Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

Olympus E-PM2

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.



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
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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.



A tale of two churches with two cameras, the Olympus E-PM2 and Fuji X100S

Basilica of St. Nicholas - Amsterdam, Netherlands

Basilica of St. Nicholas – Amsterdam, Netherlands

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.

Basilica of St. Nicholas - Amsterdam, Netherlands

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.

Basilica of St. Nicholas - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Basilica of St. Nicholas - Amsterdam, Netherlands

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.

Basilica of St. Nicholas - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Basilica of St. Nicholas - Amsterdam, Netherlands

Oude Kerk

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.

Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands

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 - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands

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.

Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands

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.

Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oude Kerk - Amsterdam, Netherlands

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I took the majority of photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3. I took the HDR photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



Suffering for one’s art, at least a little bit

A rainy day at De Bijenkorf - Amsterdam, Netherlands

A rainy day at De Bijenkorf – Amsterdam, Netherlands

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.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Make sure to click on the photograph to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details.



Another business trip and I’m only taking one camera this time

Crest Theater and its glorious neon - Sacramento, California

Crest Theater and its glorious neon – Sacramento, California

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.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Make sure to click on the photograph to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details.



Light, Reflections and Architecture: Fullerton Bay Hotel, Singapore

Light and reflections at The Fullerton Bay Hotel - Singapore

Light and reflections at The Fullerton Bay Hotel – Singapore

I posted my first urban architecture photos from Singapore a week and half ago. I promised to dedicate a post to the Fullerton Bay Hotel, a set of buildings I found especially compelling. I didn’t stay there, but it seems like an upscale oasis. Trip Advisor ranked it #3 out all the hotels in Singapore.

Unlike the famous Marina Bay Sands and the Ritz Carlton, which are really big hotels, the Fullerton Bay seems more humanly scaled and accessible. A cluster of modern buildings makes for some wonderful architectural images — the kind, certainly, that I’m drawn to. Angles, reflections, light and the Singapore skyline as backdrop drew me in. I’m like a kid in a candy store in places like this.

The Fullerton Bay Hotel and Skyline - Singapore
The Fullerton Bay Hotel and Skyline - Singapore
Boat Quay and Sklyline - Singapore

As nice as the hotel is, its location within the city adds that extra dimension. I borrowed shapes from other non-hotel structures to add more interest. The round flying saucer like building, for example, is not part of the Fullerton.

Varying Textures at The Fullerton Bay Hotel - Singapore
Varying Textures at The Fullerton Bay Hotel - Singapore

Often, modern buildings are boring. They looks like cheap, simple, glass boxes — they have no soul. The Fullerton uses a mix of contemporary materials which adds texture. There is both a sense of intimacy and grandness. You get this sense of variety as you walk through their spaces.

Interior, The Fullerton Bay Hotel - Singapore
Interior, The Fullerton Bay Hotel - Singapore

The interiors are equally stunning. The lounge and restaurant have a view out to the bay. In the shot above, you can see the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino out the window, which is located on the other side of the bay. It’s one of Singapore’s newest and most recognizable landmarks.

All of these photos are HDRs, three images blended together to get the maximum dynamic range and added sparkle. I used my trusty Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm Panasonic lens plus wide-angle adapter. It gives a 22mm equivalent view. My frequent visitors will know that this is my preferred and standard setup for these kind of photos. The small camera allows me to travel lightly and quickly, but creates high quality images. I’ve gotten really fast and efficient creating these kind of photos.

Interior, The Fullerton Bay Hotel - Singapore

You may think it strange to talk about efficiency in photography but let me explain. Often times, I visit these cities on business trips and don’t have a lot of time, but I want to make as many photos as possible. I know photography is not a race but there is a time component here — I don’t have hours to set up a shot. Familiarity with the gear and doing this for a while has allowed me to see compositions and execute them quickly. I took these photos (three per image) plus more that I didn’t post, in 23 minutes. That gave me time to shoot more of the city.

Light and reflections at The Fullerton Bay Hotel - Singapore
The Fullerton Bay Hotel and Skyline - Singapore

Efficiency can only go so far, however. I wish I had more time to shoot in Singapore. It’s the kind of place that will keep me blissfully occupied for a long time. I have some more urban landscapes to share as well as day time street photography. I’ll intersperse them throughout the coming weeks.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



A taste of Urban Landscapes from Singapore

The Merlion and Sklyline - Singapore

The Merlion and Sklyline – Singapore

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.

Boat Quay and Sklyline - Singapore

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.

The Bridge to the Fullerton - Singapore

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.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Make sure to click on the photograph to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details.



Off to Singapore and other destinations

Over the American West

Over the American West


Through an unusual confluence of events, I will be traveling more this month for work, than I ever have. All last week, I was in Sacramento, California. This week I ended up going back there again for a couple of days. Tomorrow I leave for Singapore. I get back on Saturday for my son’s birthday party and then the next day, I’m off again to California.

