This Little Piggy

There are some things you can’t explain. Sometimes you just snap a photo and move on. I’m not sure what this little piggy was doing this dreary morning in New Braunfels. Was he on his way to market? He certainly seemed out of place. Or maybe it was I who was out of place. Queue the Twilight Zone theme music. We passed in the cross walk. Things seemed normal thereafter. Maybe it was just a glitch in the Matrix.

Sometimes You Just Need to Take a Little Time

It's been quite some time since I've updated this blog.  I don't really have a good reason for my absence.  It wasn't any one thing.  I'll confess that I had thoughts of calling it quits on the blog.  There was doubt as to whether anyone was getting anything out of it.  I wondered myself whether it was benefitting me or just becoming one more thing on my already full plate of stuff to do in a given week.  Then I was frustrated about some aspects of the Blogger interface and debated moving to another platform.  Failing to commit and make a move, it came down to sheer procrastination.  That and other aspects of my journey in photography had my attention.  A lot has changed in the months that I've been quiet and I feel like I've got more to say and share now.  Maybe I just needed a little time to mull things over.  In any event, we're back with a fresh new look.

There have been some changes in the sorts of things I shoot, my equipment, and my mindset and style.  Over time I've figured out more of what I like to do with my cameras.  More things are clear and at the same time I feel that I'm still just in those early steps of learning this art.  I'm more comfortable working with human subjects - not an easy thing for an introvert like me.  That said, I'm most at home on the streets doing urban landscape photography - especially in small Texas towns.  I also love night photography.  Long exposure photography also has my interest piqued and I plan to delve into that more in the near future.  I've found in the past few months that I also really enjoy photographing hockey (ice) games and I did a lot of work for the Texas Stars hockey club this past season.

My equipment has changed quite a bit and I've branched into several different directions there.  I have a Canon 5D Mark III now that I use for sports, events, and portraits.  It's a great camera, although kind of pricey!  Coming from my old original 5D, the autofocus system alone is enough to blow me away.  Speaking of the 5D, it's gone.  I'd like to have kept it around as a backup body but a recent promotion by Fujifilm got the best of me.  I like my trusty X100 a lot (it's still my favorite camera) and was wanting to play with one of Fuji's X-trans sensor bodies with interchangeable lenses.  I ditched my old 5D and my 17-40mm lens to get a Fuji X-E1 along with the 14mm and 35mm lenses.  The X-E1 will be covering my wide angle and normal focal lengths while the 5D Mark III pretty much lives with a 70-200mm lens attached.  The X100 remains as my "everyday" camera.  Have I lost my mind?  Nah.  I'm quite happy with my decision and I'll talk more about the Fuji stuff in a future post.

I had previously mentioned that I was going to be playing a bit with film photography.  That has become quite the understatement.  Since late last year I've acquired a small collection of film cameras as I've found deals online.  I've gone through quite a few rolls of black and white film.  You can check out some of my film shots here.  I'm loving it!  Maybe I am losing it after all; I get more enjoyment out of 60 year old cameras than state of the art stuff like my Mark III.  

Stylistically, I've been gravitating more toward black and white lately.  I like it for a lot of subjects but not everything.  A large part of my personal work is black and white.  I'll definitely be spending more time honing my skills in this area.  On the other hand, an area that I'm trying to spend much less time in is post processing.  I'd much rather be out shooting than pushing pixels around in Lightroom or Photoshop.  Don't get me wrong - post processing is important.  It just isn't the main event for me.  I'm continuously looking for ways to speed up my workflow.  I'm also shooting more JPGs lately with the Fuji cameras.  Yeah, you read right.  JPG.  Horrors!  I'll talk more about that some time in the future too.

That's the lowdown on what has been going on with me.  I'll talk more about the gear and other changes in subsequent posts.  It's good to be back.

The image at the top of this post was taken recently on Guadalupe St. (aka The Drag) in Austin by the UT campus.  This was taken with the Fujifilm X-E1 with XF 35mm f/1.4 lens.  B&W with red filter simulation, JPG file from camera was processed midly for contrast and clarity in Lightroom.

