Using a Ricoh GRD III and a Nikon DSLR to photograph streets, people, architecture and anything else that catches my eye.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Electric City

Many people think of Japan as a country in the future. This is partly to do with the fact that Japan has dominated the world of consumer electronics for the last forty years, and maybe partly to do with anime, manga, video games and other techy exports. A visit to a Japanese city can feel like landing in the middle of a scene from the Blade Runner movie.  As I have previously mentioned, Japanese transportation is far in advance of the majority of countries.  There are many things in Japan which are lagging behind other countries; although these are more to do with laws, attitudes and values.  But let's not spoil this post by getting political. (there are many blogs around for ranting).

The world is changing though. The power is shifting slowly from country to country.  China is in the ascent, along with Brazil and a string of other countries.  Of course, these countries are still several decades behind the modern world in human rights and freedom of speech. (oops, there I go again).  Visions of the future are being constructed in Dubai and Beijing, with amazing glass towers; all striving to be the tallest in the world.

This post is about Japan though, and these images are mostly of Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima.  There are none here of Tokyo as I had not been to Tokyo when I used my Olympus C8080. Tokyo is another story for another time.  Osaka is still a very big city. It has a different character to Tokyo. Some say it is a little rougher, louder and more of a party place.  

Osaka is so large that it sprawls out far enough to virtually engulf Kyoto and Kobe. This massive urban area is known as Kansai, with a population of fifteen million. The vast majority of the city comprises of bland concrete buildings, massive concrete roads, steel bridges, huge waterways and railways in every direction.  There are more attractive cities to be found around the world.  At the large centre of Osaka there are some very tall and modern skyscrapers, but Japan doesn't really build anything taller than 1000ft (300m) due to earthquake risk.

The feeling of stepping into the future in Japan is at street level, or below. The streets are ablaze with electronics, a neon madness, a chaos of sound and vision. There seems to be a limitless number of shops, bars, cafes, restaurants, video game venues, pachinco parlours. There are areas in Osaka, with street upon street dedicated to selling just electronic items, from audio and video through to computers and robots.  It is gadget heaven! 

The underground railway system is modern and very convenient.  There is another world below the streets, as many of the stations are linked with vast subterranean shopping walkways.  You can walk for hours under the streets, and quite often get lost down there.  I can only read a very small amount of Japanese, and most directions in Japan are in their incredibly difficult language. I don't think Japan is geared up as a tourist destination. Sometimes I felt like the only western person around; enough even for that knowing nod whenever I saw another European or American.

At night, the city comes to life. There are not many dark places in the center of Osaka. Shops are all generally open to 10pm, and clubs way into the night.  There are many seedy nightclubs, adult shops and hostess bars, all mixed in the same area as the restaraunts and video game centers. Everywhere you look you are surrounded by cartoon heros and cute animals, giant robots and giggling schoolgirls. A mix of flashing neon, a cacophony of sounds, masses of wandering Japanese shoppers....   It all sounds like a crazy vision of hedonism and consumerism; but infact everything works here, and there is virtually no trouble on the streets.  It is an amazingly well behaved place.

Osaka, and the whole Kansai region, is also known as Japan's kitchen, with nearly one hundred thousand places to eat out  (I repeat - 100,000 - no exageration). You can eat anything you want here.  I became quite addicted to the pan fried tako balls (octopus in batter). These were cooked and sold from little stalls, in the same way as hot dogs are.

It is not everyone's kind of city, but I always enjoyed myself there.  I could quite happily walk for hours, taking photographs of all the madness around me.  I have taken many hundreds of shots, and here are quite a few images from insane Kansai and Hiroshima.  This is quite a large post.  I have probably gone on long enough...  here are the pictures.  They are all similar images really...  confused and chaotic.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Japan that survived the war

As we all know, Japan was at war with the rest of the world around seventy years ago.  It was a war that would change Japan forever. Thankfully, they have since become an incredibly peaceful nation, an economic power house, and are a most important nation of wonderful people.  One of the effects of the war on Japan itself was the heavy damage to the majority of their cities, especially as much of their architecture was of timber construction.  Japan has since re-built and re-built, using concrete as most modern cities around the world.

