Oct 102005

Sweet, at last my appointment letter has arrived from Yahoo Broadband! At last I won’t have to sit out on my cold rooftop and secretly use the neighbor’s wireless connection!

…Opens letter…
…Looks up a few Kanji…
…Falls backwards, smashing his head on the corner of his desk in disbelief.

It says…it says that they can’t activate the Internet at my apartment! Ever!

The next four months truly will be a test of will. Apologies to everyone back home, for as much as I’ve wanted to hear all of your voices again it looks like my internet phone will remain out of commission for quite some time.

I spent this past weekend hanging out with Alana, a friend from California who is now working as a JET in a small town three hours north of Kyoto. Alana and I haven’t seen each other in over six years, although we’ve been keeping in touch since high school via the internet. Other than Nick she is probably the person most responsible for my ending up here in Kyoto. My trip to Japan two years ago with Nick is what started my interest in this country, but if not for Alana’s insistence I would now be living in Tokyo rather than Kyoto. Thank you so much Alana.

As part of her Japanese Studies major in college, Alana also spent a year studying in Kyoto much like myself. And much like myself, she immediately fell in love with it. It was interesting to discuss with her the many other people she’s encountered who’ve spent time living in Japan. Apparently every single person who stayed in Kyoto went on to make Japan a permanent part of their lives in some way, while the rest just returned to America and moved on. What is it about this place that makes it so captivating? Whatever it is, I wish her luck in figuring out a way to move back after her JET program finishes.

It was also pretty interesting to hear about what her life has been like since she’s moved to her small, out-of-the-way town on the coast of the Sea of Japan. When I said that she’s “working as a JET,” what I’m referring to is a government-operated program that brings people from around the world into Japan to perform jobs such as English-teaching and international relations. The organizers determine everything from the type of position they give you to the location they send you, guaranteeing nothing more than your salary before you arrive. Because Alana’s Japanese is at such a high level, she was placed at City Hall doing things such as organizing events, writing newspaper articles, and even conducting a weekly spot on a local television channel.

I’m sure you can imagine what a local celebrity she’s become, being one of the mere handful of foreigners residing in such a small community. Every time she travels to a nearby area for a festival the news crews rush to interview her, and anytime a friend’s friend catches sight of her in the supermarket she hears about it the next day. And I thought I was getting the celebrity treatment here in Kyoto. If you’re interested, here are some pictures she’s posted of her neighborhood and the surrounding areas.

Spending the weekend with her also led me to two realizations/decisions. First, it’s time for me to go out and buy a “real” digital camera. This is a decision I’ve been trying to avoid pretty much since I moved to Japan; it just didn’t seem worthwhile to spend so much on a camera when I already had one that worked just fine. But after playing with her Canon Powershot S2 IS for a few hours I realized how much really does lie beyond the simple world of point-and-shoot. Before coming to Japan I rarely used my camera for anything beyond drunken photos with my friends at parties, but since I came here I’ve really started to take a liking to photography. Yet without the ability to manually focus or even zoom in from a reasonable distance my creativity has been dwindling. I think it’s time for a step up, even if I am only going to be here for another four months.

My second realization has to do with language. Before coming to Japan I had only taken one year of formal instruction, scarcely enough to bring me up to a competent level (mainly because I was studying it as a hobby alongside my real focus, computer engineering). So even though I was dying to go out and make friends in Japanese when I arrived, I was disappointed to learn that I could barely understand a word that the people around me were saying. And my pride prevented me from going out and just sounding stupid. So I went to Starbuck’s and studied. A lot.

On the other hand Alana majored in Japanese at her college, arriving already at a level pretty similar to where I am now (somewhere between 2級 and 3級 for those of you who know what that means). Rather than studying day and night she spent nearly all of her time out with friends who couldn’t speak a word of English. As a result, her conversation is fantastic. My “realization” is that it’s time for me to go out and start embarassing myself. I don’t have much time left here, and it’s time to bring my speaking up to par with my listening and reading. I just hope that I can manage to decrease my study time enough to make this possible; last semester I studied all the time because I wanted to, but this semester is a different story altogether. A-Class is freaking HARD!