Photowalking in B&W with the Fuji X100

I recently attended a photowalk with a small group of Austin photogs on the University of Texas campus. To be perfectly honest, I was less than thrilled with the location.  I've been there, done that several times before.  Since it was a chance to hang out with some good friends, I went along with my Fuji X100.

A few days prior to the photowalk I had stumbled upon some fantastic B&W images posted by Todd Gipstein in a Fuji forum.  They were straight out of the camera and they looked absolutely amazing.  I had no idea that this temperamental little camera that I'm so fond of could produce such rich monochrome images.  Normally I will shoot in color and spend a good deal of time in post production when I want to create B&W images.  As much as I like crafting images in post and seeing the results come to life, it can be tough to find the time with what life throws my way lately.  Since I sit at a computer all day at work, I would really rather be out capturing images than sitting in front of my computer for hours when I get home.  For this photowalk, my mind was made up.  I was going to shoot with in-camera B&W.

Before I met up with the group, I set my X100 to record a RAW file and a B&W JPG.  The X100 includes several B&W filter modes (yellow, green, and red.)  Since I don't have any experience working with filters in B&W, I opted to keep the camera set to standard monochrome.  If anything, the images might be a touch flat and I could easily add a bit of contrast later if need need be.  Hesitant to relinquish full control of image creation to the camera, I saved RAW files just in case.  Having RAW files would also allow me to play around later with in-camera processing and experiment with different filter and tone settings.

Further entrusting the X100, I set my ISO to auto mode and gave the camera a limit of 1600.  The X100 has proven itself to me in producing very clean images at that level.  Since I was shooting in B&W, ISO 3200 probably would have been just fine as well.  It gets only a bit grainy there.  I enabled aperture priority mode to let the camera pick the shutter, with 1/60 as a minimum.  Normally I shoot in manual but this time I wanted to focus more on my compositions and this left me with one less thing to think about.  I would be able to quickly and easily bump the exposure as needed with the large EV dial on top of the X100 right by the shutter button.  With the camera setup with more control than I usually offer it, I was on my way.  Follow along and I'll show you a few things I found.

Texas State History Museum

I parked by the Texas State History Museum and took a couple of shots before meeting the group on the UT campus.  The huge star in front is one of my favorite Austin landmarks.  This is a shot where B&W was a good choice and the X100 did well in pulling out details from the shadows.  The sky is blown out for the sake of getting detail in the archways.  While I did like how the X100 handled the scene as you see it here, I did end up touching this one up a bit more in Lightroom.  Check that rendition out here if you like.

Under the Star

Across the street from the Texas State History Museum is the Blanton Museum of Art on UT's campus.  I like the archways in front of the museum and I noticed that they framed our state capitol building in the distance quite nicely.  The cool thing about setting my X100 to record a B&W JPG is that it lets me see the scene in my viewfinder as it will be recorded.  That makes it easy to adjust the EV setting to find the balance of tones.

View Down Congress from Blanton

The shot that makes me smile the most has to be one I caught of my buddy Alex's son, aka "Monkey Boy."  Good fun and he seemed to be enjoying snapping his own shots with an iPhone that you see laying on the sidewalk next to him.

Just Hanging Around

I'll readily admit that architectural photography is not my forte but I am fascinated by a lot of architectural details that I see.  I grabbed a few shots of these windows that attracted my attention.  Something about their uniform pattern that is appealing I suppose.  I especially liked the image with the stairway.  It is an interesting combination of shapes and lines to me.  One of my photographer buddies mentioned that the Fuji rendering looked a little soft.  I agreed in the case of these images and a bit of a contrast boost was applied in Lightroom.

Horizontal Windows

Vertical Windows

Boxes and Lines

This bicycle looks like it is ready for a trip to Mardi Gras.  It almost seemed a shame to render the image in monochrome and lose the colorful beads.  Black and white worked well for the scene as a whole though.  The happy photog who owns this bike stopped briefly to let me snap his portrait before riding off to our next stop.

Adorned with Beads

Photowalking the Easy Way

I've photographed the Littlefield Fountain on campus more than once.  Nevertheless, I couldn't pass up getting a shot in B&W.  With the bright late afternoon sun, it was a tough scene to capture and I was impressed with the X100's rendering of it.  Places like this are where the X100 can really show off its dynamic range.

