Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography


I’m giving a free talk on HDR in Austin and you are all invited

Broken Spoke - Austin, Texas

Broken Spoke – Austin, Texas

HDR has some passionate fans and strong detractors. Some call it Technicolor Clown Vomit, others think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. My view is somewhere in between. I think of it as a powerful technique to be used at appropriate times. I’m also lazy and want to do HDR in the easiest way possible way while maintaining quality and matching my “vision” of what I want.

My talk on HDR will discuss the capture process, the photography part using the camera as well as the HDR post processing on computer. Along the way, I will talk about HDR Myths and the best times to use this technique.

Of course, I’ll talk about equipment and tell you why the DSLR might not necessarily be the best camera. I’ll also show you a live demonstration of HDR software and the other steps I use to create my realistic HDRs.

Come join me at the September Austin Photographic Society Meeting for this free talk.

Time: Thursday September 25, 2014 from 6:30 – 8:30pm.
Location: Parish Hall, Episcopal Church of the Resurrection
Address: 2110 Justin Lane, Austin, TX 78757
Map: http://maps.google.com/maps?q=2110+Justin+Lane%2C+Austin%2C+TX+78757

Note: Parish Hall is East of the church building and its parking is accessed from Justin Lane. The parking lot entrance is directly across from where Muroc St. intersects Justin Lane.

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An Experiment from the Boardwalk

Skyline from the Boardwalk - Austin, Texas

Skyline from the Boardwalk – Austin, Texas

Looks like the new boardwalk on Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin is going to be a popular spot for photographers. Officially, it’s part of the hike and bike trail. But it also works great for people who want an unobstructed view of the skyline. As you may recall, I posted my first photos from the boardwalk, last month. I was back there yesterday with a few of my photography friends. All told, by the time we left, we had 8 people shooting the scene.

I wanted to do something different from the last time, an experiment of sorts. It’s from the same location, but the changes in framing and post-processing makes it quite different, I believe. While it’s a HDR, extra processing brought out the color and stars above the city. If you click on the image, you might make out the stars in the larger version. While not exactly what I wanted, I like the color. I didn’t realize that even after blue hour, I’m able to pull out interest from a mostly black sky.

I used my Canon 6D this time with the 24-105mm f4 lens. My big camera, relative to the smaller mirrorless cameras that I usually use.

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The View from the Boardwalk

Skyline Sunset from the Boardwalk - Austin, Texas

Skyline Sunset from the Boardwalk – Austin, Texas

Austin recently opened a boardwalk of sorts. It floats above the river and forms an extension to the hike and bike trail that graces downtown. What’s good for the runners and bikers are also great for photographers. The architects thoughtfully created several areas that jut out, away from the traffic. Perfect for placing tripods.

My friends, Alex and Rusty invited me downtown to shoot the growing skyline. It’s a new vantage point that I’ve never seen. I thought it might be fun to shoot it with my old and new Olympus cameras, the 11-year-old E-1 DSLR and my HDR mirrorless workhorse, the E-PM2.

Skyline from the Boardwalk - Austin, Texas

I’ve talked a bunch about my new-found fondness for the ancient 5mp Kodak CCD. It has a color that’s different from modern CMOS. I’ve discovered that for longer exposures, even as short as 5 seconds, I would get hot pixels. My guess is that the heat in Texas adversely affects the CCD — I read that heat tends make them noisy.

I shot the first 2 with the E-M1. The next two are HDRs with the E-PM2. Once it got dark, I put away the old DSLR — I knew the images wouldn’t satisfy — the modern mirrorless took over. I zoomed out as night progressed. From a 52mm equivalent to 34mm, to 28mm and finally to 22mm.

Skyline from the Boardwalk - Austin, Texas
Skyline from the Boardwalk (wide) - Austin, Texas

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I took the first two photographs with the Olympus E-1 in RAW and post processed with Aperture 3. I took the next two with the Olympus E-PM2.

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

Is this the ultimate small camera for HDR?

Patio at Cru, 2nd Street - Austin, Texas

Patio at Cru, 2nd Street – Austin, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

Colorful Fado, 4th Street - Austin, Texas

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

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

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

New Office Construction, Colorado Street - Austin, Texas

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

The Pentax Q7 on top a small tripod

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

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

Willie Nelson Statue, 2nd Street - Austin, Texas

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

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

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

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

Jo's on 2nd Street - Austin, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California

Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Crosby – San Francisco, California

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildflowers and the Bay at Sunset - San Francisco, California
Golden Gate Bridge Up Close, Battery Crosby - San Francisco, California

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

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