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Shoot: Japanese Summer Night

September 15, 2011

Shoot: Japanese Summer Night

It had been a while since I had done an elaborate personal concept project. The initial concept came to mind while I was unpacking and shedding my personal belongings for an upcoming move. On top of my own belongings, I also carry my sister’s as she studies abroad. As we narrowed down the number over the course of multiple email exchanges, I came across this Yukata that presumably belonged to my sister back in the days (many were mostly childhood memorabilia). The concept expanded from the Yukata to a Japanese theme base, and it didn’t take long for a list of props and concept of execution to begin flowing.

Subject Selection:

When working on a personal project, the easiest method of choosing a subject is hiring a model. There are numerous social networking websites out there dedicated to bringing together photographers and models of all range of skills and looks. I for one, use Model Mayhem for these occasions. But with a tight budget and all tabs and expenditures on my shoulders, hiring was a luxury I didn’t have.

Within the same social network, there are many (photographers & models alike) that are willing to work together as a collaboration (my preferred method). Both the photographer and model will expend their time for the mutual benefit of both. Photographers gets the look they’re looking for, and the model gets an addition to their portfolio. This method can often times be a hit or miss so you have to be extra careful. As a photographer, the model may not have sufficient experience. And as a model, the photographer may not have the skills or experience to pull off the quality they may be seeking. It’s important to be on the same page when it comes to expectations, especially when both parties are expecting to benefit purely from the resulting image and no monetary exchange is made.

In my case this time around, I decided to work with Jessi whom I’ve worked together in the past before. Preferably I would like to use different subjects every time for different concepts. But I knew from past experience with her, that she shared the same excitement for pursuit of a great image, and that she wouldn’t cut any corners on her part to create the look that I was looking for. Her being a photographer herself I was able to bounce back concepts and ideas. It’s great to collaborate with someone who is just as passionate as you are about the resulting image. That characteristic was the key deciding factor to work with her again, instead of finding another subject.

The Concept:

In the past I’ve never drawn the image that I was shooting for. I would go into the shoot with a shoot list of all the shots that I would like, but didn’t work out any specific compositions. It usually is just fine, because I shoot mainly outdoors and there are elements that you just make full use out of once out on scene. But this time around I had plenty of preparation time, and control over the scene. Initially I began drawing out each composition scheme, but as I went through multiple lighting arrangements I figured it would just be best to draw and cut out each element so I could rearrange them without having to redraw everything. Not to mention it was quite embarrassing to have to see my own non consistent drawing every time so I saved myself from that as well : )

The image to the right was the final composition that I landed on. I found this method very helpful, as it is very hard for me to envision a detailed composition just in my head. It was very helpful when building the set to accomodate this lighting arrangements. And given the estimated set size, preference of focal length could be roughly chosen as well. I chose ~50mm so I get the narrow field of view, but also be close enough to the subject so there will a greater difference in lantern size as distance varies (long focal length will diminish the size differences, and you would need to build a larger set to put more distance between the lanterns).


The Set

Above image is the set that I built in the backyard for this shoot. I used a 1.5in x 1.5in x 8ft (~3.4cm x 3.4cm x 2.4m) plywood I bought from Menards. They’re only ~$2 a piece, and even cheaper as a whole because they sell them in bundles of 9. The size was sufficient enough to not intrude into the field of vision, and the number of bars going across the top was based upon the concept drawing I did previously. The build was rather simple. Just drilled some holes, and used left over nails that were laying around the house. Though I did put some braces on the corners up top to give the set a bit more stability. The idea was to hang the lanterns from up top, and vary the height and location as needed.

The Lanterns

The lanterns were bought online from Just Artifacts. Each paper lantern is very cheap (just over a dollar) so no hesitancy there to just bulk buy : ) The downside is their shipping cost. The packages themselves are very light, but most likely your shipping will be just as much as your lanterns, effectively doubling the cost. Their LED flashlights are not recommended either. The light is very blue, hardly bright enough, and the light is not distributed evenly so you’ll see harsh lines on your lantern. I ended up buying 40W bare lightbulbs and hung each lantern from their electric cords. The set became a jungle of extension cords, but worked out perfectly.

Smoke Bombs

Typical smoke bombs. Nothing special : ) The small marble sized smoke bombs were sufficient as they gave off about 10 second burst of strong smoke. Many were colored, but the yellow ones corresponded to the yellow light bulbs so they worked sufficiently.

The Shoot:

Initially, I was afraid the lanterns wouldn’t give off enough light to properly expose the subject. So in the photo above you can actually see I have a speedlight with a small light modifier ready, just in case it needed extra lighting help. But shooting around ISO1600 max, the multiple 40W lightbulbs gave off plenty lighting and more natural looking light so it was never used.

The rest of the shoot went very smoothly, and the only conflict was the exposure level difference between the lantern and the subject. When the image was exposed to the subject, the lanterns became a hot ball of light. I wanted to preserve the texture of the lantern, and initially thought about composing two images, one exposed for the subject and another for the lantern. But being too windy to get two consistent images back to back, I resorted to taking the same single image, and selectively dimming the lantern exposure down. When shot RAW, the files still contained the texture details even though it seemed blown out. Another benefit to shooting RAW. You have a wider range of dynamic range, even if you can’t perceive it by eye. After hundreds of frames trying to get the perfect coverage by the smoke, the rest of the work was done in post to create the look and feel I was looking for.


Sometimes it’s great to create images using what is available. But if you are looking to create an image with a concept, often times you are in for some monetary expenditure. You don’t have to get the best of everything, but you have to be willing to dish out some money to create that one single image. The planning and set preparation was just as fun of an experience as the actual shoot and post production. I hope to set aside more time to do these types of shoots in the future.

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