Japan – A Street Photographer's Perspective.

October 28, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

  Couple reading prayers, Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 2.8.

I had frenetically searched before leaving for my trip, for anything I could find regarding street photography in Japan.  I had a quick two weeks to fit in as much photography as I could.  We have a two-week school holiday break in October, here in Western Australia, and I had to return to teach for the new school term, so I had to make every moment count.  A lot of the information I found was rather lame and the images were quite bland and boring.  The usual shots were of the crowds at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo or the orange Torii Gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, or the ‘wild’ deer on Miyajima Island.  I wanted to be a bit more adventurous and capture as many aspects of Japanese life, as I could.  I had booked my itinerary to fly into Osaka, then onto Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, then return to Osaka for a couple more nights, before flying out.

Cooling Off, Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 2.8.

I long ruminated before I left, on what gear to take.  I knew I would be walking very long distances, so a light, small kit was paramount.  For all my paid gigs back home, my kit of choice is two Z6ii bodies, and a brace of Z lenses.  I’ve already looked at the Zf, and trialled the Z8, but for me, my Z6ii’s are perfect.  The Zf has a flip-around screen, that kills it for stills only photography, and the Z8 files are quite large, the camera too heavy and quite huge, and here in Australia is an unbelievable 7K, body only (no, that’s not gold-plated either)!

Worshipper, Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 24-70 2.8, @ f 4, 24mm.

I just love the images from my Z6ii’s and if one knows their schtick well enough, and has the camera on the correct settings, then the AFC is fine.  I shoot a lot of fast-moving events, with people jumping and dancing and moving quickly, and I very rarely miss focus.  I certainly haven’t had any customers complaining, because I missed vital shots.  I just love the files from the 24mp sensor, and the handling and ergonomics of the camera are just perfect for me.

Kimono Girls, Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 2.8.

I ended up taking my Z24-70 2.8s zoom, and the plastic fantastic 40mm F2.  The zoom is the main lens I use for just about all of my professional shoots.  I don’t notice the weight if I’m on a day shoot and the images from it are just as good as from a prime.  However, I’d forgotten how hot Japan was for this time of year and lugging that big lens around in the heat and carrying it long distances was no fun.  I tried the 40mm lens, but soon realised that it is too long a focal length for most of my street work.  When I go back and look at my body of work, from over the years, over 60% of my images have all been shot on 24mm (my favourite focal length).  I have the lovely Z24mm F1.8s, but purposely did not bring this lens because it is a bit too big and heavy for a travel kit.

Shibuya Crossing Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 2.8.

After a little research, I jumped into the nearest camera store in Tokyo and bought the plastic fantastic 28mm F2.8 lens.  The tests that I’d read all said it was slightly better than the 40mm F2 lens.  I love the images from the 40mm so much.  I’ll say at this juncture too, that even though the Zs lenses are fantastically sharp and produce beautiful images, I mostly find the images from those lenses very clinical, predictable and a bit too perfect.  I say this because up until about 18 months ago, I shot exclusively with Fuji crop-sensor cameras.  The images from some of the XF lenses were truly fantastic and had a really dreamy, magical look to them, and the rendering was what I preferred in a digital file. They were not so clinical and precise as I find in the Nikon Z lenses, particularly the Z50mm 1.8s, my Z24mm 1.8s and the zoom mentioned above.  My Z35mm 1.8s is a bit more special, it renders differently to the others and is quite a magical lens.  I use this a lot for weddings.

Vendors, Hiroshima, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 5.

I was pleasantly surprised with the images from the 28 plastic fantastic lens.  It has a slightly different rendering from my Zs lenses and the look followed along with what I preferred in the look of the 40 F2 lens, or from my Fuji files.  Having said all of that though, for my clients and professional work, I love the look that I get from the Zs lenses.  This is the look that my clients need and this is the professional look that editors, publishers and clients are looking for.  The look that I prefer from the two plastic cheaper lenses, is for my personal photographic ventures and my travel photography.  Which works out perfectly, because these lenses are both tiny, light and perfect for travelling.
Street Vendor, Osaka, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 40mm 2.8 @ f 2.5.

For the rest of my trip (which was basically the whole trip), I used the 28mm for nearly all of my walking around, and street photography.  I used the zoom when I went to Miyajima Island, because I needed some extra reach and I also put the 40mm on a few times when I needed something longer for street.  However, over 80% of all my shots from the trip were taken on the 28mm.  It took me a little while to get used to the slightly cropped view of the 28mm, compared to the 24 mm that I usually use.  However, what I did like was that with the 28mm, there is much less distortion and barrelling than what I get on the 24mm, particularly if I put a person’s face near the edge of the frame.  This is not so with the 28mm.
Rickshaw with 'driver', Asakusa District, Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 24-70 2.8, @ f 2.8, 24mm.

