Becoming a Hermit in the Woods by Lukasz Palka

After years of being a photographer on social media (mainly Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram) I have come to learn the value of solitude. The road to this realization starts in naïve optimism and ends in a pit of dejection. Purely from my perspective as a creator, it is apparent to me that social media turns the pursuit of art and creativity—an inward journey that leads to a better understanding of oneself—into an online pissing contest.

I may sound like a Luddite—just an old fart clinging to the past, fearing the advent of modern technology. On the contrary, I remain a loyal user of modern photography proliferation technologies. But I do so with a mental shield that protects me from the pitfall of social media: the seduction of the ‘Like.’

Don't get me wrong, social media platforms are an incredible way for creators to get their work out to fans and followers. Before such decentralized methods of media dissemination, their only path would be through the old physical means—galleries, books, and prints. Via these channels media proliferation is much more difficult for the average upstart creator. That’s where social media comes in, but not without its shortcomings.

Influenced by the trend — I saw a similar shot and decided to create my own

Influenced by the trend — I saw a similar shot and decided to create my own

The Mob is Fickle

There is a dangerous dark side to being a photographer, or creator in general, on social media—the numbers can take over your creative soul. As time goes on, the number of followers, re-blogs, likes, shares, and on and on… All these things can end up taking over if we are not careful. The game of attention-seeking no longer serves the goal of exposure, but becomes the central reason for an online presence. The numbers are no longer a passive metric, but are now the driving goal.

It gets worse. Ludicrous questions creep into one’s mind: why does this guy have more followers than me? How did this photo get 10,000 likes? Why did everyone ignore my post the other day? Maybe I should focus on work that is more like what’s already popular… maybe if I cater to the audience then I’ll get more exposure… Pride in one’s work turns into despair—why do I even create anymore?

The path to creativity is fraught with fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt as it is. Why add to that by subjecting one’s work to the fickle attitudes of the social masses? It would be one thing if social media communities were at least a bastion of self-development, a place where thoughtful critiques flow and out-of-the-box thinking is encouraged. Instead, it’s an environment where trends cascade through the network like waves in the sea—one the same as the next.

Now, that’s not to say there is no great work out there. Of course, there is. And of course, it can become popular. But for the humble up-and-comer popularity should never be a measure of quality. The pursuit of popularity and acceptance tends to lead away from the pursuit of truth and creative discovery, simply by the fact that popular things have already been done—it’s why they are popular.

A love of pipes

A love of pipes

Nattō & Popcorn

Nattō is a Japanese foodstuff—fermented soybeans—famous for an odor not unlike hot garbage, a gooey texture, and a peculiar taste. Popcorn is the result of applying heat to corn kernels—simple. Nattō is difficult to appreciate, but it’s healthy and nutritious—popcorn much less so. Once you understand it, nattō provides a complex and rich experience. Popcorn is simple—anyone can enjoy popcorn. Nattō takes effort to appreciate. What does nattō have to do with photography?

Most photos that go far on social media are popcorn. They are easy to consume. Everyone can enjoy them. Nattō photos are those that are not so easy to appreciate. They require the viewer to stop and absorb them—actually use their brain. Consumption behaviors on social media are not conducive to such work. Tiny screens, millisecond viewing times, microscopic attention spans—these things do not allow for audiences to truly appreciate the work.

If you’re goal is to produce popcorn, that’s great! Popcorn is delicious and there is nothing wrong with enjoying it. But if you are producing nattō photos, don’t worry if fewer people react positively to them on social networks. Don’t let that discourage you. Embrace the niche, follow your own path, and perfect your nattō.

Gravitating to what interests me regardless of others’ interest

Gravitating to what interests me regardless of others’ interest

Beyond Social Media

Remember: social media is not the end-all-be-all of outlets for creative work. A vast body of work does not exist on the net. Some masters of photography lived, worked, and died well before the first bit of social data made its way to any smartphone. Instead of following trends online, seek out past work and use it to enhance your own skills—emulate the masters. It would be nice to have a mentor pushing and challenging one’s creativity daily. The next best thing is study aspects of great work and attempt to recreate them as practice.

