Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography


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.

2014 Chinese New Year Celebration in Austin

Waiting for it to start, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

Waiting for it to start, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration – Austin, Texas

I went to the Chinese New Year celebration at Chinatown Center today. It’s my 3rd year. Every year, most of the events seem similar — there’s dancing and music as the opening acts and the Dragon and Lion dances, as the highlight. But there are differences. It seems to getting bigger. We had the Austin Police Department show off their neat tank like SWAT Gear and Capitol Metro showed off their fancy MetroRapid extra long accordion buses. The event has become a community outreach opportunity I guess and a way to showcase the growing multi-cultural experience in Austin.

Hair Preparation, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Including Other Cultures, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Practicing, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

Photographically, I change things up too. Every year I bring a different permutation of cameras and lenses. I grabbed the Nikon J1 with kit lens and the Olympus E-PM2 with the 25mm f1.4 this year. I thought the J1 would especially be fun because of its high performance shooting. I just checked and last year, I bought three cameras, all Olympus.

Beauty Queens Prepare, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Adjusting my Crown, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

The gear you bring, of course, affects what and how you shoot. I didn’t have a long telephoto with me this year so I wasn’t going to stand in the audience with everyone else. I decided to do more “back stage” candids this year. The change in perspective was worth it and I got some nice stuff behind the scenes. The Nikon J1 was working so well, I used it almost exclusively. The 27mm to 81mm equivalent kit zoom was adequate for the most part. Though in retrospect, I should have brought the 40-150 Olympus lens again, like last year. That would have perfectly complimented the J1.

Check out the child in the lower right. I love how he seems to be interested in “Miss Pacific Islands-TX”.

Color Contrast, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Waves of Color, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Synchronizing Dance, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

No need to be stealthy. Almost everyone had a camera, mostly camera phones, of course. But the photography enthusiasts were there in full force and they had their big DSLRs with long lenses. I felt extra nimble, shooting with the J1, which is not much bigger than a point and shoot but faster than a DSLR. It worked brilliantly for action and given that it was daylight, the image quality looked great.

On Stage #1, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Waves of Color, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
On Stage #2, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

The downside perhaps, is that the J1 has a small sensor so the depth of field (DOF) is pretty deep. You’re not going to blur out the background. But I’m trying to make stronger compositions so that I don’t rely on shallow depth of field. Have a strong enough subject and hopefully your eye will be drawn to it and not swayed by the background. I don’t aways achieve this but that’s what I’m going for.

A Giant on Stage, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Lion Dance Team, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

Accept the DOF limitations and this camera can be a dream. It works so fast and tracks subjects accurately that my hit rate was really high. I also tend to shoot in bursts so that I can pick the best expression. I shot 900 frames in less than 3 hours — almost all were dead on for focus. I narrowed down my “keepers” to about 170. This also includes video snippets too which, if I’m ambitious enough, I’ll edit into a short movie. The J1 does really solid home movie style videos too. Unfortunately, I need to change a dial to go from stills to video but it works decently enough, most of the time.

Lions Meet the Crowd, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
The Lion and Little Buddha, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Dragon Dance #1, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Dragon Dance #2, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

I came for the Lion dance and those shots came out great. But I’m most happy with the behind the scenes photos. The dance performances were also fun. Shooting in bursts allowed me to choose my favorite poses. This is actually my second Chinese New Year celebration this year. Last week, I went to a Buddhist Temple which had its own multi-cultural extravaganza. I was going to blog about that too but my trip to California changed my plans.

Lion Dance #1, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Lion Dance #2, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Lion Dance #3, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

Let’s see what I end up doing next year. The events may be similar but knowing me, I’ll probably have a new camera again, which I’ll want to test.

May you find peace and happiness in the year of the horse.

Lion Dance #4, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Lion Dance #5, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas
Lion Dance #6, 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration - Austin, Texas

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I took all photos with the Nikon J1 and the Nikkor 10-30mm kit lens.

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.

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.

Urban night photography with the Nikon J1

Performing at the Bat Bar, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Performing at the Bat Bar, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

I had my doubts. Shooting at night with a f3.5 to f5.6 lens is not what I typically do. But that’s all I have, the kit lens on the Nikon J1. You know that I wasn’t going to be content just shooting around at Costco and in restaurants. I wanted to see what my newest camera can do.

It was Wednesday, I called Tony for a downtown photo walk. It was a good way to catch up with a friend and test out a new piece of gear. While I inevitably hit 6th street, I explored the area just south, near the convention center, first. Surface parking continues to transforms into hotels and tall buildings. It’s nice to see the city filling in.

Frost Tower from Congress Avenue -- Austin, Texas

A f3.5 – f5.6 lens is pretty slow, at least compared to what I’m used to. On the Olympus and Canon, I usually shoot with prime (non-zooming) lenses with f values from 1.4 to 2.8. Even on my point and shoots, the zoom lens starts at f1.8. To put this in context, the Nikon 1 kit lens, like most kit lenses are 2x to nearly 8x less sensitive to light. That means you have to bump up the ISO or slow down the shutter to compensate.

I did both. I reduced the shutter speed to as low as reliably possible to hand hold. Luckily the IS, image stabilization, is quite good on the lens. While I started at 1/15s, I continued to lower it and settled at 1/10 of a second. Most striking about the camera, the focus almost always locked on quickly and accurately and almost all shots were rock steady even at these slow shutter speeds. Very nice.

Mexican Food Neon - Austin, Texas

The area near the convention center is filling up with new hotels. I found this nice bit of neon within the new development.

Hilton in Blue - Austin, Texas

The Hilton is the big hotel in the area until the 1000+ room JW Marriott is completed next year. There are plans for another 1000+ room hotel too, the Fairmont. That one’s going to be interesting, if they build it. It’s supposed to be 50+ stories tall.

