Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

Olympus E-P3

The Dark Days of New York City

Subway Interior - New York, New York

Subway Interior – New York, New York (July 2012)


My sons thought it was dirty. I agree. Compared to the sparkling trains in Tokyo and Singapore, the New York City Subways are dirty. But they’re a heck of a lot better than they used to be. How bad was it 30 years ago?

I came across this wonderful Time.com article with accompanying photographs. It’s definitely worth a look. 15 images from Photographer Chris Morris, who documented the dark days of the subway system and the city back in 1981.

New York wasn’t always the sparkling and vibrant metropolis that it is now. Back in the early 80’s, NYC was only a hand full of years out of near bankruptcy. The dirty, graffiti covered subways are what I remember as I commuted for hours everyday to High School. Trains often broke down and were late. The heater was sometimes on full bast in the summer. Normal levels of graffiti withdrew into the background, becoming part of the fabric of everyday city life. Only exceptional levels of defacement raised eyebrows. I remember one day, the entire inside of a subway car was spray painted in a single act of vandalism, the windows, the seats and the floor.

I remember meeting Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angles that patrolled the subways. Imagine that, an unarmed citizen activist group to help protect the general public. That was the state of NYC at the time. Photograph 10 features a picture of this group.

People may now glorify graffiti as an art form. To me it’s just a form of public defacement. My opinion, no doubt, colored by my daily commute through people’s defiant self-expression recast as art expression. But the grittiness of the city is burned in my psyche. I am a product of the city. Even living in Austin, and in the suburbs for 20+ years, the city calls. I’m sure that’s part my motivation to create Urban Landscapes — why I return over and over to the dirty 6th Street in Austin.

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The Great Pyramid and Ruins at Chichen Itza

Shooting the Pyramid, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Shooting the Pyramid, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

I wanted to do a mix of activities on my trip to Cancun, exposing the boys to some history as well as the more accessible (for kids) water activities. One of the great cities of the Mayan Civilization is Chichen Itza, with its famous pyramid, El Castillo. It was our first major activity, which started with a 2+ hour bus ride West into the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The site is dominated by the 95 feet high Step Pyramid that is now closed to tourists. Back many years ago, my wife was allowed to climb the great temple. The tour guide mentioned that with the increase in traffic, these archeological treasures are now closed to the public. Luckily they are easily photographed and if you are patient enough, it maybe possible to shoot without getting unwanted people in your shot. In the photo above, I purposely decided to include the brightly colored woman as a counter point in the composition.

Stone Snake, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Stone Snake, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

I brought my tripod with me but left it on the bus. The tour guide said that you need special permits to use one. I opted to shoot HDRs freehand, the only reason I needed a tripod in the first place. It turned out that the needed dynamic range was not as wide as I imagined. One RAW photo was able to capture the scene without any blown highlights or dark shadows. Very strange. This is not the experience I have in Texas when I shoot during the day time. Perhaps the quality of light here is different? Either way, I decided to throw away my extra HDR exposures and process single photographs.

Interlocking Stonework, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Interlocking Stonework, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

There is much to see architecturally with a giant ball court, temple remains and an observatory. I’m not going into detail about the place, you can read this Wikipedia article if you are inclined. While it is an interesting place to visit and I didn’t regret going, I didn’t find it inspiring for photography.

While historically significant, the buildings lacked detail and beyond taking pictures of the pyramid and several of other noteworthy structures, there weren’t enough things to ultimately intrigue me. The funny thing is that large-scale white limestone structures reminded me of buildings in Central Texas, though we certainly don’t have a giant pyramid in Austin. The same ancient seas that formed the limestone in Texas must have done so here in the Yucatan.

Tourists at the Observatory, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Tourists at the Observatory, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

On the way to Chichen Itza, we passed through an old city called Valladolid. This place had a wonderful center square with a park and big church. The area was bustling with activity and would be a wonderful place to street shoot. Ironically, I think I would have enjoyed photographing there more than the famous tourist spot. I like living cities with real people. While the pyramid is dynamic, Chichen Itza is ultimately a dead place, merely visited by tourists.

