Go photograph the world from your neighborhood. No plane tickets and passports required. If you have limited time or budget, going to these cultural events allow you to step into another world while staying at home. It’s excellent for photography too. I can practice, make mistakes and hone my street shooting, locally, without any pressure. I can experiment with a new technique or new gear. And it’s wise to do this before you go on that expensive international trip, if the opportunity ever presents itself. About a half-year after I went to this parade in 2011, I got an unexpected chance to go to India and Singapore. Shooting in those foreign lands was much easier because of the experience I gained here in Austin.
The Parade Route
For my first parade in 2011, I used my, then new, Olympus E-PL1 with the 20mm Lumix lens. I just started down the one camera, one lens journey, moving to lighter cameras and less gear. I’ve modified my equipment style slightly but have stayed true, for the most part, to the less is more philosophy. This year, I brought my Canon 6D with the Canon 40mm pancake lens. The 40mm view worked so well last time that I decided to do the same again, although with a different camera. I also packed my Olympus E-PM2, mainly as a video camera, since the 6D doesn’t autofocus adequately when shooting video.
Before the Parade
I shot in and around the parade terminus on 5th street when I realized that I was an hour early. I decide to make the 1 1/2 mile walk to the start of the parade on East 6th street. And it was worth it. I got a behind the scenes look at the preparation. I also ran into some of my photographer friends that I haven’t seen in a while. Austin is still small enough that I constantly bump into people I know.
My week-long trip to Cancun this summer gave me a tiny bit more background on the history of Mexico, from its Pre-Columbian roots, the Aztecs and Mayans to the Spanish influence. I recognized the similar elements at the parade as I did at the tourists spots in Mexico. Though ironically, I probably got to interact more with the true culture here in Austin, compared to the decidedly more isolated resort and tourist experience in Cancun.
Parading Down 6th Street
The parade started exactly at 6pm as we walked westward towards downtown. We travelled along East 6th Street through the traditionally Hispanic and African American parts of town that appear to be gentrifying at a rapid pace. The sun was low and the shadows were long which made it difficult to shoot. I tried to use the shadows as design elements but mostly I did my best to avoid them, opting to, when possible, shoot in the even shade.
Traditional Aztec Dancers, somber, painted Catrinas and colorful costumes blended for an eclectic mix. I’m sure the Segways are not very traditional as well as other elements that are not familiar to me, but it’s a parade and it’s an excuse to have fun. Local Congressman, Lloyd Doggett even made an appearance. As we made it past the bars of 6th street, the fumes of alcohol and the party spirit must have infected the crowd. The level of dancing and rhythmic music seemed to amplify.
As a photographic challenge, using a single 40mm prime lens might be fun. But it definitely made me work harder — I had to get close to make interesting images. I couldn’t just stay on the sidelines and zoom in. I needed to dart into the parade and momentarily join in to capture my desired framing. Having a zoom particularly a 70 – 200mm has its advantages though. Make an easier shot is not the main goal, rather, getting a shallower depth and isolating the subject would be my main objective. I would also be able to compress the distance between the dancers to get an entire different kind of framing. Perhaps next year, I will use a single zoom.
Dancing in the Street
As we turned the corner on to Congress Avenue, the main North – South street in downtown, the parade morphed into a block party. Dancers and the drummers took over and the spectators joined in. Austin sure likes to have fun and the carefree spirit pervaded.
On of those new Capitol Metro double length buses passed by with the skull decorations. A nice touch.
While I shot exclusively with the Canon 6D during the parade, I began to mix in the Olympus E-PM2, initially to shoot video of the party like atmosphere. I also took some still images and, I admit, I really like shooting with the Olympus a lot more than the Canon. It’s not just a matter of size. I find that the exposure metering on the Olympus is superior and since I can compose using the back LCD, it allows me to shoot in a more free form way. This style of shooting also blended better with the mood. Having a big black DSLR to your face seems to remove me from the action. It works for sports shooting, when I need to concentrate on one subject. But here when the people are dancing around, the small light camera felt like a more modern and apropos device to capture the action.
The Olympus E-PM2 video quality is serviceable but ultimately a bit of a let down, especially after using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-P5. The E-PM2 video hunts too much and I see more compression artifacts. It still works however to get a quick video of the action.
As the light levels fell, I came into my element. Shooting at dusk and into the night is what I really like. As sunlight is replaced by the man-made urban lighting, the city comes alive for me. The Olympus does a pretty good job but I didn’t bring my f1.4 lens. This is where the Canon 6D shines with its high ISO capability. Even with my f2.8 pancake lens, I was able to shoot in the moderately dim.
Patricia, the woman in the skeleton costume was still dancing. She was a constant source of amazement and I offered to send her photos, if she was interested.
I absolutely love the warm glow on the mother and daughter’s faces as they previewed images from a photo session. It’s one of my favorites.
The Aztec dancers were still at it. I knew the light levels were too dim to get a clear shot. I decided to take the opposite tack and go for maximum (hand-held) motion blur. I switched to the Olympus, which has in-body image stabilization and set the shutter to 1/10 of a second. It took a bunch of tries with this hit or miss technique, but I created an image that I like. With both motion blur and some camera shake, the net effect is one of movement. The lovely purple nicely contrasting against the yellow ambient lighting.
Finally, I snapped a well dressed couple on Congress Avenue as I made my way back to my car. Shot here with the city as the backdrop and the ubiquitous technology in hand, it came out great at ISO 10,000.
I must have walked 4 or more miles and my feet were starting to tire as the cool air finally filtered into Central Texas. My back and shoulders held up though. I was able to carry my 6D with the 40mm lens plus the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 in my usual compact Domke bag. A nice, really compact setup. Not quite one camera and one lens like two years ago but not that far off either.
Here are all of the photographs I took at the 2013 Austin Dia de los Muertos Parade. There are extras I didn’t include in this post.
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