Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

Texas

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.