About 20 years ago, I ate at my first Taco Cabana and my food world changed. I had just moved to Austin from the East Coast — my interest in Tex-Mex just starting. As you can imagine, the East Coast is no hotbed of Tex-Mex cuisine. Taco Bell was the only thing I could find back there and it was better than the sit down restaurant, Chi Chi’s. I was so taken with Taco Cabana’s food that I ate there twice a day for weeks on end.
Now, I still visit several times a month. Sure, there are better Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin, but as a fast food joint, Taco Cabana still does a nice, mostly consistent, job. Being a creature of habit, I have a happy hour margarita and bean and cheese nachos for 3 bucks before I go the my monthly photo user group meeting. At my last outing, my pre-user group meal coincided with blue hour. I took these photos to document a place that I have such fond, tasty memories.
The chain has gone through several remodels, with the latest happening recently. The food has pretty much stayed the same but the place has upgraded aesthetics and better service. The latest design has transformed this place into a modern and always colorful destination. Really for the price of a standard fast food burger, you can’t go wrong here. Plus, when is the last time you got margaritas and beer at your local McDonald’s.
I want to take more photos at everyday, mundane places. They are not breathtaking Grand Canyon vistas but arguably have more relevance to me. My small Olympus Pens really work in situations like this. I can shoot great quality photographs without looking strange or raising suspicions. Whipping out my DSLR just doesn’t feel right and a place with fond memories deserves more than a grainy point and shoot capture.
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I went trick-or-treating with my younger son last night along with other parents and kids from the neighborhood. It was a perfectly enchanting 70 degrees with clear skies.
My Olympus E-P3 with the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 was my photo tool of choice. I got some great candids of the kids and of course the girls were always more stylish and more savvy about posing — It’s probably in their genes. Beyond the kids photos, my goal was to make a decent architectural, blue hour photo that looked Halloween-ish.
Taking such a photo in the suburbs is certainly a challenge. These places lack the density, details and interest that make downtowns more interesting. There was a nice looking halloween display but I was much too far to get there in time for blue hour. The image above was the best I can do given my limitations. This house had the most minimal of displays, just 2 orange light bulbs. No pumpkins, ghosts, goblins or vampires. No twinkling lights or inflatable monsters. Just a subtle change in light color to mark the occasion. But the orange light looks great against the blue sky. Simple is good in photography, so it works for me.
I briefly considered going downtown. Get some shots of those crazy costumed people on 6th street. I’ve thought about going for the last several years. Alas I was too tired and lazy. It was past 10pm when my family duties ended and heck it was a school night. Perhaps I’ll make it next year. But for 2012, I was stuck in the burbs with a photograph of a minimalist tract home. At least I spent some quality time with my son.
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The corner of Milton Street and South Congress Avenue transforms itself into a magical place at a certain time of the day. It is one of my favorite spots to shoot and take in the atmosphere. On this corner, a silvery airstream sells cupcakes and a musician serenades the customers. When the sun sets and the sky turns a deep blue, for a few minutes the combination of warm lights, silvery reflections and the friendly Austin people make for really neat place to photograph.
I’ve shot here many times before, aways trying to time my image captures around the blue hour. I love those bare light bulbs, in series that adorns this small patch of ground. I frequently talk about the contrast between the blue and the man-made warm lights, the glow and reflections that can found at the right angles. All of these elements come together here when you time it right. And though the cup cakes may be tasty and the people friendly all the time, these magical images can only be made minutes after sunset.
I’ve talked about my recent South Congress photowalk several times in my recent postings (here, here and here) but the focus of this photowalk was the blue hour. And for the blue hour, I decide to shoot it here on this corner. The blue hour, in Central Texas, only lasts for at most, 15 minutes. About 10 minutes after sunset, the sky starts turning a vibrant blue and continues to darken as the minutes tick by. At some point after 15 minutes, the sky is more black than blue and you realize that another blue hour has slipped away. For this reason, you really don’t have the luxury to move around and photograph many things during this time. It helps to have an idea or place in mind and be ready before the color turns. But the blueness of the sky depend on the direction you face; it does not evenly turn to black. Shoot towards the west and you can eke out some great color for a bit longer.