But we can go further. At some point, it can be beneficial to tune out the noise completely and focus on your own work—become a hermit in the woods. No matter how much we look to outside sources for guidance and inspiration, in the end, creative energy comes from within. Truth in art comes from a deep exploration of one’s own interests. Sure, we are molded and shaped by exposure to media in various forms—no one exists in a vacuum. But we ask our own questions, get curious about subjects of our choosing, and pursue the act of creation ultimately on our own.

A Nattō photo — following my own interests

A Nattō photo — following my own interests

Breathe the Air

Social media is not evil. It just exists—like air. It’s here to stay and should be utilized like any tool. If you can find inspiration and motivation that is positive, then embrace it. But for those who’ve felt the woes of social media the remedy is to keep your head down—share your work but pay no mind to what’s going on. Stay focus on creating, not accruing numbers.

It’s not as sad as it sounds. Social media allows those who are interested in our work to follow us on our creative journey. But we should not let them dictate where that journey leads us. We should peak into the maelstrom with caution. Gaze upon the stream with weary eyes and then get back to work. Get busy. Work hard. Forget the numbers and discover your own path to creative fulfillment.

Neon & Train

Where Should I Focus? by Lukasz Palka

A common question we get on our photo workshops is ‘where do I focus?’ When the subject is obvious the answer is easy—focus on the subject! But this question more often comes up in the context of urban landscape and architecture photography. So, let’s narrow the focus of this article to that genre and go into some focusing techniques as well.

Focused on the crossing barrier with a medium aperture (f/5.6) which allows enough DOF to keep the train in focus as well

Focused on the crossing barrier with a medium aperture (f/5.6) which allows enough DOF to keep the train in focus as well

First a bit about Depth of Field

To answer the question of where to focus, we must first understand Depth of Field, or DOF. A quick overview of DOF: the aperture setting affects how much of the scene will be in focus. A common misconception (held surprisingly often by clients on our workshops) is that some apertures are used for close focusing and others are used for focusing on distant objects. This is incorrect! Any aperture can be used to focus at any distance. Instead, what the aperture affects is how ‘deep’ the focus is.

Essentially, a wider aperture (smaller f number, such as f/2) will result in a shallow DOF. A narrower aperture (bigger f number, such as f/16) will result in a deeper DOF. Keep in mind that ‘deeper’ does not mean farther ‘away from the camera.’ Rather, it means farther away from the point of focus.

The second thing that affects DOF is the focus distance that the lens is set to. For example, if I focus on an object 30 centimeters in front of the camera, the DOF might be from 28 centimeters to 36 centimeters. This means the focus area is only about 8 centimeters in depth. However, if I focus on an object 5 meters away, the DOF might be between 2 meters and 8 meters, resulting in a DOF of 6 meters. Keep in mind, this is regardless of the aperture setting—the closer you focus, the narrower the DOF will be.

Of course, these two effects operate simultaneously. Meaning that if we focus close and use a wide aperture then then the DOF will be razor thin—only a few centimeters. However, if we focus far away and set a narrow aperture, then the DOF might be many tens of meters in depth. For a landscape photograph (urban or otherwise), this second circumstance is usually ideal!

So, with all that, we can deduce where to focus if we want to maximize DOF for urban landscapes—on an object rather far from the camera. However, there is a bit more to it, and for that we should think about how the camera focuses.

Focus on the subject in the balcony — a small aperture (f/5.6) ensures that the background is also in focus

Focus on the subject in the balcony — a small aperture (f/5.6) ensures that the background is also in focus

What Cameras Focus on Best

Modern cameras focus using one of two systems: phase detect or contrast detect. I will not go into the technical details or the merits of each system. All you need to know is that these methods work better when focusing on details or areas of high contrast. The easier to discern those details are, the more accurately and quickly the camera can focus.

Examples of great focusing targets are signs, text, brick walls, road markings, repetitive patterns, and so on. What all these things have in common is distinct areas of contrast. Some less than stellar focusing targets are trees, bright lights, neon signs, glass, fuzzy things, etc. These objects all lack some definition and have features that blend together even at different distances. The worst things to focus on have uniform colors and lack details, such as bare asphalt, single-color surfaces, empty patches of sky, glowing surfaces, and so on.

Obviously, all cameras are a bit different and some handle these things better or worse. But in general, try to focus on high contrast areas in the image. Combining what we learned above about DOF, we also know that these areas should be a good distance from the camera.

All that should give you a good idea of where to focus, but let’s go beyond that—manual focus.

