Click the above image to open a set of photos from a recent trip I took to Kyoto
Each culture has their own, and you never really notice the ones from your own culture, as thy are almost always so deeply ingrained that you accept them without question. Earlier this month I had a business trip that took me to San Diego. This was great, as it gave me a break from the worsening weather here in Japan as winter makes its presence known. The real bonus of the trip though was the fact that just that week before my trip, Japan Airlines had started non-stop service from Tokyo to San Diego. And better yet, it was via the new 787 Dreamliner.
I’d never flown this model of aircraft before, so it was a pleasant surprise. I believe that different carriers have a choice on how many seats they want to try to cram into an airplane, and Japan Airlines must be commended on its move to actually give you a bit more room than in the past. Just about every feature of the 777 has been thoughtfully upgraded in the new 787: The personal video screens are larger and sharper, the seats and a bit bigger, the windows are larger and have this cool auto-tint feature, so there is no actual slide-down window screen anymore. The bathrooms seem more spacious, with a better designed door and fixtures.
All of these new upgraded features were nice and made the entire flight more comfortable. But what really rocked my world was the meals being served.
I’m not sure if it was a promotion due to the addition of this new non-stop flight, but the meal on the way to San Diego was Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the meal on the way back to Japan was a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl. (See the pics below for proof!) Most of the pictures I took on this trip were food and drink related, so I will refer you to the photo link above if you need a Japan-Photo fix, as it opens up a gallery of some images I captured while in Kyoto late last month.
But getting back to the superstition part of this update, when I arrived in San Diego, I made a pit stop in the bathroom before heading to Immigration, so I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be at the back of the line and it would take me extra time to pass through. As I entered the immigration area I was confronted with VERY long lines at all of the immigration counters. All but one of them. Number 4 had absolutely NO LINE in front of it. Not a single person. At first I thought it was because line 4 was closed, but then I remembered I had just got off of a flight that was was choke full of Japanese people.
Then it hit me, OF COURSE nobody wanted to take line 4!
You see, the number 4 can be pronounced two ways, either Yon, or Shi. But “Shi” is also the Japanese word for death, and thus thought to bring bad luck. That is why many supermarkets in Japan have no checkout line number 4, and buildings will sometimes not have a 4th floor.
As I walked up to the counter in line 4, and I could tell that the immigration officer was confused why nobody had chosen his line up to that point. So I explained it to him and he had a good laugh about it, commenting that it was just like Americans and their superstitions about the number 13.
So wherever you originate from, be it Japan, America, somewhere in Europe etc, we all have our differences based on the culture we were raised in . But once you peel back the superficiality of it all, we are all pretty much the same too.
KFC at 37,000 feet
I was surprised at the volume of airline traffic zipping up and down the California coast.
Oh how I have missed you old friend
Since when did most every convenience and grocery store in America start stoking loads of great beer?
Here is a gallery of some of the photos I took while in Tallinn, Estonia.
The two cameras I used were the aging, yet still very capable Sigma DP2, and the new, hot off the shelf Sony NEX-5.
I pretty much stuck with the 16mm (24mm equivalent) f2.8 lens on the NEX-5, and when I needed a bit more reach I used the Sigma DP2 with its 41mm equivalent field of view.
And as happy (dare I say ecstatic?) as I am with the NEX-5 and 16mm pancake lens, I do have to say that I actually prefer the images from the Sigma. The sharpness, color fidelity, and dynamic range of the Foveon sensor continues to astound me.
While I was travelling, the excellent LCD on the NEX-5, and the comparatively horrid LCD on the DP2 had me thinking that the Sony was going to be the one with the superior image quality. But after downloading the images and viewing them on a large monitor, I am once again caught between two systems.
I love the wider choice of focal lengths on the NEX-5 due to its interchangeable lenses, as well as its superb image quality at higher ISO’s. The flip out LCD is also a great feature, especially when doing street shooting as it lets you shoot “Rollei-Style”, looking down at the LCD, instead of upright and pointing the camera from your face. I could do with a few more external buttons and less menu digging on the Sony, but after a day of shooting that part became pretty transparent to me as I got more used to it.
