Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Fickle Fate of Favorite Photo

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

My most ‘acclaimed’ photo is a good example of the somewhat fickle nature of aesthetic opinion. And furthering the fickleness of this photo, I wouldn’t have captured it at all if Elizabeth hadn’t seen the scene first, taking her own version on the balcony of our Tokyo hotel during a colorful sunset evening last June.


My first success with it was a 3rd place win in the Around the Cities round of the Amateur Photographer of the Year competition, a contest run by the popular UK magazine Amateur Photographer which draws over a thousand entries a month. Foreshadowing the uneven path this image would take, the judges were almost apologetic in explaining that it was the best of the pictures that met the theme, so they decided against choosing it for first or second place (click on the above image to read the caption, and figure out for yourself why a shack in the woods and a deserted bridge would place in a contest of this theme).


Belonging to 3 different camera clubs (do not ask), this image ended up in 6 different club competitions. It didn’t win anything 2 of the times. Entered in a theme competition ‘Architecture’, it won an Honorable Mention, meaning it was in the top 25% of entries that night, also qualifying it for the end of the year competition. As shown above, at the end of year competition it was awarded the blue ribbon for digital projected image, and Best In Show.

It had placed 2nd in the other club in a monthly competition for the theme ‘A Different Point of View’ , finally ending up with an Honorable Mention at that club’s end of year competition. I don’t remember now if it was one of the judges who didn’t give it any ribbon, but one of the four monthly competition judges complained that the rectangles in the center of the image were offset, and wasn’t that a shame.  It should be clear at this point that different judges do have different points of view.

Tokyo Balconies on display in Fenton House

Meanwhile, the Royal Photographic Society, which I had joined in the UK and continue to support, is always looking for ways to encourage their non-UK members. It organized an exhibit from the ‘Overseas Chapters’. The US chapter selected my image, making it one of approximately 100 images that spent a month being exhibited at Fenton House, the Royal Photographic Society’s headquarters in Bath. This exhibit is also scheduled to be in London at the Royal Photographic Society Cave from the 11th to 31st of July, so if you are in London this summer, you can see it.

The picture also generated some attention on a photo critique site where I spend some time, called Photosig. Ending up as my second highest scoring image.

Evening Balconies

In one of the club competitions that didn’t go so well, the picture ended up displayed on its side (don’t ask).  I thought it did have some potential in alternative orientation, but the lacy ironwork seemed unbalanced, so I Photoshopped it, copying the top half, pasting and flipping it, positioning it over the bottom half of the photo, and then rotating it 90 degrees.  I actually like the result a lot.  It has a degree of surreality that I think is interesting. And it fixed that judge’s concern about non-symmetric windows. Several other people like it too, and the surreal version of Tokyo Balconies ended up as my 3rd highest scoring image on Photosig, just behind the non-manipulated version.

For those who are following my series on before & after photos, the non-manipulated version of this image is one that spent no time in Photoshop. The original camera RAW image was processed in Lightroom for global exposure, contrast, and color saturation. White Balance was left As Shot..  The color turns out to be a very important aspect of this image. I experimented with black & white, but it just turns out blah. This is essentially what we saw off our hotel balcony at 6:48 PM

ISO 800, f/18, 1/20 sec (there’s a lot to be said for both steady hands and image stabilization)

My Tokyo Hose

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Blue Hose Final Version

There is something irresistibly sinuous about a garden hose, exhibiting a natural elegance as it mimics the French curve. I found my Tokyo Hose last summer in trendy Shibuya.

Blue Hose As Captured By the Camera

Always on the lookout for found still lives, this one struck me as almost perfect as originally presented, and I did not ask my subject to make any changes in her pose.  If I had it to do over again, I think I would have moved the bucket, but that turned out to be one of the easier digital darkroom operations. Taken at 17mm and f;8, ensured enough depth of field for the entire image to be adequately sharp.  Perspective was the first fix, easily corrected in Lightroom (Distortion +7, Vertical –30, Horizontal –7, Rotate –0.9), resulting in a square image that looked like it had been taken directly downwards from an impossible position centered over the hose.  This still left me with the unwanted bucket, and some unsightly reflections from the harsh midday sun, so I moved to Photoshop for some outpatient surgery.