Focused manually in live view mode — specifically targeting the large box-shaped water tank just upper right of center

Focused manually in live view mode — specifically targeting the large box-shaped water tank just upper right of center

Manual Focusing with the LCD Screen

Auto-focus is great on most cameras these days, but when I’m using a tripod I like to focus manually. The reason is that I can be 100% sure that the focus is perfectly accurate, and I get enjoyment out of slowing down and doing things manually. However, most cameras these days are not so manual focus friendly when using the viewfinder (old cameras had split prisms in the viewfinder to aid manual focusing). On the other hand, digital cameras are great for manual focusing when using the LCD in live view mode.

On most mirrorless cameras, you already have the image on the back LCD, but on SLRs you’ll have to go to live view mode. Once you’re looking at the photo on the back LCD, you can zoom in the picture. This does not mean zooming with the lens, but rather zooming the picture itself. Most cameras have a dedicated button which allows you to do this (look for a pair of buttons with + and - symbols).

Once you zoom in the picture, you should also be able to move the image around. Find an object with details and contrast, such a railing, a sign, or a post in the part of the scene where you want to focus. Then, make sure you’re on manual focus, and simply turn the focusing ring on the lens. I recommend doing this with the aperture wide open (at its lowest setting, i.e. the smallest f number). This way you can really see the focus change as you rotate the focusing ring. Once you’ve set the focus, you can set your aperture back to f/8 or f/11 (or whatever aperture is needed for the shot). And that’s it! Tack sharp focus done manually—shoot away to your heart’s content.

Focusing on the utility pole, with all its details, is most accurate

Focusing on the utility pole, with all its details, is most accurate

TL;DR — So, What’s the Gist of It?

Okay, okay… so, to recap, when shooting an urban landscape scene, I tend to focus on objects that are far away from the camera, but not necessarily the farthest objects. I also choose to focus on objects with lots of contrast and details that are easy to distinguish. Whether focusing manually or automatically, high contrast details make focusing easier and more accurate. And in general, when shooting on a tripod, I prefer manual focus with the aid of the LCD screen. If you want to learn all this and more, just join EYExplore's Tokyo By Night Photo Adventure. Now get out there and challenge your eye!

Breaking the rules — focus on the foreground for effect

Breaking the rules — focus on the foreground for effect

Long Exposures — 6 Tips and Tricks by Lukasz Palka

I wanted to expand upon my last two posts regarding long exposure night photography. But Instead of going into depth on another central aspect of this kind of shooting, with this post I want to cover a few specific tips and tricks that are a bit more on the technical side of things.

Settings — 13 seconds, f/16, ISO 100

Settings — 13 seconds, f/16, ISO 100

Turn Off VR / OS / OIS / Stabilizer

First off, a simple tip and a word of caution: turn off picture stabilization. Lots of cameras these days can try to reduce vibration in order prevent motion blur at lower shutter speeds. When shooting in low light conditions, shutter speeds can get a bit slow, and the camera will use a moving element in the lens or in the body in order to stabilize the image, preventing blur.

Image stabilization is great when you’re shooting by hand, but not so great when the camera is on a tripod. Though some of the newer cameras are smart enough the deactivate this function when they are stationary, it’s a good idea to turn this off completely when doing long exposure photography. Some cameras have a physical switch on the lens for this function, while others have the option buried in the menus. Of course, once the camera is off the tripod, be sure to turn this back on as it’s a very useful function in most situations.

Settings — 15 seconds, f/22, ISO 200

Settings — 15 seconds, f/22, ISO 200

White Balance

Let’s talk about color. One of the original ways in which photographers could affect the colors of the photo was through white balance. For example, if you are shooting indoors (say at home or at a bar) it’s likely to be lit by tungsten filament light bulbs, also known as incandescent lights. These bulbs do not emit white light, rather they cast a yellowish light. If we set our camera to ‘incandescent’ or ‘tungsten’ (often labeled one or the other on most digital cameras) then the camera will compensate for the yellow tint by making the photo very blue in tone. The result is a white balanced photo.

But what happens if we set the incandescent white balance when shooting outside in a city like Tokyo, which is mostly lit by fluorescent lights and LEDs? Well, those lights do not cast a strong yellow light, so the photo ends up overly blue. This is the ‘wrong’ white balance but it can create beautiful contrasts when shooting the red taillights of passing cars.

