Cruising the 2014 Austin Lonestar Round Up

The Austin Lonestar Round Up, an annual show for custom cars, was held recently and I stopped by with my buddy Mark to check out the sights.  I'm not a huge car guy myself.  Still, I can appreciate the art and creativity that goes into the making of a custom ride.  The sleek lines of more polished cars are great.  However, I tend to gravitate toward the raw, gritty, often rusty look of rat rods.

I decided to take in the show with a simple bit of camera kit.  Shows like these can be packed, making it difficult to get clean shots of the cars.  With that in mind I brought only my Fujifilm X-E1 with a 14mm lens.  This let me get in close and create the illusion of isolation even when I was surrounded by folks checking out the same car.

For a classic look I chose to shoot black and white - literally.  Rather than go the typical route of capturing in color and converting to black and white in post production I threw caution to the wind and captured B&W JPEG files only.  My X-E1 has a great feature of being able to simulate a few B&W filters so I bracketed a set of film simulations with the available filter choices (red, yellow, green.)  This allowed me to choose what looked best for the paint of the cars.  For the most part I tended to favor the red filter.

Here are a few of my favorites from the show.

One of the most fun things for me at custom car shows like this is to look for interesting and unique details that people add to their machines. I could spend hours looking over the cars to discover the creative and sometimes amusing little bits of detail that may not be apparent on first glance.

Mark found in previous years that as the show is wrapping up at the end of the day you can get some clean, isolated shots of some of the cars parked in a field.  We headed there as cars started to file out of the show and sure enough after a little while our patience paid off.  I was able to get a few relatively uncluttered shots that almost look like they could have been staged.

Great Music, Crappy Light - Shooting Live Music with the Fujifilm X-E1

Austin is a wonderful place to be for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is its huge live music scene.  I'm fortunate to know a number of talented musicians and I've spent some time lately shooting some performances for a few of them.  Getting great shots of live performances in Austin can be a challenge.  A lot of the venues have small, dark stages.  Stage lighting is often haphazard at best.  Such was the case at a couple of shows I covered recently with my Fujifilm X-E1.

It takes fast glass and high ISOs to get good shots in dark places and the X-E1 with the 35mm f/1.4 lens was my weapon of choice.  The first show that I covered was a happy hour gig with Red Dirt Rebellion at the Hole in the Wall, right on the Drag by UT near downtown Austin.  The guys are on the stage there every Thursday night from 7-9.  In this time slot it's still daylight outside for most of the show and the sun is pouring in through the window behind the stage.  Forget any automatic exposure programs, this is manual exposure territory.

For the most part, I had to be content with letting the background blow to oblivion for proper exposure on the guys in the band.  The above picture was an exception as a passing bus served as a short-lived flag for the hard sunlight.  I was shooting at ISO 3200-6400 to get the shutter speeds necessary to minimize motion blur of some animated performers.  Autofocus lock was a challenge with faces in shadow for the most part.  I found it easier at times to lock onto a guitar strap instead of facial features.

All of my shots were in black and white.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I captured raw + jpeg files, using the in-camera black and white red filter simulation for the jpegs.  I've found that the red filter simulation works quite well for enhancing skin tone in challenging light such as dark club stages.  The shots you see here are the camera jpegs, which I adjusted slightly in Lightroom - basically just an adjustment of black and white points to taste and a slight clarity boost.  Why not color?  What little light hit the performers was very red.  It just doesn't look good and to my eyes it's a huge distraction from the emotional intensity of the band.

It seems like the majority of Austin musicians have more than one gig going.  It's virtually a necessity for anyone trying to make even a partial living from playing music.  Several of the guys from Red Dirt Rebellion also happen to be the Swamp Bats, a gutsy blues-heavy rock trio.  I caught the Swamp Bats at the Red Eyed Fly in downtown Austin last Saturday night.  The Bats played on the inside stage in an awesome sounding room that was plagued by more crappy light.

The stage lighting went from bad to worse as I went from the Hole in the Wall to the Red Eyed Fly. There are a few reddish lights at the Fly sort of aimed at the stage.  They were positioned just right to practically nuke the fair skin of bass player Jack and barely feather guitarist Steve.  Jeff on drums probably had the best light but still not much to work with.  We're talking about ISO 6400, f/1.4, and about 1/60 seconds here!  There will be some motion blur, oh yes.

Since 1/60 was about the best shutter speed I could manage, I took a lot more shots in this venue.  I knew there would be lots of motion blur and that my keeper rate would be low.   To make matters worse, my autofocus only occasionally locked on.  It was just too dark for the X-E1 to handle most of the time.  Low light AF is truly the Achilles' Heel of the X-E1.  I was forced to manual focus for a lot of my shots.  This isn't as terrible as it sounds.  The X-E1 allowed me to zoom in on the focus point in the EVF for accuracy.  I focused while the guys were relatively still and kind of moved my body back and forth in concert with their movements to maintain focus.  Sounds awkward (and it was) but it worked.

So, is the Fujifilm X-E1 the ideal concert camera?  No, probably not.  That said, I won't hesitate to use it for that purpose.  The advantages far outweigh the negatives.  Its small unassuming size means no questions at the door to the club about bringing "pro equipment" in without forms and permission.  The image quality is stellar.  ISO 6400 is no sweat at all.  If you're like me and love B&W, you need to check out X-E1's in-camera film simulations.  They are truly something special (don't worry if monochrome isn't your thing - the X-E1 kicks ass in color too!)  Could I get better results by converting the raw files?  Yeah, maybe.  However, when I'm capturing hundreds of shots of a band I don't want to do all that post processing.  The camera files are more than good enough and they have plenty of latitude for pushing the pixels in post if you want.  The only real downside to me is the autofocus sensitivity (or the lack thereof) in low light.  It's not insurmountable and worth the minor frustration for some great looking shots straight out of camera.

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.