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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

Wildlife photography in Taku

Wildlife photography in Taku

When I’ve examined past photography I’ve done, the pictures I enjoy the most are the ones I’ve taken of wildlife. When I lived in Taku, I spent many weekends exploring the town on my bike, stopping to take pictures of interesting vistas. Usually that meant taking pictures in rice fields. Once I was done taking pictures of the wide world around me, I enjoyed getting down low and exploring the world that we rarely take the time to visit. I’m a big fan of Nintendo’s Pikmin series. Getting down to the ground and really observing the world under our feet helps me understand what inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to create the series (he was inspired by his time working his garden).

Taku might not be a great place for finding work or shopping, but it is a great place for getting photos of all kinds of wildlife. The rice fields attract all kinds of animals and bugs. Bugs and frogs love the flooded fields and shade under the rice plants, and everything else loves the bugs and frogs. The variety of life in the countryside helps create very distinct seasons. Frogs announce the rainy season, cicadas sing the songs of summer, crickets play an autumn lullaby, etc.

All different kinds of flowers bloom at different times of the year, too. My favorite are easily the lotus flowers. Everybody thinks of cherry blossoms when they think of Japan, and the cherry blossoms are nice, but for me, lotus flowers are way more interesting. They last longer, they’re bigger, the plant itself and the environment it grows in is more interesting, and the kinds of wildlife attracted to them are more interesting than those attracted to cherry blossoms. They’re overall just a cool plant and flower.

(Two photos above taken two months ago.)

But, as I expected, when I went to a lotus field in Taku, the flowers were all gone and the plants were mostly dried up. The good news is that there were still plenty of occupants left to photograph.

There is one red flower that grows on the ground around rice fields that catches my eye, too. I don’t know its name, but my fiancé tells me that it is a poisonous flower. It always grows at the end of summer and highlights the edges of rice fields while they are around. They contrast nicely with the green rice plants they grow around.

While I was out in Taku, I visited several local attractions, including Seibyo. Seibyo is a Confucian temple, a rare sight in Japan. Last time I was there I spotted a snake at the edge of a small pond, so I kept my eyes out for snakes while I was there this time. I was lucky enough to spot one once again, this time roaming around, hunting for some grub.

It was a big guy, probably about a meter long. I was probably about 8-10 feet away from it when I saw it. I tried to get a little closer while it appeared busy hunting, but it spotted me and started moving away. I started trying to take some video of it from far away when I noticed some strange movement. I got closer and as I suspected, it had captured a young frog. I watched it swallow the little frog alive.

It was the first time I had ever seen a snake eat anything in real life. What really got me was the little squeaking noise it made as the snake slowly worked it into its mouth. I know that frogs often eat other frogs as they grow up, but I still couldn’t help but feel bad for it. On the other hand, the snake needs to eat, too, and there are a lot of frogs everywhere in Taku (I regularly find flattened frog skeletons on the road). Life eats life. Witnessing it first-hand was a bittersweet experience.

Taking photos in rural Japan continues to be a pleasant, surprising experiences.


Photo Walks/Tours in Saga?

Photo Walks/Tours in Saga?

Over the weekend, my fiancé went to a business seminar. The speaker told her story about starting a business importing baby slings from the US.

Following the seminar, we discussed the possibility of starting practical photography lessons based on some of the things that she learned at the seminar. At the seminar, she learned that business owners have to think about pricing and customer services they wish to provide. Those services, in a sense, create the character of the business. For example, a business can go for low margin, high volume pricing, or it can go for the luxury market. It can provide barebones support at low prices, or it can provide superior support and guidance for extra money.

Before going into the details of the photography lessons my fiancé and I are contemplating, I’ll go into detail about the two examples of businesses with unique personalities that stood out to both the seminar speaker and my fiancé.

The first example was a business in Akihabara, Tokyo. For those that don’t know, Akihabara, is the techno-nerd mecca of Japan. The example business in Akihabara is a business that sells nearly anything technology related. Computer parts, audio electronics, video equipment, etc. No matter what you want, they have it or can get it for you. However, it has a peculiar characteristic: it has only a small store front with an old woman at the front. The woman knows nearly nothing about most electronics or technology. Instead, the woman takes orders for equipment, such as the general nature and use of the equipment, the desired shape, size, colors, etc., desired functions, and any other relevant specifications for the equipment, no matter how specialized. If the shop doesn’t have the equipment in stock, they will find it, wherever in the world it is, and special order it. That’s possible due to the store owner’s connections with businesses throughout the world. It meets the specialist’s needs, but doesn’t provide any more than the barebones in product support or a particularly pretty environment.

