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Taking Great Photos of Cherry Blossoms

Taking Great Photos of Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms in Japan

It’s that time of year again. The cherry blossoms have arrived. For only a couple of short weeks every year, Japan explodes into pink and white. People here often picnic under the cherry blossoms and absorbs springs sights and sounds. The tradition is called hanami, cherry blossom viewing.

Cherry blossoms hold a special place in Japanese culture. Even as far back as a thousand years ago, old poems liken the short-lived beauty of youth to the short time that cherry blossoms are in bloom. The coming of spring is often seen as a bitter sweet event in that interpretation.

It’s not surprising, since people died much early in those days. People didn’t have a chance to witness the cherry blossoms blooming very many times in their life before they faded.

These days are different. We get to witness and capture the beauty of spring, and we have the opportunity to enjoy the rejuvenation of spring for many years. We can do with ease what few people could do in ye olden days: create a picture of the cherry blossoms. And create, we do. The question is: How do you take the perfect picture of the cherry blossoms?

 

 

How to Take Pictures of Cherry Blossoms

When taking pictures of cherry blossoms, it’s important to understand the different effects of hard and soft light.

 

 

Hard Light

Hard light, like on sunny spring days, will have the effect of creating hard shadows and high-contrast scenes. If you take advantage of the effects hard light provides, you can emphasize shapes using highlights and shadows. In the context of cherry blossoms, their petals are somewhat translucent, so you can also capture the effects of light traveling through layers of petals.

I enjoy the more dramatic, bright, bold look of hard light photography in general. However, what if you want to show cherry blossoms’ softer side with soft light?

 

 

Soft Light

Well, you have a few options. You can take pictures on a cloudy day. That is, in fact, one of the best conditions to take photos when you are newer to photography. The soft, weaker light on cloudy days is easier for cheaper cameras and smartphones to deal with. Soft light is also flattering to flowers, giving them a more feminine, calm atmosphere. Instead of accentuating shapes, lines, and shadows, soft light softens all of those and provides more even lighting. With the distraction of the small details, the atmosphere of the flower itself takes center stage.

Another option for taking soft light pictures is to use a reflector to reflect sunlight back on to the shadows of the flowers, softening the shadows. You can also use a diffuser to soften the light before it reaches the flowers.

You can also take advantage of shadows. Instead of taking pictures of cherry blossoms facing the Sun, take pictures of the ones in the tree’s shade. The ambient light will give you a nice soft light.

 

 

Natural vs. Artificial light sources

Most people will take photos of flowers under natural lighting conditions. Some people will take pictures of them early in the morning or late in the evening when lighting conditions are more interesting (due to the angle and color of the light at those times of day), but most people want to go out and take pictures of flowers on bright, sunny afternoons. Interesting photos can be taken during that time, but there are some limitations people put up with.

For one, you usually have to take pictures while facing away from the Sun. You do that because cameras can’t deal with the extreme contrast of the bright sun and the comparatively dark flower you’re trying to photograph. Either the sky will be well exposed and your flower will be pitch black (in which case, you might be able to make a cool silhouette), or the flower will be well exposed, but the sky will be pure white.

Another limitation of taking photos in the afternoon is that the angle of light is often less interesting. It tends to flatten all of the details of the background and foreground. That is especially true of cloudy days. If you’re taking pictures of flowers on cloudy days, usually you’ll want to zoom in close on the flowers and ignore the dull background.

People tend to want to see flowers contrasted against a beautiful blue sky, so if you want to take pictures of flowers with a blue sky in the background, you usually only have the option of hard light photos unless you get a diffuser or reflector. Even then, you’ll typically not be able to handle more than a small, hand-held reflector or diffuser by yourself. Reflectors and diffusers are a bit of a challenge to use in somewhat windy conditions. Here in Japan, wind is part of the opening of spring. Taking pictures with a partner who can hold your reflector or diffuser is very helpful.

What this all means is that, if you want to level up your cherry blossom photography, you’ll need to incorporate artificial light into your photography. With artificial light from a flash, you can shape the light, and thus the cherry blossoms, in the way you want. In the next post, I’ll give you an idea of what kind of gear you can use to level up your photography.