I suspect my blog postings will be very spotty for the next couple of weeks.

I’m just about packed and I figured out what to bring, equipment wise, to Singapore. I’ll be very busy but I’m hoping to squeeze in a little bit of photography. Urban landscapes in Singapore would be spectacular with its very modern skyline. Street photography too should also be fun. I visited Singapore exactly 2 years ago but I never posted any pictures from that trip. I’ll need to combine any photos from this excursion with the previous and do a series of postings.

I’m bringing my Olympus E-PM2 and 14mm Panasonic lens with wide-angle adapter, of course. That’s my go to, very portable, setup for my urban landscape HDRs. I’m also packing the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 for some low light street photography. For day time and brighter conditions, I’m hoping to use the Nikon J1 with kit lens. This is my latest camera and it has proven to be both very quick and reliable.

A total of two small bodies and 3 lenses — very light and compact. I’ll also be shooting and posting with the iPhone 5S through Instagram. I recently upgraded from the 4S, and the images are noticeably better. I’m finding Instagram to be useful for creating, when all goes well, little jewel like images that remind me of my activities. Instagram photos look best when viewed through the Instagram application on retina displays. On those small, high resolution screens, images can look quite good at times.

Since my blog postings are going to be sparse, you may want to check out what I post on Instagram. They’ll be shot and post processed completely with the iPhone 5S.

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Drink and Click: Impromptu portraits and neon landscapes

Beth Watches - Austin, Texas

Beth Watches – Austin, Texas


I went to Drink and Click again, last Thursday. I go to their events once in a while — its always a good time. For those of you who don’t remember, Drink and Click is a combination of a social get together, yes with some drinking, and photography. I’ve noticed that often the drinking and socializing tends to win out over the photography. And that’s okay with me. I shoot enough by myself, it’s always fun to get out with interesting photographers.

I had a good long talk with Kirsten, who is relatively new to photography but already has a good eye. We talked about cameras and techniques but discovered we both had an interest for design. I love talking about photography but appreciating the merits of Danish and mid-century modern furniture can be fun too.

Room Service Vintage - Austin, Texas
Forbidden Fruit - Austin, Texas

Do you think Valentine’s Day is big for these guys?

North Loop Food Store - Austin, Texas

I got here early with my Olympus E-PM2 with the 25mm f1.4 and the Nikon J1 with kit lens. It’s been years since I’ve been to this North Loop neighborhood with its cluster of modest stores except, like many parts of Austin, it’s transforming. Like often the case, new stores have opened with vibrant neon surrounded by trendy bars. I tested the J1 again. It’s not 6th street, but there’s always interesting compositions to be found at night, especially when there’s neon.

The back patio at the Workhorse Bar was really dark. It’s a modest place with not much visual interest, good thing. I couldn’t get anything with my cameras, not without flash anyway. Perhaps a f1.4 and ISO 12,800 on my Canon 6D would have worked but not with my Olympus and Nikon.

Beth Lit by Smartphone - Austin, Texas
Robin by Flashlight - Austin, Texas

Some models stopped by and the clicking started. I strategically stole some light from a smart phone screen and a flash light to snap these photos of Beth and Robin. ISO 3200 at f1.4 at 1/15 of a second and with luck and I got some shots.

A few of us and the models headed a couple of stores down and did an impromptu shoot at a video rental store — I was amazed that these places still exist. Shooting in an unlikely setting made it all the more compelling.

Beth Candid - Austin, Texas
Robin Candid - Austin, Texas
Caitlin Sinister - Austin, Texas

I mainly shot candids. I generally enjoy catching natural gestures. Also, I admit that I’m really not any good at directing models. But unlike a studio, this was pure fun. Just interesting women surrounded by stacks of DVDs in a really relaxed social setting.

Caitlin in the Stacks - Austin, Texas

Caitlin also stopped by, she’s been to these events before. She was flamboyant and didn’t mind posing with a “Sinister” movie.

Robin Leaning #1 - Austin, Texas
Robin Leaning #2 - Austin, Texas

Robin was leaning against the stacks and I like the effect of the leading lines. Even on a micro 4/3 camera, a 50mm f1.4 equivalent has decently shallow DOF. I certainly preferred it over the Nikon J1 for its superior image quality and the ability to defocus the background. I called her name, catching Robin with an unguarded expression.

Beth Portrait - Austin, Texas

Finally, I took a few posed portraits of Beth. I found out she wasn’t a model but just decided to stop by with Robin. Beth is a Civil Engineering Student at the University of Texas. Go figure.

Caitlin, Model Shoot - Austin, Texas

Juan, the head of Drink and Click was going strong at around 10:30pm. He was using is portable wireless soft box to do some portraits outside with Caitlin. I parted company about that time. Another fun night at Drink and Click.

