SXSW Photowalk with Google and Trey Ratcliff

Earlier this year, during South By Southwest (SXSW), Google sponsored a photowalk with an appearance by Trey Ratcliff of Stuck in Customs.  I decided to attend, making this my first photowalk, the fact of which is a real shame since I live very near a city with a vibrant photography community. 

Being a photowalk noob I wan't sure what I should bring.  The walk was going to start with the sun up but end well after dusk - should I bring a tripod for nighttime photos?  What about lenses?  Filters?

Arriving at the steps of the town hall building with Trey Ratcliff at the top of the stairs.

I decided to walk around with my 5D III, 24-70mm f2.8L II, 70-200 f2.8L IS II, Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod and BH-55 ball head.  I slung the camera over my shoulder with a Black Rapid RS-5 strap and the tripod over the other shoulder with a Manfrotto 401N Quick Action strap.  I even brought a few filters - circular polarizer and a variable ND filter (who knows, if the clouds were right I could do some slow shutter architecture work).

As part of Trey's introduction speech he mentioned he was bringing just one camera and just one lens, a fisheye.  Well, dang.  I may have overpacked.

Special Event.

This was a very large photowalk event with several hundred people in attendance.  We were a mob that moved around the city with what seemed like a singular directive - document EVERYTHING.  Since this was during SXSW, people came up to us thinking we were paparazzi and tried to get a glimpse of the celebrity we were stalking.

With Darth.

Trey was very engaging.  He took time with everyone who had a question or who wanted a photo op.  In not very much time he has become a photography institution.  His blog, ebooks, and videos have allowed him to pack up his Austin residence and move to New Zealand and now runs his empire from somewhere in Middle Earth.  He has a very interesting story and I suggest you visit his site and read more about it.

Tone-mapped Highrise in Austin.

What's the point of a visit with Trey Ratcliff if you don't come away with an HDR or HDR-esque image?  Trey made his name in HDR tutorials.  Even today when you google the immensely popular high dynamic range technique, it's his name that nearly tops the results.

Interesting passers-by were welcoming to the multitude of cameras being shoved in their faces.  In Austin, people are probably used to being subjects - especially those people who tell interesting visual stories.

But be ready to be a subject yourself!

Google Glass.

 This was one of the early public appearances of Google Glass.  There were about 3 people sporting the spectacles and all were very popular with the photogs.

Partygoers on 6th Street.

Austin is chock-full of interesting people - it doesn't take SXSW to realize this.  But during SXSW they come out in full force and it's awesome.

After all is said and done I didn't use my tripod once, despite hauling it around all day.  I didn't use any of the filters.  And, surprising to me, I only used one lens - fittingly, it was the 24-70mm "walkaround zoom."  Now that I'm addicted to the photowalking experience I intend to really pare down the kit I lug around for next time.


Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas is a diverse town with a rich culture that runs the gamut from government and academics to night life and sports.  Though not quite considered a "small" town, it still has a small town vibe (except for Mopac anywhere near rush hour during the school year).  Yet, Austin is big enough to have a little something for everyone. 

Recently, a good friend came to visit and we decided to take our cameras and walk around the city and check out some of the the more prominent landmarks.

The Texas State Capitol Building. Canon 5D III, 17-40mm f4.0L @24mm, f5.6 for 4 secs.

The Capitol Building at night is lit up on all sides.  Even when the sun goes down it's still a popular tourist attraction.  Luckily for photographers, when we capture low lit scenes we tend to need long exposures.  Long exposures have a convenient way of eliminating unwanted pedestrian distractions and it can look like we have the entire site to ourselves.  Here the walkway was teeming with people but you wouldn't know it!

University of Texas Tower. Canon 5D III, 70-200mm f2.8L II @70mm, f11 for 30secs.

While we were on the University of Texas campus the university was celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the Humanities Department.  The tower was lit with the number "100" going down the sides.  However, this was also the week Longhorn Nation lost Coach Darrell Royal, the man who brought Texas to sports prominence and established the school's football program among the elite in college football.  I took the original image into Photoshop and rearranged the lights in the windows to symbolize what many believe to be Coach Royal's greatest contribution to the sport, the wishbone offense.  Without going into the intricacies of the offensive scheme, the wishbone has a very unique formation out of which all the plays are ran.  Directly behind the quarterback is the fullback and flanking the fullback are two running backs on either side.  The lights above are how that formation would look on a chart.  With all due respect to the Humanities Department, this is how the university should have lit the tower that week.  (The Longhorns did run out of the wishbone for the first play against Iowa St. that weekend in honor of Coach Royal's passing.)

University of Texas Tower, Canon 5D III, 70-200mm @85mm, f7.1 for .8secs.

Here's the top of the tower seen through the trees that line Speedway Drive.  We walked around campus looking for a just the right set of trees to frame the tower and found them a block away to the east.  The trick was to capture the tower, the trees, and the stars in one image. 

6th Street, Austin. Canon 5D III, 14mm f2.8 @14mm, f22, for 1.3 secs.

