Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

Photo Essay

Photo Essay: 2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight – Austin, Texas

I wasn’t going to the hot air balloon launch last Saturday. I had no desire to wake up at 5 in the morning. But it was 4:30am when I finished processing and writing about the Leica M camera that I shot on 6th Street the night before. What the heck. I took a quick shower and headed towards Mansfield Dam for the 24th Annual Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight.

I was there, in the same place, 3 years ago — that was my first launch. Its gotten a lot more crowded since then. I was concerned when I saw a line of tripods setup at the perimeter. Were they restricting access because of the crowds? Unlike 3 years ago, I didn’t bring a tripod. I was determined to capture the events, “street photography style” with one camera and lens. You guessed it, with the Fuji X100S. In order to do this, I needed to get in close. I didn’t have the luxury of a telephoto lens.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

Luckily, as the preparations proceeded, people freely mingled between the balloonists. The defensive line of tripods was self-imposed. I was breaking through to get into the action.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

Do you know how they launch these giant vehicles? After everything is hooked up and the material rolled out, they use a stout fan to blow air into the balloon cavity. They hold the mouth open for easy air access.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

We’re in Texas, after all.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

At a certain point, they turn on the gas burners to fill the balloon with hot air. Since the hot air rises, the balloon begins to float upwards. The reclining basket begins to stand erect. Things get exciting, photographically, when the flames come alive.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas
2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

They started this process near sunrise so it wasn’t very dark. It would’ve been interesting to capture the glow in the dark.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

The balloons take off quickly. This multicolored one was up and away, a lot quicker than expected.

2014 Lake Travis Hot Air Balloon Flight - Austin, Texas

All told there were about a half a dozen that took off that day. A small event compared to the ones in New Mexico but my friend Steven said this one was more accessible. He went to New Mexico to photograph those giant 100+ balloon launchings and he said the traffic was challenging. This small one in Austin was perfect for me. Relatively close to home, I got back by 9am and slept until 1.

From downtown street photography on 6th Street to a balloon launching out in the Hill Country, it was a busy 12 hours of shooting last weekend. Either I’m getting lazier or I’m seeing better but I ended up using one camera and a single 35mm equivalent lens to shoot everything. At least I got to travel light.

Challenging Patriotism, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Bachelorette Party, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
A Big Margarita, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

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Breda, Netherlands: A small city with irresistible charm

Cobbles and Charm - Breda, Netherlands

Cobbles and Charm – Breda, Netherlands

Living the typical suburban lifestyle in the United States, it’s easy to forget how charming cities can be. Even living in Austin, which is probably better than many places in America, one realizes we have a ways to go.

Breda, in the southern part of the Netherlands, is a small city of about 180,000. It’s smaller than some bedroom communities in the U.S. But what’s different from many modern, car based cities is the density of development. The central area is remarkably compact with many of the daily necessities within walking distance – courtesy of urban development pre-automobile. For an urban photographer, it affords endless details.

Moat and Bridge, Breda Castle - Breda, Netherlands

From the train station to downtown, you pass through the very green Park Valkenberg, which I enjoyed capturing in an earlier post. Right next door lies Breda Castle and other historic buildings the mark the start of the man-made. It even has a moat which rings the castle and the rest of the central downtown.

Shiny Cobblestone - Breda, Netherlands

The cobblestones add pleasant visual texture but was a hassle for pulling wheeled luggage. But seen at night, especially when wet, they give that extra sparkle that makes these places special.

Repeating Windows and Delicate Trees - Breda, Netherlands
Mixed Facades - Breda, Netherlands

Structures blend seamlessly from government buildings to apartments to restaurants. Most follow a uniform scale that makes them harmonious. There is enough facade variation to add interest but enough consistent structure to enforce a sense of order.

Grote Church Exterior - Breda, Netherlands
Grote Church and Cafes - Breda, Netherlands

The large Grote Church dominates and anchors the city — most of the night life congregates around it. Unlike Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, which is surrounded by the famous red light district, Breda’s signature church is surrounded by restaurants and bars. It’s a lot more accessible and family friendly. Of course many have cafe style outdoor seating.

Empty Cafe - Breda, Netherlands

I asked many Dutch if Breda is a regular city or more upscale than normal. I got different responses and I couldn’t form a definitive opinion. What’s evident is that, while this place would be viewed as a high-end neighborhood in the United States, it’s one of many nice places in the Netherlands. Imagine all the detail and interest of Disney’s Magic Kingdom without the references to fantasy characters or amusement rides.

