Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Takayama and Shirakawa-go

Sake shop, Takayama. HDR processed using Photomatix
If you want something slightly different on a trip to Japan a good place to visit is Takayama and neighboring village of Shirakawa-go, in the Japanese Alps. 
Takayama is popular because it has a several very old (read: wooden houses) neighbourhoods that have changed little over the years - for the tourist this amounts to a day or two sauntering up and down the streets in the old part of the town. 
Sake shop, Takayama. HDR processed using Photomatix
Most of the houses are wooden, single-story buildings housing tourist shops, caf├ęs, and sake breweries. I'm not sure if the alcohol is actually brewed on the premises but you can certainly visit these establishments and try out, for free, some of their products. Obviously at some point in tasting preamble there's a requirement to buy a drink but, at 200yen for a square wooden cup of best sake, you can't complain. Or at least, after finishing the drink, you might forget to complain..
View across a carp pond into the Alps beyond. It is such an idyllic rural scene it's hard to image it is still in Japan. HDR Canon EOS 5D MkII.
In a completely different vein to the sake businesses in old Takayama, Shirakawa-go, just an hour's bus drive into the mountains, is one of the most memorable spots you can visit in Japan. Today it stands as a UNESCO world heritage site because of its unique thatched farm houses huddled together in the two communities of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, in the Japanese Alps. The style is described as gasso-ziguri and is certainly a symbol of rural Japan. Even better, you can stay in one of these places as a guest. Most have five or six tatami mat rooms for rent, with shared bathroom facilities. You get to eat together in a communal dining room that serves (predominantly) vegetarian food grown in the mountains around. The food is delicious and the visit highly memorable. The village is crisscrossed with small streams and fish ponds so, once the tourists have left on their buses around four o'clock each evening, you pretty much have the place to yourself - and the residents of course.

Meeting house in the Shirakawa-go museum. HDR, Canon EOS 5D MkII

Autumn comes early here because of the climate and its altitude.

Another place worth visiting is the (outside) cultural museum which includes a number of these steeply-angled thatched houses that have been preserved and relocated in a corner of the valley. This is a great idea because you not only get a good feeling of how it was to live in one of these communities years ago, but you can get great shots without being hampered by cars, bikes or telephone lines.

A bend in the river. Visitors have to cross a suspension bridge spanning this river to get into the village. It is surprisingly sharp considering the movement in the (concrete) bridge!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

This is one of the most interesting historical places in Japan. Partly because of its unfortunate recent history, but also because Hiroshima, completely rebuilt since 1945, is a very pleasantly laid out city split into several leafy sections by the many rivers that flow through the suburbs to its ports.
Most tourists come to the city to view the Ground Zero site, the Peace Museum, and the A-Bomb dome, now a symbolic reminder to the rest of the world of what happened here in August 1945.
A significant global peace movement has subsequently sprung up around Japan, and the world, to try to prevent governments developing the spread of nuclear weapons. 

I have visited Hiroshima twice now and still experience mixed emotions when I see pictures of world leaders visiting the Peace Center - the very people who  spout platitudes to 'peace', while continuing to develop weapons and derisive public policies in their own countries.
Call me a cynic but it's these people who are the root cause. You can almost smell the hypocrisy emanating from the recorded images of smiling faces. Till this visit I'd shot everything in glorious technicolor but now, on this most recent trip I tried shooting in black-and-white, and even made an HDR composite (top) which I think works effectively.
Converting to BW is a technique worth trying just as an alternative to colour. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but you have to do it first before you can decide.
In this case black-and-white worked better than my color version because I could lend greater emphasis to the clouds than in the colour version.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Latest Student Slideshow

Another great slide night was held recently in a Kyoto hotel. Submissions were initially accepted under the banner of 'architecture', but when it was clear that a couple of the students might not be able to find suitable entries, it was widened to become a 'general subject' slideshow. Clearly the submissions for this third slide show were considerably 'tighter' and more concise than those seen on previous critique nights. Well done everyone and I look forward to the last critique night to be help in Koyasan, in the mountains, near Osaka...

Mary Barnes

Mary Barnes

Mary Barnes
Norma Barne

Norma Barne

Norma Barne

Norma Barne

John Clark

John Clark

John Clark

Carol Clark

Carol Clark

Carol Clark

Leo Gasparet

Leo Gasparet

Leo Gasparet

Leo Gasparet

Leo Gasparet

Sylvia Prescott

Sylvia Prescott

Sylvia Prescott

Sylvia Prescott
Graham Bass

Graham Bass

Graham Bass

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Torii Gate at Miyajima

Torii gate at Itsukushima, Miyajima. HDR processed with Photomatix Pro

A torii is the name given to the traditional Japanese gate seen in most Shinto shrines around the country. The most famous without a doubt is the one at the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, a couple of kilometers off the coast of Honshu near Hiroshima. It's a massive tourist spot for the locals and foreign tourists alike. We stayed overnight on the island so spent several hours walking around the temples and shrines in the small town before squelching out into the middle of the bay (at low tide of course) to get one more view of this amazing Japanese icon.

