Friday, November 7, 2008

Cherry Blossom book project 5

As I was thinking about what I'd photographed that night I came to realise that I didn't really have much in the way of the girls interacting with the flowers.

Seeing as it was the cherry blossom festival I knew we needed some close-ups of the blossoms themselves. Shiori was busy with school stuff so I stole Haruna for a couple of hours and we took a walk along a river near her house where there was a long grove of cherry blossom trees.

I wanted to photograph her up close and personal with the trees. I started with a wide-angle lens so that I could get in nice and close for a sense of intimacy. As you can see it gives a sense of being up close with the flowers, but the trees in themselves don't look so spectacular.

I then got Haruna to hold a blossom up for me so I could grab a portrait. Again you can see the flash here - look at the reflection off her glasses. If I had a chance to shoot this again I would have taken my flash off camera and lit her from the side but that's OK.

It's a nice cheery portrait with a lovely blue sky. The hair sticking up actually looks like a real portrait of a kid rather than a carefully manicured image and this ended up being the front cover!

I had the extra images I needed and we were headed off when I looked back over my shoulder.

And this was the view that greeted me. Have a look at the image at the top of the page. That's what happens when you shoot a row of trees with a wide-angle lens. This is what happens when you shoot it with a telephoto.

Even though they're quite far apart from each other they look really bunched up and as a result you get a blur of bright pink. A narrow field of view means that you don't see the sky above, the apartments on the left or the river on the right. The whole viewfinder is full of blossoms. So I had Haruna run back down and then walk back along the path we'd just come.

And as they say in the movie business, that was a wrap. The publisher loved the images and they came out as I'd hoped. Bright, airy, full of life and very colourful. Every photographer has a certain style whether they know it or not. It influences not only what you photograph but how you photograph it. I tend to be pretty happy-go-lucky and the eternal optimist. Hence my pictures are often very bright and happy. Lots of blues and greens and happy colours. And that's how the book turned out as well.

Like I said it was one of my most fun jobs ever and I am eternally indebted to my family for helping me out so much. Not only did Terumi cook all the food, Mr N do all the driving and the girls do all that posing for me but they did it with a smile on their face and for that I say thankyou.

See you when we come up next year!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cherry Blossom book project 4

Once I had a few shots of them all eating and drinking I gave them some breathing space and we all sat down and enjoyed the fabulous meal Terumi had prepared.

The festival part of the coverage was pretty much over and now we had to concentrate on the 'modern' things young Japanese girls do.

This is where Haruna and Shiori really helped by coming up with suggestions for things they liked to do in their free time.

The one thing that they could both agree on was game centres - or video arcades as we call them. And their favourite thing to do was the print club. They have these all over the world now but Japan invented them and they have the most elaborate ones you've ever seen.

Print club is a major fad amongst the Japanese and is a machine that creates stickers with your photo on it. You can print different borders and backgrounds on the pictures, write on them using a touch screen. Pretty much manipulate the pictures any way you like before you print them out. Then you give them to all your friends and share them round. Kind of like facebook for your folders.

The only problem is that photographically they're not actually very interesting. Two girls inside a tiny little booth drawing on a screen with pens. Not much to do here except bounce some flash off the roof and hope for the best. This shot ended up running in the book. Go figure.

Next it was on to the video games themselves. For this part I directed things a little bit. There were lots of games to choose from and I wanted something that was visually interesting.

What could be better than a giant drum that you had to bang in time to the music and the little characters on the screen. Little girls, big sticks and even bigger Taiko drums - photographic heaven!

I started off photographing the side of the game so that I could show the surroundings. I had to use a very wide-angle lens to get both Haruna and the screen in view.

Then when I'd done that I moved around to the back of the girls and photographed looking down on them so that I could show both drums and how it was a competitive game between two people.

Again it's a very wide-angle lens so things look a little distorted. There's no flash here and a slight green cast from the fluorescent lighting, which again you can neutralise in the computer but I kept to give that electronic, artificial look.

And once I'd photographed the girls doing their thing I decided to show them how it was really done!

And that was pretty much the modern part done. The girls were pretty much photographed out so I decided to leave the remaining shots for another day.

