Snow-less Monkeys – A Summer Visit Travelogue (Podcast 480)

by | Jul 13, 2015 | Podcast | 4 comments

A few weeks ago, I took my new Canon EOS 5Ds R over to the Monkey Park at Jigokudani, where we photograph the Snow Monkeys for the first three days on my Winter Wonderland Tours. This though was the first time I’ve visited during the summer, so the now Snow-less Monkeys showed me a very different face, making it an almost magical visit, in a different way to my winter experiences.

This was also the first time I’ve visited the snow monkeys alone. Even on my first reconnaissance visit, I went with a couple of friends, so as much as I love taking my winter groups there, it made a change to be there alone. Also, because of the lack of the snow, there were very few visitors in the park. This is totally understandable, as the winter is spectacular, but the summer should not be discounted, as we’ll see through the photographs that I’ll walk you through today in this travelogue style episode.

I’d been hoping to visit the snow monkeys during the summer for a while now, because the new babies are born in May, and I really wanted to photograph them while they are still very small. Each year I seem to be too busy to get over there, but with the release of the Canon EOS 5Ds R and my need to shoot some test shots, I thought this would be a good opportunity to see how the long lenses fared with this new ultra-high resolution camera. You can see my review of this camera in Episode 478, including some 100% crop images from this series, so I won’t go into much detail about the camera today.

Jigokudani, which translates to Hell Valley, is up the mountains in Nagano prefecture, about a 4 hour drive north-west of Tokyo. I left early on the morning of June 22 (2015) and after grabbing some lunch on the way, I arrived shortly after noon and started shooting.

In the winter time, especially when the weather starts to close in, the snow monkeys crowd into the hot spring pool to keep warm. Not surprisingly, in the summer, when the temperatures start to rise, there isn’t really any need to bath to keep warm, but it was nice to see a few monkeys going in and out and the pool during my time in the park.

In many ways, the mother monkeys show a lot of affection for their young, but in some ways, there’s a lot of tough love going around as well, as I witnessed as this mother carrying her sleepy baby under here belly walked straight into the pool with him still down there. The baby quickly clambered up onto her back, but looked a little bewildered for a while as he regained his sense of place.

Six Week Snow Monkey on Mother's Back

Six Week Snow Monkey on Mother’s Back

This was shot with the 100-400mm Mark II lens at 400mm, f/5.6 for 1/500 of a second at ISO 200. Again,  although I’m not going to go into much detail about the 5Ds R today, this is the time that I started to realize that shooting hand-held with long lenses at this resolution is absolutely possible. Even at 100% these images are tack sharp, as I showed in my review.

Another obvious difference in my photos from this visit is the present of green. Even in this first image, the water is green as it reflects the color of the lush green foliage from around the pool. In this next photo (below) it was also strange for me to capture green leaves near the baby monkey, although it isn’t anywhere near as pretty in this photo as when the monkeys are surrounded by snow.

Who Me!?

Who Me!?

I really liked the pose in this photo, as though the baby monkey has been caught doing something he shouldn’t be, with that very human “Who me?” pose. This was also shot at 400mm, with a 1/500 of second exposure at f/8, ISO 400.

Drowsy Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Drowsy Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Next up, is probably my favorite snow monkey photo from this visit. This six week old snow monkey stopped for a moment during his play, and looked over towards me, but with such a cute out or sorts kind of look on his face, so I couldn’t help capturing this image (right).

The monkey’s half coconut mouths are still made of incredibly pink, soft skin at this age, and make you just want to reach out and scrumple it up, like a kitten.

The pixie-like ears are lovely too, but here those dopy looking eyes just stole my heart. For the last six months my photo of the yawning red fox from Hokkaido has been on my iPhone lock-screen, but now I’ve changed it for this photo, so I get to smile now every time I unlock my phone. 🙂

Once again, this was shot hand-held at 400mm, 1/500 of a second, f/5.6 at ISO 400.



I struggled with the decision of which of a series from around this next photo I would include in this episode. There was a mother grooming a baby, and pulling her face in all directions.

Some of them had the older sibling looking on, much as a small human child might watch mother tending a new born baby, and others such as this shot, the year old sibling was just going about their business to the right.

I chose this shot though, as this was the point when the baby seemed to lose her ability to simply bear being tugged around, and opened her mouth showing her discomfort.

The light had dropped a little at this point, so I had increased the ISO to 1000, still shooting at 1/500 of a second, at f/6.3, and now using the 200-400mm lens with the built-in extender engaged at 442mm. This is a big lens though, so I was now also using a tripod with a gimbal head.

I composed this next photo much tighter. I often like to include the mother’s face too, but here I wanted just the baby to be the main subject. Again, I like the hand position here, with the left hand kind of shielding her head and the right hand clutching firmly on her mother’s furry arm. This photo to me is more about the vulnerability of these six week old babies. I shot this at 1/250 of a second, f/6.3, ISO 640 at 490mm.

Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Six Week Old Snow Monkey in Mother's Arms

Six Week Old Snow Monkey in Mother’s Arms

I also find it interesting that many of the babies showed large patches of black skin below their still very thin fur. I didn’t realise that they had these markings as you can’t see this once the fur has grown more later in the year.

