Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

Texas

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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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3. If you find these reviews and stories interesting, please consider using my affiliate links for any future purchases.

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



6th Street Blues: A creative experiment in video


I’ve been thinking of making a video for a while. But it’s been an uphill battle — my resistance has been strong. Unlike still photography, where enthusiasts can create professional quality, video is so hard to do well. My perfectionist self made excuses to not even try.

So I’m releasing this video knowing full well it’s far from professional. But I’m happy with the results, for the most part. I think it’s a notch or two above a typical home movie. I guess the important thing is that I’m taking creative risks.

I filmed it using the Nikon J1 that I brought at the beginning of this year. It’s a really fun camera and I’ve taken some great shots with it. Part of the reason I wanted the J1 though was for the video. I noticed that the autofocusing video was very smooth and the saturated colors gave it more of a cinematic feel. But there was a problem. I wanted to shoot at night but the standard kit lens was not bright enough. Sure it did decent low light stills with a slow shutter speed but the video wants a 1/60 second shutter.

So I got myself a new lens. The 1 Nikkor 18.5mm f1.8, which gives a 50mm equivalent view. I was hoping the bigger aperture would capture enough light to film at night. You know that’s my preferred venue, the dark urban streets. The only downside? The 18.5mm doesn’t have image stabilization — I certainly lost the smooth flowing feel of the kit lens. But at least I could shoot at night.

I used Apple’s iMovie, a consumer video editing tool. I’m not ready to tackle the more serious Final Cut Pro application just yet. iMovie had a video stabilization feature that works surprisingly well and happily it took the jitters out of my non-image stabilized footage. The video was shot and posted in Full HD but it looks soft to me. No doubt the Nikon J1 is far behind the class leading Panasonic GH4. But for now, it a small inexpensive camera that fills my video needs.

So here is a video view of East 6th Street that I shot last Saturday. It was a typical night. I’m sure you’ve seem many of my photos from there but the video certainly adds a different dimension. I hope you like it.

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Drink and Click: Using the Fuji X100S for party snaps at the Nikon Demo night

The Shootout, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

The Shootout, Drink and Click – Austin, Texas

Ever go to a party and you’re the only one there with a serious camera? It’s happened to me on more than one occasion and I inevitably find it a bit uncomfortable. When I leave my self-imposed bubble of photo enthusiasts, I realize that the rest of the world isn’t as interested in photography as I am. That’s not the case when I go to Drink and Click, a socially oriented photography meet up that I attend from time to time.

I’ve talked about Drink and Click before. Every two weeks or so in Austin and in many other cities around the world, photo enthusiasts get together for some social meeting, drinking and clicking. I went to one yesterday. I met so many friends. It was a blast.

2014 Nikon Event, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

Back in February, I helped arrange Olympus to have loaner OM-D E-M1s at Drink and Click. I ended up missing that one because of a last-minute business trip to Singapore. I wasn’t going to miss the Nikon demo last night, even though I wasn’t involved in the planning.

My camera choices for yesterday, the Fujifilm X100S and the Nikon 1 J1. I was tempted to play with the nice selection of Nikon DSLRs and point and shoots but ultimately decided to get some practice time with my newest camera, the X100S. I want to use it in a variety of conditions to get the feel of how it performs. Interestingly, at least 3 others also brought Fuji X100Ss so this niche camera has certainly found a home in this enthusiast crowd.

2014 Nikon Event, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas
2014 Nikon Event, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

Along with the Nikon representative, Sharlie, several people from Precision Camera were on hand to help out. Nothing earth shattering, photography wise, on this post. I used the X100S to take snaps shots, and with it’s good low light performance, I was able to eek out acceptable photos in challenging light.

2014 Nikon Event, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

Rosemary and Jerry Sullivan, the owners of Precision Camera, were there to enjoy the night. I was gratified that Jerry reads my blog and he especially likes my Haiku reviews.

The outdoor patio had pockets of light but with some really dark areas. I tested the flash on the X100S for the first time. The Fuji sports what it calls the Super Intelligent Flash System where it blends a touch of flash and the ambient light. I shot the portraits of Sharlie and the Sullivans at ISO 6400 at f2. Notice that you don’t get that “blown out look with black background” that is typical of flash photography. The camera did all this, on the fly, with no special adjustments. I did tweak the color balance in post and at ISO 6400 it did an acceptable job, I think.

