The Fleeting and the Elusive by Michael Ryan

I finally decide to get close to nature far from city lights and any chance of a cappuccino.

Cityscapes are more my thing – well I live in a gigantic city (of somewhere between 22 and 30 million people depending on what source you read) that’s as flat as a pancake fresh from a fight with a steam roller. I know how to compose a cityscape. But when I’m in the countryside... well where have all the buildings gone? It’s really not the same trying to frame a picture when all the familiar elements are missing. Where are all the hard edges and vertical lines? I do wish I had more opportunities but the nearest countryside is a few hours flight away.

And if I did create an opportunity where would I go and what kind of landscape would I choose? Understanding the myriad of potential shots in any one location I knew I had not developed a strong sense of what mother nature has to offer me aesthetically. I didn’t want to wander around in a bamboo forrest or a lake district snapping left, right and centre, returning home only to find I had hundreds of ‘not bad’ photos and not one good one. Never mind how I know that can happen! (Really, never mind, you mind your own business!)

 Lost! Waylayed at a mysterious junction.

Lost! Waylayed at a mysterious junction.

So I researched the genre thoroughly i.e. I watched Thomas Heaton on YouTube. He’s a highly entertaining and talented landscape photographer if you’re at all interested. In many of his videos I saw him eek out a great photo from a scene or a simple crack in a rock face or fallen leaves that I would stomp right over and figured it could be a folly to even try. However inspired by his Matterhorn video, it hit me. Yes, that’s the kind of scene that appeals to me, the singular and the monumental. Architectural, almost. And while not wiling to fly to Europe I was only a few hours away from Mt. Fuji. Or so I thought!

 There is nothing spooky to see here.

There is nothing spooky to see here.

As my wife had wanted to take a trip to Japan anyway it was an easy sell. We booked flights and hotels and off we took for a one week tour of Tokyo, Fuji and Nagoya. And that was my first mistake. Each of these destinations was an excellent choice on their own. I don’t think I need to sell Tokyo to anyone. Or even Mt. Fuji and the Japanese countryside with it’s quaint (if somewhat reminiscent of many horror movies) little wooden houses. And Nagoya offered a range of family fun from Legoland to the Zoological & Botanical Gardens as well as shopping and just generally enjoying the geniality.

The Japanese are worldwide famous for being inventive and innovative if not simplistic. From technological innovations to architectural marvels and delicious food to adorable cartoon characters. So was everyone on a week off when the railway system was designed? I’ve been to Japan many times and almost every time I get stymied by the complex web of train companies, rabbit warren stations, and multiple ticket trains. I once took a bullet train that required two tickets. But I couldn’t get the stall to open with either of the tickets. I eventually called for help and the station attendant showed how I had to sandwich them together and put them through the machine at the same time to open the gate. Of course!

Suffice it to say that we got lost and laywayed on our route to Mt. Fuji several times. What should have taken 4 hours (and I don’t believe that for one minute) took an entire day, 7 trains and a taxi to a hostel that nobody had heard of. We nearly missed the curfew and were only ten minutes away from being homeless in the mountains. I was quite addled by the exasperating journey and regretted booking that part of our family trip to Japan. I must confess I grossly underestimated travel times between all of our destinations even by bullet train. By the end of the the second day we had spent more time on trains than sightseeing. They might seem like they’re fast but only if you’re going from A to B. If you have to get to F or N then it’s going to take military level planning and scheduling.