Yes, the new Sony NEX-5 coupled with a pancake lens is a very compact, and portable travel camera. It really is a pocket camera, and I very much enjoyed travelling light and not toting around a DLSR with a sack full of lenses. Considering all this, it would seem that the Sony had pretty much nailed it with the NEX-5, making it the perfect travel camera.
But in situations with adequate lighting, the Sigma DP2, with its seemingly anemic resolution of 4.7 megapixels, actually mops the floor with the Sony NEX-5′s and its 14.2 megapixels when it comes to resolving power and pure sharpness.
This could be partly to blame because of the Sony lenses, which do not have a reputation for being very sharp. But I think it has more to do with the sensor technologies being used, and the resolution advantages of the Foveon sensor technology compared to CMOS and CCD type sensors.
The Sigma is capable of producing astounding images, if you know what you are doing, AND you can put up with its horrid user interface which pretty much cripples what could have been an excellent all-around travel camera.
The DP2 used to be burdened with an extremely slow focusing system, but some recent firmware updates actually solved that problem. (THANK YOU SIGMA!) And while you are not going to be doing any sports type photography with it (not without manually pre-focusing anyway) it now has a respectably fast and responsive auto focus mode.
So once again, I have come to the conclusion that there is no single perfect camera.
Although, if a person were to use a Sigma DP2 with its 41mm field of view, AND a Sigma DP1 and its wider 28mm field of view, you may be able to cover most all of your bases for a lightweight travel cameras setup, the benefit of which would be you could share batteries and memory cards between the two, carry only a single battery charger, AND not have to take along a netbook or other portable photo storage device since more than 1,000 RAW images fir on a 16GB SD memory card. This is all thank to that measly 4.7 mega-pixel resolution. But don’t let number fool you into thinking the image quality will suffer. The proof, as they say, is in the pictures.
Why do we take pictures?
It’s a simple question. But I think that the answers to this question are as many and varied as there are people on this planet. We each have our own reasons, but I also think that there has to be some common thread, otherwise it would not be such a universal phenomenon.
I guess the first question that needs to be asked is this: What is it about the still image that captures our attention?
Could it be that it is the process of stopping time, allowing us to examine a scene in detail, consciously appreciating all the things that are normally only “noticed” on a subconscious level? When watching a video, the scene is in a constant state of change, no two moments are the same, and the limits of our perception only allow us to “see” one small part of each scene at a time. But with a still image, the eye has the luxury of time to explore and see not only the forest, but the individual trees as well. A moment in time has been frozen, preserved forever, but also never to come again.
I know that for me, I am always amazed at how much detail is captured in a single still image. Details that I was not able to notice at the time I created the image, due to either the distractions of sound and motion, or just the fact that we are all limited by the amount of information we can take in and process in any given period of time.
Maybe it’s a way for us to make a statement that “I was here. I existed” The proof is in the pictures. We document our lives, our experiences, not necessarily for the purpose of sharing them with others, but more as mental cue cards to help us recall with greater clarity, the experiences of our lives. Memory is malleable, and over time details become lost, or changed. And what we remember may not actually be what “was”.
In essence, pictures help us remember. They are the closest we have yet come to true time travel, to allow us to go back and experience the feelings we had, and remember.
We take pictures of things that are important to us. Family gatherings, and other “life events” such as birthdays, weddings, and the birth and growth of a child. For many this is the extent of their picture making, documenting the good times, the major moments.
But for those of us that takes things a step further, those of us that integrate this activity of recording our lives, our experiences, more into our daily lives, we photographers want to capture not just the watershed moments, but also the many other, usually smaller yet still significant moments where something stuck us. Where we connected with a feeling, or were impacted by something we saw.
This type of shooting is more than just a documentary of our lives, but rather and emotional journal. Capturing a mood, or a feeling, and attempting to express that feeling in an image. I say “Attempt” because this seems to be the most difficult of all things to accomplish. I my past ten years of photography, I can’t lay claim to ever really capturing a feeling.
