Lighting Jidai Matsuri

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Jidai Matsuri is a parade that begins at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and ends at Heian Shrine. In between, the participants traverse several of the biggest streets in Kyoto (Marutamachi Dori, Karasuma Dori, Oike Dori, and Sanjo Dori). So, how can a photographer "light" an outdoor event the takes place completely under open skies where flash photography is prohibited because it spooks the horses in the parade? It's not always easy, but it can be done. Here's how I do it.

Most years, Jidai Matsuri takes place in a mixture of bright sunshine and cloudy skies. The lighting changes from harsh and direct sunlight to softer and more diffused light when the sun disappears behind the clouds, sometimes for just a few seconds, sometimes for much longer. Since I can't control when the sun will be behind the clouds or out in the open, I try to find a way to work whether it's sunny or cloudy and still get good photographs. This is the thought process I go through when I'm photographing Jidai Matsuri  or any other event in Kyoto.

The first thing I ask myself is, "Where's the sun?" This seems to be a really obvious question, but I don't think many photographers even consider asking themselves about it. The first year I photographed Jidai Matsuri I decided I wanted to be at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the parade begins. I arrived at the palace grounds several hours early and scouted around.

The first thing I saw was at least 50 photographers already crowded around the same spot, all trying to get the same view of the parade with the palace in the background. After a few seconds looking around, I knew I didn't want to photograph from inside the palace grounds at all. Strike one was I didn't want a very similar shot to what all the other photographers would be getting. Strike two was that there were seats for spectators on either side of the wide gravel road, and these seats had red and white striped cloth hanging from the barricade in front of them. For me, this was an ugly and distracting background.

Most importantly, I asked myself where the sun was in relation to the direction the parade would be moving. The sun was directly behind me, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky at the time. Since there were no shaded areas inside the palace at all, this meant that all the participants would be marching directly into the noon sun when the parade began. The lighting on their faces would be harsh and flat, not light I wanted to photograph in. This was the third strike, so I was out of the palace.

When the parade exits the palace, it goes West on Marutamachi Dori before turning South onto Karasuma Dori. I walked along Marutamachi Dori trying to think of a solution to my problem, and I started to find answers right away. First, I was happy because I didn't see any other serious photographers outside the palace, so I knew I would be getting different looks from other photographers. Second, although there were spectators on either side of the street, there were beautiful green trees on the north side of the street. If I stood on the south side and crouched low, the trees would be my background. There was no red and white bunting on Marutamachi Dori (there was on Oike Dori, though).

Two of my three problems were solved, but the biggest problem remained. How could I avoid the harsh sun? Could I find any shaded areas anywhere? The answer was right behind me, literally. Most of the buildings on Marutamachi Dori are only two or three stories high, but a few were a bit taller. The sun was still behind these buildings as it moved across the sky from east to west, so the shadows from the taller buildings stretched just far enough into Marutamachi Dori that they would cover the festival participants for a few seconds, at least.

I picked a spot to stand a little bit out of the shadow cast by the tallest building on the street so I would have a better angle on the participants. From my vantage point, I was able to get a two-thirds view of most of the faces of the festival participants in nicely diffused light. If I had stood in the center of the shadow cast by the building, I would have been getting mostly profile shots.

I follow the same three steps at almost every public event I photograph in Kyoto. I try to choose a unique spot away from other photographers, make sure I have an appropriate background for the subject matter, and try to find an area of open shade to photograph into. I hope they also work for you.