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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Friday, March 20, 2009

End of the night

So it's coming up to 7 hours out in the freezing cold taking photos. I've walked a lot of miles through the city of Sapporo and come away with some nice shots. A good overall coverage.

One last photo I need before I go is the entrance sign to the Susukino ice statues area. In and of itself it's nothing to write home about. A neon sign in the middle of the road. But as a part of the coverage of an area it's quite vital because it tells the readers where you are.

For some reason my stock agency always takes every image I have ever taken of a sign! I don't know why this is because they never seem to sell too well but they always take them. Maybe they're planning a book on signs some time. I don't know but I always shoot them because they set the location in an easy-to-read way.

And the final shot before I put the camera back in the backpack? One that shows the entertainment area of Susukino.

I've shot this corner a million times and never get sick of all that neon. I usually shoot it looking downtown (towards where the ice festival was) but this time shot back towards uptown.

The main reason I did this was to show all the taxis lined up along the street, and the way in which they were all shining red under the garish neon signs.

At about this time I was looking frantically at my watch and preparing to run. Trying to make the last train home? Not quite. Trying to make the closing of Kinokuniya bookstore - a giant book paradise with a photography section that is absolutely huge! A night out without the kids in tow and I would have an hour or so to look at photo books at my leisure. Paradise!

So I ran about 20 blocks only to find they closed at 9 and not 10 like I thought. Oh well, maybe next year!

I hope you enjoyed my run through a night of photography in Japan and next week we'll head back to our regular transmission of images from around the world and the stories behind them.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Answer to a rhetorical question

So a couple of days ago I posed the problem of how do you make a totally transparent, not very clearly defined object look interesting. Even the autofocus has trouble with a lot of the statues.

Well the real answer is that you let the sculptors do it for you! Just like the Odori area where they couldn't be satisfied with giant statues of Mickey Mouse but they had to light them up in all the colours of the rainbow or put rock stars in front of them.

In this case the artists thought more internally. As in inside the ice. Some bright spark came up with the idea of putting recently killed seafood from the local fish market in there to make things interesting. Take a good look at that photo above. That there is real fish (and there were giant crabs as well) encased in ice. How bizarre. But extremely photogenic!


Just in case you didn't believe me about the crabs!

In actual fact this particular set of carvings (and there's only a couple of them) is one of the most famous things about the whole Susukino section of the Snow Festival.

It's one of those situations where, as a travel photographer there to record what you see and do, you have to put aside any judgements and simply record what you see and let the audience decide.

Our job is to tell a story, show how other cultures live and try and record it as honestly and without bias as we can. The sight of blood coming out of the mouths of the fish didn't thrill me too much but I chose to concentrate more on the pleasing aspects of the display. The enjoyment it brought to the people.


These folks seemed to be as intrigued with it as I was. I've used a bit of flash here to fill in shadow details on the man's face. On the other side of the street a light kept faces nice and bright but on this side the lights didn't seem to be illuminating faces so I needed to use a bit of flash.

Because I only wanted to light the people and not the fish I tilted the head of my flash towards the people, and even though I was using a wide-angle lens I zoomed the flash head to 85mm so it would be concentrated on the faces. Again there's minus 2 compensation and an orange gel in there so it's pretty subtle.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A bit of action

So far most of my images have been of the statues and carvings themselves, and the people there to watch them. But I realised that I also needed a couple of shots of the people making the statues.

Good thing for me the festival organisers agreed with me and kindly supplied me with a very cold looking model to carve away. (Actually I just happened to stumble across this guy working away but don't tell anyone!)

I had seen a few photos taken of the ice carvers in Susukino before but mostly they involved really harsh, direct flash with gaping black backgrounds. Call me fussy but I just hate black backgrounds. No sense of place.

The reason why you get a black background with flash is your shutter speed. If you have your camera in one of its automatic modes the shutter speed defaults to roughly 1/60th second. This is a good speed for handholding but a shocking speed if you want to see what's in the background. The shutter isn't open long enough for the natural light in the background to burn itself on to the retina that is your digital sensor (or film).

So you need to put your camera in a mode that will let you have a slow shutter speed while using the flash. It will differ from brand to brand, and many cameras even have a Night Portrait setting now. That's the one you want to use. You will suddenly find that instead of 1/60th second or something like that you might end up with 1/15th second or slower depending on how bright it is and your ISO.

In this particular case I was set at ISO 400 and didn't want to go too much higher if I could help it. If I had had a really dark background I would have needed a very slow shutter speed to get my background looking nice so I walked around until I found a nice bright background. Doing that gave me a shutter speed of 1/25th second.

The flash has rendered the subject nice and sharp while remaining fairly subtle. A couple of reasons for that. One I had minus 2 exposure compensation dialed in just to light it a little bit. Two I had my famous orange gel over the flash so that the light was a similar colour to the surrounding ambient light - thus blending the two. If you don't do this what you get is a white carving and carver with a bright orange looking background. The orange gel lets you have your foreground carver (lit by the flash) the same colour as the background (natural ambient light).

