The story behind the photo: Geisha spotting in Kyoto

When you take many photos – whether it’s on your phone of with a big expensive camera – you’ll sometimes get one shot that stands out. One you keep looking at. It doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect, it may not be fit to show in an art gallery, but there’s something about it that you like.

If I think about it, to me it’s often because there’s a story behind the photo. Although the story may not even have been that obvious when I took the photo. The photo may tell the story or you need to hear it to appreciate the photo even more.

So I thought I would start something new on Urban Pixxels: The Story Behind The Photo. Where I share a photo that’s special to me. And tell you more about why I took it, where I took it, how I took it and what I like about it.

Geisha Spotting in Kyoto

The story behind the photo: geisha spotting in Hanami-koji street in Gion, Kyoto

It’s our last day in Kyoto and we still haven’t spotted a real geisha (or a ‘geiko’ as they like to call themselves). To increase our changes we go to Hanami-koji, a cobblestone street in Gion that you may recognize from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Apparently this is the best place to find her walking the street on her way to one of the tea houses.

By the time we arrive it’s already dark. And although we’d been pretty lucky with the weather in Japan so far, it starts to rain.

Walking down the street in the pouring rain I realise that I’ll be leaving Kyoto tomorrow without that photo of a geisha. It’s not going to happen.

Why I took the photo

Being so focussed on finding a geisha, I haven’t paid much attention to what else is happening around me. But as soon as I start to give up on the geisha, I start to see other things. The red lanterns in front of the restaurants and tea houses, the reflection on the wet cobblestones, people hiding from the rain with their transparent umbrellas, and the lights of the street lanterns illuminating their faces.

With street photography, I usually don’t overthink my shots. You see something that catches your eye and you try to capture it.

But this is different. I want to get those different elements – the red lights, the reflection, the rain, and the transparent umbrella – in one photo.

How I took the photo

The good thing about knowing what kind of photo you want to take, is that you can prepare. Standing in front of a place with those red lanterns, someone walks by and I notice the white light of the lamp in front of the entrance. I can use this!

When it’s dark and you’re working with different sources of light, the only way to take a photo is by shooting in manual. I don’t have a tripod with me so my Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens will have to do. I set my aperture (f/3.5), shutter speed (1/60), ISO (5000) and find the frame I like.

Now for the unpredictable factor: I need someone with a transparent umbrella. I’m getting more soaked by the second, so let’s hope I don’t have to wait too long.

I don’t. Pretty soon this girl walks right into my frame, and all I have to do is press the shutter-release button right when you can see her face as she is walking under the lamp with the white light. I have the shot.

What makes this photo special to me

What I like about the photo is that it reminds me of how important it is to keep your eyes open and be aware of what’s happening around you when you travel. The photo shows all the elements why I don’t have a picture of a geisha – the rain, darkness – but I was only able to take this photo because of those same elements.

It’s not a typical ‘Urban Pixxels’ photo, it’s not bright or taken during the day with lots of light, but it takes me straight back to that cobblestone street in Kyoto, feeling inspired when my original plan didn’t work out.