10 Days in Japan

trees gardenBetween 13th and 23rd May 2017, I travelled across Japan with a small group of friends on a trip organised by Trailfinders.  I have wanted to go for more than a decade and my expectations were sky high, and I am happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.  I wasn’t sure what lenses to take with me, so I took both my Leica Q and the Nikon Df with 20mm, 35mm and 85mm fast primes.  I ending up using the Leica Q (28mm) and the Nikon Df with the 85mm fitted almost exclusively, both slung across my chest in readiness.  You can see the gallery here.  This was our itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo

We flew from London to Tokyo on British Airways.  Given the time difference we arrived with time to spare on our first day, which gave us the opportunity to explore the area around the excellent Park Hotel in Shiodome, our base in the metropolis.  Shiodome is close to the Ginza District, the upmarket shopping area of Tokyo, so had a short walk around the area and a lunchtime beer at the Ginza Lion Beer Hall with an accompaniment of delicious hoho-niku (tuna cheeks).  We noticed the displays of plastic food (sampuru) outside the beer hall, which seem to be ubiquitous in Japan.  None of us had slept well on the flight and our rooms had not been ready on arrival, so we headed back to the hotel to clean up and rest.  On the way back we came across Hakuhninkan Toy Park, which introduced us to the mad world of Japanese toys and collectables.  That evening we ate at Tsukada Nojo which was most notable for moromi-miso; a chunky condiment made from miso served with raw vegetables, of which we could not get enough.

Day 2 – Tokyo

  • On our first full day in Tokyo we were accompanied by our guide Akiko, who was very knowledgable and helpful.  We headed for the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū), in Shibuya, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife.  Entering through an enormous Torii gate (made from a 1,500 year old tree) we passed into a large forested area which covers 175 acres and consists of around 120,000 trees of 365 different species from all over Japan.  It is both tranquil and beautiful.  There is also a huge decorative display of sake barrels (kazaridaru) in the grounds,  which relates to the offering of sake every year to the  deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine.  As we walked though the three Torii gates, Akiko told us that we should not walk through the centre line of the gate.  This is called the Sei-Chu and is the area designated for the enshrined gods to pass through.
  • Being British and in need of a restorative cup of tea we stopped at a Cat Cafe located near the entrance to the Shrine.  Japan holds the record for the most cat cafés in the world, with as many as 39 in Tokyo.  I took a bit of a risk entering the place – I am asthmatic and allergic to cats, which is not a great combination, but observed the rather bizarre spectacle without consequences.
  • Next was Takeshita Street or Takeshita-dōri, a shopping street in Harajuku, which was packed with fashion concious teenagers, followed by Omotesandō, an upmarket tree-lined avenue, once the official approach to Meiji-jingū. These days it is a fashionable and architecturally notable shopping strip.
  • After a spot of excellent sushi we moved on to Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world.  We approached it though the spectacular Thunder Gate, and a walk down the wonderful Nakamise Shopping Street.  I found a gorgeous picture of the Thunder Gate in one of the stalls, which I was keen to buy, but the price tag was far out of reach as it was an original.  Prints will, the vendor, told me be available in about 30 years.  Not far from the temple we came across a small park with the most spectacular collection of koi we had ever seen.
  • We moved on to Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town and visited the Kamata knife shop. I enjoy cooking, and love Japanese steel, so I purchased a very beautiful chef’s knife made by Ryusen.
  • We returned to the hotel via a cruise of the Sumida river and ate in the hotel, quite worn out.

Day 3 – Tokyo

  • The Tsukuji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and is located within walking distance of Shiodome, between the Sumida River and Ginza.  Visiting it involves making a choice of either arriving at 3 AM to queue to see the tuna market open at 5 AM, or arriving by 10 AM to see market wind down.  We chose the latter.  The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood (many of which look like nothing on earth) and the place is a whirr of activity – most notably the ‘Turret Trucks’, which are extremely hazardous to the unwary.   Whilst we missed the tuna market, we did see tuna being carved with extremely long knives, variously called called oroshi-hōchō, maguro-bōchō, or hanchō-hōchō.
  • We took the tube to Shibuya Crossing, considered a must see for many visitors, and located outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station. This exit is named after a famous dog, whose statue has become a popular meeting place.  Shibuya Crossing effectively is a crossing point at the meeting of five roads in one of the busiest parts of the most populous city in the world, and the spectacle of up to 1,000 people crossing the road concurrently is quite astonishing.
  • I was keen to visit a guitar shop in Japan, particularly as Fender Japan are noted for being quite innovative.  G’Club, Shibuya did not disappoint and I purchased a low cost, light weight Japan-only Fender Telecaster that plays extremely well.
  • That evening we took in Akihabar (or Electic Town), which is  famous for its many electronics shops, its otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many anime/managa shops before exploring East Shinjuku/Kabukichu, in all its neon splendour.  It is a red light district and supposed to be somewhat edgy, but we were so mesmerised by the neon lights, if there was any menace there it passed us by.  We were not tempted to enter any of the establishments that beckoned us.

