Miyako Koumura: Photogrphing Japan’s Flowers For Posterity

By Arthur H. Bleich

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

It’s midnight in a small town west of Tokyo and almost everyone’s asleep except for Miyako Koumura . She’s loading her photo equipment into an old, silver-gray Honda Fit (her economical and reliable companion, she calls it), preparing to set out for Chuzenji Lake in Nikko National Park, about a three-hour drive north.

By the time she arrives the sky has begun to lighten. After parking her car, she  gathers her gear and sets out on a hike through dense forest trails. Bears roam freely here and their occasional roars can be heard but that doesn’t deter her. Reaching the shoreline of the lake an hour-and-a-half later, she pauses to munch on a snack.

As the sky turns pink from the light of the sun soon to rise, thousands of multi-hued Japanese Primroses gracefully sway in the cool morning breezes, doing their Tai Chi exercises. For Miyako, it’s time to get to work.

AB: That’s quite an ordeal to go through just to photograph flowers.

MK: Yes, indeed. But when the sun rises, the lake becomes a huge reflector “board” and the flowers are illuminated with light from underneath which is not possible with most flower images shot in natural settings. It gives them an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking.

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

AB: You weren’t always a photographer, in fact, you became one rather late in life and by a most circuitous route.

MK: Yes, I have only been at it for about nine years and not full time. I was working at a translation agency in Tokyo where documents for camera manufacturers were created and I was not actually interested in photography–it was someone else’s hobby related to our business.

AB: And then…

MK: I became involved in a big project for Ricoh, who wished to develop their market share in Europe and I decided to acquire their GRX camera with an M-mount adapter and a Leica 50mm, f-1.4 lens. It instantly fascinated me– it was something new that allowed me to be creative.

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

AB: That’s a good beginning, I’d say, but a bit strange considering the lens cost considerably more than the camera body.

MK: At the time, I didn’t know if the camera was any good and later I bought a much better one, but the lens was just wonderful. I am still a big fan of Leica lenses.

AB: But you must admit, most lenses on digital cameras today will do a fine job of capturing images.

MK: Not with flowers. I found some lenses captured flowers more beautifully than they are seen with the eyes. To continue to see that magic, I think I’ll keep on taking flower photos.

AB: Your images are infused with the love of flowers. Have you always been enamored of them?

MK: Well, I grew up in a small city about 150 km from Kyoto near the Sea of Japan where we were surrounded by nature—there were always flowers around, and I remember picking them and making garlands with them so you might say I always loved them.

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

AB: Were you influenced by any images of flowers done by others?.

MK: Since I was a child, I have been intrigued by Japanese watercolor paintings. As flower photography became my passion, I was naturally influenced by them. I like to express the beauty, strength and joy of the ephemeral lives of flowers in that style.

AB: You have, then, developed a very close attachment to your subjects?

MK: Oh, yes! The goal of my flower photography is to express the pride and strength of flowers and other plants– living every moment with all their energy despite their fragility.

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

AB: What are your favorite flower images and when is the best time to shoot them?

MK: My favorites are flowers with morning dew and flowers in the evening light. It’s thrilling to wait for dawn along with the flowers and at those times I feel very close to them. We wait together for the sun to rise.

AB: What about shooting flowers at other times of day?

MK: One can also achieve good results. Last year I visited a huge field of Cosmos flowers. I arrived there before dawn and kept shooting throughout the day until it got dark. As the time passed, they took on different auras which were very exciting and produced some wonderful photos.

AB: What equipment do you currently use?

MK: My camera is a Sony Alpha a7 II with these lenses: Canon EF 135/f-2.0; Canon EF 70-300/f-4–5.6L; Sigma 70/f-2.8; Leica Elmarit 28/f-2.8; and, of course my old friend the Leica Summilux 50/f-1.4.

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

AB: What techniques do you use to shoot your images?

MK: I seldom use a tripod, which gives me more mobility. I use the swiveling viewfinder and shoot flowers sitting or lying down, sometimes coming very close to them. I am often covered with fallen leaves, dirt or mud and once, returning from a location, someone pointed out that I had a worm crawling in my hair.

AB: What apertures and shutter speeds do you find to be best for your work?

MK: Many of my photos are taken at very high shutter speeds like 1/4000th of a second as I love taking flowers lit by strong morning or evening light and high speeds allow me to use apertures of f-1.4 or f-2.0 to isolate them from the background.

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

AB: I imagine fast shutter speeds also help minimize blurred images due to the flowers moving in the breezes.

MK: Yes, it does, although my camera also has very good built-in image stabilization. I also shoot at a low ISO of 100 but I sometimes raise it up to 400, when shooting on a rainy day or before sunrise.

AB: It sounds like you now have a more creative and active life than sitting in an office translating camera manuals.

MK: When I was a small child I had heart disease and was very physically weak which, thankfully, I recovered from. When I took up flower photography I found that my long hikes let me breathe in the fresh air and breathe out the stress. In my opinion, photography is one of the best ways to keep you healthy.

Image © Miyako Koumura. All rights reserved.

AB: One last question. Aside from the esthetic satisfaction you get, do you have any other goals in mind when you photograph flowers?

MK: Many flowers that I shoot are “red listed” and should they become extinct in the future, I hope that my photos will let them live on forever for the enjoyment of those who were never able to see them alive in nature. That would be a good legacy, don’t you think?

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