When you're photographing strangers the last thing you want to do is put people out, when it's your family that's even more the case. I was happy we'd managed to photograph something natural that the girls would do in their free time without having to make something up.

It was a challenging shooting environment being indoors underneath fluro lights. Modern digital cameras help solve the problem with the white balance but this job was shot on all slide film so it made it quite difficult.

Tomorrow on the final day I'll show you how I went local to grab a few shots that I felt were missing and complete our visual story.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cherry Blossom book project 3

Lucky for me every Japanese festival comes with its very own amusement area with food, games and plenty of things to entice young children to beg for money from their parents!

So we left Mr N like a guard dog over our spot under the cherry trees and headed off to see the sights.

I ran ahead with a wide-angle lens and waited until the girls came into view. Obviously here the family is too far away for the flash and you can see just how contrasty it is. Look how darkit is under the food stalls in the background. Pitch black even though I could see it fine with my eyes. That's just the reality of how our cameras see the world and you have to work around it when you're a natural light travel photographer.

One of the best ways to get around the problem is to put your subjects in the shade and avoid that harsh, contrasty light. Lucky for me all the action was under tents so that gave me that nice soft light that you can see here.

This is a game where you're given a little paper net. Actually you're given three (or maybe five) of them. Your job is to catch the goldfish without breaking the net. It's pretty much impossible to do because the nets are so flimsy and pretty much break at the slightest touch.

But if you do manage to capture a fish you can take it home. Just what every parent wants! For this shot I got on the other side of the fish tank, just about sitting on the knee of the stall operator who though it was a great laugh! I used the vertical format to show all the fish. You can see how white and burnt out the background is so I tried to keep it to a minimum by waiting until other people were standing behind.

There is a slight orange cast to the girls' faces caused by the orange tent which of course you could correct in the computer but I prefer to leave it there because, for me, it emphasises the fact that they're under a tent.

Now what would a day out be without a good sugar fix! So off to the fairy floss we went. By this stage I had noticed that the older sister (just becoming a teenager) was getting a bit tired of the whole photograph thing whereas the younger sister was still enjoying it so I switched focus a little.

Whereas before I was trying to get both of them in all the shots I decided to focus more on Haruna and let Shiori have some time off. The major part of photographing people is sensing when they've had enough and want to be left alone - especially when it's family!

For this shot of feasting on fairy floss I again used a touch of fill flash to open up the shadows on Haruna's face. It really is such harsh light that I probably could have pumped a bit more in but then it would have lit that hand as well and looked unnatural. The trick is to use just enough flash to lighten the shadows but not so much that it just screams 'flash'!

And look at our watches we decided it was definitely time to head back and crack open those lunch boxes and a couple of cold brews at the same time!

Of course the walk back is just as much a part of the whole story so I ran ahead so that I could look back over my shoulder at any interesting places they might walk.

I noticed that part of the path wound under a great strand of cherry blossoms. The trees were quite far apart from each other and I knew that using a wide-angle lens would increase the apparent distance and they wouldn't look as impressive. So I got farther away and photographed it with a telephoto lens, which then compressed the perspective and made the trees look like a big, swarming mass of blossoms.

And then I let them eat!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cherry Blossom book project 2

One mistake I see a lot of beginner photographers make is to use their cameras as something to capture only the final image. They sit and wait for things to happen and then take a photograph when they think the peak moment happens.

When you're telling a story you need to use your camera like a sketch pad. A warm-up exercise. Looking through the viewfinder and pushing the shutter button actually gets you in the mood and prepares you for when the action starts happening.

Taking a series of shots helps refine your visual sense and work out your composition. This shot here is a kind of warm-up. It shows the girls preparing the spot for the picnic.

As you can see it's all bare dirt and surrounded by other tarpaulins and bare trees. I didn't think it would make the book but it helped me warm up and get a sense of how I wanted to photograph what was to come. It also helped me to look through the viewfinder and see how the background cherry trees looked in the picture - not good from this angle.

