TRAVEL: Photographing Tokyo koyo autumn leaves

Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010


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Light touch: At any time of day, “fill flash” can brighten the foreground without overexposing the background, as in this shot of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen Park. CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON PHOTOS


Catching autumn’s glory on camera

At this dazzling time of year, it seems that half of Japan’s population turn into photographers journeying to their favorite spots or seeking out new ones around the city as they try to capture the myriad colors of autumn leaves.


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Heads-up: Even under gray skies, simply shooting upward can yield great images of branches and foliage — as seen in this view of a stunning ginkgo in central Tokyo.


Doing that, though, is not as easy as it looks, and millions go away frustrated with photos of overexposed, burned-out skies, blurry shapes and muted colors.

Whether you meander through Tokyo parks or follow the crowds to the capital’s outlying mountain areas of Takao, Okutama or Saitama, photographing koyo (autumn colors), like anything else, takes both technique and imagination — not to mention cooperative weather and good equipment, such as a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera.

Unless you have a momiji (Japanese maple) growing in your apartment, you will probably be shooting outdoors, and that means having to deal with problematic skies that enjoy fooling a camera’s light meter.

If you must have a blue sky in the shot, try early in the morning, before clouds spill into the background and cause subjects in the foreground to be overexposed. Tokyo’s morning skies in December can be bluer than at any other time of year, and can even evoke a morning in Nepal or Tibet. This window of blue, however, rarely stays open for long, so grab it while you can.

Since it’s hard to control the sky, you can avoid it altogether by taking it out of the shot. You can stand on a pedestrian bridge overlooking the ritzy Omotesando boulevard, or on a bench in nearby Yoyogi Park, and shoot downwards. Or, if you must shoot upwards, stand directly under a tree and shoot the cornucopia of foliage directly above.

But don’t forget, or fail to notice, that the trees themselves have striking shapes, and silhouetted branches can bring out the color and pattern of leaves by contrast.

For wide-angle shots of sakura (cherry-blossom) trees — which I love to behold in their crimson glory along the Meguro River — try “bracketing” your images by shooting different exposures of the same subject. Alternatively, try holding the exposure-reading of the sky and then moving the camera down to take the shot. If this darkens the foreground too much, you can use a “fill flash” — even in bright daylight — to illuminate trees, people, or pets in front of you.

If you keep experimenting, you will eventually get an image you like, even by accident.

Meanwhile, using the camera settings to “saturate” colors, or alter the “color temperature” and “color tones,” is a great way to bring out the reds and yellows of, say, trees at Koishikawa Gardens near Tokyo Dome, or city-center Shinjuku Gyoen Park — which is surely a contender for the most beautiful metropolitan park in the world.

Many Canon or Nikon DSLR cameras, for example, allow sharp shooters to play with these levels to wild degrees. It’s a great way to bring out colors in low light conditions or under milky skies. The photo might not look exactly the same as what the naked eye sees, but it can often communicate to a viewer the impression that color first made upon you, and how it made you feel.


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Tweaks: In low light, altering color “tone,” “saturation” and “temperature” settings helps bring out reds and yellows.


As I cycle or hike around Tokyo in search of the perfect leaf, I find it hard to keep my hands still, due to the brisk weather and my racing heartbeat. The solution: a tripod. A tripod is perhaps the most important piece of gear, and the one most often overlooked by casual photographers. A tripod allows you to shoot comfortably and creatively in the low light that creeps into Tokyo parks around 4 p.m. at this time of year, and even earlier in the mountains.

With a tripod, you don’t have to worry about camera shake anymore. Just screw it into your camera’s mount, adjust the legs, compose the shot, and fire away. Better yet, set the timer, in order to reduce any lingering camera shake from fingering the shutter release. Be careful to detach the camera from the tripod and carry it separately when walking to the next shot, otherwise, you might end up feeding your camera to the fish in a pond.

Thanks to my trusty tripod, I can keep the ISO level low, at say 50, 100 or 200, in order to retain the texture of leaves and bark, and still shoot at an unhurried speed of 1/20th or 1/30th of a second. At these speeds or slower, I can slightly blur falling leaves or passing pedestrians, while retaining sharp focus on an immobile tree or temple. Best of all, the tripod allows me to capture unusual colors — such as the crimson or orange carpets of fallen leaves in Yoyogi Park — as light seeps out of the sky.

By choosing your shots well and using a tripod, a high-ISO camera — such as a Canon 5D Mark II or a Nikon D3S — you will be able to capture night-time colors the human eye cannot see. And incidentally, it will also give you an insight into how dogs, cats, birds and soldiers can navigate in the dark.

That’s because, by employing technology similar to military night-vision goggles, a high-ISO camera can illuminate a path and help you find your way down a dark forest track in areas such as Okutama, where hikers get lost almost daily at this time of year.

Even with a tripod and high-ISO camera, however, it’s still not easy to photograph just one tree, or just one leaf. There are too many trees and far too many leaves to choose from. It was much easier when we were kids, picking one leaf out of a pile, taking it home and pasting it to a book.

For intimacy, many enthusiasts and pros will use macro lenses to get super-close to a leaf against a contrasty background, such as a river or tree bark, or the hood of a black car. Since macro lenses can be quite expensive and heavy to lug around in a bag full of warm clothing, you can try shooting a single leaf at a high speed — to reduce the blurring effect of camera shake — and then crop it closer later on your computer.

But whether taking one leaf or whole vistas of trees, the key thing is to relax and slow down and not fire off hundreds of shots like Austin Powers at a fashion show. Instead, spending minutes or even hours fine-tuning a shot will, in a manner akin to Zen meditation, awaken your senses to a new world of pattern and light.

This is a great season to watch world-class photographers at work outdoors. I once saw a Japanese artist spending a whole afternoon setting up a shot of leaves falling from a tree in the city-center’s Aoyama Cemetery. He waited until the afternoon light was just right, and then caught a few leaves falling on a tombstone like angels visiting a deceased relative.

Likewise, David Guttenfelder, AP’s chief Asia photographer — who lives in Tokyo when he’s not out in the field — reminds me of a heron stalking a fish. Whether peering into a forest of red leaves or a crowd of Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok, he will study the subject and wait until the composition, exposure and expression are all just right to tell a story and have an effect on millions of viewers.


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Lowdown: Under bright or milky skies, leaves shot against contrasty subjects such as this taxi in central Tokyo can work well.


Even for amateurs with mobile phones, patience and passion can often lead to interesting photographs. If an image really strikes you, and you feel very strongly about it, it’s worth shooting it, because chances are others will feel the same. A good rule is to take the photo from the exact place and angle that first struck you.

But don’t stop there. Move your feet and test out other angles, which might reveal even better points of view. Many pros like so-called “fixed primes” — such as 28 mm, 50 mm or 85 mm lenses — because, unlike zoom lenses, they force them to move their feet and find more revealing vantage points.

Finally, after a few hours in the sun shooting 300 photos of trees, take the time on the train or at home to delete the junk and keep the best 30 or so, instead of posting all 300 on Flickr or Facebook.

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