Shooting in Tokyo at rush-hour

Being a freelance photographer means that – when things are going well – the average week ends up being far from average at all. Such was the week I got a call from Patrick Burke of ZumiZushi in Nashville, Tennessee. Patrick told me he was shortly to open a new sushi restaurant in the American capital of country-music. He had, he said, a back-of-bar area for which he wanted an image; something special, something that illustrated a little the fusion of the modern and traditional of Japan. A theme, he told me, ran through his food and the ambience he wanted to create with his establishment.

On top of the ‘trad meets modern’ tag, Patrick had some reasonably firm ideas of what he wanted: trains, station platforms, a kimono-clad model… more specifically a model clad in a particular shade of orange kimono. The particular orange that was very much part of the colour-scheme of his restaurant.

Briefs that allow some interpretation for the photographer are good. Tight briefs [excuse the potential innuendo] are also good, as they focus the mind and the camera: get in, get the shot, get out. No ambiguity. After seeing my work online and discovering my knowledge of Tokyo, Patrick was to allow me a little of both worlds: a fairly focused remit but one that would remain open to my own on-the-ground interpretation.

I immediately asked Akiko Yamaguchi to be the model. She and I had worked on projects before and her level of professionalism is second to none. She also has a quality that makes her a dream to work with: the ability to take instructions but then to improvise in a manner perfectly within the confines of the brief. In short, she is capable of providing moments of pure inspiration even when under enormous pressure.

Such would be the requirements of getting the shot. After doing a research trip along a few of Tokyo’s many train lines, the most obvious candidate station for the location turned out to be Naka-meguro. Anyone who knows Tokyo will know how busy that station gets in the morning. For anyone who doesn’t know Tokyo, just picture all your stereotypical images of Tokyo commuter trains at rush-hour and you’ll be right on the money.

Some of my iPhone research shots from the Oimachi and Toyoko Lines


Naka-meguro was perfect for several reasons, all of which became obvious when I spent some time there just watching what went on at the very time of day we would need to be there shooting. Good location-scouting and research is essential for shoots anywhere but in Tokyo one has the added factor of permission: yes, one could ask for permission to shoot at a busy station at rush-hour and if this were New York – with its city department dedicated to helping film-makers and photographers gain access to various places – one might get it. But this isn’t. It’s Tokyo. And the way Tokyo works is like this:

  • You write a polite letter explaining your requirements, your project.
  • You get asked to a meeting with the relevant city officials [all at this point seems hunky-dory and a glimmer of possibility shines across your world].
  • You attend said meeting. Lots of people are sat there listening to you. No one there appears to have a title that would suggest they have any responsibility for enabling people to film or shoot in one of the most cinematic cities on the planet. But, hey, who am I to assume that? Maybe together they all have a little bit of something to add to this meeting. There are interested nods and smiles when one explains one’s idea.
  • The various issues are addressed by the multitude of people now sat around the table: safety, access, timing, portrait-rights, ownership, fees [maybe this will actually happen, one thinks].
  • The smiles and nods turn to the intakes of breath and ‘maaaaa……aaa-nohh….nnnnnn….eee-to’ [well, ah, mmm, erm, you see…]
  • Fuck. No one here has the authority to make a decision about this.
  • Then the bog-standard reply for such situations in Japan comes: ‘Well, yes, it sounds like you have thought of everything and you seem very professional. But we think there may be some reason this can’t happen. We don’t really know what it is. But there is surely to be some reason that we can’t help you. So, the only reason we can come up with is this: if we say yes to you, we’ll have to say yes to all the other people who may ask us if they can do something like this.’

The solution, 99% of the time? Don’t ask permission.

Brad Pitt’s film ‘Babel‘; ever heard of it? Right. Pretty big movie. I mean, it has Brad-o Pitt-o in it, yeah? Big star. Married to the Tomb Raider chick. Yeah, with me? OK.

One whole section of that film is set in Japan, in Tokyo. Did they get permission to film here? No. What did they do? They employed a person specifically tasked during filming with watching for the Police or security guards.

Moral of the story? If being Brad Pitt is not enough to get you permission to film in Tokyo, being Alfie Goodrich won’t either.

Such is the value of on-site research. Shoots like this are planned just like a military operation: entrances here, here and here. Guards placed here, here and here. Guard A patrols sector B between 7.10am and 7.14am. He walks 15 paces towards this end of the platform and turns round. Then walks back.

And this is the way I spent a couple of mornings at Naka-meguro: I walked the platforms, I watched the station staff, I examined the flow of people. I established what would be the best places to shoot from which afforded the maximum crowd cover from the prying eyes of the station staff. I fixed in my mind the best times to shoot for maximum commuter flow. I figured out where the daylight came from and how intense the morning sun was across the platforms. I would not have the luxury of using flash [too much of an advertisement of photographic activity to risk it] so I would have to get the best from the natural light.