 

Taking Photos of Dragonflies

Taking Photos of Dragonflies

Summer is the season for many different kinds of bugs in Japan. One of those bugs are dragonflies.

I remember when I was a kid that I knew about dragonflies, but I have no memories of seeing one in real life as a child. I’ve always liked bugs. I remember learning about how fast dragonflies are, what they eat, etc. and looking at pictures of them. Their long bodies, big wings, and big, round, compound eyes were mesmerizing. The only bugs that I had regular exposure to when I was a kid were bees, butterflies, and mosquitoes. Of course, bees and butterflies are interesting, but as a bug lover, my heart yearned for more. After moving to Japan, I’ve been able to quench my bug thirst regulary, especially in the summer time.

There is a nice park near where I live that has some signs showing about 15 or so different dragonfly species that you can see there. Sounds nice to me! I went there with my girlfriend the other day and took some pictures.

There are some challenges with dragonfly photography. My girlfriend had a fisheye lens on her Pentax, and I had my telephoto lens on my Olympus. While it’s not actually that challenging to find dragonflies that will sit still on leaves, grass, rocks, etc., when dragonflies are in flight, they are fast little buggers. Getting close is critical with a fisheye. If your dragonfly is even arm’s length away, it will be far too small in the frame. You have to get within inches of them in order to get your shot. The good news is that fisheyes are ridiculously easy to focus. Put it at f16 and pretty much everything will be in focus all the time. lol

However, the same cannot be said of a telephoto. Although I don’t have to get super close to a dragonfly to get a good shot, when zoomed in, getting dragonflies in focus while they’re flying is nearly impossible.

Dragonflies fly in somewhat unpredictable ways and are very fast, so even if you manage to get one in your sights, and press the shutter button to focus and then take a picture, even if the dragonfly was in focus (which is a big if), between the moment of focus and the taking of the picture, the dragonfly will almost certainly fly out of your depth of focus. Your margin of error is literally razor thin.

I also thought that manual focus would be better for getting in-flight dragonflies in focus, but that didn’t work out at all. I thought that I could set focus and then grab a shot as the dragonflies flew by. However, that plan didn’t work out at all. Depth of focus was just too thin to be useful. Next time, I plan to try using automatic focus. My feeling is that back focus will be a problem using auto focus, but it can’t be worse than manual focus. lol

Although dragonfly movement seems unpredictable, there is some predictability to dragonflies that does assist somewhat in getting a good picture. I noticed that individual dragonflies will tend to fly around in a set area. I’m not sure if they are territorial or they’re simply displaying to get mates, but either way, if you find a dragonfly, it will probably be flying around the same area for a while. If you find one in a good spot, stick around and see if you can get a good shot. That’s what I did for the blurry photos above.

The same is true of dragonflies resting on leaves or rocks. If you accidently spook one while trying to photograph it, stick around for a bit. It’ll probably return in less than a minute.

In the blurry photos above, you’ll notice that some photos have two dragonflies in the frame, and it’s those photos that seem closest to being in focus. The reason is that, when the second dragonfly arrived, the two seemed to slow down, sometimes hovering in place for brief moments. I was hopeful to get a shot during one of those moments, but they came and went quickly, so I didn’t have any time to focus.

Of course, dragonflies will take a break and sit on rocks, leaves, grass, etc. Those are your best opportunities to get good photos. They also don’t spook all that easily. You can get very intimate with them. They aren’t bothered by the shutter noise either, so you can have extended sessions with them.

But, as you can imagine, there are still challenges to face even in ideal conditions. By now, you’ve noticed that focus is a big challenge in photography. Moving subjects, like jumping mudskippers or flying dragonflies, present the biggest challenge, but even getting good focus on stationary subjects can be tricky. Take this dragonfly for example.

This should have been a great picture, but unfortunately, I let my guard down. I thought I could get away with a lower shutter speed (1/80), but even at f8.0, because of a little wind, the shot is blurred. Bummer, dude.