I used my 14mm Panasonic Lumix lens for all but one. I also used the wide-angle adapter that attaches to 14mm for many of the images too. The EXIF data does not show the use of the wide-angle so I’m not a 100% sure on which images I used the adapter. You’ll think that it would be easy to distinguish between a 22mm equivalent and a 28mm but I seem to find it a challenge. I shot a bunch of images of the guitar player and this one that seem a bit soft but nicely dreamy. I used the 45mm f1.8 shot at 1/30 second at ISO 800 for this shot. Not the ideal conditions hand-held but I was happy I created a moody image.
Finally the last two images shows the scene toward the end of blue hour. You can tell because the electric blue has been replaced by a deeper, mature blue. The total elapsed time between the first and last image, 8 minutes. The peak color only lasts for a few minutes and I was facing east so the sky color darkened quicker. After this, I was off shooting other things, and no longer using the sky as a key element. I find that in most cases, a black sky is not nearly as interesting. Once this magical time passes, I change my subjects and concentrate of other things or I go to dinner like I did that night. Part of the group already headed to Wahoo’s for some fish tacos. I was going to meet them too but only after I squeeze the most out of my favorite blue hour.
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I’ve added a lot of black and white photos recently, time for some color. A couple of weeks ago I posted A Monochrome Tour of The University of Texas with 15 black and white images. I was trying to do something different and counter conditions which I found challenging. I’m not used to shooting architecture during the day. My interest and experience is evening and night photography; I feel really at home under these conditions. So here are some images from that same UT photowalk, with decidedly more color.
I’ve mentioned my love of catching images during blue hour, numerous times on this blog. Unfortunately, blue hour here in Austin last only, at most, about 15 minutes. During this photowalk, I decided to take it easy and just shoot at one corner of the UT campus, 24th and Guadalupe. Back, not too long ago, when there were record stores, this corner boasted a Tower Records. I still remember when Tower came to Austin. Somehow it felt like Austin joined the big leagues, matching ranks with the more famous international cities. The record store is long gone and is now replaced by a bunch of chain restaurants. At least these establishments have some colorful lights and when set against the deep blue sky, they work for me, on a photographic level. Upon close inspection, I noticed that last remnants of that record store. Famous musicians, displayed graffiti like, on the walls. Do UT students think it odd to have musicians displayed in front of restaurants or do they ignore these little bits of history as they rush by?
After the the blue hour faded, a few of us joined the rest of the photowalk gang at a local pizza parlor. Even inside, there are possibilities of catching color and glowing lights. I wandered into the Austin’s Pizza restaurant on Guadalupe street and was immediately attracted to the warm glowing lights, the reflections off the floor and the striking color. It’s not blue hour but it has many of the same elements that I like. Even when getting dinner, there are chances to make images.
Several days ago, I posted Image post-processing, a necessity or cheating? that elicited a very healthy and civil discussion on my blog. The best ever and it is fantastic. I love how people may not agree but can still express their opinions in a constructive way. One of my readers called out this particular photo that I posted in mostlyfotos and was wondering about how I post-processed it. So I took a look back on my Aperture 3 library to see what I did with the image.
Before I get into the particulars, a little background on the image. This Airstream trailer is located on South Congress Avenue (SoCo) which is a hip and trendy area south of downtown Austin. It’s in the same neighborhood as the Heritage Boot image that I used as an example in my above mentioned blog post, thought the trailer image above was taken one week earlier. Ever since I got into urban landscape photography, I’ve been captivated by the blue hour and its contrast to made-made lights. I like the warm yellow glow of the lights contrasting with the blue sky. The challenge is that, at least here in Texas, the “Blue Hour” last about 15 minutes. I talk more about blue hour and my experiences around it in two other blog posts which you can find here and here, if you are interested. I also love these bare lights that are strung around the trailer. I don’t know why but these kind of lights always seem to make me happy. Maybe a reminder of a distant pleasant experience that has imprinted on me but that I have long since forgotten.