By the way, Drink and Click Austin is going to have a special Olympus Night on February 20th. I helped coordinate the event and Charles from Olympus is bringing 10 OM-D E-M1s so that you can test them out. You’ll get to play with the latest and ultra popular E-M1 in a real environment, not some silly contrived setup. Come on down if you’re in the area. It should be a fun time. The venue hasn’t been finalized by it will most likely be on Rainy Street. Stop by my blog for updated details.

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I took the urban landscapes with the Nikon J1 and the Nikkor 10-30mm kit lens. I took the portraits with the Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4.

Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details. Multiply the Nikon focal length by 2.7 to get the 35mm equivalent and multiply the Olympus focal length by 2.



Waiting for the perfect night to capture 6th street

Colorful Bars Across the Street, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Colorful Bars Across the Street, 6th Street – Austin, Texas


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.

Bourbon Girl, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Amped, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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 Trophy Club, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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.

6th Street and Trinity - Austin, Texas
Tattoo and Pizza, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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.

Frost Tower from 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Curiosities for sale, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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.

Darwin's Pub, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Lit Lounge, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



Temple, Texas – A faded downtown with a surprisingly substantial buildings

Arcadia Theater - Temple, Texas

Arcadia Theater – Temple, Texas


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.

Arcadia Theater and a Tall Building - Temple, Texas

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.

A Hotel Like Building - Temple, Texas

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.

Ornate and Run Down Entrance - Temple, Texas

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.

Empire Seed Co. - Temple, Texas

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.

Alleyway - Temple, Texas

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.

Kyle Hotel - Temple, Texas

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.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



My favorite photograph from 2013

A wild night on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

A wild night on 6th Street – Austin, Texas


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.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Make sure to click on the photograph to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details.



I go to nature but all I see are buildings

Swedish Log Cabin, Zilker Botanical Garden - Austin, Texas

Swedish Log Cabin, Zilker Botanical Garden – Austin, Texas


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.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Make sure to click on the photograph to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details.



A Festive Holiday in New York City

Radio City Music Hall - New York, New York

Radio City Music Hall – New York, New York


After I posted the Times Square photos a few days ago, I kept on looking through my archives. I found a few more that I thought had that nice “Holiday in the City” kind of feel. It’s fun looking through these photos that I shot a year ago — they certainly bring back memories of that family trip. All images are from Mid-town Manhattan within a short distance of each other.

Up top is a photo of the world-famous Radio City Music Hall, home of the high kicking Rockettes. I like neon, and I frequently shoot them in Austin, but the scale in NYC is entirely different. It took me several tries until I got a photo without any cars whizzing by.

A half a block east of here is another New York landmark, Rockefeller Center.

Christmas Tree, Rockefeller Center - New York, New York

The heart of the complex is the ice skating rink and the giant Christmas Tree. The security in this area is extra vigilant for photographers using tripods, which is a real bummer since I like to use them in these situations. As you know, I like to make high quality HDRs which mean using low ISOs — a tripod is really a must. Fortunately, I knew about the restrictions so I brought a special tool.

Angels, Rockefeller Center - New York, New York

Instead of a traditional tripod, which I had with me but didn’t use here in Rockefeller Center, I used a small GorillaPod made specifically for mirrorless cameras. GorillaPods can be a pain in a butt to use. The are more fiddly than a regular metal tripod, however, they work great in these situations. I shot these angels by wrapping the GorillaPod around a metal barricade. Security didn’t seem to mind.

Saks Fifth Avenue Holiday Show #1 - New York, New York
Saks Fifth Avenue Holiday Show #1 - New York, New York

But sometimes, things come out great without HDR or tripods, even at night. Here is a another view of the angels with Saks Fifth Avenue in the background. Saks runs a short animated show projected on to the facade which I captured here.

Golden Flags, Rockefeller Center - New York, New York

Here is another handheld shot. I just loved these golden flags flapping in the wind. Except it was cold and the breeze certainly didn’t help.

Giant Ornaments, Avenue of the Americas - New York, New York

I head west back towards my hotel and I’m on 6th Avenue, also known as the “Avenue of the Americas”. All of these buildings are 60 stories high, which are taller than the tallest building in Austin. They form sort of a wall that makes the area canyon like. Just a couple of more blocks west, on the other side of these buildings is Times Square.

I only stayed in New York for several days. Give me a whole year and I still won’t be able to capture everything I want. I wonder when I can go back there again? I can’t wait. It’s certainly fantastic for urban landscapes.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



Happy New Year from Times Square

Times Square #1 - New York, New York

Times Square #1 – New York, New York


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.

Times Square #2 - New York, New York

I started my tour around 47th Street, looking north.

Times Square #3 - New York, New York
Times Square #4 - New York, New York

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.

Finally, a big thank you to you, the viewers from around the world. Like Times Square, nicknamed “The Crossroads of the world”, I’m happy that I’m sort of a virtual crossroad that hopefully has entertained and even helped you in some way. I hope you have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



Christmas at the Driskill

2013 Driskill Christmas Tree #1 - Austin, Texas

2013 Driskill Christmas Tree – Austin, Texas


It’s become a tradition of sorts to shoot the Christmas Tree at the Driskill Hotel. This is the 5th year I’ve done this. Every year, I tend to shoot it from about the same place. I get subtle variations since the shape of the tree changes and my post processing has also changed. But I didn’t shoot close enough to get the details. The decorations that change every year tend to blend into a colorful texture.

This year, I decided to get closer and do multiple angles. While the cameras have changed, the technique remain the same. I shoot on tripod and with 3 exposures so that I have the option of doing HDRs. Despite the years of doing this, there are still two challenges.

2013 Driskill Christmas Tree #2 - Austin, Texas
2013 Driskill Christmas Tree #3 - Austin, Texas

First, I find it difficult to center my subject in the middle. Even with a level, which the Olympus E-PM2 does not actually have, getting the plane of the camera parallel to the subject is my biggest pain. I’m not going for perfection so I just eyeballed it. You think after all of these years, this would be easy.

The second challenge is to have patience. The Driskill is Austin’s grand old hotel and there are many tourists that pass through. Creating a photograph without people takes a lot of time and some luck. Of course the easiest way is to probably go there around 3am when nobody is around. I met my friend Mike at 9pm, which was way too early. There was a steady stream of people posing and taking pictures in front of the tree.

2013 Gingerbread Driskill - Austin, Texas
Driskill Concierge Desk - Austin, Texas

People would typically take their photo and proceed to have a 5 minute conversation within my field of view. Of course, I didn’t want to ruin their special holiday moment so I don’t say anything and patiently wait for a chance for 3 clean exposures. I was lucky. I got a few quick breaks that allowed me to get my shots. Mike, on the other hand, probably waited nearly 30 minutes. By 10pm, it was a lot more quiet. Note to self, go there much later next year.

2013 Driskill Christmas Tree #4 - Austin, Texas

Finally, for something completely different, here is a lightly toned black and white. I purposely included a couple that was admiring the tree.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season.

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



The 6th Street Photowalk and the using strengths of Olympus and Fujifilm

A rainy night on 6th street - Austin, Texas

A rainy night on 6th street – Austin, Texas


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.

Kasie at the Bourbon Girl - Austin, Texas (no flash, Fuji XF1)
Kasie at the Bourbon Girl - Austin, Texas (fill flash, Fuji 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.

Kasie at the Bourbon Girl - Austin, Texas

This third image was slightly post processed and is my final look.

Red Dress Run, Bourbon Girl - Austin, Texas

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.

Red Dress Run, Bourbon Girl - Austin, Texas

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.

Performing at Bourbon Girl - Austin, Texas

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.

Holiday Decorations at the Iron Cactus - Austin, Texas

The neon red from the Iron Cactus sign also looks great off the sidewalk. 6th street was looking festive before the holidays.

Colorful Performance, Metal and Lace - Austin, Texas

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.

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I took the photographs with the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot and with the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

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



How I created simple Halloween street portraits

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street – Austin, Texas

I recently posted some Halloween portraits from 6th street that people seem to like. I could have gone with my conventional available light images that I usually take down on 6th street — the Canon 6D at high ISO does a surprisingly good job in low light. Available light shots, however, have a moody but soft look to them. Great for shallow depth of field street photography and romantic wedding photos, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted more of a crisp, dynamic look, different from my regular stuff.

I’ve included several new portraits on this post and you can click here to see the rest of them. As promised, here is the way I created these Halloween portraits.

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Taking the Picture

Direct flash gets a bad rap but it can be neat when done in the right way. And you don’t necessary need a soft box or umbrella either, especially if you want that crisp look. The trick is to get the light source off axis, meaning you shouldn’t have the flash on top of your camera. This tends to flatten out features and you lose that three-dimensional look.

Your primary light source is no longer going to be the flash on your camera. There are several ways to do off camera flash. First, you need to use a camera with a hot shoe. You also need an external flash that can be triggered wirelessly or connected via a sync cord. Some camera companies have wireless flash triggering features built into their nicer cameras and flashes. You can certainly use this to get TTL metering which dynamically adjusts to the light conditions. These systems are proprietary so a Nikon wireless system will not work with Canon flashes, for example.

I went for the cheaper and more primitive manual route. While you don’t get the fancy TTL metering, manual flash exposure works great when the environment does not change. Since I was shooting at night, this worked great. The benefits of manual flash is that I can use inexpensive flashes and triggers and arguably get more consistent exposures if you do it right. It’s also manufacturer independent, so I can use the same triggering system on any camera that has a hot shoe.

I used the same inexpensive but reliable Cactus V5 triggers that I used for the Haunted House Photo Booth. My flash is a no frills house brand called Quantaray that was sold by the now out of business Ritz Camera. Any flash capable of manual mode should do, even older models. A nice unit that has is popular with the Strobist community is the LumoPro LP180. I have not used this model but it has even more features than my flash. I dialed down my flash to 1/64 power. After a couple of minutes of testing, I settled on ISO 250, 1/160 second shutter and around f3.2 to f4 in manual exposure mode. I also preset manual focus to several feet out. I held the flash in my left hand and shot with my right. If my camera has located in the center of the clock, the flash was held over my head at around the 10 o’clock position and angled towards my subjects which were about 3 – 5 feet away.

Camera wise, I used the Olympus E-PM2. I thought about using the Canon 6D but there were several advantages to using the E-PM2. First, I wanted a wide-angle view since I knew I would need to include groups of people. The only wide-angle I had on the Canon was the 24-105mm zoom, which combined with the 6D will be heavy to hold one handed. On the Olympus, I used my Lumix 14mm f2.5 (28mm equivalent) pancake lens which made for an incredibility light-weight setup, perfect for one handed operation all night. I could have also used the standard 14-42mm Olympus kit lens, which isn’t much heavier.

At ISO 250, image quality was not a factor. But the smaller sensor on the Olympus has an advantage since it has more depth of field. I could shoot at a f3.2 to f4 range and get the entire group in focus. On the 6D, I would need to go at least to f8. Finally, I also was wary of bringing expensive equipment. I heard that 6th Street on Halloween was crowded and a bit crazy. I felt more comfortable using smaller and less expensive gear.

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Post Processing

A couple of people commented how nicely the flash had blacked out the background. Well, in fact, shooting in this way does have the advantage of dropping out the ambient light. But it doesn’t always work perfectly and I resorted to a bit of artistic trickery to get the effect that I wanted. Yes, I did some post processing to mask my subjects from the background. Before I go into that, let me explain the shooting environment.

You have to understand that 6th Street was very crowded with wall to wall people. If I were able to direct people to an open area, then this technique would have worked much better, in camera. Or conversely, If I had set up a dark background, that would have been great too. Instead, I asked people for portraits as I walked down the street. I spent perhaps 10 -15 seconds per person and I didn’t have the luxury or desire to move and optimally position my subjects.

If lucky, I got a break from the crowds and I got a fairly clean shot like the vampire couple on the left. However, most of the time, it was more like the situation on the right. Masking and adding a black background was relatively easy — a different color would be a more difficult. I think that the post processing adds a level of simplicity that give sort of a studio feel to these street portraits.

There are many ways to mask away the background but I wanted to experiment with some new software. Topaz Labs makes ReMask which I’ve always wanted to test. It worked great. With some practice, I was able to do some fairly complex masking, certainly better than what I can do with Photoshop. Take a look at the example below. Masking hair can get tricky and her head dress made it even more challenging. You can tell ReMask did a great job with the subtle details.

How easy is ReMask? Well here is a Youtube video of how it works. I never even read the manual. All I did was look at this video and practiced a bit.

So there you have it. This is how I did those Halloween portraits. It was nice to break out of the usual mold and do something different. Perhaps I’ll use the technique again. Thanks for stopping by, I hope you found this informative and interesting.

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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Halloween on 6th Street: An experiment in portraiture

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street – Austin, Texas

For the last several years, I’ve meant to go down to 6th Street on Halloween night. This year I finally made it.

6th Street, Austin’s most famous entertainment district, is busy on regular evenings, particularly on the weekend. Halloween, as you can imagine, was off the charts. It’s the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. I was there from 9pm – 11pm yesterday and it was already wall to wall. As I was leaving, droves of people were converging from other parts of the city.

I wanted to create street portraits, particularly of the more interesting costumes. I also wanted to do it in a different way. I’m really happy with the results. It’s a look that I’ve never done before.

I’ll talk about how I created these in a future post. But for today, I just wanted to showcase a dozen images. I will say that I used my Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm f2.5 lens. As usual, hover over the images with a mouse to see the EXIF details. Then click on the photographs to see a larger version.

Now sit back-end enjoy the Halloween, 6th street style.

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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Photographs taken with my Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens.

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


Could this be the ultimate haunted house for an elementary school fundraiser?

Dorothy's House , Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House - Austin, Texas

Dorothy’s House , Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House – Austin, Texas

Several months of planning. Several days of building. And several hours of fun.

My kids were lucky to go to a really good public elementary school here in Austin. Every Autumn, just before Halloween, they have their very elaborate and profitable fund-raising carnival called the Hoot. This is not just some random collection of inflatable rides. The school, the PTA and a huge crew of volunteers go all out. One of the most popular attractions is the Haunted House, put on by the 5th grade parents.

We had an architect, interior designers and other creative parents planning this for months. They transformed a portable building, usually the music classroom, in the Haunted House in a matter of days. I helped out too this year, doing the photography inside the attraction. I came up with a fairly elaborate system which I will discuss in an upcoming post. My involvement though pales in comparison to all the hard work that went into this place. Today, I wanted to share the inside of this Wizard of Oz themed Haunted House.

I shot these photos in the short window just after it was completed and before the first kids started going through. This year’s design was particularly sophisticated and, dare I say, artistic in many ways. Keep in mind that this was all built for a 4 hour event. At the end, it would be torn down and converted back into a regular elementary school classroom. The amount of effort put into this project was truly impressive.

As the first photograph shows, we start in Kansas in Dorothy’s house. This is the first room, where the kids enter. Pushing past the working screen door and you get to the tornado room. You are outside in the field with the storm cellar to the right and the twister visible front and center. There are fans blowing in here create that stormy and windy feeling.

Tornado Room, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House - Austin, Texas
Tornado Room, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House - Austin, Texas

Tornado Room, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House – Austin, Texas

This was my favorite room. It had a minimalist, “art installation in a museum” kind of feel. I wish I could have shot this from a higher angle looking downwards instead of the other way around. My main tripod was already pressed into service for my photo project so I had to use this old short tripod that just happened to be in my car. At eye level, the white ceiling fades from view and you see the simple, artistic details in this room.

Incidentally, as you might have guessed, I used HDR, shooting 3 images at 2 stops apart. Most of the rooms were very dark and I needed a tripod to keep everything aligned and steady. I used my usual Olympus E-PM2 with the Panasonic 14mm and wide-angle adapter.

The Good Witch, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House - Austin, Texas

The Good Witch, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House – Austin, Texas

After going through a dark hallway decorated with corn stalks, you arrive in the land of Oz. You can see the good witch off in the distance. There are several more rooms and hallways until you get to the yellow brick road that leads through the forest. After, you pass through a room where you can see the Emerald City in the distance, projected from the back via a computer controlled projector. Next you get to the witch’s castle.

Yellow Brick Road, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House - Austin, Texas

Yellow Brick Road, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House – Austin, Texas

The castle is where I shot the photo of the kids that passed through. The objective was to get candid shots of them being frightened by the Wicked Witch that pops out of the window. Then, there is a final dark passage that has closing doors on either end, where the zombified Dorothy appears (we took liberties with the original story line).

Witch's Castle, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House - Austin, Texas

Witch’s Castle, Wizard of Oz Themed Haunted House – Austin, Texas

Hidden from view, and located in the center of the building is the control center where all the technology and actors resided. Throughout the entire experience, there were sounds of screams, dialog and music that added to the mood. The 5th graders, wearing costumes, slipped in and out of hidden passageways to both scare the kids and get to their pre-set positions. Beyond all the designing and building it was a momentous scheduling job as the actors changed shifts every 30 minutes or so.

Once it started, I was too busy to take it all in. I was manning the photography which kept me busy. As usual, the line for the Haunted House was long and wrapped around the corner. The kids and older folks seem to enjoy it. I’m glad I was a part of this creative crew and truly impressed with the teamwork.

Coming soon, a post about how I did the photography in the Haunted House.

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Photographs taken 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.


The 2013 Austin Dia de los Muertos Parade

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

Colorful Dancers, 2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade – Austin, Texas

'til death do us part
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
Last Saturday, I went to the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Parade here in Austin, Texas. I missed last year’s but I went 2 years ago. Want a window into another culture? Go to these events. As you can imagine, being in Texas, we have a lot of Mexican influences. Heck, Texas was once a part of Mexico back before it was part of the United States. But day-to-day, I have to admit my Mexican cultural exposure is limited to Tex-Mex food (which is really not Mexican) and the occasional blast of Tejano music. I can’t vouch for the parade’s authenticity, but it was certainly fun, colorful and a wonderful place for some street photography.

Go photograph the world from your neighborhood. No plane tickets and passports required. If you have limited time or budget, going to these cultural events allow you to step into another world while staying at home. It’s excellent for photography too. I can practice, make mistakes and hone my street shooting, locally, without any pressure. I can experiment with a new technique or new gear. And it’s wise to do this before you go on that expensive international trip, if the opportunity ever presents itself. About a half-year after I went to this parade in 2011, I got an unexpected chance to go to India and Singapore. Shooting in those foreign lands was much easier because of the experience I gained here in Austin.

SoCo Location Map

The Parade Route

For my first parade in 2011, I used my, then new, Olympus E-PL1 with the 20mm Lumix lens. I just started down the one camera, one lens journey, moving to lighter cameras and less gear. I’ve modified my equipment style slightly but have stayed true, for the most part, to the less is more philosophy. This year, I brought my Canon 6D with the Canon 40mm pancake lens. The 40mm view worked so well last time that I decided to do the same again, although with a different camera. I also packed my Olympus E-PM2, mainly as a video camera, since the 6D doesn’t autofocus adequately when shooting video.

Before the Parade

I shot in and around the parade terminus on 5th street when I realized that I was an hour early. I decide to make the 1 1/2 mile walk to the start of the parade on East 6th street. And it was worth it. I got a behind the scenes look at the preparation. I also ran into some of my photographer friends that I haven’t seen in a while. Austin is still small enough that I constantly bump into people I know.

My week-long trip to Cancun this summer gave me a tiny bit more background on the history of Mexico, from its Pre-Columbian roots, the Aztecs and Mayans to the Spanish influence. I recognized the similar elements at the parade as I did at the tourists spots in Mexico. Though ironically, I probably got to interact more with the true culture here in Austin, compared to the decidedly more isolated resort and tourist experience in Cancun.

Parading Down 6th Street

The parade started exactly at 6pm as we walked westward towards downtown. We travelled along East 6th Street through the traditionally Hispanic and African American parts of town that appear to be gentrifying at a rapid pace. The sun was low and the shadows were long which made it difficult to shoot. I tried to use the shadows as design elements but mostly I did my best to avoid them, opting to, when possible, shoot in the even shade.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

Long Shadows at the start of the Parade – Austin, Texas

Traditional Aztec Dancers, somber, painted Catrinas and colorful costumes blended for an eclectic mix. I’m sure the Segways are not very traditional as well as other elements that are not familiar to me, but it’s a parade and it’s an excuse to have fun. Local Congressman, Lloyd Doggett even made an appearance. As we made it past the bars of 6th street, the fumes of alcohol and the party spirit must have infected the crowd. The level of dancing and rhythmic music seemed to amplify.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

As a photographic challenge, using a single 40mm prime lens might be fun. But it definitely made me work harder — I had to get close to make interesting images. I couldn’t just stay on the sidelines and zoom in. I needed to dart into the parade and momentarily join in to capture my desired framing. Having a zoom particularly a 70 – 200mm has its advantages though. Make an easier shot is not the main goal, rather, getting a shallower depth and isolating the subject would be my main objective. I would also be able to compress the distance between the dancers to get an entire different kind of framing. Perhaps next year, I will use a single zoom.

Dancing in the Street

As we turned the corner on to Congress Avenue, the main North – South street in downtown, the parade morphed into a block party. Dancers and the drummers took over and the spectators joined in. Austin sure likes to have fun and the carefree spirit pervaded.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

On of those new Capitol Metro double length buses passed by with the skull decorations. A nice touch.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

While I shot exclusively with the Canon 6D during the parade, I began to mix in the Olympus E-PM2, initially to shoot video of the party like atmosphere. I also took some still images and, I admit, I really like shooting with the Olympus a lot more than the Canon. It’s not just a matter of size. I find that the exposure metering on the Olympus is superior and since I can compose using the back LCD, it allows me to shoot in a more free form way. This style of shooting also blended better with the mood. Having a big black DSLR to your face seems to remove me from the action. It works for sports shooting, when I need to concentrate on one subject. But here when the people are dancing around, the small light camera felt like a more modern and apropos device to capture the action.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

The Olympus E-PM2 video quality is serviceable but ultimately a bit of a let down, especially after using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-P5. The E-PM2 video hunts too much and I see more compression artifacts. It still works however to get a quick video of the action.


Evening

As the light levels fell, I came into my element. Shooting at dusk and into the night is what I really like. As sunlight is replaced by the man-made urban lighting, the city comes alive for me. The Olympus does a pretty good job but I didn’t bring my f1.4 lens. This is where the Canon 6D shines with its high ISO capability. Even with my f2.8 pancake lens, I was able to shoot in the moderately dim.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

Patricia, the woman in the skeleton costume was still dancing. She was a constant source of amazement and I offered to send her photos, if she was interested.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

I absolutely love the warm glow on the mother and daughter’s faces as they previewed images from a photo session. It’s one of my favorites.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

The Aztec dancers were still at it. I knew the light levels were too dim to get a clear shot. I decided to take the opposite tack and go for maximum (hand-held) motion blur. I switched to the Olympus, which has in-body image stabilization and set the shutter to 1/10 of a second. It took a bunch of tries with this hit or miss technique, but I created an image that I like. With both motion blur and some camera shake, the net effect is one of movement. The lovely purple nicely contrasting against the yellow ambient lighting.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

Finally, I snapped a well dressed couple on Congress Avenue as I made my way back to my car. Shot here with the city as the backdrop and the ubiquitous technology in hand, it came out great at ISO 10,000.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade - Austin, Texas

I must have walked 4 or more miles and my feet were starting to tire as the cool air finally filtered into Central Texas. My back and shoulders held up though. I was able to carry my 6D with the 40mm lens plus the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 in my usual compact Domke bag. A nice, really compact setup. Not quite one camera and one lens like two years ago but not that far off either.

Here are all of the photographs I took at the 2013 Austin Dia de los Muertos Parade. There are extras I didn’t include in this post.

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I took the majority of the photographs with the Canon 6D with the inexpensive Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake lens. I also used the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens.

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


SoCo, Austin: Color, Lights and Details

South Congress Cafe, SoCo - Austin, Texas

South Congress Cafe, SoCo – Austin, Texas

SoCo Location Map
Just south of downtown Austin, there’s a part of town called SoCo — South Congress Avenue. What was once run down and even seedy has transformed into a vibrant and eclectic area. I read recently that SoCo is the number 1 spot to bring out-of-towners. Understandable. There is a healthy mix of old “Keep Austin Weird” establishments as well as slick and trendy shops and restaurants. It is also a great place for photography.

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.

Allens Boots, SoCo - Austin, Texas
SoCo Closeup Map
It was nearly 10pm by the time we finished our relaxing dinner. South Congress Avenue was already quiet on this Tuesday night. We organized our gear and headed south. It’s been a while since I did HDRs on South Congress so I brought my tripod and trusty Olympus E-PM2 and as usual, my Panasonic 14mm f2.5. But I also packed my Olympus 14 – 42mm kit lens. I found that changing lenses gives me a different point of view, sometimes stimulating new ideas.

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.

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, SoCo - Austin, Texas

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, SoCo – Austin, Texas

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.

Tesoros, SoCo - Austin, Texas
Window Display, Tesoros - Austin, Texas

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.

Neon, SoCo Parking - Austin, Texas

Neon, SoCo Parking – Austin, Texas

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?

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Photographs taken with my Olympus E-PM2 with 14-42 kit lens.

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


Top Golf: A non-golfer shoots some images

Entrance, Top Golf - Austin, Texas

Entrance, Top Golf – Austin, Texas

One of the slick new places that opened in Austin, that makes us collectively think that we are no longer in a secondary market, is Top Golf. I’ve heard breathless excitement about this new fun place from Dallas. Turns out Houston has one too and the establishment is not even out of Texas. Top Golf is a UK-based company that is building upscale driving ranges with a twist. Combine a night club like bar and a restaurant with an upscale driving range on which you can play games and you begin to understand the premise of this place.

I am not a golfer. That last time I tried was over 25 years ago. Even back then, I played 18 holes with a 5 iron and a putter, so you know how serious I was about the sport. At least to my credit, I tended to whack the ball straight down the course. Except with only a 5 iron, I needed to do a lot of whacking. So why did I got to Top Golf? To take photographs of course.

Driving Range, Top Golf - Austin, Texas

Driving Range, Top Golf – Austin, Texas

The Course, Top Golf - Austin, Texas

The Course, Top Golf – Austin, Texas

When invited by friends, they insisted that I needn’t be a golfer. Luckily I wasn’t the only one. I got to socialize, have a few drinks and eat some tasty bites. The key for me, of course, is that I got to take photographs. Photography is up there, high on my fun scale, so I don’t care if I was at St. Andrews in Scotland — I would be capturing images instead of stroking that little white ball.

Top Golf Snipetts
Top Golf Snipetts
Top Golf Snipetts
Top Golf Snipetts
Top Golf Snipetts

I took my Olympus E-PM2 with my usual wide-angle and a tiny table top tripod. This was going to be my compact HDR machine. I didn’t bring my usual full size tripod since I wasn’t sure if the Top Golfers were amenable. I also had my Canon G15 as usual for miscellaneous shots that I converted to black and white.

Lounge, Top Golf - Austin, Texas

Lounge, Top Golf – Austin, Texas

It turned out that a couple of non-golfers also liked photography so we talked shop as I snapped some images. I can’t tell you much about how the golf games worked but I saw some great shots that flew so far that even my photography trained eye lost track. I’ve lived in Austin for 22+ years but get the feeling everyday that I no longer live in that small College town. Top Golf has 3 levels of driving ranges like the kind that I saw in land strapped Tokyo. The only difference? The surrounding area is still mostly nature as opposed to a solid wall of high rises. We are safe from that. It would take untold centuries of development in Austin to reach Mega-Tokyo like densities… I think.

Registration, Top Golf - Austin, Texas

Registration, Top Golf – Austin, Texas

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Photographs taken with my Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter. Black and white photographs taken with the Canon G15.

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


Grand spaces at the Gaylord National Harbor

Faux Colonial House, Gaylord National Resort - National Harbor, Maryland

Faux Colonial House, Gaylord National – National Harbor, Maryland

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.

An Enclosed City, Gaylord National Resort - National Harbor, Maryland

An Enclosed City, Gaylord National Resort – National Harbor, Maryland

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.

Sitting Area, Gaylord National Resort - National Harbor, Maryland

Sitting Area, Gaylord National Resort – National Harbor, Maryland

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.

The Atrium, Gaylord National Resort - National Harbor, Maryland

The Atrium, Gaylord National Resort – National Harbor, Maryland

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Photograph taken 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.