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Book Review and Recommendation: Fearless Genius

Fearless Genius

I bought a book recently that combines my love of editorial photography with my interest in the tech business. Photographer Doug Menuez had unprecedented access to the titans of Silicon Valley. In this book, “Fearless Genius The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley 1985-2000″ you get a candid, black and white, behind the scenes look at the tech industry. It’s not Paris in the 1940s and 50s where black and white street photography made its mark. Perhaps this period in the late 20th century is even more important. Commonly accessible Beaux-Arts Architecture and European street life is replaced by rare shots of life at NeXT, Apple, Adobe, Sun and much more.

Never heard of NeXT? Well it’s the “other company” Steve Jobs started. The operating system behind the iPhone, iPad and the Macintosh would not be possible without the ground breaking OS created at NeXT. There are plenty of Steve Jobs being Steve Jobs images. Of course, most photographers know Adobe. See a photograph of founder John Warnock before they released Photoshop.

This 192 page is mostly photographs with descriptive text. There are introductions by famed photographer Elliott Erwitt and Novelist Kurt Andersen but the book is all about the black in white images captured by Doug Menuez. The photographs are well-printed on somewhat thin paper. It’s a good quality hard cover book. I definitely recommend getting the hardcover instead of the Kindle edition. The $6 price difference is worth it.

Love gritty black and whites? Of course all the photos aren’t grainy but you can tell the photos where shot on film. These are not ultra smooth digital shots which lack character. They have a timeless feel that documents a heady and ground breaking time in Silicon Valley.

Know a photographer that loves technology, I highly recommend this book. Perhaps it might be a perfect holiday gift. You can buy it here, from Amazon.

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More Experiments with film: The Nikon 35Ti at the Texas football game

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

University of Texas Football – Austin, Texas

I mentioned that I was testing a new film camera during my first ever University of Texas football game. I shot most of it with the Olympus E-PM2, a small mirrorless digital camera, my workhorse when I want a smaller camera with the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. But you know that I’ve been on a film kick lately.

I recently got a Nikon 35Ti, a high-end compact camera from 1993 with a fixed 35mm f2.8 lens. It was a premium compact which sold for $1000 back in the day, which is equivalent to about $1650 in today’s dollars. I got this slightly worn, titanium clad camera from Adorama for $265. Like the Rollei 35, which I picked up for a song, it’s possible to get very nice film cameras for a fraction of their original prices.

The Nikon 35Ti, unlike the Rollei 35, is a fully automatic camera with a sophisticated Nikon matrix meter and auto focus. It’s easy to shoot and unlike a SLR, it’s very compact though without the capability of changing lenses. It works for me since I love the 35mm focal length. In a way, this 35Ti is like the Fujfilm X100S of its day. They look very different, with the Fuji sporting a faux range finder treatment, but they are fundamentally compact auto focus cameras with a similar fixed focal length.

So why the attraction to film in this age of nearly perfected digital cameras? It’s all about the color and the feel. 35mm film is grainier with less resolution and it doesn’t perform as well in low light. By most modern standards it just doesn’t measure up. However, I’m fascinated by film’s character. I shoot differently too. When each shot costs real money, I’m more discriminating. I don’t necessarily think it makes me a better photographer, but it does impose limits which makes me try harder.

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

Take this photo, for example. The film and my post processing has really brought out Texas’ burnt orange. I joke that I probably see more fall color in this shot than I’ll ever get in Austin. I used Kodak Portra 400 film and added additional saturation via digital post processing. Portra typically has muted colors that work well for portraits but I find that I can amp up the saturation which satisfies my taste.

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas
University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

Here are two pictures of the same scene. Ignore the differences in framing. The Olympus digital image on the top is at a 28mm equivalent and the film image on the bottom is at 35mm. While I think both photographs are equally colorful, they have a different look and feel. Notice how the orange seems to stand out more in the film photograph — there is a liveliness to it. On the other hand, digital has a sharpness and precision that the film lacks. One isn’t necessary better than the other and one isn’t necessarily more accurate. It’s all a matter of taste.

