6.01.2021

Echo. A 'nongallery' art gallery. In Johnson City, Texas. This makes Johnson City a better day trip from Austin! Many, many photos.


I was (temporarily) bored with taking photographs around Austin and had some time to get out of Austin this past Sunday. My first (and last) destination was to Johnson City. I've been here many times before but somehow my schedule and the schedule of a gallery called, Echo, never really matched up. I seemed to only be in town when they were closed. Not so a couple of days ago. The gallery was open, well attended with customers and browsers, and full of all kinds of treasures.

While there was plenty of good, contemporary art on the walls there is also a large collection of more bizarre  and visually interesting eclectica as well. The gallery has both interior and exterior spaces and around every corner there's some little treasure or interesting antique. I'm a fast browser, usually, but I spent nearly two hours discovering all the hidden objects of interest; from a mannequin with a vintage, Braniff Airlines, flight attendant uniform to modern votive candles with various political figures on them. Sculpture and paintings, art constructions and ancient books, and lots of weird, interesting furniture and furnishings from the 1960's and 1970's. The owners were "Texas Gracious" and welcomed each person who came through the door. They saw my camera hanging over my shoulder and invited me to "take all the photographs you want!" 

Part of my reason for the mini-vacation (four hours) was to more thoroughly test out the combination of the Leica SL2 and the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art lens. The invitation to photograph anything and everything was like manna from heaven. I was itching to give the camera system a workout with lots of stuff in close and medium range distances. And it was so nice to have new things to photograph which were visually compelling; at least to me. 

Here's my advice to Austinites interested in spending some time in Johnson City. Get up late, drive to J.C. and arrive in time for lunch at Pecan Street Brewing. It's a decent-to-good, inexpensive restaurant that serves good-to-excellent craft beers and lots of food like hamburgers, salads, etc. It's located on Pecan St., right across from the old courthouse. The staff is friendly and they know how to provide good service. After you've had a nice lunch head south by one block and go to the Echo Gallery at 100 N. Nugent Ave. It's on the main drag that runs through the center of town. You'll want to spend some quality time there, and be sure to bring your camera!

Here's their web address https://www.echoinjohnsoncity.com The owners (Dallas transplants) really get art and have a passion for sharing it. 

After you spend quality time in the gallery

The first twenty minutes in Johnson City. Leica SL2 and Sigma 24-70mm Art lens.

The SL2 has a high contrast, monochrome setting. It actually works 
pretty well. This has been enhanced just a bit. It's better to 
start with a lower contrast and work your way up to something 
stronger than to try to go the other direction!

Johnson City is nothing like Austin. It's really a tiny town surrounded by ranches and ranchettes and it's "on the way" to lots of "somewhere else." Austinites go through Johnson City to get to Fredericksburg, Texas and Enchanted Rock. San Antonioans head through on their way to Marble Falls, Texas, and the lakes. A few history buff faithful are drawn here for the LBJ museum and tours of Lyndon Johnson's ranch. There are two or three decent (just decent!) restaurants and the main street is lined with antique (Texana) shops, little galleries and tiny wine shops. The wine shops are there to support the growing Hill Country wine industry. But there's nothing fancy. Nothing at all like the wine bars in Napa.

The building above is an old, corrugated metal warehouse that's now "The Market." It's a tiny "mall" that's go lots of small display areas which represent different mini-merchants. Lots of rented stall spaces. The perfect place to go for some kitschy western wear, some t-shirts with, "Proud Texas Mom" screen printed on the front, and woodworked stuff with Texas themes. I'd never been in before and I walked through with a small smile glued to my face. I ended up with a genuine, big smile when I found a fun coffee cup. I bought it. It's basic white and it has nicely designed words on one side. It reads: "I'm so lucky people can't hear what I'm thinking." It was either that or one that said: "I'm sorry, did I roll my eyes out loud?" 

I drank my coffee from it this morning and was still amused. 

And I still can't figure out why the mini-mall has this skeleton sitting in the back corner. Left over from Halloween?

I will say that it looks good in black and white as well...


The sky in Central Texas has been in a dramatic mood for the last week and a half. I thought we had gotten all of our weather excitement out of the way in February with the great, pipe-bursting freeze but it looks like we're in for wet and wild weather for at least the next ten days. That's okay, we need all the water we can get in the highland lakes. I have a feeling the new transplants to Texas will demand enough water to soak their St. Augustine grass on a daily basis through the hottest part of the Summer...


An interesting thing about the Leica SL2 is it's slightly lower overall contrast when compared to other, similar cameras. The files from it seem more mellow and pliable. It's a fun camera to shoot but I've found that if you keep it on all the time the left hand side of the camera gets warm. I'll dive into the "power saver" menu when I have time and try to effect a better compromise between screen shut down and my tolerance for reduced battery life. I'm sure there's a magic middle ground.

I turned the corner just above and discovered the gallery I visited. It was pretty amazing. More about it in the next post...

I am very much warming up to the Sigma 24/70mm Art lens I recently picked up. I did a lot of handheld photos in the gallery at ISOs as high as 4,000 and even at f2.8 the lens is sharp everywhere. And the camera's I.S. supports the lens well. It's a nice match. 

What a funny year. I'm booked so sporadically right now. A big project (not yet signed... but pending) about Texas wine coming up. A corporate/banking event in Alabama in September. A gala at the lovely Four Seasons Hotel here in Austin for a non-profit in November. And now stuff is starting to fill back in around the edges. An executive portrait one day, an ad for a medical practice on another. It's starting to feel like "back to normal."

I'm having fun with the new blossoming of work. And the renewal of relationships with clients from pre-pandemic times. 

