Portrait photography in Tokyo: Nissan LEAF Owner for the 2015 COP21 Climate Talks

Portrait photography in Tokyo: Nissan LEAF Owner for the 2015 COP21 Climate Talks

Back in November of last year I was commissioned by an advertising agency to shoot a portrait of a Japanese Nissan LEAF owner, for display as a huge print on the Nissan-Renault stand at the 2015 COP21 Climate Talks.

It looks like a simple portrait but as usual there is a story to these things…..

The commission came in and I was told the lady lived ‘in Tokyo’. The agency asked me for ‘typically Tokyo and Japan locations’ that might come to mind, for the shoot.

There are many but the list of ‘instantly recognisable as Tokyo’ locations is not as easy as you think, once you really sit down and think about it.

Tokyo Tower

….and, well, that’s sort of it.

There are shrines, dozens of amazing ones, but they could be anywhere in Japan and people outside of Tokyo won’t instantly think ‘Tokyo’ when they see them.

The Sky Tree is a bit too new to be ‘instantly recognisable Tokyo’.

I have shot at a few spots around the Tokyo Tower, for Ferrari and one or two other car companies.

Then the people at Nissan here in Japan got back to me and said that the lady had just two hours for the shoot and that she lived in Machida.

Machida is about 50kms from central Tokyo and about 90mins drive, with the daytime traffic.

So, the Tokyo Tower idea was out of the window.

I looked up the lady’s neighbourhood on the map. StreetView is an amazing tool for planning location shoots, when you can’t instantly go to the location to check it out.

Her neighbourhood was lovely… if you want total suburban peace and quiet. But it was, to be very honest, visually dull as dishwater and, more importantly, nothing in the scene below screams ‘Tokyo!!!!!’ or ‘Japan!!!’


The lady I was to be shooting runs a rabbit boarding house. Yes, she looks after people’s rabbits when they go away. The client wanted a pic of her and her own rabbit.

I kept looking on StreetView, for a suitable ‘typically Japan’ sort of location in her immediate neighbourhood. There are plenty of shrines but when you look closer you see they are really boring or there’s no way to get the car close enough.

Then I hit upon one little shrine, about ten minutes drive from her house, that seemed like it would fit the bill: a stone ‘tori’ gate right next to a road, in a quiet neighbourhood.

Seemed perfect.

LEAF-owner-streetview3 LEAF-owner-streetview2

I turned up in the area one hour before the shoot and drove from her house to the location, to check exactly how long it took and to do the route myself so I could lead the convoy of her car, Nissan PR guy’s car. Never assume people know everything in their neighbourhood. Turned out to be true: the lady had no idea of the shrine I was talking about.

I got the location, shot a few test shots with my iPhone using my rental car, which was a little smaller than the LEAF. Perfect. No cars around, totally quiet residential surroundings. The spot would work fine.

iPhone test shot of my rental car outside the shrine iPhone test shot of my rental car outside the shrine

Went back to the house, met the lady and the guy from Nissan and we headed out to the location.

On arrival, it was pretty immediately apparent that on that day of the week, around 2pm, the schools finished early….. and the tiny narrow road past the shrine had a car needing to pass by every five minutes or less. The road directly in front of the shrine was super narrow. Japanese people are also very careful and over-conscious of space to pass, so even though the lady’s car was parked how I would describe as ‘off the road’, no one would pass it.

The Japanese really have an issue with judging distance, in my experience. In England, someone would feel happy with 12″ or 18″ gap to get their car through. Not here. No one would pass. They wanted us to move.

I’d set up one Einstein light on a stand with a large 60″ umbrella by the side of the road, to light the lady and her rabbit as they stood in front of the LEAF.

I had figured out that 28mm on the Nikon was perfect. I’d wanted to try the 28mm on the Nikon and drip back along a small path to shoot 80mm on the Hasselblad. In the end I had no time for that.

We got about 26 shots, being constantly interrupted by cars, a bus and a truck wanting to get past. Each time we had to move her car, put it back in the right spot. It was a nightmare. The clock was ticking.

In the end the Nissan guy said to me ‘we can’t keep doing this’.

He was really stressed out. More stressed than myself or the lady whose picture I was shooting. Even the rabbit was cool.

‘I DO realise that’, I said. ‘But I need five more takes of this and then we’ll leave. I can’t leave until I know for 100% sure that I have the shot.”

So that’s what we did. Five more mins, a total of 26 frames across what took an hour but 45mins of that was moving the car around and out of people’s way.

Turns out the client in France was super happy with the shot.

…and here it is. The final print was a square crop of this.

Portrait of Nissan LEAF owner for Nissan-Renault and COP21 Climate Talks 2015

I wished I’d had more choice of poses and cuts to show them but it just wasn’t possible and I knew for 100% sure that we had two or three perfect frames, where the car was good, the lady was good, the rabbit was good.

A stressful shoot, which had been just five days from commission being given to shot having to be handed in to the client.

It was printed up 3metres wide on the Renault-Nissan stand at COP21, in the venue’s main foyer area. Nissan-Renault provided all the electric vehicles foe the COP21 last year. It was a big deal having the shot there.

I never did get to see a shot of the pic in place above the stand, which was a shame. But the client was happy.

…now all they need to do is pay the bill.

Nikon D800E
Nikkor AF-D 28mm f/2.8
Einstein light in 60″ umbrella at camera right
Mini Vagabond battery pack

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