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What Does Shooting Street Portraits with an Ultra-Wide Lens in Kabukicho Look Like?

Anyone that has followed my work or has taken a glance at my Instagram page, will notice the obvious. While I always try and keep an open mind as a photographer I lean a lot more heavily towards street and especially night scenes and if we’re going to get real specific a lot of it is Japan based Yokochos and back alleys. The grimier the better. You can just hook those neons into my veins so I can produce content all day (er, I mean night).

Did someone say Yokocho?

The more you do something, well, naturally you’re going to develop a certain style over the years both in terms of aesthetics and subjects. As a photographer who is keen on continuous development, this year I made it a goal to start using my street sensibilities I’ve honed over the years and start applying them to actual people who are not only consenting to have their photos taken but actually want them.

Yup I’m talking about Portrait work. Full disclosure, it’s an area of photography that has always been of great interest but still in many ways a mystery to me as I sometimes struggle with having to direct a scene rather than just observing one happen like in street photography. There is more at play and definitely a bit more pressure to ‘produce’. If I miss a street shot, nobody cares except me. If I fumble through a portrait shoot with no quality work or I get the edits wrong, or I forgot to check my ISO settings in mid day (yeah, thats happened and all the photos turned out grainy!). Oops.

Anyways, lets get to the shoot! Since my move to Tokyo in December of last year I’ve had the opportunity to work on some really cool shoots and this one was no exception. My good friend, Natsuki, introduced me to a Tokyo-based ‘pointillist’ artist Banana Yamamoto. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about him or his work but one quick look at his site and you can see. The man loves dots! He loves them so much he was decked from head to toe, literally, in dots from his shoes, pants, top, hat, gloves and even sunglasses! Actually this was a perfect wardrobe choice for where we were going to shoot and I’ll explain why later.

DOTS, DOTS EVERYWHERE! And in one of my favourite Nike Shapes ever. Long live the the Air Max 90.

For those that don’t know the current situation in Japan there is a State of Emergency which basically means that everything has been politely ‘asked’ to close down by 20:00 and that no alcohol be served at anytime until the SOE is over. The Japan government doesn’t have the legal teeth to mandate a lockdown of any sorts as per their constitution and usually asking the Japanese to co-operate on a societal level is pretty close to the real thing anyways. That is, until you head out to some of the infamous haunts of Tokyo’s rebels and outcasts, and Kabukicho is probably the capital of all things gone bad (or good, depends on your point of view) in Japan. Technically called an ‘entertainment district’ but in reality it’s Japans answer to sin city, the city that never sleeps and Asias biggest red light district. And of course an absolute feast for the eyes and a photographers wet dream if you love bright lights, neons, strange characters and deep underground culture like I do.

Typically speaking, when shooting portraits most people won’t reach for anything lower than 35mm and 55-85mm would probably be considered the sweet spot for most photographers to give a flattering image with that sweet buttery background bokeh. And don’t get me wrong there is a reason it’s the photographers choice as it consistently produces work that make your photos look extremely pro. But the problem with shooting this style is it can be so tight that you don’t get much, if any, of the background. The subject is purely front and center and thats ok but in this shoot we wanted didn’t want blurred out backgrounds and we wanted the viewer to really feel the craziness of the environment we were shooting in. So, what better lens in my kit to that with then my Sigma 24mm F/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for my Sony A7iii. I absolutely love the Sigma range for my Sony as I think they provide the best off brand lens for half the price of a Sony lens.

24mm is right at the limit of what would be considered an ultra-wide lens and used primarily for architecture or landscape. When you get much wider you start to get that real fish eye effect… zoomed in to the middle and stretched back corners of the image. Used in portraiture you can get some really unflattering effects like if not careful like small heads and big feet or vice versa. But if done with intention and you understand the advantages as well as the limitations you can get some really great effects.

Below would be two examples of how you can keep the subject centered thus looking to be proportional but you can really see how the edges of the corner start to wrap inwards taking in a lot of the surrounding scene which is exactly what we wanted.

In the below photos I decided to shoot upwards which while not proportionally correct I think it works for this image. The subject and theme is more fantastical so I think there is more room to bend the norms. So yeah, his hands look bigger than his head, but the viewer is probably too busy processing everything else in the photo to put much thought into that in my opinion.

Here is where the 24mm shines though. When making the complete environment the prominent subject that your model just happens to be involved with in some way. It gives the photographer the opportunity to create more of a story. No blurred out bokeh backgrounds here. I think it’s important the viewer gets a good sense of exactly where we are because in a lot of ways it’s unlike anywhere else in the world.

When it came to editing, I will admit it was a big challenge as there is an absolute orgy of colour so deciding which should be highlighted, which should be muted and which should be cut all together can dramatically alter the look and feel of your photos. I mentioned earlier the outfit choice which I think worked great here. The dots have a lot of contrast but the fact they were also black and white (aka maximum contrast) really made Banana Yamamoto stand out. It was much easier to make him look like he was popping from the photos so that general principle could be something to keep in mind next time you go out shooting those crazy neon lights in your city or on your travels ( I understand not all of us have places like Kabukicho in our backyard).

Little break from the action deep in the labyrinth of Kabukicho alleys . This mama-san gave us a few aggressive yells to get the hell out her way as she was moving between her establishments. We happily obliged of course.

Anyways, hope you enjoyed the write up and you could get even just a small glimpse into the seedier and always aesthetically interesting side of my new home city. Stay tuned for more and you can find more photos from this shoot on my Instagram and Facebook page.

Arigatou gozaimasu!

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