For me though, I’ve been trying to move away from accuracy in my photographs. That may sound strange but let me explain. I’m not a product photographer, luckily, where accurate color and realistic representation of the subject is paramount. I’m trying to create images that convey a mood or feeling, perhaps in a way that a painting would. Paintings are not judged by how accurate they look, rather they usually try to provoke an emotional response. I know that I have a ways to go, but this is what I want to do.

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

So is using film a gimmick? Is it like using filters in Instagram to make something look different? Well I certainly hope not but I suppose it’s possible. All I know is that, for now, film evokes a different response for me and I’m hoping that it does so for my visitors. It’s something that I’ll explore for a while and incorporate its effects into my soup of photographic knowledge.

As for the Nikon 35Ti, I’m going to keep it. The first roll gave some strange and inconsistent results and I was afraid that it wasn’t working properly. What you see here is what I shot on my second. The camera is small and easy enough that I can concentrate on framing. It’s not bulky like my Canon Rebel T2. And while shooting everything in manual on the Rollei 35 can be instructional and even fun, in a challenging kind of way, I want something more accessible for my daily film shooter. I’ll let you know how the Nikon 35Ti works out.

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My first ever University of Texas football game

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

University of Texas Football – Austin, Texas

In the 23 plus years I’ve lived in Austin, I’ve never been to a University of Texas football game. I got that opportunity this past weekend. My wife graduated from the University but it’s also been 20 years since she’s gone. We both had a great time, thanks to my friend Mark who generously gave us the tickets.

As you can tell, we had excellent seats. My wife remarked, as a student, she was stuck way up there in the nose bleed section. While photographically, a super wide-angle or fisheye would have rendered some interesting compositions from way up there, I was glad to have these seats as a football spectator. I didn’t do much exploring. I was content to take occasional snaps from where we sat.

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas
University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas
University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

And as much as I enjoyed the football game, I was equally entertained by the band, the flags and the spectacle that surrounds the game. The precision of the marching band and the pageantry of the flags made for more interesting images, I thought. At least from this level. While I also shot the game, I like the photographs from the pre-game more.

My gear selection, which always involves an interesting set of calculations, centered on being unobtrusive. The UT stadium allows detachable lenses of less than 10 inches. I remember vague, anecdotal comments of people being restricted from bringing “professional” cameras so I purposely went small to fly under any radar. I brought my Olympus E-PM2 with kit lens which looks small and non-threatening enough. I paired that with a small film camera that I recently purchased that I’m in the midst of reviewing. All told it was a humble setup that fit comfortably in my small Domke bag. In retrospect, I wished I also brought my Olympus 40-150mm. The security bag check looked much less imposing than I imagined.

Chanel Woman Watches - Breda, Netherlands

The afternoon was a success though, both for the Texas Longhorns and for my wife and I. Texas beat West Virginia soundly 33 to 16. We had a great time and I got to take snaps of the event. Nothing fancy. I wasn’t shooting on the field and had no illusions of being a sport photographer. All that I was going for was some nice pictures to remember the event. I even pressed my iPhone 5S into service for a decent looking in-phone panorama.

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas
University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

It occurred to me that a compact super zoom would’ve of been an ideal camera. Something small that wouldn’t raise the suspicions of guards on the lookout for wannabe pro photographers. Ironically, with all my different cameras, I don’t own a single super zoom. Nope, I’m not in the market for one either. After shooting for months with a fixed lens 35mm equivalent Fujifilm X100S, the 28mm to 84mm equivalent Olympus setup felt more than enough from my needs.

University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas
University of Texas Football - Austin, Texas

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I took the photographs with the Olympus E-PM2 with the standard kit lens.