Not even once. (At least not to the extent that I had intended.)
We each carry our own filter through which we see the world, and the same image can speak in many different ways to different people. It all depends on each individuals own personal frame of reference, how their life experiences up to that point have colored their filter. An image that means very little to me can have a profound effect on another person if it strikes some sort of personal chord with them. The opposite also holds true. An image that I absolutely treasure can (and usually does) hold no interest to others.
Some call this the subjectivity of Art. But what is this subjectivity but the manner in which we all see the world through our own set of filters?
When I first took up photography I was only concerned about documenting as accurately as possible the scenes in front of me. This lead me down a long path of learning the equipment and techniques, the real “nuts and bolts” type of things related to image making.
After 3-4 years I had pretty much figured out, through some trial and a lot of error, how to document an image. Perfect focus, sharpness, exposure, they were all there. Technically I had figured out how to take a picture. But my images started to feel stale.
In looking back into my photo archives I noticed that some of my more early images seemed to be better than what I had been recently producing, and upon examining them further I came to the realization that while it is important to learn the technical side of image making, it is equally important to shed that analytical skin and step into a more instinctive style to truly progress as an image maker. It is still important to stand on that technical foundation, but in doing so you have to know when to leave it behind and trust your instincts in reaching towards a more ethereal goal. The capture of a feeling.
Before learning the technical side I would more commonly get lucky and break some (or all) of the “rules” of photography and the result would be the capture of a feeling. But as I learned the technical side of the process, I was forcing myself down a perfectly engineered, yet sterile path, nearly devoid of emotion.
When you first start taking pictures you just flail around.
Then you learn the technical side and this allows you to more consistently capture what you intended. But once you are able to do that every time, then you should stop worrying so much about the technical things, by that time they will be deeply enough ingrained to be there even when you are not conscious of them. Just forget about all the technical stuff, and start flailing again. Shoot on instinct. The fact that you have learned the technical side will ensure you don’t stray too far off the path, but giving yourself the freedom to have fun again and “go nuts” will add a new refreshing dimension to your images.
We often say “I took a picture”, and in most cases that is exactly what we have done. We have documented something as it was. But what is to me, the highest form of art, is when one is able to cross the threshold between taking pictures, and capturing emotions. And never worry about weather or not people like your images. After all, it is a subjective thing. So long as you are true to your own vision, and you enjoy the results then you can be sure that you are on the correct path.
Our experiences make up the music of our lives, and at least for me, photographs are the notes.
This past Wednesday, being Veterans day, was a day off for me.
I had planned to go out taking photos. But when I woke up to torrential rains, I checked the weather to see what the rest of the would hold: 100% chance of rain.
But, not to be deterred I decided to make the best of it and head up to Nakano to check out a favorite used cameras shop and take some photos.
Since photos taking was secondary on the agenda to camera shopping, I only packed the Olympus E-P1 with 20/1.7, 25/1.4 (C mount), and Zuiko 50/1.2.
I caught the train first from Yokosuka Chuo station to catch the Yamanote line in Shinagawa. From there I would make the necessary transfer in Shinjuku to get to my destination in Nakano.
It’s about 80 minutes in total on the train, so I sank into my seat and settled in for the ride. The swaying and creaking of the train as is slid up the tracks started to lull me into a short nap. I was listening to the sounds around me; The rustle of someone turning a newspaper page, a muted cough from someone further back in the train car, the hum of the trains electric motors, and the periodic announcement from the train driver about what stations were coming up next.
It was during this time that I heard a little kid pointing out to his father all of the things he saw as the train made its way along the tracks. That reminded me that there is always something to see. You just need to open your eyes and mind to it.
In this case I had been “looking” with just my ears, and after hearing that small kid I was reminded that there is never any dead time. Something interesting is always presenting itself.
I think that most people around me are probably wondering what I am taking so many pictures of all the time, and I am happy to let them assume that I am a tourist. In all truth, after living here for nearly ten years now, I still do feel like a tourist. I mean this in the sense that it still feels like a vacation to me. There is still wonder in what lies around the next corner, or what there is to see at the next train station.