Checking In, Hilton Hotel - Austin, Texas
Lobby, Hilton Hotel - Austin, Texas

The interior of the Hilton is huge by Austin standards. You can tell it is geared towards conventions.

Tickets for Sale, MetroRail - Austin, Texas

The last stop of Austin’s train is in front of the convention center. I thought the red ceiling made the ticket booth look a little festive.

Speeding Car, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

We are back to the (in)famous 6th street. Wednesday nights are still quiet.

Pizza Guy, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

The “Pizza Guy” in front of Roppolo’s was entertaining. It’s the first time I ever saw this costume.

Ordering at Roppolo's, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Was this guy buying because of the “Pizza Guy”?

Bar Interior #1, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Bar Interior #2, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

As I mentioned before, and as the Austinites know so well, there are a lot of bars on 6th Street. Most of them are right next to each other, all vying for attention. The one with the chandeliers looks almost elegant. You’ll see from the next set of images that they all look different.

Bar Interior #3, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

I think this one is called the Library Bar, for obvious reasons. I don’t think much studying goes on there, are least studying of books anyway.

Bar Interior #4, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

The side door of Coyote Ugly. Wait long enough and you see women dancing on the bar.

Bar Interior #5, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Some bars have been around for a while but many fold and reopen on a regular basis. This is one of the newer ones, I think.

Bar Interior #5, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Finally I headed down a side street back towards the car. I don’t even know what this place is.

Bar Interior #5, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Here’s the a last one, at ISO 3200. It was a bit grainy but it cleaned up nicely with some noise reduction software. As you can tell, the little Nikon J1 is surprisingly versatile with the right techniques. Of course the slow shutter speed won’t work for portraits or for stopping action — in these dark places, you need a faster lens. And that’s the weakness of the Nikon 1 system. They don’t have a good selection of lenses, yet. I like wide-angle primes and they only have a 27mm equivalent but in a relatively slow f2.8. Nikon also has a 50mm equivalent f1.8 but that’s not my favorite focal length.

Unlike the Olympus where the image stabilization is built into the body, the Nikon 1 more conventionally uses in lens IS. Unfortunately none of the prime lens have IS. For low light photography, I can potentially shoot better with the kit lens with IS rather than the f1.8 lens, at least for non-action shots. The one downside of the slow kit lens is that it doesn’t work well for video in low light, since the shutter defaults to 1/60 of second. My videos look too dim without a faster lens.

My dream lens for the Nikon 1 would be a 35mm equivalent f2, preferably with IS. I doubt they’ll make it.

Just when I thought the prices couldn’t get lower… B&H Photo has some two lens J1 kits for $249. I bought my one lens kit for $199. Incredible.

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I took the photographs with the Nikon J1 and the Nikkor 10-30mm kit lens. All shot in RAW and post processed in Aperture 3.

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

Nikon J1: My observations and initial test results

Modern Architecture at P Terry's - Westlake, Texas

Modern Architecture at P Terry’s – Westlake, Texas

All weekend, I was having fun shooting with the Nikon J1, my latest camera. I will do more extensive tests but for now, I wanted to share my initial observations.

The J1 is not going to replace my other cameras for my “serious” photography. I got this camera for casual family snapshots and video. I carried it around, doing my weekend family errands, taking snaps at restaurants and at Costco. I shot it a lot in the house both during the day and at night. The result, it works very well but with a big caveat.

Low End Colonnade, Strip Mall - Austin, Texas
Pizza Buffet - Austin, Texas

First the good. This is a damn fast camera. Focusing in good light is blazing, as fast or faster than my Olympus E-PM2. Faster than the Canon 6D. Its continuous and burst frame rate is at 5fps and 10fps, there’s even a 60fps mode. Factoring in focus speed and burst speed, it the fastest camera I currently own, all in a very small package. It’s a really great camera for capturing young hyperactive children or for action and sports.

The build quality is very good. A notch above the Olympus E-PM2 though not as robust as the high end E-P5 or E-M1. I got the silver model which looks nicer than I thought. It doesn’t have that cheap metallic paint on plastic appearance. Rather, it has a solid metal feel though from touch I can’t always tell which pieces are actually metal or plastic.

The user interface is basic, as expected. The J1 was intended to be for novices so there aren’t a lot of function buttons. The menu is the simplest I’ve seen in a while — it makes the camera really easy to understand. I can generally shoot the camera without digging into menus but when I have to, it requires several button pushes.

The video is outstanding too, from a casual home movie perspective. This is not a camera for making your indie film. But for high quality home movies, it’s great — the best I have so far. What I really like is how it steadily tracks people and doesn’t have that annoying quick in and out refocusing typical of contrast detect systems. Also, when set to the vivid mode, movies have that richness that looks less like video and more like film. It’s saturated and contrasty.

TVs For Sale, Costco - Austin, Texas
Giant U.S. Flag - Austin, Texas

Now for the bad. The JPEG engine on this camera sucks. This is my first Nikon so I don’t know how it compares to their DSLRs. But compared to Olympus and particularly Fujifilm, you can tell that the JPEG processing is really bringing the camera down. Even compared to Canon, it seems to be lacking. I’m not talking about the color, that’s actually quite nice, certainly better than Sony. But the noise reduction is too aggressive and I get some strange blotchiness even at ISO 1600. The result, the images lack detail and JPEGs are only usable for me up to ISO 800. Perhaps for the novice, they’ll be happy with higher ISOs but for anyone with experience it’s disappointing.

However, all is not lost. Shoot in RAW, and the camera magically unlocks some special powers. The RAW images have a fine grain to them, visible at times even at ISO 800, at least through Aperture 3. The graininess gradually increases and is useable past ISO 1600 to at least ISO 2200. For some bright exposures even ISO 3200 works in a pinch. The grain is very uniform and monochromatic. It almost seems like a texture and, dare I say, film like? Somehow, I don’t mind it as much. Certainly a big improvement over JPEG. The fine grained noise is easy to remove too, with software. My current noise reduction software of choice is Topaz DeNoise.