The second example business presented by the seminar speaker was a nationally well-known business named Yodobashi Camera.


A typical Yodobashi Camera has more than just cameras. It sells printing materials, cellphones, photography lighting and accessories, toys, home appliances, bicycles, speaker systems, TVs, massage chairs, etc. It’s somewhat similar to an American Best Buy, but the variety of the products available in each genre are greater than at Best Buy.

One of the genres of products they sell are computers and computer parts. At any Yodobashi Camera, they sell all the parts necessary to build a computer. For a computer nerd such as myself, the basement floor is one of the happiest places I can be. I could spend all day at Yodobashi. On top of having a large store with a variety of equipment to browse and choose from, Yodobashi provides one extra service that the seminar speaker talked about. That service is help with building computers. They will spend all day with a complete beginner who says they want to build a computer, and they will teach that customer everything they need to know in order to build their own computer.

In contrast to the previous business in Akihabara—which provides superior support to specialists that just need that one specific thing—it is the knowledge that Yobodashi provides that goes above and beyond what you can expect from other similar businesses. If you need a product for cheap, Yodobashi isn’t the place to go. However, if you are a beginner in need of specialist knowledge and support, Yobodashi is the place to go.

It’s that business strategy—selling knowledge—that led to the conversation about photography lessons between my fiancé and me.

The idea goes like this: photography lessons are good, but lessons held inside are stale, boring, and fit only for the very basics of learning camera functions. When it comes to learning how to take good pictures, there is no substitute for going outside and experiencing something worth photographing. So, I suggested to my fiancé, what about providing outdoor photography lessons (like photography walks or photography tours) in the Saga area?

I and my fiancé have different photography backgrounds and interests. While my fiancé went to school specifically for photography and immediately began working as a freelance photographer, I began and spent a long time doing photography as a hobby. My fiancé spent time learning from local photographers, whereas I spent time learning online from famous and nominally famous photographers and camera reviewers. Because of our diverse backgrounds, my fiancé knows quite a lot about wedding photography and studio photography, but my interests, knowledge, and experience are mostly focused on nature and street photography.

I think I’m also more in touch with current trends in the business of photography and the many ways people can make money with photography (although my fiancé is much more knowledgeable of the details of running a photography business than I am). I follow some more of the techie photographers online, and I also occasionally check out high-level and mid-level photographer’s blogs. A common service provided by photographer’s is education, whether through books, online courses, videos, tutorials, etc. One common form of education many of the photographer’s I follow engage in is photo walks or photo tours. They do one-on-one lessons or small group trips outside. Usually they go to some famous location, like a national park or large city, and teach students how to do photography in those places.

Photo walks/tours have several benefits for both teachers and students. They both get to engage in real-life photography, in a situation that is very typical. Students in a classroom have to imagine how to use the lessons they learn in a practical situation, but students on a photo walk can go directly from lesson to practical photography. There is an immediate connection between learning and application.

Another advantage is that everybody gets to get out. Many people spend a lot of time indoors (especially pro photographers), so everybody gets to simply enjoy being out in nature or in city environments. We get to share our job or hobby with others, and we get to share time living life. My fiancé is an outgoing lady, so she’ll have a great time talking to and getting to know other people.

One of the big advantages that I see for my fiancé is the ability to give photo walks even with children around. In the future, when we have children, it will be tough to do wedding photography, but we can design photo walk courses specifically for families with children. In that case, it would be natural for my fiancé to take her children with her to be both a participant and subject of the photography. Later, as they grow up, we can even give them cameras of their own to learn with.

There are a number of requirements to beginning giving photo walks. To start with, we need to do a little research to find out how other photographers in Japan do photo walks. We just need to know if there appears to be a market for photo walks in Japan, typical pricing, typical locations, etc. We just need a rough idea of how others do their photo walks.

Another requirement is designing courses. In order to design them, we have to plan certain locations, plan lessons, then test those courses. There is such a variety of things to teach in photography, so finding things to teach will be fairly easy. However, finding things to photograph will be the bigger challenge. A photo is only as interesting as the story it tells. When people are taken on a tour, they expect to be treated to an experience beyond a simple photography lesson. They want to see and do things that they might not otherwise see or do on their own.

There will be a lot more practical challenges to overcome in order to start giving photo tours. However, my fiancé are both very interested in the idea, so I expect to start doing limited photo walks next year and then grow from there.

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.