“Here is a spot”
Lukasz and I were looking at the end of a narrow alleyway with a brightly painted advertisement on the wall and a beam of winter sunlight shooting down. We had found a location, now we were waiting for some people to walk past so that they could add a human element to our shots.
Lukasz and I were in the ethnic Korean neighborhood of Tsuruhashi in Osaka. He had come from Tokyo to work with me on improving and expanding our workshop offerings in Osaka. He chose this spot because of the angled winter light and the strong red and white colors of sign in the background. We shared with each other how we would approach this situation photographically, from both technical and aesthetic points of view. What exposure settings do you use? How do you focus? What angle looks good? How do you do this without angering anybody?
In this blog post, we’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we build and improve our workshops. We’ll talk about how we choose our locations, how we select the shots that provide the best learning experience to our workshop participants, and how we bounce ideas and knowledge off of each other to build a better mousetrap.
Osaka is Japan’s 2nd most populous city and is the heart of the Kansai District where over 14 million people live. Compared to its larger rival Tokyo, Osaka is a grittier, down-to-earth working city.
How I Got to Know Osaka
I started working for EYExplore about a year ago and took over running the Kyoto and Osaka workshops in July 2019. I used to be a newspaper photographer in Michigan for seven years back in the 80s and 90s before moving to Japan 25 years ago.
Most of that time I’ve lived in Kyoto, although I did live in Osaka for my first few months here. Only an hour away by train, I visited Osaka for various reasons over the years, but mostly for work or other personal reasons. While I know it pretty well, I hadn’t really explored it photographically except when I first arrived. Working for EYExplore has given me the opportunity to do that again.
What goes into a Photo Adventure
We work hard to continually improve our photo workshops. We strive to have stimulating locations and for each of our shooting situations to be a learning experience. These learning experiences may be technical, aesthetic or practical.
We might be learning how to use slower shutter speeds that can bring the feeling of motion into an image.
Or how tilting an image slightly can make a composition more dynamic.
Or by how simply smiling and being friendly can relax people to allow you to photograph them.
Umeda – Bright Lights, Big City
Lukasz and I spent a lot of time in the bustling downtown hub of Umeda, which is home to our popular Osaka By Night workshop. That workshop mixes a combination of tripod night photography and available light street photography, which is what we focused our efforts on.
After spending some time looking at street photography pictures on our phones and discussing what makes good images, we started to scout the area around Osaka Station, which has changed immensely since I first moved here.
Trains play a pivotal role in Japanese life. I showed Lukasz a spot I like that looks out over the train platforms from several stories above. An overall shot is good to give context, but I have found that tighter shots show a slice of life.
I like this shot here that shows the man’s legs in the train car door. Not seeing his whole body makes me curious about him. One of the technical challenges with this shot is shooting through a glass wall without getting reflections. And having the patience to wait for the right shot.
Moving to the northeast side of the station, there is an open area between two train stations and a large shopping center. This area alone offers many photo opportunities. We bounced some ideas off of each other and set about shooting.
There is a big electronic sign at the end of a pedestrian bridge, which can be really fun as a background. The advertisements on it run on a loop, so if you wait long enough, you can get the background you like with people walking by as a framing device. It was raining that day, so the colors reflecting off of the water on the bridge saturate the photos. Don’t be disappointed about a rainy day. It often makes for more interesting photos.
Pedestrian bridges offer a great vantage point to take photos of vehicles. Here, using a slow shutter blurs the yellow truck as it mirrors the yellow paint on the asphalt.
Shooting through a rain covered glass wall gives an eerie feel to the train signal lights.
Using the shapes from the architecture helps frame this image of a man walking underneath an escalator.
All of these images were taken within about a 100 meters of each other. This demonstrates how many striking images can be found in one area. Each of these images uses different techniques which means there is always something to learn and practice.
Part of photography is to see the image. And the other part is to capture the image. To prepare for our workshops, we’ve done some pre-seeing and are knowledgeable about the technical aspect of the capture. And then we practice, practice, practice.
Moving to the other side of the station, we used panning techniques to isolate the people walking below. We experimented with different shutter speeds as well as panning both laterally and front-to-back from the camera (which is more difficult). Here we see an elderly gentleman walking with a cane.
Again a slow shutter speed blurs the car driving by as this woman waits between traffic lanes for the light to change.
And panning along with a slow shutter speed helps make the photo of this Loop Line train more interesting. From one location, we’ve used slow shutter speeds, keeping the camera stationary, and moving it to give different effects.
With all of this in mind, Lukasz and I talked about how to get the best shots and pointed out images that either of us might not have seen. Since we have different styles, it is always refreshing to work with someone to see something new. Panning shots, for example, take a lot of practice to get a good one. I had never thought about panning front-to-back until Lukasz mentioned it to me. There is always something new to learn.
Moving a bit away from the station, we explored the side streets of the restaurant/bar area of east Umeda. For these shots, we needed a different approach. We wanted to make sure that we have our shutter speed high enough to stop the action of people moving — at least 1/125.
