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Playing with light

At the end of this month, my wife and I will be taking family photos at an outdoor event at a nearby park. We did the same event a couple of years ago. While my wife took pictures, her friends ran a booth selling handmade goods. I took pictures of the event and my wife while she was working. I wanted to promote the event and my wife’s work.

This year, my wife wants me to help take pictures. We’re going to split the work. It’ll be the first time that I work for her taking photos. She originally envisioned me running a mini-studio experience. As a result, I’ve been thinking about I can run such an operation by myself.

The main obstacle to running the experience outdoors is going to be the weather. Cloudy weather and sunny weather require different lighting setups. Additionally, any heavy wind will also hinder efforts to use things like diffusers or paper backgrounds.

Well, since we have some time to prepare, I’ve been looking at potential setups online. I found a couple I liked, so I took my wife to the park to try them out.

As it turns out, the weather cooperated quite nicely. We had one cloudy day and one sunny day, perfect for testing out both situations.

The setups we tested used only two flashes, diffusion, and a reflector. For cloudy days, no diffusion is needed.

We found one setup that works really well: sitting down in the grass. It’ll work well in both sunny and cloudy conditions, and even if it’s windy, the diffusion is light and plenty of weight can be placed at the base of the stand. On sunny days, as the sun moves, the setup can be easily and quickly turned to adjust. If it’s cloudy, no change is necessary. It’s a stable, easy-to-manage build out for a photo shoot.

Later, we tested out using a tent for building a mini-studio setup, but our tent is too small to use for family photos, so we scrapped that idea.

So, the sitting, two-light setup is the one I am going to use.


Reflecting on Summer Vacation

Well, summer vacation is over. That means it’s a good time to reflect on how I spent my time during these last few weeks.

The first three weeks, my wife and I spent in the US. We went last year, too, but we mainly focused on visiting places and taking pictures. This time around, we wanted to do something other than just photography.

Of course, we still took lots of pictures.



Some of the most fun we had was in the first few days. We sent to a place called the Nisqually Wildlife Reserve. At the reserve, we expected to just walk around a see a bit of nature. What we got to see was beyond out expectations. After walking for about 15 minutes, I spotted my first frog. Little did I know that, once we paid attention, there were frogs practically everywhere! That lead into a fun couple of hours of walking and photographing frogs, turtles, deer, and other wildlife. I’ve been to a few zoos in my time, but that reserve was better than most I’ve been to.

The only other place that we got to see interesting wildlife was at Mount Rainier.



There are several different trails starting from the Paradise visitor center. I’ve been up the more popular trails several times in my life, so I decided to take us on a less popular one. The trail lead past a small waterfall. Most people went to the fall and then return back to one of the main trails. Instead, we continued on the trail and enjoyed unusual and blissful peace and quiet. At the same time, we had a chance to see the two Marmots, someone large rodents that enjoy munching on the wildflowers in the fields.

Of course, as I said, it wasn’t all photo taking. Near where my parents live, there is a small, slow moving river that is a popular summer inner-tubing spot.



We don’t have very many photos from our fun times then. Unfortunately, we forgot our Olympus Tough, a waterproof camera, back in Japan. We had to make due with a smartphone sealed in a plastic bag.

Originally, we planned on going to a locally famous water park for a day, but when we found out how expensive it was, we decided to buy some inner tubes and enjoy unlimited rides and relaxation on the river for about half the price.

Another activity we enjoyed was taking a small class on night sky photography in Seattle. The class was conducted at an amazing camera store called Glazer’s. After the class, while everybody was downstairs looking at cameras behind glass counters, we spent a while just checking out all of the lighting, stand, printers, and other less popular photography items.



In Japan, I like to go to a store named Yodobashi Camera to look at camera stuff. While Yodobashi’s camera-testing experience is better than Glazer’s, nearly everything else about Glazer’s is better. I was surprised to find such an interesting camera store in the US.

The last activity we did before coming back to Japan was shooting guns at a shooting range. A family friend arranged for us to take some shooting instruction for a day. We expected to take a short lesson, shoot for an hour or two, and then go home. Instead, we spent about four or five hours shooting. It was a fun, American experience that my family enjoyed.


The main event for us, however, was the wedding reception my parents prepared. Friends and family traveled to meet and congratulate my wife and I on getting married. There was lots of food and good conversation for us.


My parents used to do a lot of large gatherings like those in the past, but they rarely get the opportunity these days. I was happy to see that they both haven’t lost their touch.

After all the fun was over, we packed up the souvenirs and said goodbye.


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.


Japanese Night-time Street Photography

Over the weekend, I did a little night-time photography in Saga city. I wake up early in the morning when Saga is still mostly a ghost town. The only vehicles out at around 4:30 are trucks and taxis. On Sunday morning, I decided to go out and see if I could get any interesting photos at that ghostly hour.

