Bigger Than Life: Shooting Macro Photography In Japan

Shooting With Nikon’s AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens

The canopy of Enkaizan Omaru Yama. Photo credit Stack Jones.

There’s a wildlife reserve that’s walking distance from my residence. It’s called Enkaizan Omaru Yama. This location is one of those off the beaten paths that you won’t find in glossy covered tourist magazines, and that’s fine with me.

I decided to shoot Enkaizan Omaru Yama with one of Nikon’s most talked about lens, the AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED. I received it as a points purchase from Yodobashi in Akihabara. It was free! Apparently, it was my reward for purchasing a lot of equipment from that particular electronics chain over the several years I’ve lived in Japan. I would also use Nikon’s D800 for the shoot, and set a few rules to follow regarding the shots I’d be taking for this article. First, all shots were to be taken handheld. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time setting up a tripod, merely hoping that I’d be able to get a good shot. I once spent two entire evenings in Del Mar, California shooting large bumblebees that frenetically swirled around the oceanfront cliffs that were covered in wild lavender. I was using a tripod, and the experience was tormenting. The bees weren’t cooperating. Waiting around in a single position, hoping for all of the stars to align to get a spectacular shot is fine for others, but it’s not one of my greatest strengths. I also wouldn’t be using a technique known as stacking, which is where one takes several different shots, all with different focus ranges, and later bring all those images into software to piece them together, in order to achieve what would appear to be one single sharp image. I also decided not to carry any other lens, and I would limit each subject to only three shots. I first heard about this rule of three several years ago when I discovered that Jimmy Page, the legendary guitarist of Led Zeppelin never took more than three takes of any recorded solo. I’d rediscover this rule in film school where it’s used as an editing technique to aid the writer, or director convey a sense of rhythm in one aspect of telling their story.

Obviously, sharp images make for interesting photos of insects, and plants. Likewise, taking photos with a camera in hand, with a lens of the magnitude of the 105mm, also gives a photographer the ability to create other desired visual effects. Where tack sharp images show off technical expertise, removing that element aids in utilizing other techniques to obtain visual aesthetics.

One of the reasons I decided to go entirely handheld is that Nikon was claiming that the D800 could bring into focus images, which were shot out of focus. I found this to be a marketing ploy, more so than actual fact. Especially shooting subjects in low light, such as Enkaizan Omaru Yama, which is covered in a thick canopy of sprawling branches, which bore fresh sprouts of summer leaves. I also wanted to see how well the vibration reduction of the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED lens held up in such conditions.

Before shooting, I performed a ritual that I like to do when I have the option to do so. I had actually never been to Enkaizan Omaru Yama. On my first trip I’d go without a camera, and explore what I hoped would become my target subject. It’s quite difficult to do that in a place like a wildlife reserve, as I may lose a shot that I’d want to preserve. Even so, this technique of going to a shooting location empty handed gave me the freedom to study the area, and consider what I’d like to achieve. This isn’t as easy as it first seems, as weather is often fickle in Japan. The general rule is that it’s sunny one day, and dumps rain for the next three. I’ve also done this at locations where I expected to find something worth shooting, and found none. This saved me from having to lug around heavy equipment under those circumstances upon return.

The sign reads: Removing Plants Is Prohibited. Photo credit Stack Jones.

On my first visit to Enkaizan Omaru Yama, I discovered a steamy environment teeming with insects, and other forms of wildlife. The terrain was hilly, and the forest dense. Much to my delight the variety of flowers were numerous, with each species in full bloom. In contrast to the towering cedar, pine, and bamboo, the flowering plants were tiny. Several of the insects, which helped maintain the ecosystem in that dense environment, were quite small as well. After exploring Enkaizan Omaru Yama, I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect to accomplish, and was pretty excited about returning, which was planned for the following day.

The neighborhood that surrounds Enkaizan Omaru Yama was intriguing, as much of the manmade structures were built prior to WWII. They were rustic, and bore the wear of time. For example, I found an abandoned property, where beautiful mossy covered rocky steps led up to what had once been someone’s home. It was surrounded by a towering bamboo forest. The physical structure remained in pretty good condition. I estimated that it could be restored for about fifty grand. I thought how wonderful it would be to have a quaint house in that location, surrounded by a wildlife reserve on all sides, an abundance of greenery, and strange sounding birds that filled the forest.