The most noticeable post-processing change I made was with the white balance. The RAW image had a color temperature of 4810K (Kelvin), I shifted the white balance to 3736K. I also added a bit of red to the tint so that image would be a touch less green. I wasn’t concerned with the exact white balance values, rather I shifted the slider to what I like aesthetically. Keep in mind that I was not going for color accuracy here. If I did, I would have done a custom white balance or shot with a gray card. I wanted to create an image with a certain feel. I wanted my blue hour sky to be a rich blue but contrast with the warm yellow glow. Next, I added saturation to intensify the colors a bit and brightened the mid-tones somewhat by using levels. Finally, I added some sharpening and definition (micro contrast). While the Olympus E-PL1 generally has satisfactory noise levels up to ISO 800, depending on the exposure, I can get more noise than I want. In this image, the blue areas were more noisy and my manipulations increased the noise level somewhat, but not overly so. I used the Topaz DeNoise plug-in to clean up the digital noise. I used Apple’s Aperture 3 program to post-process everything else, in fact, I solely use Aperture for 95% of my non-HDR images. I fired up a copy of Photoshop Elements 8 so that I can use the Topaz plug-in. This may sound like a lot of post-processing but with Aperture, I can do this quickly. I post-process all my images and most take about 10 – 15 seconds to do. I’m guessing that this one may have taken a few minutes, with the bulk of the time used to launch Photoshop and run the denoise plug-in.
I hope you found this interesting. A bit more detail of the mechanics of what I changed compared to my first post-processing blog entry. The original un-processed image is below for your viewing pleasure. There are things that bug me about the composition. For example, it won’t be the ideal product photograph since the Hey Cupcake! name is blocked by the pole. But I really like the colors and I think it captures the warm glow that I was after. And even though there is nobody in line, rather than looking cold and lonely, I find that there is a warmth and cheerfulness to the image. At least that’s the way I see it. What do you think?
Make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image. Hover over the photo to see the exposure details.
Here is a sample of my work. I’ve posted them on my one-photo-per-day photo blog, mostlyfotos. There are a lot of images so click the << Previous Photo link to see more. You can also hover over the photos to see the exposure information.
I took my Olympus E-PL1, my current camera of choice, out for yet another photo event this past weekend. Two weekends ago it was the Dia de los Muertos Parade in downtown Austin. This time, it was something a bit smaller and calmer. One of those simple carnivals that seems to pop-up on parking lots on the outskirts of town or in the suburbs. This one, took place on at the Dell Diamond, the AAA baseball stadium for the Round Rock Express. I wanted to take my friend, Mike, out for his birthday and he suggested a short photography exercise before we went to dinner. Over the last year, both Mike and I, who both own big Canon DSLRs, have being going light. Often times, opting to take just a small camera with us, instead of the bigger iron and the assorted lenses and accessories. Mike’s been putting his Fujifilm X100 through its paces. My lightweight setup is the E-PL1 with very compact Lumix 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. Sunset was at around 6:47 so we met just after 6 pm to capture the golden hour and the equally nice “blue hour” that takes place after sunset.