Giant Tree Counter Balances - Breda, Netherlands

It’s a real place with real people who live, work and shop there everyday. For a city slicker, it might be a bit small and the quaint architecture might ultimately not suffice. But I had a heck of a fun time for a week. It doesn’t have a lot of tourist attractions and that’s fine by me. I’m always more interested in seeing and documenting the real, everyday places, at least here in the Netherlands. In America, the equivalent “real and everyday places” would be strip malls and suburban tract homes which, somehow, wouldn’t be the same.

I shot many of these early in the morning on Saturday, so it’s deceptively quiet. Several hours later the cafes would be full of people. The area near the church was especially active and well into the night. It’s where the people partied.

Ever Present Grote Church - Breda, Netherlands

I know several Dutch living in the U.S. and asked them why they left. Didn’t they like the finely crafted charm, meticulously layered over centuries of development? They all mentioned how terrible the weather was. Dark and gloomy in the winter with all that rain. It turned out that I was there during the good time of the year but even I got to experience the wetness for 6 of the 11 days.

On the plus side, I got to take some great night shots in the rain. Here’s one that I took in Amsterdam. I’ll do more rain-soaked and beautifully reflective posts from Breda, in the near future.

Majestic Structure, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Cafe and Bike - Breda, Netherlands

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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



The 2014 ROT Biker Rally with the Fuji X100S

2014 ROT Rally - Austin, Texas

2014 ROT Rally – Austin, Texas

I’ve been going to the ROT (Republic of Texas) Biker Rally for several years now. Each year I bring a different set of cameras as my equipment and tastes evolve. This year the Fujifilm X100S was my main camera, no surprise there. I’ve been shooting the X100S quite a bit recently and blogging about it with regularity. After using it extensively in the Netherlands and logging close to 14,00 photos, I feel like I’m getting the hang of the camera.

You may recall that when I started shooting with it back in March, I was still getting my bearings, preferring the familiarity and comfort of the Olympus micro 4/3 cameras.

2014 ROT Rally #2 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #3 - Austin, Texas

Like in past years, I got down there early before the main parade — 6th street is where many of the bikers congregate. Often, it’s the place where people proudly showoff their bikes. This person probably had the most unique motorcycle there and it garnered a lot of attention.

2014 ROT Rally #4 - Austin, Texas

With increased familiarity with the Fuji X100S, I’m experimenting. This one with some extra flare. JJ Abrams would be proud.

2014 ROT Rally #5 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #6 - Austin, Texas

I headed over to Congress Avenue for the pre parade activities. These bikini clad women handed out ROT Rally flags. You can see the flags proudly on display by the couple at the top of the post.

2014 ROT Rally #7 - Austin, Texas

These three are part of the Texas Roller Derby. They did street acrobatics as well as handed out discount coupons.

2014 ROT Rally #8 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #9 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #10 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #11 - Austin, Texas

After many years of the same format, they changed the ROT Rally Parade this year. This created a kink in my photography plans since I was expecting, out of habit, the same parade route. In past years, the motorcycles would do a slow pass up and down the street and then park. This year, they greatly extended the parade and did a single, higher speed pass down Congress Avenue. That made it heck of a lot harder to capture the motorcycles. I was forced to improvise by manually pre focusing, and upping the shutter speed to 1/500s and 1/1000s. It took a bit of futzing but it turned out decently. As a big plus, the new route allowed me to get the Texas State Capitol building as the backdrop.

With such a fast shutter speed and with the evening light, the last two photos jumped to ISO 6400. The Fuji did a good job with the detail. I generally keep 6400 as my upper limit for the camera. I also think my familiarity with the X100S helped me to successfully improvise. I’m actually amazed how many scenes I captured with a single 35mm equivalent lens.

2014 ROT Rally #12 - Austin, Texas

New for this year, Austin setup a second ROT gathering site south of the river at the Austin American-Statesman newspaper building. The parking lot was transformed into a vendor, food and concert space. I walked down there with my photographer friend Dave, who I met during the parade. If you know Austin, you know they always setup live music stages for these kinds of events. After all, the city brags that it’s the “Live Music Capital of the World”. Friday night was no exception.

2014 ROT Rally #13 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #14 - Austin, Texas

It took the opportunity to do some street shooting in and around the food booths. I always like the glow of lights at night and the X100S does a good job with them.

2014 ROT Rally #15 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #16 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #17 - Austin, Texas

I also started experimenting with the flash blending. Fuji has something called Super Intelligent Flash on many of its cameras where it does a really good job of blending the right amount of fill flash with the ambient light. It’s actually one of the reasons I bought the X100S but something which I haven’t tested much until now.

The portrait of the Mexican Motorcycle Acrobats came out great at ISO 2500 and at 1/30s. The next two were at ISO 5000. The first one is fair but a bit soft — it also has a slight depth of field issue shot at f2. The second one came out better. Overall though, given how dark it was, it did a fantastic job of lighting the subject and maintaining detail in the background.

2014 ROT Rally #18 - Austin, Texas

I headed back north to 6th street, that’s were I figured most of the action will be. The ROT participants where thinking the same too. Groups of them rumbled up Congress Avenue towards the bars and night life.

2014 ROT Rally #19 - Austin, Texas

6th Street is always, shall we say, festive on the weekends. But during ROT Rally it gets amped up. This year though, because the venues were split into multiple locations, 6th was not as packed. It think it lost some of it’s craziness which might have been part of the city’s plans. I have to admit that I like the previous years better.

2014 ROT Rally #20 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #21 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #22 - Austin, Texas
2014 ROT Rally #23 - Austin, Texas

That’s not to say that the 6th Street bars don’t have of plenty of attractions to entice customers. I find this place to be one of the most intense for sheer capitalism. The bars complete vigorously to pull in customers.

2014 ROT Rally #24 - Austin, Texas

In years past, I came down with my HDR setup, complete with tripod, to photograph the glowing bikes. HDR works particularly well in these cases. I’ve done enough of these shots that I decided to forgo the HDR, it also saved me from carrying a tripod. I did, however, try get an extra pop by using the Fuji Intelligent flash. It works great for objects too, not just people. While perhaps not as striking as the HDR, I think it came out pretty darn good for a single exposure in JPEG. More than anything, it’s the shallow depth of field that gives this shot a different look. After all, I was hand holding it in the dark at ISO 5000 at f2. Not bad.

2014 ROT Rally #25 - Austin, Texas

Here is another example of flash blending. I wanted to light the dark bikes in foreground and balance it with the background neon.

All told I was there about 4 hours last Friday night and walked about 7 1/2 miles according to my Pedometer++ iPhone app. That’s good because these photo walks are one of my main sources of exercise, sad but true. Stay tuned, I have a lot more ROT Rally coverage this year. I did some extra special camera testing the next day, comparing the performance of 3 cameras. Look for that soon.

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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



Park Valkenberg: A bit of nature for an Urban Landscape Photographer

Morning in Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Morning in Park Valkenberg – Breda, Netherlands

I had the pleasure of walking through Park Valkenberg on many occasions during my week stay in Breda, Netherlands. When I first saw it, it was a breath of fresh air for a weary traveller that spent an afternoon in the big city of Amsterdam. The park is located between the downtown and the train station so every time I passed through, I would snap a few more photos.

Picnic in Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Lighthouse, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Now I realize that this is not exactly the wilderness — It’s a highly groomed city park. But with the tall trees and lush green grass surrounded by a canal, it was the perfect amount of nature for this former New York City boy. And for an Urban Photographer like me with photos of lots of buildings and the gritty city life, this bit of greenery might be a rare treat on this blog.

I shot all photos with my Fujifilm X100S. A quiet camera with a single 35mm equivalent lens. It fit the mood well in this serene place.

Whimsy, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Fountain and Mist, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Parks in Austin aren’t this green, it is a semi-arid place after all. But it’s the highly manicured look that really appeals to me. The sense of order, in once sense, has that architectural feel. The green belts and parks in Austin are decidedly more wild with lots of undergrowth. The excess brush and plants adds too much noise. Perhaps a skilled landscape photographer can artfully lessen the visual clutter but it’s something that I haven’t achieved or worked on very much.

Remembrance, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands

Remembrance Day, held on May 4th, pays respect to fallen soldiers and civilians during World War II. Here are the flowers that were left, captured the day after the ceremony.

Breda Castle from Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
Reflections at Breda Castle - Breda, Netherlands

Next to the park, across the canal is Breda Castle, a site with some significant history. For me, it was a nice man-made contrast to the surrounding park.

I realized the canal that flows around the park and the castle also surrounds the entire old part of town. I imagine it was part of the defense system back in the old days. While beautiful and peaceful now, I wonder what it might of been like when it needed to defend the city from foreigners. These days, the foreigners are tourists like me, armed only with cameras, marveling at the blend of old and new, the man-made and the natural.

Majestic Structure, Park Valkenberg - Breda, Netherlands
http://www.atmtxphoto.com/Portfolio/Netherlands/i-pHmdSBB/A

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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



Day one in the Netherlands: From confusion to cacophony to calm

Netherlands from the Air

Netherlands from the Air

The bright greens, abundant water and the cute towns were a stark difference from the semi arid landscape of Central Texas. It almost looked like a mythical, enchanted land. This was the view out the plane, minutes before I landed. I was looking forward to a couple of days of photography before I started the business portion of my trip.

Leading Lines at Schiphol - Schiphol, Netherlands
KLM 747 - Schiphol, Netherlands

The modern and bright Schiphol Airport complete with recorded chirping birds gave a humane feel to a usually sterile environment. My Fujifilm X100S was primed to record all that I found different, with some things perhaps even noteworthy. While the International Style of architecture is common throughout the world, things felt different there, kind of how an Ikea feels different from a Target. A bright blue 747 proudly parks with the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines logo.

Schiphol Exterior - Schiphol, Netherlands
Tower - Schiphol, Netherlands

As expect the extensive train system is convenient and adjacent to the airport. Get the right ticket and you can quickly travel to anywhere in the Netherlands and beyond to the rest of Europe. And while I’ve been on many train systems in the past, there’s always a learning curve. After 15 hours of travel and arriving in a foreign country there’s bound to be some confusion and disorientation. I stepped briefly outside to see what it was like.

Airport Signage - Schiphol, Netherlands

When I believed I mastered the automated ticket machine, I discovered my MasterCard didn’t work. Tip number one, make sure you have one of those new MasterCards with the embedded IC chip and a preset PIN code. I didn’t have a PIN code so I was forced to use cash (Euros of course). Luckily I found that all of my hotels took the standard dumb credit cards. The stations also have walkup ticket booths staffed with real people, who fortunately speak English, so I was set.

Netherlands from the Train
Amsterdam Centraal Arrival - Amsterdam, Netherlands

It was a quick 15 minute trip to Amsterdam Centraal station and the trains left frequently. I was headed to the heart of Amsterdam for several hours until I needed to get to my destination in the south. The train system would be the envy of most countries though they didn’t match Japan’s for cleanliness or efficiency. The big plus however is that there are a lot fewer people in the Netherlands — you’re not packed like sardines which is common in the big Japanese cities.

Trams and Centraal Station - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Damrak Crowds - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Damrak Crowds - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Tourist Crowds - Amsterdam, Netherlands

Outside Amsterdam Centraal station and on Damrak, the main street through the old part of town, it was a bit crazy. The hoards of tourists, the trolleys and the construction was visually assaulting. With no open lockers at the station, I reluctantly dragged my two carry-ons clumsily around the cobbled streets. With my lightweight mirrorless cameras, at least I didn’t have a big backpack stuffed with gear. But after many hours of travel, my mind wasn’t optimally geared towards photography. I wanted to take photos but perhaps jet lag was setting in.

The Alien and Coffee Shop - Amsterdam, Netherlands
A residential neighborhood - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Quiet Street - Amsterdam, Netherlands
A residential canal - Amsterdam, Netherlands

Veer off into the neighborhoods and the large city becomes manageable. Streets filled with small shops give way to tree-lined residences. In the old central part of the city you are not far from the famous canals. The peaceful waters and the calm rejuvenated me. All told I walked the streets for 5 hours shooting continuously with my X100S. It worked great. The perfect camera for capturing life in the city.

Modern Windmills - Netherlands from the train

I made my way back to the Centraal station to continue to my final destination, Breda, a smaller city in the south of Netherlands, close to the border with Belgium. I took an express train which got me there in a little over one hour. The countryside is lush and while it was sunny when I arrived, I would discover why the country is so green.

Quiet Station - Breda, Netherlands
Bus by the Station - Breda, Netherlands

Breda, according to Wikipedia is the 9th largest city with 180,000 people. Amsterdam is the largest with 812,000. The contrast couldn’t be more different. The Central Breda station was small and quaint. A single bus waited with no tourists in sight.

Late afternoon in Valkenberg Park - Breda, Netherlands

Between the station and downtown laid a meticulously groomed park called Valkenberg. The late afternoon sun gave everything a golden glow. As I made my way towards the center, I noticed everything was impossibly calm and cute. The bustle of Amsterdam replaced with almost an incomprehensible amount of charm. Breda would be a fun place to shoot. Though smaller, there was plenty to keep my photographic interest for the coming week.

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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