I walked around the home, peeking inside the windows, and noticed tatami flooring that hadn’t been walked on in at least a couple of decades. Bamboo blinds tilted because the sun had rotted the twine that had once held them in place. There was no interior toilet, and the thin hallways, and rice paper slat doors left me with the same visual impression I’ve seen in countless Kurosawa films. The river that ran through that small community was not far from that abandoned property. I’m certain that the path that led to the water was where those inhabitants bathed, washed their clothing, and used for other purposes in their daily lives. Today that water, which no doubt had once been a meandering creek, exists as all other bodies of water do in Japan, shored up on both sides by unsightly concrete, and lacking in visual appeal. The water no longer runs freely, and pristine through what the nation calls a wildlife preserve.

Not far from that abandoned structure, and walled up creek, I discovered other housing, the kind that’s never shown in photo blogs, or tourist magazines. Those poorly maintained apartments appeared weathered, rickety, and brittle, yet still provided shelter for those who lived there. There were three large cages, which I noticed as I was on my way to the entrance to the reserve. Inside those cages were cooing creatures. One of those cages had been attached to an exterior wall on the second floor of the apartments. It looked like it had been there for many years, and could come crashing to the ground at any moment. In one of those cages I saw two beautiful white birds that first appeared to be large doves. Yet, they weren’t doves. It’s possible these were some kind of carrier birds, a hobby, or perhaps that evening’s meal. A long board hung over the entry of one of the doors, which were no taller than five feet, and about two-thirds as wide as a normal door. None of the units had air conditioning, and were beyond repair. I became curious as to whom each, and every one of those inhabitants was.

While continuing on my exploration, I discovered a small plum grove that had been carved out of a section of the forest. Lying on the ground under one tree were a hundred or so green plums about the size of quail eggs. An elderly man was in the process of scooping them up into a plastic bag that he brought with him, apparently for that particular purpose. We talked a bit, and I learned he’d been to San Francisco, and even to Yosemite National Park. But that was many years ago. I asked if he was going to eat the plums, however I already knew the answer. He was going to use them to make plum sake. He offered me a bagful, but I politely declined, knowing that he hadn’t taken the effort to remove plums, just to hand them over to a complete stranger, let alone a foreigner. I said goodbye, and went my way. I wasn’t prepared for what I would discover next. As I continued down a particular path, as there were many, I came upon tall cedars, and tall bamboo. It was as if the path was a boundary, and both species of plant life knew not to cross over to the other side. I looked about for signs that this was manmade, but couldn’t detect any.

Protruding petals that appear as tiny fingers. Photo credit Stack Jones.

As I walked on, I found a young lady sleeping on a bench. The sign behind her, which was written in Japanese read, “Resting area.” She heard me approaching on the path, and lighted. We talked a bit, and I learned she was a local girl, and in her third year at a university studying medicine. I can’t recall the name of the university. I took her photo near one of the signs that laid out the park’s extensive walking course. I asked her to show me her favorite area. She did! I find it odd that an attractive young woman would freely venture deeper into a remote area, with a complete stranger. But, that’s how it often is in a country where people don’t have a level of apathy, or distrust that is prominent in the states. Ironically, her favorite area was my least favorite in the reserve. It turned out that this was the place that she often brought her dog, and the animal really enjoyed tromping around in the high grass. I preferred walking amongst the tall bamboo. We said our goodbyes, and I watched as she disappeared down a path I had not previously noticed, and had only moments earlier walked past while following the girl in the long black hair.

I had seen enough of what I had come for, and if the weather held up, on the next day, I would be back to Enkaizan Omaru Yama, shooting what it had to offer, and in a very limited capacity. It was getting late, time to head home!

The next day the air was dry. It was cool, and a bit too breezy for my particular purpose. Trying to shoot images up close as they swayed to and fro would be a challenge that led to dismal results. I thought about holding off until the wind died. Perhaps the following day? This was the second day in a row of clear blue skies. These conditions weren’t going to last, and if it did rain, and I had to wait a few more days, the fresh buds would certainly be gone. I rationalized that perhaps once I was under the canopy of the thick ancient cedar, pine, and maple that the wind wouldn’t be too great a factor. I would be wrong! Shooting would turn out to be more difficult that I thought, but on the opposing side of the dilemma of high winds, and wobbly plant life was the fact that the mosquitos wouldn’t be such a great distraction.

The one thing that displeased me was that I couldn’t get close to the large black butterflies, which were the size of my hands. They seemed to purposely stay high in the canopy. Other insects never rested, not even for a moment, including the honeybees, which were busy fiddlin’ about. I thought about the honeybees in the states, which are currently being wiped out through the use of glyphosate pesticides. I thought about the deplorable TPP trade deal that no one but shareholders of multinationals would benefit from. I shuttered to think that genetically altered seeds that required the soil saturated in that poison would be imposed upon Japanese farmers, who for hundreds of years have protected their seeds. It was already bad enough that the radiation contamination from Namie tainted nearly ever crop in the nation. If the trade deal takes root, then Japan’s agriculture would in my opinion become entirely inedible. Also, if anyone refused to grow it, or consume it, the corporation that produce those mutated products would have carte blanche to sue for loss revenues.

After spending a few hours at Enkaizan Omaru Yama it was time to finish the shooting aspect of the project. I wasn’t sure what I had captured, as the slightest movement in a focal depth that shallow destroys an otherwise perfect shot.

While viewing the photos, I realized that I didn’t know what most of those plants, and insects were called. I contacted, The Japanese Society of Plant Physiologists to see if they would answer those mysteries. But, I received a generic response saying they don’t give out that kind of information. I thought, if an organization that spends its time studying Japanese plant life won’t answer those kinds of questions, who would? It probably took more time to translate the response in English, than to just tell me the names of the plants. Much like The Japanese Society of Plant Physiologists refusal to aid in naming a few plants so I could in turn share that information with the readers of this article, life is all too often absurd.

A bright burst of purple, and orange anther. Photo credit Stack Jones.

After looking at the large blown up images of life that existed in Enkaizan Omaru Yama, I realized just how small many of the flowers that I took actually were. Some as little as the nail on my pinky finger. The insects that were nourished by them were even smaller. Some I could barely see without the aid of the magnification of the lens. As I left, I was reminded of how many creatures that I had discovered, and how difficult it was to try, and photograph them under my self imposed rules.

A week later I returned to Enkaizan Omaru Yama to walk around with my infant son, and to share with him the things that I had discovered. As we entered the reserve I was surprised to discover that every flowering plant that I had photographed was gone. They’d all been cut down to clear away the high growth that had already begun to cover the reserves walking path. That’s where the majority of my photos came from. The flowers, and the myriad of buds that had yet to bloom were cut away. I thought, what form of preservation is this? What flowers hadn’t been chopped to bits had withered away in the hot sun. Even the vast array of insects were nowhere to be found. Everything appeared different. It reminded me of the impermanence of all things. On the other end of the spectrum, several bamboo shoots that were barely head high, were now towering a dozen feet above me. Even so, the land that I stood upon appeared as if a horrible, and tumultuous storm had come, like a land tsunami, and flattened everything. The paths were no longer teaming in apparent life. They now appeared nearly void of it. An image of a Brazilian rain forest came to mind; a bird’s eye view, revealing cattle grazing upon it. Soon enough those cows would end up on someone’s dinner plate. Although these thoughts raced through my head, the time I was sharing with my son was fantastic. He finally had a chance to see real butterflies as they flapped their wings, and flew in their apparent erratic motion. I thought those large ones high in the canopy were wise to remain there. My favorite moment with my son was when I picked up a dandy lion, showed it to him, and blew the seeds away. I watched his face in total enjoyment as they rained down all around him. I handed him a dandy lion, and tried to show him how to blow on it. Instead, he handed it back to me, expecting me to perform that same magical feat. (And again, and again and…)

On our way out of Enkaizan Omaru Yama, I thought of all the microcosms that existed where I had stood. I thought of the unknowing havoc I wreaked upon the microscopic life forms I had trampled upon to get the shots I had taken of the flowers that no longer existed. I thought about the vegans, and vegetarians that proclaim they eat no animals, yet devour trillions of living creatures in every bite of food that goes into their mouths. I then looked up at the canopy above, and caught a glimpse of what lied beyond. A thing we call infinity. Suddenly, the lyrics from a song titled, Don’t You Feel Small written by the group, The Moody Blues came to mind. “Ask the mirror on the wall. Who’s the biggest fool of all, bet you feel small. It happens to us all. See the world as what it’s for. Understanding, nothing more. Don’t you feel small? It happens to us all. Time is now to spread your voice. Time’s to come there’ll be no choice. Why do you feel small? It happens to us all. Look at progress, then count the cost. We’ll spoil the seas with the rivers we’ve lost. See the writing on the wall. Hear the mirror’s warning call. That’s why you feel small. It happens to us all. Ask the mirror on the wall. Who’s the biggest fool of all? Bet you feel small? It happens to us all.

The Enkaizan Omaru Yama macro gallery. Photo credits Stack Jones.

This article originally ran in the June, 2015 edition of the Tokyo Weekender magazine.

© 2015 Stack Jones All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.