Client Spotlight: Classic Kyoto

This month’s client spotlight visits Juin, who came to me for a couples’ shoot with her partner in Kyoto during springtime.

As I’ve mentioned before, shooting anything at all in Kyoto during the two week time period that surrounds ‘sakura season’ is becoming more challenging every year, due the city’s out-of-control growth in tourism. It’s also common for couples to come from outside of Japan to have wedding, engagement and couple shoots in the city during the few precarious days in which the sun shines and the cherry blossom still cling to their trees.

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There’s no way that I could ever talk a client out of using sakura as a backdrop for their springtime visit to Kyoto; nor would I want to. It has a huge appeal for people around Asia as it is unique to Japan in such abundance and variety. However, there is so much more to Kyoto than just the ubiquitous pink flower. I wouldn’t want my clients’ limited timeframe to result in a session full of near-identical photos positioned against cherry trees, so we broadened our locations to include Buddhist temples such as Nanzen-ji. Buddhist temples don’t commonly plant sakura in their grounds, opting instead for more refined and trans-seasonal Japanese maples.


As the year progresses, maples explode into clouds of zesty, verdant foliage. Their luminous hues work in perfect balance with the sharp contrast of the solid, dark wood of Buddhist temples. They remain rich and green from May until October. During November, they transition from green to orange to a burning red umber. Although the ‘momiji’ (red leaf) season is Kyoto’s second most popular, it has always been my favourite.


Juin and her partner didn’t even need to be asked to wear complimentary tones - their choice of outfits and colours couldn't have been more ideal. Although Juin’s kimono motif was of peonies (seasonally different from sakura), the tonal hues were an exercise in perfection. Mixed with a flash of cherry red in her obi and darker red nails complimenting her collar, the choice of outfit took the session to an entirely new level. Her partner made the wise choice of rich indigo in two hues. This complimented the spring tones of the kimono without fighting them for attention. Truly, male kimono should serve as a foundation to the depth, brightness and intricacy of female designs - they should never exist in contrast or competition.


Every moment with Juin and her partner was a joy. I spare no effort in helping all of my clients feel comfortable and confident for their sessions, but Juin needed no help at all. She created a visual identity that was both soft and strong, refined yet bright. I was able to focus fully on making the most of our locations for the day, and of framing and balancing the images in a more centred, traditional manner. When clients are comfortable in themselves, a good photographer can go beyond appearance and dig deeper into a client’s ‘true being’ - capturing not only style, but soul.


Naturally, the greatest challenge in photographing couples in Kyoto during this season is finding a perfect location. Kyoto has a wide variety of well-known ‘sakura hotspots,’ all of which are swarming with selfie sticks, tripods of beleaguered boyfriends with a DSLR set to ‘auto.’ Put simply, they are no place to source a perfect, secluded location.

To make the most of this session, I chose to leave the ‘influencers’ behind and head north along Kyoto’s Kamo river. The upper levels of the river have a huge expanse of pale pink sakura - something most tourists don’t venture far enough to discover. The trees are enormous and packed with flowers, with loaded branches reaching all the way down to the ground.


The huge, sweeping branches of these trees gave the perfect opportunity to envelop my subjects in rich foliage. The perfect compliment to the physical environment was my usual 50mm f1.2 prime lens. I use this lens for nearly every shoot to create a physical sense of depth and dimension while still securing razor-sharp clarity and perfect, down-to-the-millimetre focus. I frequently shoot wide open, somewhere between f1.2 and 2. This is a personal preference and not to everybody’s taste, but I love the way that swirly bokeh creates a ‘visual tunnel’ effect that frames the focal subject perfectly. I aim to shoot scenes that feel more cinematic than a photographic still, something that a deeper depth of field or wider focal length would struggle to achieve.

What can photographers take from this shoot review? First and foremost, know your physical locations inside out. This extra knowledge gives you the edge over crowds, amateurs and those who aren’t looking to push themselves to do better. If your immediate environment limits you, make an informed choice of lens and use it to construct your own micro-environment within a physically small space.

Next month I’ll be pulling some examples of sessions shot in crowded areas. In every image, only my clients appear in frame - no photoshop needed! If you’re a photographer looking for new ideas for out-of-studio client work, don’t miss it.