Some of the RAW colors were pretty wonky and dull. Luckily, I was able to hone my post processing to make them as good or even better, color wise, than the JPEGs. Thus, I have no qualms about using this camera only in RAW. For some reason, there seems to be a lot of latitude in the RAW processing, more than some other camera brands. Is that possible? Either way, when shot in RAW and post processed properly, this camera transforms.

Ironically, the Fujifim cameras, the X100S that I tested as well as the XF1 that I own have fantastic JPEGs and weak RAWs. The Nikon J1 is the opposite. It’s unfortunate since the novices that this camera targets won’t have the RAW post processing skills.

Lettuce Wrapped Burger, P Terry's - Westlake, Texas

Try to ignore my culinary selections from last weekend. At least I ate a lot of salad at the pizza buffet place. And on Sunday, to balance out the carbs from the pizza, I had a very low carb lettuce wrapped double cheese burger. That’s my new favorite at P Terry’s, a local fast food chain that has a similar menu to In-n-Out burger.

As an aside, I’m wondering how P Terry’s will do now that In-n-Out Burger has setup shop in Austin? You can tell from the photos below that P Terry’s is stylish, architecturally, compared to the average fast food place.

Stylish Fast Food Restaurant, P Terry's - Westlake, Texas
The Glow Inside, P Terry's - Westlake, Texas

Bottom line, how does this camera fit into my collection? It’s not going to be daily my carry around camera, it’s too bulky for that. My Fujifim XF1 still retains that role. The image quality certainly doesn’t match the Olympus E-PM2 and of course the Canon 6D. Those two are my serious cameras. I suspect the Nikon J1 will see the most action around my family. If, like a normal person, I wanted to carry one small camera to Disney World, this might be it. Make quick snaps and great HD home video.

However, being an enthusiast, I will certainly push the camera to see what it can do. I’ll try using it at night for my urban photography. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Just when I thought the prices couldn’t get lower… B&H Photo has some two lens J1 kits for $249. I bought my one lens kit for $199. Incredible.

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I took the photographs with the Nikon J1 and the Nikkor 10-30mm kit lens. All shot in RAW and post processed in Aperture 3.

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

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.

El Azteca: Color, Kitsch and Kirk

Bold Colors, El Azteca Restaurant - Austin, Texas

Bold Colors, El Azteca Restaurant – Austin, Texas

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about El Azteca Restaurant on the east side of town, I finally went there last Thursday. I had a nice relaxing lunch with my friend, photographer and uber blogger, Kirk Tuck. We talked about a range of topics and of course about the latest in camera gear, all surrounded by the cacophony of color and kitsch.

Bold Colors #2, El Azteca Restaurant - Austin, Texas

El Azteca is the kind of place you won’t see in the typical homogenous American suburb. The interior is too random and unplanned that the most creative designer of chain restaurants would have a brain meltdown. This ain’t no Chilis. It’s nice to see places like this still around in Austin.

An Unlikely Combination, El Azteca Restaurant - Austin, Texas

It’s hard to imagine a combination of a JFK tapestry, a neon beer sign and two goat heads. But there it is.

Neon Lit Entry, El Azteca Restaurant - Austin, Texas

Neon, dim interiors and color are certainly up my photographic alley. My Fuji XF1 point and shoot captured the colors well.

Cabrito, El Azteca Restaurant - Austin, Texas

I was more adventurous than normal and decided to get Cabrito, roasted goat kid, for the first time. Honestly, I can’t say I liked it but I’m glad I tried something new.

Gallery, El Azteca Restaurant - Austin, Texas
2013 Holiday Party - Austin, Texas

This place is also famous for its Mayan (or is it Aztec?) warriors and goddesses. They adorn the walls and their calendars. I heard that their artwork has been toned down somewhat from the past. I didn’t get a calendar. Somehow, I don’t think it would work with my usual, minimal decor.

Kirk had his, crazy in its own way, Marc Newson designed Pentax K-01 with him. I wonder if, in Mr. Newson’s wildest design dreams, he can imagine a restaurant like this. The K-01 is certainly unique, I shot a few frames to see if this Lego like camera worked. It has a playful feel like El Azteca.

After an hour and half of banter, we agreed on a couple of things. That 2014 is going to be interesting camera wise and that the Sony A7r’s shutter is too damn loud.

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I took all photographs with the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot.

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

Getting closer to that perfect carry around camera

A Bar of Ice, 2013 Holiday Party - Austin, Texas

A Bar of Ice, 2013 Holiday Party – Austin, Texas

Note: I noticed that Amazon has the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot in stock for $199 again. This is currently my favorite point and shoot camera. All photos in this post were taking with it.

I went to a holiday party last week. I got to wear my suit, which I do maybe once a year, which is alright by me. While my 10+ year-old formal garb still fits, the waist was snug enough that I won’t be eating any steak dinners. The inner jacket pocket was perfect though for carrying around the Fuji XF1 that I’ve toted around lately. While not truly pants pocket-sized, it works well with jackets.

I’ve waited for technology to improve so that I can have a small carry around camera that works in almost any situation. And while any camera, even smart phones, work well in bright light, low-light interior shots have certainly been out of reach — at least at a level of quality that matches my expectations. I use a 27″ monitor and I want relatively noise free, detailed images, full screen.

2013 Holiday Party - Austin, Texas
2013 Holiday Party - Austin, Texas

Back in 2006, when I got my first DSLR, the then outstanding Canon Rebel XT was fairly noisy at ISO 1600. I remember I had to run special noise reduction software to remove the chroma splotches. I just had a kit lens that started at a modest f3.5 and with no image stabilization and with the mirror recoil, 1/30 of a second was iffy.

