Photography in the Dark and Rain: Japan Edition

· 1.February.2018

When I’m on vacation it’s understood (by my wife) that I refrain from taking too many ‘work’ pictures. She can always tell when I’m in work mode (the way I stand, the way I hold the camera, the way I scan the scene, etc.) and makes sure I stay in vacation mode. Since 80% of my photos were going to be of family and food, I knew I had to make the most of my 20%.  On my latest vacation to Japan, my 20% ended up being mostly at night and in the pouring rain. Armed with the Fujifilm X-T2 and an umbrella (for my hair), I headed out every night and shot with as much gusto as I could muster.

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. 1/125th sec f/2 @ ISO 1600

This is a major reason why having a small and compact kit is important to me. The Fujifilm X-T2 and three Fujicrons (XF23mm f/2 R WR, XF35mm f/2 R WR, XF50mm f/2 R WR) were all I brought for my digital workflow. Switching lenses isn’t fun at night and in the rain, so if I started with one lens I typically left it on for the night. My go-to lens (to my surprise) was the XF35mm. The previous year I was testing the newly released XF 23mm, and it became my favourite vacation and walk around lens. This year, perhaps due to the bad weather and low light, not having to move closer with the XF35mm was to my advantage. Although more difficult to hand hold at night, the XF35mm was the right amount of reach for night photography.

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. 1/100th sec f/2.8 @ ISO 1600

I spent most of my time in partially covered shopping arcades, and I was always looking for spots I could stand unnoticed and dry. Although the X-T2 and all the Fujicron lenses are WR, it’s no fun shooting while your head and clothes get wet, so having an umbrella was useful. Having only one hand free to shoot, having fast and accurate AF was important; and all 3 Fujicrons focused without issue at night and in the rain (with focus assist light turned off). The quickest and most accurate of the three was the XF23mm, followed by the XF35 and finally the XF50mm. If you know the distance to your subject won’t change, I recommend to go to manual focus mode and use the back focus button to lock the focus distance.

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. 1/125th sec f/4 @ ISO 1600

As for shutter speeds and ISO, I was typically going back and forth between ISO 1600 and 3200. I know many use auto ISO, but I don’t recommend it. It’s convenient and hassle free, but part of mastering light is always being aware of your EV, which includes shutter speed, aperture AND your ISO. Especially if you start shooting with flash, understanding how the ISO affects flash distance and how it balances with existing ambient light is part of the craft of being a knowledgeable and competent photographer. This is why I love the X-T2’s large dedicated ISO dial and why I prefer it over the X-Pro2 and X100F’s small integrated ISO dial within the shutter speed dial.

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. 1/100th sec f2.8 @ ISO 1600

Another tip for shooting at night is to always shoot RAW. You will be dealing with bright artificial lights to pitch dark shadows. If you shoot in JPEG only, you will either blow out the highlights or lose shadow detail. Even if you don’t like dealing with RAW, you can create beautiful in-camera JPEGs and quickly transfer the images to your smart device via WiFi. Another benefit to shooting RAW is you can decide later which film simulation profile you prefer. I love making one colour (Classic Chrome) and one black and white (ACROS) version of my favourite images.

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 23mm f/2 R WR. 1/250th sec f/2 @ ISO 1600

However, there were a few advantages shooting at night and in the rain. Since it was miserable and most were hiding under their umbrellas, it was very easy to blend into the background and disappear. No one could hear the already quiet shutter, and most ignored me as they pass by, if they even saw me at all. Not having a tripod, not having fast shutter speeds, not having image stabilization and losing one hand to holding an umbrella wasn’t ideal, but being pushed to work harder to get the shot made me a better photographer.

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. 1/680th sec f/2 @ ISO 1600

Although I don’t like taking pictures at night and I really dislike taking pictures in the rain, I have to admit that night and rain photography is very cinematic. Yes I’m cranky and miserable when I’m taking the picture, but I’m usually pleased with the final results. Cropping to 16:9 aspect ratio helps with a more cinematic feel (although 21:9 is closer to a movie aspect ratio). I also find that I shoot slower and I’m more selective when it’s rainy and dark. I have to justify standing around and waiting patiently to get the shot (or convince my wife to pose for me!) so in a way it’s similar to when I shoot with film, every frame has to count.

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. 1/250th sec f/2 @ ISO 1600

I guess it goes back to one of my guiding principles when it comes to my photography. When someone asks if I enjoy taking pictures, I always say the question doesn’t apply to me. It’s like asking me if I enjoy breathing. It’s just something I do, it’s something I must do. There’s this expectation that vacation photography is suppose to be exciting and the process of getting ‘the shot’ is fun and adventurous. For many it is, and I’m happy for them. For me it feels like a bad habit, I’m always looking for the angles even when I don’t have a camera to my eye. What I learned on this vacation was the less time I had to shoot and the worse the conditions were for me, I became more determined to take better pictures. Adversity made me a better photographer, not a happier one.  Am I making any sense at all? What’s your best/worst vacation photography story and did you find that adversity made your images better or worse? Please share below, I really want to know. Thanks for reading and happy shooting (or not)!

Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. 1/125th f/2 @ ISO 3200