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The Windmill at Brill

The windmill at BrillOne weekend when the weather was cloudy with very strong winds I thought I’d try out my long exposure technique described in the blog post of the same name, so I drove out to Brill with my Nikon Df.  Brill is a location well known to photographers all over Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and attractively perched on top of a steep hill, with an excellent view over the plain below.  The result is shown to the right, I was quite pleased with it.

The origin of the name of the village is derived from both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for hill (Bre-hyll). In the reign of Edward the Confessor it was called Bruhella.  It is notable for its old post mill, the timbers of which reputedly date from 1685 and the clay pits were dug for the production of pottery and Brill bricks.   The clay pits were in use from Roman times until the last bricks were produced in the 1920s.   Roman occupation in the Brill area is highly probable as suggested by finds of tiles and pottery and the square earthworks believed to have been a Roman look-out.  The village is also close to the Roman road of Akeman Street.  It was a royal manor of the kings of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period and there was a Royal Palace at Brill until it was destroyed by the Parliamentarian John Hamden in 1643.  Edward the Confessor, Henry II, John, Henry III and Stephen all held court there in the 12-13th centuries.

Brill was the scene of a battle during the English Civil War. After the Battle of Edgehill in November 1642 a royalist force occupied the village. Parliamentary troops were sent to oust the royalists, and on January 27th 1643 the two forces met in the Battle of Brill.

The royalists had thrown up sturdy earthworks, perhaps using remnants of Brill Castle. The Roundheads launched a fierce canonnade, but called off the attack after several hours when the Royalists lit damp straw on fire, creating a wall of choking smoke. Residue of the Royalist defenses can be seen in the village.  During the 1830s an attempt was made to turn Brill into a spa town, as there is a spring between the nearby village of Dorton and Brill but royal patronage favoured Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa over the rather isolated village.

The Pheasant pub has outside seating that provides access to the view over a pint, which is very pleasant in the summer.  The site of the windmill is a popular spot for a picnic, with children and dogs often scampering about amongst the undulations of the old clay pits, and of course there are plenty of photographers…

Back to Film with The Nikon F3

V and A Museum Knight's TombIt has been a long time since I shot with film.  My last film camera was a Canon IXUS, an automatic compact which took APS film 20 years ago.  Though I have always had a camera to hand since I was a small boy I was strictly a point and shoot photographer until I moved to digital, and didn’t move to an SLR until after I had turned to digital.  Recently, whilst staying with friends in Stockholm, I came across an Aladdin’s cave of a camera shop, which had a number of film cameras for sale, including Kodak Instamatics, Rolleiflex TLRs and Nikon SLRs, including several F3 models, some fitted with external motor drives.  The Nikon F3 model I picked out was somewhat worn and had a hole in the bottom of the body (which I later discovered was due to a missing motor drive coupling cover) but I was very taken with it and bought it on impulse together with some Ilford black and white film.

That evening I did a bit of research and discovered that the F3, the successor to the legendary F and F2, was the last of the manual-focus, pro 35mm SLR cameras; it was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001.   Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries.  This dependance on the battery power was initially quite controversial and adoption was not universal amongst Nikon professional shooters.  Those fears turned out to be unfounded as the F3 turned out to be of the same bulletproof nature as the F and F2 and very reliable.

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The Many Pleasures of Oxford

Radcliffe Camera OxfordThe exact date of the foundation of the city of Oxford is uncertain, but the place is ancient.  Sited on an important crossing point across the Thames, which formed the frontier between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, Oxford started as a ford for oxen (Oxenaforda).   The castle (now just a mound) dates from 1071 and the oldest standing building, the Saxon tower of St Michael at the Northgate, was built in 1040. The Domesday book records the right of the town’s Freemen to graze animals in Port Meadow free of charge – a right still exercised today. The University started in monastic halls, though none of these survived the suppression of the monasteries in the 1530s. The city was well established as an academic centre by the 13th century with University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges all founded during that century.

Academic life in Oxford was characterised by murder in the stories of ’90s TV detective Inspector Morse, and this violence in academia was foreshadowed by a turbulent relationship between Oxford’s town people and students. The most notorious incident occurred in 1354 in the Swyndlestock Tavern (a bank today), when two students took issue with the innkeeper about the quality of his wine. This dispute quickly escalated into an armed conflict that lasted three days and resulted in around 90 deaths.  Despite incidents like this and regular scholastic riots, by the mid 14th century the University was well established enough for Edward III to pay tribute to it for both its contribution to learning and the services to the state of Oxford graduates.  Several colleges were founded every century and there are now 38 in total.