We talked about what kind of photos look good and how to take these kinds of photos without annoying people as Japan is a place with a zillion unwritten rules.
Here we have a busy sushi chef shot from outside. Lukasz pointed out this restaurant window to me and encouraged me to get the shot.
Or a man walking through a restaurant alley with a silly umbrella.
Exploring the Rooftops of Osaka
While in Umeda and the neighboring Kitashinchi entertainment district, we went to some of the locations used for our Osaka Cyperpunk Urbex workshop. This is a fun workshop where we take night urban landscapes from the upper floors of buildings in locations that you’d never find on your own.
While not the central focus of our time together, Lukasz and I spent time reviewing our locations and the procedures to make sure that it is safe, fun, and informative. In terms of shooting, we used a combination of tripod shots and high ISO handheld shots.
Here is a tripod shot using a slow shutter speed to blur the car taillights.
And a handheld shot looking down. Make sure you always have the camera connected to you by a strap!
And here is Lukasz in what I like to call an available darkness shot. This is handheld with a slow shutter speed. The camera is braced on a safety railing. It was really dark. These modern cameras are amazing.
Tsuruhashi: Korea Town
Lukasz and I also spent a lot of time scouting locations for our Osaka Bespoke Photo Adventures, which have customized itineraries based on your interests.
We explored the markets of Tsuruhashi, which I had never been to before. Also known as Korea Town, this is an area with a large population of people of Korean descent. Most were brought there during the Japanese colonization of Korea during the early 20th century until the end of the Second World War, and now their descendents remain in the area.
Korea Town grew out of the ashes of the war and into a sort of mini version of South Korea. The market area is a wonderful place to explore. It is unlike any other market I have seen in Japan.
Lukasz showed me around the sprawling market, with sharp smells of kimchi and kinds of food I had never seen before. He had been lining up a shot when a man pulled a huge, steaming chunk of pork out of a vat and hung it up in front of his shop. “Oh! Check this out!” The Koreans eat just about every part of the animal, which is different from the Japanese and my native USA.
One of the best things I learned from exploring this maze of market alleys is the way that Lukasz interacted with people. Korean culture is different than Japanese and it is very easy to make yourself unwelcome with a camera.
Lukasz was great. Look at people. Smile. Ask them about what they are selling. Ask about themselves. Ask if you can take a photo. Even if you don’t speak the language, people can understand your tone of voice, your gestures and your body language. Being friendly gets you miles farther than not. And if makes for a much more enjoyable experience for everyone.
Photography is not all about f-stops and shutter speeds. This practical aspect of how you act with your camera and how you interact with people is an important lesson to learn.
And sometimes you get surprised by seeing things like a poodle in bicycle basket. Again, Lukasz cheerfully talked with the woman before asking her if he could take the photo.
Shinseikai: Retro Osaka
Shinseikai ( or “New World”) is a scruffy and seedy part of south Osaka that is the opposite of the shiny, modern Umeda. Originally built in the turn of the 20th century as an entertainment district, the area has seen better times. It is a great place to get a glimpse of old-school Japan. Most of the buildings are from after the war and haven’t been upgraded since.
Although the area immediately around Tsutentaku Tower has been touristified, the side streets and alleyways are great for exploring and photographing the local life.
This area is also a possibility for our Osaka Bespoke Photo Adventures. We like it because of its dingy, down-to-earth vibe. There are lots of opportunities for great street photography.
Being able to spot good pictures and understanding the right techniques to capture them is the focus of this part of the photo adventure.
Namba: Behind the Touristy Facade
Namba is one of Osaka’s two downtowns, situated on the south end of the city. This is where Osakans go for a good time. It is a world of neon lights, great food, and lively people. When I first came to Japan, I was blown away by the endless streets of 10-story buildings jam-packed with bars.
While most travelers are drawn to the famous Dotonbori bridges, with the area’s bright neon lights (actually LEDs nowadays), Lukasz showed me some areas I have never explored before — a few of which were just off of streets I’ve walked down many times before. The great part about having a camera is that it can take you places you wouldn’t usually go to in your daily life.
Namba is also an area well suited for our personalized Osaka Bespoke Photo Adventure. We like this area because you get a view of the world where hardworking local people go to let their hair down.
First, we explored the maze of alleyways and side streets filled with bars and restaurants. These kinds of areas are a gold mine for photos and are unfortunately getting bulldozed to make way for large, modern buildings.
Lukasz has amazing knowledge of this area, which he shared with me. Finding new places to explore stimulates my senses and helps me see things in new ways.
A Fruitful Week
Lukasz’s visit to Osaka was a good experience for me. We solidified new routes and techniques to strengthen our workshops. And it is always good for me to go shooting with Lukasz. He always challenges me to try things differently and bring it all back to constantly having enjoyable, teachable moments for our clients. And making great pictures!