In 7 years, we now have $200 cameras with modest sensors that have f1.8 lenses with image stabilization. ISO 1600 is on the borderline but in some ways, better than that old Rebel XT. I’m satisfied with these party pics in a dark hotel. Isn’t technology wonderful? I’m certainly not one of those nostalgic film people.

2013 Holiday Party - Austin, Texas
2013 Holiday Party - Austin, Texas

Snapshots of my friends, especially with Fuji’s Super Intelligent Flash System, came out good for the most part. One downside is that the Fuji defaults to a slow shutter speed in these dark scenes. 1/15 of a second is common. And with image stabilization, my shots usually come out good enough, but not always. Letting others use the camera becomes tenuous. They need to be steady or mostly sober. In retrospect, I probably should have gone to shutter priority and dialed in a 1/30s or 1/60s shutter speed.

2013 Holiday Party - Austin, Texas

Focusing in dark areas gets slower but still does better than the Fuji X100S. All in all, it’s a close to perfect camera for these party situations. Maybe someday, with on board sensor based phase detection, these little point and shoots will have the assured snap focusing of a DSLR. You know there is always room for improvement. But at the rate these technologies advance, I’m excited to see what cameras will do in 2020.

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I took all photographs with the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot.

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.

My first experience with the Sony A7 and A7r

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas (Shot with Sony A7r)

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera – Austin, Texas (Shot with Sony A7r)

Recently, Precision Camera had a demo day for the Sony A7 and A7r, the new compact full frame mirrorless cameras. Sony went all out and brought an elaborate set where people can test. They also had an interesting yet slightly goofy contest where the best photo from this artificial setup gets to win a cruise to Alaska. It smacks of some hokey idea that some marketing person thought up. I prefer to take the camera out in the real world and shoot what I like. Night street photography on 6th Street anyone?

Just a day before I played with the new Sony, I shot the Fujifilm X100S for 4 days in California. Using these cameras back to back made for an interesting comparison. I opted to use the 35mm f2.8 Zeiss on both the Sony A7 and A7r which matched Fuji’s focal length.

Sony A7
Sony A7 with the 28-70mm kit lens which is considerably larger than the setup with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8 that I used.

So what did I think? I had a distinct meh feeling. Nice body, looks better in person than in the photos. At least it didn’t have that design by committee ugly Nikon Df look. OK, I know I’m digressing here but can you believe that Nikon thing? Let’s take all the digital parts, keep them and slap on the manual film controls. To me it looks like a Franken-camera. It might take spectacular photos and it has the very nice D4 sensor but man does it look perverted. The proportions of that thing are all wrong. It has none of the elegance of the retro inspired Fuji Cameras.

Anyway, back to the Sony. The first niggle. The shutter is too damn loud. The A7r is louder with a clunk – clunk sound. I asked the Sony guy if the camera was working properly — I thought it was broken. The A7 is a bit quieter. This certainly ain’t the Olympus E-M5 or the E-M1 which has an absolutely wonderful shutter sound — my favorites to date. The Fuji X100S shutter is perfectly silent. Fantastic for street photography. Yes, but the Sony is full frame, it should be louder, you say. Well my Canon 6D, which is a traditional DSLR with a flipping mirror has a quieter and more pleasant-sounding shutter.

The A7r had a nice body. The ergonomics seemed good. The A7 has the same design except that a portion of the camera is made of plastic. Too bad. I prefer the A7 but the plastic build was disappointing. It wasn’t cheap but it didn’t have the premium feel of the A7r or the Fuji X100S, which is less expensive. Did Sony opt for a plastic body to add more differentiation between the two models? I do like that both bodies are weather sealed.

Happily Sony has ditched the less desirable NEX interface and gone Alpha. Much better and understandable. There are 3 adjustable dials on the camera plus a dedicated exposure compensation dial. The dials and function buttons are configurable. It should make for a very nice shooter’s camera.

One thing I know I can’t reprogram is the play back settings (I asked the Sony rep about this). All 3 dials do the same thing, they take you from picture to picture in preview mode. How dumb is that? There is one small button that you need to press multiple times to zoom in to check focus. I would think it’s natural to use at least one of the dials and spin it to allow you to zoom in quickly. On the Fuji X100S, for example, one button press and it automatically zooms to 100% at the focus point. Much better. I sometimes wonder if Sony gets real photographers to test these things before they go into production.

I shot all photos in JPEG — the camera is too new for a RAW converter. The details are beautiful, better than any camera I’ve used (They are equivalent to the Nikon D800 and D610 full frame cameras). Accurate focus is critical since the high-resolution files are less forgiving. Too bad it’s a pain to check focus.

Update: A reader who bought an A7 reports that there is a way to configure the dial zoom in to preview images. See in the comments section below. My original comment was based on what the Sony rep told me and by trying to look through preferences.

You know I’ve been critical of Sony’s colors. My beef with the Sony NEX 5 was the skin tones, especially of my kids. They seems too green for my taste. That’s one of the main reasons I switched to Olympus, by the way. I know Sony has been improving/changing their colors since that first NEX cameras several years ago. So how did the A7r do? You be the judge. The image at the top was shot on the A7r. The one below was shot with my Fuji XF1 point and shoot.

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas (Shot with Fuji XF1)

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera – Austin, Texas (Shot with Fuji XF1)

I took both photos with auto white balance. To my eyes, the Fuji is a bit more red which give more of a pinkish skin tone. The Sony still looks a bit more blue-green to me. I’m not saying that the Fuji is more accurate but I do prefer Fuji’s color. The colors can certainly be tweaked in post so ultimately it might not be a big issue. Except, at least on my NEX 5, even shot in RAW, I found it a pain to get the colors the way I liked them. I’m hoping this is not the case with the A7.

