Last weekend I attended the People With Cameras 2019 event. I wrote a pretty comprehensive article about the ins and outs of PWC and how the day was organised and run. I also mentioned in that article that I had been asked to deliver a talk for around 20 minutes on a photographic topic. Hmmmm. What could I possibly write about? If you have been following my blog site here you will know that I have a love affair with Japan. So I decided to talk about my photographic journey and the growth I have made whilst shooting street photography in Japan. I have included for you some of the images I had running on a slide show behind me. I did not talk to the slides, they are just there for interest and context. Here is my talk!
Welcome to People With Cameras. My name is Greg Cromie and I am a Melbourne based photographer who dabbles in all photographic genres at some point. I am also a member and admin of the Fuji X Aus community here in Australia. You will see a lot of the Fuji X Aus members here today helping out around the place. They are my clan. But my happy place, where I feel most connected to my art, is in shooting street photography. And none more so than shooting street in Japan!
Many ask me why Japan. And my initial answer is ‘why not!’. But my extended answer has more to do with my affiliation with the culture, customs and perceived weirdness of Japan. Something that has stirred my creative motivations since I was a child. That’s another story.
I have travelled to Japan four times since 2015. I only travel for a week at a time, but in a week of solo photography I can achieve a lot. Day or night, I am out capturing the rhythm of cities large and small. And of course the millions upon millions of people that occupy such an incredible country.
On my journeys, with camera always in hand, I have documented every step and stage of my experience. These trips have afforded me the opportunity to test my skills in a completely uncharted space.
I believe that my photography style and skills have grown considerably as a result of having such a rich canvas to work with. Shooting early morning in a fish market or in the middle of the night at an abandoned pedestrian crossing, I have learnt a great deal about myself and my photography skills.
My travels to Japan allowed me to push the boundaries of my otherwise controlled experiences here at home. In Japan, the camera is always ready. And it is not about the gear but about capturing the moment.
I have shot some of my best images on my most humblest of cameras. On the streets of Japan, there is no time for hunting through a camera bag. The shot is happening before your eyes and either lift your camera and shoot or it is gone forever.
Japan is a photographers dream location, no matter your preferred genre. For street, there are fascinating and unique street scenes everywhere you look. Be it in the hyper moderns streets of Shibuya in Tokyo – where the kids dress slick and stay up all night. To the calming quiet back streets of Gion in Kyoto where you may capture a true Geisha on an early morning errand. It is all there for the finding.
Stepping back from that, if you love landscapes then you are in luck. If you love architecture then you are in luck. If you love travel photography then you are in luck. Documentary your thing…you get the picture. There is something for everyone. Your presence is all that is required.
You just have to show up. Be it in the big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, or in the countryside where rice fields and mountains are abundant. I have of course shot my fair share of street images in Japan. But I will also stop to take landscapes and architecture too. Temples and shrines that are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Places of wonder that have survived war and tsunami and earthquakes. It is just an amazing place.
I want to share with you a key learning for me about my photography and capabilities. It has been a defining moment on my journey. On my first two trips to Japan, I was of the opinion that the more gear I had with me, the better my chances of getting that winning shot. I was shooting with Fujifilm X Series gear and had an extensive range of lenses, bags and tripods.
I quickly started to learn that all of that gear did not guarantee a great shot. If anything, I was too busy hunting through my bag to find the right lens and would miss a lot of opportunities. I was relying on my gear to make me a better photographer. Plus I was carrying a lot of gear and this didn’t make for a comfortable experience. It would tire me out and makes me not enjoy my time.
This was the turning point for me. Not just in what I would travel with. But also in what I would need as my kit back home. On my most recent trip to Tokyo in May of this year, I took a single Fujifilm X-T3 with a Fujifilm XF23mmF2 lens. This weather resistant combo weighed less than 700gm with battery and SDs on board. And of course I took my Fujifilm X70 with a couple of extra batteries weighing in at around 300gm.
I used both cameras equally but rarely carried both at the same time. For the most part, I would leave my hotel with one camera on a wrist strap and a couple of spare batteries in my pocket. No bulky bag. No burden. Just a guy casually strolling the streets of Japan. This removes the burden of having to choose what to shoot with. I had to make the camera work for me and make the most of the opportunity. Secondly, I felt no burden of carrying gear. I could stroll along like all the other tourists and locals and at the same time fill my creative needs.
My gear is just an accessory of what I was seeing and experiencing. I had to hunt for my shots rather than rely on my gear to do all the work. Having less bulky gear also made me more discreet – despite my size and beard. Or perhaps people were just too distracted by the giant with the beard to notice the camera?
Japan is one of those places that has something for everyone – both in terms of experiences and photographic opportunities. Many of my photographic friends have travelled there and agreed every time that there was a need to go back for more. And many more have Japan at the top of their bucket list.
I will leave you with the recommendation that you also visit Japan with a camera in hand. Or any country that you have longed to visit. Don’t focus on the gear you take. Challenge yourself to make it as minimal as possible.
I have my own blog site where, amongst other things, I write about my travels to Japan. I also have written several travel advice pieces based on my own experiences. So I wanted to share with you a few bits and pieces from those articles and my own experiences.
Here are a few proven travel facts for those considering travelling to Japan:
- Go. Just go. I know that sounds easier said than done. But life is short and your life will be enriched by visiting another culture.
- Plan the locations you want to see and shoot. Star them in Google Maps and research what is around that area. Star those too. Guaranteed there will be some form of rail transport to get you there. Grab a Japanese data sim so you have access to Google Maps and train times.
- Japan’s rail network is the backbone of the country. Grab a rail pass or for more local travel a Suica card. Jump on a random train and jump off at an unknown station and spend some time lost in the streets of Japan.
- Be prepared to shoot day and night – all night. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. But be aware of the ‘last train’ syndrome. Trains shut off around midnight – don’t get stuck far from your hotel.
- Whilst out shooting at night, stop and treat yourself to a bowl of hot Ramen and a cold beer at 3am. It is a delightfully strange thing to do.
- You need no Japanese language skills to travel across Japan. Much of what you need is translated for you. But it wouldn’t hurt, and the locals appreciate it, if you learn some of the niceties and manners.
- Walk away from the main tourist streets and hit up the back laneways and alleys. Not only a photography gold mine but the locations of the better street food outlets.
- Go to a local festival. Not a touristy exhibition of blossoms. Go to a festival where thousands of local citizens carry a portable shrine on their backs for hours in the street. Dancing, singing and drumming in the street followed by beer! You are welcome.
- If you are keen to travel to Japan for a photography holiday and don’t know where to start, let me know and I will happily point you in the right direction. As I said, I have a lot of articles on my blog about travel to Japan.
Thank you so very much for listening. Enjoy the rest of the day here at PWC.