Blur from movement is one problem, but another problem is not getting enough of a subject in focus. My girlfriend took some pictures of the same dragonfly above using a fisheye, so it’ll provide a good point of comparison.

She took this shot a 1/1250, so the shutter speed was plenty fast enough. However, surprisingly, even though she was using a fisheye lens (which will have a larger depth of focus compared to my telephoto lens) at f6.3, because she was so close to the dragonfly, only part of the body is in focus. The middle part and the front wings are mostly in focus, but it’s head and back half are out of focus. Damn.

There are a few ways to overcome this focus challenge.

  1. Increase your aperture. Instead of shooting at f2.8, shoot at f8 or higher.
  2. Change composition. Take the picture at a different angle to get more of the subject in your depth of focus.
  3. Focus stacking. More on that later.

If you increase your aperture, you will get a larger depth of field. For example, take a look at another shot my girlfriend took.

She took the photo at f29 with the fisheye. Even though she is quite close to the dragonfly, it and its environment are largely in focus.

…Or are they? There are limits to how much you can increase your aperture before you run into new problems. Here is a side-by-side of two photos taken at nearly the same angle. On the left is the one above (ISO 3200, 1/1250, f29), on the right is another picture (ISO 640, 1/4000, f4).

Something you probably notice is that details in the wing are more defined in the picture on the right. In fact, the dragonfly on the left seems to be in focus and out of focus at the same time. There are a couple of reason. One, the Pentax my girlfriend used doesn’t handle noise very well. At ISO 800 and above, noise becomes a serious issue. It will blur the details and reduce the color accuracy and definition. On top of that, at high apertures, light diffraction will reduce the sharpness of the details. F29 is near the upper limit of the Pentax’s maximum aperture, so it’s unsurprising that sharpness in the details has been lost to diffraction. High ISO noise and diffraction combined to drastically reduce the image quality of that photo. That’s why it’s important to know what your effective aperture range is for maximum sharpness.

The good news is that even if the image quality isn’t perfect, it’s still useable. If the photo isn’t too big, you won’t notice the lack of details anyway. For example, that image is perfectly usable for Instagram since most people will be viewing the photo with their phones.

Changing your aperture is one way to get more of a dragonfly in focus, but you can also change your composition. For example, compare these two images.

On the left, the wings of the dragonfly are largely out of focus, but on the right, they are all completely in focus. Of course, whether you like one or the other is up to you. Personally, I like the one on the left more because its wings and body aren’t very interesting, but its big, blue eyes are very interesting. However, sometimes the more interesting part of a dragonfly is its wings, like the photo near the top of the dragonfly with black and rainbow-colored wings. It’s actually the same species of dragonfly (they’re butterfly dragonflies), but depending on the angle you look at them from, the color of their wings changes. You can only see those colors from that angle, and you can only get the wings completely in focus from that angle, so the composition is perfectly appropriate for displaying those colors.

Well, they aren’t completely in focus. They are a little blurry along their edges. But, how do you fix that? With what’s called focus stacking or focus bracketing. Since this post is already too long as it is, I’ll cover focus stacking in my next post.

How to take pictures of mudskippers

How to take pictures of mudskippers

Last weekend, I visited the mudskippers again, this time with my girlfriend. We both came prepared with our telephoto lenses and proper outdoor-wear.

Micah taking pictures of mudskippers.

Takae smiling while preparing to take pictures of mudskippers.

Timing

One challenge faced when taking pictures of mudskippers is the fact that they look like mud, and mud brown is not a very inspiring color. Of course, mudskippers by themselves are interesting and fun to watch, but after you see about a hundred photos of them, they start to blend into each other. So, to make things interesting, I’ve found that taking pictures of them at golden hour helps make them more interesting. The brown mud takes on both blue and orange tones (blue in the shadows and orange in the highlights). It makes for more drama and interest. So, we went at around sunset for a photo session at the bridge I wrote about before.

 

Camera Settings

Getting interesting light isn’t the only challenge. From past experience, I’ve found that getting mudskippers in-focus is actually more difficult than you might imagine. There are several factors that contribute to the difficulty of getting mudskippers in-focus.

