SoCo, Austin: Color, Lights and Details

South Congress Cafe, SoCo - Austin, Texas

South Congress Cafe, SoCo – Austin, Texas

SoCo Location Map
Just south of downtown Austin, there’s a part of town called SoCo — South Congress Avenue. What was once run down and even seedy has transformed into a vibrant and eclectic area. I read recently that SoCo is the number 1 spot to bring out-of-towners. Understandable. There is a healthy mix of old “Keep Austin Weird” establishments as well as slick and trendy shops and restaurants. It is also a great place for photography.

During the evening and especially one the weekends, it’s a fun place to people watch and a good place for street photography. Unlike 6th street, which is populated by colorful people (i.e. drunk college kids, the homeless and various people eking out a living), you have more families, tourists and hipsters. You lose a bit of that edgy urban feel but it’s a safer and more friendly for a mainstream audience. You can catch both, if you are so inclined. SoCo closes up early for Austin, usually by 10pm. 6th, on the other hand, doesn’t get going until 10pm.

If eclectic details and colorful lights are more your style, SoCo has that covered too. While I enjoy street photography, my first love is colorful urban landscapes. The place comes alive for this, from the evening into night. There is enough neon and worn, old buildings to add a level of authenticity and interest. The suburbs in the U.S. are boring and many of its city centers are not much better. I think SoCo is interesting, both photographically and for regular people, precisely because it’s different. It is not the homogenized, often duplicated chain store experience.

My friend Dan came in from California. He’s a photographer too so we had a mini photo walk last week. We ate at Hopdoddy, my favorite burger place, which is really an upscale burger restaurant. The only downside to this place is the wait — there’s usually a line out the door. While there are many great restaurants in SoCo, I tend to gravitate towards well executed basics. Hopdoddy gets my burger vote and across the street, Home Slice is one the best New York style Pizzerias in town. Unfortunately, the wait at Home Slice can be equally bad.

Allens Boots, SoCo - Austin, Texas
SoCo Closeup Map
It was nearly 10pm by the time we finished our relaxing dinner. South Congress Avenue was already quiet on this Tuesday night. We organized our gear and headed south. It’s been a while since I did HDRs on South Congress so I brought my tripod and trusty Olympus E-PM2 and as usual, my Panasonic 14mm f2.5. But I also packed my Olympus 14 – 42mm kit lens. I found that changing lenses gives me a different point of view, sometimes stimulating new ideas.

I shot the Allens Boots image, for example, at a 34mm equivalent which compressed and narrowed the angle of view more than my usual wide-angle photos. It allowed me to cut most of the non-descript building and concentrate on the interesting neon elements.

I’ve been lucky enough to review some expensive cameras recently, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Olympus E-P5. They are fantastic cameras and I enjoyed them immensely but my personal Olympus is still the low-cost E-PM2. It’s easy to get wrapped up in gear talk, I’m certainly guilty of it, but you don’t need fancy cameras to take great pictures. The Olympus E-PM2 with lens now costs about $450. This camera is more than enough for most people. I shot all the photographs, except the first one, with this standard kit lens. I hope you will agree that this camera and lens combo can make excellent images. Of course, the technique had something to do with it too. These photos were all shot on tripod at ISO 200 and I used HDR techniques to blend images together. I use HDR to increase the dynamic range and boost the colors that I like to emphasize.

This is a photoessay of a 2 block stretch of South Congress Avenue. SoCo is not very big. But there are so many interesting details, it’s very dense, photographically. The first photo of South Congress Cafe is located near Monroe Street. The photos follow a northerly progression, ending up at Guerro’s located at the corner at Elizabeth Street. Look at the map and you can tell how close these stores actually are.

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, SoCo - Austin, Texas

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, SoCo – Austin, Texas

I remember Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds from 20 years ago. This vintage clothing store was around before vintage was cool and when the SoCo area was a slum. It’s nice to see the gentrification of this area has not driven out all the old businesses. Believe it or not, there used to be a Nissan Car dear around here too. I forget the exact spot but the area has surely changed.

Tesoros, SoCo - Austin, Texas
Window Display, Tesoros - Austin, Texas

Many of these stores, including Tesoros, have wonderful window displays.

Crossing over Elizabeth Street, you get to Guero’s, a popular Tex-Mex Restaurant. We got there just as they were cleaning up. Normally, they have outside seating under the awning. The place looks extra clean with the tables and chairs removed. The building is wonderful, with tons of character. The inside is neat too.

On the other side of building, there is an ultra colorful neon sign. I think of it as a SoCo landmark of sorts. Hopdoddy’s is just north of the colorful sign, so we came full circle.

Parking in SoCo can be challenging at times. There is diagonal street parking on Congress Avenue but this fills up quickly during peak hours. There is neighborhood parking but many spots are permit only, so watch out.

We parked in a lot behind Hopdoddy’s. You can get the parking ticket validated for a free hour or so when you eat there. We stayed longer so our fee was $5. Just as we were ready to go, Dan and I saw this beautiful neon sign and its colorful glow. We had to breakout the cameras one last time.

Neon, SoCo Parking - Austin, Texas

Neon, SoCo Parking – Austin, Texas

Dan said he was ready to come back again. Next time we’ll cover the area north of Hopdoddy’s. I will most certainly do a followup post if we do. The question is do we get a burger again or go for some pizza?


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11 thoughts on “SoCo, Austin: Color, Lights and Details

  1. I love the PM-2. It’s my favorite of all the cameras I own. The quality if great, the size is comfortable and I’ve almost got enough lenses. Almost. Not quite, but getting there. I use the P3 a lot too, though. I change cameras instead of swapping lenses. Faster in the field.

    1. I do exactly the same thing when I have the two Olympus cameras with me. One lens on the E-PM2, usually the wide-angle. And on the E-P3, I have a 25mm f1.4 or something like that.

      I rarely swap lenses, just cameras.

      1. With the 4/3 cameras, it’s not such a big deal to keep a few cameras, each with a prime of its own. Light, compact. Love’em. Just totally love’em 🙂

  2. You are one of the few photographers that doesn’t give HDR a bad name. For the above photos did you use three exposures or more? How far apart are the exposures bracketed? Keep up the good work. It’s a joy to follow along with your adventures.

    1. Thanks Tom. All of the images were created from 3 bracketed photos, 2 stops apart. Usually, I shoot at -2,0 and +2 stops. For neon, I shift it down 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop for all 3 exposures.

  3. I REALLY enjoyed this post, Andy. The photos are absolutely wonderful, and the story held my attention the entire time. I’ve never been down to SoCo after dusk, so it looks like I need to put this on my bucket list!

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