Fado Interior #1 - Austin, Texas
Fado Interior #2 - Austin, Texas

We met at Fado, an Irish Pub in the warehouse district in downtown Austin. I stepped inside to see what I can capture in a typically dark pub. I’m not the steadiest shooter and that’s why I like image stabilization so much. Unfortunately on the Fujifilm X100S, I have no such technology. Surprisingly though perhaps because of the lack of mirror and the smooth leaf shutter, I’m able to shoot at 1/15th of a second.

2014 Nikon Event, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas
2014 Nikon Event, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

Back outside, I shot more portraits, this time without flash. I really like the natural light portrait of Juan, the founder of Drink and Click, talking to Tamra who works at Precision. As good as the Fuji’s flash blending is, off axis lighting gives a more three-dimensional look. Britney, who works at Fado, was also nice enough to pose for a portrait. And though there appears to be a lot of light, I still shot this at ISO 4000 at f2. The camera did a nice job with the available light without creating terribly harsh shadows.

2014 Nikon Event, Drink and Click - Austin, Texas

Finally, here is what the patio looked like — crowded even at 9PM. There was a good turnout with lots of photographers drinking and clicking. In a scene like this, the X100S focuses at a decent speed — there is enough contrast and light even at night. The portraits in low light were a different story. To the camera’s credit, it was able to lock focus, but it was frustratingly slow. In reality focusing probably took 1 to 2 seconds, it just seemed like an eternity. In the end though, the Fuji came through and I got the shots.

Talking to another X100S owner, he really likes his camera but agreed that it takes a certain amount of patience and practice to master it.

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S.

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



SXSW Interactive: Testing the Fuji X100S and the Olympus OM-D E-M10

Street Portrait, 2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Street Portrait, 2014 SXSW Interactive – Austin, Texas

SXSW (South by Southwest), the large multi-week Austin extravaganza, took place a couple of weeks ago and I’m just catching up. I’m back from my California trip and I primed to talk about two new cameras that I’m testing. I recently bought Fujifilm X100S for my birthday and the OM-D E-M10 is on loan from Olympus. These two cameras don’t typically compete directly against each other in the mirrorless space, their features and target audiences are different. But it’s still fun to see how they stack up in the mirrorless pecking order.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

I shot these on Sunday, the day after the heavy rainstorm that dampened the Interactive portion (web and social media) of SXSW. It was also the day after I bought the X100S — I was anxious to give it a spin. The X100S has a fixed 35mm equivalent f2 lens. The Olympus OM-D E-M10 had the new 14-42mm pancake lens attached with motorized zoom. Both cameras are roughly about the same size.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

I find the Olympus extremely easy to use on many levels. You may know that I’ve used Olympus cameras for many years and the interface on the OM-D E-M10 is similar, especially compared to the their higher end cameras. The E-M10 is a tad smaller than the E-M5 but I prefer the newer camera. The subtle change in grip and the placement of the play and function 1 buttons are welcome pluses for the E-M10. This smallest OM-D also closely resembles the Pen E-P5, interface wise. For a mirrorless Olympus user, the E-M10 is quickly usable without much retraining of the muscle memory. And the camera is really fast. Focusing, shooting and reviewing photos, everything snaps into place.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

Ironically, it’s this familiarity with Olympus which made me hesitant to jump into the unknown that was Fujifilm. Sure. I tested X100S for several days and I certainly captured very satisfying images but still, understandably, the camera wasn’t an extension of my brain. I had to fumble with the controls. The focusing is slow and unsure compared to the Olympus.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

I found that unconsciously, I gravitated toward the Olympus. It’s like taking the path of least resistance. The only mismatch I found was my choice of lens. 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) focal length worked great but I found the motorized zoom of the pancake lens to be slow for my fast-moving street photography style. The lens would make for a fantastic compact travel zoom and would also work great for leisurely usage. The smooth motorized zoom will also work well for video. Of course, I could have pre-set the zoom to a focal length and use it like a prime, which would speed up operations. This is where the budget kit lens has the advantage with its fast, manually adjustable zoom.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

I forced myself to use the X100S. Heck I just paid $1300 for this thing, I better get good at it and get my money’s worth.

