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Japanese Artisans – The Magic Mirror Craftsman

Although I am primarily a photographer based in Tokyo, you’ll often find me traveling to random cities and towns to find artisans and craftsmen to photograph as part of my ongoing personal project to document as many as possible. Since the beginning of 2017, Zeiss has partnered with me to produce a series of videos, photos and text for their newly updated Lenspire blog. Now with this year coming to a close, I’ve decided to post the start of the series on my blog to show you folks where it all started. Please visit the original piece here where there are many more links to nearly a whole year’s worth of master artisans. Anyway, here’s the article below, enjoy!

The Magic Mirror Artisan from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

There are a myriad reasons why I visit Kyoto. For those tossing up whether to book tickets, just do it – it’s a no-brainer. The city is comprised of so many elements that make it endlessly enchanting; crystal clear canals crisscrossed with stone bridges, ancient paved roads aglimmer with soft lantern light, the terraced banks of the Kamo river at dusk…there is no combination of words to fully describe the renewed sense of wonder I get everytime I stroll around the city. For the casual wanderer, Kyoto is a treasure trove of textures and facades, of modern sensibilities artfully mingled with traditional design. The effortless charm this city has is enough to keep me coming back dozens of times, with or without a camera. Boy, do I love Kyoto.

Dig a little deeper than the surface charm however, and there you’ll find vestiges of the city Kyoto used to be: not as a tourism hotspot, but as the former imperial capital and center of religion of Japan for over a millenia. Craftsmen and artisans of all manner flourished in ancient Kyoto, honing their profession year after year, generation after generation, century after century. Carpenters, fletchers, weavers, dyers, metalworkers; hundreds upon thousands of narrow specialties each contributing to their particular cultural ecosystem. Nowadays, there aren’t so many craftsmen or women left. Entire ecosystems have collapsed, no longer needed anymore. In other cases, masters of their craft, unable to find an apprentice, have died without passing their flame onto a successor. Each time this happens, sadly, an untold amount of knowhow and skill built up over generations winks out of existence. As younger generations see less reward in devoting their life to a singular craft the passage of time will surely see more and more of these crafts disappear permanently. For now at least, in the 21st century, there are still traditional craftsmen in Kyoto, plying their trade as it has been plied for centuries on end.

Yamamoto Fujio and his son Akihisa make Magic Mirrors. They work out of a modest atelier on a quiet street, fifteen minute’s walking distance to Kyoto Station. It’s so modest in fact, that you would be forgiven for walking right past it in search of flashier cultural attractions. The sign over their door is also laughably banal – ‘Yamamoto Metalworks’ – a stunningly humble designation given that they are the only people left in all of Japan – and possibly the world – that know how to make Magic Mirrors anymore.

While you may be thinking of those mirrors at amusement parks that make you look fat or skinny, these ones are nothing of the sort. Magic Mirrors (makyo 魔境) are primarily religious items placed in shrines, private residences or even graves, or used as ceremonial tools. No glass is used in their production, in fact the mirrors are milled out of solid discs of bronze – polished, filed and sanded on one side to create a reflective surface of dazzling clarity. The magic part however, comes when you reflect a beam of light off the mirror onto another surface; inexplicably, an image appears. There’s no immediate explanation for why they do this – the mirror is solid bronze and the surface is completely flat. In an effort to understand better, I looked up some sources and came up with this: ‘stresses caused by scraping and polishing cause ‘preferential buckling’ into convexities of a scale too small to be seen by the human eye, but matching the design on the back of the mirror’. Well ok then.

However baffling the scientific explanation for this phenomenon is, the fact is Magic Mirrors have been made for hundreds of years. Fujio is the 4th generation maker in his family; his son Akihisa is the 5th. The workshop itself is bare of ornamentation, but brimming with tools and implements involved in making the mirrors, all bearing the patina of constant use but lovingly maintained in peak condition. A craftsman is nothing without his tools.

The process of making the mirrors isn’t overly complicated – it’s just enormously difficult. Firstly Fujio shows me how he makes the mold for the molten bronze to be poured into. Magic mirrors all have a design on their back, often religious iconography or a Japanese motif, and these are hand pressed into a block of clay using dozens of subtly different carving implements.