The view from the bus - Valladolid, Mexico

The view from the bus – Valladolid, Mexico

Our bus didn’t stop in Valladolid, it just passed through and I couldn’t get any good photographs. I saw other buses parked near the town square so I recommend a tour that includes a stop at this place. The Wikipedia article on Valladolid makes it sound interesting. I think I could have easily spent a day there taking pictures. The contrast of this place to some of the Texas towns I’ve visited recently, couldn’t be more dramatic. While the Central Texas cities were half boarded up, this place is vibrant and charming. I can’t vouch for its safety with the recent incidents in Mexico but from the number of big tour buses there, I imagine it’s safe enough.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

El Castillo, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

One of my readers suggested adding a bit of tint to black and whites to add a little warmth. I decided to process some of the photographs in a toned black and white. I do think it works here and gives a kind of archeological and timeless feel to the photographs. Some of these images looks like they could have been taken 100 years ago. Though actual photographs from a century back shows a place over grown and nearly taken over by the jungle. The place has been rebuilt to some extent so what you see here is not the original stonework. The backside of the pyramid, however, shows what appears to be the original condition.

If you visit Cancun, it is certainly worth visiting Chichen Itza, especially if you are a history buff. See if there are tours that stop at Valladolid. I think that will add a nice slice of Mexican life and give you the feel of an old Spanish town.

Stone Pillars, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Stone Pillars, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico

Mayan Hieroglyphs, Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico

Mayan Hieroglyphs, Chichen Itza – Yucatan, Mexico


Japan Preview Show: Experiencing Kao=S again

Kao=S at The Grackle #3, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas

Kao=S at The Grackle, 2013 Japan Preview Show – Austin, Texas

My favorite group from last year’s Japan Nite, Kao=S, was playing again this year. I wasn’t sure if I could make it to this year’s Japan Nite so I decided to go to the preview show on Thursday afternoon. Luckily Kao=S was the last group playing so I headed down there after work at about 6pm. The Japan preview show is a great, free alternative to the main show which is restricted to people of drinking age. It happens during the daytime and people of all ages are welcome.

This year, the performance was at The Grackle on 6th Street on the east side of town. I don’t get to this part of town often and naively assumed that parking would be a breeze. I was dead wrong. The parking situation is worse than downtown in this mostly residential area. I was lucky to find a tight spot 8 blocks away. The glass shards from multiple car break-ins gave me pause but I wasn’t going to stay late.

Kao=S at The Grackle #1, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas
Kao=S at The Grackle #2, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas

My timing couldn’t be more perfect. The 2nd to last band was finishing up and Kao=S was prepping the stage. I was pleasantly surprised when the band members recognized me from last year. Apparently, they really liked the photos I shot of them, which you can see on this blog post, Kao=S at SXSW Japan Nite, Original and Spectacular. On that post, I talk about why I like this group so much. They fuse Japanese instruments and culture in a modern context and it’s also a very theatrical show.

Kao=S at The Grackle #5, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas

Unlike the dark indoor venues which require high ISOs and/or flash, this was an outdoor event in bright light, on a small stage, setup under an open sided tent. I thought that it would be easy to make great photos but I was completely wrong. A couple of things conspired against me. By 6:30, the sun’s warm rays were streaming under the tent, creating uneven harsh shadows. Using a flash tamed the shadows somewhat but not enough to make high quality shots. There was also a lot of background clutter. The jumble of chain link fences, people and the East Austin Neighborhood didn’t give me that clean look that I was hoping for.

Kao=S at The Grackle #4, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas

My conversion to black and white solved several problems. The uneven color from the sun, the harsh shadows and even the background clutter were all tamed by my monochromes. I also think this gives a more photojournalist look. This use of black and white also nicely coincides with my recent interest which I talk about in SXSW Photowalk: A black and white exploration.