  1. Shutter speeds. Mudskippers move surprisingly fast in short bursts, so you need a high shutter speed to prevent motion blur.
  2. Depth of field. Shooting with my Oly 40-150mm f2.8 is fun, but even when shooting mudskippers far away, when they jump, they often jump out of focus. It’s also a problem when trying to get two battling mudskippers in focus.
  3. Both are compounded by the necessity to stop down and reduce shutter speeds at sunset or before sunrise (when the most interesting lighting occurs).

Shutter Speed

Slightly blurry mudskipper, taken at 1/800.

This photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/800, which I though was more than enough when I was shooting that day. When I got back home and checked my pictures, I found that many of my pictures looked blurry. Bummer, dude.

To get ride of the motion blur I was getting, I had to increase my shutter speed to 1/2000, much higher than I expected.

 

No blur, taken at 1/2000

 

Aperture

But, of course, even at 1/4000, if the mudskipper jumps out of my depth of field, it will be blurry all the same.

Mudskipper jumping out of depth-of-focus

Even stopped down a bit to f4.0, shooting at 150mm gives me very little wiggle room. I pre-focused on this mudskipper in anticipation of a jump, but it quickly jumped out of my depth of field. This happens regularly with mudskippers, and the only choice you have is to stop down some more, or hope that they stay in your depth of field.

 

It could also be the two mudskippers go to battle over territory or a nice lady mudskipper, and while one mudskipper is in focus, the other is just a bit out of focus. Notice how the face of the mudskipper in the water is in focus, but the face of the other one is out of focus a bit? It’s just in front of the depth-of-focus. In this case, my only option would be to stop down to give them some room to tussle.

ISO

But, if you are increasing your shutter speed and stopping down, then naturally you have to increase your ISO to compensate. When I first tried photographing mudskippers, I thought that an ISO of 200 would be possible since I was outdoors in “good light”. However, I found that at golden hour, an ISO range of 640-1600 was necessary. I would like to stop down some more, but ISO 3200 is really the upper limit in the useable range of ISOs on my OMD-EM1. The good news is that at 640-800, image quality is still excellent and noise is not a big problem.

So, if you go taking pictures of mudskippers, you should expect to use the following settings:

  • Shutter speed: 1/2000 or above
  • Aperture: f4 or above
  • ISO: 640 or above, depending on your camera’s high iso picture quality.

 

Mudskipper Behavior

If you go at the right time and get your camera settings right, you’ll definitely increase your chances of getting good photos, but there are still a few more challenges. It’s fun to take pictures of mudskippers scooping mud into their mouths or just hanging out, but those don’t usually make for the most interesting pictures. You want some action, right? But, even when you are absolutely surrounded by rolly-polly, flippy-floppy, hippity-hoppity mudskippers, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to have your camera on the right mudskipper at the right time.  Mudskippers don’t yell out, “I’m gonna jump! Get ready!”, the just suddenly put up their fins and go for it. They also don’t usually jump more than a couple of times before stopping for a break or returning to their burrow. So, how do you get the right moment?

 

  • Be patient. Yes, there are many mudskippers everywhere else fighting and frolicing, but you aren’t gonna get anywhere constantly reaiming your camera and trying to get the action in focus. Take your time, and focus.
  • Mudskippers that have jumped around during the breeding season are likely to jump again, as long as they aren’t bothered. So, if you see one jump and stop, just wait for it to jump again. It might be a few minutes.
  • When there are lots of mudskippers out, some will be roaming around in search of food, opening up the chance of a fight as the roaming skipper goes into another’s territory. So, if you see one moving around, just keep an eye on it for a while. If you see it approaching another mudskipper, you may have only a short window to capture the moment of conflict. Usually, roaming mudskippers aren’t looking for a fight, so they’ll quickly run off.
  • Those roaming skippers might go in and out of their burrows. Keep an eye on one if you notice it doing that. You might be able to capture some interesting moments as they enter or exit their burrows.
  • Sometimes mudskippers will engage in protracted territory conflicts or fight for breeding rights. They might fight for 5-7 seconds, separate for a while, then go back at it again several more times. If you see two skippers fight for a long time and then separate (but not too far away), then you should definitely observe those two for a while. It probably won’t be long before they fight again.