Oxford’s growth was inevitably accompanied by some  reversals.  In the 12th century a fire burned the city to the ground and the black death of the 14th century reduced the population heavily; as did the sweating sickness epidemic of the 16th century.  The university benefited from these depopulations by buying up vacant property and continuing to grow its estates.

In the late 18th century Oxford connected to Coventry and the Thames, and in the mid In 1844, the Great Western Railway linked Oxford with London.  The city became more industrial when the automotive industry was established in nearby Cowley by William Morris, who built the Morris Garage in Longwall street in 1910.  The need for more space bought a move to a factory 1913 at Cowley and mass production followed, resulting in  Cowley expanding into a large industrial centre.  Despite its canal and railway links, the city had remained a tight knit , conservative and academic town, with the the university press the only large-scale employer.  The car industry transformed Oxford into one of the major industrial cities of southern England, though happily the architectural gems of the old city have been well preserved, also being spared the devastation meted out to so many other cities during World War II.

As you might expect from such a historic city, there are numerous sights to be enjoyed in Oxford, which particularly photogenic, though it is often very crowded, especially in the summer. Here are my top ten: Continue reading “The Many Pleasures of Oxford”

The Importance of Form

Marina City ChicagoWe have had colour photography since the 1930s and the invention of Kodachrome, though it took until the 1970s for it become the norm.  So why has black and white photography persisted?

Perhaps the most obvious difference between colour and b&w photography is that unlike their colour equivalents, black and white images are not direct renditions of their subjects.   By omitting colour and substituting shades of grey, black and white photography presents an abstract and therefore less realistic image.   This takes us into the representational world of art, where the artist tries to portray what is perceived and interpreted with the mind rather than what is seen directly by the eye.  Both the artist and the photographer are working with a 3D subject in a 2D medium and this is where black and white photograph has an advantage over a colour rendition – black and white excels at tone; which describes the darkness or lightness of a particular area of an image.  This is important as tone is essential to convey the illusion of form – or how the subject looks in three dimensions.  Black and white draws more attention to the shadows and lines that depict form and gives a better illusion of depth.    This is one of the reasons that black and white is often an effective medium for both landscapes and architectural shots as it can emphasise the shapes and forms within the scene.  The case for black and white is even stronger with a side lit photo where light  intensity varies across the person or object and the scene is subject to strong shadows.  This is one of the reasons why I am fond of film noir which uses a lot of side lighting, shadow and contrast as opposed to the the more evenly exposed lighting of mainstream Hollywood.

On to my example, which is a shot of the columnar and iconic Marina City Towers on Chicago’s Riverfront, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg.  This is one of Chicago’s most notable buildings and was designated a city landmark in 2015. I was much taken with this 65-storey building complex, the tallest residential concrete building in the world at the time of completion in 1964, and known locally as the ‘corn cobs’, as I was driven to my hotel in a taxi.     At the time I thought it was the world’s most elegant car park, but actually only the lower 19 floors are used for parking, whilst the upper floors contain apartments, restaurants and a concert hall.  The towers were used as a back drop for a chase scene in Steve McQueen’s 1980 film ‘The Hunter’ .  In his last film appearance, McQueen played a bounty hunter who is himself being pursued by a psychotic killer and chases a fugitive up the parking ramp in one of the towers before the car he is pursuing skids off the edge into the Chicago River.

I shot the towers from several locations, including the river, whilst on an architectural tour of the city, and eventually captured this image, which I felt depicted the organic form of the building best – the contrast between the light edges of the circular elements and the dark background, together with the sweeping curves of the tower in the foreground, draw the eye  and help describe its form.  It was shot in the morning, and, as usual,  I used a circular polariser to darken the sky and increased the contrast between the building and its background.  I took the shot with a Nikon Df with a ‘walk around’ 28-300 lens at ISO 200/45mm/f11/1/250 sec.  The towers have a constantly changing pattern of light and shadow over the course of the day and are an ideal subject for black and white photography as well as a great piece of architecture.  I was much taken with Chicago, which I visited for the first time in 2015 – it is undoubtedly one of the finest cities for modern architecture in the world and I am keen to return to capture more of it, but my enduring memory of my first visit is those iconic, sci-fi columns of Marina City.

Darkness at Noon in New York

Darkness at Noon in New YorkThe Chrysler Building is a favourite of mine, and a great subject for black and white photography.    The metallic exterior, the sunburst on the crown and the metal eagles make it an architectural wonder for me.