This next image (right) is another favorite. Again a somewhat vulnerable pose, but just look at he affection shown for the baby by the mother, by the way she’s holding the baby’s face!

I’ve said before, that I know this is anthropomorphic, I tend to personify pretty much everything, including inanimate objects, but with these guys being so like us, it’s hard not to do this.

I shot this at 1/160 of a second, f/6.3, ISO 640 at 560mm. I actually over-exposed the fur on the mother’s head here, so that I could get a good exposure on the baby’s face which was in deep shadow otherwise.

The mother’s tend to keep their new baby’s quite close to them sometimes, but they also simply let them run around and play with other babies as well, and I caught two of them keeping each other company in this next photograph (below). Again, I just want to scrunch their mouths up, they’re so cute! It might not come across well in these photos, but these little guys are probably only around 20 centimeters tall when they’re sitting down like this, so the palm of my hand would envelop their entire face and head, so it wouldn’t really work, but I’d love to give it a try.

Two Baby Snow Monkeys

Two Baby Snow Monkeys

Of course, you’re not allowed to touch the snow monkeys. It’s OK if they touch you though. At one point, I sat down on a bench that they have out during the summer, and felt something tugging on my photographers vest. One of these babies had jumped up on the bench beside me and was tugging at the straps on the side of my vest. After a while he turned around and started playing with my camera bag, then a year old monkey came flying out of the rocks and pulled the baby off the bench and started play-fighting with it in the dirt below. I have some video of this that I might include in a slideshow at some point if it works. This photo (above) was shot at 1/320 of a second, f/8, ISO 800 at 560mm.

The park closes at 5pm which left me with a couple of hours before it would get dark, and I’d booked into a cheap business hotel in a nearby town, so I’d grab something for dinner at the convenience store on my way there later, and this gave me a couple of hours before it got dark, which I used to drive up to the Shigakougen highlands, and do some landscape work after this. I went back their on the afternoon of the second day too, so I’ll report on the landscape work I did during this trip in the next episode.

Next up, here’s something that you don’t see in the winter either, from the morning of the following day, June 23 (2015). When it’s cold the monkey’s sit in the snow with there bony behinds, to keep the contact area with the cold snow to a minimum. In early summer though, these rocks were probably quite a comfortable temperature for them, as I saw them lying around on the rocks quite a lot. I thought it was so cute that this baby decided to have a feed as him mum chilled out on the rocks though (below). I shot this at 1/400, f/7.1, ISO 800 at 400mm.

Baby Snow Monkey Feeding as Mother Lays Down

Baby Snow Monkey Feeding as Mother Lays Down

One thing that I wanted to do while I was here during the summer is get a shot of the monkeys with the fresh summer greenery in the background. Unfortunately I didn’t see any mother’s with their new babies in this environment–they all seems to be hanging out close to the hot spring pool–but I kind of like this shot of a mother with a year old youngster and the green background. You just can’t get this sort of image in the winter when the valley walls are covered in snow. Of course, I prefer the winter. The snow puts these monkeys in an incredibly beautiful environment, but this is something different (below). Shot at 1/250 of a second, f/8, ISO 400 at 200mm.

Young Snow Monkey with Mother

Young Snow Monkey with Mother

White Baby Snow Monkey

White Baby Snow Monkey

There was one mother that seemed to be keeping her new-born very close to her, and that was this one, that had given birth to an almost totally white baby (right).

She let the baby move up to a foot or so away from her a few times, and I shared one of those photos in my 5Ds R review, but photographically, I wasn’t able to really capture anything that I liked of this baby.

I’m sharing this one as our last image for this week, as I wanted to include it as a record, because this is quite a strange phenomenon. The baby isn’t albino. It has pigment in it’s eyes and some black patches of skin like the others, but it’s fur is just almost totally white.

Apparently there was a pale colored monkey born last year too, but it reverted to the normal coloring before the winter came, so this may be the only time we’ll see this. I’ll certainly keep my eye out for this little monkey during our 2016 Winter Wonderland Tours though.

It was a pleasure to spend time with the snow monkeys over these two days in the summer months. I still prefer the winter, but there were plenty of photographic opportunities at this time of year too, and this is of course the only time that you can see the new-born babies, as they’re much bigger when we visit in winter, although they’re still as cute as can be. 🙂

Like I say, I’ll share some landscape work from the Shigakougen (Highlands) next week. I actually ended up shooting some stitched panoramas with the new 5Ds R, giving me image over 140 megapixels that can be printed at 24 x 43 inches at 450 ppi, which I’m hoping to do soon, as I can free up some time. Stay tuned for a report on these things if you are interested.

Show Notes

Pick up a Canon EOS 5Ds R from B&H Photo here:

Music by Martin Bailey


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  1. Fulin S

    The sleepy newborn is a clear winner.
    I hope the white baby could grow bigger.
    The white baby could be the monkey king!!

    • Martin Bailey

      Sorry for the late reply Fulin. I missed your post until today.

      I was back at the snow monkeys two weeks ago, and I heard that the white monkey turned dark over about three months. He’s healthy and strong apparently, so all is good.

  2. Akua Lezli Hope

    Thank you for sharing these gorgeous photos! I’m trying to design a crocheted snow monkey and am trying to understand their limb proportions, ear shape — their faces are so handsome.


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