I have spent quite a lot of time in Japan, and one of the things that always strikes me about their architecture is the general squareness and somewhat drabness of the design.  For example, Tokyo and Osaka both have modern and quite interesting skyscrapers at their centres; but then there is a massive urban sprawl which extends for twenty or thirty miles in all directions. Most of these buildings are not exactly pleasant on the eye.  This is counterbalanced by the colour and vibrance of the amazing streets in and around city and town centres.  It really is like another world of future-tastic weirdness; automated and electronic, confusing and exciting all at the same time. Amongst all this modernity are little pockets of surviving antiquity, in the form of shrines, temples and the odd castle.

The one city which was spared a lot of damage during the war was Kyoto.  There are hundreds of surviving wooden buildings in kyoto, full of cutlural history and important reminders of how Japan once looked.  Of course Kyoto is as modern as any other Japanese city, but retains many of its historical architecture in the very centre and in the surrounding hill sides.

I spent quite a while wandering around the older parts of Japan. I found these places quite beautiful in their simplicity. These are not designed with the size and grandeur of European historical buildings. There are no massive cathedrals with statues of stone, coloured stained glass  windows, huge painted ceilings in the michaelangelo style. Most of the historical places of culture in Japan are of a simple style, conveying endless calm and meditation.  Beauty is drawn from nature itself through the design of gardens and ponds.  Stone and timber are formed for practicality and engineered for purpose. 

Here are a few images of Japan's cutural surviors taken with my old Olympus C8080 WZ.  These shots are generally straight out of the camera, with a little cropping and straightening.

 Kyoto                                                                           Miyajima

Himeji                                                                           Himeji

Japan of course is also under constant attack from mother nature. Situated in one of the most active earthquake proned zones, the islands of Japan also contain a string of volcanoes (mostly dormant nowadays); together with a summer season of  dangerous typhoons which batter most cities along the Pacific coast.  So many of the historical wonders of Japan have infact been restored or re-built throughout it's history.

Kyoto                                                                          Matsuyama

Miyajima                                                                       Miyajima

Next post will show the chaotic electro cityscape of modern Japan.  A far cry from these images.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Ignoring what the camera tells you

I’m still revisiting my older photos taken with my Olympus C8080.  It’s interesting how at the time, I regarded the images as quite amazing, even as far as to give myself the idea that I was a good photographer.  I still did not realize all the errors which I constantly made.  Sometimes having more features on a camera just creates more ways to mess up. 

I just didn't trust the camera. I thought I knew better....
Seeing as the camera had aperture and shutter speed programs, I should have been able to be more creative.  The camera should have taken a properly exposed image within the parameters that I had set. There was no pure manual mode, which could have been a reasonable excuse for bad photography.  The problem was that I constantly tinkered with the exposure compensation, generally creating more over exposed results.  This was because I thought I knew best, instead of letting the camera choose the correct settings for any given shutter speed or aperture.  After taking a shot, I would look at the LCD screen image, then thinking that it seemed too dark I would raise the exposure until the screen looked good.  Silly mistake!  Those LCD screens lie, and never represent the true resulting image.  The problem is that I would spend a whole day shooting at the wrong settings.   On viewing images on a computer screen, I would wonder why there were pure white burnt out parts spoiling many of the pictures.

Of course, at the time, I had no idea what that histogram was for, and that it would have been more trustworthy for checking results while outside in the sunshine.  Nowadays I know that it is better to actually slightly under expose an image, and correct the exposure in Photoshop.  All those darker pixels contain recoverable information, which can be corrected most of the time. But all those pure white pixels will remain forever white.   Most cameras now also have the flashing screen mode which will highlight burned out areas.

Another constant error was slightly blurred images. I think that maybe I was over optimistic about getting sharp images in lower light situations by lowering the shutter speed down to 10th or 20th seconds.  Essentially they were tripod shots without a tripod.  Once again, they still looked acceptable in that deceiving little screen.  No amount of sharpening on the computer would save all of them.  I would often use lamp posts and building walls to try and hold steady shots, and I got away with it quite often. I still use this technique but I now respect the lower limits of shutter speed.  Often ‘slight blur’ is just as annoying as proper blur, and usually results in angry use of the delete button.

Anyway…   here are few images which survived.  These ones were sharp and exposed almost correctly. The good thing about photographing architecture is the simple fact that the buildings don't move.  They are very well behaved subjects. This gives the photographer lots of time to try and get it right. Actually, I often waited a long time, until there were no people in my images. I wanted a clean image of just the building.  More recently though, I have started to deliberately include people in architectural images, as humanity is an essential component in the life of a building. Sometimes architectural images are highly enhanced by addition of people,  and sometimes not.