 

If you do things right, you’ll get lots of nice photos of our muddy friends.

Photography vocabulary in Japanese

Photography vocabulary in Japanese

Here are is an incomplete list of common photography vocabulary and expressions. Updated periodically.

cameraカメラstudioスタジオcomposition構図
interchangeable lens camera交換レンズのカメラmonolightモノブロックframingフレーミング
compact cameraコンパクトカメラphotography撮影timingタイミング
DSLRデジタル一眼レフlandscape photography風景撮影focus distance焦点距離
rangefinderレンジファインダーwedding photography結婚式撮影depth of field/focus焦点深度
mirrorlessミラーレスevent photographyイベント撮影rule of thirds三分割法
micro four-thirdsマイクロフォーサーズsports photographyスポーツ撮影burst shooting連写
APSCエイピーエスシーwildlife photography野生動物の撮影ISOアイエスオー
sensorセンサーproduct photography商品撮影aperture絞り
fixed focal point lens単焦点レンズtripod三脚shutterシャッター
telephoto lens望遠レンズmonopod一脚time lapse低速度撮影、微速度撮影、タイムラプス
wide-angle lens広角レンズfilterフィルター
fish-eye lens魚眼レンズND filterNDフィルター
macro lensマクロレンズpolarizing filter偏光フィルター
kit lensキットレンズflashストロボ

Mudskipper Photography Research

Mudskipper Photography Research

Last year, I learned about an interesting photography contest that I wanted to join. The subject of the contest was mudskippers.
Mudskippers are a kind of amphibious fish, a species of which can be found in abundance in Saga, Japan. They’re cute little buggers that prefer to play in the mud, rather than swim in the water. Although the city that held the photo contest last year doesn’t appear to be holding it this year, my girlfriend and I enjoy taking pictures of them, so we decided to take more pictures of them this year. Last year, we were late to the mating season, so we didn’t to get to witness the height of their mating rituals. Additionally, I forget to reset my camera to shoot RAW, so the quality of the pictures I took was disappointing. This year, I will make no such mistake!

In an effort to up my mudskipper-photography game this year, I’m doing a bit of research about mudskippers. I’m hoping to learn something about their behavior, physical differences between males and females, etc. that will help me predict their movements. But, before learning about their behavior, I needed to know the best places to take pictures of them. Here is some useful information about the location:

Address: 小城市芦刈町永田3033番地1

Low-tide time table

Map:

 

Previously, my girlfriend and I have gone to the docks. We never knew about or noticed the much better location just east of there. There is a bridge hanging just over the mud, with a bath available for those that decide to get in the mud (looks like a 300 yen per-person charge for using the bath). The bridge appears to be the most popular spot for taking photos.   Now that location information is out of the way, I need some information about mudskippers. To gather information, I started at Wikipedia and worked my way to a mudskipper researcher’s website with specific, detailed information about the species of mudskipper found in Saga. I combined that with other information I found to form this list.

  1. Mudskippers are amphibious, meaning they can live in and out of the water.
  2. They can breath through their skin, mouth, and throat. However, they have to be moist to do so. They stay moist by frequently rolling in the mud.
  3. Mating season starts at around the end of May and goes through about July…I think.
  4. They eat algae in the mud. They do so by first scooping some mud up and then sieving it in shallow pools of water.
  5. They store air in their gills to allow them to stay above water for longer.
  6. Mudskippers are highly territorial and maintain burrows. They eat while roaming their territory.
  7. They will take air into their burrows. Females lay eggs in a special chamber in their burrow.
  8. They have large dorsal fin with several spine bones. The second spine on females is extra long.
  9. Males will jump and slap their bodies and tails near the opening of their burrows to attract mates.

Knowing the difference between males and females will make it easier to pick targets to follow. Knowing that they need to go to a small pool of water to sieve food from mud also helps make their behavior more predictable.

With this information, I’ll be taking much better pictures this year!