2015 Year in Review

The end of 2015 leaves me with a strong mix of emotions as well as the challenge or grappling with the realization that another year has come to an end so quickly. I'm overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude as I look back on all of our travels this year, but at the same time, I carry a sense of sadness knowing that this will most likely be the best year of travel in our lives. To put it simply, we've had one hell of a year... And, I may finally understand what Mark Vanhoenacker meant about constantly finding yourself in new environments. 

"Place lag, unlike jet lag, may get worse with the passage of time. A huge proportion of our memories relates to the most recent minutes, days, or weeks of our lives. So the first days in a foreign city, even as our bodies begin to adjust to the new time zone, fill our minds with the accumulating incongruities of a new place, displacing the presence and immediacy of our now distant homes. The world gets stranger by the hour." - Skyfaring

For starters, we travelled south to San Miguel de Allende and learned what it truly is like to live in Mexico, away from all the spring-breakers and tourists of Cancun or a Playa del Carmen. A few weeks after returning from Mexico, we headed to the Fart East with our first stop in Tokyo where we enjoyed some of the most amazing food and hospitality from the Japanese people while checking off the number one item on my bucket list. From Tokyo, we took a bullet train to Kyoto where we experienced the amazing bamboo forests and Buddhist temples. From Kyoto, we travelled back to Tokyo via bullet train and flew directly to Beijing where we learned to live without the internet for a week and leaned in to our adventurous side when it came to food and navigating the massive city. 

A few months back in Chicago, we traveled to Napa Valley and Sonoma for our one year wedding anniversary. Northern California holds a special place in my heart and this trip further solidified that feeling when we spent an afternoon tasting some of our favorite wines on the Matthiasson family farm. We traveled back from Northern California and packed our bags for Paris. As I write this, I still find it hard to believe that we ended this year with a temporarily living arrangement in Paris, France (not to mention taking a sabbatical). I couldn't think of a better way to end the year of international travel by taking time away from work and living life in Paris with my best friend. 

And, I should note that up until this point I haven't even counted the number of weddings, graduations, funerals, baptisms and family or friend commitments in between each of these trips. Like I said in the opening, I'm filled with excitement and gratitude as I recount our experiences from this past year. While I feel it may be the most traveled year of our lives, we have a strong foundation for the years to come. 

Up next, Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. Then on to Australia and New Zealand.

All photographs were taken with the Sony A7 Mark ii, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA, and Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OOS.

Paris

My wife and I recently returned from living abroad in Paris, France. We ended up moving to France this fall for Sam's career. She was selected as a top candidate for her talent exchange program. As for me, I decided to take time away from work and focus solely on exploring the city with my wife and my camera. Our flat was located in Batignolles which is part of the Seventeenth arrondissement just northwest of the center of Paris. We ended up in the Seventeenth because we wanted to live away from major tourists areas and really gain a deeper understanding of what it's like to live in Paris. We also wanted to live with the Bobo's (also known as Hipsters) of Paris.

For starters, I can't explain how beautiful and inspiring Paris is as a city. It's architecture, history, food, wine, art and its people are truly unique and, despite all stereotypes, friendly. While living in Paris, I made it a point to capture enough moments and journal entries to create a coffee table book for our home. I wrote every morning while enjoying a cup of coffee at Café Kitsuné and then headed off to explore a new arrondissement and create photographs. The coffee table book is a work in progress at the moment and this post is the first step towards scanning and processing both my journal entries and photographs. I hope to have it complete later this winter and will share a few images when its complete.

Our time in Paris was definitely a highlight in our lives and I can say without a doubt that we were able to see the city in a way that can't be done if you're simply visiting for a few weeks. Our trip was my first and I know for certain that it won't be our last.

All photographs were taken with the Sony A7 Mark ii, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA, and Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OOS.

Napa Valley

Sam and I spent some time in Napa Valley and Sonoma this summer celebrating our wedding anniversary. We had never been before however it's always been high on Sam's list of places she's wanted to visit and it's a location that doesn't required a lot of convincing for anyone.