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


Halloween Portraits on 6th Street: The 2014 Edition

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 – Austin, Texas


I went to 6th Street again this year for Halloween. Since it coincided with Formula 1 weekend, it was crazier than usual, which is really saying something. Not only did we have a larger than normal amount of wacky Austinites, we had an international crowd witnessing the spectacle.

No breakthroughs in photographic creativity for me this year. Since I like the “shot on the street” but “studio like feel” I created last year, I applied the same technique. If you want to give this a try, you can read about how I did this here.

Of course, it’s unpredictable who will show up. It’s kind of exciting and disappointing at the same time. I like the costumes I captured last year better but I think my technique has improved somewhat. I basically preset everything manually including the focus, exposure and flash power which makes it very quick. The only frustration? The camera settings occasionally get knocked as I jostle through the crowds. If I do this again, I might use gaffer’s tape to keep the focus and exposures locked in.

So here is the 2014 edition of Halloween Portraits on 6th Street. You can click on the image to see a larger version and hover over with a mouse to see the photo details.

Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas
Portraits, Halloween on 6th Street 2014 - Austin, Texas

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Photographs taken with my Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens.

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Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.

The fun of delayed gratification and how we’ve all become impatient

Bikinis Employees pose for the film camera - Austin, Texas

Bikinis Employees pose for the film camera – Austin, Texas

Believe it or not, I’m in the midst of shooting with 4 film cameras. I’ve talked about two of them — the Rollei 35 and the Canon Rebel T2 — both loaded with 36 exposures of Portra 400. I’m playing with two other cameras which are new, in a sense, but I’m not ready to reveal them just yet — I don’t know if they are working properly. Once I develop the film and do the high-res scans, I’ll know for sure.

Shooting slowly and deliberately is something completely new for me. The limited feedback and the per shot cost of film will do that to you. Digital, with its instant and free feedback has made me a frenetic shooter and maybe that’s true for you too. But when you think about it, it’s not just photography. Our modern technologies have a tendency to make us less patient.

Ok, I know I’m going to sound like an old fart but bear with me. When I was growing up I had access to 4 broadcast TV stations. We waited anxiously for movies to be televised years after their theatrical run. And it was an event too. Everyone talked about it the next day. There were no 24 hour cable channels or on demand movies via Netflix. No DVDs or Blu-ray. VCRs became available for $1000 and pre-recorded movies cost upwards of $60 each.

I bought records, sometimes warped even when new, with my hard-earned money to get one or two songs that I really liked. We played and “enjoyed” the entire album because we had no possibility of paying a buck and change for only the songs we liked. The concept of creating our own virtual radio stations via something like Pandora was beyond comprehension. I guess we had top 40 radio where the most popular songs might play a couple of times an hour.

That was my world as a teenager. Waiting a few days or a week to get photographs developed was no big deal. That was the normal pace and we were all patient enough to wait. The concept of one hour photo labs sounded indulgent, even hedonistic. My recent foray into film photography has reminded me of life before internet speed. It’s kind of fun. I don’t remember everything that I shot on my current film cameras. It’ll be like Christmas when I get back my negatives.

I’m not giving up digital, I use it in conjunction with my film experiments. I may be slightly romantic but not impractical. The great thing is, as an amateur, I have the option to wait. I am not pushed by a professional deadline to post photos hours or even minutes after an event.

But all this got me thinking. Even in my most fervent pursuit of efficient digital expediency, I’ve never been an energetic social media guy. I just don’t see the purpose of updating one’s status every minute of the day. And who the heck cares about what I’m thinking about at any given moment. I suppose that’s why I enjoy blogging and long form posts more than instantaneous tweets. Perhaps having a bit more patience, forethought and analysis before we all say something will be good for everyone. Or maybe I’m just an old fart and slowly slipping into becoming a card-carrying Luddite.

Note: I shot the photograph above with a Canon Rebel T2 film camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400 with a 35mm lens and flash, converted to black and white with digital post processing.

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