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Many of you might be familiar with the golden hour, the time just before sunset or after sunrise which has a wonderful golden, warm light and makes for great looking photographs. The low angle of the sun and the softer light creates images that are warmer and smoother than the harsh mid-day light. The blue hour maybe a term that is less familiar to most people. And unlike the golden hour which may last an hour in length, the blue hour is considerably shorter and not anywhere near an hour, at least here in Texas. So what is the blue hour? It is the time of day after sunset or before sunrise when the sky becomes a bright and vibrant blue color. I love shooting at this time, particularly in urban environments where there are lots of warm, man-made yellow-ish lights. The blue color of the sky and the yellow lights make an excellent color contrast that, I think, works particularly well. A little research reveals that the term blue hour originated from the French expression heure bleue according to Wikipedia. I don’t know if this gorgeous blue period actually lasts an hour in France but here in the Austin area, it lasts maybe 15 minutes. For me, there is a bit of scrambling during these 15 minutes to get my perfect shots and then the magic is gone. The sky increasingly turns darker and once it turn black, the mood and color becomes completely different.
This simple carnival up in Round Rock and my nimble and light setup with my Olympus E-PL1 was particularly effective to capture the optimum Blue Hour color. First, unlike larger carnivals like the one at the Austin Rodeo, this small carnival allowed me to visit many rides very quickly. It didn’t take me much time to walk from one end to the other. Having the lightweight camera setup without a tripod was also a boon. No precious time wasted setting up a tripod. I can shoot multiple angles quickly and move on to the next exciting attraction. When nature has a 15 minute timer, every minute counts. I’m satisfied with the results. The Olympus and the fantastic Lumix 20mm lens allowed me to record high quality images at ISO 800 and below. Instead of wide-angle, long exposure images I took previously with my larger Canon 7D, this time it was all about seeing interesting compositions quickly. I’m trying to go light and train my eye to see images worth capturing. Some came out great and others were less exciting but with much practice I think I can get better. I feel that the kind of photographs I’m making now has changed quite a bit, especially compared to few years ago — hopefully they are for the better. Having a small camera with a fixed focal length (no zoom) can be liberating, training the eye and allowing the photographer to move faster when necessary. While the carefully composed tripod shots are still important, its nice to shoot in a different way from time to time.
By 7:30, Mike and I were done. The sky was already too dark and there wasn’t enough ambient light at the carnival to take the kind of images we wanted. We packed it in and went to dinner. We talked about life, photography and blogging among other things. It was a nice birthday dinner and a fun time shooting with a good friend.
Here are a bunch more photographs from the carnival.
These first two images were taken during the golden hour, when I first got to the carnival.
As the sun set, the blue of the sky started to come alive. I shot the starship photo at 6:53pm about 6 minutes after sunset. I shot the next image of the ferris wheel at 7pm, pretty much at the peak of the blue hour. The third photo of Crystal Lil’s was a couple of minutes after that. You can tell how quickly the light changes. Of course the direction that I face is also a factor. I was facing north for Spaceship 4000, east for the ferris wheel and roughly west for Crystal Lil’s.
As I’ve done lately, I wanted to take a candid portrait of a someone interesting on the street. Sandy had this colorful mohawk wig that attracted my attention. She was selling the souvenirs at a both in the middle of the action. I find that the 20mm Lumix makes a great environmental portrait lens. Just the right field of view to include the surrounding area and just enough depth of field to emphasize the person and nicely blur the background.
Finally, as the blue hour passed and things got dark, I shifted my photography to capturing shadows or shooting in brighter areas. We didn’t stay too long after sunset but here are two more images that I captured before Mike and I went off off to dinner.
I practice many different types of photography. You are probably most familiar with my urban landscapes, if you have perused my gallery. I also have taken some portraits, shot some events, dabbled in street photography and acted as mini sports photographer, taking photos of my kid’s soccer game. Each type of photography has a different pace. A different set of techniques are required to successfully capture the best images. When it comes to urban and nature landscape photography, there is a lot of time to sit back and wait. Waiting for the optimal light and color. Unlike some other types of photography, in landscapes you can not control the light or the environment. You have to frame your scene and wait until events unfold, patiently watching for the peak. I’ve noticed that as I get more experienced in photography, I slow down even more and taken in the zen of the place. I was reminded of this recently, as I watched what appeared to be a newbie photographer frantically shoot and adjust settings on her camera. I was calmly sitting there and watched in amazement as she took photographs non-stop of a scene that barely changed. Keep in mind that there was no action, we were both photographing a courthouse at sunset.