Littlefield Fountain

The sun was getting pretty low in the sky as we came to the UT tower.  There was a nice warm glow to the tower and I'll probably process a RAW file or two in color later. The B&W rendering does more justice to the architecture I think.  It's just a classy look.

Ye Shall Know the Truth

Catching the Day's Last Light

There are a number of great statues on campus.  I usually end up getting a shot or two of some when I am wandering around down there.  Statues do make good subjects.  They don't blink anyway.  Barbara Jordan's stare is downright penetrating.  I always loved Umlauf's "The Torch Bearers."  The X100 really reached in there and pulled the details from the shadows created by the harsh backlighting.  The camera's lens resisted flare fairly well.

The Torch Bearers

Barbara Jordan Statue

One of my favorite features of my X100 is the built-in ND filter.  I noticed some flowers that I wanted shots of, but the background was really distracting.  With the ND filter enabled, I was able to open the lens wide open in harsh light to get an extremely shallow depth of field for a bokeh rich artistic image that I tend to favor over standard macro shots.  Rendering these images in B&W also helped with hiding bits of buildings in the background that would otherwise be very noticable.

Trumpet Shaped Blooms

A Pleasing Softness

The limitations I imposed on myself for this photowalk were actually quite liberating.  Armed with a single focal length and seeing the world around me through a B&W viewfinder resulted in a creative outlet that I found refreshing.  Letting the camera predominately decide my exposures allowed me to catch details I might have otherwise missed while fiddling with dials and menus.  Things like the warm glow coming through basement windows or an old bell hanging by a doorway.

Come In

A Basement in Austin?

The campus was almost eerily quiet.  Finals were wrapping up.  I guess students were holed up somewhere for last minute cramming.  The bulletin boards are still plastered with ads, many offering help for those not ready to face that last exam.  I don't think Rhodiola is going to help much.

Advertising Snake Oil?

Last stop on campus was the Littlefield house.  There's a great gothic look to it that I rather like.  You just about need some bracketed exposures and HDR to capture a scene like this.  The X100 again handled it well.  I like the B&W quite a bit over the color version that I could see with the RAW file.

Littlefield House

After cruising through the campus our group headed to Guadalupe St. (aka The Drag) for some pizza.  A few of us took our time on the way to the pizza place to grab some shots under the evening sky as the blue hour crept in.  I have to admit that I did revert my X100 back to color mode for a bit.  I mean, really, it is blue hour after all!  I'll share some of those shots another time.  For now, I'll wrap up with a shot of the restaurant store front in B&W.  I love shooting interesting store fronts at night with the warm light spilling out. They seem to work equally well in color or B&W.  So ends the photowalk.  Thanks for coming along.

Which Wich?

Street Photography - To B&W Or Not To B&W?

I recently did a bit of street photography with a couple of my photog buddies.  Generally, I take more pictures of things than people on the streets and taking photos of strangers is something that remains outside of my comfort zone.  I'll have to write more about that at a later time.  Suffice to say for now that on this particular photo outing I chose to mostly photograph street performers.  It feels better since to me since they are putting themselves on public display so I don't feel so weird about snapping a shot.

What I  really want to talk about is how street photography images are processed.  I'm only two years into the art of photography and I'm always looking for examples of the type of photography that I dabble in.  I've looked at a lot of inspiring street photography examples and I've noted that many photographers choose to process their street images in B&W.  I've wondered for some time why that is.  As I considered how I'd process my images taken on my recent outing, the idea of doing B&W conversions was at the forefront of my thoughts.  However, I resisted the idea for a number of reasons.

B&W conversion - not my preference for this image.  It seems a little too contrived to me.

I prefer this color version because it's true to what I saw.  The colors are somewhat muted due to the low sun creating harsh shadows.   It kind of gives the image a faded, dated look that seems to fit.   

One of my biggest concerns about B&W street photography is that it may come across as cliché.  While there are certainly many B&W street images that I really like, I'm rather adverse to doing something solely because it is "just what you do" based on a trend.  I don't want to go B&W just because that's what a lot of the great street shooters do.  For me to consider a photo to be a true reflection of me as an artist, I need to make the decision to go B&W for myself because it fits my preconceived vision for the image or because it's what the image "needs."