Here is a comparison between the Canon 5D Mark III, A Leica M and a Sony A7 by Ken Rockwell. Looks like Ken didn’t get very good colors from his Sony either.

I also find that the Sonys tend to underexpose more than I like. In the shot above, I added +2/3 of a stop of exposure compensation. The Fuji was shot straight with no exposure changes.

From what I see on the web, high ISO performance should be excellent. How would it compare against the X100S for my favorite low light urban photography? The X100S does clean files to ISO 6400. Since the X100S lens is one stop faster, the Sony would have to do an equally clean ISO 12,800 to keep up. The jury is still out on this one. Is the Sony full frame sensor good enough at ISO 12,800?

Here’s the crazy thing. When I was skimming through the photos in Aperture 3 at full screen (not 100%) on my 27″ monitor, I had to do a double take to tell the difference between the Sony A7r and my Fujifilm XF1. I noticed Sony’s shallower DOF but I didn’t see the difference in the details. What stood out more was the differences in color. Sure, zoom in and in particular at 100%, the Sony absolutely demolishes the XF1. No question. But unless you plan to print really large or love pixel peeping, that wonderful 24MP or 36MP sensor may not mean as much as you think. Under tougher lighting conditions, the Sony is also going to excel. But the web is a big equalizer especially under more favorable lighting conditions.

In many ways, this little nature demo setup was unfortunate. The bright LED lighting is not going to challenge cameras. You’re not going to test the dynamic range for example. How about some vivid colors to show off the color bit depth? Dark cave like areas to test the great low light capability? Look, I know this Sony is capable of spectacular results. Of course I know that a point and shoot is not going to have better image quality. But you need the proper environment to put the camera through its paces.

These Sonys are getting a lot of buzz on the net. Particularly from people who want to use their legacy lenses, like the really nice Leica ones. They also drool at the prospect of a highly rated (by DXO) 36MP sensor. No doubt these Sonys will make excellent compact landscape cameras. They would be fun to play with despite my quibbles. And I do admit, I am intrigued by its large color depths and dynamic range. But what if you don’t have lenses from other companies to use? It’ll be a while until Sony builds up an arsenal of full frame E mount lens. Perhaps I’ll be more interested if I didn’t already own my full frame Canon 6D?

So there you have it. My very quick impression of Sony’s flagship mirrorless cameras. They seem like very solid cameras with beautifully detailed files. They felt good in hand but was a bit too large for me — I prefer smaller mirrorless cameras. I’ll stick with the Olympus and possibly look at the Fuji for mirrorless. The Sony A7 is double the price of the X100S but in my book, it’s not double as good.

Fuji XF1 Flash Portrait, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas

By the way, here is another image I shot with the Fuji XF1 point and shoot. I used the built in flash and did the automatic ambient light flash blending that I love on the Fuji. Not bad at all for a point and shoot, which you can get for a bargain price of $200, less than 10% the cost of the Sony. Yeah, I know but if you pixel peep at 100%, it ain’t going to be as good. But do you even print your photographs? If so, how large? Unless you print large or want to crop a lot, all those extra megapixels are just sucking up hard drive space.

One more bonus image, my favorite of the day. It shot it again with the Fuji when the Sony set was being taken down for its road trip to the next camera store. The guy on the left is Jerry Sullivan, the owner of Precision Camera. He was lending a helping hand when a particularly stubborn set piece would not get unstuck.

Fuji XF1 Flash Portrait, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas

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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.

A night with 3 Magnum photographers

Bull Durham - Giddings, Texas

I attended a talk tonight by 3 famous Magnum photographers. I decided to summarize my experience with my first ever attempt at Haiku.

Old Magnum photogs
Fear the future and smart phones
Some optimistic

The corrugated black and white beauty in Giddings, Texas

The Old Peanut Factory - Giddings, Texas

The Old Peanut Factory – Giddings, Texas

Earlier this week, I headed an hour east on US 290 to the small city of Giddings, Texas. I picked this place semi-randomly. I’ve been through this city once, a long time ago, so I didn’t know much about it. Though fifteen years ago, while attending a child-birth class for my older son, I met the Mayor of Giddings and his wife. We were in the same class, in Austin.

It’s that vague connection to Giddings that made me decide to go there while I searched through Google Maps. I wanted a peaceful afternoon of photography for myself in a small Texas town. Quick research also revealed that the City Meat Market was the place to go for some great barbecue. So off I went, exploring daytime photography, which is not my typical thing.

I did have an ulterior motive. I wanted to test my new Fujifilm XF1 against my other high-end point and shoot, the Canon G15. I also had my, previously undisclosed, preproduction camera to play with, the Olympus Stylus 1. So looking like the ultimate tourist, I headed east with 3 premium point and shoots. I probably looked dorky juggling these cameras.

The other side of the tracks - Giddings, Texas

I’ll do separate posts on the results of my tests, but for today, I wanted to showcase a particular building. In the middle of town, on other side of the train tracks, there was a big corrugated metal building that held photographic promise. It looked old, worn and oozed the type character that I seek.

Corrugated Details #1 - Giddings, Texas
Corrugated Details #2 - Giddings, Texas

The building wasn’t particularly colorful so I switched to in-camera black and white on the Fujifilm XF1. Its wonderful texture made even better in monochrome. The JPEGs were later minimally processed in Aperture 3 mostly by increasing contrast.

I ran into someone who seemed work there. He said that this place was a peanut shelling factory built in the late 19th century. To me, it’s a relic from the past with wonderful lines. The mishmash of roofs, awnings and distressed metal all stimulated my brain.

Incongruous Roofs - Giddings, Texas

The sun broke through the clouds and added a crispness to the lines.

The layering of shadow and texture - Giddings, Texas

Light shadows cast on to the weathered west wall created my favorite texture. The XF1 with its dynamic range expansion has the ability to tame shadows. The light to dark transitions don’t clip as harshly as other point and shoots.

