HOW TO: Take great travel photos when you visit Japan

Who doesn't like taking photos when they travel? And Japan is no exception - especially for those of us who live here and still take photos on a regular basis! David, of is one of those folks - although he takes it a few steps further with his lovely HDR (high dynamic range) photos. He's here this week to offer some photography tips, particularly for those of you new to photography and wanting to capture some great shots while you're in Japan. - Ashley

So you want to score some great pics on your Japan trip. Great! I'm not going to give you a sightseeing guide (Kyoto) or tell you what you should shoot (Kenninji). Instead I'm going to give you some tips to help get you some really great snapshots instead of the typical boring ones that put everyone to sleep.


1. Learn your camera

This may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised. Many people buy a new camera right before a trip and just assume they can figure out how to use it. Well... You don't want to return from a trip only to discover every, single, photo is out of focus because you had the camera in "macro" mode the entire time, do you? (I've seen this happen. Seriously. Wasn't pretty.) At the very least, take the time to read the manual and practice a bit.


2. Get a tripod

This can help you get sharper photos by minimizing blur from hand shake, especially when light is less than optimal.

Don't want to carry around a big tripod? Consider the Gorillapod. It'll only set you back 20 bucks, can fit in a small bag, and, unlike a normal tripod, can be wrapped around things so you can use it where you wouldn't normally use a tripod.

Gotta lay off the coffee...

3. Invest in lots of memory cards

Don't get cheap now and think you can get by on one 512 megabyte (Mb) card. We aren't talking big money: 4 gigabyte (Gb) cards are now under $10 (US). Buy a handful of them. If you have plenty of memory, you won't feel any pressure to limit your photos. I favor buying smaller sized cards (e.g., 2 Gb instead of 4). It can be frustrating to change cards often, but if one fails you lose less photos.


1. Unique Angles, unique thinking

Most people take snapshots by standing straight, pointing forward, and clicking. *Yawn* You can find a million of these on the internet.


Make it a little more interesting: squat down on a knee before snapping the shot. Move to the side and shoot at an angle rather than head-on. Ever try a dutch tilt? Twist 45 degrees and shoot.

Good? Dunno, but you've got my attention. By the way, those aren't real maiko.

Shots are cheap, so experiment. You did buy plenty of memory cards, right? Use them. Want to know the biggest differences between an amateur and a pro? An amateur takes one shot and walks away; the pro takes fifty. I'm not suggesting you go that far, but take a few extras and experiment with them. You may be surprised.

2. Zoom in

Zooming in very tightly on a subject can be more interesting than shooting all of it. You can always take a second shot to get all of it. I bet your friends will prefer the zoomed-in version.

Maybe you shouldn't try this with real people...

Warning: zooming in increases the likelihood of blur from camera shake. Luckily, you have a Gorillapod, right? If not: elbows in; hold your breath.

3. The Rule of 3rds

Divide your view-screen into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The rule of thirds states things that lie on these lines are more visually interesting and tend to draw the eye. Bonus if you line up on any of the four intersecting points.

Follow the Light 

As pro photographer Rich Sammon is fond of saying, "Follow the Light." Photographers spend years learning about light, so it's too big of a topic to cover here, but...

**Remember the Golden Hour**

The golden hour (or *magic hour*) is the period of about 15-20 minutes right after the sun has risen and again right before it falls when the light enhances everything with a golden shine. Simply put, this is the best time to take photos. Know what you want to capture, because this time goes quickly.

It may seem like a lot of trouble for snapshots, but if you make the effort you can get some stunning shots that will impress.

Take notes

Finally, consider investing in a small journal. I like moleskines because they use acid-free paper, look nice, and are well-made, but any cheap one will do. The point is to make a habit of jotting down notes of things you shoot. This will help later with keywording when organizing your shots (in iPhoto, Flickr, etc.), and may help you remember things like why you shot that post office box and why it's so neat.

I can't promise you these tips will get you amazing photos, but they will make your shots more interesting and better than the typical tourist snapshots. If nothing else, remember the rule of 3rds. And straight lines from corners. That's a good one.

Helpful Phrases

Now this is surviving in Japan, so some phrases you may find useful:

sha-sheen oh toh-teh moh-rah-eh-mas-kah?
Would you take my photo?

kokode sha-sheen oh toh-teh moh ee des ka?
Is it OK to take photos here?

anatano sha-sheen oh toh-teh moh ee des ka?
Can I take your photo?

Don't sweat it if you can't remember those. Point to your camera and say いい (*ee*) with an upwards intonation and they will catch your drift more often than not.

Now go have fun shooting. Leave links to your photos in the comments so we all can see and if you have any other advice, don't hesitate to share it.


David is a photographer based in Okazaki, Japan. He specializes in HDR photography and landscapes, although he hates being pigeonholed and often shoots other ways too. He loves coffee, natto, and shrines/temples, not necessarily in that order. You can follow David on Twitter @dbooster or at his blog where he posts a new photo every single day as well as occasional articles about Japan and/or photography.

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