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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Graham

Photographing Japan: What I Learned

I’ve brought my cameras all over Japan, from Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka to Kobe and then some, and learned a lot about how to get the best shots and avoid some common mistakes.

So in the first of what I hope to be a new series of installments, I lay out 21 things I learned photographing Japan in my latest PhotowalksTV episode.

Highlights: How to deal with crowds, get people to pose for you, pick up great shots from the subway, the magic of the rain and tips on getting many different angles for your sushi photos.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Be early. The crowds are all over the place. The earlier you can get out there, the more likely you are to have the sites to yourself.

  • When you’re stuck in the crowd, go for it. Walk your camera right into them. This is really easy with a smartphone, which you can hold at chest level to pick up the crowd without them knowing you’re staring into the lens. Put the camera onto the .5 ultra-wide angle setting.

  • Additionally, one save when you’re stuck in a crowd is to get photos of people being crazy, especially in Osaka and Tokyo. They’re so busy having a blast, they won’t even notice you.

  • To deal with the crowds, one great alternative is to slip onto a side street and let your eyes wander. You’ll be amazed what you can find.

  • Ask people to pose. They don’t understand English, but they do get that word and “photo.” Most will say yes. If they don’t want to be photographed, they will cross their arms across their chest and say no. Respect their wishes. Most won’t refuse you though. People photos make your travel photos pop.

  • Take elevators to the tops of buildings for overhead shots. I’ve done that in Osaka and Tokyo and I always get great shots. (Umeda Sky Building in Osaka, Tokyo Tower in Japan's largest city.) Nighttime is the preferred time for this, to see the city all lit up. Many times you will be faced with a big picture window that has reflections in it. You can bypass the reflections by placing your smartphone directly up to the glass and snapping away. It's an amazing save that usually works every time.

  • Cherry Blossom season is fast: two days. Get it while you can. For a wonderful shot, find one of those great wide images with lots of trees lined up against a river.

  • I loved roaming the streets just looking at the signs. Japanese speak little English, but they love to have English language signs outside their stores, I’m told, because it looks cool. But so many times they mangle the English, which makes me laugh. Like a more price down offer.

  • The front car of the train can give you a killer view of the city. Go for it.

  • The bridges are fun to photograph. Be prepared to walk around them many times to get the right angle. If there’s a fence in the way, don’t be afraid to stick your camera through the hole for the shot, and to point upwards at ultra wide angle. Also, you may be able to look back at the city from the bridge for either an on the ground view, or a from the bridge looking down view. Both are fantastic.

  • Japan comes alive at night. Be sure to get lots of shots of streaking cars, colored lights and such.

  • Japan is fantastic during a rain and immediately afterwards. More so than other places I’ve visited, Japan signs are incredibly colorful and often neon filled. When it rains, the colors splash onto the wet streets, creating an amazing photo.

  • Keep your eyes open. When you see women walking down the street in traditional kimono garb, or men in monk robes, pounce. Act fast, and grab the shot. This is where the smartphone really comes in handy. It allows you to move really fast, without the threatening big black camera to scare them away.

  • People will flash the peace sign at you when you photograph them. To diversity your portraits, try continuing to snap after the official photo has been taken to get them more casual.

  • Shrines are everywhere. But as places of quiet meditation, you need a shot without throngs of people in them. One way to do that is with patience. Grab your spot for a great wide overview of the temple, and prepare to stand there for awhile. Eventually, you will get your moment without people in them, or possibly maybe just a handful. Snap quickly.

  • I have another save on the large crowd shot. Apple iPhones have a feature called Live Photos which was originally a gimmick to add a few seconds of video to your photo. But it also has a bonus feature called Long Exposure, which usually works with flowing water, to make it look silky and smooth. You can also erase people with this technique.. For real. It’s hit and miss, but when it works, it’s pretty incredible. Just take the photo the normal way, by making sure the LIVE icon is indeed live, at the top of the camera app. Snap the photo, and then click edit right afterwards. The dropdown menu on the top right offers you various special effects tools, including Bounce and Loop. You want Long Exposure. Click on it and you will see if you indeed were able to erase the people from your scene.

  • If you want a fun food shot of sushi, go to the restaurants with the conveyor belts. You won’t have to only photograph your order, but you’ll get a much wider variety to point your camera at.

  • Japan is known for food, but you won’t see people walking down the street eating. Except in Kobe’s Chinatown and Osaka, which are known for their street food, The food stalls are many, and there is nowhere to sit down, leaving no choice but to eat in the street.

  • Another fun food shot is to watch the cooks making it,. Many of the most popular food items put the chef behind glass to show them making dumplings, cheesecake and other specialties in the store. Again, put your smartphone right up to the glass and snap away.

  • Timelapse and slow motion videos are so much fun in Japan, thanks to the throngs of people. (Ahem, 40 million people live in Tokyo alone. It's the city with the world's largest population.) I loved watching the people leave the train station every few minutes, lining up at the stop light in Kobe, and then marching en mass, to work. Great for a slo mo, or better yet, Timelapse, showing the group speeding at super fast speed and looking so extra-ordinary.

  • Finally, if you really want to talk fun, does it get any better than photographing the 45 second wonder that is the Shibuya Scramble, the five way crosswalk in Tokyo? Run into the crowd, take photos of the revelers, and then go to the top of the dept. store that looks down at the crosswalk. Timelapse, you bet!

Did you enjoy this series and want it to continue? I’m looking at you Paris, Pismo Beach, British Columbia, Portugal and more. Do me a favor and let the YouTube algorithm know you support the cause by leaving comments on the videos. This tells YouTube that we’re onto something here, and encourages the algo to recommend it to others.

Thanks as always!


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