Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography


Holiday travel and deciding on a camera (or two) to bring

Snow Capped Ridges - Western United States

Snow Capped Ridges – Western United States

I’m going on a quick trip to Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago and I need to figure out what camera to bring. With all the cameras I own it can be fun and daunting to narrow down the selection. I often bring two, sometimes 3 cameras. I decided to go light this time, reducing one potential headache of holiday travel.

It took me a couple of days to think things over. There are so many thing I like to shoot and the challenge of having so much gear is that there’s always a better camera for specific purposes. If left unchecked, it’s easy to bring a slew of cameras which somewhat negates the benefit of small and light mirrorless systems.

I have a few new cameras that I haven’t talked about, which I will reveal next year. It was tempting to bring my newest toys but I opted to take just the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. My main lens, the super-wide and super-light Olympus 9 – 18mm f4-5.6. This should be perfect for Chicago architecture. I’m also bringing the tiny Panasonic 14mm f2.5 prime for lower light situations. Finally, the 40-150mm telephoto for compressing some architectural details.

That’s the great thing about micro 4/3 and the slower (non-pro) lenses. They are so light, the 3 lens set plus the camera body only weighs 2 pounds. That gives me a 18 to 36mm and 80mm to 300mm range with uncompromising image quality.

Of course, I’ll have one more camera with me — the ever popular iPhone. For many people, that’s the only camera they need. The photograph above, I shot that last year with an iPhone 5. That’s already 3 generations old. The latest iPhone 6s, I’m sure, is even better.

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The Big Bend Report: What was it like shooting with 5 cameras, actually 6?

The Rio Grande - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

The Rio Grande – Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

I went on my first ever landscape photography trip to Big Bend last week. I mentioned that I was bringing 5 cameras — actually 6, if you include the iPhone 5S. Understandably, people thought I was crazy. I had my doubts too. But it worked out pretty good as did the other non-camera gear I recently bought.

The hiking boots are fantastic and especially helped in those rocky places. The Thinktank camera bag was comfortable and my back thanked me. Though the weather nixed our longest planned hike, I held up well after two 2 mile hikes on Friday. 20 pounds, which seemed moderately heavy on the way out, felt light on the way home. Looks like this hiking thing is a good strength training exercise.

So how did all those cameras work out? Not bad. I used every camera I brought. Some more than others, as you can see.

Pentax Q7 3093 photos
Olympus OM-D E-M10 720 photos
Canon 6D 624 photos
Apple iPhone 5S 111 photos
Nikon 35Ti 68 photos (1.84 rolls)
Mamiya 645E 60 photos (4 rolls)
Visitor's Center - Big Bend Ranch State Park

The star of the show was the Pentax Q7. I carried the camera along with 3 lenses in my small Domke bag which I brought everywhere. It was my go to camera and I shot both landscapes and candids during the trip. The big backpack and the tripod stayed in the trunk and was only used during our hikes and longer stops. For quick jaunts and in car shooting, it was the Q7 all the way.

Giant rock at Closed Canyon - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Cactus Closeup - Big Bend National Park, Texas

I shot a large number of black and whites which I thought worked especially well. Something about the pointy plants and textured rocks in the desert that really works well in monochrome. I’m glad because while the Q7 black and white street photos in Japan worked well, I wasn’t sure how the style would translate in America.

Little House in the Desert - Big Bend National Park, Texas

I didn’t photograph with the Nikon 35Ti as much as I thought — I didn’t quite finish two rolls. Part of the reason is that I was shooting with so many cameras. There wasn’t much of a weight penally, though. and the 35Ti and the Pentax Q7 kit both fit conveniently in that Domke bag. I got back the first roll and the photos, especially the color, looked great.

Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

The medium format Mamiya 645E, on the other hand, got more use than expected. 60 photos doesn’t sound like a lot, compared to digital, but considering that each shutter press costs between $1.25 and $1.80, it adds up quickly. Because taking pictures with film, especially medium format, costs real money, I’m naturally more selective. But looking at those landscapes through a giant glass viewfinder was heavenly.

I shot the Mamiya meticulously which is in stark contrast to the quick, rapid fire grab shots I make with the Pentax Q7. It was fun shooting both ways. Which method creates better photographs? Now that’s a good question.

A path through an alien landscape - Big Bend, Texas

With little risk, I took more chances with the digital Q7 which sometimes creates surprisingly compelling images. There are more throwaways, of course, but there is a sense of playfulness and experimentation. The Mamiya is more like Zen meditation. I contemplate that image and will it into existence with the loud clack of the shutter and the satisfying tactile feel of advancing the film to the next frame. The images are not daring enough though. The fear of “wasting” money prevents me from taking chances with my 645 imagery.

