Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2013 Tour #1 in Brief (Podcast 360)

by | Feb 11, 2013 | Art Talk, Podcast, Workshops | 2 comments

Having just returned from the first of our two 2013 Snow Monkey & Hokkaido, Winter Wonderland Tours, today I’m going to update you on how things went, and show you my top seven images, as well as play a message from the group that we recorded on the last day before flying back to Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

Accompanied for this tour by co-host Chris Marquardt, we all had a great time. I’m not going to give you a full blow by blow, day by day update, as I’ve done that many times before, with the tour being in its sixth year now, but I am going to touch on each of the main areas we visited, and the main subjects we photographed, selecting one image of each to share with you.

We start the tour in Tokyo and drive out on our chartered bus to Nagano, to photograph the incredibly cute Snow Monkeys for three days. As I’ve visited the monkeys many times, this year I decided to take my macro lens to see if I could get a slightly different perspective, and one of the resulting shots was this one, of a young Macaque sitting in the hot spring pool. Remember that you can click on the images to view them larger, and navigate through them with your mouse or arrow keys.

Wistful Thinking

Wistful Thinking

I shot a lot of these close up faces, in some ways going back to the portraits that I initially felt compelled to shoot here, and I really liked the results. Here this little guy was just sitting in the hot spring bath, relaxing in front of the alpha male, but the far away look in his eye is so human it’s incredible. I actually took a GoPro with me this year, and I have some footage of one of these babies, grabbing either side of the GoPro waterproof housing and sucking on one of the buttons on the front, probably hoping for some milk. I’ll be putting a video of the tour together after I get back in March, so stay tuned for that.

There was plenty of snow at the Monkey Park, so that was a relief, and everyone got some great shots. It’s always a pleasure to visit, and I can’t wait to go back next week.

After driving back to Tokyo, we spent the night at a hotel near to the Haneda Airport, where I updated the group on our plans in Hokkaido, using a nice big map that we looked at after dinner. We left the hotel bright and early the next morning, and after a briefing on how to use manual exposure to make the most of our time, we found ourselves out on the snow photographing the elegant Red-Crowned Cranes shortly after 11am.

The weather was quite warm for Hokkaido, floating around freezing point, so I had my jacket off most of the afternoon, and then we moved on to a spot where the cranes fly overhead on their way to roost. This is one of the few times that I use Aperture Priority, as the cranes fly over from a darker part of the sky, and it’s fine for them to go into silhouette as they fly in front of the sun, so Aperture Priority makes more sense here.

Eight Cranes

Eight Cranes

The following morning was cold, but not quite cold enough for the trees to get covered in hoarfrost at dawn, as it needs to be lower than -15°C and no wind. The temperature was close, but the weird thing was that we had a very thick fog, that is not common at the end of January, early February. This happened on both mornings that we visited the Otowa Bridge, which spoiled our chances of the misty river shots, although a few alert participants got some beautiful shots of cranes as they flew out of the mist towards the bridge.

Of course, being the resourceful photographers that we are, instead of letting the mist spoil our plans, we capitalized on it. I took the group around to some nice landscape spots and the mist added a beautiful ethereal look to our images. The contrast was about one stop, literally, with just a tiny shade difference between the white mist and the pale grey details of the landscapes. I also thought that the Ito Crane Sanctuary would look nice with the mist, so we went to check it out, and found a few cranes there, so spent a bit of time there before heading back to the hotel for breakfast.

If you have your monitor brightness up high, you will hardly see anything in this photograph, but I love the subtle shades of white and light grey here, and I timed the shot so that the second crane from the left had his wings spread apart, to add an additional element of interest.

Winter Morning

Winter Morning

After breakfast we started a two hour drive over to the Kussharo Lake where we’d spend two days photographing the Whooper Swans. We spent two afternoons with the swans, and although a bit of bread resulted in some very nice flight shots, my favorite by far is this one of the back end of a swan following three others away from the area that we were shooting them from. The few small clouds along the bottom of the frame add to the feeling of them having a goal to fly to, and it comes together quite well in my opinion.



While at Kussharo, we also kicked off our workshop sessions with me going through Color Management and Chris doing a great session on composition. It’s always a pleasure to watch something who knows their stuff talk, and Chris is no exception. We all really enjoyed Chris’ polished presentation, and I saw a few positive tweets about mine too. 🙂

On the way out of the Kussharo Lake area, we stopped for a brief time at the apocalyptic Iouzan, which is basically a volcano spewing sulphuric gases out of yellow vents, with steam pluming out into the atmosphere. This has become my favorite spot for a group photo, so let’s add an eighth shot, of exactly that. Here’s the group from this year, including Yukiko, our tour conductor. It was great to see everyone looking so happy, and this sets a pretty high bar for future group photos!

