Around The Block With Cityscape Master, Kohki Yamaguchi

by Kohki Yamaguchi

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Kohki Yamaguchi (@kohki) rose to fame for his breath-taking photography. He is also the founder of @Discovertokyo which is a Tokyo based photography community. Having graduated from the University of Sydney in 2017 with a double major BA in Critical Thinking and Visual Arts, Kohki has since been freelancing in Tokyo, for many major brands.  

Through his Instagram, Kohki has nurtured and groomed his love for cityscape photography with Tokyo as his primary subject. For him, Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for its wide variations and distinct districts, making it a suitable destination for cityscape photography. 

Alpha 1 | FE 24mm F2.8 G | 1/2 sec | F9 | ISO 125

Better Cityscapes with the Sony Alpha  

According to Kohki, capturing Tokyo only gets better with his trusty Sony Alpha 7R III and his favourite prime lens. “I am a prime lens person, so I ended up owning most of them. For cityscapes, I prefer using the Sony FE 14mm F1.8 GM, Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA and Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8 ZA.” 

Kohki often carries the classic FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM lens for film shooting. However, as he can’t bring all these great lenses in one trip, he’ll rock the FE 85mm F1.4 GM or the FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS, which works for both stills and videos. 

Recently, Kohki is loving the Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8 ZA as it works not only for landscape photography but different genres as well, including portraits. “The Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8 ZA comes with me on 99% of my shoots, regardless of what I’m shooting. Its small and light weight combined with its excellent resolution and powerful capabilities make it a reliable companion during shoots.” 

Alpha 1 | FE 24mm F2.8 G | 1.6 sec | F11 | ISO 100

For cameras, Kohki has entrusted the Alpha series to capture his visions and adventures. Its enhanced image processing, smooth autofocus performance, and comfort that supports tough workflow make it a phenomenal companion when shooting the outdoors. 

“Any Sony Alpha camera is great for landscapes. I usually use the Alpha 7R III and I’ve tried the Alpha 1 –both possess the best dynamic range, making them perfect for cityscape photography. I would recommend the Alpha 7R Series or the Alpha 1 if you’re looking to capture breathtaking images or deciding to make printouts of your work in the future,” added Kohki. 

Since cityscapes usually capture extensive views of cities with fine details of every structure, Kohki finds the Alpha cameras’ wide sensor to be ideal for cityscape photography. The Alpha 1, in particular, has a 50-megapixel sensor that is especially appealing for the photographer. This means printing works on a massive scale will not diminish the quality of the images. Given that cityscape photos are usually brimmed with details, the Alpha 1 is an ideal gear for this genre of photography. 

“The 50 MP sensor allows me to crop original images that are perfect for social media without compromising the quality. I will still have a large and crisp file that I am satisfied with. It also enables me to create a vertical oriented image from a single horizontal photograph,” he added. 

Alpha 1 | FE 24mm F2.8 G | 1.6 sec | F11 | ISO 100

From Filters to Technology 

To get that smooth sky, Kohki would use a tripod with a VND filter (variable non-density filter) at midday, resulting in cityscape images with a trademark calm look. The filter allows him to lower the shutter speed, which will then result in a calming landscape that is similar to the brushstrokes used in impressionist paintings. To get a sharper image with glowing highlights, Kohki instead uses a pro-mist filter, as the filter will help take the edge off images.

Alpha 1 | FE 55mm F1.8 ZA | 1/100 sec | F8 | ISO 160

A digital native, Kohki has been using online resources to continually improve his craft. “I often use Google Earth to view and research a location, building layouts and visual layers before attempting a shoot. This provides me with a good sense on how the images will turn out, and the spot I should be taking the photos from. After a day of shooting, I refine and process the images in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.” 

On Tourists and Timing 

When it comes to popular tourist destinations, Kohki seems to have found the perfect solution. “When I want a clean photograph of a tourist spot, I will take the initiative to go early in the morning, before the tourists arrive.” He often compares photos from other photographers; and even challenges himself to take photos of locations that other photographers have not attempted, or from a time of day that others are less inclined to take. This way, he discovered that he was able to put himself to the test and craft amazing photos that are new and unique.  

Alpha 7R III | FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM | 18mm | 1/50 sec | F5.6 | ISO 100

Photography, to Kohki, is about timing. It is about making sure you grasp the right time in the season, especially when capturing seasonal flowers or events taking place. However, he has found daylight savings, earth days or city light maintenance being hindrances, resulting in dimmer photos. When shooting cityscape, especially at night, he suggests ensuring first that the city lights are switched on at a landmark before beginning the session. Checking the haze index is crucial, too, especially for tourists who have limited time to capture the establishments. These can make or break a photograph.

Alpha 1 | FE 24mm F2.8 G | 1/50 sec | F3.5 | ISO 250

Lighting and Settings 

Using apps, Kohki is also able to accurately predict the direction of the sun at a specific time of day - setting up lighting for day-time cityscapes. At night, he prefers to shoot under the new moon to avoid any reflections from the moon or exposure to any light. Additionally, Kohki strays away from locations with higher source of light pollution, such as the city or town.  

His cityscapes are shot raw with standard colour profiles, as opposed to the style presets that may often come as a camera feature, since he is satisfied with the colour science in Alpha cameras. “When taking pictures of cityscapes and landscapes, I feel no need to rush. Single shooting helps me to take it slow and put heavy thought on every shot that I take. For this kind of shoots, I think it's important to always step back and take it slow,” he said. 

His ISO is set at the lowest possible (100-400), while the aperture is set at F8 or even F11 for landscapes, with the shutter speed at the same as his focal length or up to two times the focal length.

Alpha 1 | FE 24mm F2.8 G | 1/100 sec | F8 | ISO 100

“I try my best to make sure my photographs carry a theme and make sure to nail the colour palette. I do this by focusing on a few colours only instead of having photos with wide variation. This sets the overall tone of my photos,” said Kohki. “Sometimes, I add blues to the shadows and highlights for a cooler tone. This results in a minimal and monotoned look without trying too hard,” he said.  

All these have their drawbacks, as he is limited to what he can post thematically, and often must ditch photos that do not follow in aesthetics and tone balance.  

A photographer can capture the cityscape from a variety of vantage points—whether from the middle of the street or from the view from the rooftop of the tallest building. One just needs to be creative in how they want to present the man-made wonders in front of them. While the camera, lens, and composition play an essential role in the end-product, it’s the photographer’s unique style that will ultimately stand out. 

Alpha 1 | FE 24mm F2.8 G | 1/250 sec | F5.6 | ISO 100
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