One of the often overlooked but essentially Japanese experiences is the slow train journey through the Japanese countryside in summer. One of the reasons I get to travel around so much in Japan is that I don’t mind spending hours and hours on the train, just staring out the window. A year and a half ago I took these photos while traveling through northern Gunma prefecture, between Minakami and Takasaki. It is difficult to get good photos through a moving train window but I still had to share these with you. The landscape in these photos are absolutely typical of the countryside, with the buildings, the bamboo forests, the distant mountains, village stations and much more. Just looking at these photos makes my heart ache for the next train journey through the summer Japan I love so much! Oh, and can you spot the real life house of Satsuki and Mei from the animated movie “My Neighbor Totoro” (となりのトトロ) in the sixth photo? Doesn’t it look just like in the movie? I could live here, just a couple of hundred meters past the Gokan station in Minakami-cho. Don’t miss the slow train when you visit Japan next!
A perfect solar eclipse does’t come along too many times in the life span of a typical human. You’re lucky to see it once or twice in your life perhaps. Yesterday morning the entire southern Japan had such a chance, but in most cases clouds and even the smoke plume of an active volcano made it hard to see anything. I got up early to find the sky in dense cover of clouds but as the magic moment came closer the clouds gradually disappeared, only to reappear a few minutes before the eclipse, to cover the sun. Still, the strong light of the sun shone straight through the clouds even in the middle of the eclipse and I managed to get these photos of the perfect ring of fire with my 500mm Bigma lens, set at 1/8000, f36 and ISO of 25, in addition to holding up a polarizing filter in front of the lens and a pair of sunglasses. It was magical to see it live in the viewfinder of my camera though, the clouds drifting past and the edges of the ring of fire casting rough flames across the rim. I sure hope all the people who had bought special eclipse viewing glasses keeps them for a while longer – there is another eclipse coming up in 2038, but this time in the northern island of Hokkaido. I wonder if I will be able to see it?
Here’s the second batch of night photographs from last weeks Bonodori dance festival. Night photography is one of the areas of photography that has benefited immensely from the revolution in digital cameras. With the old color negatives, it was very hard to overexpose a photo, the negatives held information in the brightest of areas and if you had the f-stop and a good minimum time there was nothing to stop you from cranking up the exposure. With digital it was almost the opposite: the digital sensors in modern cameras work much more like old positive film (slides) where the dark areas hold a lot of information while the brighter areas quickly lose information if overexposed. Like color positives you also have to be much more careful about correct exposure than with the old negatives, too much light and the shot becomes pure white, too little and you get strange colors/blur in the underexposed shadows. So with digital, I always underexpose a little since it is easier to bring back details in underexposed areas of the photos than it is to bring back details in overexposed areas (there is nothing to bring back).
This bias towards underexposure makes digital cameras very suitable for lowlight and low contrast photography, and thus most evening or night time photography. The problem is when you have, like in these photos, a huge contrast from bright to dark, it is quite difficult to capture the shadows realistically while keeping the brighter areas from blowing out completely, which almost happened on the third photo in this post, of the young woman dancing.
Again these photos were saved by clever software courtesy of Adobe Photoshop, to bring back the colors and reduce the red, but the photos I’ll post tomorrow are slightly better than these, as I had time to fix the levels completely manually and thus got more realistic results. Out of these four, the second and the fourth photo are the most realistic ones.
Sorry for my rambling by the way. I really need to find a ghostwriter for this blog. When I started Tokyobling in November 2008 my only purpose was to post photos with the tiniest bit of writing. Recently I have to stop myself from being to verbose on this blog. I am not very good at stop myself though. Anyway, enjoy these and please come back tomorrow for four more photos!
If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ve most likely seen some of my many posts about the traditional Bonodori festivals, so I won’t bore you with too much details, but if you want to read more you’re more than welcome to see my earlier posts here, here, here, here and here.