I shot pics with the iPhone, to establish various angles and just to record a few possible shooting points. When we got there on shooting day, we would need to go straight to our spots, know exactly what to do and be done with it asap if we were to get enough done before we would – inevitably – be told to piss off.

The night before the shoot, Akiko came to stay at our house as we would need to be up stupidly early to get her in her kimono and get to the station in time for the peak of the morning rush. That all went well. I’d arranged for a buddy to come and assist me on the day too, although in truth he was there as much to watch for potential problems or staff intervention as much as assist in the true photographic sense of the word.

Akiko and I jumped in a taxi, got to Oimachi station to then head up the Oimachi Line too Jiyugaoka, change to the Toyoko Line with the idea of arriving onto the exact platform we would be shooting on.

Problem no.134 of these sorts of shoots is actually getting on to a train with all the gear. No flash meant that ‘all the gear’ meant slightly less than usual but it’s still fairly stressful getting onto a mobile sardine-tin with a large camera rucksack, camera, model in kimono etc.

That achieved, we duly arrived at Naka-meguro to begin the shoot…….

It was mayhem. For some reason the platforms seemed even busier than they had on each of my recce trips. We met up with my assistant and found our first shooting spot, up the eastern end of the Shibuya-bound Toyoko and Kitasenju-bound Hibiya line platforms. Toyoko would come in on one side and a huge crowd of people would board the train. Another swathe of people would exit that train and wait for the Hibiya Line train to come in, which was staggered for arrival a few mins after the Toyoko pulled out.

We would be shooting back up the Hibiya Line side of the platform, because that was receiving the early morning light from the west. The crowds were good but I couldn’t have Akiko stand at the front of any actual queue because timing her being able to get first place in the queue would be impossible to organise. So we had her stand just towards me from the nearest line of waiting people. My angle made it look like she was part of the queue but enough like she wasn’t part of the queue for it to look cool; traditional kimono girl sort of part of all the modern commuter mayhem but just a little out of it all too, at the same time.

Nice. So far, so good. Safari-sogoody, as my old man used to say.

I shot a few tests on the Nikon to get the exposure sorted and it was clear that the 24-70 just wasnt going to cut the mustard. Not wide enough for me to use the small amount of distance I physically had between me and Akiko and make it look like she wasn’t right under my noise. The 14mm I had for the Nikon was too wide. Out came the Mamiya and 35mm lens. Great thing also about the Mamiya is with its larger sensor it has a greater ability to deal with a large dynamic range, which we had going on between the bright light coming through from the left and the shadowy parts of the queue of people. I needed it all. Mamiya time…..

I cracked-off a few different shots and we had to wait for trains to come in, as the client wanted some with trains in and some without. Also needed to have the safety-net of getting shots with a variety of different collections of people in the queue. We needed some ‘typical’ salarymen and office ladies. Sometimes the queue was full of the right people, sometimes it wasn’t.

As well as shots with Akiko side-on to me, and with me looking along the platform, we needed some with me shooting her against the background of a moving train and ideally some of her still in the middle of blurred-out and moving crowds. Once we’d grabbed one set of shots and were happy, we’d move on to the next.

The moving train shot was one on which we also got lucky: the guard waving the train stayed  as still as Akiko, meaning I got them both pin-sharp and the train nice and blurry. No mean feat shooting at 1/2 sec with 2.5kgs of camera and no tripod. But, that’s what being a pro is all about; you practice shit over and over so you know you can deliver it under pressure.

One of the shots I got of Akiko and the train blurring-out….shot hand-held at around 1/2sec

Japanese model in kimono on Tokyo station platform

Our last shot was the one I knew would get us attention from staff, hence we left it to last: no point getting noticed and thrown out of the station before we’d got all the shots we needed.

Being at a place like Naka-meguro in the morning, with all the hordes of people, just makes you wanna shoot some of those ‘still subject, blurry crowd’ sorts of pics. I also wanted to get some cool geometry into the shot by having Akiko stand as close as possible to the middle of the top of the flight of stairs coming up onto the platform. I had watched, on my recce visits, people fanning out onto each side of the platform from the top of the stairs. I reckoned that would be a cool place to have Akiko stand, with one side a staircase full of people fanning out on either side of her standing static in the middle.

We got ourselves into position and again, it was a tricky shot as I needed Akko to stand perfectly still to get the crowds blurred out. I also needed to keep the camera totally still. Time to be the human tripod again….

Five shots was all we got. The sixth, as you see below, included  the station-master giving us the crossed-arms ‘Da-me’ [No/Not allowed/Stop it] signal which I have become so used to in my photographic career in Tokyo. Respect to him though, he was really nice about it all but that was the end of the shoot. Game over. No more. Time to leave.

We shot a few fun shots in Shibuya as back-up and then it was back home, breakfast and a lazy day before the post-processing began……

…because that was to prove as extreme as the shooting.