After a visit to a local foundry in which the bronze is cast into the mold, the resulting solid block of bronze goes back to the workshop where the laborious process of polishing begins. Once again a large arsenal of tools comes into play – this time in the form of curved blades and a variety of what looks like enormous metal nail files. Alternating implements of varying degrees of coarseness, Yamamoto-san begins scraping and smoothing down the grain of the metal with precise and rhythmical strokes. I ask Yamamoto-san who makes the files and he says that to his knowledge there is but one specialized file craftsman left in Kyoto who makes them, and he’s in his nineties. Another profession on the brink, I reply, to which Yamamoto-san just nods. The slow decline of less popular traditional crafts has been something he has witnessed in his city over the years.

The bronze is then washed and further buffed with special charcoal to further erase the grain of the metal and smooth out the surface. The resulting mirror is startlingly clear; a completely different experience to looking into a regular glass mirror. The show stealer however is undoubtedly seeing the hidden image in the reflected light for the first time. The mind knows that the mirror is solid metal; I saw the thing being made right in front of me so I know there are no hidden tricks built into it. The image of Buddha that the mirror is producing is solely due to whatever magic lies in the hands of a master craftsman carrying knowledge that has been passed down for generations.

As my photoshoot wraps up and I prepare to leave, Yamamoto Fujio begins smoothing away at a steel lantern as part of another commission. His son Akihisa attends to the foundry where two new mirrors have been cast, as well as several other ornaments. As I watch them go about their daily business it’s hard to believe that they are the last people alive who can carry on the ancient art of magic mirror making. Akihisa says he doesn’t have children yet but he intends to pass on his knowledge to a 6th generation if he can. Right before I leave, I observe the quiet fortitude and humility with which they work. Backs bent over and bathed in late afternoon sunlight, their legacy as uncertain as morning mist, they toiled on into the twilight, producing one marvel of craftsmanship after another.

Lenses used in this shoot:

My kit consists of my go-to lenses for any assignment recently – my set of Loxia lenses including the 21mm, the 35mm and the 50mm (the 85mm wasn’t out at the time!). I don’t often like to gush but they are absolutely flawless choices for assignments that require both photo and video. Smooth manual focus, smooth aperture ring, amazing image quality in such a tiny package, what more could you want? I also used another recent addition to my bag, the Milvus 100mm Makro Planar f/2, which is absolutely fantastic for getting up close and picking out details that a craftsman may be working on, which is especially great for video. It’s a little heavier but boy is that lens worth it. Do I even need to mention that the image quality is amazing? Probably not, but I will anyway! All of this fits into one small over the shoulder bag which means I can pack more lighting or video gear without feeling overburdened.

Carl Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8 – User Review

I’ve been using the Carl Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8 for over 2 months now and I’m going to be sad to return it. The Sony E-mount has been sorely missing a 135mm lens in its line-up and Zeiss has finally delivered in convincing style. I’m going to go into detail a little bit here about why I’ve enjoyed using this lens so much, and provide some sample photos for you all to gander at.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Carl Zeiss Batis 135mm Review (4)

First of all, it has to be noted that with the Batis series Carl Zeiss has gone and done something a little different to their usual approach to lenses. The Batis series is completely autofocus friendly, which is good news if you’re not comfortable with purely manual focus lenses (although I have a whole diatribe on why MF is back in a big way – here). Paired with the Sony A series’ rather excellent focus and eye tracking system, this makes the latest Batis an impressive lens indeed for all sorts of applications, which we’ll get to. Firstly however, I want to address the elephant in the room, which some people are concerned about.

I’ve been seeing a lot of angry Internet comments about how a 2.8 max aperture is ‘too slow’ or ‘doesn’t have enough depth of field’ for some of the more ‘professional’ camera forum nerds. I’m going to go into a few reasons as to why you might want to hold your judgement until after you’ve picked this lens up for yourself. Here’s a practical reason first up; while 2.8 might sound like a modest aperture, keep in mind that the difference between your photo being good or garbage does not lie between the figures 2.0 and 2.8. f/2.8 is fast – especially with the high ISO performance of the a7RII and the a7SII – and it’s literally the best compromise between speed, size and weight that you are going to get for the Sony alpha series. I’ve owned 135mm lenses from other companies before where the big draw was the max 2.0 aperture setting, and while I won’t name the company, I will say that I never used it at 2.0. The reason being that wide open, the lens performed like garbage – unbelievable chromatic aberration and an overall haziness to the scene that disappeared when stopped down. So I say thank you to Carl Zeiss for not throwing in a half-baked f/2.0 max aperture purely to tick a marketing box, and making the lens bulkier, heavier and more expensive in the process.