The panorama was shot just as the light was fading, but before the large floodlights flicked on. It places the torii gate into the right context while the silhouette lighting does a good job of setting the scene. The second shot was taken once the floodlights had lit up - I used my Canon 580EXII speedlight from a range of 30 feet (ISO set to 400 to increase its efficacy) to fill-in some of the heavier shadows on the left-hand side and post-processed the image in  Photomatix Pro and Photoshop. To make the flash visible at that distance the aperture was set to f4 @ 1/4s - I would have liked to have used a longer exposure on this one to get a glassier look - but the flash was not powerful enough to register at anything over f4.

The top image is three frames processed using Photomatix then post-processed in Photoshop - highlights added (with the Dodge tool), rotated, contrast added (Levels) and extraneous flotsam removed using the Clone brush.

The bottom two images are also HDR, taken through a line of lanterns that ring the shoreline and, at the bottom of the page, from a walkway within the shrine complex itself.

Extreme Night Shooting Tips

Night shooting is a mis-nomer. It should be called 'evening' or 'dusk' shooting because, if you leave your night shooting till the sky has turned black your pictures are likely to look gloomy, heavy or uninteresting.
The best time for shooting is early evening, just as the sun is going down and while the artificial lights are being switched on. There's a point you reach where the balance between artificial and ambient light is just right. This is  normally over in only 10 or 15 minutes.

My suggestion for anyone wanting to shoot after this time is to zoom in and fill the frame with as much color as possible. This is kind of difficult if you're shooting in the country (because there are very few lights on) but it if you're staying in the (inner) city, there's usually plenty of action in the form of neon lighting, to shoot. Even though I prefer to shoot during the golden hour around dusk, here are some tips on how to get the best results shooting in cities after dark.
1: Use a tripod
2: Use a tripod

OK, I think we got that point. There's no point in shooting at night unless a rigid tripod is being used. Hand-holding is almost a waste of time unless you can lean on a pillar, support the camera on a railing, or similar, or find some other way of stabilising the camera.
Even the slightest vibration is enough to produce a 'so what' picture. Raising the ISO does help stability but at night, the noise this generates makes the whole exercise seem a bit pointless.

3 stops over-exposure gives a good sky color. 30secs, f5.6, ISO100

Underexpose heavily to record detail in the highlight areas. 3secs, f5.6, ISO100
The best way to get a shot like this is to use a tripod and make three exposures (the lightest and darkest are included here to give you an idea of what these should look like.). These frames are then put together in post using Photomatix Pro. In this example I used the Tone Mapping option as this is good for handling extreme contrast. The blurred sky is a result of the clouds moving during the exposure.

1: Tripod
2: Cable release NEVER press the shutter directly as this does move the camera/tripod combo
3: ISO 100, never higher
4: Set your camera to shoot a custom color parameter. These can be modified to produce less contrast - which helps with the final tone control.
5: Use AEB (bracketing) to get the three exposures. Nikon DSLRs can shoot up to nine images in one bracket. If you need a wider exposure, work in Manual metering mode.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Group Show in Miyajima

What better place to have a group photo critique night than in a Japanese ryokan (guest house) on the shores of Miyajima island off the coast of Hiroshima? Here are some of the great images produced by all the Photo Study Tour students. The theme for the evening was 'close-up'.

Mary Barnes - dodecahedrons

Mary Barnes -grasses

Mary Barnes - flower stamen

Norma Barne - steamed buns, Yokohama

Norma Barne - small altar, Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto

Norma Barne - joss, Ginkakuji, Kyoto

John Clarke - water tub, Takayama

John Clarke - shrine detail, Takayama

John Clarke - detail, golden pavilion, Kyoto

Carol Clarke - offering bowl, Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto

Carol Clarke - old woman at shrine

Carol Clarke - kimono girl, Kanazawa

Leo Gasparet - 1050yen umbrellas

Leo Gasparet - child's rocking horse, 10.5mm lens, Hiwa Maru floating museum, Yokohama

Leo Gasparet - temple kanji

Leo Gasparet - leaf and moss

Sylvia Prescott - in the florist

Sylvia Prescott - poster close up

Sylvia Prescott - hairy crab close up

Graham Bass - shrine roofing detail

Graham Bass - fungi growing in temple grounds

Graham Bass - unfavourable fortune tied to string
This is only the second assessment we have had on the trip but the images submitted were 100% better - technically but more to the point, in context with the brief and the interpretation. 
Well done to all the students. Look out for the next session: architecture on a couple of days...