Raining Light

From Cinematography to Photography

On of the most famous scenes in the history of cinematography is from In Cold Blood, an American film directed by Richard Brooks and photographed by Conrad Hall. In the scene, a young criminal awaiting execution looks out a prison window. It is raining, and the shadows of the raindrops on the glass look like tears falling on the young man’s face.

I’ve seen the scene several times, both in documentaries on cinematography and in a class I took on the language of film many years ago. It has always stayed with me.

A few years ago I was photographing the maiko Toshikana in June, a month I have always found challenging for photographing geisha and maiko. Most years, June in Kyoto is hotter and muggier than most places in July and August. If I do photograph a geiko or maiko, I try to do it at the very beginning of the month, and I’ve developed a few guidelines to make my (and the maiko’s or geiko’s) life much easier.

Traveling Light

For one thing, I usually make environmental portraits that show the maiko or geiko dancing with the walls or sliding doors of the teahouse as the background. This is easier for the maiko or geiko because they can dance without stopping; they don’t have to hold a pose in an uncomfortable position since I am photographing them from head to toe.

It’s also easier on me because I don’t have to carry the stands, pole, and seamless paper up and down stairs in the Kyoto heat and humidity. In fact, I usually try to work with just one light on one stand with one lighting modifier in June instead of my usual three lights, three stands, and various modifiers.

Making Shadows

I knew I could light Toshikana with just one light, but getting the shadows sharp enough took more time and thought than I expected. I had experimented briefly with punching the light through the sliding bamboo doors with other geiko and maiko, but the shadows were always a bit too soft.

The problem was that to get hard shadows (like the sun on cloudless day), the light source has to be far away from the person or object casting the shadow. Tea houses are actually quite small, so it’s hard to get the light far enough away for a light to cast crisp shadows.

There is an L-shaped veranda outside the room in the tea house I usually photograph in, so I put my one light at the very tip of the L, as far away from me as I could get. Problem solved, I thought.


I was now getting the sharp shadows I wanted, but my light was so far away that the posts holding up the roof of the veranda were casting shadows, not just just the bamboo of the sliding doors. Toshikana’s fan is almost touching the long rectangular shadow of one of those posts.

I couldn’t move the post, but I could angle my light just enough to make sure the shadow was not falling directly on Toshikana. It took more experimenting to get the length of the shadows just right, too. There’s no big secret, just trial and error.

Make a photo. Look at it. Do I like the shadows? No. Move the light, try again. And again, until it looks how I want it to.

Usually, I would not have had so much time to test and experiment, but with only one light and one stand (and a tripod and some reflectors), I had some time to play since I wasn’t setting up more equipment.

Once the light and my shadows were set, the rest was up to the Fates.

Since Toshikana was dancing and therefore constantly moving, I could not control how the small streaks of shadow and light were falling on her face. I let the Fates decide.

Most of the time, the shadows fell in pleasing positions, both revealing and concealing different parts of Toshikana’s face. I would occasionally check her position to make sure she was framed correctly by the shadows of the posts, but that was all.

As always, Toshikana was a trooper and easy to work with. And with the air-conditioner going, it didn’t get so hot after all.