Holiday Lights in Johnson City, Texas.
Things were wrapping up nicely here at the studio, we enjoyed one of the best years for the business since 2000. Clients were mostly smart and reasonable, the weather cooperated through the seasons when I needed it too, and my choice of cameras, paired with the needs of the assignments, seemed to be good. So, there I was in the kitchen making Christmas cookies and eggnog when I got a text from one of my favorite clients from this year, an electric utility company headquartered in Johnson City, Texas. "Could you come out to our facility sometime this week and make photographs of our holiday light display???"
I put together a jaunty little estimate and the client approved it right away. The weather was going to be perfect last Friday; sunny and clear, highs in the 50's and lows in the upper 30's, so I planned to go then. I asked my wife if she wanted to wrap up work early and go with me. We left Studio Dog to finish decorating the Christmas tree and we headed West, into the Texas Hill Country.
I wasn't sure what exactly to expect so I brought along two different cameras and some lenses. I brought one of the "Swiss Army Knife" Panasonic fz 1000 cameras and also the Nikon D750 with the 24-120mm lens and the 50mm Art lens. The most important tool was the Manfrotto video tripod with a Manfrotto convertible ball head that allows smooth horizontal pans but also allows vertical orientations for still photography. Nice to have a solid, steady base.
Like a typical city slicker from a big, hipster town, I was expecting to be underwhelmed by a holiday light display in a tiny, little town out in the Hills (about a 45 minuted drive from the outskirts of Austin). Thought maybe they'd strung some lights from a few trees and run a chain of lights along the roofline. But I was game. I was ready to get out of town and do something a little different, and having Belinda come along with me was a nice bonus.
We got into town when the sun was still shining and did a quick survey of the site. Seeing it in the daylight at least let me see just how much effort went into stringing the lights. Not only were the trunks of the trees wrapped but also just about every branch.
We left the car next to my client's facility and walked around the town. The ancient courthouse was also strung up with lots of lights and every antique store in town had rummaged up their best Christmas stuff from days long gone and displayed it in the windows, and on the sidewalks.
As the light started to drop we headed back to the car so I could grab the tripod, put quick releases on each camera, and figure out where we'd start. There was a corner with a good view of the location just across the street. I figured I'd go for the wide establishing shot first. As the light dropped we felt the chill of evening swirl around us and we got our hats and gloves out of the car. Still waiting for the lights to come on we watched a Johnson City Police car park across from us. The officer smiled and said, "Are you the photographer the utility company told us about?" I told him I was and he smiled and said, "Anything you need from us, just ask!" And he proceeded to move a big van that had parked right in the middle of our view. For the rest of the evening no one parked adjacent to the facility, on the side of the street that might have occluded my viewpoint.
With a clear shot of the dark trees we waited while hopping from one foot to the other to stay warm.
I was being a jaded Austinite, dismissive of the whole affair, right up until the lights started to blink into life. Tree after glorious tree lit up until the entire property was bathed in a sparkling ocean of small lights. The effect was stunning. I kept trying to wrap my brain around how to shoot such an immersive experience. It was a visual wonderland. Everywhere one looked on the property the lights shimmered and glittered. My photographs don't do it justice. I can't imagine how to photograph something like this in order to get all the effect that one's eyes see as they move around the scene. Light from toe to the sky.
We were the first ones there but the walking paths and sidewalks filled up quickly. Lots of families with small children, lots of (well behaved) teens taking selfies, a couple of older guys with cool cameras came complete with tripods, and looked pretty dang competent. Old ranchers and their wives in crusty boots and working jeans. It was beautiful. Just beautiful.
I shot with the Nikon and the zoom for most of the evening and the results were great. This is a good example of a situation where live view is effective. It was so fun to see the results firm up through a big loupe on the back LCD. I used the Panasonic to shoot about five minutes of video, which also worked well.
Around seven thirty we were getting cold and hungry so we headed back to the car and drove over to the brew pub in town. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea and the wait would be about 45 minutes for a table. I remembered that the last time I was up in Johnson City (a month earlier) the client brought some really good breakfast tacos to our shoot. I happened to ask where they came from and she told me, "El Charro, right over on hwy. 281." I suggested we head over and see if they were serving dinner; maybe get some Tex-Mex food. El Charro was small town funky, with bright, overhead fluorescent lighting and a cobbled together dining area, but the food was really good. My "Texas" plate with two enchiladas, guacamole, rice, beans and carne guisada was $6.99. And there was no way I could finish it all and not have to lay down and nap for a few hours afterwards. Great service too.
Refreshed, renewed and re-warmed we headed back over to get a few more shots, this time with more people in them, and then we headed back to Austin. On the way home Belinda turned to me and said, "That was really great. It's nice to know that, at our age, we can still be surprised and delighted by a great display of holiday lights. That's the best I've ever seen..."
I spent some time yesterday getting ready for Ben's homecoming from college and then I headed back into the office to do post production on my Holiday Light shoot. The images required a bit of color correction and some light-handed clarity enhancement but all in all I loved them.
What a great "last job of the year" this was. And the coolest thing about it all was being able to share it with my best friend.