The Chrysler is a reflection of both the Art Deco era and the machine age and has strong automotive accents.   at 319 m, it was was briefly the world’s tallest building before that honour passed to the Empire State Building in 1931.  It was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 until the mid-1950s and is still the tallest brick building in the world, albeit with a steel frame, and the 5th tallest building in New York.  The corners of the 61st floor are decorated with those fabulous metal eagles whilst replicas of the 1920s Chrysler bonnet ornaments (aka radiator caps) adorn the corners of the 31st floor.

I took the shot you can see here on a Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm lens at 112mm.  It was shot from 42nd Street in New York City at ground level and the picture was taken in broad daylight, in the early afternoon.   This statement sometimes results in disbelief, but at night what is most visible of the crown of the building is the triangular illuminated windows, so the building appears quite unlike my picture.    A quick search on Google Images for ‘Chrysler Building at night’ will confirm the difference.  The effect you can see here, which I refer to as ‘Darkness at Noon’ relies on  a good quality circular polariser, the nature of the camera’s light meter, and an underexposure/red filter combination during mono coversion.  Let me break this down step by step.

A circular polariser is an indispensible piece of kit that increases color saturation and decrease reflections.  It is also one of the only lens filters the effect of which cannot be replicated by editing.  Importantly, it can also darken skies, which is what I was using one for in this instance.  I used a Hoya Pro-1, which does the job very well.

The second part of the equation is not a technique but a property of the camera, whose reflective light meter wants to average out every scene to middle grey.  What this means in practice is that the brighter the subject (building) is, the darker the background (sky) will be.  This is why the sky looks dark blue in many Mediterranean holiday photos – the white buildings darken the sky.  I took a lot of shots of the Chrysler (around 50) and one in particular had a brighter building and a darker sky, as it had caught the sunlight particularly well at that moment.  So, I took the best shot I had, in which the sky was already dark blue – helped along by the circular polariser – and did my raw editing in Aperture, adjusting the curves into a gentle ‘S’ shape to make the image more punchy.

From there I moved on to Photoshop, to perform the mono conversion.  I use the Silver Efex Pro plugin, which is an amazing bit of software – it has a powerful set of options but also a rich variety of presets, which makes it easy to use.  I selected the ‘underexpose’ preset and added the red filter, which together will turn a dark sky pitch black, and the image was complete: a silver building on a black background.   Or perhaps, a silver building caught in a flash of darkness…

The Streets of Old Havana

Che Mural, CubaOld Havana is everything it is reputed to be and more.  Travelling to the city from the airport on back roads, it felt like I had travelled into an era 50 years on from the apocalypse – with everything in a state of decay and recycling a major part of life.  Old Havana, with its faded and crumbling colonial architecture and many ’50s American cars, is more of the same, and the feeling of being somewhere utterly different is reinforced by the suffocating heat, the noise and the slightly intimidating street life.

I spent five days with Ramses Batista – www.ramseshb.com, a professional Cuban photographer.  We shot mainly on the streets of the city, but also drove around other parts of Havana and out to Cojimar and Soroa in Pinar del Rio.  Ramses was a wonderful tutor and compañero and I was really happy with the shots I brought back with me.   We spent a lot of time setting up street shots – something Ramses excels at.  One of my favourites is shown here – Ramses told me about the Che mural, which was just around the corner from my hotel, the excellent Saratoga, and we flagged down a suitable vehicle for the shot – which shows the driver walking back to his car.   I’ve used a lot of contrast and brought out as much of the structure of the road, building and car as I could.  The mono conversion plugin Silver Effex allows the placement of selective control points, which can be used like spot lights, so I lit the wheels and the pillar slightly as as they were a little too dark without a bit of extra lighting.  As to what the white substance on the road is, I have no idea, but it all adds to the tone and texture.

I’ll describe one anecdote from the trip that highlights how different Cuba is: Ramses and I went out to Colon cemetery to shoot Angels (entities which are well represented on this site at the angels gallery).   As we drove towards the gates on our way out a security guard stopped us and searched the boot.  I asked Ramses why this was necessary  and he told me that the guard was searching for human bones, which are much prized for use in ceremonies in some of the syncretic religions of Cuba…

My Nikon D600 was reliable but suffers from a sensor that is astonishingly sensitive to moisture and dirt, so I spent a lot of time cleaning up spots from the images whilst editing them.  I also took a trip over to my friends at T4 Cameras in Witney for yet another sensor clean.  I was in similarly poor shape as I managed to put my back out travelling in the jungle in some rather dilapidated car seats (I felt we had to take a 50s car for the trip) and I picked up a nasty bug from the same locale – but it was most definitely worth it.  I want to go back and see the rest of the island as soon as I can.