Which brings us onto performance – wide open, this lens is jawdropping, and I say that with absolute confidence having been transfixed by the back of my camera at the results it gives. Where do I start? The basics are solid – virtually no chromatic aberration in high contrast scenes and super sharp from edge to edge wide open. The lens focuses surprisingly close for a 135mm, allowing you to really cream up the background in an orgy of bokeh. The bokeh looks fantastic of course – it’s a Carl Zeiss Apo Sonnar design with new lens elements that disperse stray light more efficiently, leading to images that pop with contrast and color. Short story – the lens leaves nothing on the table when it comes to image quality. Technically it is superb, and I can’t think of a single thing that leaves me wanting.

Which brings us onto the user experience. I’ve had the fortune to have used the other lenses in the Batis lineup quite extensively already – the 18mm, 25mm and 85mm, so I more or less knew what to expect in this case. The lens itself is smooth and sleek with no buttons or moving parts other than a wide rubber focusing ring, and that interesting OLED readout on the top. The autofocus is slick and accurate for the most part – but I never know if that’s more due to the camera or the lens. Either way, it’s a smooth experience. The Batis 135mm also works like a dream with the a7RII’s continuous eye tracking autofocus, which can be mapped to a button, meaning that you’ll pretty much always nail critical focus on the eyes – an amazing feature for a portrait lens. My only minor quibble about this lens is that the manual focus mode is electronic, meaning that it’s not the best lens for video as shots requiring rack focus cannot be repeated reliably. For photos it is perfectly usable if a little hard to get used to if you’re accustomed to the smooth focus action of the Loxias or other Zeiss MF lenses.

The real bottom line is well, the bottom line; can you afford it? It’s not the cheapest option out there but since when has a lens by Carl Zeiss needed to compete at the shallow end of the pool? No – if you buy this lens you know you’re shelling out for a premium piece of equipment that has extremely high performance all the way through its aperture range. Whether its dreamy portraiture or reportage from a distance you’re after, this lens performs. And that’s really all there is to say. For further proof, check out the image gallery below.

Youtube Superstar: Kurt Hugo Schneider

A while ago I had the opportunity to photograph Youtube musician and producer Kurt Hugo Schneider when he was visiting Tokyo.

For those of you who haven’t heard of him (although you probably have), Kurt is possibly what you would call a new media superstar – he’s the king of Youtube music with an incredible 7 million+ followers on his channel, he’s an amazing musician and producer, been on Ellen, Oprah, worked with Aviicii, been featured in WIRED magazine, and that’s not to mention his raw talent and ability to get things done. Did you I mention he’s also a super nice guy on top of all that?

Strangely enough, the first time I came across Hugo’s work was not via his wildly successful Youtube channel – in fact it was on a Starcraft II gaming channel called HuskyStarcraft in which he does a parody of Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ called ‘Banelings’. In case you don’t know what a Baneling is a Zerg unit in Starcraft that sprays acid everywhere after it runs up to you and explodes. Yes, I am a gigantic nerd. And so is Kurt. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/fzMhh8zhTiY

The point is I guess Kurt doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s done collaborations with huge companies like Coca Cola, Buick, Sony, etc and has stayed at the top of the Youtube music scene for years. He has more subscribers and Lady Gaga for crying out loud. Pretty awesome to meet and photograph such a talent.

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Playstation VR Portraits

Well there you have it – you think that you’re on a roll blogging regularly for a month or so and then shit hits the fan – work wise – and you fall off the bandwagon for about a third of the year. That’s always the way of things as a professional photographer – you’re either too busy to blog or you have too much time and you have to blog. Guess which phase I’m in now?

Anyway with Tokyo Game Show coming up this weekend I’d like to introduce some portraits I shot for the wonderful folks at Polygon, one of the world’s top websites dedicated to video game journalism.