Since I have been enjoying black and white photography much more recently, I have converted these using Photoshop.  Black and white suits architecture very well, and brings to life some old and slightly drab looking images. All these are in London using the Olympus C8080, and as you can see, they are all without added people.



Sunday, 14 August 2011

London Cafes, Bars and Shops. 2006 to 2008

Cities are great places for photography. They are full of everything! Architecture, open spaces, rivers, shops, bars, streets, markets, trains, buses, cars, museums, and of course people. There is food, music, art, fashion, cinema, culture and many different languages.  There are probably some real obvious things which I have left out as I am writing this quite quickly.  The city by day is a completely different place by night.  The weather can change the appearance of the streets too.  We all live near a city (or large town), and have all experienced city life. I know there are a few folk out there who have never ventured out of their countryside villages, but they are probably not reading this, and are probably sublimely happy where they are.

My city is London. Although I live outside London now, I am just a fifty minute train ride from the centre of London. I try to hop on the train with my cameras as often as I can, although not as much as I used to do.  London is an amazing city on many different levels.  I am waving my bias flag here when I say it is one of the greatest cities in the world.  Okay Okay....  I know, what about New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Beijing...?   Of course they are all great in different ways, and I enjoy reading other people's blogs from all those other wonderful places.  Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner.  

London has been on the map for around 2000 years, and has been built over itself many times.  Whenever new office developments are built, they let the archeologists in first to dig around in the mud. Old Roman walls, swords, money, jewellery is often discovered from those early times. If not Roman, then Saxon artifacts. The Normans have many great buildings still standing.  The famous Tower of London is 1000 years old. I know that there are quite a few cities which are much older than London, Rome for example, which I have photographed (see earlier post) is packed street to street with ancient history; but this is about London, a stately mixture of old and new.

Expanded greatly by the Elizabethans through to the Victorians, London eventually became one of the first mega-cities in the world. Now all those different histories has given London a rather random street map, full of main roads, side roads right down to tiny alleyways. There is no grid sytem here as in New York and many other modern cities,  no architecturally designed street pattern of circles and triangles as in the beautiful Paris; just a mish mash of roads with seemingly random directions.  This, in my opinion, is what gives the streets of London their buzz and excitement.  Round every corner is something new.  I have wandered the streets of central London for years, and still find myself delightfully lost.

In this post though, I am going to show a few images of the cafe and bar scene in some of the trendy parts of London, together with a few shops and other random images. These are all places I have either eaten in, drank in, bought records from, or generally visited.  I have often taken a photo of a cafe or resturaunt which I want to remember. I think it is interesting how one city has a completey different style and look of food culture to another city's. European cities all share a certain similarity, and I think London borrows ideas from the rest of the world.

All these images were taken with my old Olympus C8080 between 2006 and 2008. I was still learning photography, although I think that composition was my main focus in those days. I just wanted to 'record' what I saw, as opposed to take great photos. Many of my shots had terrible burned out areas, which I used to ignore. My interest in photography was steering toward 'people and places', as I started to wander around with a camera. I felt quite shy with photographing people directly, something which took a long time to overcome.

The next images are a few individual restaraunts and shops which I particularly liked. I went through a phase of photographing shops and cafes, as I think they make great subject matter with lots of nice colours and great names.  I like to keep the images as square on as possible, almost as if I was designing an advert for the establishment. The two record shops have now disappeared, due to the emergence of mp3 downloads. Selectadisc was one of the best shops in UK (and Europe) for finding rare vinyl and CDs, and I spent many hours and much money there.  It is a shame how things change, but that is another reason why photography is so important (in a documenting kind of way).

I shall post a few more images taken with my old Olympus C8080 in my next post, before moving onto my DSLR phase. I only owned the Olympus for three years before I killed it. More on that later,

Friday, 12 August 2011

Flickr.... hmmmm

I just wanted to write a few words about the mighty Flickr 'image hosting' website.  There is no doubt about it, Flickr is massive. I just did a little research, as to how many images are actually on Flickr. From what I have read, the number is somewhere between 5 to 6 billion.  Lets settle on 5.5 billion.


I have read that Flickr started life in 2004, and quickly evolved throughout 2005 and 2006, having been bought up by Yahoo, into the great site that it is now. I beleive that there maybe around 32 million user accounts (not necessarily all active); and another 'big number' fact is that around 5,000 images are uploaded every minute.  There is no doubt that it is a very polished website, providing a great service to photographers, either on a free account or with a very low cost charged account.