I found it quite easy to get around Japan on the extensive underground network, but each day did involve lots and lots of walking (take comfortable shoes) – hence the need for a small, light kit.  I just want to reiterate here how perfect my Nikon Z6ii’s are for this kind of photography.  People complain about the older generation autofocus, but I find it perfectly suitable.  I always use back-button focus and have my camera set on AFC, and ‘eye tracking’ set, (the rectangular box with the human face).  The autofocus is instant; if somebody is walking toward me or I quickly need to focus, I just point my camera at them and press the back-button and shutter.  I took over 3K images on my trip and almost all of them were perfectly focused.  The odd time I missed focus, it was often my fault for pointing it at the wrong part of their body.  Probably the only con for me is the camera is a little slow turning back on.  If I’m walking around and suddenly see a person I want to photograph, and I lift the camera up to my eye, by the time it turns back on, I have often missed the shot.  I’ve got used to now turning it on before I bring it up to my eye, and it’s mostly OK.

Miyajima Island, Hiroshima, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 24-70 2.8, @ f 5, 42mm.

I have been travelling and photographing Asia now for over 15 years.  However, I found Japan very different.  I have been to Cambodia 13 times in the last 15 years, countless times to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia etc.  Probably my favourite place to photograph is Myanmar, but with civil unrest raging there currently, I am unable to visit.  Therefore, I did struggle getting used to street photography in Japan, because it is a very modern, almost Western-like culture with huge cities.  It would be akin to me wandering around Sydney or Melbourne and shoving my camera in somebody’s face.  Mostly, the locals did not mind me pointing my camera at them, even though I was often met with looks of confusion or dismay. 

Dancing Girls, Osaka, Japan. Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 3.5.

At some of the shrines though I soon came to realise that the Shinto Priests did not want to be photographed.  They were off the menu, so one had to respect that and find other subjects to point ones camera at.  As a teacher, I appreciated the fact that the Japanese people are very involved and active with their school programmes and taking children on excursions.  However, I advise that if you are going to one of the major temples, like Sensoji Temple in Tokyo or Kiyomizu-dero and Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto, that you get up very early to miss the thousands of school children that arrive by bus.  Alternatively, they all go home by mid-afternoon, so if you come a bit later or stick around, the crowds will have thinned out a lot.  The temples in Japan are truly amazing and the three that I mentioned were perhaps my favourites for the trip. 
Henjokutsu Temple Cave, Miyajima Island, Japan.   Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 24-70 2.8, @ f 2.8, 42mm.

I think it also depends on the type of photography that you wish to pursue.  I have been shooting images for my website now for over 12 years, and you will find nary an animal picture or a sunset, scenery or landscape.  I have zero interest in these kinds of images, and the only subject I ever point my camera at is human beings.  Therefore, if you are like me, you will not be so interested in the temples, or Mt Fuji or the famous blossoms.  It was exceptionally easy for me to find subjects, because Japan is not much bigger than my birth country of New Zealand, but has 130 million people.  Tokyo is the most congested city on earth with over 30 million people (more than all of Australia), it is very easy to find subjects.  I also found it very convenient and worthwhile photographing at night.  It does not work well for me in Australia, because there are not many people about and the streets are not that bright.  In Japan, everything was well lit up, and because shops and stores don’t open until 10:30-11am and close at 10:30pm, there is always a happy buzz with lots of people.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 6.3.

I’ll give a brief rundown of the Cities and places I visited in Japan and where I took my photos, which will give potential travellers, a base to launch their holiday from.  My first three nights were in Tokyo.  My hotel, was near the Sensoji Temple, which is in the Asakusa district in Tokyo.  This was very near several underground stations and always a short walk to just about anywhere I wanted to go.  I wish I had longer in Tokyo, because my three nights just proved that I didn’t really have time to see much at all.  I found my way to the Okunitama Shrine, and it was well worth the visit.  Apparently, the chestnut festival was on the following day, which I unfortunately missed. 

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan. Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 2.8.

There are lots of folks reading their prayers and the backdrop with the wonderful temple buildings in the background, make for pleasant photos.  Of course, Sensoji Temple is the most popular Temple highlight in Tokyo and there is so much to see and photograph, that I went there over several days and on different occasions.  Near to the entrance to the Temple are the rickshaws that the ‘drivers’ pull through the busy city streets.  The juxtaposition of the millenia-old mode of transport, contrasted against the Porches and Ferraris in the street, is quite a treat.
Game of Shogi in Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 3.2.

Of course, one cannot go to Tokyo without visiting the famous (or infamous), Shibuya Crossing.  It is very easy to get there on the subway and I got some very interesting photographs.  Be sure to think outside the square though, and do something different to what most photographers do.  Instead of going up to the Starbucks and shooting down onto the crossing (yawn), I got in the middle of the road and knelt down and put my camera on the deck.  This way I was able to get a more interesting viewpoint of looking up at the people with the famous buildings in the background. 

Cooling Off, Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 2.8.

Then the next day, I went by bullet-train for my three nights in Kyoto.  This is a wonderful city with perhaps the most beautiful temples in Japan.  I first went to Kiyomizu-dera (the water temple).  This place is amazing and unfortunately for this reason, there were literally thousands of school children that I had to contend with, hence my warning near the beginning of this missive – go early or stay late.  Worshippers can be photographed inside the main temple, or hanging up their ‘prayers’ in the courtyard, or drinking water from the sacred spring.  From there (wishing to dodge the crowds), I walked to the nearest subway and went to probably the most famous site in all of Japan, the Fushimi Inari Shrine.  This is the site where you have hundreds of orange Torri gates ascending and winding up the mountainside.  There were also vast crowds here. 

Reading prayers, Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 2.8.

I took a few photos, but realised when I saw electric lanterns winding up the slopes, that perhaps the evening may be a better plan.  I went back to my hotel and rested from the heat of the day and then went back in the late afternoon.  I was correct, because the crowds had dissipated and they had turned the beautiful lanterns on.  The light was lovely and I got probably some of my best photos from Kyoto here.  One tip, even though you’ll initially be overwhelmed with people jumping in front of your camera or taking up the space to ruin your photo, if you are patient and just wait, there will always be a gap where you can shoot the scene with nobody in your photo, or deposit your significant other in there, then snap away freely.  Alternatively, if you are travelling alone (like I was), you can be a bit cheeky, (like me), and borrow somebody’s girlfriend as a ‘model’ to pose in your photo!
Violin Twins, Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 3.5.

Next day, I went on the bullet-train for the over 300km trip to Hiroshima.  If you get the express, it only takes just over three hours and it is a very pleasant and comfortable journey.  More by fluke than good management, my hotel was right beside the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.  What a beautiful place and this was probably the highlight of my trip.  They have created a huge space (near the epicentre of the blast), to memorialise the event.  There is a beautiful museum and a flaming torch with groves of trees that wind beside a beautiful clean river.  From here you can catch the ferry to the magical island of Miyajima. 

Girls for sale, red-light district, Nishinari, Osaka, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 8.

This was such a beautiful place, that I spent two of my three days exploring the Island.  From the lovely Sika deer (guard your lunch though – they are very bold and will steal it, like they did mine), that wander amongst the crowds to the amazing, huge Torri gate that seems to be suspended above the water in the harbour, you’ll truly be amazed.  You can spend hours being entranced by the beautiful Daisho-in Temple, or be mesmerised by the hauntingly beautiful lighting inside the Henjokutsu Temple Cave.  This place is a photographer’s dream, and if you come away from a day here, with no reasonable photographs, then you’d better book into the nearest course for basic photography!

Vendor, Hiroshima Market, Japan. Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 3.5.

Even just wandering around Peace Park, I got amazing images - the guard in the evening, bringing down the huge Japanese flag, wonderful images of two old men playing ‘shogi’ (like chess), in the park and a group of young musicians, photographing their instruments in the dappled light.  This place is Nirvana for photographers, and any photographer worth their salt, going to Japan and missing out on Hiroshima, would be a travesty. My final destination was two nights in Osaka, then back to Australia for the 4th teaching term at my High School.  Osaka is such a cool place and one can just wander around the side streets and main shopping precinct and pick off young trendy folk taking selfies, hawkers in the street drumming up business for their restaurant, girls ‘adjusting’ their makeup or workmen carrying out daily chores. 
Makeup girl, streets of Osaka, Japan.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 3.5.

For normal people’s palates (not me), Japan – I hear – is a delight for ‘foodies’.  I am not a ‘foodie’, therefore I struggled with finding suitable food. I am vegetarian, but unfortunately most of their food was seafood or some other unrecognisable concoction.  I survived by ‘googling’ Indian food, or Lebanese food, or Turkish food.  There was always a yummy alternative for me, and that is the wonderful thing about Japan. Whatever reason you go for, or whatever you are looking for, you will be sure to find it in this magical, enchanted place.  I have met so many people over the years who have been to Japan, and I don’t recall any of them ever not enjoying it there.  It is a fantastic place for the serious or casual photographer, and if you take the right equipment and put a little planning into your foray, then I am sure, like me, you will return with some marvellous memories and perhaps even some images that you will be proud to feature in your portfolio.

Miss 'fancy pants', streets of Osaka, Japan. Nikon Z6ii, Nikon Z 28mm 2.8, @ f 3.5.
 

 


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