I shot the Canon 6D more like the medium format camera and used a tripod and took brackets (3 shots) for HDR. I slowed down and look carefully throughout the frame, scrutinizing the composition more than ever before — even with no risk of wasted money. My desire for the quick digital captures are satisfied by the Q7. The 6D became a serious landscape camera. You can see my Canon 6D HDR handiwork at the top of the post.

The iPhone held its own and did well in service of creating Instagrams. My Instagram uploads were squeezed in during the short and sparse cell and WiFi coverage. Thanks to the blog readers who follow me on Instagram. They got to see an early preview of the places I’ve been.

Finally, I used the Olympus E-M10 for a very specific reason, which I’ll go into, in a future post. It was a high-tech feature which wowed some of my fellow photographers. Better photographs through technology! That said, I was the only one with film cameras so I embraced old and new tech equally, I suppose.

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Hover over the photographs with a mouse to see the camera I used as well as its settings. The 4 square images where shot on the iPhone 5S and posted to Instagram. Click on the photograph to see a larger version.

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The best sunset of my Big Bend Trip

Highway Sunset - San Antonio, Texas

Highway Sunset – San Antonio, Texas

I got back from my first excursion to Big Bend last night, actually right during the Super Bowl. No worries, I’m more interested in photography than football. It was a good trip and this city boy made it safely though 5 days in the country.

The weather was better than expected but we still had a fair amount of overcast or uninspiring skies. Ironically, the best sunset occurred on the way back home. I shot these photos out the back of the minivan as we passed through San Antonio, Texas. Beautiful skies to be sure, but we all wished that we got something like this out in Big Bend — mountain silhouettes are usually more inspiring than overpasses. But of course, I’m usually an urban photographer so perhaps it’s just fate.

Highway Sunset - San Antonio, Texas

Therein lies the challenge with landscape photography, of course. You have no control of the weather and not much control over the light. Composition maybe the only saving grace but that only goes so far. So on my first serious landscape photography trip, I learned to make do with whatever I had. It was a fun time and I’ll certainly talk about the details over the next bunch of posts.

Highway Sunset - San Antonio, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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My first Big Bend Trip: A city boy is going to the big open country

Planning the Big Bend Trip - Austin, Texas

Planning the Big Bend Trip – Austin, Texas

I’m going to the country. This may not be a big deal for most, but for me, it’s a momentous occasion. You see, I was born in New York City and lived mostly in big cities. Actually, Austin is one of the smaller places I’ve lived. When my family goes on vacation, we go to larger urban areas to recharge.

My situation is a source of endless fun for my friends. After all, I’ve never been camping, never been on a horse and never done other typical outdoorsy activities. Not to say I haven’t lived life though. I ask my nature-loving friends if they’ve ever ridden on the outside of a subway train before. Well anyway, that’s back when I was in high school and they frown upon outdoor train riding in NYC now.

from Austin to Big Bend Map

I’m going to Big Bend National Park, all the way on the South Western end of Texas near the border with Mexico. A photography expedition and a workshop of sorts. My friend Alex Suarez is leading it. Between him and the other participants, we have a lot of experienced people and a total of 8. It will take at least 7 hours, not including food and rest stops.

hiking boots

It’s been interesting preparing for it, mainly the non-photography gear. I’ve gone to REI more than I ever have, picking up comfortable hiking boots and assorted knickknacks. So, I’m going to a desert in the dry season in a middle of a drought and the forecast says it’s going to rain? Are you kidding me? Back to REI for some weatherproof pants.

I even “invested” in a new camera backpack too. A nice Thinktank Streetwalker Pro which seems perfect for the gear I plan to bring. When I travel on planes and through cities, I go light with a small messenger style bag and mirrorless cameras. This trip is different. We’re going by car (minivan actually) and it’s going to be packed to the gills with everyone’s photo gear. We’re supposed to be hiking too, which got me a little concerned. Remember that bit about never being in the country?

I’m going to say it right here, before the trip, that my gear selection might be a colossal mistake. But, I’m doing it. I’m taking 5 cameras! Crazy right? I know. And not all of them are the small mirrorless variety.

Thinktank Backpack

First up, I’m bringing my Canon 6D with the 24-105mm f4 lens. It’s my highest quality digital camera and I’m going to use it for landscapes. I also have an old manual focus Tokina 19 – 35mm which I’ll use for night, wide-angle shooting. Big Bend is supposed to have the darkest skies in the continental U.S., I want to shoot the Milky Way. Oh, did I mention that I’ve only seen the Milky Way once or twice in my life? Stargazing in NYC, not good.