The power savings campaigns in eastern Japan are way past the four month mark by now, and although people in Tokyo are doing a great job it seems that we are finally getting used to it. Nobody local comments on dark stations or blacked out streets anymore, but whenever I meet friends or business associates from western Japan they comment on the eerie feeling they experience here. In my own opinion, Japan was too bright earlier and I think that we have returned to a more normal state of being with this present energy saving campaign. Other people disagree though.
One major negative point for people like me though, is that night photography have gone from being difficult to becoming a really hard challenge! Even before March it was hard to get decent photos at festivals and street scenes. A lot of people have asked me how to get better photos at night and I’d just like to use these snapshots of bonodori dancers to explain how I do (there are better/different methods but this is how I took these).
First of all I crank up the ISO as far as I can go without losing sharpness, this will vary from camera to camera, in my case I can go up to 12 800 before I really can’t stand looking at the grainy photos any more. For these photos, I mostly used a really high ISO of 5000. For reference, in the good old days of film photography, very few people ever went above ISO 3200, and even today most point and shoot cameras can rarely get good results with anything over ISO 1600.
The second point is to turn your f-stop as low as possible, in my case I had it at f2 for most of these photos. The lower the f-stop the “bigger” the opening in the lens, which means that you get more light.
Then I use the shutter speed dial to get a reasonable exposure, and I usually underexpose 2-4 steps (underexpose means to deliberately shoot darker than the camera thinks you should). If the camera thought I should shoot at 1/20 I would shoot at 1/60 or even 1/120 to get darker, richer shots.
The problem with shooting bonodori at night though, is that people are moving! Dancing pretty fast as a matter of fact, and since people are dancing in a circle around a central point it also means that they are moving towards you (you will risk losing focus if your camera can’t focus fast enough) or sideways from you (any movement is greatly amplified when shot sideways as no amount of “depth of focus” (DOF) will save you). Most of these photos were shot at a mere 1/25, which means I can only get a sharp shot at the zenith of a movement, for example when some one swings an arm: the only time their movement is slow enough to be sharp is when the arm is at the end of it’s movement, before falling back, a mere tenth of a second! In order to capture these moments I can either machine gun it and shoot 3-4 frames a second, tracking them, or follow the dance and learn when to press the trigger, relying on my skill, my intuition and my own timing.
Another huge problem is that the light is all in one color. Red, from the overhead lanterns, and there’s very little of it to begin with. Think of it as black and white but with red instead of white. This means that any other colors will only show as reddish brown or reddish grey. Blues, pinks, greens and whites will disappear in a red haze.
Once I had taken the photo the next problem started when I edited the photo at home. It was just red, red and red. Fortunately what had to be fixed with hours of extremely fine tuned manual labor in a pitch black dark room standing over vats of chemicals a mere 15 years ago can be fixed in Photoshop in a matter of minutes. To “magically” get the colors back (they are after all there, just so obscured by the red light that we can’t see them even with our naked eyes, much less with a camera) I used the levels too and adjusted the range of the red part of the RGB filter. Voila! I had colors once again, but strange, almost antique colors that reminds me of old color photography in the ektachrome era of the 1950’s or 1960’s.
What could I have done better? Well, I could have used a “unipod”, a pole that will stabilize my camera while still being more mobile than a tripod. Apart from that there is nothing I realistically could have done much less than setting up flashes, organizing focus points or used even more expensive equipment. Still, the photos that you see in this post are more colorful and brighter than reality and while I could have spent much more time in photoshop digitally processing the photos get a more balance color, I also like these “artifacts” of the situation: blurry because they were dancing, dark because we are all cutting down on our energy spending, and red because of the red lanterns, and also red because it was very, very hot that night.
Bonodori is quickly becoming one of my favorite festivals, precisely because the music is actually quite boring, the dance is not at all cool, the beat is slow, the moves are difficult to learn, all the best dancers are over 70 years old and most people do it while being very concentrated, very focused. All in all, it’s not a cool or fun festival, but it is very beautiful, and I dare say, very Japanese.