We stayed in a small guest home on a beautiful vineyard which we found through Airbnb. The owner was an older woman who lived there with her dog and leased the vineyards to local companies. I can't imagine living in such a remote and beautiful part of the country. It's hard to imagine waking up and looking outside your window to the hills and vineyards that make up Northern California.

While visiting, we spent an equal amount of time in both Napa Valley and Sonoma, with the latter being where we started our explorations. Sonoma, in my opinion, was the better of the two locations. We met Holly at The Shed on our first day for a private lunch and tasting from one of our favorite producers, Lioco. From there, we visited several of the vineyards along the main routes to and from Sonoma. I still remember the Lioco experience incredibly well. The wine, the fresh produce and the amazing food served by the friendly waitstaff at The Shed. I should mention that we're by no means wine connoisseurs, just huge fans of the "The New California", or minimal intervention, crowd of wine producers including Lioco, Matthiasson, Massican, etc. These wines generally are much lower in alcohol, have a more subtle flavor profile and are meant to be paired with food. That's about all we know!

While we really enjoyed the Lioco experience, it could not compare to our time at the Matthiasson's home and vineyard. A few months before traveling to wine country, I contacted our favorite wine producer, Matthiasson, and offered to do some pro bono consulting. Instead, they invited us to their home during our trip and Jill Matthiasson hosted a wine tasting from her and her husband's personal collection. It absolutely made our trip - we enjoyed some fantastic wine and made some new friends.

We ended out trip with a large meal at The Fremont Diner before driving back to San Francisco. I was a bit concerned about the diner being somewhat of a tourist trap, but the food ended up being great and I'm really glad we took the time to visit. Once back in San Francisco, we waited to board our flight back to Chicago. And it was only a few weeks later, while waiting at SFO again, that Sam told me that we would be temporarily relocating to Paris, France in the fall.

But more on that in a future post.

All photographs below were taken with the Sony A7 Mark ii, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* 35mm f/2.8 ZA, Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4.0 OSS, and Fuji Neo Classic Instax Mini 90

Fuji Instax: Friday Morning overlooking the San Francisco Bay

Fuji Instax: Saturday morning view from our small guest house

Kodak Portra 400

Most weekends I find myself waking up early, enjoying a cup of coffee with my wife and spending time with my photography. This time can span editing, photography or reflecting on things I've learned recently. That said, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of my most recent learning with Kodak Portra 400.

I've spent the past few months exploring medium format film photography in addition to refining my creative style in photography. While the former has yielded significant learning and growth in a short period of time, the former has been a work in progress for the past five or six years with the most significant growth being the last two to three years.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I expect my creative style to continue to evolve as I gain a deeper and more advanced understanding of the craft. That said, I believe photography will be a life long learning process and I don't expect to ever experience a moment where I feel I've stopped learning or growing as a photographer.

Kodak Portra has been an amazing discovery for me and has helped me grow quite a bit these past few years, but it wasn't until I really began exploring the depths of Portra 400 over the past few months that I truly started to grow. More specifically, I've started to analyze the slight nuances of various Kodak Portra 400 stock variations including Kodak Portra 400, Portra 400 NC (Natural Colors), Portra 400 VC (Vivid Colors) and Portra 400 UC (Ultra Color). Kodak has a great overview if you're interested reading a more technical specification of each film stock.

While some of these variations are no longer produced as film stock, I've had to rely on digital color profiles. My preferred option at the time of this writing is VSCO Film Pack 02. When shooting film, I've been using Kodak Portra 400, but when shooting digital I'll work within the color profiles provided in the VSCO film pack. One of my goals as a photographer is to continue to refine my exposures and significantly limit my post-processing (both in time and effort) by capturing the best image straight out of the camera. SOOC is one of my favorite aspects of shooting Portra Film on my Hasselblad. The images that camera produces are so beautiful and require zero post-processing. As for the Sony A7 Mark ii, I've found it best to focus on capturing the best image SOOC and then applying the VSCO profile and adjusting only the Exposure and White Balance as necessary.