If you’re reading this Kusunoki Sensei, I’m begging you to come and take over A-Class. Save us from the mind-numbingly boring Murakami Sensei. Make learning fun again! We miss you!

  16 Responses to “Alana”

  1. I know what you mean about the photography thing. I was the same way taking nothing more than point and shoot pictures of friends (mostly drunk). I got a Canon Digital Rebel XT about 2 months ago and have really gotten into the photography thing. The pictures you can take with a real camera are SOOOO much better than the ones you get with a point and shoot (of course a good camera in incapable hands will not produce….having decent equiptment isn’t everything). I have gone a bit over board and now own 3 pro quality lenses, flashes, filters, tripods, etc. The camera can really be extended by the lens you stick on it, and you can really change your range. If you want to get in to it, send me an email and I would be more than happy to chat your ear off.

    RE the language stuff……you have the right idea….the only way to get it is to make a fool out of yourself. The more you speak japanese and the less you speak english, the better you will get. I learned Italian soooo much quicker when I was actively trying to not speak english….and I wasn’t learning twice as fast, it was more like 15 times as fast! You really do progress when you do it.


  2. Wow, I had no idea you’d been getting into the photo thing too…what types of stuff have you been shooting? I’d think that it would be relatively tough to find new and interesting “subjects” in a place where you’ve spent your whole live (i.e. CA), but then again what do I know – I never tried photography at all until I came here 🙂

    I’d love to have my ear chatted off too, unfortunatley my stupid internet issue only permits me to chat while I’m up on the roof…which is usually during your sleeping hours. What made you pick the Rebel XT, though? It’s a bit above my price range I think, but I’m curious what types of things you had in mind while making the purchase (and what you think of the Powershot S2 IS)

  3. I have been getting into air to air photography. It presents some very interesting challanges. The first one being the prop. If the prop is stopped, the plane looks wierd and as though it is not flying. You therefore need to shoot at a slow shutter speed. Normally you would just mount the camera on a tripod and be done with it. This is not so easy in a plane as everything is vibrating due to the engine. You need to keep the window open as well so you have 150mph wind ripping at the camera. This generally leads to the use of a gyro stabilizer–a small device which acts like a tripod but isn’t attached to anything. It screws into the tripod mount of the camera and contains spining wheels that rotate at around 20,000 RPM. The principles of physics cause the stabilizer to resist motion and stabilize the camera. Now you have a camera that is stable and have overcome the fist hurrdle.

    The next big hurddle is the lighting. The only real time you can shoot is 1 hour after sunrise or 1 hour before sunset. When the sun gets too high in the sky, it creates strange shadows, especially on high wing planes. The wing tends to shadow out half of the body and looks terrible. Next you have to deal with the glare from the sun. The sun reflecting of the glass and body of an airplane can be REALLY harsh. Usually you can solve this with just a circular polarizing filter. Next comes the weather…..clouds, fog, etc drastically limit the number of days that you can shoot. Morning fog and evening fog will kill you since this is usually when you need to shoot. Next is the background…..when you are flying at 150mph, it is CONSTANTLY changing and makes it very difficult to shoot what you want. Next is the flying. You need two REALLY good pilots who can fly withing 5 feet of each other at 150+mph, while turning, accelerating, slowing down, etc. This alone would be tough….let alone doing it while staying in the “photo slot”.

    Anyway……it is a lot of fun to try and get good stuff. You can see an air to air shoot I did of a Pitts S2C at this gallery:
    This was my first real air to air shoot and we screwed up a ton of things – we didn’t use the polarizer for the first pass, during the entire shoot I had the autofocus point manually set to the front left spot so the focus is always on whatever was covering that spot, the lens was a piece of junk, and we had a number of problems with the gyro stabilizer. Surprisingly enough though, we got some very decent pictures…..especially near the end. We blew a number of them up to poster size and they look AMAZING!