The article that these photos accompanied was about the long road of development of Playstation VR – the virtual reality headset for – ou guessed it – the Playstation soon to be released around the world. The article itself is very in-depth and definitely worth a read; you can check it out on the Polygon website here: http://www.polygon.com/2016/3/9/11174194/the-making-of-playstation-vr.

For my part – I was glad to meet Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Interactive Entertainment (that’s basically responsible for making the Playstations that I have frittered away so many hours of my life on), and although we were required to shoot all of the photos in the Sony Interactive Entertainment offices, I think I managed to get something interesting out of each portrait I made.

Here’s Shuhei Yoshida with the headset.

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And of course we had to photograph him with it on. For those wondering, he’s standing in front of a white wall – I used a grid with a very strong cinema blue gel on his face coupled with a custom white balance to get this effect.

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Here’s Masayasu Ito, chief engineer behind the project.

Hardware director Yasuo Takahashi

Game designer Nicholas Doucet. I do like a good slow-shutter light streak photo.

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That’s it for today! I’ll post more when I have another stretch of free time, sooo maybe in 6 months? See you then!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (7)

Earning your dinner – how to ask for permission to take a photo.

I’m going to tell you guys a little photography parable today, because who doesn’t like a cute little story with a moral lesson at the end? Every now and then it’s nice to have a peek inside the mental process of a photographer in order to see how certain pictures are made. In this case it’s a pretty simple story with a simple lesson but sometimes those are the ones we need to pay the closest attention to.

Anyway, one of my favorite portraits of the year so far was shot with absolutely no preparation or foreknowledge of the subject’s existence. I’m in Fukuoka, one of Japan’s major southern cities and one of my favorite spots in all Japan. I’m there for a magazine photoshoot, which, as an editorial photographer is a rare treat. Traveling for photoshoots is significantly rarer nowadays so anytime I get to go anywhere to shoot portraits I get super stoked.

Anyway I digress. The magazine shoot was wrapped and in the bag, and I decided to stick around in Fukuoka because I had a personal shoot scheduled the next day for my Artisans project (which I’ll write about in the near future). That means I had an evening to kill in a cool city with no plans, I’ve just finished shooting and I have some serious post-shoot munchies. There’s this cheap hole-in-the-wall eatery I’ve had my eye on that’s supposed to serve the best gyoza in all of Fukuoka, so I know where I’m headed.

I dump all my gear except for my Domke with my Sony mirrorless kit and despite my great craving for delicious gyoza I decide to walk across town to the restaurant, which turned out to be a very good idea because on the way I walked past a shop and caught a glimpse of this:

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (13)

And here’s first thing I did – I walked straight past. I wasn’t even thinking about photos – I was thinking about fat juicy gyoza and the sign for the restaurant was just ahead. It only occurred to me twenty meters down the road that I had just seen something pretty cool, which then triggered the ages old internal debate for introverted photographers like me:

“Wow, that looks really cool, I really want to take some photos.”
“Nar, you’re busy and he’s busy, better stick to the original plan of going to eat gyoza.”
“Well the gyoza can wait, I’m sure…”
“Sure but you’re going to look like a real idiot turning around and walking back to that shop. Plus what if he tells you to piss off?”
“Yeah that would be pretty embarrassing actually…I wouldn’t want to look foolish…”
“You will definitely look foolish. Better leave him alone and go do what you were going to do.”

And so on. Some of you will know how this internal dialogue goes, and I find that even after years of walking up to strangers and asking their permission to take their photo, I still get that little devil voice inside my head telling me no, no, better not bother them, leave them alone, you don’t need to take a photo of them.

The thing is however, the more excuses you make for yourself to get out of interacting with people who might turn out to be scary or unpleasant, the better you’re going to get at it. And the better you get at making excuses for yourself, the fewer photos you’re going to make, which doesn’t really bode well for making a career out of photography. So let me share with you the golden rule in photography for what to do when you want something: ask for it. You don’t ask, you don’t get. Simple as that.

So what did I do? I screwed up my courage, turned around, marched purposefully back to that man’s shop…and walked straight past it again. And then I turned around and did it again. And again, until I felt I had built up enough momentum or courage or whatever I thought I needed to just walk inside and introduce myself and talk like a normal person. Because that’s what we are – normal people doing cool things, and everybody likes it when someone shows genuine interest in what you are doing.

So I guess the rest is history – although it could have been a completely different history if I had let that little voice in my head win out and just gone on to eat gyoza. These cool images wouldn’t exist, for one thing, and the next time I want to approach a stranger for a photo I’m going to find it that little bit much harder to do so. And guess what?? I went and had that gyoza afterwards, and it tasted bloody good! So I guess you really can have your cake (or gyoza) and eat it too.

All shots made with the Sony A7rII and the Carl Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 or the Batis 85mm f/1.8.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (9)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (1)

Bonus photos! Here’s the gyoza restaurant that I was crapping on about all post, and as you can see it’s basically just some old lady’s kitchen with a counter – she was eating her own dinner right in front of me! Anyway if a place like this gets a reputation then you know it’s going to be good, and hell yes it was! 10/10 would go again. Tasted like victory.

For the curious, the store is Asahiken, in Haruyoshi.
Address: 2 Chome-13-22 Haruyoshi, Chuo Ward, Fukuoka
Phone: 092-761-3819

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (2)

CEO Portraits: Masaaki Kanai of MUJI

Quick post today guys; this one is a portrait of MUJI CEO Masaaki Kanai that I photographed back in 2014.

Japan is known as an exporter of many things but Nordic-style furniture is not one of them. That’s where furniture and lifestyle juggernaut MUJI come in – their empire of natural fibers and wood grains has expanded across the globe in an explosive fashion over the last few years.

I met Mr. Kanai at the MUJI headquarters in Japan for about twenty minutes and was able to make a variety of portraits before my time was up. On a side note this is the photo shoot that made me decide to give Nikon the boot once and for all – I used my Nikon D4 (quite a high end camera I’d say) and the number of back focused and otherwise unusable shots due to under-performing auto focus made me so fed up that I sold the whole system and bought a into the mirrorless system instead. But that’s a story for another day!

MUJI CEO - Masaaki Kanai, Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (1)

Tokyo Bars – Bar Ben Fiddich in Shinjuku

Tokyo is a great place to be a photographer. In a city this big you’re going to find a lot of world class institutions, and one such institution that Tokyo is not lacking in is cocktail bars. In this post, budget airline carrier Jetstar commissioned me to photograph one certain Bar Ben Fiddich for their in-flight magazine、and let me tell you, photographing bars are some of the shoots that I most look forward to. Mainly because you get to drink the subject matter afterwards!

Bar Ben Fiddich is located in Shinjuku, and would have been impossible to find if I hadn’t been told about it. The feel when you walk in is similar to that of an apothecary or the potions room in Harry Potter – the shelves behind the bar are lined with big glass jars filled with all manner of exotic spices and seasonings. The owner Kayama-san is actually a big absinthe fan, and studied in Switzerland in order to learn how to make it himself. I tasted a little of his home-brewed absinthe and was pleasantly surprised by its taste and fragrance. Up until then I had thought of it as the kind of drink you imbibe when you’re feeling you don’t have enough lawsuits in your life. Kayama-san also makes a mean cocktail too, as you can clearly see in the photos. For the purposes of the article, he is making a muscat-flavored gin infusion thing (which I’ve embarrassingly forgotten the name of), but I do remember that it tasted AMAZING.

Anyway here are the details for anyone wishing to visit the bar and check it out:
Bar Ben Fiddich
Nishishinjuku, 1 Chome−13−7, 9th Floor
03-6279-4223

Enjoy the photos!

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Kayama-san pouring a glass of water – don’t worry it will come in useful later.

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Those are some premium looking grapes!

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A little bit of muddling and mashing

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Adding some fancy liqueur…

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Shaken and strained into a delightfully concentrated mix…

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Adding some spices for a bit of piquancy…

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Voila! Kayama-san places the cocktail on the glass of ice-water to cool it without diluting it

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Detail shot of the finished cocktail no #1…

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Detail shot #2

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The clean and cozy interior of the bar. I highly recommend checking it out!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong

Lens Review: Carl Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2

Ok I’m just going to start out by saying I absolutely freaking love the Loxia lens lineup from Carl Zeiss. So the TL:DR version of this review is: get this lens if you have a Sony a7. Just get it.

Anyway I know the Loxia lineup has been out for a while but I’ve spent a bunch of time with them on all sorts of jobs, especially the 35mm which was the first one that I purchased. I may not be able to provide the most technical review on the Internetz but I can definitely give you a sense of how the lens performs and feels working in the real world, where MTF charts matter less than how comfortable it feels in your hand.

So to keep things concise right from the get go:

Reasons why this lens is awesome:
– Superb rendering and contrast
– Super compact
– Solid all metal construction
– Manual focus throw is intuitively spaced
– Great close focus
– De-clickable aperture ring
– Out of focus areas have a characteristic look

Reasons why you may want to think twice:
– If you can’t live without autofocus then you might not like this lens

_DSC7356Cats are an awesome way to start a lens review

THE MANUAL FOCUS ISSUE:

Ok so let’s go into specifics. The big elephant in the room that we need to address here is the lack of autofocus on a pricey modern lens. I can imagine that this would make more than a few people think twice about going in on this series of lenses. So let me attempt dispel your fears a little bit here. Firstly, in the vast majority of situations in which you’ll be photographing, manual focus lenses are in no way inferior to autofocus, in fact they are often better. This may seem like a bold claim but think about it this way – even if you completely master the autofocus system on your camera, there is still an upper threshold of speed and accuracy at which the camera can perform autofocus. With manual focus there is no threshold – the skill ceiling is as high as you want to make it. Plus you’ll never have to stop to dick around with your AF settings because your camera’s dumb software refuses to grab onto the right focus point. In addition to these mirrorless cameras making it easier than ever to nail critical focus with manual lenses, and the superiority of manual focus lenses is fully realized.

_DSC7343Manual focus is silent and won’t wake up your subjects with loud AF noises when you are being a creep

I’ve used these lenses on high budget portrait shoots, editorial, reportage, street photography, and not once have I felt held back by the lack of autofocus – on the flip side I’ve found it incredibly liberating not to have to reposition my focus point every time I change up my composition. Not to mention that these Loxia lenses have been designed with manual focus in mind, so the throw (ie: the amount you need to twist the barrel to refocus on something else) is very intuitive. Zeiss has been designing manual focus lenses for over 100 years and the depth of their experience really shines through when you pick up one of these bad boys.

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It’s wide enough! 

ALL IN ONE:

With the Loxia lineup, I think Zeiss is trying to do something that really has no precedent – they’ve made a premium quality compact lens that is amazing for both stills and video. It’s perfect for run-and-gun film making but to call it a run-and-gun lens would be doing it a disservice – this thing is solid and the optics are quite simply stunning. When you factor in its super compact size and relatively fast f/2 maximum aperture you have a lens that performs at an extremely high level on every front. Of course, the compromise was that they had to ditch autofocus but as I explained above, you no longer need that with mirrorless systems these days.

So on paper you have an ultra compact, fast high performance lens equally suited for stills and video. It sounds too good to be true but it is true. This lens does all of those things and it does them well.

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 Works great for photographing the overall feel of a space while still maintaining an intimate field of view

BUILD IT NICE:

Before I get into optics, let’s talk about how this lens feels in the hand. Now I’m not one of those nimrods online who would call a lens sexy (well, maybe I am), but the Loxia series really kicks ass in terms of aesthetic and overall usability. The body is milled from…some kind of metal, I don’t really know the atomic number and it doesn’t really matter; what matters is that it feels solid, has good heft and the focusing action is smooth as Hokkaido butter.

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Also works great for casual street portraits! 

Now, I’ve seen some people complain that the focusing ring is too close to the aperture ring and that sometimes they twist both by accident or have trouble differentiating between one or the other. I can see how this may be true for a person with less than an average level of coordination or ham hocks for hands, but I have never once had a problem with operating this lens even with gloves on. Maybe it’s due to my exceptionally nimble and tiny Asian hands, who knows. But honestly people, it’s not that difficult. The focusing ring is perfectly situated for your thumb and index finger to grab it without overextending, and the aperture ring can be clicked over with a small application of pressure from the middle finger, meaning you never have to reposition your hands to change anything.

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T
he field of view is perfect for including wider context within a street snap…

Did I mention this lens is also super duper compact? I think it bears mentioning. Yep. A fast, small FULL-FRAME premium prime lens, thank you very much. Everything fits perfectly in my Domke bag with a whole lot of space to spare for strobes, Pocket Wizards, ND filters, whatever I need. And that’s whether I’m shooting video or stills.

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..or it can be used for detail shots like this.

THE OPTICS:

Ok, now we come to the most subjective part of the review – the optics ie; how the lens renders all the things. So I’m just going to say stuff and hopefully people will take what they will from it and maybe we can all walk away from this without there needing to be a unnecessarily emotional conversation about what constitutes ‘good bokeh’.

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Gratuitous bokeh sample shot

So, here are the things you’ll want to know about this lens. Firstly – this lens does not produce mega ultra silky smooth bokeh, so if you’re the guy who jerks off to that, go buy a massive L lens or something. Rather, the out of focus areas are rendered with a little more character – it is not messy bokeh by any stretch, but point light sources translate nicely into faded but distinct blotches, and focus fall-off is pleasingly gradual. The look and feel of the bokeh is a little bit like what you’d get using a small-barreled rangefinder lens, with the cool bonus of being able to close-focus.

Let’s talk about the close focusing ability for a little bit – these Loxias are surprisingly good at it and this 35mm goes as close as 0.3 meters, so you can really get right in there for your daily Facebook post of your cafe latte. It goes without saying that this is an extremely beneficial feature for both stills and video. I mean, obviously right? I used to have a Voigtlander M-mount close focus adapter for one of my Leica lenses and dicking around with that extra focusing ring is a royal pain in the ass, trust me.

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Every good lens review needs a photo of some hipster coffee. Also, you can check out the focus fall-off

Now let’s consider the way the lens renders the in-focus parts of the frame. Wide open at f/2 the lens is sharp but loses contrast, which is quite typical for a prime lens. Stop down to 2.5 or 2.8 and the lens regains punchiness as well as good micro-contrast – which helps the in-focus parts of the frame pop out at you a little more. The color and vibrancy from these lenses are also really amazing – something which is less relevant when shooting RAW stills but which really really makes a difference when shooting video. Straight out of camera, your video files will look amazing, which is just really nice.

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A
 perfect lens for documentary or reportage

Am I bothered by the maximum aperture being only f/2? Nope. It’s still a damn fast lens and to be honest, who has ever actually been on a shoot and said ‘wow, I really need f/1.4 now, otherwise this whole thing won’t work’? f/2 is a really comfortable max aperture and especially given the small size of the lens I feel like I’m having my cake as well as eating it. Like, really eating it in a messy, gluttonous way.

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C
lassic focal length and user-friendly manual focus, what more could you want?

THE END:

Ok that was the long version of basically me saying just buy the lens already, so hopefully you skipped all that. Anyway the Carl Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2 sits in a really interesting spot amongst the other 35mm offerings for Sony Alpha 7s. On one hand you have a really compact Sony/Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 which at $800 is a little bit pricey for what it is. On the other hand you have the monstrous 35mm f/1.4 which in addition to being huge is also really, really expensive. The Loxia kind of sits in the Goldilocks zone in the middle – really compact while not sacrificing image quality and still fairly speedy. Now, if you shoot video as well as stills then this is an absolute no-brainer of a choice, what with the de-clickable aperture ring, super smooth focusing action and great image quality. If you like to take photos one-handed then this lens probably is not for you.

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I
deal for travel, documentary, portrait, you name it

In my own opinion, Zeiss has really hit it out of the park with their Loxia concept, optimizing them for photos and video especially since the Sony Alphas are already amazing at both. The 35mm is traditionally a very versatile focal length, made even more versatile with the design choices Zeiss has made; consistent filter ring diameters, de-clickable aperture ring, awesome portability and user-friendly manual focus. I’m really enjoying using this lens and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Loxia lineup in the future.

 

 

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Maizuru Plastic Food Company – Tokyo

Hello all! I’m back with another blog post detailing some my (paid and unpaid) photographic adventures in Japan.

As a professional photographer in Tokyo I often get to visit some of the more wacky and interesting places on this side of Asia and this time was no exception. Today we have a bit of documentary and editorial photography of one of Tokyo’s most famous plastic food sample makers, Maizuru Plastic Food Company. Earlier this year Australian-based magazine Smith Journal contacted me to go photograph them for one of their features and I was all to happy to go.