Lee County Peanut Co - Giddings, Texas

Finally a sign. Lee County Peanut Co. Evidence of its past function — confirming what the gentlemen told me. Factory activity is long gone. What looks like a aging dilapidated structure was my visual playground.

Yes, my trip to Giddings was successful. Beyond the great barbecue and the camera testing I got to focus, zen like, on unloved structures with the simplicity of black and white. More from Giddings, coming soon.

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I took all photographs with the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot.

Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details. Multiply the focal length by 3.9 to get the 35mm equivalent.

Giving Thanks

Bull Durham - Giddings, Texas

It’s Thanksgiving day today in the United States.

I’m thankful for so many things in my life. Certainly my family and friends are at the top of the list. But in the context of this blog, I’m thankful for you, the worldwide audience that stops by. Thank you for letting me share my photography and my opinions with you.

I’m lucky that I’m not a professional photographer. I have no restrictions and obligations of what I shoot. I captured this Bull Durham sign a couple of days ago in Giddings, Texas just to indulge my creative side.

I hope my blog has inspired, entertained or motivated you to explore your creative side. Thanks again for all your support.

Pushing the limits of a point and shoot and embracing art

Downtown Reflections - Austin, Texas

Downtown Reflections – Austin, Texas

I was on a boat last night on Lady Bird Lake.

It’s not actually a lake, it’s a river that is dammed up that flows through downtown Austin. Because everything for me is a PhotoOp, I brought a camera. Except I didn’t want to look like a total camera dork so I used my new Fujifim XF1 point and shoot. Just one camera, believe it or not. No big DSLR or even a reasonably sized mirrorless.

My main purpose was to take snap shots of my wife and maybe get someone to take a rare photo of my wife and I, together. But of course, the lure of night images and reflecting urban lights was more than I could bear. I had to take cityscape photos like everyone else.

Except everyone else used iPhones. A few actually had real point and shoots. Beyond the stylish looks of the XF1, I had some technology that no one else possessed, a bigger sensor and some trick photography modes hidden away in the retro design. The results I got were surprising.

Before we left dock, I coaxed the Fuji to shoot at ISO 400 and at 1/2 second. The results were quite spectacular as you can see above. Hard to believe this is a point and shoot. The Fuji does some special dynamic range expansion tricks in-camera. I used JPEG for everything and did some light post processing in Aperture 3.

Downtown from the Boat - Austin, Texas

Once we left downtown and headed east, it got dark quickly. ISO 800 was short-lived and I needed ISO 1600 or higher. I switched to in-camera black and white which handles the noise better. Even with a slightly larger 2/3 sensor, ISO 800 is my preferred top end. ISO 1600 works at times, in a pinch.

Distant Glow - Austin, Texas

Shooting from the river gave a vantage point that I’ve never seen.

Interstate 35 #1 - Austin, Texas
Interstate 35 #2 - Austin, Texas

Photos around the Interstate 35 bridge were the most interesting. The XF1 has a special EXR mode that combines multiple images together to help reduce the noise or increase dynamic range. What resulted was artistic and minimal images. Low fidelity yet surprisingly satisfying.

Interstate 35 #3 - Austin, Texas

Even the occasional ISO 3200 was acceptable in a grainy, Lomography kind of way. I’m trying to break out of my strictly low noise, high quality photography. These images are more about mood than anything else.

Moody Skyline - Austin, Texas
Captain's View - Austin, Texas
Not Quite Titanic - Austin, Texas

The boat cruise lasted 2 hours. We sailed east just past I35. Then we went west past the Lamar Street Bridge and docked back next to the 1st street bridge. It was a fun event with drinking, BBQ and some uncharacteristically different point and shoot photographs. I’m not going to give up my regular style but pushing the boundaries of a tool to see what happens is kind of interesting. Heck, if it’s fuzzy and grainy enough, maybe I’ll just call it art.

Note: I noticed that the Black or Red Fuji XF1 is still on sale at Amazon for an amazing $199. I couldn’t resist. I bought another one, black this time. I’m giving it as a gift. I think it’s an excellent point and shoot.

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I took all photographs with the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot.

Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details. Multiply the focal length by 3.9 to get the 35mm equivalent.

Capturing the 2013 Austin Fan Fest with the Fuji XF1

Foreigner Concert, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Foreigner Concert, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Note: I just noticed that the black or red version of the Fujifilm XF1 is available at Amazon for an amazing $199. That’s $50 less than I got it. Highly recommended, if you want a great point and shoot.

Austin hosted its second annual Formula 1 race this past weekend. I didn’t attend the race itself, but I went downtown to capture scenes from the Austin Fan Festival. Like last year, a section of downtown was blocked off for exhibits, concerts, food and anything else that would vaguely fit into the racing theme. It was a fun time, and for me, another chance to do some street photography which I probably find more interesting than shooting cars going around a track. Plus it was free. Better than spending hundreds of bucks on racing tickets. That’s a good thing since I can save my money and, what else, buy more gear.

Speaking of gear, I mentioned last week that I’m testing two new cameras. I’m still playing with the pre production camera that is on loan to me, but in the mean time, I wanted to talk about the new camera that I just bought, the Fuji XF1. Heck, even its name is perfect for F1 weekend. I went to Fan Fest last year where I shot with my Olympus E-P3. I went even smaller and lighter this year with Fuji’s smallest X branded point and shoot. I’ll do a full review of the XF1 and tell you what makes this guy unique in a future post. For now, lets just say that I’m very happy with the images I got with this point and shoot, even at night. Take a look at the photos and tell me what you think.

Infiniti Women, 2013 Austin Fan Fest - Austin, Texas

I was already downtown on Friday for a party and decided to check out Fan Fest. I snapped an image of a couple of women at the Red Bull – Infiniti display. This simple snapshot actually showcases one of my favorite features of this XF1. It’s something that reviewers rarely talk about. Just as a teaser, I’ll say that it blows away what my other “high end” point and shoot, the Canon G15, can do.

