Leica iiig, 50mm and Elmar f3.5

Drinking districts in Japan I: Tokyo with a Leica iiig, 50mm Elmar f3.5 and Portra 400 – By Geoff Chaplin

My photography is about people but often without people – stories in objects and surroundings about their lives and lifestyles.

Japan probably conjures up many thoughts – crowds, temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto), Shinkansen, mount Fuji, and more. City workers’, ‘salarymen’ in Japanese, lifestyles are centred around their employment, traditionally at the same company for their entire lives, with a wife and children at home. And make no mistake, Japan is a very traditional society still, with by far the majority of girls giving up their careers on getting married, staying at home, cooking, cleaning, bearing and looking after children. After work husbands continue ‘work’ with their colleagues in a favourite izakaya – the Japanese equivalent of a pub/restaurant in the UK.

While passing time ahead of a booking at my favourite Italian restaurant in Tokyo near Tamachi station, I wandered around a nearby old-fashioned pedestrian area packed with izakaya taking photos. Izakaya tend to be inexpensive and, depending on size (varying from a one man show to larger businesses with four or so chefs and many waiters/waitresses), serving a range of food (often including potato fries as I’m sure you’re concerned to know). Some izakaya specialise – yakitori (grilled chicken), oden (a kind of stew), though sushi and sashimi are best eaten in the more expensive specialist restaurants. Of course the area will contain a few other shops but generally Japanese towns tend to have a general shopping area, a drinking district, but often a separate ‘night-life’ district.

I carried my Leica iiig and 50mm f3.5 (coated) Elmar, a wonderfully compact and lightweight combination with several pluses over any other film camera which I’ll describe further in another article. Portra 400 was new to me having been photographing B&W for several years and, in my colour days, was dedicated to Velvia after the demise of Kodachrome. Now I find Velvia’s colours to be garish and too much in-your-face, rather childish, and I prefer a more neutral representation. I was surprised at the ability of Portra and the Elmar to handle the night lights, colourful and garish in themselves, in such a realistic way.

Drinking district near Tamachi, Tokyo. Leica iiig, Elmar, Portra 400.
“Big Venus” and opposite, a ramen bar, in a quiet side alley.
Drinking district near Tamachi, Tokyo. Leica iiig, Elmar, Portra 400.
“Cheap!!!” Beer 199yen, about €1.50.
Drinking district near Tamachi, Tokyo. Leica iiig, Elmar, Portra 400.
A subdued entrance through ‘Noren’ (curtain entrance) possibly hiding a slightly less crowded, more sophisticated space and better atmosphere. Pictures of dishes and menus on display outside are common features.
Drinking district near Tamachi, Tokyo. Leica iiig, Elmar, Portra 400
 “Mum’s cooking”. Obviously small, probably mostly regular locals but these places are generally welcoming if you are with someone who can read and speak Japanese.
Drinking district near Tamachi, Tokyo. Leica iiig, Elmar, Porta 400.
“Fish shop town” – a confusing name, but open late, and a quick look inside will confirm whether it’s an izakaya or a fish shop.
Drinking area near Tamachi, Tokyo. Leica iiig, Elmar, Portra 400.
“Chicken shop” – again superficially confusing but a common name for teriyaki chicken and chicken specialist shops. The quiet old characterful exterior may be matched by an equally interesting interior …. or maybe not.

Maybe the elephants in the room are and f4 lens and, what!, no tripod??? My thoughts were an f2 or faster lens can be great for portraiture but for a street landscape the depth of field is too shallow, f4 represents an acceptable compromise. And, of course, 35mm is intended to be hand-held plus a tripod would be difficult to set up in a narrow crowded street. Exposure times varied from 1/60th down to 1/15th and post-processing was limited to contrast adjustment and occasionally minor cropping or straightening.

Thanks for reading

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16 thoughts on “Drinking districts in Japan I: Tokyo with a Leica iiig, 50mm Elmar f3.5 and Portra 400 – By Geoff Chaplin”

  1. Really like these subtle atmospheric photos – wonderful glow worm like warmth and portray the feel so well

    I really like Japanese food, culture, language and custom and really like the fact that they have the traditional and conservative values I admire and believe in! Thank you !

  2. I very much like these: they make me want to go there and walk around at night. I probably never will but I can dream. Myth and lore notwithstanding I’ve found it is surprisingly possible to make very acceptable photographs in this sort of location with a hand-held 35mm camera.

    1. Night and lights can make an unattractive daytime place look attractive. Hand held 35mm – well, that’s how it’s meant to be used – and I agree it can make really atmospheric and attractive photos especially at night.

  3. Fabulous photos. Hand held at 1/15 !!! – what a star! Makes me respect my 1936 Leica 111 with a 3.5 50mm even more!

  4. I really enjoy looking at these pictures. They inspire me to imagine myself strolling around the area at night, although I may never actually get the chance to do so. Despite the myths and legends surrounding these places, I’ve discovered that it’s quite possible to take high-quality photographs in these settings using a handheld 35mm camera.

    1. Thanks and agreed. If you looked at the images blown up to A1 size, compared to a good digital image, you’d say the film camera and lens wasn’t good. But does the difference matter? Pixel peeping is important when it comes to scientific and record applications, but when it comes to recording emotional reactions to a place its unimportant, even distracting.

      1. And slip the slides into a decent projector with lens and you’ll get some mind blowing huge slide show which would be hard to match. People also forget the fact that before 2000 for decades most of the fantastic photographs taken by travel photographers and photo journalists have been on 35mm – the Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry was shot on a Nikon 35mm SLR and that’s been made
        Into all sorts of sizes as an example

  5. Very interesting- well done. I think a faster lens would make things much easier- I found that the difference between f3.5/4.0 and even f2.8 is significant for low light film work

  6. Michael Avison

    I love these photos. Very nicely captured but what great streets scenes you had to work with. Although “nice” by English standards I don’t think anyone would admire shots of my home town, Skipton nearly as much.

    1. Nice photos. Wish I will get the opportunity to visit Japan again soon. Agreed with the previous comments – UK street just doesn’t have enough characters to make it stands out, unless you are in the middle of London / Soho.

      In Japan, every single street seems to tell it’s own story with the independent shops and signs. Maybe I have got bored with modern european style buildings but they don’t seem to hit the aesthetic sweet spot for me.

      1. Thanks. I agree – modern architecture is much the same worldwide. Old parts of cities contain more variation in styles, more character, and character added from the process of decay, repair and modification.

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