SXSW Is Dead, Long Live SXSW!

Many people who were a part of the social media boom last decade attended SXSW. It was the place to see and be seen, where apps went mainstream and reputations were forged. In recent years, social media experts have stopped going, proclaiming SXSW dead.

And after attending my seventh one, I have to agree. SXSW is dead… For social media experts.

SXSW is about the Internet, and how various media and industries are adapting to it. In that sense SXSW is a zeitgeist. And the time of social media dominating SXSW, while not completely gone, has certainly waned.

Social networking and communities are a part of the Internet’s fiber, but they are no longer a special topic. That makes social less of a premium newsmaker at an Internet conference focused on trends, and as a result social media experts aren’t getting the attention they used to at SXSW. So it is little wonder that those who used to thrive on the subject find the conference unappealing.

What SXSW Has Become

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A woman solders a chip, part of a device she was building at SXCreate.

What SXSW 2015 offered was an incredible series of mini-conferences that ranged from fashion (think wearable tech in the form of smart clothing) and start-up manufacturing to SXSports and large broadcast brands boasting their digital entertainment properties. SXSW is now a festival of many Internet industries. Social media and perhaps the now stronger digital marketing communities are just individual industry segments amongst the multitude.

My friend Dave Weinberg, CEO of loop88 said, “The fact that we’re all here and that we have these serendipitous situations is what made this SXSW special. It’s totally different than it has been.”

I have to agree. This year’s SXSW was the best one I have attended in a long time. The networking was diverse and phenomenal.

“The amount of education, of giving back knowledge to the community is absolutely unparalleled,” said Howard Greenstein, COO of DomainSkate and adjunct professor at Columbia University. “From small sessions sponsored by companies on specific topics to niche panels about everything from legal hackers to bitcoin, you can learn about anything from people who are actually doing the work.”

Signs of How SXSW Changed

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SXSW 2015 saw the break-out of Meerkat, the first app to breakout at SXSW in a couple of years. Yet, while this was a big story, it was not the story, far from it. There were many threads throughout the event, many of which revolved around celebrity appearances and cancellations.

For the first time in years I attended sessions, and thoroughly enjoyed 75% of what I saw. This is pretty good compared to most conferences I go to. Some of the better events and sessions I attended included the Jack Welch versus Gary Vaynerchuk discussion on executive leadership, the SXCreate session on building micro manufacturing companies.

There were fewer uber-influencer swordfests at SXSW, which made it more pleasant. It was also easier to avoid those situations when they arose.

At the same time while the mighty influencer is gone, the suit has arrived. And with the business audience has come a tension between the old school casual SXSW attendee and the proliferation of suits and heels at the conference. I’m glad I brought a jacket and two collared shirts because when I wore T-shirts and a jersey I received more than my fair share of looks.

And with the rise of the celebrity, there were more high powered executives, stars and brands attending the event. I met more high caliber successful people than I have at any prior SXSW.

SXSW is much bigger than it used to be, but is also much different. It has evolved, and with it so have my expectations of it. It’s funky still, but now it is transforming into a big dollar business event. But the reason I still come is the incredible relationship opportunities it continues to offer, even as a humbler small business owner. And that continues to make SXSW a must-attend event for me.

Work Friends

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You can find this elephant and guardian tandem at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. It was apparent they had worked together for a long time, and were close friends.

Light Is Everything

I am really looking forward to Wednesday morning’s Cherry Blossom photoshoot with Ann Tran at the Tidal Basin. It’s really my favorite photoshoot of the year because of the incredible light options you can see.

Shooting manually on a DSLR teaches you that light is everything when it comes to photography.

Whenever I take a photograph my first concern is lighting, especially since I prefer shooting manually sans flash. As important as storytelling and framing are to a photograph’s success, nothing matters if the lighting is off.

David Young said it best, “It is the photographing of ordinary things, in extraordinary light, which results in extraordinary photographs.”

Sunrise

Sunrise at the Cherry Blossom Festival offers a confluence of light options. First you have the sunrise itself. This is the golden hour, that first hour of light after sunrise or the last hour of light preceding sunset. The light refracts perfectly, producing a soft golden hue that illustrates gorgeous canvasses, and offers great contextual shadows. In particular, dawn is nice during the Cherry Blossom Festival because the Tidal Basin is less busy and you can still walk around.

We’re starting at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, but I’ll probably get down there early to watch the sun rise on the basin. The rising light offers incredible possibilities. You can take standard shots like the classic sunrise photo with burned yellows, oranges and reds. The above featured photo was a shot I took at the 2010 festival from the Jefferson Memorial (which is the dark shadow reflected in the Tidal Basin foreground).

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The Cherry Blossom Festival photo shoot includes the water contained within the Tidal Basin, which when still mirrors light perfectly. Finally, you have the cherry blossoms themselves. Because they are white and soft pink, they reflect the light, too. As a result, they can look white, vibrant pink, soft yellow, or even light blue depending on the time of day and hour.

The above shot combines all of these elements. First of all, it should be noted that the blossoms are backlit by the sunrise as opposed to have the light reflect on them directly. This breaks “the rules” a bit, but because they are cherry blossoms they absorb the light and still show well with a blueish yellow tinge.

Second, even though the shot faces the sun directly, the Jefferson Memorial blocks the light enough that it is not harsh. Rather it is perfectly golden, a result of that first hour of light. Finally, the water reflects the memorial perfectly, allowing you to see that sun is indeed rising. Thanks to the framing, the sun appears to rise between two pillars.

This shot is one of my all time favorites because it captures every light element the Cherry Blossom Festival has to offer. It has layers of subjects and light fields, which makes it fun to look at.

Manipulating Light

When you come to understand how a camera takes pictures, you can figure out how to capture a subject with the right lighting. You understand how shutter speed can be delayed to capture continuous light. You may decrease light sensitivity (ISO) to allow for a longer shot. Finally, you may (or may not) increase the f-stop to open the lense and take in a wider field of light, which in turn creates depth of field.

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I took the above photo of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge portion of Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495) earlier this week from the George Washington Parkway overpass. It was taken at the low ISO setting of 100, which is the minimal light sensitivity. The shot also was taken with the maximum f-stop of 32 (as wide as the lense could be opened). Both the ISO and f-stop settings were the opposite of what an automatic setting would take at night.

To compensate for these sacrifices, I also turned the shutter speed settings off, and manually shot the photograph for two minutes and six seconds. The camera was “mounted” between two poles on the overpass, assuring that there would be no vibration.

The result was a time lapse that fails to capture a single image of a car on one of the country’s busiest highways. Instead it captures the head and tail lights of many cars, coming and going, creating an incredible representation of speed and traffic.

You’ll see photos like this periodically, but they are not easy. I thought about how to take this shot the entire day prior to actually walking on the overpass.

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This next shot uses the opposite camera settings. The f stop is minimal creating a very shallow depth of field. Only the gentlemen’s face is completely in focus, in turn creating a cool effect with his index finger in the foreground.

The ISO setting is very high at 5600 and the shutter speed is fast (1/80th of a second), which allowed me to shoot manually sans flash or tripod. On the left side you can see a green screen, and that is lit by a professional photographer’s lighting rig on the right. This created a rich lighting scene with deep shadows.

I do think that whenever possible, flash-free shots feel more natural. I still have much to learn about flash, but my attitude remains the same about it. A shot should seem naturally lit and flash should augment the subject, not dominate or alter a scene.

Overall, you can see that light shapes everything that happens with a camera. It is the paint that makes the portrait.

What do you think?