Again luck was on our side because it was already pretty crowded at Maruyama Park (people get their at first light to reserve a spot) but we managed to get a spot under one of the fullest blooms in the whole park. Only one though as the other trees were fairly bare so it really limited the angle I could shoot from.

Being a first-timer at the cherry blossoms with a family I wasn't really sure about how things went so I talked to the girls and they decided that making traditional samurai hats and swords out of newspaper was a traditional cherry blossom festival activity.

They kind of thought that it was more of a boy thing but also agreed that it sounded like a lot of fun so they made them for me and I got Haruna to pose underneath the lovely blossoms. As well as action shots I was looking for some nice portrait shots so this one fit the bill nicely.

Of course when the photos were over they couldn't resist beating the hell out of each other! Of course it wasn't a book on wrestling so I knew it wouldn't make the cut but, again more visual exercises. Photographing it helped get me in the mood for photographing fast action when I needed to.

Now in case you're wondering, of course there is a Dad! Mr N was helpfully parking the car in some obscure carpark a million miles away - because Japan is known for its traffic.

He was able to join us a bit later and I did some group shots of the family to set the scene. You'll notice that we haven't seen any food yet. That's because in order to get a spot under the trees we'd had to get there way too early for anybody to even think about eating!

So we had some time to kill and tomorrow you'll see how we did it.

Photographically what I'd like you to notice is the light. It's really harsh and contrasty. Not as bad as you get out here in Australia but still very strong. You can see big shadows everywhere and I had to be very careful with my exposures.

When you have such strong contrast you tend to either lose details in the highlights or the shadows. Mostly because I wanted to retain that lovely blue sky and the pink of the cherry blossoms I decided to keep my exposure darker and lose details in the shadows. In any of the pics you can see big, dark inky parts.

But you'll also notice that the faces are quite bright. The answer here is flash. I have my flash pretty much permanently on during bright sunny days. That's right - leave the flash on on a sunny day. Flash will help lighten those shadows. It actually fills them with light and that's why we call it fill flash. You have to be reasonably close to your subject for it to work but, even with a little point and shoot, the flash can be quite powerful and you always want to have it on on a bright sunny day when photographing people.

The other thing you'll notice is that I've pretty much kept myself low for a lot of the photographs. The first set-up shot shows what happened when I was standing - shooting down meant lots of ugly dirt and not many pretty trees. So I kept myself either sitting or lying on the ground so that I could shoot up, avoid the dirt and get more trees and beautiful blue sky in.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Cherry Blossom book project

One of the most fun projects I've ever worked on was a book project for Weldon-Owen Publishers in New Zealand. They were putting together a series of books for schoolchildren on different festivals around the world. I was contracted to do the Japan book and to organise to photograph a suitable festival and arrange people to appear in it.

The subjects of the book needed to be young children around 11 years old and my two nieces fit the bill perfectly. All I needed was a festival and it was fast approaching May, when you have both the cherry blossom festival and children's day.

The theme of the book was to show them enjoying the festival, but also to show them enjoying a modern life after the festivities. We wanted to compare the traditional with the contemporary and show the way that modern Japanese children interact with both their past and their future in an urban environment.

And I thought it would just be some pretty pics! As with most professional travel photography assignments the hard work starts before you go, although in this case the girls (including Mum!) did most of the work for me.

The first part of the shoot started in the morning in the apartment of my sister-in-law's family. Here are Shiori, Haruna and their mum Terumi. They had cooked up this incredibly delicious (and photogenic) feast of traditional foods for the lunch.

Most of the hard work was done by the time I got there so I posed the family around the bento box and had the girls put the last finishing touches to it. Being such a small apartment meant that a wide-angle lens of about 20mm was needed.

Photographing the food under such soft lighting meant that I could do it all pretty much by natural light. I bounced a bit of flash off the roof but that's about it. It was a beautiful sunny day outside (the photo Gods were smiling on me!) and I knew the light would be too harsh outside to photograph the food so decided to do those shots inside.

The most important part of telling a visual story is to show the lead-up to the main event. Even though the most 'important' part is the festival itself, showing how people prepare to take part in the event is an important part of the visuals.

Tomorrow we head to the park to lunch under the cherry blossoms!