Kao=S at The Grackle #6, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas

Finally, as the sun dipped below the horizon and with the harsh rays safely tucked away, I ask the band if I could make a portrait. I shot several of the band and of Kaori, the lovely lead performer. With the lighting under control and the background somewhat simplified, I made satisfactory color photographs. A nice ending to a busy work week and I’m happy to report that my car was safely waiting for me, unscathed.

Kao=S Group Portrait, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas

Kao=S Group Portrait, 2013 Japan Preview Show – Austin, Texas

Kaori from Kao=S, 2013 Japan Preview Show - Austin, Texas

Kaori from Kao=S, 2013 Japan Preview Show – Austin, Texas

Photographs taken with the Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4.

Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.


SXSW Photowalk: A black and white exploration

Trey Ratcliff addresses the Crowd, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texase

Trey Ratcliff addresses the Crowd, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

I wanted to do something a bit different for this post. I’m using all black and white photographs. While I certainly love color, usually the more color the better, I have an appreciation for black and white. In fact, recently, I’ve done more black and white conversions. I took these photos on the SXSW Photowalk from this past Monday. I’ve posted my favorite color photograph from the event, earlier this week. But for today, we are going strictly monochrome.

We started the photowalk on the steps of Austin City Hall. There were 200+ participants and I was one of a dozen “coaches” who helped people with questions about photography. I brought two cameras with me, the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm lens and the wide-angle adapter. The other camera was my Olympus E-P3 with the 25mm f1.4. My smaller E-PM2 was attached most of the time to a light weight tripod for doing long exposures and HDRs. The other camera was perfect for street photography. Most people used traditional DSLRs but many looked at my gear with curiosity. Some even commented that they wanted to downscale, weight-wise to a mirrorless camera.

The SXSW Photowalk Crowd - Austin, Texas

The SXSW Photowalk Crowd – Austin, Texas

Trey Shoots Nicole, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texas

Trey Shoots Nicole, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

How do I decide when to go black and white? This will probably make purists cringe but the short answer is I use black and white when I think it looks better. Subjective certainly, but as I gain more experience, I’m beginning to get a better idea of when to axe the color. Here are some of my simple rules.

1. I often use black and white to emphasize shapes and texture. This works great for architecture and cityscapes, especially if the color pallet is simple.

2. Sometimes, a black and white can add more mystery and moodiness to an image, especially when there are a lot of dark areas.

Hidden Blackberry, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texas

Hidden Blackberry, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

3. Black and white can also be used to simplify the image especially when similar colors blend into a similar shades of gray. If you have distracting color in the background, getting rid of the color can also simplify. There are at times when black and white can work in reverse and make at image too busy. If you have too much non-repeating texture from trees and bushes for example, it can overwhelm your composition. Make sure your subject is not overshadowed by the increase in texture.

4. When you can’t get those nice blue skies because it is overexposed, turning the image to black and white may better harmonize with the subject. The lack of a blue sky is no longer a negative, it just becomes a non-issue.

5. If the color in the photograph is blah and boring, I find a B&W conversion is worth a try. With black and white, I can usually increase the contrast more than in color. In boring, uninspired light, the stronger contrast can bring out interesting details and add more dynamism.

The Astronaut Among Us, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texas

The Astronaut Among Us, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

6. I’ve also converted to black and white when the color cast of a photograph is particularly nasty. People’s skin color is especially important and in mixed lighting conditions or indoor lights with poor, limited spectrum lighting, getting rid of the color can be an easy way to make a better picture of people.

7. I’ve converted to B&W when I want that “traditional” street photography look or when I try to emulate a particular old-time style. This is perhaps just a gimmick but I do admit to doing this.

8. Finally, you can convert to black and white, just because. You are the photographer and you can do what you want when in pursuit of your art.