If I had left the white balance as I had it set in camera (Daylight) and was shooting Jpeg everything would have turned out funky orange but because I shoot RAW I just cooled the temperature down in the computer so that everything - both foreground and background - looked white and clean.

At 1/25th second with a 28-70mm zoom I was right on the edge of what I can hand hold. I was leaning on a fence and standing very still, looking through the viewfinder and waiting until I sensed that the man's head and body weren't moving so much but his hands were in a flurry of flying ice. The flash is a bit of an insurance policy against motion blur as it tends to freeze movement very nicely because of its short duration. Another insurance policy is to shoot multiple frames in a row with your motor drive set to High. By shooting multiple frames you can usually guarantee that at least one of them will be reasonably sharp! Hopefully. :)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ice, ice baby

Alright so I guess obtuse references to one-hit wonder 80's rappers gives my age away but I just couldn't resist. :)

Down in the entertainment quarter of Sapporo they hold an ice carving festival. All along the main street of Susukino hundreds of statues sit in the middle of the road, with many more people slipping and sliding on the snow to get a look at them.

So how do you photograph a totally clear piece of carving that your autofocus doesn't even manage to lock on to? Well you don't basically. Because for the most part they're not that exciting (although there are a couple of exceptions which I'll show you in a couple of days).

So for the most part I used a wide-angle lens to include the neon signs all around and the hundreds of tourists. Usually when I do street photography I have a small waist bag (Lowepro Orion Trekker) which carries a body with a 28-70mm, a 10-22mm and a 70-200mm. On this night I had my backpack with me because I was photographing so many different things all in one hit.

The backpack is great for carrying stuff over long distances but it really is a pain in the arse (butt for you North American folks!) trying to change lenses. So in this case I walked downtown with a wide-angle lens on, then when I got to the end of the festival I changed lenses for a short telephoto and walked back again - thus saving having to constantly change lenses. And it worked pretty well.

The one thing I love about photographing down in Susukino is that it's so brightly lit with neon you almost have the equivalent shutter speeds of shooting during the middle of a sunny day! Well maybe not quite but it is still pretty bright. I shot everything handheld at ISO 400 and was getting shutter speeds in the 1/125 second range.

The other advantage of being so well lit is that for the most part I didn't need to use any fill flash to lighten people's faces. Being unencumbered by tripods and flashes makes street photography a whole lot more fun - even with a giant backpack making you look like a giant Lowepro turtle!

Monday, March 16, 2009

If you don't like your greens...

change 'em! In the last few years camera manufactures have been bringing out their cameras with in-built profiles.

With names like Portrait, Standard, Landscape, Vivid etc they are designed to emulate the look we got from different films.

If you shoot jpeg it does it all in-camera for you, and if you shot RAW you can make the settings in the camera company's raw processing software.

And therein lies the problem. For the most part nobody really likes the camera company software. Indeed many people who shoot RAW end up processing their files in Adobe software - whether Camera RAW or Lightroom. The problem up until now has been that those lovely profiles haven't been available in Adobe software.

Until now (well they actually first posted them last October I'm just a bit slow in telling you!). You can download them here and then run the little programme and it will install itself in your computer so that the next time you run Adobe Camera RAW you will get the option to use these profiles.

This in itself is enough to make you want to jump up and down with joy. Previously bland raw files, with the click of a button suddenly become vibrant images reminiscent of your favourite Velvia slides.

But even more useful perhaps is the DNG profile editor programme (seen above). This handy little programme lets you open up a DNG file, click anywhere in your picture where you don't like the colour (greens are one of my pet complaints with digital) and change just those colours without affecting anything else.

You click on a green tree and a little circle appears on the colour wheel. You can then drag that little green circle to anywhere you want on the colour wheel and all occurences of that same colour will turn the colour you wish. So in my case I've always felt the Canon greens were a little too yellowy for my taste so I clicked on a green rainforest leaf and dragged the little circle to a greener part of the colour wheel. Bam - all the green leaves in the picture lost their yellowy tinge.

You then save that particular 'recipe', export it to Camera RAW and every time you go to process a green tree picture in Camera RAW you can automatically apply that recipe to it to get your greens looking good.

One of my best friends in the whole world is a fantastic photographer named Kerry Trapnell. I'd send you to his website but the slack bum hasn't got one up and running yet! Just do a search for him on Google and you're sure to find lots of his work.

Anyway Kerry has been very reticent about using digital for a lot of his digital work because of the horrible results he's been getting with his greens. I installed the camera profiles and then the profile editor on his computer and let's just say he's not so reticent about shooting landscapes with the digital any more! Now his greens positively pop off the page.

So pop off to the Adobe site here , assuming you're an Adobe user, and download the two free pieces of software - the camera profiles and the camera profile editor. You'll never feel the same way about digital colour again.

Next time we'll head back to the Sapporo Snow Festival to continue my night of photography. We'll head to the entertainment quarter of Susukino and it's amazing ice sculptures with real fish inside!