An early riser fishing in the shadow of Fuji San 

 Sunrise hits the peak of Mt. Fuji

Sunrise hits the peak of Mt. Fuji

Despite the myriad of beautiful shots on the internet Mt. Fuji is famously elusive as most days it’s peak is obscured by cloud. And that’s if you manage to get there in the first place. But I do know a couple of things about photography and weather. It pays to get up early and the weather, anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of Los Angeles) can change dramatically in seconds. And seconds, albeit at the right moment, is all you need to get a good landscape shot. So after a hearty breakfast from the finest refrigerated goods Seven Eleven has to offer I set off in the dark with some vague directions to a ‘nice view’ on the water’s edge. It was dark and dismal with low cloud but it had stopped raining and I could see the bottom of a mountain across the lake. So I set up my camera on my travel tripod took a few shots to work out the exposure and waited and hoped that the cloud cover would lift. Nothing changed for quite a period but eventually visibility improved to the point where I could see that I had my camera pointed in the wrong direction at what was basically a hill across the lake. And now I could see the base of the giant Mt. Fuji rising off into the distance. Though still no Mt. Fuji itself. Thankfully all alone at that point I spun my camera around and waited some more. And waited. I’m used to having to take my time with certain shots but there’s something soothing about standing on the edge of a lake waiting for Fuji San to reveal itself that made me feel quite content and at peace. I can see why the Japanese are so spiritual. It no longer mattered so much to me I got the shot or not (and I’m not even sure what ‘the shot’ would be anyway). The previous day’s anxiety just drifted away and the waiting was now a reward in itself. After all I was on holidays and had no client and no deadline to worry about.

 Geese fly south over Mt. Fuji

Geese fly south over Mt. Fuji

But finally my efforts were rewarded. Though not fully cleared the clouds partially dissipated just as the rising sun hit the peak. I didn’t get ‘the’ shot but I got ‘my’ shot. It’s not a picture postcard photo but that was not what I wanted to experience anyway. And for the next hour the peak peeked out from behind the clouds every now and then and I captured the moments. And it was thrilling. I enjoyed the passing of time and the peace and quiet of the countryside. I started to notice and chatted with a few early morning fishermen along the banks of the lake as well as other tourists.

It wasn’t long before my girls joined me and my wife enjoyed the stroll along the lakeside with the view of Fuji and captured a great shot with her iPhone. It really pays to be in the right place at the right time. Though my three year old was a little less impressed and didn’t give Fuji more than a cursory glance she had a good time in her own way.

 The Botanical Gardens, Nagoya, Japan.

The Botanical Gardens, Nagoya, Japan.

Soon enough we had to catch a train and make our way to the next port of call, Nagoya, where we were staying for several days thankfully. My daughter thought we were back in the same hotel as Tokyo, they were quite similar, and wanted to know why they had changed the bedside table lights. She didn’t seem to notice the whole city had changed. That one morning by the lakeside with those few moments of peak visibility and the gentle breeze wafting down from Mt. Fuji had cleared my head of all the stress of getting there in the first place. Rather than think ‘never again’ which had been close to my mood the night before I was resolved to return again some day with more time, better planning and plenty of patience. Or perhaps a guide. Not a guide to Mt. Fuji but a guide to the Japanese railway system.


Get Close to Your Family This Golden Week by Michael Ryan

The October Golden Week is here again and if you’ve planned ahead and already booked air fares and hotels then Bon Voyage. Enjoy the fun time ahead of you. Unfortunately if you are like me most years you’ve let it sneak up on you like a surprise birthday party when it’s not your birthday. So if you’re stuck in Shanghai with no plan and possibly a child or two that need to be entertained 24/7 you can still go almost anywhere and get memorable photographs.

To achieve this you don’t need expensive or heavy camera equipment. Your phone will do just fine or a small light camera with one lens will be far better suited to small children than a cumbersome pro sports camera and white lens. You need to be more like a sprinter than a heavy weight lifter.

So here’s a few suggestions on the kinds of places to go and how to get the best out of them for photography. And if you are lucky enough to be jetting off to somewhere exotic the following advice is also for you to return with great holiday photos.

The local park.

It’s an obvious one and you’ve probably already decided to go there but perhaps it’s time to think about it a little differently. Get close, then get even closer.


Don’t try to capture the whole park, remember your subject, you’re trying to capture your family. When I took this shot the sky was overcast and shots of the park were not looking great. My daughter took a break an lay on the bench with her dolly as a pillow and I got a beautiful shot of my daughter that I love. The neutral colour of the bench and the soft lighting of the overcast sky worked perfectly together. You don’t need a sunny day to get great shots in fact for portraits dull is better.


Your local coffee shop may not seem like a fabulous backdrop for a photo shoot but it is full of possibilities.

Kids do tend to run around where ever you take them so rather than trying to reel them in let them loose and play and just wait for the right moment and click the shutter. Again, don’t try to shoot the coffee shop, shoot the subject. It can just be a photo of your spouse enjoying a drip coffee for the first time or your precious little one pressing her face against the window and looking ridiculous. Keep it light, keep it fast and have a good time yourself too.

The Beach

I had actually been told several times that there was a beach in Shanghai. However my mind refused to hold onto the proposition. You may have well as told me that the tap water was now drinkable - my subconscious immediately dismissed the notion as pure fantasy. But it turns out that Jing Shan City Beach exists and is not a bad place to go for a day trip at all. You can pick up the high speed train from South Shanghai Train Station and use your regular metro card. It’s only 10 RMB.


Alway be on the lookout for nice lighting. You can be anywhere, no matter how unglamorous, but if the lighting is right you can catch a beaiutiful moment. Here the light streaming in the window on the way to the beach  caught my daughter reading her story book beautifully but because it was a tight shot we don’t need to see the surrounding train environment which would have added nothing to the shot.

If the weather is not great and the sky is dull then it’s great lighting for photographing people and tilting the camera down can cut out the boring sky and make the photo more interesting.


The South Bund

The South Bund walkway is a fun place to go for a walk and reaches the Long Art Gallery which is popular with young people as photo location. But you don’t have to be young free and single to use it as backdrop. It’s open to the public and free from security guards telling you put your camera away. It’s a fun place to walk alongside the river and when you’re tired there’s a shopping mall a few minutes walk away.


You might think a rusty metal shipping container would not make for a suitable prop but our daughter asked us what was inside so I told her for no reason there was a dinosaur inside and if she listened carefully she could hear it. The nice warm tones of the rust reflected well on their faces.

So you don’t need to be flying to Thailand or Paris to get good family photos this Golden Week, but if you are it helps. All you need to do is remember what you’re photographing - the people not the scene: it’s just a background - and get close to your family to get a memorable beautiful shot almost anywhere.

Disneyland Shanghai by Michael Ryan

If I said I had visited three Disneyland’s you might think I was a huge Disney fan but that’s not actually the case. I once went to Disneyland Tokyo when I lived in Japan a lifetime ago and enjoyed it though not sure I would have gone again as an adult. I then visited Disneyland Hong Kong as a birthday present to my eldest daughter when she was six years old. And of course I now live in Shanghai so at the request of both my daughters have been to Disneyland Shanghai three times - well it is only a subway ride away. And I’ve been to Disney Town twice, the free area outside Disneyland, which has the largest Disney store in the world and my favourite restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory. If you ever go watch out for the portion size. I had trouble finishing my main course even though I actually ordered from the appetiser menu.

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​Disney’s Fabulous Art Nouveau Hotel by Michael Ryan

The Disney hotel is a fin-de-siecle fantasy come to life from the moment you enter the lobby. I think Walt chose well finding a balance between Disney character rich elements and spacious artistic decor. It’s just enough to prevent adults doing a swift U-turn. Although throughout the hotel there is a post modern approach the overwhelming influence is Art Nouveau. And it just so happens I am a huge fan of that period when it comes to art and architecture.

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How to Help your Family Love your Photography by Michael Ryan

Every family has one enthusiastic photographer (I’m assuming it’s you if you are reading this) which as you know can result in eyes to heaven and heavy sighing on day trips, holidays or even just play time with your kids. So here’s a few tips on how to reverse that situation and make having their photos taken more enjoyable for them and allow you to shoot better photographs at the same time.

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