Winter Wonderland Tour 2013 - Group 1

Winter Wonderland Tour 2013 – Group 1

On the way over to Rausu, where we’d shoot the Sea Eagles, I took the group to a spot where I know there’s an Ural Owl’s nest. The word was that the owls have hardly shown there since a local news station reported on them and the locals flooded to the spot and scared the owls away. I thought it was a long shot as I left the group on the bus to check to see if the owl was there, but I almost wet myself when he was there, sitting in the hollow of the tree.

Sleepy Ural Owl

Sleepy Ural Owl

At about 50cm tall these are a substantially sized bird, but so as not to scare him, we shot from a distance, so he’s not huge in the frame. He half opened his eyes a number of times too, to ensure that we weren’t getting too close. I was so pleased that we were able to see him though, especially as we had a number of hard core birders with us this year. Great stuff!

I did a little change to the itinerary for this year, giving us three days in Rausu, the fishing port where were to go out on a boat to shoot the Steller’s Sea Eagle and White-Tailed Eagles. As we checked with the skipper of our boat on the conditions in the channel between Japan and the disputed Kuril Islands, I was initially disappointed to find out that there was no sea-ice. Without sea-ice the eagles have nothing to sit on to eat, and we also have nowhere to throw our fish to attract them, so we simply can’t go out.

The group was getting tired by now after a string of very early starts, so this was not such a bad thing, but the forecast for the following day wasn’t great either. We did go out on the second day, although we just threw some fish out on some pancake ice in the harbor, we had an incredibly good shoot, if you avoid the middle band where the harbor walls and buildings ruin your shots.

This shot of a Steller’s Sea Eagle catching what is probably a frozen fish from the water was from this second day, inside the harbor.

Steller Catches Fish

Steller Catches Fish

The last day in Rausu didn’t disappoint either, and my new three day plan panned out for us, as the sea-ice had made its way back into the channel, and after a 15 minute or so sail out into the channel, we were treated with two more hours of incredible light and more Sea Eagles than can shake a camera at.

Pensive Power

Pensive Power

This last shot will probably drive the traditionalist birder crazy with its cropped wings, but this is probably one of my favorite white-tailed eagle shots so far, as this guy came so close to the boat that he more than filled the frame at 420mm, which was my 300mm f/2.8 lens with the 1.4X Extender fitted. These really are beautiful, magnificent birds, and always a total pleasure to be able to shoot.

From this year we have started to include an optional visit to one of the local shrines, to be blessed by the Shinto priest. This is optional because of course there is a religious element, but this is a great cultural experience, with us receiving a full Shinto blessing, taking about 30 minutes, for safe travels and good health. The priest was also open to questions from the group from details of the shrine itself, to how he came to be a Shinto priest in the first place. All fourteen participants attended the first blessing, and everyone agreed it was a wonderful cultural experience.

Anyway, as I said, I also recorded a message from the group on the bus on the last morning as we headed for the airport, so let’s take a list to that now (audio inserted here)…

As you heard, we all had a great time, and I really can’t wait to do it all again starting in less than a week now! From a social media perspective, it isn’t a great idea to drop 70 images onto a site at once, but so that you can see all of my final selects from this first tour, I’ve just uploaded all of them to Google Plus, so if you are interested in taking a look at the entire set, they are here. I’ll get them uploaded to my own gallery at some point soon for any of you that might have a G+ allergy.

PHOTOGRAPH Issue #2 Released!

Also, I’m really pleased to tell you that Craft & Vision’s digital magazine, PHOTOGRAPH, Issue #2 is now available. Issue two has articles from David duChemin, Nicole S. Young, John Paul Caponigro, Al Smith, Jay Goodrich, Piet Van den Eynde, Younes Bounhar, Kevin Clark, Chris Orwig as well as my own article. I was also one of the featured photographers in this issue, which makes me incredibly proud, with my images standing alongside Chris Orwig and Andy Biggs’ amazing work. If you already subscribed, you’ll have received an email to download your new issue. If you haven’t already subscribed, what are you waiting for? For just $8 an issue, or $24 for the full year, four issues, giving you a saving of $8, it’s basically a no brainer, there is so much incredible photography information in this publication. Subscribe with this link.



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Show Notes

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All of my Tour #1 images on Google+:


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  1. Jeffrey Friedl

    Nice try, Martin, but we know why the eagle’s wings are clipped… because it’s stuffed and you didn’t want the mounting hardware to show. That’s the only way you could have gotten such freakin’ *perfect* focus, right?! 😉

    • Martin Bailey

      Hee hee, thanks Jeffrey!

      The 1D X is partly responsible for that ridiculously good focus, although it did miss the next frame. The ratio of sharp frames to missed shots increased hugely though, even when like with this shot, I didn’t raise the camera until a split second before the shot. I felt like a sharp shooter from the old wild west on a number of occasions. 🙂



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