Photo Technique Inspirations: Zen & Shingon Buddhism.

= I admit that the “Zen and Shingon Buddhism” angle on this didn’t occur to me until after-the-fact =

I like to take pictures.  Often I try to take an atypical approach to photographing this or that scene or moment or thing or person or group of people.  Actually, I hope to take atypical pictures most of the time, but only succeed occasionally.  I thought I’d post a few photos here — posted elsewhere on this site, either in one of the galleries or in a previous front page post — that illustrate this attitude and outlook of mine.

Street in Mirrors. Kinosaki, Japan. 2001.

Now I know that I’m not the first one to take a photo of a mirror, but it’s not something that’s commonly done by people snapping pics in Japan.  And, yet, it’s a common thing to see in Japan but which is rarely shared by those who live in or travel to Japan when they’re showing friends and family and colleagues “what I saw” when in Japan.

Perspective and Zen Buddhism.

Here’s a post I did several months ago on Josetsu’s “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd,” a 600 year old riddle and lesson in often-whimsical Zen philosophy and practices.  There’s no single answer to the riddle, but as I mention in that post, to me the most compelling — and sort of obvious — answer is bound-up in perspective.    When the moment’s right, or when I can make the moment, with a photo, I try to give a different or slightly off-center perspective on and with my photos.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that a photo will literally be “off-center” (though that’s often the case), as I like taking “straight-on” shots, too.  But I like a photo, like a good painting or film scene, to be balanced, even if asymmetric.

Sometimes I rotate or flip the photo to — literally — put a “spin” on it that was not there when the shutter clicked.  I like taking “Group Pictures” from the side, where the subjects are not looking at the camera (or, at least not my camera), either just before or just after the “primary” photo’s been taken.  Many times this perspective shift this is not overly dramatic or obvious or overt to the casual viewer . . . just a little off-beat.  See if you catch that in these.  Like a catfish.  Catching one.  With a gourd…

From the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. Tokyo. 2010.


Squid. Tsukiji Market. Tokyo. 2010.


Students. Ryoanji Temple. 2010.


Gallery. Kyoto. 2009.


Astro Boy ("Tetsuwan Atomu"). Kyoto Station. 2009.


A different perspective of and on the Taj Mahal. Agra, India. 2007.


Note:  I took this photo from about 15-20 feet away.  The mask laid in a box which itself sat on a table of brick-a-brack.  I just cropped the photo and enhanced and softened the color a bit to make this into a photo entirely different from a piece of cast-off theater-ware at a flea market.


Yamanote Line. Station. Tokyo. 2010.


One remove's one's shoes before entering. Ryoanji. Kyoto. 2010.

Note:  more traditional photos of Ryoanji Temple tend to look more like this.  Here’s my more comprehensive post on Ryoanji Temple.

.         .         .

Depth of Field/Focus (and my twist on it) & Shingon Buddism.

In the commentary track to his 1998 film Ronin (a favorite film which, ironically enough, was shot in France, not Japan), late, great director John Frankenheimer talks about his use of and love for “Depth of Field,” (generally, keeping things in both the foreground and background in focus).  Quoting Frankenheimer:

[I use] a lot of wide angle  lenses that give you a great depth of focus. . . It’s particularly effective [in film] when you’re working with groups. . .  I’ve always been an advocate of depth of field.  I love what depth of field gives you.  Which is the fact that you have something going on in the shot at all times….

This also, perhaps especially, works well for still photography, providing the photo’s viewer various ways and options to see the shot.  Different little micro-stories can often be told in such a shot, various interpretations can be made in and of the photo.  Thus the viewer’s invited to be more engaged with the photo and makes a static thing —  a 2-D photo  — into a “world” in which the viewer can enter.  In Tantric/Shingon Buddhism it’s called “Entering the World of the Mandala,” to wit:  “This mandala, like the painted mandalas found on the walls of all Shingon temples, is a symbolic representation of reality. Just as a priest in meditation may “enter” a visualized mandala to venerate the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas depicted on it, priests and laypeople can visit Koyasan and enter the mandala.”

Often, though, I do a slight twist on, a variation on the theme of, Depth of Field in that I’ll leave the background (and sometimes foreground) out of focus, yet will have that scene be just as interesting or engaging to the eye, and sometimes more intriguing, as the presumptively “More Interesting Thing” in focus and in the foreground of the shot.  Again, this compels the viewer to be more engaged, which is what I’m looking and hoping for.  See what you think about “various stories” and how Depth of Field (or variations on it) is used in the following photos:

Tiennamen Square, Beijing 2006. Photo of former Ala Gov Bob Riley (being briefed by our guide, "Charlie"), or Steve in background?


Mumbai, India. 2007. Mixing foreground and background...


Priests at Kurodani Temple. Kyoto. 2009.


From the Taj Hotel Business Center. Mumbai. 2008.


Middle School Student. Hiroshima Peace Park Museum. 2008.


My homage to both dualing points of focus and to a oft-used technique of John Frankenheimer’s:

Dan Rather. Denver. August 2008.

.         .         .


    • Scott
    • July 28th, 2011

    I appreciate your photography style. I also find that the best photos are the atypical ones of things you normally wouldn’t take a photo of, rather than precomposed shots of ‘typical’ photo subjects. These types of perspectives make you think more about where the photographer is, what they are looking at and what is happening in the scene. Groups shot are indeed best when taken right before or right after the actual shot, when the subjects are behaving naturally. In my opinion the ‘posed’ shot always looks too artificial. Another good time to snap off a few discrete group shots is when the subjects are milling around in their group waiting for another person, or for the shot to be set up.

    I once took some interesting photos around Sensō-ji in Asakusa, not of the temple itself but of tourists taking photos of each other in front of the temple. The different poses looked so much more interesting from a different angle, especially if you include the ‘real’ photographer they are facing in the same shot.

    By the way I really like your photo from the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, it almost looks like tilt-shift photography but much more natural.

      • letsjapan
      • July 28th, 2011


      Thanks so much for your comment, for your remarks. To quote you:

      “I also find that the best photos are the atypical ones of things you normally wouldn’t take a photo of, rather than precomposed shots of ‘typical’ photo subjects.”

      . . . that’s what I try to be all about, too. Sometimes I succeed, other times not so much.

      With buildings, architecture and such, I like trying to find that atypical (your word) angle or at least look for a way that creates and interesting or pleasing (not always the same) design with light and shadow. And, then, sometimes with architecture I just like the most “bland” straight-on shot: such things are archival plus it’s surprising how rarely people actually take the straight-on shot of the interesting structure or architectural element.

      I mentioned, sort of tongue in cheek, about Frankenheimer influencing me, well, there’s certainly that love for several simultaneous things/stories going on with a greater depth of field (or even purposefully unfocusing something that “should” be in focus). That said, if I had to pick a true directorial influence it’d be Hitchcock: he pretty much created the odd-angle shot to convey tension, anxiety, or generally shake-up the viewer; to convey psychological things — stuff going on in the mind of the person on the screen — *just* through a camera angle, through the way a shot was framed. I think about these things. Often I do. Sometimes I just snap pics!

      Thanks again,

      R. Newton

  1. incredible work… you are able to really capture what the eye sees. just beautiful. and the buddhist perspective just makes it even more… well… you know.


      • letsjapan
      • August 22nd, 2011

      Thank you, Alexandra. Very kind of you. I try.


  2. I appreciate your interest in wide angle lenses. A personal favorite is a full-frame image of an F-4 Phantom jet, silhouetted by the sun, shot with a 17mm lens. The airplane appears to be taking off, but is actually landing — and no more than 100 feet above me. My ears still ring!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: