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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
I visited two magnificent churches in Amsterdam. Both beautiful in their own way and both very different. So different, in fact, that I shot them in distinct ways with my two cameras.
What’s a trip to Europe without shooting some of these wonderfully ornate structures. I had my Olympus E-PM2 with a wide-angle lens for this purpose and luckily both places seemed fine with me using a tripod. I also shot my Fujifilm X100S but in a different way. I knew the 35mm equivalent lens on the X100S would not capture the entirely of the place. Rather, my purpose with that camera was to concentrate on details.
Basilica of St. Nicholas
First up is the Basilica of St. Nicholas, the major Catholic church in the middle of the old historic core. It’s an easy walk from the Amsterdam Centraal train station. I’ve shot a fair number of interiors over the years and this place was one of the most challenging. The inside is dim with its dark-colored stonework and stained glass windows. How do you capture the beauty of the dark walls while still maintaining the color and delicate translucency of the windows? With HDR of course, but with a lot more exposures than normal.
In almost every case, my HDRs are created from just 3 exposures, usually 0ev, -2ev and +2ev. Here I shot 12 exposures ranging from -4.7ev to +1.7 ev. I cherry picked 4 exposures that gave me a decent range, -2.7ev, -1.7ev, -0.3ev and +1.7ev. I needed this to get the effect you see — the glorious detail in both the windows and walls. Our eyes and brain seamlessly merge these details but cameras struggle with dynamic range. Advanced HDR techniques are required to simulate what human beings do so well.
I knew taking a single photo with the Fuji was not going to do this place justice. After all, it takes a tripod and multiple exposures on the Olympus to do a half way decent job. Rather, I decided to strategically shoot images that had less dynamic range. Whether you have a smartphone or the fanciest DSLR, here, you might be disappointed with the results. Selectively shooting details might work well photographically but it hardly gives a feel of the entire church. St. Nicholas is a tough place to take great photos.
My second stop, Oude Kerk (Old Church) couldn’t be more different. Originally a Catholic church when founded 700 years ago, by 1578 it became Calvinist. Photographically, Oude Kerk is much easier. With light colored walls and with little stained glass, the dynamic range was manageable. While I started taking HDRs like I usually do, I soon realized that the Fuji X100S could also do an adequate job if I properly nailed the exposure.
Shooting the details here was more enjoyable than St. Nicholas, primarily because I could do a better job. HDR wasn’t required and I could concentrate on framing handheld rather than futzing with a tripod. While I’ve become quite adept at using the 3 legged appendage, I still find it cumbersome. Shooting free form with the Fuji, for me, is a purer photographic experience.
Oude Kerk charged 5 Euros for entry but I felt it was worth it. The place was less crowded than St. Nicholas and I felt less rushed. At St. Nicholas, I was unsure if I was allowed to use a tripod and the steady stream of visitors forced me to work quicker. The peaceful white walls of the Old Church put me in a Zen state of mind. I took my time to frame my photos, both on and off the tripod. Ironically, this church is located right in the middle of Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District. The contrast between the external environment and the internal sanctuary couldn’t be more different.
Old Church was larger and more open. I used the Fuji to capture the sense of scale by including people. The airiness of the place is its main attraction. For sheer detail and color, St. Nicholas impresses but capturing it photographically is a challenge. Using HDR might be the only way to approximate its grandeur.
As usual, knowing your gear and its limits are essential. Learning advanced techniques helps too in tough situations. Even though I only had two cameras and two fixed lenses, I felt satisfied that I captured the essence of both places.
I can’t claim years of struggle or suffering to create this photograph — but it did take a bit of effort. I shot this on Sunday, a week ago, in Amsterdam. It was raining off and on for 6 days, sometimes quite heavily with gusty winds and temperatures in the low 50s. I made an effort at night to get out there and take pictures. Partially because I had only a limited time in the Netherlands but also because the wet streets add a beautiful shine, especially at night.
I only had a day and half in Amsterdam before I had to fly home. Unfortunately, rain was forecasted for both days. Welcome to typical Dutch weather, I was told. I was walking the streets of Amsterdam for 7 hours shooting away with tripod in tow and a small flimsy umbrella to shield myself but mostly my gear from the elements.
