Spring has many festivals (matsuri) all over Japan. I’ve always been a festival freak or matsuri maniac. So how do you shoot great pictures of matsuri? Here are 10 tips for shooting matsuri in Japan:
1. Do your homework. Study up on the matsuri and find out all the details: exact time, place, route (if it’s parade), etc. Unfortunately, most such information is in Japanese only. If there’s any English info, it’s usually only basic and not exact. (Producing detailed English information is laborious and most official tourist information sources don’t do it.) Online information and printed materials are often not enough for the serious photographer. I often end up calling the festival organizer to find out more details. Or I ask a knowledgeable person at the festival site. So Japanese ability can make a big difference in putting you at the right place at the right time during the matsuri (unless you’re a press photographer or with a knowledgeable guide).
2. Search for online images/videos of the matsuri. You can then get a good visual idea of the festival and identify key vantage points and the shots you want. Before the Internet, the first thing that stock/pro photographers would do when shooting something for the first time is to look at picture postcards at local tourist shops. That’s where they got ideas for shooting. Now it’s from online images. For obscure festivals, there are more matsuri images from Japanese sources. Search for the matsuri in Japanese in such cases.
3. Go early and case the place. Walk around and look for good spots for shooting. If necessary, claim your spot by placing a tripod, etc., where you want to shoot (especially at a parade). Note that there are many maniacal photographers in Japan and they will show up early at the best shooting spots.
4. Often times, you won’t get the best shots when you shoot a matsuri for the first time. But if you see it again, you will know what will happen and where. Armed with better knowledge and experience, you will be able to shoot better shots the second time around.
5. Most people in a festival would be happy to pose for you if you ask them. As long as they’re not busy at the moment.
6. Using a step ladder can be good or bad/dangerous, depending on how crowded it is. Don’t use a step ladder where there is a moving crowd of people. They can trip over the ladder and knock you down.
7. For crowded matsuri, best not to carry a large camera bag. People will bump into it, shaking you and your shot. People (especially kids) getting hit by your bag or camera may also get upset or hurt.
8. Besides bad weather, the festival photographer’s worst enemy is another photographer. And these days, almost everyone is another photographer with a camera phone in hand. Not to mention the hordes of amateur and elderly Japanese photographers. Expect some great shots to be ruined by a camera-wielding hand/arm/head/body in your shot.
9. When showing your matsuri photos to people and friends, you should explain what the matsuri is about. How it originated and the significance of the matsuri. Such basic details will increase the viewer’s interest in the photos much more. This might be hard if such information is in Japanese only and you cannot read Japanese.
10. JNTO has a good list of festivals in Tokyo and other parts of Japan, but the info is not that detailed. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/pdf/newsletter.html
Good luck to you!