    The S2 IS is in a totally different category / class than the Digital Rebel XT. The S2IS is a consumer level camera. It has more features then your basic point and shoot camera, but is by no means a “real” camera. The Digital Rebel XT is an SLR pro-style camera, yet retains a lot of the consumer level features shut as fully automatic mode thus making it the perfect entry level camera into the pro class. It will let you mount any lens you want, any flash you want, etc. You thus have much more flexibility as you can mount a lens for taking landscape shots, one for portraits, one for macro (close ups of insects and stuff), one for low light, one for a LONG zoom, etc. With the S2 IS, you are stuck to what they give you (and from what I read, the lens isn’t that great). It has a lot more flexibility than your old camera, but nowhere near as much as an SLR.

    Some specs:
    S2-IS will do 50-400, but is reported as noisey above 200
    Digital Rebel XT will do 100-1600
    This is a big one. There have been MANY times when I wanted to shoot in low light and couldn’t use a flash. Being able to shoot at an ISO above 400 made the shot possible.

    Shooting speed
    S2-IS will shoot at 1.5fps
    Digital Rebel XT will shoot 2.8 shots per second, and has a 14 JPEG buffer so you can keep shooting even if you can’t write them quick enough to the card.
    Again, the Digital rebel has a BIG advantage here

    S2-IS has a built in flash
    Digital Rebel XT can use an external one. This is a BIG issue as the lighting will generally determine the quality of a shot. With the XT, you can use external speedlights and with ETTL-2, you get better flash metering. You can mount a wireless master on the body and control off camera strobes so that the lighting isn’t harsh and direct-on.

    S2-IS is a 5mp camera
    Digital Rebel XT is an 8.2mp camera

    The S2-IS is stuck with a low quality lens that has suffer from a number of optical flaws
    The XT can be used with any lens from cheap S2IS quality to the $7200 EF 600 f/4L IS USM

    S2-IS has nearly a 2 second on-to capture time
    Digital Rebel XT is instant

    The Digital Rebel XT is a higher quality camera. If you are looking for image quality and features to support your creativety, an SLR is going to win hands down every time. If you want consumer level features like the ability to record crap quality movies and stuff like that, go with the S2IS. Also, you pay for what you get. The S2IS will set you back $500. The Digital Rebel XT will set you back $700 without a lens. A half decent lens such as the EF 28-135 f3.5-5.6 IS USM (one of the most popular general purpose lenses) will run you $300-$500. A pro quality lens WAY more.

    Anyway, that should be enough to get you started. The best site for reviews of SLR equiptment and lens reveiws is http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Default.aspx
    You can find their review of the Digital Rebel XT here:
    A better site for comparing a Digital Rebel XT review to an S2-IS review would be http://www.dpreview.com
    You can find their S2IS review here:
    You can find their Digital Rebel XT Review here:

    Let me know if you have any more questions,


  4. Whoa dude! That IS some info, haha 🙂 So I guess my one main question is how did you learn all of this (particularly about lenses?) I’ve always wondered how those crazy photographers with a collection of a thousand lenses know which is appropriate for what situation. Obviously higher quality lenses yield higher quality pictures, but why do you need to have so many different ones with you while you’re out for a day of photographing? Without this type of knowledge, I cant see that the larger and more expensive Rebel would be worthwhile over a smaller, cheaper one that offers many similar features (over a point-and-shoot, at least) just without the lenses and whatnot (which also seem pretty pricy…)

  5. hehe 🙂 Yeah…….I am kinda into it

    Hrmmmmm…..so you want some lens info…..well…..I don’t know where to start so I will arbitrarily pick something and dub it the first thing 🙂

    The first thing to look at when picking a lens is the zoom range shown in mm. There are prime lenses and zoom lenses. A typical prime lens would be a 50mm lens. This is equivalent to what the human eye sees. Zoom lenses will have a focal length like 24-105mm or 70-200mm, and hence can change their focal length. At first you would say, well why would anyone want a prime lens which constricts them to a fixed focal length when a zoom lens is flexible. The first thing that would seem like an answer would be price. If you can change the focal length, the lens ought to be more expensive. NOT TRUE! Prime lenses can cost MUCH MUCH more than zoom lenses. This is due to the fact that prime lenses are usually higher quality and faster. You can find very high quality zoom lenses like the ones in the Canon L-Series line, but it is almost impossible to find ones that are as fast as primes.