Copying another section of tiles and pasting it over the bucket simplified the image, turning a garden scene into a near-abstract.

The next task was to take care of the unsightly reflections by copying better looking tiles, and pasting them over the ones with the bright reflections. I ended up making 4 patches like this. I created mask layers over 3 of the top 3 tile layers and then brushed black over the mask to blend in the seams.  The hose was the most fiddly part, because it needed to look realistic, but I didn’t have a dark gap to hide a transition.  I also used curve layers, (1, 2, and 3) to correct the exposure and contrast of several of these patches to more closely blend with their neighbors. My final step was to create an empty layer, setting the mode to Overlay, and filling it with neutral gray. This is a quick and easy way to make a Burn & Dodge layer, and it has the advantage of being editable.  Painting on it with a white brush, as I did in the upper left corner, opened up the darker tiles, making them a closer match to the tiles around the hose, and ensuring a symmetric and simple background. 

I’m very happy with the way it turned out. I’m not sure that Japanese hoses are innately more elegant than any other hoses, but to me, this particular bit of blue rubber tube is suggestive, even symbolic, of the Japanese obsession with elegance and form.

Funky Lunch at Issen Yoshoku

Monday, July 30th, 2012


Noontime on a hot and sultry summer day can be pretty quiet in Japan, especially in the posh Gion district of traditional Kyoto.  Growing in hunger, and torn between pricey and confusing traditional restaurants, not all of which were open, and Lawsons, we walked past Issen Yoshoku’s slightly naughty statue several times before deciding to give it a go.


Visible from the street, a sort of short order chef was busily and singly handedly cracking eggs over a sort of omelet sitting on pancakes on a griddle. It turned out to be a dish called okonomiyaki, which was developed about a century ago, apparently to take advantage of the newly introduced western-style wheat flour.    The price was right, and having a single entry on the menu simplified the ordering process greatly.


Although the statue of a dog pulling down a boy’s pants, prominently and memorably displayed on the restaurant’s exterior should have clued us in, it turned out to be a bit kitschier and droll than we’d expected.


Creepy kimonoed manikins were sitting at some of the tables, funny pictures were on the wall, and an entire miniature village was in a display case.


Right above our table was a large display of ema, the wooden plaques that are often seen hanging in Shinto shrines with prayers or wishes painted on them.  These were a little bawdier than the ones we’d seen at the shrines (sort of a Shinto version of saucy seaside postcards).


We polished off our pancakes, had a Kirin..or two, waved goodbye to the staff, and headed back out into the Kyoto heat.

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion

Sunday, July 29th, 2012


Elizabeth and I spent a rainy afternoon visiting one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist attractions, the Zen Buddhist site  where the Golden Pavilion (金閣, kinkaku?) is located.  Nor originally built as a religious structure, the top 2 floors of this stunningly beautiful lakeside building are covered in gold leaf.


Originally a secular building, it was purchased and occupied by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu during the 14th century, and at his request, was dedicated to the Zen Buddhists after his death. 


The original pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a novice monk, and the current structure, which may have a bit more bling than the original, was reconstructed in 1955. Even on such a wet day, it is a very crowded site, as photographers jostle for a tourist-free shot.  Tripods are strictly and expressly forbidden everywhere on the grounds.


Elizabeth and I spent most of our visit wandering around the gardens, which can only be described as harmonious. The lakeside position of the pavilion is a perfect way to maximize the impact of the gold.


While obviously, much of the landscaping is designed to accommodate the pavilion, the garden is quite large, offering more subtle pleasures that were maybe even enhanced by the somewhat moody mist, with the rainfall increasing the saturation of the greens and browns.


