This week you’re going join me on my Snow Monkey Photography Tour and Workshop, from Jan 28th to Jan 30, 2010, as I discuss the trip along with looking at some of my images.
This year was the first time I added the option to join me for a three day tour to photograph the Snow Monkeys in Nagano Prefecture, before we headed off to Hokkaido. Ten of the 12 people that had signed up for Hokkaido chose to join me for the Snow Monkey leg, and two more people that live locally had signed up just for the Snow Monkey trip, so we maintained our fully booked status and headed off to Nagano on a chartered bus, on the morning of January 28th. It took us the scheduled 4 hours to get over to Nagano, and we stopped for lunch just outside the town we were to stay in, and photography the monkeys.
To give us the most possible time shooting on this first day, we parked up and headed straight for the Monkey Park, which is about a 40 minute walk from the car park when the track is snow covered. For me as the organizer, this walk was the first hurdle, as we’d got some more senior participants with us this year, and I was a little worried that they’d all make it OK, but they were great, and although some of them took their time, we got into the park at Jigokudani, which basically translates as Hell Valley, including the few flights of stone steps up the mountain at the end, which can be pretty tiring.
It wasn’t that cold, probably around minus 2 degrees Celsius, or 28 degrees Fahrenheit. When you are dressed for standing around in the cold though, a 40 minute walk along an icy mountain track can generate quite a lot of heat, so most people were loosening their clothing on the way out. We arrived at the park just after 1PM, and the group started shooting straight away. Some of us shot the white balance card on the X-Rite Color Passport, to set a custom white balance on our cameras. Color balance and nailing exposure is something that I spend some time on, on the trip, especially as there is snow in many scenes, which makes exposure a little more challenging.
Here’s a photo of half of my group, around the hot spring pool in which the Snow Monkeys congregate. You can see just how close we get to the monkeys here. They are totally accustomed to us humans being right next to them as they warm themselves in the pool.
You can also see the wires strung across the side of the valley, across from the pool, and you can see how patchy the snow was, adding a little more challenge to the shooting, trying to get some nice backgrounds. I shot a few wide shots, but because the surrounding weren’t that attractive again this year, I didn’t share anything other than portraits of the monkeys.
In this next image of another member of our group photographing a monkey with a 17-40mm wide angle lens, and here you can see positive indifference in the monkey’s expression. You can also see that around the pool there is no settled snow. This is of course because the pool warms the rocks, so it doesn’t settle much here. Also, although the river banks, that you can also shoot the monkeys on is usually under snow, there was hardly any this year. We were lucky to get a few shots early on the second and third days with snow on the monkeys. We’ll look at some of these later.
Let’s start looking through some of my images in the order that I shot them now. There’s a lot to look through, so I won’t talk about all the shooting details of each image, to save time. First up is image 2426 (below). One of the things that I try to do while shooting the Snow Monkeys is to capture expressions or actions other than the norm. I shot this expression through the steam from the hot water, so there’s a bit of a lack of contrast, but I was able to salvage enough of an image to share, and I really wanted to do so because I love this expression. It looks to me like a forced smile, or a “Cheese!” for the photographer. You can also think of this as being like exaggerated chattering teeth, as the monkey shivers in the cold. Either way, it was a great moment to capture.
That is the only image I want to look at from the first afternoon. I uploaded others, and you can see all of the images in my gallery. I’ll put a link to list all shots in the show-notes.
The next is image is number 2431 (below), from the morning of the 29th. We were lucky enough to have some snow on the second day, so I was excited about the possibility of the group getting some shots of the monkeys with snow on their hair. These are getting more difficult to capture as the snow levels in the valley drop. There are two I want to look at here, and wanted to talk about not being able to see the eyes in this first shot. Normally, I wouldn’t include an image of an animal without being able to see the eyes, or at least closed eyes, as in some of my favorite Snow Monkey shots from last year.
Here though, I was happy to include this image, because we have such a strong visual clue as to what the eyes are doing. This monkey seems to be staring pensively at his hands, so although the eyes are not visible here, we can imagine them looking at the hands. You could even argue that the photo is stronger for the lack of the eyes, making us think about what the monkey is looking at more. With these monkeys being so much like us humans, we often want them to be highly intelligent, and they are, without doubt. On this occasion though, the monkey was sifting through the snow for seeds, and rather than looking at his hands, he was just checking the snow for seeds to eat. As an image, it still works, but a little background information on this occasion takes the potency out of the image to a degree.
In the next image, 2432 (left), shot about five minutes later, we see the monkey, again with an interesting gesture. This time his hands are together with fingers locked, in another pose that I for one consider to show thoughtfulness. It’s poses like this that I look for when shooting these guys. It’s not always that I see the pose, and then raise the camera. I might already have my camera trained on the subject, but then when they do something like this, I’ll make the exposure.
The other thing to note here, as I mentioned earlier, is that the snow will mess with your exposure metering here. The background around the head of the monkey here is slightly blown out. If I had left my camera in Aperture Priority mode, I’d have had to do exposure compensation to make sure the face of the monkey was not too dark in the shadows here. I could of course use spot metering, and meter on the fur, but I personally prefer to just use Manual mode, and take full control. As I set my exposure, I can see that the snow is blowing out slightly, but I can chose to ignore that, to get a good exposure on the monkey. If you allow the background to blow out too much, it can start to bleed into the detail on the edges of the main subject, or that fine fluffy fur around the edge of the monkey here, but the amount I overexposed required 12 points of Recovery in Lightroom to bring under control, so it really isn’t a problem. You can actually see as well that the light wispy hair actually protect the white snow directly behind it, stopping it from blowing out. The only parts that showed as blow out are pure white, a short distance away from the monkey.