While Portra is positioned as Portraiture and Wedding film stock, I've found it to be an amazing film for everything from Portraiture to Street and even Landscape. As with any film, there are certain scenarios where it truly shines and others where it struggles a bit, but I've found Portra 400 to be the best all around film both in latitude of exposure and look and feel. When I first started shooting film I really wanted to love Fujicolor Pro 400H, however it hasn't resonated with me as much as Portra. Maybe that will change over time, but the whites and natural tones I capture with Portra 400 and Portra 400 UC are hard to beat. When comparing Portra 400 and Fuji 400H using the same photo, I tend to find truer whites with Portra where Fuji 400H casts a more creamy, even magenta-like, tone to the overall image. There are some insanely beautiful images captured with Fuji 400H which leads me to think I either have not found the best way to expose with this film or simply put it doesn't align with how I create images. 

I took a photograph this morning and applied the various VSCO color profiles of Portra 400 to help visualize some of the nuances mentioned above. In my opinion, Fuji 400H would align much closer to the cream and magenta tones found in Portra 400 VC. I've been very pleased with the Portra 400 and Portra 400 UC images below and believe they align closer to my creative style while maintaining the reality of the scene. The big difference between the Portra 400 and Portra 400 UC images is the warmth. Portra 400 has a much stronger classic blue Kodak tint to it, while Portra 400 UC has a bit of warm, but not to the extent of creating strong cream or magenta tones found in Portra 400 VC or an equivalent Fuji 400H.

I'll continue to experiment with Fujifilm Pro 400H but in the meantime will be spending a great deal of time shooting with Portra 400, both with my Hasselblad and Sony A7 Mark ii.

All photographs below were taking with the Sony A7 Mark ii and Sony Sonnar  T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA. All images were processed using Adobe Lightroom and VSCO Film Kodak Portra 400 color profiles.

Kodak Portra 400 Color Profile, SOOC, A7 Mark ii

Kodak Portra 400 UC (Ultra Color), SOOC, A7 Mark ii

Kodak Portra 400 NC (Natural Colors), SOOC, A7 Mark ii

Kodak Portra 400 VC (Vivid Colors), SOOC, A7 Mark ii

Beijing

The first and most significant observation when stepping off our flight from Tokyo was how close in proximity yet how incredibly different in culture China and Japan are from one another. It's truly something you have to experience. No photos, documentary, or even blog post can describe the feeling of culture shock you experience, especially as an American.

For starters, China seemed to be a much larger group influenced culture where Japan was very individualistic albeit grounded in some form of "for the greater good" mentality. From the swarms of old men and women practicing Tai Chi in the local parks to the military or government-sponsored demonstrations throughout the city, Beijing gave off a vibe of community-driven activity and more subtle, and at times not so subtle, themes of government's role in the people's lives and China in general. The Chinese people were also more expressive and vocal in public when compared to our experience in Japan.

Of all the countries Sam and I have travelled to, China was the most difficult for us in terms of language barrier. That said, the people of China were very welcoming and helpful. We encountered a few Chinese locals who requested photos with us which was an interesting albeit fun experience. In addition to curious locals, we were able to find a few unbelievable meals off the beaten path including a local dumpling shop (Sam's favorite) and a peking duck meal (my favorite).

The most inspiring part of China was visiting The Great Wall of China. Similar to culture shock, there is no way to describe, or even capture in photographs, the beauty and all awe-inspiring feelings you experience when hiking, and at times climbing, The Great Wall. To this day, I struggle to wrap my head around how something so large could be that detailed and consistently designed - especially at the time that it was built.

Overall, China was an excellent addition to what originally was planned to be a Japan-focused visit. I'm very glad we made the decision to extend our trip and grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time in both countries.

All images below were taken with the Sony A7 Mark ii, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* 35mm f/2.8 ZA, Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE  16-35mm f/4.0 OSS, and Leica  24mm f/1.4 Summilux.

Japan

Visiting Japan during the Cherry Blossom season this year as part of our far east adventure was one of the most life-changing experiences I've had throughout our travels. I've always been fascinated with the far east, especially Japan, and have wanted to visit since I was a kid.

My wife, Sam, and I travelled to Japan as part of a larger trip to Tokyo, Kyoto and Beijing. We landed in Tokyo after flying direct from Chicago ORD on a Boeing 777 and spent the first week and a half in Japan admiring the Cherry Blossom's before traveling to Kyoto via the JR Rail, also known as the Bullet Train. From Kyoto, we took the JR Rail back to Tokyo and flew direct from Tokyo NRT to Beijing, China PEK.

The first few days in Tokyo were overwhelming and flew by very quickly - from walking through the gardens filled with Cherry Blossoms to witnessing the crowds of salarymen and tourists at the Shibuya Crossing to experiencing the arcades and storefronts lines with manga, video games and action figures in Akihabara. The food was fantastic, and from a consistently standpoint, the best I've ever experienced. Arguably, the best meal we enjoyed was an Omakase style lunch with Chef Mizutani in Ginza. Or maybe it was Fu-Unji in Shibuya.

I think what struck me the most about Tokyo was how welcoming and warm the Japanese people were to us and to each other. Imagine Tokyo as a clean, friendly, and quiet (with the exception of Akihabara!) version on Times Square in New York City... it was surreal. Living in Chicago, Sam and I couldn't get over constantly being aware of our surroundings and ensuring we weren't walking in to any shady areas. At not point in my entire visit, day or night, did we feel out of place or unwelcome. We enjoyed some of the best meals and experiences since deciding to travel the world, including attending the Opening Day Japanese Baseball Game and our early morning visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which apparently will be moving outside the city in the near future?  

The Bullet Train ride to Kyoto was more beautiful than I had imagined. After spending time in a mega city like Tokyo, we had the opportunity to see some of the countryside, or more rural parts of Japan, as well as a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. We met an older man on the train who insisted on practicing his english with us and demonstrating his knowledge of the United States. In addition to our conversation, he provided us with a sketch with rough english-written recommendations of what to avoid or enjoy during our brief visit.

During our time in Kyoto, we experienced a good amount of rain and unpleasant weather however the Temples and Bamboo Forest were beautiful. The Temple's provided incredibly bold and bright colors, amazing attention to detail and an environment that truly felt as if there weren't tourists surrounding the temple. As for the Bamboo Forest, the colors, size and consistency of a natural environment reminds you of the power of nature and how small we truly are. 

There are so many amazing things about Japan and while we spent a good amount of time there, I left feeling like we had only scratched the surface of this country. That said, I believe Tokyo is the only city where I would drop everything and move there in a second. No questions asked. The Japanese people were amazing hosts and I cannot wait to return to explore and learn more about such a beautiful country.

Images below were taken with the Sony A7 Mark ii, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA, Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OOS, and Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is always a great time to pause and reflect on all that you're grateful in your life. For me - it's my wife, family and friends. That said, we welcomed our newest member to the Schroepfer family this year.

My godson, Myles Stewart Schroepfer.

Image was taken with a Sony A7 Mark ii and the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA.


San Miguel de Allende

As I slowly finish the most travelled year of my life, I’ve found some time to review my photographs, experiment with medium format film and print, and continue writing. Coming up on the winter months in Chicago as well as almost ten months since visiting San Miguel de Allende, I’d like to consider this the first of several retrospective posts to come in the next few months.

Having grown up in Texas, Mexico was always the closest international trip available. But in my experience, the Mexico I knew was filled with spring break partiers, beautiful beaches and various western hotel chains. It wasn’t until I landed in Guanajuato, drove through some rough areas of rural Mexico and arrived in San Miguel that I knew I hadn’t ever experienced authentic Mexico. This small albeit insanely beautiful city is now, and will always be, my ideal Mexico.