If you’re shooting in JPG then I highly recommend experimenting with the white balance in the camera, as it can be difficult to change in post. If you’re shooting in RAW, then the white balance can be changed later, but if you’re new to this setting then it’s best to play around with to get an idea of what the different white balance settings do for your long exposure night photos. At the very least, seeing the differences will leave you with ideas on how to edit your photos in post.

Settings — 10 seconds, f/11, ISO 200 — composite of 2 frames

Settings — 10 seconds, f/11, ISO 200 — composite of 2 frames

Noise Reduction

Why does the camera sometimes say ‘Processing’ after taking a long exposure photo? (Some cameras don’t say anything, but simply keep the screen black for a few seconds after the shot.) A common misconception is that the memory card is slow or there is a lot of data to write after a long exposure.

To the contrary, the real reason has to do with noise reduction. Most digital cameras these days will perform a special kind of noise reduction to long exposure photos (typically photos longer than 1 second). When taking a multi-second exposure, the might end up with what’s known as ‘hot pixels’—pixels that get overly saturated and produce pure white dots in the image.

To remove these hot pixels, the camera will take a second ‘photo’ immediately after the actual shot. For example, if you do a 4 second exposure, after the photos is taken the camera will close the shutter and then take another ‘black’ photo with the shutter closed. This second exposure has to be the same length as the original shot. So, a 10 second exposure means a 10 second processing time.

What the camera does is it maps out the hot pixels and then subtracts them from your photo, resulting in a clear, noise-less image. Now, if the processing time is a problem most cameras allow you to turn off this feature, often labeled ‘long exposure noise reduction.’ However, I generally do not recommend turning it off, as this kind of noise is very difficult to properly fix in post.

Settings — 5 seconds, f/8, ISO 200 — composite of 4 frames

Settings — 5 seconds, f/8, ISO 200 — composite of 4 frames

Focusing: First Auto, Then Manual

(or just back-button focus)

Auto-focus generally does a good job on most cameras when shooting urban landscape photos. However, sometimes there tends to be a lag which can cause problems when perfect timing is required. And anyway, while the camera is stationary on a tripod, focusing again and again every time you take a shot is rather tedious. Therefore, a simple and effective technique is to focus automatically one time, then switch to manual. This way the focusing is done by the camera once and then locked once you switch to manual. Just be sure to put it back on auto when you recompose your shot or move to a new spot.

More advanced users might also prefer to use ‘back button focusing’ (which is what I personally always use). Some cameras allow you to change which button activates focus. Typically, the same button that releases shutter is also responsible for activating the auto-focus. On my camera, I’ve set another button on the back side of the camera to activate focusing, while the shutter release does only one thing—it takes the picture. This is useful for urban landscape photography as I can focus once with the back button and then take as many shots as my heart desires without having to focus again.

Lots of photographers use this technique, but at first it does take some getting used to. I tried it for a few weeks, gave up for a while, tried again, and then finally fell in love with back button focusing. Give it a shot!

Settings — 5 seconds, f/11, ISO 200 — Zoom Blur

Settings — 5 seconds, f/11, ISO 200 — Zoom Blur

Zoom Blur

Zoom blur is a fun and easy technique that can result in stunning images. It’s very simple once you get the hang of it. Let’s say you’re doing a 4 second exposure of a cityscape. If you have a zoom lens, start zoomed out (the widest end of the zoom range), press the shutter release so the camera starts taking a photo, and then simply zoom in all the way. The resulting photo will be blurred towards the center of the image. This is called a zoom blur.

That’s really all there is to it. Try experimenting with different exposure times and different rates of zooming. You can also try to start zooming first, then releasing the shutter while you’re already zooming. Another way is to zoom in stages, stopping for a moment every second, resulting in another effect. The point is to just have fun with this simple trick!

Compositing in Photoshop

I have one last thing to help you create rich and vivid urban long exposure photos: compositing. If you’ve taken some long exposure photos of traffic, but the number of light trails in any single photo is a bit lacking, then you can try compositing them in Photoshop. In short, you should have a few identically composed shots (meaning that the camera did not move between shots) and then stack them up in multiple layers. In Photoshop, you can open your photos in a stack by going to File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack… Once there, be sure to select ‘Attempt to automatically align source images’ in order to ensure that everything is aligned properly.

Once the photos are open and stacked in layers, simply select all the layers and change the blend mode to ‘Lighten’. This will allow only the lighter parts of each image (mainly the light trails) to show through the whole stack of photos, effectively compositing all the light trails. That is the gist of it, though there is a lot more to this technique to pull it off really perfectly, but that’s a whole other post for another day. :)

I hope these 5 tips help you when shooting urban long exposures in Tokyo or anywhere in the world. Remember, we cover all this and more on EYExplore's Tokyo By Night Photo Adventure, so please check us out if you happen to be in Tokyo! Good shooting and as always… challenge your eye!

Long Exposures — Two Approaches by Lukasz Palka

Over my years shooting digital long exposures of the neon nightscape of Tokyo, I found that there are two basic approaches. One is to shoot as long as possible with as much traffic as possible, while the other is to shoot relatively short exposures while exercising excellent timing. For the basics on this kind of shooting, refer to my previous post on long exposure photography. You can also book EYExplore's Tokyo By Night Photo Adventure to learn all about long exposures in Tokyo.

Settings — 6 seconds, f/11, ISO 100

Settings — 6 seconds, f/11, ISO 100

The Long Approach

The common strategy for urban long exposure photography is to shoot for as long as possible to get many cars and other moving elements into the shot. This is usually best done from an elevated location looking over a large area such as a highway or multi-lane road, which can accommodate a lot of traffic.

An example of this approach would be to use the following settings: f/11, ISO 100, and an 8 second exposure. This is a typical setting that works in the well-lit streets of Tokyo. If this is not long enough the exposure can be lengthened to 30 seconds with a 2 stop ND filter, for example.

The long strategy makes sense when we are photographing an open stretch of road with cars moving a good distance away from us. By shooting for 8 seconds as in the above example, we would get longer light trails. In addition, the lengthy exposure might allow lots of traffic to pass through our frame. This means that multiple cars will layer on their own individual light trails, resulting in a vibrant and striking image.

Settings — 6 seconds, f/8, ISO 100

Settings — 6 seconds, f/8, ISO 100

A Crucial Caveat

There is one challenge with the long approach—it requires lots of traffic to ensure that there are cars passing through the shot during most of the exposure. If you only get one car passing through the scene you might end up with a single long, but feint, light trail. This not ideal. For that, we must change strategies.

Settings — 1 second, f/11, ISO 100

Settings — 1 second, f/11, ISO 100

The Short Approach

Faced with the problem of low traffic, one might be tempted to give up. But there is another way: we can get close to the road, and reduce our shutter time to around 1-2 seconds. With perfect timing, solitary cars are enough to leave rich and vivid light trails. The lights and reflections on the body work of the cars take on a textured, fluid-like appearance.

For example, if we take our previous settings from the above example (f/11, ISO 100, 8 seconds) and reduce the time to 2 seconds, we have made a 2 stop change. Each stop, reduces the light by half, so we went 8 seconds > 4 seconds > 2 seconds. Assuming our exposure was correct, we would have to compensate with either ISO or aperture (or both), so our resulting settings might be f/8, ISO 200, 2 seconds. We increased the exposure via the aperture by 1 stop (changing from f/11 to f/8 is a 1 stop increment) and then we increased our ISO by 1 stop (doubled from, 100 to 200). This results in a 2 stop total change.

Settings — 1 second, f/8, ISO 400

Settings — 1 second, f/8, ISO 400

Enough with the numbers… what does all this mean?

Walking through an exposure calculation is good mental exercise, but the key takeaway is that relatively short exposures works very well when shooting close to the passing cars. Timing their entry into the frame is crucial, but the resulting photos can be very dramatic. I used a 2 second exposure in my example above, but other times can work too, such as a 1/2 second or even 4-5 seconds. The key is that the solitary car should be in your frame for the same amount of time as your exposure. This obviously depends on the speed of the car, so once again timing is crucial.

Next time you’re out shooting long exposures in the city, try the two strategies covered above: shooting lots of traffic for long shutter times from a great distance, and shooting close for only 1-2 seconds and timing individual cars passing in each frame. With practice, you’ll see the difference and you’ll be able to decide which approach works best for each situation.

As always if you want to learn these techniques hands-on and you happen to be in Tokyo, we can teach you all this stuff on EYExplore's Tokyo By Night Photo Adventure! Stay tuned for another post on long exposure photography next week.

Settings — 2 seconds, f/8, ISO 100

Settings — 2 seconds, f/8, ISO 100

Long Exposure Photography — Basic How To by Lukasz Palka

Have you ever wondered how to get a night shot of the city with intense, fiery light trails? Well then read on my friends! This blog post is for those who want to learn how to shoot long exposure shots from the basics, as well as those of you who have already joined EYExplore's Tokyo By Night Photo Adventure and want to recap the settings and techniques you already learned.

Settings — 15 seconds, f/16, ISO 200

Settings — 15 seconds, f/16, ISO 200

The Basics

In order to get into the deep end of long exposure night photography, let’s review the basics of a camera: shutter, aperture, and ISO.

Shutter

The shutter setting allows you to control how long the shutter stays open, and therefore how much light comes into the camera. The secondary effect of the shutter time is motion blur. The longer the shutter, the more motion blur you can get.

Aperture

The aperture is an iris inside the lens that controls how much light comes into the camera. We can make the aperture big (e.g. f/2.8) or small (e.g. f/16). The secondary effect of the aperture is its influence on the depth of field (DOF). For our purposes, all we need to know is that it gets deeper (more things are in focus) with a smaller aperture (e.g. f/11).

ISO

The ISO setting can be thought of as the ‘sensitivity’ of the camera’s sensor (or the film, if you’re using an analog camera). Essentially, the higher the ISO the more ‘sensitive’ the camera, which effectively means you’re getting ‘more’ light. In reality, a digital camera doesn’t quite work quite like this on a physical level, but for our purposes, this is a very convenient shorthand. The side-effect of the ISO is that the higher it goes the more noise or grain will be present in the resulting image.

Essentially, all three main functions (shutter speed, aperture value, and ISO) primarily affect how much light you end up with in the camera, while each of them also have a secondary effect.

Settings — 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 50

Settings — 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 50

How to set the camera…

With the basics out of the way, let’s move on to the settings we need for a typical night time long exposure shot in the city. Our goal is to keep our shutter open for as long as possible in order to allow the traffic to leave nice long trails of light in our photo. Let’s go with a typical shutter speed for this purpose: 4 seconds. This means the shutter stays open for 4 seconds to capture light, which is quite a long time. If we do not consider our other 2 settings carefully, then we will be left with an overexposed photo. In most shots on our photo adventure in Tokyo, this means we need to make the aperture smaller and reduce the ISO.

A good aperture setting for this shot could be f/11 (remember—a bigger aperture number means a smaller aperture). At this aperture, we have reduced the amount of light coming into the camera considerably. The secondary effect is that we also have a wide Depth of Field, meaning more things are in focus. This is perfect for a cityscape shot.

Next, we need to consider our ISO setting. We are trying to compensate for the large amount of light coming in during our 4 second exposure, so we need to keep the ISO quite low. Most cameras these days can do 100 ISO at the lowest. Going with the lowest ISO also has the added benefit of reducing noise / grain in the photo.

Settings — 2.5 seconds, f/11, ISO 100

Settings — 2.5 seconds, f/11, ISO 100

Summary

So, let’s recap the settings for a typical night long exposure photo: 4 second shutter, aperture f/11, and ISO 100. And that’s it! From there you might adjust the aperture a bit (say between f/8 and f/16) and work on the shutter time, anywhere from 1 second to 15 seconds depending on how much light is in the scene.

This covers the very basics of an urban long exposure photography, just like the ones we do at EYExplore on our Tokyo By Night Photo Adventure. I did gloss over a few details, so in the future, I’ll go into more depth and cover some advance techniques.

Settings — 6 seconds, f/11, ISO 50

Settings — 6 seconds, f/11, ISO 50

A Journey on the Rooftops of Tokyo by Lukasz Palka

What is it that draws me to the rooftops in Tokyo?

What drives me up the stairs—ten eleven twelve flights at a time—is curiosity. I harbor a desire to discover unusual beauty in a chaotic urban landscape. To me, the rooftops are the ‘final frontier’ in Tokyo. The streets are crawling with photographers, but few venture off the ground and into the concrete canopy—but I want to see what I can create up there. The lights and vibrations of the rooftops weave images in my mind—images which I can call my own. Obtaining a unique perspective in photography is like finding a pearl in a sea of glass beads. The chance to glimpse uncommon sights is intoxicating. It is this pursuit of a narrative individual to myself which keeps me coming back. On the roofs, I find my own voice.