Foreigner Concert, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas
Foreigner Concert, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

The highlight of the evening was the free concert by Foreigner. The lead singer was still going strong from this 80′s era British-American Rock Band. The photo at the very top was from the concert as well as these two images. The black and white was done in camera and tweaked in post. In fact, I shot all photographs in JPEG and I did minor tweaks with Aperture 3 afterwards.

The next day, I returned in the late afternoon. I wanted to capture Fan Fest both during good light and into the night. As you know, I like the evening and night shots the most. It also let me test what this point and shoot can do in less ideal conditions.
Video Simulation, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas
Mini Race Track, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Fan Fest did an admirable job by including everyone, especially kids. There were simulators and video games and slot car races. This is the closest I got to any kind of race track that weekend.

Ferrari Showcase, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas
Ferrari Wheel, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

As expected, there were many fast cars on display.

David Coulthard, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Talks by actual F1 drivers. Here’s David Coulthard at the AT&T pavilion.

Three Topo Chicos, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Certainly, there were numerous products being promoted with attractive spokes people.

Fusion Promotion, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Infiniti and Ford had displays. I like the style of the current Ford Fusion with its Aston Martin-esque grill. The red model looked nice under the colorful lights.

More Construction Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Austin seems to be in the midst of another building boom. I’m seeing a lot of cranes again.

Chicken on a Stick, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

There were loads of food and alcohol for sale with “slightly” inflated prices. I enjoyed the Chicken on a Stick grilling performance.

Red Bull DJ, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

This is Austin after all so we had plenty of music. Red Bull had an upbeat club mix going all night, undoubtedly to make our European visitors feel welcome.

Street Performance, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

We also had street musicians with a more local Tejano feel.

Live Concert, Austin Fan Fest, Austin, Texas

Finally, there were several stages with live concerts. These guys were not as popular as Foreigner but they were great and I could get up close to the stage.

I had a fun night of photography and Fan Fest gave me something different to shoot. The Fujifilm XF1, for the most part, did an admirable job. I’ll talk more about it in upcoming posts.

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I took all photographs with the Fujifilm XF1 point and shoot.

Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photo to see the picture details. Multiply the focal length by 3.9 to get the 35mm equivalent.

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.

The Making of a Wireless Haunted House Photo booth

A few days ago I talked about what may be the ultimate haunted house made for an elementary school fundraiser. It was created for a one time, 4 hour-long, autumn festival at my son’s elementary school. The haunted house team asked me if I could shoot candid photos of the kids inside the house, as they get frightened by the wicked witch.

The project is more complicated that you might think but I took it as a challenge and to help a worthy cause. I thought about this for a month or so. I asked several knowledgeable photographers and the hardware guys over at Precision Camera. They all seemed sympathetic and wished me luck but they were clearly relieved that they weren’t on the hook to come up with a working system. So I decided to design a system myself. Well, I pulled it off and wanted to describe how I did it, just in case you might want to do something similar. There are certainly things that could be improved and I’ll talk about them at the end.

I had two large challenges. First, how do I take good photographs in a dark area with a good (frightened) expression on the kid’s faces. Next, how do I quickly transfer these photographs 20 feet away to be previewed and printed. I also wanted to do this as inexpensively as possible and ideally, not buy any new equipment. After all, spending money on gear with reduce profits for the school.

Taking the Picture

'Olympus E-PL1
Olympus E-PL1
Olympus E-PL1 on tripod

It turned out that I had all the gear I needed to take the pictures. I didn’t want to use my newest and most expensive equipment since there was a risk of it being damaged in a dark room with scared and running kids.

Next to the last room, in the witch’s castle, we cut an opening into an interior wall. The camera was setup on the other side and shot through the opening. The haunted house had a Wizard of Oz theme and we planned to have a costumed wicked witch pop up and scare the kids as their photo was snapped. What was difficult was anticipating how the kids would react. Remember, this was a temporary setup that would be used for only 4 hours. We didn’t have much time to test and tweak the design.

I used my old Olympus E-PL1 and it was perfect. It was an old camera that I rarely used and I had two bodies, just in case one broke. I wanted to use an inexpensive kit lens but the 28mm equivalent was not wide enough for the room. I had to use the Panasonic 14mm with the wide-angle adapter instead, which gave me a decent 22mm perspective. You can still get inexpensive, refurbished Olympus cameras for less than $200 at Cameta Camera (you have to check frequently since they go in and out of stock). And if you design the room properly with more depth, the standard kit lens might work for you too.

The E-P1 is not a fast focusing camera but this didn’t matter. I shot everything in manual mode. The camera was set for manual focusing so the shutter fired immediately. The exposure and the flash system was also setup manually. You don’t have to use an Olympus, of course. Any camera that has a hot shoe, and can be preset for manual flash and manual exposure should work. However, many inexpensive point and shoots probably won’t fit the bill. They typically don’t have hot shoes as well as manual settings. Certainly DSLRs will work, as well as many of the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.

I had 2 budget flashes that provided light. I set them to manual both at 1/32 power. This allowed the flashes to recycle immediately and save battery power. I triggered them using budget and reliable Cactus V5 transceivers. You need one transceiver per flash and you need to put one on the camera’s hot shoe. I wanted to use another flash to soften the shadows on the walls but the third unit I had powered down in energy saver mode after 5 minutes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t disable that function. I made due with 2 flashes.

I set the camera to ISO 400, f5.6 at 1/125 per second in manual exposure mode. The micro 4/3 sensor on the Olympus has a greater depth of field than a DSLR, so I got away with f5.6. On a DSLR, I would use a smaller aperture (larger f number). I had the camera on a tripod and I used gaffer’s tape to attach it to the wall. The setup was easy enough for child to use. All they needed to do was push the shutter button at the right time.