    When I say fast, it can be a bit misleading. Speed of a lens really has nothing do with how fast it focuses or shoots, but with what the lowest f-stop that it can use. An f2.8 lens is faster than an f4 lens. What f stop is has to do with the size of the opening thru which light enters the camera – the Aperature. A lower number means a larger hole and more light entering the camera. You thus can leave the aperature open for shorter time than and still get the same amount of light to enter. Hence the lens is “faster”. There are no Canon zoom lenses that are faster than f/2.8. Almost all prime lenses at least f/2.8 lenses with many f/2.0, f/1.8, f/1.4 lenses and an f/1.2 lens. The only primes that are slower than f/2.8 are the ultra long ones like the 300mm-1200mm range.

    This leads to another misconception. It would appear that the faster a lens the better. This is not always true. The larger the aperature (opening), the smaller the Depth Of Field (DOF). This means that if you want to shoot a landscape, you want a long depth of field so that the forground and background are all in focus, and thus a high f stop like f/22. When shooting portraits, however, you usually want a smaller DOF so that only the subject is in focus like f/4. The background is then out of focus and the eye is drawn to your subject. Thus a fast lens isn’t critical if you are shooting landscapes, but is VERY useful when shooting people. This is mainly why I would want a specialized prime lens for portraits. Canon makes an 85mm lens that will step down to f1.2 (That is VERY low). The DOF with that lens is paper thin which forces you to nail your focus DEAD on, but the background blurs you get can be STUNNING! As soon as I get $1500 to blow on a lens, that will be my next lens (actually, I have more interest in the 70-200 f/2.8 IS but that is another story since I already have the 70-200 f/4). Also, the lower the f stop, the larger the aperature, the more light that gets through the lens, and the better it will handle low light. You can thus sometimes shoot in near darkness without a flash (depending on other settings as well–ISO, shutter speed, etc).

    So the ideal solution would be to have a high quality prime lens for every focal length you would ever want to shoot, and have the ability to instantly change them in and out…..but this will never happen. Thus many people go with zoom lenses that cover the focal lengths they want to shoot, and a few primes for specific purposes. They also make special lenses like macro lenses designed to shoot up close with high magnification (for things like insects etc), tilt shift lenses for shooting architecture (makes lines straight so the buildings look “correct”), lenses designed for astrophotography, etc.

    Then there are other choices. Image stabilized lenses have a system that counters shake and allows you to shoot hand held at slower speeds than you normally would be able to. This adds weight, size, and cost to a lens. Image stabilization works VERY well, but it is a tradeoff. There are three pro-grade 70-200mm lenses from canon. A 70-200 f/4L that costs ~$600. A 70-200mm f/2.8L lens that costs ~$1200. And a 70-200 f/2.8 IS that costs ~$1700. They are roughly the same in terms of quality, with minor differnces in the line (weather sealing on the 2.8IS). The major difference is the jump from f/4 to f/2.8, and the addition of Image Stabilization to the f/2.8 lens. Yet many photographers own 2 of these lenses. The f/4 and f/2.8IS have distinct uses. The f/4 is lightweight and portable. It makes a good lens if you don’t need to shoot at f/2.8 and if you don’t need Image Stabilization. The f/2.8IS is heavy and bulky (not something you would always want to carry around) but in low light is a much better choice due to the larger aperature and Image stabilization which would allow you to shoot at a slower shutter speed. Pluses and Minuses.

    Finally we arrive at lens quality. By having an insanely complex lens with many elements, you could eliminate all optical flaws such as chromatic aberation etc. (time to bust out the physics text book and review optics….the laws directly apply here). The cost of such a flawless lens would be astronomical. The idea is to get as close to flawless as possible as your budget will allow. A pro-level L series lens like many photographers use to earn a living will work on your camera and offers excellent optical quality, but will usually cost at least a $1000. Cheaper lenses have fewer elements, but will work much better than point and shoot lenses. Cheap lesnses are usually plastic, pro lenses metal. Cheap lenses are almost never weather sealed, expensive ones usually are. Cheap lenses usually have slower louder motors than more expensive ones–more time to focus. Cheap lenses may not allow you to manually focus when in autofocus mode (sounds strange but can be useful). Cheap lenses may not have windows to indicate the current focal length. Some zoom lenses may not have a constant aperature throught the zoom range. Lenses like the 28-135 f3.5-5.6 for example, will be capable of shooting at f3.5 and up when zoomed out, but will only be able to shoot at f5.6 when zoomed in. Having a constant aperature can be nice as you then don’t have to adjust your settings if you change the zoom.

    And it just goes on and on and on

    The best thing to do is just get your feet wet. Get a decent “Everyday walk around general purpose” type lens and start learning about f stops, shutter speed, exposure, DOF, etc. and go from there. Once you find out what you shoot and how you like to shoot it, you can then get high quality lenses that are better tailored for specific uses. That is the nice thing about SLR. You can start shooting x style photos and then get a new lens and start shooting a differnt type of thing. You can use economy lenses with decent optics or you can use the same lenses pros use. You are not limited, but have many options available to you….weather you want a high quality prime, or something basic that won’t kill your pocket book if it gets wrecked while on a mountain bike trip.

    As far as walking around with a ton of lenses. You generally don’t need to. I have one lens that I use as my everyday lens and leave on the camera, and several others that I will bring under specific circumstances. My general every day lens is a Canon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS USM. It meets 85% of my needs. I will sometimes leave my EF 70-200 f/4 L USM on the camera instead.

    Alright……that is enough for now. You can start looking at this website which should give you a lot of information on lenses. At the bottom, you can find a Lens Recomendation section which is basic but might help you as well:

    Let me know if you have any other questions,


    PS: I just got an SD450 as my everyday camera. I took my first photos with it tonight. The quality was so much worse than my Digital Rebel XT that I wanted to puke. I then compared it to my old Sony and the SD450 was MUCH better. Strange how something that at one time seemed very good is now total CRAP. I can’t believe how much worse point and shoot pictures are……..it really helps to have decent tools. If only I could get a tiny SLR 🙂

  6. Holy crap! That’s a LOT about lenses! That actually does start to give me a really good idea at what the differences are…the deep world of photography begins to unfold. My long-time question was always just “what the hell do you look at when choosing a specific lense for a specific situation,” but I guess it’s just like anything – why is it that you and I know what chipset we want on our motherboards while some people know what type of exhaust they want on their cars. There’s always something specific to look for, you just have to know what it is…

    That’s interesting that you decided to go with the SD450 for your portable camera; the SD400, its predecessor, is what i’ve been using since I replaced my old 110. It’s a great little unit for its size, but like you said, even when looking at its pictures next to the S2 IS’s there’s such a difference it’s almost disgusting. I guess that’s what got me started on this whole rampage in the first place. The hugest difference in my mind was night shots – because so much of the awesomeness of Japan happens after dark (festivals, etc) it’s a super hassle to only be able to capture what’s within the range of the incredibly weak flash for fear of makin everything blurry or grainy with the flash off. Plus the SD400 has virtually no zoom 🙂

    Still, I think that for now I’m gonna go with the S2, slightly more entry-level than Digital Rebel. I make this decision mainly for two reasons: one, budget. If I’m going to invest in a $750 Digital Rebel, it’s clear that I’d also would want to have some cash on hand to get at least one or two lenses to experiment with. I don’t…and for $475 the S2 offers worlds of improvement over what I’m using now. The second is size: even though I’m back and settled in Kyoto, I’m still living a pretty transient life, and therefore portability is key.

    Anyways, thanks so much for the feedback – it’ll be fun to go on a little photo-fest whenever it is that we both get back to the US…not to mention FINALLY do some skydiving together 🙂

  7. Night shots (or low light shots in general) are MUCH easier to get with the right equiptment. Being able to use high sensitivity setting (high ISO – 800/1600) and a fast lens (low f stop number for a larger aperature) makes it possible to get shots that would usually need a flash, without usuing one at all.

    Those are both good reasons to get a point and shoot style camera over a DSLR. I have an entire backpack filled with photo gear. It is not designed to be compact or portable, it is designed to get the best quality pictures possible and offer the most to support your creativity. Also, the Digital Rebel with a starter lens will probably cost twice as much as the S2IS (but you DEFINETLY get what you pay for).

    And I would be more than happy to bring my gear to Japan when I come visit you 😉


  8. WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT? All 7 comments were just essay long discussions about cameras. WTF

  9. Pssshhh…..well maybe if YOU would’ve commented about some crazy drunken 3am adventure on Hollywood Boulevard it would’ve livened things up a bit! But noooo, you just had to go complaaaaiining!


  10. Justin!

    I think I agree that you’ll eventually want to get an slr.

    You do wonders with your current camera, so I know youll quickly outgrow the highend consumer camera, and want an slr.

    The cool thing about digi slrs (and the rebel xt) is that you can use andrews lenses and test them, before you buy them. Also if you upgrade in a few years to an ever more complex camera (like the Eos20D) youll be able to use those lenses youll already have.


  11. Or a 5D that I can borrow till I get ready to blow $3200 on a body 🙂

  12. I thought long and hard about getting the S2IS before I chose it. I thought about going for a real digital SLR, but I had to be honest: I would ever, or very rarely, lug a camera that big, much less a tripod and multiple lenses and external flashes, around with me. No way. No matter how good of a photographer you are, and no matter how good or expensive or well-chosen your camera and equipment are, if you don’t have your camera with you when the moment comes, you’re never going to get the shot. My life is in constant motion and I take almost all my shots when traveling. For my purposes the S2IS is the perfect balance.

    I think it’s all to easy to get caught up in having the best equipment, but one thing I’ve realized is that you can get great shots with even a basic camera. Hell, my last gallery show in Chicago was a success and I sold several photographs – all taken with a crappy point and shoot that I hated! Yes, your shot can be ruined if you’re equipment isn’t up to the job, but as long as you have basic functionality there are more important ways to develop yourself as a photographer than having the latest lens bling in your camera bag.

    Just my two yen.

    PS justin the other weekend was hella fun! mata neeee!!

  13. Reading my post I realized: I can no longer speak English. Please forgive me my typos and strange grammar. It’s been a long time….

  14. Good comments Alanna…..you make some valid points. For my personal use, I find that there are definetly times when I don’t know I am going to be shooting….and there is no way to carry around a DSLR and all the equpitment just in case. For me a small point and shoot that I can carry all the time and use when traveling generally meets these types of needs (even if it isn’t as nice as an S2IS). Yet there are MANY times when I know I am going to be shooting and want the extra quality / flexibilty of a DSLR (especially in low light) (I just got a canon 85mm f1.4 lens that handles low light AMAZINGLY if you don’t need a large DOF). Having both a DSLR and a smaller camera for everyday use is the best solution in my mind, but other factors may prevent that–namely budget constraints. The S2IS is a decent middle of the road camera (between small point and shoot and DSLR) if you don’t want to lug the whole kit that goes along with a DSLR, or just can’t afford one……and it has many features to support your creativity not found on tiny cameras.

    Congrats your show and selling some pictures…….that is really a great feeling. I just saw my first picture published in a magazine even though I didn’t submit the photo, which was very thrilling for me.

    Justin……I know how Alanna feels about posting bad English to your site. I have done that same MANY a time and wished you had a spell check or a way to edit comments once you post and see how bad they really are (I know….I should proof read before posting…but meh)

  15. Haha well, you could always just ask me to change something in ur comment 🙂 That being the less lazy approach to actually adding an “edit if you’re the creator of this comment” button 😛

    How did u get a photo published in a magazine (and which photo) if u didnt submit it?

  16. It was a picture I took of my step mom in Las Vegas. Soap Opera digest wanted a photo of her and picked mine after looking through the ones she had. Nothing special at all, but made me smile when I saw it out of the blue.

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