Seeking Clarity

The exhilaration of discovery is not the only quality that draws me up there. It is also the solitude. On the rooftops, I discover my own world. The city is aloof—muffled like a party in another room. I can think freely and take in sights and sounds that few others have experienced. With fewer models for comparison my creativity is less restrained. I am alone in space and time, as well as in my art. My photographic vision becomes unfettered from common images of Tokyo. From the ‘outside’ I find clarity.

tokyo-rooftops-journey-2.jpg

A Tranquil Mind

The metropolis is a living, breathing organism. The ecosystem is one of steel and glass, electronics and economies. But on the roofs the sounds of the bustling metropolis below fade into the distance. I hear a cacophony that is as organic as in any forest. Traffic rushes like distant wind. Crowds murmur like mountain streams. People’s laughter rings out like cries of hidden creatures in the understory. In the tranquility, my mind becomes a vessel ready to be filled by the muse, imbuing my eye with creative energy. Amidst the machinery and ductwork, looking out at the expanse of the urban jungle, I find serenity.

tokyo-rooftops-journey-3.jpg

Spirit of Adventure

Great excitement comes with exploring ‘uncharted territory.’ Exploring the unknown is a powerful experience. Sure, the rooftops are not a truly unknown place, but from the perspective of a photographer the rooftops carry a sort of mystique. They are a forbidden place promising great treasures to those who scale the cliffs of the metropolis. I can go to the edges of the earth to seek places untouched by any human in history, but to seek the unknown within the most populated city on earth is a personal journey, an inner endeavor. Scaling the urban mountains, and the mountains within myself, I find adventure.

tokyo-rooftops-journey-4.jpg

The Challenge of Self

Adventure must also be wrought with risk. The rooftops are a place with many dangers. There is the ever-present chance of being caught, but what is more severe is the risk to one’s safety. When I first started exploring the rooftops I had a strong fear of heights. It took many months of ‘exposure therapy’ to get over this fear. Over the course of my rooftop adventures I have become more brazen. When before I could barely scramble up to the 5th floor landing of a fire escape, now I can leap from precipice to ledge, though still with a sense of fear in my gut. These days I don’t take major risks, but thanks to my rooftop journeys I grow as a person and as a photographer. On the rooftops, I discover myself.

The rooftops of Tokyo are more than just places to take pictures. They are the stage for a personal journey into an unknown part of the city—and into an unknown part of myself as a photographer. I can express myself in a way not possible had I not taken my first steps up to the rooftops of Tokyo.

Looking Up: The Hidden Valleys of Ginza by Lukasz Palka

I found myself crouching in a puddle of water and grease, hunkered down in the dim twilight of a narrow crevasse in the canyons of Ginza. The afternoon sunlight was a distant dream ten stories above trickling down along dust-caked walls. The aroma of trash permeated the air, a rat scurried past and entered a crack in the pavement as if absorbed. But I ignored all this and focused on what brought me to such an unpleasant place—the photography.

One afternoon a nagging curiosity led me into the tiny back alleys of Ginza, hidden away from the neon and glitz of the Ginza strip. That question fueled a fascination with the narrow slits formed by the buildings packed tightly together. I fell in love with the atmosphere created by the sunlight finding its way through the narrow spaces, illuminating the duct work and wires that drape the concrete as organically as vines in a forest.

Motivation

Why does this interest me so much? To me the city is a living organism. It breathes and grows, parts of it die and are cut away, only to be reborn. Treating the city as a synthetic ecology leads me to explore its various biomes. These tiny back alleys are one such biome, and so here I found myself.

At first, I didn’t come prepared so I shot these locations with camera in hand, at a wide aperture (f/2.8) and high ISO (3200). This was a good proof of concept but it produced images too noisy and without enough depth of field (DOF). My plan was to return with a tripod to better shoot in the low light conditions of the crevasse. And so, I did.

Technique

My goal was to create an effect where the narrow spaces turn the sky into a mere sliver of white light. To achieve this meant two things: 1) shooting on a very wide focal length to make the light appear even more distant and narrow while making the walls appear to close-in on the viewer, and 2) exposing the scene for the shadows to bring out the details of the walls and allow for the light to ‘blow out’ and become a pale white.