Most of the photos on this post are from the Fuji. You can hover over the photos to find out which camera I used. Despite my apprehension, once I concentrated with the X100S, I got some satisfying photos. I shoot differently with this camera. I’m more deliberate and I have to be. The focusing is adequate but not quick. I just can’t fire off shots like I do with the Olympus. But I knew this going in — I needed to be more patient with this camera. I kept the E-M10 safely tucked in my bag, zipper closed, so that I wouldn’t be tempted by the faster camera. The reality is, despite the more leisurely pace, or perhaps because of it, I got my share of keepers. The frenetic style may have advantages but you can end up with a lot of so so images. The X100S was going to counter my natural tendency and force me to slow down.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

The photos on this post are about the people — the locals and visitors that I met that Sunday. I can go on about how SXSW has become too corporate with big sponsors — dominating. But I chose to ignore that in my tour through downtown. It’s easy to get jaded at these events and I do admit that SXSW is starting to resemble the Formula One Fan Fest. Just substitute tech companies for car companies. But I shot more people than buildings and logos this year. Use a smaller mirrorless camera with a fixed lens and focus on the people. That’s the benefit of these cameras, instead of using a big DSLR with a telephoto. You become part of the scene rather than spying on it.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

The Olympus E-M10 is a wonderful camera, more flexible, quick and better suited for most people. So why use the Fuji? It’s a purposeful, specialized camera for serious photographers. While its deliberate pace is not quite as slow as a film Leica with manual focus, it’s closer to that in feel, I suppose — certainly more than the typical digital camera. It requires more effort but you are rewarded with higher quality images, when you get it right.

At lower ISOs, the image quality improvement is subtle and might be missed by the uninitiated. As the light levels drop and the ISOs climb, however, the Fuji does produce a different kind of image than the Olympus. I don’t always prefer the Fuji images but I found enough cases where the frustrating quirkiness of the X100S is certainly offset by the superior photos it produces.

Stay tuned. I’ll talk more about the Fujifilm image quality and how it compares to Olympus in an upcoming post.

2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas
2014 SXSW Interactive - Austin, Texas

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I took the photographs with the Olympus OM-D E-M10 with the Olympus 14-42 pancake lens and with the Fujifilm X100S.

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



The camera I got for myself for my 50th birthday

French Fries at the Rodeo - Austin, Texas

French Fries at the Rodeo – Austin, Texas

I think us amateurs all dream of being that certain kind of photographer in some far away fantasy world. Some might think of themselves as sports photographers shooting the Olympics or Superbowl with giant white lenses. Others might see themselves being glamorous fashion photographers with gorgeous Victoria Secret models prancing in front of their cameras. For me, I most see myself being that traveler and street photographer capturing exotic destinations at the decisive moment like Henri Cartier-Bresson and more recently like Peter Turnley.

Cartier-Bresson’s camera of choice was a Leica rangefinder. A style of camera that has fallen out of fashion in a SLR dominated world. But with the change in technology DSLRs are starting to lose their grip. New compact and mirrorless cameras are now bringing small capable devices back into serious photography.

I’ve talked about the Fujifilm X100 and X100S over the years. I’ve always had a secret desire for them because they trigger that Cartier-Bresson fantasy that I have of traveling the world with that one perfect camera and lens. But for me the X100 was too frustrating. As my mirrorless Olympuses continue to speed up, I found the Fuji X100 to be a distinct step backwards in usability. The newer X100S addressed most of these concerns. It’s still not as fast as my Olympus cameras but I think, I hope, they have reached my magic threshold.

I reported in my post, The Fujifilm X100S from an Olympus micro 4/3 user perspective, small, elegant and beautiful are beginning to hold more attraction these days. That test proved that I could use the camera and get great results. I decided to buy one for my 50th birthday. A present to myself, for reaching the 1/2 century mark, which I exercised over the weekend at Precision Camera.

I have to admit that some doubt did creep in a few weeks ago. Would the X100S frustrate me with its speed? I really liked the Nikon J1 precisely because it was so fast, even faster than my Olympus. Should I look at the interchangeable Fuji’s instead? How about that new Fuji X-T1? Olympus, of course, has that wonderful and very speedy OM-D E-M1 that I reviewed last year. That would also be a fine choice.

But my fantasy of being that world traveler continued to pop into my head. I’m not going to buy a Leica. And I know the Fuji X100S is not a true rangefinder. But it was close enough for my inner dream. My justifications say that I’m going to use the heck out of this thing. And when inevitably some future technology obsoletes this camera, this beautiful faux-range finder with the two toned silver and black will take its place in the display cabinet. It will be a visual reminder of my 50th birthday.

Most everything that surrounds us these days conspires to speed up life. Perhaps this slower camera will get me to slow down and shoot more deliberately, even live more deliberately. Only time will tell but all of these thoughts are wrapped up in my elaborate fantasy narrative. Wish me luck. Follow along in the blog to see how it actually turns out.

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I took the photograph with the Fujifilm X100S with the built in 35mm equivalent lens.

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