A bit of introduction to what the folks at Maizuru do – they hand make all of the plastic food samples that you’ll often see in the windows of Tokyo restaurants or cafes. That’s right – everything is hand made, right down to the molds and as such at the end of the day not a single food sample is identical, kind of just like actual food. Walking through the factory is a little surreal at times because there are scenes that look as if they could be from a chef’s kitchen – with artisans carefully arranging ingredients on a plate or delicately brushing sauce onto a burger patty, but actually everything’s made out of plastic and if you try to eat anything you’ll die.

Still, watching the sheer artistry that goes into preparing the tens of thousands of different little things that they have to make is quite awe-inspiring and I’m super glad to have had a peek into this weird and quintessentially Japanese industry.

Another reason to be excited about these shots is that I was using my new (at the time) Carl Zeiss Loxia 21mm and 35mm lenses, which turned about to be amazing for documenting and reportage style photography like this. I’ll be writing more about these lenses coming up so you can get an better idea of whether they’d be for you or not.

Anyway, here are the photos, enjoy!

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Molds for different parts of a certain type of fish

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A lady is testing out a mold by painting the inside with silicone.

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Sample boxes stuffed with all sorts of fun stuff like…lemons

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More boxes filled with random food bits!

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A look into one of the production rooms, with the awesome Zeiss Loxia 21mm.

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An icecream is removed from a mold here, kind of trippy seeing it come out.

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Lining up bits of fish for baking! Yes they bake the samples to harden them.

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 This man’s job was to sort every single piece of plastic rice according to some criteria. 

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More rice sorting. Makes your head spin.

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Ladling some demiglace sauce onto a succulent looking beef patty – don’t be fooled it’s all plastic!

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A wider look at another workspace

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Making some magical levitating pasta require a lot of work piecing it together from single strands of spaghetti

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Rice sorting – side view. Look at the amount of individually sorted grains!

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Magical levitating pasta!

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Ready for baking. A surreal looking tableau if I ever saw one.

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Just a bunch of scoops of icecream hanging out like heads on pikes. 

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The vast amount of paints and colors required to bring out the natural colors of food is staggering.

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Crabs, fish, icecream cones, hanging out together like they belong together.

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Some sushi coming off the production line, individually wrapped in plastic seaweed

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Airbrushing a frankfurter, you know, the usual. 

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Top view: airbrushing a frankfurter

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This could be actual slurpee…but no it’s plastic like everything else.

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Some nice looking lemonades and sodas, ready to be baked.

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Painting some fat onto the sushi, because that’s normal.

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 Detail of the sushi, which looks delicious I must say

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More sushi because Japan

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Detailing the cupcakes. The amount of different things they need to make is mind-boggling

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Many areas look like a cross between a kitchen and a mad-scientist’s lab.

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The amount of visual interest in these places make it really rewarding to photograph wide with the Loxia 21mm

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Tiny banana slices and other things for less than 1:1 samples.

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A bunch of finished crepes just chilling out on the counter.

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Salads are made piece by piece, so I’ll never complain about making a salad again.

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Product shots: hard boiled eggs.

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Product shots: shrimp

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And finally there’s got to be a portrait, and this one is of the factory foreman Mr. Ebizawa

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Portraits: Kengo Kuma

As a portrait photographer in Tokyo I get to meet some cool people, but occasionally I’ll meet a legend. Case in point, ridiculously awesome architect Kengo Kuma.

In addition to crafting some of the most recognizable buildings in Tokyo, Kengo Kuma has recently become a household name in Japan as the man who will design Japan’s National Olympic Station for 2020, after the government scrapped Zaha Hadid’s original design for being too expensive. He also beat out fellow Japanese architect Toyo Ito (who I also photographed here) to get the gig.

I was fortunate enough to visit him in his moments in his office photographing him for Blueprint Magazine a few years ago. Seeing as I’m working my way through Japan’s top architects little by little, will anyone hire me to photograph Shigeru Ban or Tadao Ando? I’d love to add them to my Pokedex.

Anyway, short post today but I’ll definitely be back soon with some ACTUAL GEAR POSTS because I definitely want people to follow me and we all know that camera prOn is the best way to get that happening.

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