The biggest challenge was focusing. In these conditions autofocus was unreliable, so I used manual focus in live view mode. This lets me blow up the image on the LCD screen and ensure tack sharp focus on the details. Compositions were also tricky due to the tight spaces.

The final piece of the puzzle was the edit. When working with the images in Adobe Camera Raw, I went for a low saturation and high contrast look that emphasized the details while also instilling a cool and sterile atmosphere. The goal was consistency across all images to ensure a cohesive theme.

Don’t Be Shy

I was not the only one present in the urban understory. There were of course the ever-present rats, but even they were not the only inhabitants. The alleys are also lined with the back doors of high class restaurants. Every once in a while, a chef or waiter would take out the trash. When they saw me, I could feel their curious looks. I heard them telling their coworkers in Japanese about the weird foreigner huddled behind a camera next to a bag of rotting leftovers. I felt weird. But I reminded myself that if I’m weird then I must be doing something right. Being a weird photographer means that at the very least I’m thinking outside of the box. And this is a good thing.

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Takeaways

I learned and reinforced a few concepts during this project: don’t be self-conscious, be curious, and embrace the weirdness. I didn’t worry about what people will think of me hunkered down in dingy back alleys photographing the mundane. I allowed my curiosity to freely dictate what interests me and I didn’t give up on the idea until I explored it deeply. I did some preliminary shooting, and went back and came up with a better plan of action. Then I went back and shot some more. Finally, I embraced the weirdness of the project and didn’t try to justify it to anyone or even myself. I just went along with the flow.

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Obsessed with Bicycles—or How Obsession Fuels Projects by Lukasz Palka

Tokyo is filled with bicycles—all sorts of bicycles. They range from trend-setting fixed gear bicycles to plain ‘mamachari’ (or old lady bike in other words), to hi-tech carbon fiber one-off syntheses of technology and art that could be straight out of a cyberpunk video game. Their multitude of variations-mutations-customizations keep me on the hunt, but what obsesses me is not their uniqueness but their ubiquity—their commonalities.

Curious Creatures

Most bicycles I’ve ever seen share two things: geometry and character. Every bicycle is two-an-a-half triangles bridging two circles with some gizmos and doodads hanging off. They also all say something about themselves. Just like people the bicycles can be plain and mundane, or they can be extravagant and eccentric. They might be sleek and expensive or old and rusted. I don't really mind. They all sing their tales to me.

The Roots of Obsession

A personal project is usually born out of a nagging curiosity—something encountered once or many times in life that triggers an itch. The only way the itch can be scratched is by exploring the subject that started it in the first place. In my case, it was the bicycles—strewn about the city like toys, in a myriad of color and style. Once I took a good look at one and made a photo out of one it became an obsession. I can’t walk past a bike with flavor and not glance at it. Sometimes I stop and stare the way one might at an attractive person. I soak it in. It pleases my eyes and scratches the itch.

Path of Discovery

Pursuing an obsession leads to discoveries about the subjects but more so about oneself as a photographer. I discovered a universe of aluminum and steel and carbon fiber—it led me to look inward and develop an eye for forms, colors, juxtaposition, and subtle details. It bred in me discipline to photograph consistently, taking care to maintain an underlying logic to the project in its entirety, while also creating a unique work with each shot.

A Story in Every Frame

I take photos of bicycles in the same mindset with which I photograph people. I want them to belong in their environment. I look for bikes that happen to end up in a place that seems to belong to them. That is, the bicycle and its parking spot should be in harmony. The bike’s setting should also convey its story and character just as much as the bike itself. But these principles did not exist in mind at the outset. They came to be as the obsession grew within me—they evolved over time with each snap of the shutter.

Getting Obsessed

What is the value of a project? Narrowing your photographic focus on a specific subject that captivates you will lead to discoveries about yourself as a photographer. For one, in pursuit of the project you will be stretched and challenged in ways that casual shooting does not. Concrete goals can be set within the bounds of a project—goals that go beyond ‘shoot every day’ or ‘always take your camera with you.’ The hard part is finding that project. On what subject should you spend your time and energy? Well, one way into a project mindset is to get hooked on something specific and go after it like a madman. Live and breathe the concept for weeks or months. Find your photographic obsession, and embrace it.