I love it when a plan comes together.

I may not be the cigar-smokingest person to have said that. But I think the reason why that phrase became so popular is because we’ve all felt that way. I recently had the chance to put together a plan to go with my friend out to Hakone, a resort town that’s oust outside the Tokyo metropolitan area. Hakone’s an interesting area. It’s got a lot of interesting looking hiking trails on the map. That are closed. Because of Hakone’s big draw for many Japanese people… the volcanic activity that means there are a bunch of onsens in the area. Also, there’s a really beautiful view of a volcano.

If you google Hakone, you’ll probably find a ton of photos that look almost exactly like this. It’s “the shot” to take from Moto Hakone, the village on the southern lip of Ashinoko, the lake that sits down in between the mountains that give Hakone it’s ski-resort-without-the-skiing feeling. The torii is a part of Hakone shrine, and it’s pretty much just the one shot that really stands out in that town. Don’t get me wrong, I think a street photographer could probably do some interesting work in Moto Hakone, but it would have to be someone living there, someone who has a few years to work through the tourist photos and really get at the meat of what it means to be living in a tourist town like that. But there’s a reason why you see that photo in all the advertising Hakone puts out. It’s the one strong photo. And if you want that photo, wait a few years. There’s this thing we photographers do, walking along a lake shore, waiting until you hit that sweet spot, where all the objects align in the way that works aesthetically. Andrew and I both immediately saw the shot, stopped, and turned around and looked up. We knew we wanted to be a couple stories up in a building, right there. And, of course, there was a beautiful looking cafe with a balcony right there. It was perfect. It was also a condemned building that used to be their art museum. So. with that real estate, with that view, there’s no way that property doesn’t get redeveloped with another cafe in exactly that same spot. If you can hold off until they build that building, do it. We had to deal with lake-level and off to the side a little bit to get a pier out of the shot.

 

 

 

But that wasn’t the plan. Or rather, that was the tail end of the plan. That was the second day, before we headed back to Shinjuku on the Romance Car.

Our plan started with a Romance Car. And, like all good plans, it didn’t survive first contact with reality. We got our butts moving later than planned, and with the train schedule what it was, we ended up on the regular Odakyu train out to Hakone-Yumoto, where we switched to the Tozan Tetsudo, which was awesome. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, if you remember a time when trains didn’t have monitors to flash advertising and train information at you, but it was a slow moving slice out of that older era. And it had switchbacks. I think that was the first time I’d ever ridden a train that did switchbacks. That was pretty cool. So, by the time we got off the train, it was getting too late in the day to check out any of the hiking around Gora. I’ll have to go back and see what that’s about.

 

From Gora, you switch to a cable car. Cable cars are ubiquitous in Japan, but I haven’t seen them in the States. They are a sort of cross between an elevator and a train. They’re built for steep inclines, where two cars act as counterweights – one goes up as the other comes down, necessitating two tracks only at the midpoint where they pass each other. But then you have to switch to a gondola to go the rest of the way to the lake. We tried to go hiking at one of the gondola stops, but there were fences and grumpy guards, so yeah, not so much. The “Trails Closed: Volcanic Activity” thing seems to have been going on long enough that all the permanent signage includes the trail closures, and the gates closing the trails are full-on building gates, not temporary installations. I think I would have been more disappointed by the trail closures if it hadn’t been patently obvious that the biggest wildcard in our plan was falling into out laps: the weather.

Fuji is notoriously fickle. I’ve driven around in rented cars with photographers, vainly hoping for a crack in the clouds and a glimpse of Mt Fuji. I’ve led groups of photographers up mountains, to have Fuji hide behind the clouds. One of the nicest cups of coffee I’ve ever had was at the top of Mount Fuji, while Ben Torode and I slowly watched the black of night fade into the white of sun-lit dense fog. It was a smooth transition. The coffee was particularly great because of the preceding 3 hours, where we were huddled under a stoop, trying to gain some protection from the freezing rain, and the two hours before that, when we were out in the freezing rain hiking up the top bit of Mt Fuji.

Having Fuji on her best behavior was thrilling. It was like watching an NHL goalie stand on their head for a shut out. You don’t want to say anything while it’s happening, because any sort of overconfidence or pride will bring the gods in to wreck it. Any premature congratulations on the weather is sure to bring in the clouds. But the excitement leaks out. We shot sunset from our hotel room, which was right next to one of the gondola stations. The hotel had a great buffet dinner, and we soaked in the onsen, which of course, you have to do. When in Rome, and all. And then I set myself up for the thing I came for. I opened my sliding glass door, got my shot framed up, and set my camera to take 30 second photos. All night. I went to bed.

Waking up in the morning was exciting. It was exiting to see that all those photos I took overnight were there – and it was time for the last piece of that puzzle. In the pre-dawn “blue hour” light, I was able to kick back down to ISO 100, and get a clear, noiseless shot of the dark sky and Mt Fuji. It was about that time that my friends joined me, and we started shooting the sunrise.

With the shots in the can, I knew I was only 50% of the way there.

Extremely long exposure photography is a tricky thing. Oddly, it’s almost easier in the film era. You just one long photo. Of course, there is a curveball. Film doesn’t work as predictably at long exposures. You get into complex math and guess-and-testing to figure out the proper exposure levels, but you get it all in one shot. Digital photography doesn’t work like that. Noise gets introduced the longer you shoot. I ended up shooting 30 second shots at ISO 1600, which introduced a lot of noise into the photo. Also, that means you have to put all of those photos together yourself. Photoshop is a pretty easy way to do it – if you set each new photo in it’s own layer, set to “lighten,” they all stack up nicely. Really, the only problem is that stars move even when the camera is between photos.

There was really only one thing to be done about it. I fired up some Deathsquad podcasts, and went to town with the clone tool. It took about 20 hours, but I cleaned up most of the star trails, and then I was ready for the final piece. The stacked photo has a lot of digital noise, but the star trails themselves are bright enough that they have relatively little noise. By using that same “lighten” setting in the layer options, I put that blue-hour photo of Mt Fuji right on top of the star trail stack, and then guess-and-tested some different edits until I found an exposure level that I was happy with. I also desaturated the stars quite a bit, because while the camera catches all the crazy colors of the stars, they don’t look natural – they don’t look like they way that your brain processes the starlight. Now, that’s probably a trick of your brain, and the camera is probably more accurate. But it’s a bit unsettling. And so, a week after taking the photos, I knew I could exhale, lean back in my chair, and be happy that the plan came together.

If all of that was a little confusing, I made up a little step-by-step image to help explain: