The Awa Odori is one of Japan’s largest dance festivals and is held annually every August, attracting over a million visitors. Awa is the old name for Tokushima Prefecture—where the festivals originated—and odori means dance.

The festival dates back to over 400 years ago and there are several theories regarding its history. However, all of them speak of a large street dance party. Although the festival may be linked back to reveling villagers, today, it’s an event that teams of dancers, known as ren, put a lot of work into training for.

The three-day event is a kaleidoscope of costumes, music, movement, and tradition. Having lived in Japan for 10 years with my family, this massive street festival is one of my favorite festivals to photograph.

Discover the Tradition:
Awa Odori Festival

Photographing a dance festival however, can be a tricky affair. From streets packed with revelers, to the flurry of dancers; capturing the best moments of the evening can be a challenge. As a photographer, I need to be able to move fast to capture everything. That’s why I chose to use Sony's Alpha cameras for these large-scale events. From low-light situations to fast-tracking focus, Sony's Alpha system supports the vision I want to create.

Below is my guide on how I managed to create these photos using the Sony Alpha cameras and G Master lenses. 

JOIN THE CELEBRATION

Alpha 9 | Vario-Tessar T* FE 24–70 mm F4 ZA OSS | 50 mm | 1/640 sec | f/4.5 | ISO 800

This photo reflects the opening performance from the first night of the Awa Odori. To reflect the scale of the event, I climbed to the top of the stands in order to get a full view of the event—from the captivated audience to the synchrony of all the performers. I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action in the moment and used a 50 mm focal length to reflect the scene as a whole. From the rich colors of the evening sky to the lanterns in the event space, and, finally, the expressions of the performers, this wide focal length is perfect for reproducing the scale of the evening while still capturing the excitement of the moment.

WATCH THE TOE-TAPPING ARTISTRY

Alpha 9 | FE 70–200 mm F4 G OSS | 1/125 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 2000

This photograph shows the geta (traditional platform sandals) worn by the female dancers during Awa Odori. I wanted to show the dancers’ graceful energy whilst wearing these unique cultural costumes. To create this photo, I laid down on the street and made their feet the foreground focus. However, in order to also capture the action in the background, I kept my shot wide enough to capture the full forms of the troupe in the background.

As the movements are fairly fast, I used the AF-C (Auto Focus), Flexible Spot: M tracking focus to lock in the focus of the dancer’s feet, and selected a high shutter speed to freeze her left foot whilst still creating a slightly blurred motion with her raised right foot to showcase the flurry of movement. By using the Flexible Spot: M focus area, I was able to ensure focus on my subject (the dancer’s feet) at all times. I shot a burst of fast frames per second so that I could have the luxury of choosing the best moment of action.

To capture the details of the scene, I also used a high ISO in this otherwise dimly lit situation and kept my F stop wide enough so that there wouldn’t be much depth of field and only the feet of the dancer in the foreground would be in focus.

MARVEL AT THE FANTASTICAL HATS

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24 mm F1.4 GM | 1/1250 sec | f/1.6 | ISO 500

This photo showcases female dancers wearing the traditional Amigasa hats, walking to the start of their performance space just as the sun sets. To showcase the unique culture of this festival, I used the hat as the central focus of the picture and framed the rest of the scene around it. From the hand-held fans that her fellow dancers are holding, to the angle of the building, I made the hat the central “peak in the sky” that everything is being pulled toward.

To make my audience feel close to this dancer, I used a 24 mm G Master wide-angle lens with a bigger aperture to create the feeling of being surrounded by these performers.

The high resolution of Sony's Alpha 7R IV also helps bring this shot to life. Taken just past sunset, I still managed to only use natural lighting thanks to the 61.0-megapixel Exmor R CMOS image sensor. This camera also comes packed with 15 stops of dynamic range and a wide ISO range. These features help to create an impressively smooth image that captures deep shadows and highlights, while keeping noise down to a minimum. Being able to use natural light without any flash is important for street and festival photography, as this allows you to get up close to your subjects without intimidating or scaring them off with a big flash of light.

EXPERIENCE THE ENERGETIC SPIRIT

Alpha 9 | FE 70–200 mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1/200 sec | f/4 | ISO 800

The Awa Odori is a spectacle that celebrates the art of traditional Japanese dance. In order to showcase the perfect synchronicity of these dancers, I used a 70–200 mm F2.8 G Master lens to take me closer to the action and show off the perfect form and expressive, smiling faces of these dancers as they make their way past the crowd.

I used Real-time Eye AF to track the eye of the lead dancer and shot a burst of pictures with her as the central focus. The use of Eye AF ensured that she was always in focus and allowed me to concentrate on perfecting the picture composition.

DELIGHT IN THE FINE DETAILS

Alpha 9 | FE 135 mm F1.8 GM | 1/320 sec | f/1.8 | ISO 2590

Within a large cultural festival such as the Awa Odori, there are both big and small details that create the beauty and awe of the celebrations. In this photo, I wanted to showcase the smaller details that one may initially miss. This dancer had a starfish tucked under her traditional Amigasa hat but I only noticed it after she had passed by.

I shot the image with a 135 mm F.18 G Master lens, which has an amazing sharpness that allowed me to capture all the tiny details of the starfish, and a wide 1.8 aperture to create a shallow depth of field. This creates a bokeh effect and it feels like the colored street lights behind her are enveloping her.

ADMIRE THE EXQUISITE FASHION

Alpha 9 | FE 135 mm F1.8 GM | 1/640 sec | f/1.8 | ISO 500

This image shows female dancers in traditional Amigasa hats passing by a dark, lantern-lit street. This shot has a lot of atmosphere but it is a tricky one to get right because of its low light. Therefore, I used the 135 mm F1.8 G Master lens with a wide, open F1.8 aperture to frame the scene against the bokeh of red and yellow lantern lights strung along the street.

MOVE TO THE RHYTHMIC BEAT

Alpha 9 | FE 70–200 mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1/250 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 500

In this photo, a performer is playing a narimono, one of Japan’s traditional stringed instruments. To showcase the elegant beauty of this instrument, I used the 70–200 mm F2.8 GM lens with the longest focal length I had (200 mm) with the widest aperture (F2.8) to isolate the neck of the narimono and the hand of the player.

As a result, there is no depth of field, making the background a blur of shape, color, and bokeh effect of the lantern light, throwing the focus solely onto the instrument.

Discover the Tradition:
Awa Odori Festival

David's Gear for Awa Odori

ILCE-7RM4

Alpha 7R IV

ILCE-7RM4

ILCE-9

Alpha 9 

ILCE-9

SEL70200GM

FE 70-200 mm F2.8 GM OSS

SEL70200GM

SEL24F14GM

FE 24mm F1.4 GM

SEL24F14GM

SEL135F18GM

FE 135mm F1.8 GM

SEL135F18GM

SEL70200G

FE 70–200 mm F4 G OSS

SEL70200G

 

SEL2470Z

VARIO-TESSAR T* FE 24–70 mm F4 ZA OSS

SEL2470Z