To the delight of the students, 6th Street is just a quick walk south of campus.  This area of Austin is renowned for its live music and active night life.  I wanted to get a shot that showed The Frost Bank Building looming over the bars on 6th Street.  The beautiful Frost Bank Building has come to dominate the Austin skyline and from this angle it looks like a large clockwork owl ready to wreak havoc on the partygoers, Godzilla-style.

Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial. Canon 5D III, Sigma 50mm f1.4 @50mm, f2 for 1 sec.

No single person more personifies the Austin music scene as Stevie Ray Vaughan does.  SRV was taken from us in 1990 but his musical legacy is just as strong today as ever.  This memorial statue sits on the other side of Lady Bird Lake from downtown Austin.  When we arrived it was pitch black.  There are no lights shining on the statue.  This poses a problem for any photographer that forgets to pack a flash.  I may or may not have been said forgetful photographer, but luckily my shooting partner had his.  The conundrum here is that I had no way to trigger it off-camera.  We solved this by setting the camera on a tripod and choosing a long exposure.  Then we manually triggered the flash during the exposure.  With no way of adjusting the flash's intensity in pilot mode we had to adjust our distance from the subject with our feet.  After a few test shots we found a good distance and took the above shot.  It was a very low tech solution but it worked!

Pennybacker Bridge. Canon 5D Mark III, 17-40mm f4L @ 31mm, f22 for 40 secs.

Our final stop was Pennybacker Bridge on Loop 360.  The bridge has a cliff on its north side, but the legality of scaling the cliff to get this shot exists in a grey area.  You aren't allowed to park on the side of the road, but there are clear and obvious trails leading up from what looks like a parking area.  Regardless, like any self respecting photog we threw caution to the wind and disregarded personal safety to get the shot.  The cell phone towers over the right side of the bridge are an eyesore during the day, and perfect cloning fodder, but at night they light up and add delightful visual element to the background.  Austin's lights can be seen on the horizon to the left.

Austin's night scene is lit with vibrant lights of many colors, as if metaphor for Austin themselves.  With cities in general, sometimes it's fun to get out and photograph a side you don't usually see.  For me, I'm normally in Austin during the day so when it gets dark Austin can look foreign and different - and that's the spice of personal projects like this.


Durango-Silverton Train Ride

Durango is a small, picturesque town in southwest Colorado and is most noted for being the starting point of one of the few remaining heritage railways, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The city is a train lover's Mecca. Operating continuously since the early 1880s, the D&SNGR is one of a dying breed and a well-preserved echo of America's past. Freight traffic waned in the early 1950s and were it not for an increase in tourist fair it's possible that the railway would today be nothing more than a footnote in history.

With rolling stock, the fleet of vehicles that use a railway, dating back to the 1880s, the D&SNGR offers a locomotive-loving photog a rare chance to capture still in-use titans of a bygone era. For shots outside the train, many places in and around the city of Durango offer unobstructed vantages of the train as it passes by. If you choose to stay in Durango check with your lodging's administrator for a train schedule.

Durango-Silverton train passing through an RV park.

However, nothing beats taking the train. I'd recommend choosing to ride in one of the open air gondola cars if you want to take pictures. A bit of warning, though, if you choose a gondola seat be prepared for rather dramatic changes in temperature. On average Silverton, the destination city, is about 10 degrees cooler than Durango and sometimes those mountain gusts can bring a good bit of chill. Dress in layers.  Also, avoid dressing in white due to the coal-fired nature of these steam locomotives!  Speaking of which, glasses, protective or otherwise, are a good idea.

A very popular train picture is of the D&SNGR at the Highline cliff, with the Animas River down below. If you want a shot of your own try getting a seat in the last gondola car, preferably on the right side. You'll know it's coming when the train decelerates to a crawl as it chugs up the incline leading to the face of the cliff.

Traversing the Highline. 5D, 17-40mm f4.0L (25mm) @f4.0 for 1/1250s

Highline shots have become the train world's equivalent of the ubiquitous male peacock portrait (you know what I'm talking about) or holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have one of your own!

The end of the line is in Silverton. Silverton is a charming old mining town beset by mountains with much of its original early 20th century architecture still being used. The train will pull right up to downtown's Blair Street, before being turned around for the trip back home. You'll have ample opportunity to photograph the train here, but if you're scheduled to make the return trip on the train be quick because Silverton is worth exploring as well. You'll probably want to eat after spending over 3 hours on the train!*

Durango-Silverton Engine No. 482. 5D, 17-40mm f4.0L (19mm) @f6.3 for 1/30s

Thanks to the trained staff (who operate, maintain, and run the trains) and volunteers help keeping this treasure alive, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad gives us all a glimpse of a time otherwise relegated to history books or imagination. We are all richer for their efforts.



*It should be noted that the $9 Frito Pie will not last you the trip back to Durango, unless you intend to spend $18. But that's a lot of Frito Pie.