The challenge of night-time photography is that you actually want to show something, so you need some light, but light is hard to come by. You have to take what you can get. When a taxi comes to an intersection, you have to move fast to take advantage of the headlights.

But, it would be difficult to tell from the above photos that they were taken in Japan. Nothing in them screams Japan! The first one could easily be in an English speaking country. So, here’s some Japan.

Once I got some light, I discovered another challenge: lighting in public almost never is a neutral white. I’d say the light shining on the red shrine is fairly close to neutral, likely to emphasize the structure’s beautiful red paint. Typically, public lighting has either a strong yellow or green cast. My expectation was that it would be difficult to make attractive photos with different competing colors. However, in post-processing, I decided to lean into the mixed lighting–I cranked up the color saturation and boosted exposure. That created a more iconic, comic book look to the Saga streets.

Look at the way the light reflects off of the power lines and manholes. Night-time street lighting creates dramatic, colorful silhouettes. This is a fun style that I’ll try developing a bit more in the future.

Winter Photography with my Flash

Winter time is often a tough season to take photos outdoors here in Japan. If it doesn’t snow, then all that you have are leafless trees and brown grass. The environment feels lifeless. It snowed a small amount yesterday, but wasn’t enough to have fun with. So, if the weather doesn’t want to provide me some entertainment, I have to rustle up some for myself.

In the past, I’ve used my wife’s Yongnu and even her monolights to do outdoor and indoor photography. I’ve done selfies, my wife’s portrait, and some product photography with her lights.


However, on Amazon’s Cyber Monday event, I procurred my first clip-on flash. I got the Godox TT600 for around $50 (5,000 yen). After getting it, I took it and my camera with me and my wife when we went on our nightly walks. I thought it would be fun to get some nighttime photography practice in.


One main reason why I chose the Godox over other similarly priced flashes was its ability to do high-speed synchro photography. Flash units have to be in synch with the shutter of the camera they are used with. If the shutter speed is too fast, you will have only part of the image exposed to the flash. Below are some examples of what happens when the shutter speed is too high.


That is a typical limitation that photographers have to adapt to, especially for any photography involving fast movement or bright sources of light (typically, the Sun). However, modern flash strobes and monolights have been incorporating high-speed synchro functionality. That allows them to synch with much high camera shutter speeds. Flashes without HSS have a maximum camera shutter speed of about 1/200-250. My new Godox TT600 can synch up to shutter speeds of 1/8000, much much faster.

What that means is that I can now take pictures that are backlit by the Sun and still get excellent pictures. Yesterday, I decided to go out with my wife and test it out for the first time. I took a small stand and some umbrellas with me. I was ready for a small outdoor studio shoot.

I’ve been aware of high-speed synch monolights for a while, but until only a few weeks ago, I had no idea that there were cheap clip-on flashes available with the same feature. I had seen expensive lights do the same thing as the photo above. I thought I would have to wait a while before I could take the pictures I wanted to take outside. However, now I and my Godox can go out and take some fun photos this winter.

Self-portrait or Selfie?

Recently, my beautiful wife took her own profile picture for a local business website. She told me it was challenging to do because she couldn’t get pictures in focus when she used a self-timer, and her camera doesn’t have wifi built in, so the only way to take pictures was to use a remote shutter release cable and check after each photo. Self-portraits aren’t easy to take when you can’t view yourself through some other external screen, so she wasn’t able to really take a great photo like I know she can make. Her Canon 5D Mark III let her down.

However, though she will hate for me to say this, but my micro four-thirds Olympus OMD EM1 is way better than the full-frame Canon 5D Mark III in a variety of ways. The primary reason to own a Canon camera is for accessory support, full-frame bokeh control, better high-iso photo quality, and higher resolution. In other words, if you want to make photos with super blurry backgrounds to use in very large (poster size, billboard size, etc.) then you need the Canon. If you don’t need that, you are far better off with the Olympus.

And in the case of self-portraits, the Olympus was simply way easier and more useful. It has built-in wifi and a smartphone app that lets you control it wirelessly as if you were looking at the camera screen. I could sit six feet away, look at my phone, center myself in the frame, move lighting gear closer or move it out of the frame, etc. without taking test shots and getting up to look at the camera. As a result, I found it simple to take my own self-portrait.

I used one Yongnu flash unit and a reflector for these shots. I really needed at least one more flash to light up the dark part of my face in the photo on the left, but I didn’t have one available. I made due with the one that I did have.

The lighting setup is the most basic one there is, but it’s very effective for simple portraits like these. If my studio were a bit bigger, I would have put more distance between myself and the background. I wanted to make it completely black, but having some gray isn’t so bad.

The pictures are a bit dark since I wanted to light myself but didn’t want to light my background. So, in Lightroom I boosted exposure and did a bit more touching up. It’s nothing special, but it was fun and I got some profile pictures I can use for the next year or so. lol