The search engine is quite powerful, providing anyone with a massive wealth of images to look through. The process of tagging images together with the image's exif info, allows an incredible method to find an image you are looking for. This, together with the idea of adding your images to specific 'groups', allows other people to discover your own works of art. Joining groups and adding contacts are common to how most 'social network' wbsites work nowadays, and Flickr has been doing this probably longer than most of them. This all sounds wonderful but I do have a few issues with Flickr.  

Many of the groups seem to be primarily there for people to award each other, and gain little awards for their images. For example, the 'Hearts Award' photo group (and there are many hearts groups) encourages people to typically add one image to the 'group pool', then 'award' three other images.  So it seems that people just collect lots of these little GIF image awards against their image, with little comments like 'wow' or 'cool shot'  etc.  There is often not much real critique going on here.  The problem is that these awards are actually totally meaningless.

Many of these groups have literally thousands of images. It would take forever to look through all these images. Lots of these images within these groups are only loosely linked to the group itself.  There are quite a few groups with just a few images, just because there maybe already many other groups which duplicate the chosen subject.  Group subject duplication is another annoying problem for me, with people just adding their picture of their pet dog to about twenty groups, without even looking at other images in those groups.

I don't want to sound too grouchy about Flickr, especially as I am a user myself, but I am very slowly losing interest with it as time goes by.  I feel that I am only using it as another place to store my images now.  It's just that within the last few months I have got more satisfaction from looking at other people's photo blogs, which are much more personal and tell more about the 'what' 'where' and 'why' of a particular image. People seem to pour more passion into a blog, and concentrate on posting just their favourite images, instead of uploading many at a time to Flickr, and flooding various 'please give me an award' groups. It takes a while to discover the blogs which are really worth following; but once found, much more can be learned from other people's work.

Having said all that...  Long live Flickr,  and Long live Blogger.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

So I went and bought a big camera - 2005

While I was happy with my Sony Cybershot W1 (see all previous few posts), I was conscious of the simple fact that my bourgening interest in photography was being badly let down by my hardy little camera. You know what it's like, you see all the new gadgets appearing in shop windows and you start thinking.....

At the time, there were digital single lens reflex models becoming available well under the £1000 mark!  Nikon, for example had the D100 at around £1000, and the more accessible D70 selling for around £750. Canons were even more affordable. Unfortunately, while I really wanted a DSLR, it was outside my budget at that time.

Then a good friend of mine showed me a camera which he was using. After playing around with it for an evening, and reading its reviews on the internet, I was so impressed that I immediately bought one!  (so easily led).  I would just like to mention the fantastic website Digital Photography Reviews at this point; in my opinion the best un-biased and in depth camera review site in this part of the galaxy. A gold mine of information.

Anyway....   So I bought my new camera. The Olympus C-8080 WZ.  This was a bigger camera for sure, a sort of half way step between a 'point and shoot camera' and a DSLR. Of course it was not an actual 'through-lens-viewing' SLR, but it was a much higher spec machine with good set of features. The high quality wide angle zoom lens, 8MP sensor, and an array of controllability, made this a very good camera. I finally had a camera which had P, A & S on the rotary dial. (program mode, aperture size, shutter speed selection). It even shot in RAW format, which I never actually made use of because my Photoshop skills were still a thing of the future. A very good camera indeed. Thinking back though, it was a bit of an ugly thing...  somewhat one sided and heavy.  (Actually, all those pretty £150 Panasonic Lumix pocket cameras available today, do the same job, and slip into your shirt pocket).  How technology marches on.

So, with my big new baby hanging around my neck, I marched off to London and Japan to shoot away. I finally had some control over how the images would turn out, which allowed a certain amount of creativity. This was the first time I had a chance to use a real wide angle lens, which is excellent for architectural photography. The higher quality lens and larger sensor allowed very good night time capability, with quite low noise on the higher ISO range.  The aperture control was somewhat limited, and with only an 3X optical zoom it was quite difficult to 'isolate' objects in the same way that a DSLR can.  The battery was a bit of a let down too.  That said, I did start to achieve better images, and satisfaction.  My old Sony Cybershot W1 still sat in my back pocket at all times though.

Apart from hundreds of test shots of things around the house (including my poor pet dog), taken while going through the instruction manual, the following image was one of the very first images I took with my new Olympus C8080WZ.  I can still remember taking the dog for a walk that evening, with the camera hanging around my neck, and noticing the moon against my local church spire.  The moon is definately over exposed, but I was happy with my first results.