There are many aspects of San Miguel that I love, but my absolute favorite has to be the colors. From the clothing to the food and buildings, the city is alive with bright, bold colors. From strong reds and oranges to bright purples and blues, there are minor aspects that may remind you of Nice, Monaco or even Paris, but the colors found in San Miguel are unlike any other place I’ve visited. In addition to the beautiful colors, San Miguel, is known to be home to various artists, writers and creative individuals including photographers who have created exhibits solely on the intricate architectural details. As I spent time exploring the city and connecting with its people, it left me feeling more inspired and creative every day. From merchants on the streets to interactions with our guides, I found the people of San Miguel to be genuinely open, warm and welcoming. I absolutely loved our time in San Miguel and look forward to returning in the future.

Images below were taken with the Sony A7 Mark ii, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA, Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OOS, and Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux.

Creative Exposure

I’ve been working with RPL for a few weeks now, and like any relationship, feel like we’re getting better at understanding each other and how we work. For the record, I’ve been very impressed with their scans from the start, but I believe I’m getting much closer to my preferred exposures. Looking back at my previous post, Explorations in Medium Format, you can see how most of the photograph is washed out and even has a bit of a faded look to it. This is due to human error in measuring the hand metering computations, resulting in an over-exposed photograph by at least four or five stops by my estimation. 

The following photograph is the closest representation to where I’m hoping to find most of my exposures moving forward. I’ve been focusing on refining exposure and hand metering throughout these first few batches of photographs, so while the subject matter may be lacking, the focus is really on finding the appropriate range of exposure that aligns both technically and creatively with my vision.

Hasselblad 500 C/M, Kodak Portra 400, Overexposed 2 stops n an overcast Fall afternoon

Creatively, I love how this photograph has a decent amount of contrast and has a rich saturation to it. Unlike the first few posts, this photograph doesn't appear to suffer some of the previously noted downsides like blown out highlights, slightly faded subject matter, and too bright of an image overall. I also really enjoy how well the Zeiss 80mm Planar T* f/2.8 singles out the subject matter when shot wide open at f/2.8. In addition to tack-sharp focus, the bokeh rivals that of the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA which has been rated one of the two best (and sharpest) auto-focus lenses available today. Overall, it's impressive that such an old camera still competes, and in some ways still exceeds, modern digital technology.

And I often have to remind myself, it's not just the camera technology. I can’t stress how amazed I am by out of the camera color profile of Fujifilm 400H and Kodak Portra 400. In fact, I find myself struggling to decide if I should shoot with Fujifilm or Portra as both have their strengths and weaknesses but more on that later. The color profiles in combination with the Hasselblad’s bokeh and tack-sharp focus leaves little to be desired and further solidifies the 500 c/m as one of the most rewarding and intimate photographic experiences I’ve had in my life. Now, back to shooting before we're snowed in for the next four months.

All images were taken with the Hasselblad 500 C/M and the Carl Zeiss 80mm Planar T* f/2.8 on Kodak Portra 400. All images were scanned and processed by Richard Photo Lab in California.

Explorations in Medium Format

It’s been almost a month since I decided to explore the world of Medium Format film photography. In the past three to four weeks I’ve accomplished a decent amount. For one, I was able to find a Hasselblad 500 c/m in perfect condition thanks to the insane antique camera market in Japan. In addition to acquiring the right camera, I tracked down an amazing photography lab, Richards Photo Lab (hereinafter RPL), courtesy of Johnny Patience (his blog is the best resource for Hasselblad film photography that I’ve found) and acquired a beautiful hand made camera strap thanks to New York’s Justin Waldinger of Tap & Dye. All that took three to four weeks? Yep.