The wonder of this place has yet to wear off for me. This is a testament to how fascinating I find Japan. There is always something new for me to see. Some times it is a an altogether new place that I exploring, other times it may be something I have seen many times before but I happen to find a new way to look at it.
There is something “subarashii” (wonderful) locked up in most everything we see. The key is being able to to find it. But it is there. Trust me. All you have to do is change your point of view, or frame of mind, and open yourself to what surrounds you.
Let it all in. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings.
Don’t have too many expectations about a place before you see it. While it is good to listen to those that may have been there before you, don’t take their views as gospel. Let your own personal experience shape your view and you will be surprised by what you see once you stop looking with just your eyes…
Click HERE for today’s photos.
I have a friend who works for NHK producing television programs, and in a classic case of life being all about who you know and not what you know, I was recently asked to be on an NHK television program.
Called Cool Japan, it is a program that explores what, from a foreigners perspective, makes Japan cool. It touches on a wide variety of subjects; fashion, anime, alcohol, etc., as well as other cultural aspects of Japanese society.
The particular episode that I took part in looked into the aspect of “Mottainai” culture in Japan. It will air at the following times:
- March 18th (Wed) 19:00-19:44 on NHK BS Hi-vision
- March 29th (Sun) 0:10-0:54 on NHK BS-1
It was my first time in a television studio, and I’m glad I was able to absorb the experience. It was also a lo of fun. At first I thought I would be a little bit nervous, but I guess I am too old to get nervous about things like that anymore.
Most of today’s photos are from Kamakura, and if all goes as planned when you click on the “map this” button within Smugmug you will see a map showing the location where each photo was taken. More GPS madness.
While I was shooting photos I could not help but notice that of all the other photographers at each of the locations I was stopping at, they all seemed to be shooting the same scenes, usually from the very same vantage point.
It got me thinking about how we all usually see the world.
What I mean by this is that in our haste to digest and understand the world around us with the least amount of effort, we usually rely on those around us to provide clues. I think this is where a lot of prejudice and bias stems from. After all, its a lot less mentally taxing to take what someone else says at face value, rather than cogitate on your own and seek your own truths about the world.
And I’m not saying that is all bad. I can’t image trying to get through event the most mundane of days if I were to have to think everything through on my own, just to make sure I understood what was going on., and that I was doing it in the best manner. Taken to this extreme, even a simple trip to the local combini could end up being a sojourn of epic proportions: What route should I take, and why? What is the most effective mode of transport, and what on earth should I buy once I get there? The choice of say, potato chips alone could cause one to spend eons weighing the merits of one brand versus the other, and lets not even mention serving sizes!
So what am I really blathering about here?
I’m nowhere near arrogant enough to think that I am immune to falling into this trap. But the great thing is that when I am aware of this danger, I do find that I take better pictures. And, I also happen to enjoy the world around me a bit more when I see it through less filtered eyes.
It’s kind of like what I was talking with some of the other people that were on the Cool Japan show with me; when you go to a place for the first time (like when I first came to Japan) there are no bounds. It feels like anything is possible, and you never know what the next day will bring you.
I think this is what usually makes travel so exciting, it’s the thought that something new could happen.
But invariably, the longer you are in one place, the more artificial bounds you place upon your own existence. And while these bounds can serve a very useful purpose, and allow you to make a lot of assumptions so as to more smoothly operate, they also invariably rob you of some of that mystery and wonder that even the most ordinary of circumstances can hold.
Yes, the tightest, most secure prisons are the ones we build for ourselves.
That is why it is so important to remember to not take anything for granted. Not one single moment of the time we are given will ever come again. Moments rush towards us and then are gone in a flash, never to repeat.
So make the most of it by slowing down to really observe what is going on around you. Stop just looking at things; categorizing, tagging, and blindly rushing through life with too many preconceived notions.
It’s amazing what you will find if you instead take the time to really “see”.
I hope I am able to do this more than I currently manage. Life itself is just too interesting and varied for me to want it any other way.