It was nearly 10pm when everything came together. It was peak blue hour and the nasty weather had scared away tourists. I took my usual 3 frames to create this HDR with my Olympus E-PM2 with my Panasonic 14mm and wide-angle adapter. It’s a setup I know well and I was able to fire off the shots quickly.
Ironically the weather cleared just as I was leaving Amsterdam and the entire week was warm and dry. I realized though it was because of the rain and a bit of suffering that allowed me to create this photograph. The added dimension of the shiny wet streets makes the image special. I’m really happy with the way it turned out and I decided to print it large on 13 x 19” paper. This one is going into my paper portfolio as well as my online portfolio.
Nice to know that a little effort can be rewarding at times.
It’s been a very busy year so far and I’m off to the Sacramento yet again, for a week. I went there twice in February. I took this photo of the Crest Theater on one of those trips, something that’s typical for me. Give me color, the city, darker conditions and sprinkle in some neon and I’m happy.
As you know, I usually take at least two cameras, maybe more, on my trips. My Olympus E-PM2 setup is mostly dedicated to my urban landscapes, that’s what I used for the Crest. The other is usually for candids and street photography or whatever my newest camera is, that I’m playing with. This time I’m only bringing one camera.
March is a busy time in Austin, photographically. With SXSW (South by Southwest) and the Rodeo, there are lots of target rich photo opportunities. Despite my recent hectic schedule, I did manage to get out some and shoot. I’ve been testing two cameras during those events, the Fujifilm X100S and the Olympus OM-D E-M10. Those photos and camera comparisons are coming as soon as I can put some blog posts together.
I find the OM-D E-M10 extraordinarily easy to shoot. First, I’m very familiar with the Olympus cameras, which I own and have tested extensively. These latest cameras are also very much “perfected”, meaning any of the niggles from past models have long been addressed. I’m not saying the E-M10 is a perfect camera but I do say it’s well honed.
The X100S is a different story. Other than owning the small XF1 point and shoot, I’m new to Fuji — I’m not as familiar with its controls or its quirks. I hear the X100S is a lot less quirky than its predecessor, but there is still some strangeness. Things I need to get use to. So on this trip, I’m taking just the X100S. I need more hands on time to increase my muscle memory.
It’s fun to shoot quick images with smaller cameras and I even started enjoying Instagram shots with my iPhone 5S but there is nothing like a shooting a carefully framed photograph on tripod. I try to do this for my serious Urban Landscapes. On a trip to Singapore two weeks ago, I broke out the tripod and created some HDRs of my favorite subject.
I didn’t have a lot of free time with the demands of work but I’m happy that I got to shoot a little in the glittering city. Singapore, especially near the downtown bay area is quite magnificent. It combines the enthusiastic architecture of World’s Fairs, the tourist inspired cleanliness of Disney World and upscale stores. With office buildings, hotels and shopping malls, it’s not where most Singaporeans live but it sure makes for some great photo opportunities.
The top photo is the quintessential tourist image. The famous Merlion with the skyline in the background. I was at this spot two years ago and I’ve noticed some new buildings added to the impressive collection of modernist towers. On that trip, I was in Singapore for 4 days, on the way back home from India. It was the trip of a lifetime and I decided to do it without bringing my DSLR. Yes, my move towards mirrorless was in full swing even back then.
But there were some limitations. I used the Sony NEX-5 for my Urban Landscape HDRs but this was not ideal. It didn’t automatically bracket 2 stops apart, my preferred setting for all things HDR. You see, when creating HDRs, the merging of multiple exposures into one image, it helps to keep the camera steady from shot to shot. Any movement between exposures adds complications in the post processing. Since I had to manually change exposures on the NEX-5, there were always slight shifts that annoyed me. It also slowed down the photo taking process which is a disadvantage at times.
I never posted photos from my first Singapore trip. The quality was acceptable, but not as refined as it is now. With a few more years of photography experience and with the advances in camera technology, I believe my images have improved. Also, I’m woefully behind in posting photos. As much as I blog, I seem to perpetually fall behind. I definitely create more photographs than I have time to post. In fact, I still need to finish posting all the photos and stories from my India trip. I promise to get back to it soon.
If you move inwards from the water, on the other side of the office towers, you see older neighborhoods. I took the image above from Boat Quay, a tourist night spot. The bars and restaurants on the right point to a more modest and grungy side of Singapore. It’s still safe but not as quite as glittering. I remember trying to take a shot from here two years ago. Without a tripod, my old Olympus E-PL1 (my first Olympus) with the 20mm f1.7 didn’t quite get a steady shot. I’m happy that I had a second chance to capture these towers and their reflections.
Back towards the bay again, near the Fullerton Bay Hotel, you see a mix of modern architecture. What I like about Singapore’s buildings are that, despite being minimalist and modern, they are not boring — they are not simple glass boxes. A variety of shapes adds visual richness. The Fullerton Bay Hotel seems to be a conglomeration of several unique buildings. Together they create a hotel that has character at a more human scale. I prefer it to the massive and impersonal uber hotels. Maybe someday, I’ll get to stay here.
I actually took a similar composition with my iPhone 5S on Instagram. Though the Instagram came out pretty good, a carefully blended HDR with a big camera is entirely at another level. I shot this with my usual HDR setup, the Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm with wide-angle adapter. I think it’s one of the best and smallest cameras setups for HDR.
Upcoming, I want to dedicate a post to just the Fullerton Bay Hotel. I think you’ll agree that its architecture and details are quite exquisite. A rarity these days, especially for modern buildings.
A month ago I was down on 6th street on a foggy and drizzly night. I made a photograph that I really liked — a street scene with the wet cobblestones, colorful bars and the glistening Frost Tower in the background. While I shoot often here, the weather added another dimension. I vowed to make more of these kinds of photographs.
Recently, everything aligned perfectly for another chance. It was a night with an occasional light drizzle. It was a Wednesday so the crowds were sparse and I even had free parking downtown after 6pm. I quickly got down there with my usual lightweight HDR setup, an Olympus E-PM2 with a 14mm f2.5 lens and a light tripod.
Regular visitors probably know that I like HDR but tend to process on the light side, opting generally for a realistic look. I like to add a bit of an edge and a boost of color, for some excitement. The neon, grit and the shine off the wet streets allowed me to amp it up more than usual. I wanted a colorful, saturated and glossy feel to the photos. The kind of images that fit the famous party like atmosphere of this place.
The most visually exciting part of 6th street is confined to a 4 block area. Continue eastward and things get darker, the buildings more modest. What stands out for me is how densely packed the area is. Bar after bar shouts in some way to entice customers. The lights, colors, flags and neon all attempt to stake out space. The visual presence is a requirement to stay in business and capturing this cacophony photographically, all the more fun.
Strip away all this bling and you’re left with standard late 19th century Texas architecture. Some of the buildings are more ornate than their small town cousins. But the buildings’ DNA is recognizable now, especially since I started visiting the surrounding communities. The big difference is that Austin is thriving while many of the nearby small towns only eke by.
Visit here on a Friday or Saturday and it’s wall to wall people. The visual queues no longer enough, these places resort to live music and calls for $1 well drinks to pull in customers. Some Austinites call this street “Dirty 6th”. I call it a photographic bonanza. It’s worth braving the young and drunken bravado or the calls for donations from the down and out. On this quiet Wednesday, about the only annoyance was occasionally wiping the mist off the front lens element. It was a good night for photography.
Update: The large building featured above was in fact a hotel, as I speculated. Called the Doering Hotel or the Hotel Hawn built in 1928.
I have a growing fascination with old cities. These older places have better detailing which adds visual interest — they just work better with my urban photography. And even if many of the places in Texas are passed their prime, the resulting decay adds even more patina. I also have an interest on an anthropological level too. What made these cities thrive and what led to their downfall?
I made a quick stop at Temple, Texas yesterday, on the way back from my son’s tennis tournament. Temple is located about an hour north of Austin on Interstate 35. It’s the first time I got off the highway and drove into the old downtown. My visit revealed a curious city with several taller buildings. This is not a small town like the ones I visited during the summer. Temple has a significant downtown which has clearly passed its peak. Quick research indicates that Temple grew as a confluence of two major railroad lines, the Missouri-Kansas and the Santa Fe. In fact the city was named after Bernard Moore Temple, a civil engineer who worked for the Santa Fe.
I wonder if these taller structures were hotels. It’s not hard to imagine back in the heyday with bustling streets and trains. Perhaps people stayed here overnight on their way to distant lands. I’m sure the car culture and the decline of railway travel has doomed Temple. And while there are still major employers in the area, most of the development is out in the suburbs, along the highways, like most places in the U.S.
My favorite composition is of the Arcadia Theater with the tall building in the backdrop. It’s my lead photo and I added a second from a slightly different angle. The first photo was taken at a 22mm equivalent wide-angle, up close. The second photo, with the 28mm from across the street. I’m speculating that the tall building was once a hotel but there are no signs to be sure. Both buildings have lovely brickwork and detailing that sets them off from the norm.
Here is another view of that tall 9 story hotel like structure. I’m struck by the optimism that created such a building. In a city with 2 story buildings, this must have been built to impress. Looking at these images, devoid of people, I can’t help but conjure up some post apocalyptic scenario. Add your own zombies to spice up the story. There were certainly the occasional vehicle that passed by but on this Saturday afternoon, there were almost no pedestrians.
Across the street there is a less interesting six-story building. I like the detailing above the humble doorway. The boarded up businesses on either side seem to balance the composition.
I don’t want to portray a completely dead city. There are active businesses in the downtown district — even an unexpected Japanese Restaurant. The Empire Seed Co. still seems to be in business. I was drawn to the rusted clock and the patina of this aged structure.
Nearby, there was an alleyway that reminds me of black and white photos from the end of the 19th century. You know the kind that have telephone wires and power lines strung, multiple levels high, in those rapid growing East Coast cities. Take away the dumpsters and I get transported back to that age. It almost seems like this place was frozen it time.
Finally here is a photo of the 13 story Kyle Hotel building which is now converted to apartments. Built in 1929, this appears to be the only historic tower that is still being used.
Temple also has some newer downtown buildings and a few businesses are renovating older buildings. The modern buildings don’t have the visual appeal of the older structures so I chose not to photograph them. Like usual, my photographic tours are mainly to capture what I consider interesting, rather than being a complete inventory of what’s there. The streets, sidewalks and the general infrastructure is very clean. I’m hoping the downtown has turned the corner and will be redeveloped. It’ll be a shame if these building are not put to good use.
On our local Facebook photographer’s group, we each posted our single favorite photograph from 2013. I posted this one.
I take a lot of photos every year and perhaps there may be a better one, at least technically. However, this one resonates with me. At first when I created it, I was unsure — there was a lot of motion blur. But I realized that it captures a certain mood on 6th Street. The wild, colorful and exciting bar scene in Austin’s most famous entertainment district comes alive.
The photograph is more colorful and vivid than in real life. But more and more, my photography is less about real life and more about the mood I want to express. This is how my photography is evolving or at least the path I want to take.
After all, I’m not documenting products for marketing brochures — accurate color and lighting is less important. I remember when I got into photography or even when I started HDR. Trying to capture, what I believed, what my eyes saw was of the utmost importance. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that this is a foolish goal. Photography is not reality. It’s an interpretation. A point of view. There is no right or wrong in Art.
So I picked this photo for the mood I want to express. It’s an attempt to move beyond the plumbing and mechanics of photography. Capturing that technically perfect image, no longer the goal. The feeling of a picture, while harder to define and highly personal, is what I’m after. It’s something that I’m working on in 2014.
I went to Zilker Botanical Garden with my Dad, who was visiting during the holiday break. My dad is an avid photographer and he is stepping up into a mirrorless camera from his point and shoot. Since he likes flowers, we went to the garden but that was a bust. Even in relatively mild Austin, there were no flowers to be had in January.
We shot anyway just for the practice. Except I’m not much of a landscape photographer, at least here in Austin. I realized that it takes a different skill to eliminate the clutter which comes with the natural growth. Using a wide-angle lens also complicates things. I pickup too many leaves and undergrowth that distracts.
As you know, I love shooting cities and architecture. That’s what comes naturally. So even though I’m in a botanical garden, my strongest image was of a building. Go figure. This is a Swedish Log Cabin built by Austin area settlers around 1838. It was part of a small exhibit featuring local history.
Perhaps I’ll give another try when more things are in bloom.
I can’t think of a better place to ring in the New Year. I’m talking about Times Square of course. This is where they drop the famous crystal ball in New York City. I took these photos a year ago when, you might recall, I went to the east coast on a winter vacation.
This may be the ultimate spot for a night-time urban photographer like me, at least in the United States. Practically every surface is glowing, animated or blaring an announcement.
Take a look at the first photo. See the Toshiba sign at the top of the center building? Do you see the small glowing 2013? You can click on the photo to see a larger version. In less that 10 hours, 100s of thousands of people will be staring at an animated ball that magically increments this number to 2014.
I started my tour around 47th Street, looking north.
I walked south and snapped different angles of the famous Time Square landmark on 43rd Street. I used the Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm lens plus wide-angle adapter. It gave me a 22mm equivalent view.
Precision Camera had their pre holiday Expo this weekend. Camera vendors from the big cities of Houston and Dallas came to Austin and showed off their wares. Ironically, Austin, still a medium size city, has Precision Camera which is the largest camera store in Texas. I met Charles from Olympus, who’s been nice enough to lend me some pre production cameras. Unlike some sales/technical representatives who are just sales people, Charles is an actual photographer. We decided go down to 6th Street for a photo walk and to enjoy the night life.
The rain stopped just in time and we had wonderfully wet and reflective streets, just as I hoped. I had my usual HDR setup — my Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm plus wide-angle adapter. This is my preferred lightweight setup and I would argue it may be the best way to take HDRs in low-light conditions, better in may ways that the Canon 6D. I’ll tell you why in a future post.
I also brought my Fujifilm XF1. I often shoot with two small cameras and I’m still in my discovery mode with my latest acquisition. You know that I like Olympus and I consider it my main camera but there are things that Fuji does better than Olympus. And I was very honest with Charles too. I wanted him to let the Olympus engineers over in Japan know how to improve their camera.
I talked about Fuji’s Super Intelligent Flash on my post The Fujifilm X100S from an Olympus micro 4/3 user perspective. The XF1 point and shoot has this feature too. The camera has an amazing ability to add just a touch of flash and blend it nicely with the ambient light. Here are some examples I shot on Friday with the XF1.
The first two photos are straight out of the camera JPEGs in Velvia mode, unprocessed. Notice the wonderful bar colors at Bourbon Girl but the portrait of Kasie is a bit dull. This is typical of ambient light portraits in places like this. The second photo is a flash shot with the Fuji. Notice how beautifully Kasie is lit while still preserving the background color. The Fuji does this automatically, without futzing with settings. Obviously, these are not serious portraits. They are just snap shots but the kind that I like to make of my family when we are in dark restaurants.
This third image was slightly post processed and is my final look.
This group portrait came out great too, again with the fill flash. Though the Fujifilm XF1 is just a point and shoot, it actually does a better job than my Olympus E-PM2 without the flash. The Olympus has a bigger sensor but a good flash can really help in these cases. The Olympus flash does an adequate by conventional job. Yes, it’s possible to play with the settings, set slow-sync or lower flash power but the Fuji is a lot easier since it does this automatically. By the way, Fuji’s big boy cameras like the X100S and the X-E2 also has this flash feature too.
Here’s one more Fuji fill flash example — It’s not just for portraits. Apparently, Austin had their Red Dress Run, and the bar quickly filled with all these characters. I popped up the flash, underexposed the scene by -1 2/3 stops and took the shot. Underexposing allowed me to maintain the colors in the neon and the fill flash lit the foreground. The light blended beautifully.
The XF1 is after all, just a point and shoot but pretty damned good for such a small camera. Of course, the Olympus E-PM2 does high ISO much better. I shot this wide-angle below at a very clean ISO 1600, hand-held with the E-PM2.
Back outside, I shot with the Olympus on tripod. This is where the E-PM2 excels and why I love the camera so much. I created the HDRs with 3 photos 2 stops apart. The wet streets were fantastic. Look at those lovely cobblestones in the first image, up top.
The neon red from the Iron Cactus sign also looks great off the sidewalk. 6th street was looking festive before the holidays.
Finally, we ended up in a Steampunk influenced Heavy Metal Bar on Red River, just off 6th Street. The interior at Metal and Lace was dark but I loved the colors. I created this HDR which turned out to have the right amount of motion blur. I think it nicely captures the feel of the place.
The night out with Charles was fun. He very patiently listened to what I like and dislike about both cameras. I mentioned Fuji’s strengths to hopefully get Olympus to add these features. Every camera has its pluses and minuses and the advantage of using many brands is that you discover these things. It allows me to have a balanced view.
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?
I stayed in this massive, self enclosed bubble several weeks ago. The convention that I went to in Washington DC was held here at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. It is the centerpiece of National Harbor, a mixed use development located just south of DC in Maryland. At 2,000 rooms, it apparently is the largest non-gaming hotel on the East Coast.
Last winter vacation, my family and I just happened to stay a few blocks from here. While curious, I didn’t have time to look inside. With the conference set for the Gaylord, I brought my HDR gear, eager to capture some interesting architecture. My equipment of choice, the compact Olympus E-PM2, the Panasonic 14mm f2.5 lens plus the Panasonic wide-angle adapter. Throw in a lightweight tripod and I was good to go.
Most interesting were the faux colonial buildings nestled within this giant atrium. It reminded me of some futuristic space station, with the little bits of history attempting to offset the cold and efficient design, prevalent in modern society. It’s goofy architecturally but fun in an amusement park kind of way. Certainly different enough to warrant some photographs.
Back up front, near the registration desks, the decor turns a little marble-y. Not quite as gaudy as Las Vegas faire but a bit opulent for my tastes. The scale works nicely though. The larger the hotel, the more out of proportion the rooms seem to get. The Gaylord works well and manages to carve out “cozy” spaces. Photographically, I captured repeating elements and leading lines, so you gotta like that.
Finally, you can see the full size of the atrium. The convention center is in an adjoining building, by the way. This is just a small portion of this gigantic hotel. I’m happy to report that I did escape this futuristic city during the night. No space suits necessary. I was able to capture some authentic history, on the other side of the Potomac , which I will post soon enough.
I shot this photograph a couple of weeks ago in Washington DC and just processed it tonight. It was shot in what I call, very unideal conditions, especially for a HDR. But this view of the U.S. Capitol looked great and I wanted to see what I could do.
I was at the Newseum, a museum dedicated to news, for an evening event during my conference in Washington. After dinner, I made it up to the top floor and out to the balcony where I saw this. I had my Olympus E-PM2 but no tripod. I did the best I can to grab the scene so that I could make something of the images when I got back.
Taking a good photograph here is harder than it looks, especially for a single exposure. It’s easy to blow out the details of the Capitol, especially if you wanted good light levels for the street. Preserve the details on the bright dome and you end up with a really dark exposure. So, yes, this is a perfect opportunity for HDR.
The thing is, when shooting HDRs, you really need to keep the camera as steady as possible between the multiple exposures. This helps greatly during post processing when the 3 photos are combined into a single image. I rested my camera on a round hand rail, which helped somewhat, but it wasn’t rock steady.
I also had to shoot at ISO 800 to have some hope of non-blurry images. HDR processing typically increases noise so it is always preferable to use the lowest possible ISO, 200 in the case of this Olympus.
Well, here’s the result. It came out decent enough, I think. At 100% it’s a bit noisy but looks fine, full size on my 27″ monitor. At web sizes, I think it looks quite good. Glad it took the shot. It was worth the effort.
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.
After spending the last couple of days in San Jose, I wanted to bring the blog back to San Francisco. I shot mostly around Market Street during my last trip, doing street photography with the Olympus E-P5. I did make it over to Chinatown though and it had a completely different feel. That’s the fun thing about a big, diverse city like San Francisco. Shift a few miles and you get to a neighborhood that’s totally different.
I got to Chinatown after my late dinner and it was past closing time for most stores. A few places were still open but shutting down rapidly. The place was dark and moody with a collection of odd-looking old buildings. Within this eclectic mix, one structure stood out as my favorite.
Architecturally, it was nothing special — just a simple brick box. But, Oh the details! That worn sign, that detailing, all wrapped in that mysterious yellow light. They all add up to something special. I was in full test mode, shooting exclusively with the borrowed Olympus E-P5 but I also had my other camera. I broke out the tripod. I attached the Olympus E-PM2 with the wide-angle lens. I shot multiple frames at ISO 200 for my HDR post processing.
I used the E-P5 too. The 34mm point of view captured sections of the building without context. But added together with the 22mm wide-angle, you get the feel of the building in its environment. I love that Coca-Cola sign and its juxtaposition with the Chinese characters. I think I’m drawn to these places because it is anti suburban. It’s grungy and worn with deep character lines. It’s the complete opposite from the well manicured and soulless burbclaves outside the beltways.
I need to get back to Chinatown. Perhaps earlier so I can include more lively, well-lit scenes. I’ll leave you with a toned black and white. Along with the blur of a passerby, the image turns more street photography like, rather than architectural. This place is an urban photographer’s paradise. A throwback to the past in one of America’s most modern cities combined with a disjointed mix of east and west.
The Improv theater is located just around the corner from the lively neon spot I posted yesterday. I knew something interesting was there before I turned the corner to shoot the Azucar Restaurant. The glow of colored lights was a marker in the night. Something I knew I needed to check out during my stroll through downtown San Jose.
A show just let out and a burst of people flooded the street. Between the bars a block away and this theater, my impression of San Jose was changing. There was a lot more happening there than I imagined, especially for a Wednesday night. I shot the Improv from a few different positions but settled on this vantage point. The trees blocked the upper part of the neon and I wanted the clearest possible view.
As usual, especially during my travels, I used my light-weight HDR setup. An Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic Lumix 14mm f2.5 plus the matching Panasonic wide-angle adapter. This combination gives me a 22mm equivalent view which works great. Wide enough to take in most scenes without getting wacky, exaggerated wide-angle distortion. I shot 3 photos and blended them in post-processing. As you can tell, I tend to go for a realistic look. I use HDR to increase my dynamic range and get saturated colors but I shy away from the heavily tone mapped and textured look.
I found the people surprisingly friendly — some more people came to talk while I was adjusting my tripod. Perhaps there are more photographers in downtown Austin because people just ignore me. There was a certain palpable curiosity in downtown San Jose.
Click on the photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure detail.
I shot this photograph a week or so ago in downtown San Jose, California. I don’t particularly think of San Jose as a hopping night life city, at least compared to Austin, so I was happy to find this pocket of activity. I’m attracted to color and neon like a moth to flame. I magically gravitated here during a photowalk with my friend Dan. It’s in the city. It has color and light and that makes me happy.
I shot mostly in San Francisco during my last California trip, doing street photography with the Olympus E-P5 that was on loan to me. As much as I like this type of photography, a good urban landscape is what I ultimately desire. Using mirrorless, I was able to carry both a Olympus E-P5 and E-PM2 and a small tripod with no effort. In San Jose, I didn’t shoot much with the E-P5, I opted to use the E-PM2 with the wide-angle lens and a tripod to do HDRs.
Getting good color with neon and pulling in the ambient light almost always requires HDR, were I blend 3 exposures into one photograph. The technique works great for these type of scenes. It requires a tripod to keep the camera steady for the long exposures and to keep the exact framing between the 3 blended photographs.
There’s a funny back story too. Two well inebriated women curiously asked what I was shooting. They just didn’t understand why I would photographing here, with tripod. “I’m shooting the great color” I said to blank stares. They didn’t get it until I showed them the back of the LCD. The effect of the light and processing turns these scenes magical — they even look better than real life. My interest has trained me to seek these places out. Even if your town does not have a lively bar scene like 6th street in Austin, you can probably find a modest strip of night life like this place in San Jose.
