing a type of photography I usually don’t do. I was shooting small town architecture, midday. If you follow my blog, you know I tend to gravitate towards bigger cities and only start shooting as the sun dips towards the horizon. Midday shooting generally sucks photographically and in the summer in Texas, it’s also very hot. I unwisely didn’t put on sunscreen so I have a nice red “tan” as my badge of photographic courage.
My friend Mike, who is a veteran of finding smaller Texas towns, did the driving. We met up in Georgetown and followed Highway 29, west. I’m generally too much of a city slicker to poke around on the back roads. I’m much more in my element navigating the New York City subway system.
The harsh midday light was not an issue for Mike. He’s been playing with film and used an old Nikon SLR filled with black and white. Digital tends to be less forgiving in high contrast areas. That’s why I decided that this was a perfect time for some daytime HDRs. HDRs blend several different exposures and evens out the extremes — it would give me the dynamic range that will compete against and surpass even film. It can be a pain in the neck though. To do HDRs right, you really need use a tripod.
I’ve done a lot of free hand street photography with my 6D but tripod based HDRs are a first. I also wanted to compare HDRs taken with the Olympus E-PM2 vs the Canon 6D. Would the more expensive full frame camera make a significant difference against the much smaller micro 4/3? I’m analyzing the results and I will share it with you soon. Preliminary results are interesting.
The photograph above is from Bertram, Texas. Our second stop of the day. I liked the contrast of the brand new truck against the old, textured buildings — it’s an HDR created on the Canon 6D. I noticed that I needed to tone down my processing, more than usual, probably because of the contrasty midday light.
We started close to high noon and went to Liberty Hill, Bertram and Burnet. Mike had to leave early so I continued back east on Highway 29 to the other side of Interstate 35. I hit the town of Granger and then went down south to Taylor. After about 7 hours of driving and shooting, I was pooped. The heat definitely took its toll.
What fascinates me about these small towns is seeing their various states of decay. What made these places spring up in the first place? What made them decline? Burnet is in pretty decent shape since it is the county seat of Burnet County. Buildings are partially restored, though some are unoccupied. Photographically, I don’t find it as interesting. Give me urban decay. It makes for a more interesting photograph. I also like older buildings with lots of texture and details. Modern materials don’t seem to age gracefully — they just ugly out. Brick, stone, metal and wood. These are the honest materials that show faded grandeur.
May favorite of the lot, Granger. Lots of nice details and very little half-hearted facade “updating” common in the 60s. The old fabric is still there, aging slowly in the hot Texas sun.
Click on the photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure detail.