 

My first venture out with the SL2 coupled to the Sigma 24-70mm Art Zoom. Still in downtown Austin.


There are a number of things I am happy about when using the SL2 camera and this particular zoom lens. First of all I think the camera has pretty exquisite color balance which means I can get absolutely close, if not exactly on target, to both the colors and the tonality I want straight out of the camera. For full disclosure, I almost always tweak the contrast of my files a bit and sometimes add some additional saturation but in many cases, from the Leica, I have to do nothing at all. Being a normal human I usually try to make each file just a little better but most times it seems like over correction and I head back to the original.

In the case of the image just above, I am delighted with the color and tonal rendering of the clouds, the sky, the sunlit parts of the building on the left and the gentle rendition of the shadow on the same building. The utility pole is awkward but since this image was more a test than a testament to fine art I was okay with including it because it functioned as a good showcase of mid-range sharpness for the lens. 

I bought the lens to replace the Panasonic/Lumix 24-70mm S-Pro. I was able to re-sell the lens with very little money leakage and I thought I'd be fine just using the Panasonic 24-105mm f4.0 when I needed a mid-range zoom. But then Leica announced their new 24-70mm and I'm pretty well convinced that it's the same optical assemblage as the Sigma Art series at less than half the price. Multiple reviewers testified to its class leading sharpness and I decided it would be an even better match with the cameras I am currently using. I found yesterday that I really like shooting it wide open and even though it's a bit counter-intuitive it really does drop backgrounds nicely out of focus with a full frame camera. At f2.8, at nearly all focal lengths, it's very, very sharp. 

(More following a few images...) 


I have a habit of coming back to the same general scene over and over again because the continuity of subject matter provides useful data points for comparing how various cameras and lens render images differently, even with similar lighting and camera settings. If I'm looking for the ultimate in image quality with the SL2 (a 47 megapixel camera) I generally try to stay at an f-stop of 5.6. I've been indoctrinated into the camp that somewhat fears the effects of diffraction and I'm convinced (accurately or not) that high pixel density sensors are more impacted by lens diffraction than sensors with fewer but large pixels. 

With the 24 megapixel cameras, like the Panasonic S1 or the Leica SL, I'm willing and comfortable to stop down to f8.0 and sometimes f11 before I start to torture myself about the theoretical sharpness robbery of bending light rays.

It's not fair to expect you to extrapolate much, visually, from the sample just above since it has been reduced down from a zillion pixels to just 2200 on the long side. But I do have the original file and I've looked at it all the way up at 200% on a Retina monitor (5K) and found that the sharpness and detail in the photo is amazing. And I expected no less from this combination. I was, after all, shooting at every optimum setting I could conjure.

(More following a few images...)



My casual photography doesn't depend very much on lightning fast reflexes or cutting edge, continuous AF since most of the things I photograph for fun tend to stay quite still. What I care most about is how beautiful the colors and tonality of the images are. The image above is fun for me because I'm shooting through glass in the afternoon, I've got reflections of cars and lights galore and my "model's" ability to hold a pose is astounding. When I was photographing the scene just above the camera kept focusing on the dirty window surface instead of on the mannequin. Just touching the focusing ring changed the camera from AF to MF and also magnified the center of the image so I could focus with great precision. 

Given my way of photographing I've been trying to adjust the SL2 to imbibe in batter power less aggressively. I finally (today) plunged into the menu to "camera settings" where I found "power saving." I set the turn off time for the system and the display to 10 seconds. After I take a series of images the camera waits to see if I want to do more and, if after 10 seconds I haven't touched a control, it turns off. One touch of the shutter button and the camera comes right back to life. I only changed this today but I just finished a long, hour and a half walk with the camera turned on the whole time and I'm still seeing a battery icon that shows fully charged. Nice. Now I can leave that second battery at home...



I don't know if this ever happens to you but sometimes when I walk downtown I'm the only one around who carries a camera. And when I pass people who are heading somewhere to celebrate something I often get asked to "take our picture!!!" and so I usually do. This was a quick shot with the lens set to 70mm and the aperture set between f4.0 and f5.6. I didn't think about it much until it came up in Lightroom. I hate that the guy on the left has his face burned out but I decided to keep and show the image because of the incredible detail in the face of the man with the glasses, in the middle. I've included a tight crop from the frame just below. If you click on the image and look at it large I think you'll agree that the detail in his hair is outstanding. (see below). 



Now I've worked with the Sigma 24-70mm and the SL2 on three or four days of walking around photography as well as doing a bunch of close up work with the combination in the Johnson City gallery yesterday. I'm ready to render a preliminary opinion: It's a really good lens. Especially for the low price.  And it's resolution, sharpness and contrast are a nice match for the high res, Leica SL2. 




For an event job, like the banker's conference in September, this lens, along with the 70-200mm f4.0 S-Pro would be all I would need in my camera bag. One bag. Two lenses and two camera bodies along with a bevy of batteries and I'm set. It's nice to think about. Add a flash or two and you could do so much work.


 Here's my assessment of the commercial photography business going forward. It's eerily like the advice I was giving out after the brutal recession of 2008-2010. The market is coming alive again, at least locally. Clients are past ready to get some projects out the door and they've saved a ton of budget over the past year. But just like eleven years ago many of the requests I'm getting are asking for a combination of traditional photography and, at least, the ability to offer b-roll video; both in event work and advertising projects. It's almost a given that you'll be able to provide both. They aren't looking for turnkey, high end video projects but it's almost mandatory to provide some interesting footage for social media.

That's okay with me. All the cameras I use can go both ways pretty easily. It's just nice to see the market start to recover and look almost healthy again. I'm picking and choosing but I'm also finding clients are very happy to be working with their favorite vendors once again --- and that's nice for everyone.