I observed this animated scene on the peaceful and historic town square in Georgetown, Texas. Many of my urban scenes are of larger cities and I decided to add a smaller town to my portfolio of urban landscapes. Georgetown is a small town located about 20 miles north of Austin along Interstate 35. I arrived a bit before 7pm and since sunset was at 8:35, I had plenty of time to scout the area. The area of interest is not too large and I spend about an hour shooting the historic courthouse as well as the small Victorian storefronts that form the perimeter of the town square. The time was well spent since I also got to further train my compositional eye with my super-wide lens — a lens that I usually use for these purposes. Right off the square I found an old-time movie theater with some nice lights. Check. This theater will look even better at night. I also mentally noted some nice compositions of the centerpiece courthouse building. However, truth be told, I was there mainly to wait for the best light the occurs just before and after sunset.
Around 8:15, I strolled to a spot on the square that had a view of the courthouse and the coming sunset. A young woman was there with her camera on tripod shooting away. I didn’t talk to her much but I did find out that she was taking a photography course. She was constantly shooting, adjusting the lens and playing with her settings on the back of her DSLR. What fascinated and confused me was why she was going through this frantic pace for nearly 45 minutes. It was a though she was shooting a fashion show or some other action packed event. I setup my tripod, tested a half a dozen different frames of the historic building and settled down for a relaxing wait. Rain has been rare around Central Texas lately and with the worst drought in ages so I knew there weren’t going to be any interesting clouds. Usually without clouds, sunsets are not nearly as interesting. When there are no clouds, the other interesting photograph to make is of the “Blue Hour” which starts around 20 minutes after sunset. The “Blue Hour” which only lasts for around 15 minutes around here is when the sky turns a vibrant and deep blue during the twilight between light and dark. It makes for a great backdrop to urban landscapes. In find that in really large cities with large skylines, a night scene with black skies can also work nicely, primarily because there is so much ambient man-made light. However, in smaller towns and in smaller cities like Austin, I find night, with its black sky, to be really boring for urban architecture. There just isn’t enough buildings that are lit up to make a dynamic image. Hence, I find that “Blue Hour” is the best and last chance to make some interesting photographs of buildings.
During the 45 minute wait, until the ideal blue sky, I peacefully sat there and waited. I took in the calm of the small town. I did shoot a few frames every 10 minutes or so to capture the changing light as sunset approached and passed. But more than anything, I was watching the scene of the maniacal landscape photographer. I was tempted a few times to offer some help or suggestions but she seem too rushed and harried. So much so that I just didn’t want to talk to her. She didn’t seem like she was enjoying the process and seemed frustrated with the situation. To be fair, since I didn’t know her and what she was trying to do, maybe her frantic pace was justified. I don’t think I was ever quite as frantic when I started photography but I do remember that I was not nearly as calm as I am how. Back then, since I didn’t have a good idea of what was going to happen at sunset and “Blue Hour”, I constantly checked my settings and reframed the scene. After some experience and practice, I now have a good idea of what and how I want to frame. I have ideas in my head for the type of image I want to create but I try to keep an open mind just in case something better presents itself. Nowadays, it is a waiting game for the right light and color in the sky. I like the contrast between the man-made, artificial lights and the fading light from nature. As I anticipate the optimal conditions, I begin to take more frames. Maybe once every minute or so. After I got what I think were decent images, I quickly moved to two other locations around the square to capture those places with this deep blue sky. This is where the scouting I did an hour earlier, really paid off. I quickly got another point of view of the courthouse with a statue out front. I also went back to that old movie theater with the nice lights. By 9:30 it was dark and satisfied that I got what I wanted, I headed home.
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