Creative Brief – Japan! Part Two

Umbrellas. Everywhere. You can usually purchase an umbrella within 80 metres of wherever you are in Tokyo! They are cheap and readily available to save you from any unexpected cloud burst. They are uniformly clear – and people tend to hold them quite low, looking through the transparent, weather resistant plastic, to see where they are going. Shaped into quite steep domes rather than the saucer shapes typical to the west, you can really get your head up into them!

An interesting creative theme, if somewhat cliched – so many people have done umbrellas… I mean, seriously, a simple google search on “street photography umbrellas” makes it pretty clear!

Like the vending machines discussed in the previous post, umbrellas are a feature of Japanese streetscapes – as soon as the rain comes down, out come the umbrellas. The creative challenge will be how to compose images that are different, and uniquely Japanese. Not just adding more of the same to the infinite library that already exists on the interwebs… Although, is there really anything new, ever? I don’t think the next creative wave in photography is going to come from my portfolio! Picasso, I am not… But that’s OK.

A great example is this image which I have posted about previously :

The shallowness of the umbrellas are very different on the Melbourne landscape. The image has some strong compositional elements, but the umbrellas do not make the image special. The umbrellas do not speak to anything specific about Melbourne.

The image that has inspired my thinking around working with umbrellas as a theme comes from my first trip to Japan.

The style of umbrella preferred by the locals is evident int the image – although many of them are much deeper dome shapes. People peer through the clear plastic to see their way forward, necessary for navigating through the masses of people. Let’s have a look at why I think this particular image works.

The two umbrellas work as a mirror to each other. Having one in the foreground and one more in the middle plane of the image (front to back) gives a sliding scale perspective of each. It gives a asymmetrical feel to the image – one large umbrella right up in the front of the frame and another matching, smaller one in the middle plane, along with the whole body of the subject.

The parallel lines of the pedestrian crossing aid this perspective effect. Almost like the way a person learning to sketch the vanishing point on the horizon. 

There are dynamic, triangular lines created by the segments of the umbrella. The two umbrellas are on either side of the pedestrian crossing  offer some balance – with the lines giving the viewer a clear direction to the natural exit point of the image. Getting close to the subject with a wide angle lens brings so much more from the surrounding streetscape than using a longer lens from further away – street photography is not for the faint hearted!

It will take some time to develop some thoughts around how to do something interesting with umbrellas. Random themes.

Transparency of the umbrellas

Japanese photographer Pak Han has an example on his website which demonstrates the starting point for this creative direction. You can clearly see the subject’s features through the water covered plastic, offering a direct insight into the feeling of the wet day. Taking this even further would be to shoot from the perspective of the person inside the umbrella, perhaps?

You can find out more about Pak Han and the image at his website here.

Technically, I will need to check if a circular polarising filter might help get past the reflective essence of the plastic to the subject. Might need to run a little experiment prior to getting on the plane.

Does a flash break through the plastic to illuminate the subject or will it just make the umbrella opaque? Something to test prior to travelling. I wish I was more of a technically minded photographer sometimes…


They are literally in every convenience store. Is there anything to capture in the selling occasion? People rushing in as the rain hits? Or even the stands full of umbrellas. There also umbrella racks at most public buildings, where you are expected to leave them. Wrapping wet umbrellas in the plastic bags.

Isolation / Contrast / Figure to Ground

The most powerful images of umbrellas are often isolated – combining both an enhanced figure to ground ratio and the way people often become isolated in rain. Increasing the figure to ground ratio to help isolate the subject from the background will deliver a stronger result. Make sure the backgrounds are as simple as possible – become more conscious of what is going on in the background. Minimalise the visual clutter. A short depth of field might also help if the subject is reasonably close. Dark vs light – the background should be one and the subject the other.

Contrast in colour can often deliver a high figure to ground ratio – the umbrellas in Japan are mostly clear though, so shooting them in black and white should be ok.


Starting with the transparency, is there anything else that is culturally specific to the way people use them in Japan? There are many more people in Tokyo than Melbourne – the streets are more crowded, and when the rain hits, a greater proportion of people are prepared and pull out their umbrellas. Shooting from within a moving, confused mass of umbrella wielding pedestrians?

Is there a way to capture waves of people, a situation unique to the massive population density of Tokyo, using umbrellas? What is the right background – simple enough to contrast against the numbers.


Reversal is a tool for changing the way you think or see a situation. Instead of looking into the umbrella, look out from inside. Shooting different subjects from the perspective of a person looking through the plastic might be interesting.

A bit like the image above – but maybe not a 100% coverage viewpoint – just part of the umbrella filtering the image.

A New Tool

In advance of travelling to Japan, I needed a mobile device – in the end I went with an iPad, despite my misgivings around the processing power and keyboard limitations. I figured that Mrs MelbourneStreetPhotography could always take it off my hands if I didn’t like it. I am normally very biased to laptops! The iPad is one of the best new purchases I have ever made. I have been surprised by the stuff it can do – very different to a laptop. The single best thing I like is the drawing function – using the App Goodnotes. I love using analogue notebooks to develop and record my thoughts – Goodnotes mimics this, using the Apple Pencil.
It has a warm coloured “paper” in a similar tone to Moleskine notebooks. Goodnotes allows you to draw and note take quite naturally, with the App recognising the difference between the pencil and your hand – so there are no mistaken lines drawn. You can add pictures onto the page, and annotate them. The lasso tool is pretty awesome – you can lasso anything you have written and move it around or resize it.

Here is a sample of the work I did thinking about umbrellas.


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