Click on the photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure detail.
Whenever I go to Silicon Valley, I try to stay at the Cypress Hotel in Cupertino. It is part of the Kimpton Hotel chain which usually features playful and quirky interiors. I was reminded of this place because I’m going to call it home for the next several days. I’m off to California again tomorrow.
I appreciate when a hotel and designer goes out-of-the-way to make unique interiors. It’s a visual feast and I use HDR to capture all the details. That’s why when I travel, I like to book myself into places that may look good photographically, whenever possible. That was one of the criterias that I used to select my recent Cancun spot.
For a hotel to look up to date, they need to refresh and the Cypress is a case and point. On my last trip out there in April, they completed their lobby remodel and I took the photograph above. I also wanted to show you the previous lobby design that I took three years ago. It’s not from the same angle but the fireplace, for reference, remained in the same place after the remodel.
I took that with my Canon 7D and the super wide-angle Sigma 10 – 20mm which makes it a 16mm equivalent view. I took the new Cypress with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm plus the wide-angle adapter which makes it a 22mm equivalent. I no longer have a super wide lens, but that’s okay for now, I’ve been shying away from that look recently.
Beyond the difference in framing, there’s quite a change in interior decor, I’d say. The new design has a lot more places to sit and ties a nearby hallway into the seating area. I’m not sure which I like better but the old design is more conventional in its unconventionality, if you know what I mean. Perhaps the new interior is more keeping with the modern and techno Silicon Valley. Which do you like better?
I’m bringing a new toy to California, which I’ll be reviewing soon. Yes, it is yet another camera but one that’s on loan to me. I’m sure my readers will find it interesting. Stay tuned.
Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.
A majority of the photographs I took on my recent Cancun vacation were family snapshots. The typical tourist photographs, perhaps with a tad better composition than your average snap shooter. But I also planned to take more “serious” photographs of the interiors and exteriors around the hotel. When we picked the Hard Rock Hotel, one of my prime considerations was how cool it looked, though I didn’t exactly tell my wife this. I used more pragmatic arguments to lobby for this vacation spot.
You may have noticed that I like architecture and neat looking interiors. I try to make these type of shots whenever I can, especially of elaborately decorated hotels. I brought along the tripod just in case and used the Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic Lumix 14mm f2.5 lens and the wide-angle adapter. This is my recent compact go to solution for HDR photography. Light weight and high quality.
I took more photos of the hotel but I wanted to post this one first. It’s one of the better ones, created a few minutes after sunrise. Ironically, I was getting up earlier on my vacation than I usually do for work. I used my usual subtle HDR technique to add a bit more detail and colorful pop. I’m going to print this and put it up near my desk. A visual reminder of a good trip and a very pretty place.
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I was looking over the photographs of small town Texas that I shot last Sunday. This one stood out as a candidate for some extra grunge enhancement. This little place was located one block south of downtown Liberty Hill. And by “downtown” I’m talking about, perhaps, two dozen structures.
HDR can be used to good effect in several cases. Certainly, its main purpose is to enhance the apparent dynamic range of an image. That’s the way I usually use it. But it also has the effect of making shiny things even shinier and grungy things even grungier. I processed this photograph a bit more aggressively than I usually do. I wanted to enhance the overgrown and dilapidated look.
But even when cranking up the sliders, there are certain things you should keep in check. Halos, bright areas that outline edges, which typically show up in skies, is a sure sign of bad HDR processing. As a matter of personal taste, I’m not into strong tone mapping which adds a heavy and dark texture over the surfaces. I appreciate a slight texture boost but what I really like is rich color.
If I took the original image, untouched by HDR, and cranked up the color, I wouldn’t get this effect. Something about the increased texture and micro contrast mixed with the additional color gives a different kind of effect. The HDR also allows me to capture a blue sky and crisp cloud details.
It’s important to remember that HDR is a tool. The end goal is not to make HDRs but to use its characteristics to enhance your creative idea. That’s a perspective I didn’t have when I first started.
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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.