Another concern I have is whether a B&W image might be come across as impersonal or detached.  Veiling an image in monochrome sometimes has the effect, at least to my eyes, of creating distance between me and the subject.  This "distance" might seem chronological or personal.  Maybe it's that B&W images create an association with old photographs.  Maybe it's because street shots are often taken from a distance without the subject's awareness and a B&W representation might emphasize that disconnect.  This distancing effect is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that I keep in the back of my mind as I contemplate whether to go the B&W route with a picture of a stranger.  I think that there is a certain risk of jeopardizing the potential connection with a subject and ending up with a sterile looking image.   On the other hand, a carefully composed and processed B&W can make for a powerful and engaging shot.  It's just something to think about as you contemplate the B&W route.  Does the end result draw you in and help make a connection with the subject or does it create distance?  Is that your intended effect?

If I'm honest with myself, I think one of the reasons I am sometimes resistant to B&W photography is because I'm largely color blind.  Huh?  Wouldn't that mean that B&W would be ideal?  Maybe, but the thought of processing in B&W for that reason just doesn't sit well with me.  I do struggle sometimes to get accurate color representation and it can be very frustrating.  To process in B&W because my eyes don't perceive color like most folks in the world seems like a defeatist attitude.  If I'm going to do it, I need a better reason.

This is B&W conversion just didn't feel right.  I tried several methods and all seemed forced.  I purposely brought in the sun flare and its effect is lost in the B&W conversion. On the other hand, the performers stand out from the shadows better in this rendering.  

This is what I wanted - warm sunlight visibly streaking into the scene, bathing the performers.  I let the sunlight color the scene gently, creating a subtle faded look.  

So, what are some good reasons to process street shots in B&W?  The most common reason I hear is that it removes the distraction of color.  That concept struck me as odd at first.  I hadn't really thought of colors as being a distraction.  Maybe that is because I don't see color as vividly as most people.  There is definitely something to this.  In an urban scene, there will likely be plenty of distractions in a shot: cars, signs, buildings, lights, and, of course, people other than the subject(s).  All of these people and things will be sporting differing colors and that can create some visual clutter.  Processing in B&W levels the playing field, minimizing that distraction.  From there, careful contrast adjustments or a bit of dodging/burning can help lead the viewers eyes to the subject.

A B&W Lightroom preset worked well here.  The bright colors behind the girl on the bench are taken away and competing elements in the scene, such as the city skyline are less conspicuous.

A busy scene, a few bright colors, and harsh light create a lot of distractions.  The image could certainly be tweaked but B&W seemed like the best fit.

Another case where an image might benefit from a B&W conversion is when the subject is in a low contrast environment, such as a heavily shaded area.  I have found that it can sometimes be easier to add contrast to people and their environment in a shaded setting than a color rendering.  This can be used with great dramatic effect.  In instances where the subject is shaded but there are large areas of blown out skies, I find that a B&W conversion can help to deemphasize the disparity in dynamic range.

A B&W conversion can also evoke emotion and change the mood of an image.  The distancing effect might be purposely used to emphasize the idea of isolation or loneliness.  You might make a subject look stronger or more powerful with a high contrast B&W rendering.  Subtle toning of a B&W image with a warm or cool tone can completely change the way an image might be perceived.

B&W really fit the mood I was after here.  Distracting color and blown highlights were subdued.  I found the B&W conversion to be more dramatic, giving more attitude to this musician.

The color version could also work and perhaps if I hadn't engaged in conversation with this guitarist, I might have kept it this way.  He came across as a frustrated, struggling artist and I felt that was a bit lost in the color version.

Hopefully I've provided some examples and food for thought that will be helpful the next time you snap some shots of folks on the streets and contemplate a B&W conversion.  It was not my intention to make an argument for or against B&W street photography.  Like any photographic technique, I do think that the decision to go B&W should be carefully considered to determine if it is the right tool for what you are trying to accomplish.  It's a great technique when used discriminately.  There are no absolutes and only you can decide what looks and feels right.