Fall color at the famous Rikugien Garden in Tokyo and how I embraced telephoto

2014 Rikugien Garden Fall Color - Tokyo, Japan

2014 Rikugien Garden Fall Color – Tokyo, Japan

I was just in time for the fall color in Tokyo. Other parts of Japan may experience peak color from late October through November, but in the comparably warm Tokyo inner city, early December is ideal. I went to the 300-year-old Rikugien Garden, in the heart of Tokyo, for nature photography. Something that’s unusual for me in my urban focused imagery. It was challenging and it forced me to shoot differently.

I shot these on December 2nd of last year. I was overwhelmed by the explosion of color but some remarked that peak color was perhaps a week a way. I stuck to the sheltered areas along the creek for the best color — unfortunately, so did everyone else. Most everywhere you go in Tokyo, there are lots of people. I was one of hundreds of photographers, both casual and serious, vying for the same scenes.

Unlike the small neighborhood parks, shooting here was more difficult than I thought. Rikugien, along the creek, is densely packed with trees and brush. It more mimics nature instead of a meticulously groomed park. When you throw in the hoards of onlookers, I was making unsatisfying, cluttered photographs. Clearly my usual wide-angle style was not working.

2014 Rikugien Garden Fall Color #2 - Tokyo, Japan

You have to understand that I almost exclusively shoot wide-angle. 35mm is my go to focal length, especially since buying the Fuji X100S. But I often shoot architecture at 22mm to 28mm range. Now with the Pentax Q7, I’m back to shooting as wide as 18mm. 50mm, which some consider the mid-point between wide-angle and telephoto is as “zoomed in” as I usually get. And, I have to admit, I’m not very fond of 50mm either — I find it too restrictive. Clearly though, in this garden, I needed to zoom in — way in — to eliminate the distractions.

I’m enamored with the Pentax Q7 ever since I picked it up in Japan. Its tiny interchangeable lenses give me a level of portability and flexibility that I’ve never had. I switched from the wide-angle to the super light telephoto which gives me a 70 to 210mm constant f2.8. This lens measures 2 x 2.2 inches and weighs a mere 3.17 ounces, amazing. In practical terms, it gives me a small camera with big reach without the optical constraints that super-zoom compacts usually face.

2014 Rikugien Garden Fall Color #3 - Tokyo, Japan

I’ve realized that even with a telephoto, you can create sweeping wide views. You don’t have to be “zoomed in” on the subject, of course. You just have to compose from far enough away. I knew this in theory but never put it into practice until that day in Japan. The narrower angle of view also makes it easier to eliminate undesirable elements. It’s so much easier than with wide-angles.

2014 Rikugien Garden Fall Color #4 - Tokyo, Japan

Of course you can be zoomed in too and the image becomes slightly more abstract. I started to compose based on shapes, lines, texture and color more than subject matter. Telephotos compress images, shortening the distance between near and far. Here the background trees take on a similar visual weight to the leaves from the foreground tree.

2014 Rikugien Garden Fall Color #5 - Tokyo, Japan
2014 Rikugien Garden Fall Color #6 - Tokyo, Japan

Nature, or at least trees, are like fractals — similar shapes that get replicated from large to small. Branching patterns repeat from the main trucks down to the leaves. You can make pleasant and similar compositions of the entire forest, a tree, a branch or the tips of leaves. This is usually not the case with man-made urban elements. In the city, when you zoom in, you see detail that looks nothing like the wider view.

I have no great plans, as of yet, to become a nature photographer. It certainly offers interesting challenges, however. One that is fun to take on with a small and light camera on a warm and sunny day. I guess you can call me a fair weather photographer. Not at all like the real nature photographers that brave the elements to get that one perfect shot.


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