I said in my previous post that I’m getting into Medium Format Film. So, I’m also taking my Mamiya 645E with 3 prime lenses. I now have a 55mm, a 80mm and a 150mm. In 35mm terms, they equate to a 35mm, 50mm and 93mm focal lengths. I’m really curious how medium format film compares to my full frame (digital) Canon 6D. How are the colors? The detail? I think Big Bend will be a wonderful landscape test for both cameras.

I’m also bringing my Nikon 35Ti compact film camera. I get to shoot it along side the big film camera — with the same film. Kodak Portra 400, which I always use and Fujifilm Velvia 100 slide film, which I’ve never shot. Slide film is more challenging than negative film so I’ll see how that goes.


I’m taking my ultra compact Pentax Q7 system with 3 lenses. I’ll have the 40mm equivalent prime but also the 18 – 28mm and 70 – 210mm equivalent zoom lenses. The entire system weighs a mere 1 pound. Ironically, I’m going to have the most reach and flexibility with the lightest system. It will be fun to document the trip and I might even use it for landscapes.

Finally, I’m bringing the Olympus OM-D E-M10. Charles from Olympus let me use it along with the wide-angle lens. I’m going to do something special with it, which I’ll talk about after the trip. It will be neat if it actually works.

So there you have it. My crazy kit for my first ever landscape excursion. I won’t hike with all my gear but with tripod and water, the backpack is still going to be 20 pounds. Much more than I’m used to carrying since I’m usually a light and nimble mirrorless guy. We’ll see. As I get tired, I might shed gear on subsequent hikes.

Wish me luck, I should be back Sunday.

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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Finding fall color in neighborhood parks in Japan

A Neighborhood Park - Tokyo, Japan

A Neighborhood Park – Tokyo, Japan

Living in Central Texas, I don’t get a good chance to make photos of fall color. Sure, we do have some leaves that turn an orange brown. Then there is the occasional yellow but nothing that inspires. At least we do get a touch of autumn so that we can say we have all four seasons.

I was pleasantly surprised that the fall color comes to Tokyo late, and even at the end of November and early December, there was ample opportunity. While I did go to a famous Tokyo park to find color, today’s post is about the small neighborhood parks. In some ways, it’s a lot easier to make solid photos in these smaller places. The trees are spaced further apart which makes it easier to make cleaner compositions.

A Neighborhood Park - Tokyo, Japan
A Neighborhood Park - Tokyo, Japan

I’ve been posting a lot of gritty black and whites from my Pentax Q7. Today’s Q7 pictures are all in vivid color — just to show that I didn’t shoot exclusively in monochrome. There is a “Brilliant Color” setting on the Pentax, which looks great on the back LCD, but is much too saturated (even for me) for fall color. It works great for other subjects, which I’ll talk about in a future post. These photos were all shot with the standard mode in JPEG and further saturated in post production.

A Neighborhood Park - Tokyo, Japan
A Neighborhood Park - Tokyo, Japan

I came upon the first park during a photo walk with my friend Tony through a working class section of Tokyo. It didn’t look like much from the street, but step inside and I found a surprisingly nice balance of colors. The place is kept up but not pristine. You can tell there are barricades and other obstructions that add background clutter. Even so, I think the colors are so striking that the images work, for the most part, if you don’t look closely. You can tell it is a city park with lots of people. I guess even these nature shots still fit somewhat with my urban landscape aesthetic.

A Neighborhood Park - Yokohama, Japan

The next, much quieter park, is located in a residential neighborhood in Yokohama. The trees were nicely spaced around the pond and the water certainly added to the back drop.

I took all photos with the 08 Wide Zoom, which is the priciest lens in the Q system. I was hesitant about buying it since it costs more than the entire Q7 camera kit. But with the weak yen and a much lower list price on the lens, I decided to get it. The 08 Wide Zoom is known to be an excellent lens optically, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. The wide-angle works great for my urban landscapes and it’s the type of lens I’ve had a lot of experience using. The 3.8 to 5.9mm range comes out to 18 to 28mm when accounting for the 4.7x crop factor.

A Neighborhood Park - Yokohama, Japan

Shooting wide-angles can be challenging since it’s so easy to get extraneous clutter into the frame. You also need to get close to your subjects and make sure you have something interesting in the foreground, mid-ground and background. I don’t think in telephoto (focal lengths above 50mm) but I found they work better for isolating subjects. I later switched to my telephoto for nature shots, but that’s a story and pictures for another post.

A Neighborhood Park - Yokohama, Japan

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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