A few strategies for a walk through the heat in downtown Austin. With a camera.

the bar scene on Austin's Sixth Street is widely known to be a class act. 

We had a cool, wet Spring. The first part of June followed along for the ride; but last week we headed back to typical, mid-Summer, Texas weather with heat indexes heading past 107 degrees and an intense sun unfiltered by any clouds. Hot. Sweaty, grimy, oppressively hot.

We're getting the edge of a monster heat wave that's ripping through California and our adjoining states in the Southwest. You've got to have sympathy for the folks in Palm Springs where the temperature is predicted to hit 118 on Sunday and 121 on Monday. Yikes! 

But you can't spend the Summer hiding in your house with the curtains drawn and the air conditioner panting. So even on the zany days I like to grab a camera and go for a walk. I know downtown is a heat sink, what with all the asphalt and heat transferring, reflective buildings but that's where all the stuff is. Like today's 2nd St. Music Festival. And Voodoo Donuts. 

It's Saturday so I hit the pool for swim practice at 8:30. When we finished at 10 the usual crew headed to the local coffee shop to catch up. I made it home in time for lunch. The family consensus was BBQ. Ben's been up in New York all Spring and there's little stuff you can really call good BBQ outside of Texas. Tennessee BBQ? (chuckle) that's just smoked meat with sweet sauce poured over the top... I have no idea what transplanted Austinites do when they find themselves in upstate N.Y. with a serious hankering for perfectly done brisket or ribs.... I guess they just suffer until they can get back and get in line at Franklin's, or Pokejo's. 

At any rate, the afternoon was going by quick so I grabbed a small camera and got ready. Walking sandals? Check. Sunscreen on face and arms? Check. Long sleeve technical fabric shirt with an SPF of 50? Check. Khaki shorts? Check. Decent hat? Check. Non-polarized sunglasses? (All the better to see screens with...) Check. Seemed pretty thorough but on days with UV at 10+ on a scale of 0-10 I was looking for just a little more protection. 

A couple of years ago I bought a UV umbrella from Whole Earth Provision Company. It's a small, collapsible umbrella with a reflective, silvered fabric on the side that faces the sun and black fabric on the side that faces Kirk. It's a perfect piece of portable shade, and since big swaths of my usual route are in direct sun I decided to bring it along. It's really kind of cool (literally and figuratively) to be able to bring your own shade with you...

I stuck a clip on my belt so the umbrella could hang out while I was shooting. And away we go. 

I parked my car in the usual, shaded spot and started walking downtown with my Sony a6300 and its 50mm f1.8 SEL lens (the APS-C version, not the new product disaster version...). I was about 20 minutes into the walk when I pulled the camera up to my eye to shoot yet another boring shot of the skyline with cranes when I noticed the distinctive visual pattern of a dust spot, dead center in the frame. And if it's big enough to see in the finder it's got to be a whopper.

I clicked the shutter and examined the image in review. Yep. A big hunk of dust hanging out right in the middle. I found the shutter cleaning feature in the menu and tried it several times. No luck. No happiness. I sighed. It was too late to turn back. I cruised on with the knowledge of my compromised camera weighing on my mind. 

The halfway point on my walk is the (nicely air conditioned and open to the public) Austin Convention Center. I ducked in, grabbed a drink of cool water from one of the water fountains and found a comfortable chair, and then I put on the reading glasses, popped off the lens and took a look at the sensor. Yep. There it was, a white piece of dust big enough to be seen by the almost naked eye. 

Against all logic and good sense I tried to blow it off with a puff of breath. Fortunately, the heat had dried me out so no spit flew onto my sensor. I came to my senses, put the lens back on and decided that the afternoon's take of photos would create a good opportunity to practice my retouching skills later on....

I left the convention center and wended my way down Sixth St., past the sleazy bars and the homeless panhandlers, past the Oxfam volunteers and Save the Children volunteers with their bright tee shirts and their clipboards with petitions and pledge cards. I stopped from time to time to document some of the better logos and signs on display --- like the one for the Dirty Dog Bar and the one just below, for the Velveeta Room (just love the microphones around the top half of the sign). 

And, of course, I am endlessly fascinated with the mystery of tattoos. I can't buy a shirt I'll like for more than a season or two, how do people think they'll want to keep tattoos all their lives?

Eventually I made it back to the car,  after stopping by Book People to get the latest copy of Photo District News. All in all, a pleasant way to spend a quiet Saturday afternoon. 

When I got back home Studio Dog gave me the look that said, "Where the heck have you been and why didn't I get to go?" She makes me laugh. She hates the heat. We would have gotten about three blocks before she would have plunked down and refuse to go any further. But I guess that's never the point...

The dust spot came off with the first puff of compressed air. All good now.

Hmmmm. No recent Austin music festival seems complete without the appearance of underwear models. I'm not sure of the connection but it's nice to see that not everyone in the city is getting fat....

Every once in a while I make it by Esther's Follies to see if Kerry Awn has painted new murals. 

See Austin! And then please go back home...

I always wonder what they really mean when people tell me their cameras are "obsolete."

A Spread from the Kipp School Annual Report. Designed by Gretchen H. 

We are a culture of obsessive, serial upgraders. We're always looking for the "best" solution to imaging projects; as though the camera was responsible for creative decisions or building rapport with a subject. I get it when people upgrade because a feature like video might open up a new business opportunity. After shooting my first commercial project in 4K video I now get why someone might upgrade to take advantage of new video technology. But, looking around at the visual landscape, I'm not sure that upgrading still cameras is a very effective tactic. 

The longer the "digital revolution" drags on the more I am convinced that "heretics" like Ken Rockwell had it mostly correct when he preached that 6 megapixels was as much resolution as most photographers would ever need.  Or when he wrote a long piece about sharpness being an overrated parameter when judging the success or failure of an image. We've all moved on from 6 megapixels to 16 or 24 or even 50 megapixels but there is hardly any indication that the final quality of most advertising or editorial imaging is even marginally improved, in any sense, over what the previous generations of cameras provided us. 

More and more I hear from people who think their cameras have become "obsolete" because the company who made their camera has come out with an updated model. Many times the update has very little to do with image quality and is introduced as "new and improved" based solely on newer features or the fine-tuning of features none of us asked for in the first place.

While we've eventually found some uses for things like wi-fi, GPS, panoramic modes, super high frame rates, in camera HDR and more, most of these things have absolutely nothing to do with making images of higher overall visual quality and everything to do with slaking the mass market's camera attention/boredom disorder. People would rather master the working methodology of a new "feature," and find some sort of seemingly practical use for their newly mastered feature than actually practice the discipline of concentrating on the visual projects they previously professed to love or enjoy. 

It seems they are more interested, for example, in mastering GPS and being able to show people exactly where, on a map, they took a photograph than in taking the time and effort to actually make the photograph interesting enough that people would enjoy looking at it. Does it matter where in the world an image was taken if the lure of using new technology side-tracked the user to the extent that the example image failed miserably? And I am sorry but nearly everyone I know who is busy geo-tagging their images is profoundly....boring.

Does having HDR in a camera create a subconscious desire to stop looking at the subject matter you used to like in preference for new type of subject matter that might better show off the technical proficiency of the HDR feature you are attempting to master?

Is the compulsive use of super high frame rates really producing more "perfect moments" or is it just instrumental in building a library of almost identical images, the bulk of which are boring garbage but are good at showing off the speed at which you can operate the shutter?

I think about these things as I hear from friends, and even readers of the blog and then I open the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet closest to the door of the studio and rummage through the samples from years (and decades) past and try to see if I can actually see a difference in the final products of the cameras I use today when compared to past generations. 

The image above is a good example. It was taken with what most of us would now think of as a primitive camera. The camera was the quirky but lovely Sony R1. It boasted a 10 megapixel sensor, a slightly smaller than APS-C sensor and a two frame raw buffer. The lens was great but the AF was slow and kludgy by today's standards. The EVF was small and of a low resolution, and the camera lacked any video capability. 

But when it came out the R1 was viewed as a fine and very workable picture taking machine. In fact, because of, or in spite of its limitations I worked hard to deliver well lit and well seen image constructs to its sensor. The image in the brochure above is a tight crop of a much wider frame. The overall design project won Addy Awards for the design and photography, and it still shows well today in my portfolio. I can't think of a single "improvement" in my current cameras that would have made the images we created for the brochure any bit better. Even 11 years ago the technology already existed to make photographs whose technical qualities generally exceeded the talent of most practitioners. 

The one thing that makes me believe that this "obsolete-ism" is a false crutch is the fact that every time someone asks an audience to envision their "ultimate" digital camera the vast majority of audiences always come up with the same basic requests:  All I need are XX megapixels (whatever the current average is). I'd love a camera with no extra junk on it that I never use. I'd love a camera without video. I want the controls to be very simple and straightforward. I don't need or want any of the silly filter modes or picture modes; like sport, or lunch or baby mode. The menu should be drop dead simple and not cluttered up with too many choices. 

I think what I hear when people say, "My camera is obsolete, I need to upgrade to...." is really, "I am too lazy to go out and work to get good shots. I am too lazy to perfect my technique. It's a hell of a lot more fun to just play with new cameras. Maybe this year's camera will have an auto-pro mode that will make my photographs more interesting." 

I'm not pointing a finger at anyone else. I'm guilty of exactly the same thing.