One thing I’m learning, and very much appreciating, when it comes to film photography is: patience. I’m so conditioned to plug and play, run and gun, or whatever you want to call it. My Sony A7 Mark ii has a problem? Download the latest firmware. Did I nail the focus? Hold on while I chimp the beautiful high resolution screen. The Hasselblad has none of that. It’s literally a black box (albeit a gorgeous black box) with a piece of Zeiss glass that does all the work for you. No batteries, no in-camera metering system, no automatic film advancement, not even a dial to set the film speed. It’s such a different world from digital photography, and in some ways, for the better. Sure, there are things that I absolutely love and miss about digital photography, but I’ve never felt so connected to the art and craft of photography as I do when I’m shooting with my Hasselblad. Some may chalk this up to the honeymoon phase, and while I’m not sure that’s the case, we’ll have to see over the next six to twelve months. To be clear, I don't plan on converting to a film elitists, but I do plan on exploring the art of film photography as much (and maybe even more) than digital photography.

Significantly over-exposed due to improper hand metering, but still my favorite.

I received my first few rolls of film back from RPL the other day and my basic goal for the first six to twelve rolls is to find the preferred exposure. I’ve mentioned my interest and technical vs. creative analysis of exposure in previous posts and I’m currently going for a little bit of both. Technically, finding an appropriately acceptable exposure - exposing for the shadows, avoiding any muddy underexposed darks or blacks. Creatively, finding the appropriate amount of saturation and contrast - overexposing by at least two to three stops. Given that the Hasselblad offers little to no features outside of taking the photograph, I’ve been carrying around a journal and documenting the type of film, the metering settings, as well as the f-stop, shutter speed, and focal range. Metadata ftw.

My way of tracking the Hasselblad & Film stock metadata

To sum up my first few rolls, I’ve achieved half my goal. That half being the technical view of exposure given that not a single shot was underexposed. That said, I made some nearly critical mistakes in hand metering… I’ve experimented with film before - from a Canon AE-1 to Fuji Instax, however each of those cameras has mechanisms to help with metering. Hand metering is a whole different beast that I royally screwed up. In retrospect, it’s not very difficult at all, but having to learn to hand meter, turn various analog dials to compute the appropriate f-stop and shutter speed with no feedback mechanism didn’t go over very well the first few rolls! While I was able to avoid underexposing my photographs, I often overexposed way too much. Thankfully film, especially my choice of Portra 400 and Fuji 400H, have amazing latitude and allow for such significant overexposure without ruining the photograph.

Metered for shadows, but again, miscalculation = slight over-exposure and camera shake

Creatively, I don’t believe I’m there yet. That said, it's my first fifteen shots... Also, I believe finding your creative style with regard to film exposure will be much easier with film than with digital. Digital photographers, myself included, spend a good amount of time (those who say otherwise are lying. I promise.) finding that “look”. Whether it’s hand editing every photo in Lightroom, using self-made presets, exploring VSCO Film presets, or even applying Instagram filters… None of this matters with film photography. The choice of film is most likely the hardest creative decision you need to make. This philosophy aligns with my interest in further perfecting the shot within camera, regardless of digital or film, versus capturing an acceptable photograph and then spending time in post-processing. 

When using a Hasselblad 500 c/m and Kodak Portra or Fuji 400h, the color profiles are closer to my creative vision than any digital photograph I’ve ever taken.

I’m not sure if it’s medium format, film’s latitude (read: forgiveness), the Hasselblad’s Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 glass, or a combination of the three. While the photo’s I’ve posted aren’t quite there yet, I can already see how gorgeous my future photographs will be with regard to color profile and artistic look. And with regard to digital, it’s the opposite. I’m very proud of some of the digital photographs I’ve created, however there’s always *something* that just doesn’t seem right. Exploring the differences and commonalities between the Hasselblad and Sony A7 Mark ii has been a lot of fun and I'm hopeful I'll be able to further refine my vision both in film and digital.

For now, it’s back to the Hasselblad and refining the creative aspect of exposure.

All images were taken with the Hasselblad 500 C/M and the Carl Zeiss 80mm Planar T* f/2.8 on Kodak Portra 400. All images were scanned and processed by Richard Photo Lab in California.