Witch's Castle

Here is what the Olympus E-PL1 shot with the two radio triggered flashes. This is what the Witch’s Castle looked like just after it was setup. As you will see below, it was in sad shape 4 hours later.

Transferring the Photograph

'Eye-Fi Connect X2
After shooting the photo in the haunted house, how do I get it to a computer, outside the building, some 20 feet away? Wirelessly of course and I used an Eye-Fi card. I bought the most inexpensive version, the Eye-Fi Connect X2 with 4GB of storage. This is an SD card that you can use in most cameras to store photos but it also has built-in WiFi. You can setup this card to automatically transfer photographs from the camera to a computer, tablet or smartphone. I set my card to go to an old Macintosh MacBook Pro and directly into the iPhoto application.

The Eye-Fi card has two modes, direct mode from camera to computing device or through an existing Wifi network. This turned out to be the most complicated part of the whole system. I wanted to ideally use direct mode but the range was limited, perhaps to 10 feet and that’s not going through walls. If I had a typical photo booth where the photo was taken only a few feet away from the computer, direct mode should work fine. In my case, I needed to go through several walls and a good distance away so I would need to use the network mode.

At home, on my Wifi network, everything worked great. Transfer speeds were decent and the photos flowed effortlessly from camera to computer. However, at school, it was a nightmare. I wasn’t able to use the school’s WiFi network probably because they had certain network ports blocked and restricted. I improvised by using an old Apple Airport Express Wifi router. I effectively made a wireless LAN (local area network) at home and brought it to the school to get the setup working.

Setting up the wireless LAN was also tough. I’ll spare you the details but here is what I did. To setup the Apple Airport Express and the Eye-FI card you need an active internet connection. I temporarily connected my Airport Express to the cable modem and got everything configured first. Then I disconnected from the internet. This workaround allowed me to have a self-sufficient wireless LAN, not connected to the internet. When I got to the school, I powered everything on and it worked… mostly. I’ll go into the challenges later.

Preview and Printing

'Epson XP-800

The Epson XP-800 is discontinued so it might become hard to find. It was replaced by the XP-810. While I prefer the older Artisan line, the printer did a solid job and printed high quality photos quickly.

We had a table setup outside and across a walkway from the haunted house. I had my MacBook Pro and an Epson printer that I bought for the occasion. The photos were sent wirelessly from inside the haunted house to the computer. Customers can preview their picture in iPhoto and I would print the 4×6 photo on the spot, if they decided to buy.

I considered bringing my Epson Artisan 810 that I used at home. This all-in-one printer has been very reliable and it prints great looking photos. Unfortunately, it was a little bulky and I no longer had its box. I decided to buy a separate printer for the project that I would pay for. Epson just discontinued that Artisan line and I bought an XP-800 instead, which was also on clearance and was the closest to the older Artisan printers. The XP-800 improves the black text printing over the Artisan but for almost everything else, I prefer the older printer. The image quality is close but the XP-800 has a bunch of annoying features that, while appear fancy, just gets in the way. For this project though, it worked fine.

Note: The Olympus natively shoots in a 3 x 4 aspect ratio like many point and shoots. I set the camera to a 2 x 3 ratio, which is typically used on DSLRs, so that when printed on a 4″ x 6″ paper, I wouldn’t need to crop the image.

What Worked

Haunted House Photo with a cast member

Haunted House Photo with a cast member (Flying Monkey)

The Olympus E-PL1 worked like a charm. It was more than fast enough and the people were in focus. The setup was easy enough and automated for a kid to take a picture reliably.

The low-cost flashes and the flash triggers never missed a beat. I shot about 350 photos and there was never a misfire and to my surprise, we didn’t run out of battery power. I did bring extra AA and AAA batteries.

I did change batteries once on the Olympus, which was expected since the WiFi transfer used additional power. I had 4 fully charged camera batteries so I was prepared.

The printer worked well and printed a 4 x 6 fast in less than 20 seconds.

When the Wifi was speedy, the entire process worked well.

The Challenges

In the dry run, before the kids started, everything worked great. The biggest challenge and the weakest link was the WiFi photo transfer. Sometimes it worked quickly and other times, it would grind to a halt. Definitely not the behavior I saw during testing. The only thing I can figure out is that there must have been signal interference. The haunted house had several computers and other electronics within close proximity of the Apple Airport Express.

Because of the lack of time and to be expedient, I ended up placing the flash units at waist level on tables in front of the camera. For a 2 -3 person group, the flash exposure worked great, for the most part. If I had a large group come though, I sometimes got more shadows than I liked. Depending on how people stood in the room, people at the head of the line would partially block the light for the people at the end.

What I would change

The Apple Airport Express I used was an older model so I would consider getting a more modern Wifi router and units with big antennas. I’m not sure if that would have fixed the problem but it would certainly be worth a try. I did discover in testing that the WiFi performance was the fastest when the Wifi router was closest to the Eye-FI card.

While I reduced the quality of the JPEGs to shrink the file size, (the file was about 2MB), when I had the performance problems, I should have also decreased the JPEG resolution. It doesn’t take much to print a 4″ x 6″ so a much smaller file, at a lower resolution, would have transfered faster.

I would mount the flashes higher up on the walls to reduce shadows.

I would have a barricade to keep a minimum distance from the camera setup to the place where people would walk through. This would ensure a more consistent flash exposure.

Finally, I would work with the designers to create a larger room that is closed off on both sides so we have a self enclosed area to capture the people. This will reduce the speed of people passing through.


Given the constraints in time, equipment and testing, I think the project went well. The haunted house and the photography was new to everyone so we were all learning on the fly and improvising.

I hope you found this setup interesting and perhaps this writeup will give you some ideas, if you are ever asked to do something similar.

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