Considered to epitomize the minimalist garden aesthetic of the Muromachi Period (1337 to 1573), the garden unfolds in a series of tableaus as the visitor strolls along a winding stone path.


Visitors leave by descending a long, stone inlaid stairway.  No longer narrow or winding, yet still attractive, it leads directly to the real world.

Morning in Kyoto

Friday, July 27th, 2012


Elizabeth and I spent our first morning in Kyoto exploring the Nishiki-koji Market. Narrow streets roofed over to form protected market places are hardly unusual in Japan, but Kyoto’s historic market is renowned for its local foods and Japanese goods.


Dozens of little shops sell food, clothing, and gifts.  I must have spent 20 minutes in Aritsugu, a four and a half century old maker of knives and cutlery.  Cabinets were stuffed full of expensive handmade cooking and utility knives, and the clerks quickly but carefully used huge grinding wheels and Japanese whetstones to put a razor edge on machete-sized blades.

Our purchases at the chopstick store

One store specialized in chopsticks, so we treated ourselves and Kirk to a nice set, separately choosing sticks, wooden boxes, and ceramic stands, which the clerk wrapped into 3 gift bags.


Kyoto specializes in preserved foods, and we saw all kinds of colorful and unusual pickles and salted fish.


Several of the side streets had also been turned into indoor malls, although they weren’t as consistently upscale as Nishiki-koji.  There were some very nice restaurants with lovely displays of fake food.


I wandered around a cramped store that was a lot like an American Dollar General.


A huge arcade had nothing but claw crane machines, with cabinets filled with plush toys, and plastic characters from anime and manga.


I stopped into a large store that sold nothing but manga, Japanese graphic novels, and bought 3 different ones for Kirk.

Tuna Auction

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Moving Tuna Taking advantage of our circadian rhythms, Elizabeth and I arrived at the Tsukiji Fish Market just before 5am, which was just early enough to get us into the second and final tour of the daily tuna auction. After a 45 minute wait, we donned blue vests, walked through the busy traffic, and were directed into an observation area in a huge room, filled with deep frozen tuna.


All of the tuna had been prepped for the auction with a several different paint and paper labels.  Most interesting was a deep cut just above the tail, used by the buyers to inspect the quality of the fish. A series of boot-clad fish assessors, each with a wooden-handled metal hook, examined the fish meat in the cut, often shining a flash light on it, and sometimes smelling or tasting it.

Evaluating Tuna

Some of the inspectors also checked out a slot, apparently where the entrails were removed.

Tuna Auction

The auctions took place in a rolling fashion, moving across the floor from group of fish to group of fish.  As the auctioneer got closer to the groups of fish near us, buyers, with numbered tags on their hats, started congregating at the tail end of a group of fish.  Some guys continued checking out the frozen tuna right up until the auction started.

Auctioneer and Bidders

A stool was set up so the auctioneer could see the bidders.  Although he used different syllables and sounds than an American auctioneer would use, it was the same sort of verbal deluge of enthusiasm that you’d expect, so it was immediately clear to me and Elizabeth that the auction had started.


In short order, 10 tuna were individually auctioned off as the buyers raised their hands to indicate that they wanted a particular tuna at a particular price.

Making notes

An assistant kept track of who bought which fish, marking them after the auction by sticking pieces of paper to the frozen fish with a bit of water. Soon after the auction, porters used metal hooks to hoist the individual tuna onto hand carts, or electric carts.  Most of the fish were then butchered in the market with big band saws and were either sold at booths within the market, or were trucked away by wholesalers or large institutional buyers.

Moving tuna after the auction

Apparently, the market has had an off again/on again relationship with tourists, who wander around, slowing down the busy traffic, without actually buying much.  As a compromise, two tours of the tuna auction are offered every morning before 6am, but the main market isn’t open to visitors until 9am.

Breakfast restaurant

We wandered around at the booths that were open around the edges, mostly selling vegetables, but there were also booths with scales, knives, seaweed, and rice.  We chose a restaurant that wasn’t too crowded and an early breakfast of sashimi.