We all had to spend a little time indoors this year, and even after we were set loose on the outside world again, we were still a little locally leashed. With no air travel available, we all had to make do with shooting wherever we had lain our roots. In this regard, some of us are a little luckier than others. Some of us have needed to get creative with our constraints, while others have found a moment in the sun to bloom with the good fortune of living somewhere trendy and interesting. I certainly can count my blessings, being one of the fortunate ones quarantining somewhere as interesting as Kyoto.
I have heard the horror stories; photographers banned from streets in the old town, property damage, harassment of the locals, vloggers without courtesy or self-awareness wreaking havoc for the memes, influencers blocking whole alleys with equipment for yukata photoshoots, or the guy in the safari vest, step-laddered over the crowd, photobombing the main attraction at golden hour, waiting on his decisive moment with a 600mm lens. I have heard the horror stories, but I haven’t seen anything of the sort.
Kyoto was barren of all life post stay-home order. Only locals were up and about on the weekend, or wandering home during the rush hour. Outside of the peak drinking hours, and the peak drinking areas, the streets were empty. A ghost town. Which I can only imagine is rare for one of the most hyped tourist destinations in the country. On weekdays we practically had the whole town to ourselves to cycle around, hitting the biggest photo spots various times, at various hours of the day, and in varying weather. It was great for our family snaps, and the odd ultra-rare shot of Kyoto at rest, but I never want to miss out on documenting life. That’s why we masked up and went down to the watering hole on the first free weekend.
In Kyoto, the bars are pretty much all concentrated around the strip mall area, just along the riverside, and they vary from hole-in-the-wall type izakayas, to bamboo trim, tatami floor establishments, camouflaged in the corner of a secret alley, with the most subtle of branding. Either way, it’s one highly concentrated area that calls to it all manner of Kyoto-ites, which makes street photography rather akin to shooting fish in a barrel with a predator drone. That is to say; a no fail endeavour, at least for what I like to do anyway. Even as the only foreigner around, I went pretty much unnoticed in the labyrinth, and those who did notice me were more than merry enough to overlook me like a dog in the street.
I shot wide scenes with the XF35f1.4 to keep a courteous distance, and to gather as much light as possible, since Kyoto as a town is much dimmer lit at night than the larger cities like Tokyo or Osaka. I was sometimes hitting the soft ceiling of iso that I am comfortable cranking to. However, the odd moment that I did lean on 8000-10,000 iso, I was helped enormously by bright exposure and the in-camera grain being set to weak. A little grain can really boost the perceptual sharpness of a high iso image, and I think it’s for no other reason than adding points of contrast that accentuate the already existing contrast in the image. This works particularly well in black and white.
Now, I’m no advocate for black and white photography, especially in a hyper colourful place like Japan. I love colour, I look for colour based compositions, I shoot for colour over light, a lot of the time when I see black and white photography I kind of wish I could see the colour side by side just out of curiosity, and I’m real pedantic about white balance too. I even avoid the more desaturated stylised simulations like Classic Chrome or Eterna because I am a colour fiend. However, I have started to enjoy the look of these Acros jpegs, untouched. Originally, I shot them Acros raw to help the AF in low light, with the intention of in-camera processing them back to colour later. I figured that maybe the enhanced contrast of monochrome might help the processor find focus a little less confusing in low light, and according to my anecdotal evidence only, it seemed like it helped a lot. I felt like I was missing less and catching focus faster than I was used to with the XF35f.4 on the X-T2. Maybe it was, but maybe I was just having fun shooting light for a change, that everything just felt like it was in the zone.
The nightlife isn’t anything spectacular to photograph compared to Tokyo — I wouldn’t even recommend anyone to come just for it — but there is this more chilled out, no worries, “daijoubu” ambience that comes from being a small town away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Kyoto is honestly more of a 5 day stay type of town at most. A place to cycle out to the shrines, bamboo forests, and old parts of town, just to get a taste of something more traditional and slower paced, maybe with a sakura bloom or autumn leaf. Although, with that said; I thoroughly enjoyed being a circumstantial local for a while, and I feel privileged to even have seen it at rest, crowd free, and feeling like an ornate home for the people there, more than a touristic cultural theme park for “the gram”. It was nice to be a part of the other side of Kyoto for a minute.