Just how many pixels is a 12ft image?

Around 440,000, give or take. That’s big. I mean, that’s so big that the TIFF format isn’t capable of actually of coping with it and one needs to move into the realms of the .PSB or Large File Format in Photoshop, which supports images of up to 300,000 pixels and beyond even.

Even with 8gb of RAM onboard in the desktop PC, editing files as big as this is something of a chore and in a way takes you back to the earliest days of the internet. You remember, when it was 14.4 modems? You clicked ‘download’ on what we would regard as a ‘tiny’ file these days and you’d go off and make dinner whilst it was downloading, come back and maybe it had finished.

That’s what editing a 44,000 pixel long image is like; you move something a couple of mm’s and the little egg-timer pops up, sits there for about 5mins and it’s done.

I knew roughly what Patrick wanted, the space it had to fill and the key colour [orange] which would need emphasizing in the final work. Another good reason for choosing the Toyoko platforms in Naka-meguro was the orange stripe along silver trains, which provided an awesome key into the colour of Akko’s kimono and a horizontal stripe of colour to counter her standing vertical.

First workflow was to get proof copies of all the best and candidate photos off to Patrick so he could select some to take on to the next stage. For this I used Capture One, grading the best shots 5-stars. Select all 5-star shots and batch-convert to low-rez, 800-pixel-wide JPEG and send off together with a 5-minute shake-and-bake processed version. This I put on-screen in Photoshop next to the original, unprocessed shot and Patrick’s original orange colour swatch, screengrabbed the lot and emailed it to him.

It’s important when you are up against deadlines not to have the client fussing over ‘this picture looks too green, this one needs cleaning up, this one is a bit dark’ when all that sort of stuff can be fixed easily and quickly in post. The screengrab before-after thing was basically to send Patrick the message that he should be looking through the proof images for the poses he liked, the faces in the crowd, the composition. It worked and I got a direct and focused email back from the client which allowed me to get straight on and pick specific shots to take on to the montage stage of the mural.

Patrick had one extra request though… to take the Akiko he like from one shot [below right] and drop her into the crowd he liked in another [below left]. I don’t usually do that sort of complex and time-consuming cut-out of people or objects for my own work but, hey, client asks so client gets.

Here was the finished version of Akiko No.2 and view No.1

First draft of mural went back to Nashville and I went to bed: 3am on shoot day. Tired.

Here’s that first draft:

Got up later that morning and there was a change of direction on the mural, courtesy of the client’s interior design guy. But, alth0ugh it meant another evening of seriously time-consuming editing and re-jigging, the fella was totally right and – weirdly – it coincided with the very initial thoughts I’d had about designing this mural; i.e. with some black lines in it to separate a bunch of shots. The finished article looked great with the black lines etc you see on the low-rez proof copy below.

Patrick and I are 100% happy with each other now but there was an extended period [of almost three months] when – because he was busy – I didn’t hear back from him. So, things got a bit pointy from me on a couple of emails.

I’d been paid 50% up-front and I thought Patrick had disappeared on me. When I found a picture on his website – of the mural in place, in the restaurant – and still hadn’t received my money, or the money for Akiko’s kimono rental, I got a little bit pissed in an email. Eloquently pissed, shall we say. Patrick, to his great credit, got right back and paid in full. All is cool. Everyone gets busy. He had his reasons but I’d been in the dark as to what was going on.

Gotta say his restaurant looks lovely and the reply I got from him about the payment and the photo and everything was great. Respect to you sir. Thanks.

Here’s the finished shot, in the restaurant…

Morals of the story?

  1. Do your homework on locations.
  2. Do some more homework.
  3. Take someone along whose sole responsibility is to watch for guards, police and any inbound trouble.
  4. Get a great model who needs just the right bit of direction and who can then improvise perfectly within the established parameters.
  5. Don’t dither: get in, shoot and leave.
  6. Always smile at people, even when they are telling you to get out of their station. The main reason being, that you’ve earned a day’s pay and finished your work before all the people at the station have even started theirs.
  7. Don’t worry that three 6000pixel-wide shots montaged next to each other don’t add up to 44,000 pixels wide. Use Genuine Fractals to up-size and then output sharpen your final work for viewing at the appropriate distance, in this case no less than 6ft away and from the other side of a bar. It ain’t made to be looked at with people’s noses pressed up against it. So don’t worry if the sharpened item doesnt look perfect on your screen at 100%, it’ll look fine when it’s printed 12ft wide.
  8. Always get 50% of the job fee up-front.
  9. If it becomes necessary to do so, choose exactly the right moment and method of losing your rag with the client.
  10. Go to a family restaurant and have curry and lemon-sours for breakfast after shoots like these: it truly hits the spot.


About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks. © 2015 All Rights Reserved

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