The Corner of 6th and Congress - Austin, Texas

The Corner of 6th and Congress – Austin, Texas

The first 5 photographs are a straight forward black and white conversions using Apple’s Aperture 3 software. The last three photographs are black and white HDRs. I created a HDR out of 3 exposures and then converted the resulting image into a black and white. I think the increase in texture and dynamic range adds to a level of detail that changes the feel of the image. To my eyes, it simply looks different from a typical digital photograph. The last 3 photographs were also taken on 6th street which is normally packed with cars. The street was pedestrian only during SXSW so I had a unique opportunity to shoot the street life without the interference of parked cars or worry about getting run over.

Roppolo's and Ritz, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Roppolo’s and Ritz, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Bars of 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Bars of 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Museum of the Weird, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Museum of the Weird, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Photographs taken with the Olympus E-P3 with a Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 and with my Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.


Promotions Galore at SXSW Interactive

Lisa, Sarah and Elena for Samsung, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Lisa, Sarah and Elena for Samsung, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

The storm cleared last night and today was a beautiful late winter day in Austin, Texas — sunny and 70 degrees. I headed downtown for some street portraits and to check out what’s happening this year at SXSW Interactive.

I don’t have a long history of going to these things so I can only compare this to what I saw last year. It seems like this year, there are more storefronts rented out, for several days, as promotional showrooms. I saw big splashes by Microsoft, Warner Brothers and Samsung. It was also nice that these places were open to regular people, like me, who did not have a SXSW badge. Some of them even served drinks and food. It’s my birthday today so I gladly partook in some free, mid-day alcoholic beverages. Combined with taking candid and posed portraits, it was a fine way to spend the afternoon. The family celebration was later in the evening so I had several hours to photographically explore.

Tablets at the Windows Studio, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Tablets at the Windows Studio, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

As usual, I travelled light, opting this time to take my Olympus E-P3 with the 25mm f1.4 and my Olympus XZ-1. My most often used (these days) E-PM2 and 14mm was left at home. I will use it tomorrow at the giant SXSW Photowalk being organized by Trey Ratcliff. Today, I was planning to concentrate more on people instead of architecture. The 25mm (50mm equivalent) lens strikes a nice balance for candid photography as well as portraits. The XZ-1 point in shoot was going to fill the gaps with its 28mm to 112mm equivalent zoom lens.

Warner Brothers' Revolution, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Warner Brothers’ Revolution, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

80's Flashback, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

80’s Flashback, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

Dancing on 6th Street, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Dancing on 6th Street, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

As usual, people found creative ways to showcase their products and services. Nicely decked out showrooms are always popular especially when they have tchotchkes. But organizations with smaller budgets also had their own unique style. There was a colorful, 80’s leotard wearing troupe, dancing through 6th street, which gave me Olivia Newton-John flashbacks (Let’s get Physical, anyone?). The only problem was that I didn’t know what they were promoting.

Props for impromptu photographs were also popular, both Flickr (Yahoo) and Phunware used them. Think about this. Only several years ago, photo props wouldn’t work unless you supplied a camera and a photographer. These days of course, with the advent of smartphones, almost everyone has a camera with them. Common place now but it would’ve been unheard of just 1/2 decade ago.

Phunware Poses on 6th Street, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Phunware Poses on 6th Street, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

Zoomdata Guy, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Zoomdata Guy, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

Shelby for Samsung, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Shelby for Samsung, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

One more change SXSW made this year was to separate the Games Conference into a free, publicly accessible venue south of the river. I took my boys to see it yesterday. And although the older, 14-year-old is too cool to be excited by this, the younger one was really blow away. It’s nice that the organizers and the sponsors have opened up some of these events to the people beyond the badge holders. SXSW has gotten so large that it has a big, sometimes negative, impact on Austin. It’s fantastic that everything is not just a badge accessed, walled garden. It certainly makes it more fun for me, at least. Let’s see what 2014 brings.

Lauren and Nicole for TrueAbility, SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Lauren and Nicole for TrueAbility, SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

Tiffany for Xi3 Corp, SXSW Interactive Game Conference - Austin, Texas

Tiffany for Xi3 Corp, SXSW Interactive Game Conference – Austin, Texas

Photographs taken with the Olympus E-P3 with a Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 and my Olympus XZ-1 point and shoot.

Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.