Next we see another gesture in image 2433 (below), as this cute little monkey sticks his tongue out. I was actually standing above the pool, not on the lower level that we saw some participants standing on earlier. I was looking down to see if everyone was alright, having just been talking with some of the group members on the higher level. I turned and saw this little guy, and noticed his tongue sticking out, as I crouched to photograph him.
One thing that I should mention, although it’s pretty obvious, is that you really need to make sure that the eyes are sharp, when shooting animals. Especially when shooting with a wide aperture it can be difficult to get the focus right on the eyes. If you are shooting across the subject, as I am here, it can sometimes be a good idea to stop down a little, to get both eyes sharp, as I have here, stopping down to F5.6. I will sometimes stay wide when shooting across the subject like this, especially if I’m a little further away, but when I do, I always try to make sure the nearest eye is sharp. If the furthest eye is sharp it can look pretty weird or just like sloppy focusing.
I’ve photographed the distinguished macaque in image 2438 (right) a number of times, and just love doing tight portraits like this one of him. I uploaded a few others as well. Some of them where we can see his teeth as he chews on some grain or grass, but I like this particular image because of his slanted mouth, again, making him somewhat human with a dissatisfied look on his face. I used the 70-200mm F2.8 lens for this, leaning back to achieve the minimum focus distance for this lens. I can’t wait to take the new 70-200mm out here, as it has a few inches shorter minimal focus distance, which will make it perfect for this location with limited space to shoot from.
I couldn’t help including image 2439 (bel0w), in which we see four monkeys totally relaxed in their hot tub. It’s nice to get a group like this, all with their eyes closed, and with no other distractions in the frame. One thing to note here is that it can be difficult to get a group like this without cutting off their hands on one side of the frame. It can also be easy for someone with less experience to forget about the edges of the frame too, and only realize that they cut the hands on when they look at the shot on the PC later. It’s always helpful to scan the edges of the frame to ensure that all of the important elements are in the frame, and equally importantly, that nothing distracting is entering the edges of the frame. Another thing to pay attention to at this location is that people with bright clothing standing above the pool can sometimes reflect in the water, ruining a good shot. If you look at the water in the top right of this image, you can see the shape of someone standing on the edge of the pool, but luckily their clothing didn’t make them too noticeable. I did point this possibility out to the participants and some had not thought of or noticed this, so it was a good thing to pay attention to.
In image 2440 (below), again I’ve shot at the moment the macaque to the right looked directly at me. She was being groomed and pretty relaxed, but for some reason turned to look at me as I started to photograph the two of them. Maybe I moved quickly, or the sound of my shutter caught her attention. They are very used to us being there, but sometimes I think we catch their attention, and that worked out OK for me on this occasion.
The baby monkeys can be incredibly cute, as we can see in image 2444 (below). This little guy was chewing on something, and so I got that scrunched up nose, as he looked back at something to his side. In addition to being a cute little monkey photograph though, I wanted to mention that I expanded the white snow in the background with the clone tool for this shot, as there was a large dark patch to the right of the monkey as we view the image. The lack of snow can cause problems, and although I rarely clone to this extent, as it was a large expanse of out of focus background, I figured I’d go for it on this one, so that I could still use a relatively cute shot.
Almost done, this second to last shot, number 2445 (below), was a bit of a grab shot, but I was pretty pleased with it. We’d been shooting down by the river, and a few of us were about to head up the path that we can see this monkey sitting on, and head in to eat lunch, if I recall. Something about the way the monkey was just sitting and staring out across the valley struck me, so I fired off a frame or two. You can also see here that although there has been a lot of snow, it’s melted off in many places. We really were lucky to be able to get the images with snow on the monkeys that we looked at earlier.
And finally, I wanted to look at image 2449 (left), from the last morning, before we headed back to Tokyo. It was a Saturday morning, and the ledge around the hot spring pool was packed with local tourists. I was really happy that I’d avoided the weekend for our main day, and we spend a few hours shooting around the river and paths, and this was one of my last shots, as the last few participants finished up their shooting. Again, I was just looking for something other than a straight shot, so when this monkey lifted his foot, as if to protect it from the cold snow for a brief time, I made my exposure.
We left at lunch time, and headed back to Tokyo. On the way, I used some of the time on the bus to share my digital workflow with some of the participants, crowded around my laptop screen. This was good to do, as you will often learn something from seeing other’s work-flows, and I’m pretty happy with mine, so I thought I’d share it and it seemed to go down well.
To finish, although I played this in a quick update Podcast before we went to Hokkaido, here’s some quick comments from some of the participants that I recorded on the bus as we drove back to Tokyo on the Saturday afternoon!
<Playing Recording – Only available in the audio>
So, that’s it. We did have a great time over these first three days. I can’t wait to take another group out there again next year. Note that I am still finalizing the plans for next year, and will be releasing information on the Workshops page in the very near future. If you would like me to mail you to let you know when any details are announced, please mail me using the contact form. Note too that I am thinking of not making the Snow Monkey tour a solo option next year. There will be a shorter Hokkaido tour, and then the following week we’ll do the Snow Monkey tour, and then go straight to Hokkaido as one group. If there is enough demand to do a second Snow Monkey tour separate of the one integrated with the Hokkaido trip, then I’ll consider adding a second. If you absolutely, certainly, definitely are only interested in a Snow Monkeys trip and do not want to join us in Hokkaido, please state that when you drop me a line. I’ll keep that in mind as I finalize the plans.
I hope you enjoyed your virtual tour with the Snow Monkeys. They are amazing, that’s for sure.
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