Having just completed my Hokkaido Winter Photography Adventure tour for 2017, and having whittled down my final selection of images, today we start a four part travelogue series to walk you through the locations we visited, illustrated with twelve photographs.
Having met and had dinner with the group on the Sunday night, we got up bright and early on the first Monday morning to fly from Tokyo to Hokkaido. We spend the first three days of this tour in Biei, a beautiful inland area of Hokkaido, that I’ve been visiting for more than ten years now.
All About the Weather
This tour is all about minimalist winter landscapes, and therefore depends on not only a good covering of snow, but often falling snow to complete the scenes for us. There has been no shortage of snow in Hokkaido this year, although high winds have caused it to blow off the hills making the vegetation show through in some areas. The hills in Biei were mostly covered with snow though, which is a great start.
To kick off the tour we initially headed over to a tree that officially has no name, unlike many of trees in Biei, but I affectionately and selfishly call this Martin’s Tree (below). The small bushes and vegetation around my tree are getting a little tall, and don’t make for as beautiful a photo as it has in the past, but I still love to visit this tree first, almost like paying respect at the start of our tour each year.
The snow wasn’t falling as we photographed this tree on the first visit, but the following day, when we returned, the snow fell quite heavily for a few spells, as we’ll see, but to keep the number of images that we look at down, I’ll only share this one of my tree. I shot this at f/14 for a 1/60 of a second, ISO 100. Just in case you didn’t know, you can click on the images to view them larger, and if you want to stop them from auto-progressing, just place your mouse over the image.
After lunch, we drove over to Hanazono where I’d hope we could photograph the lone tree on the hill with a fence that I used in as the main marketing image for this year’s tour, but unfortunately it wasn’t there. There was a very strong typhoon in Hokkaido last year, and we saw a number of trees that had been blown down, so I imagine that was the fate of the Hanazono tree as well.
As we drove down the hill to that tree though, we saw the tree in the next photograph through an opening, so we drove back to this. It’s sad that the original tree is no more, but nice to have found another tree close by. As you can see in this photo (below) the snow was being whipped up a little, forming a small snow devil to the right of the tree, and I feel that adds to the sense of harshness while maintaining the minimalist appeal of this image, for me at least.
I’m really attracted to this kind of scene, with the highly graphic elements of the tree with just its white hill of snow and a simple gray sky. I have converted this to black and white in Capture One Pro, but the scene without this is already close to a black and white. I shot this at f/14, with a shutter speed of 1/20 of a second at ISO 100, so you can tell that there wasn’t really a lot of available light for a shot in the middle of the afternoon.
Hoping for some snow fall, we headed over to Takushinkan, the gallery and museum of Shinzo Maeda, the gentleman that put Biei on the map photographically, and as with last year, we had our bus driver drop us off a few kilometers away and walked back photographing the beautiful hills and trees. Towards the end of the walk there are a few copses on the slopes that I also love to shoot.
Although it wasn’t snowing, it was totally cloudy and gray, which is necessary to block the view of the distant mountains behind this copse (below). I know this might sound strange, but if you share my appreciation for minimalist work, you’ll hopefully understand that when you can see all the scenery behind this copse, there simply isn’t a photo here.
In this form, we are able to appreciate the line of trees, dissected by the foreground hill close to their base. The slightly darker gray sky makes a beautiful background in my opinion. I shot this at f/14 with a 0.2 second exposure, at ISO 100, so again, you can appreciate how little light there was under that heavy sky. It must have been full of snow, just waiting to fall, but it was also at this point close to sundown, so shortly after this we made our way back to the hotel for our first night in Hokkaido.
Making the Most of Weather Opportunities
The following morning, still hoping for some heavy snow, we headed back to the road that we’d walked down the previous afternoon, and had our driver drop us by the huts and tree that you can see in this next image (below) because the sky had opened up just enough to form these beautiful crepuscular rays or god rays, as they are sometimes called.
Unlike the first two images, this is quite heavily processed in Capture One, making the sky much darker to accentuate the sunbeams, and because I was exposing quite dark to stop the highlights in the clouds from blowing out, I also brightened up the foreground snow quite a lot.
We rushed to set up, as these conditions rarely last long, but on this occasion it actually seemed to last a very long time, so we continued to shoot to bag lots of options for our processing and final selection. I have a number of images of these scene left in my final selection. This was shot at f/14, my go-to landscape aperture, and a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second at ISO 100.
As we continued down the hill, there is a lone tree just above the copse that we looked at a few moments ago, which I usually shoot from a different angle, but this year there was a beautiful pattern caused by the drifting snow a little bit further up the hill, as we see in this photo (below).
Although I am happy with this composition, I kind of had my hands tied by another tree and some scrappy vegetation just to the left of this scene. Ideally I’d have liked more compositional freedom, but it doesn’t always work that way in nature. When we are presented with something like this snow drift though, it’s nice to have something like the tree in the shot to give us something to work with. I shot this at f/14, for a 1/40 of a second, at ISO 100.
As I photographed the tree and snow drift, it started to snow a little, so I moved around to get a few shots of the same tree from a different angle, and then moved on to the copse in the photo I shared earlier from the previous day. Then, just across the road from that was another copse that I absolutely love to shoot in heavy snow, as we see in this photo (below).
This is pretty much a repeat of a photo I made in 2015, but I couldn’t resist this. It feels just like a pencil sketch with the horizontal lines of the snow brushing across the front of the trees, and I adore that beautiful faint line made by the hill and shadows of the trees against the very slightly brighter sky. Shot at f/14, the shutter speed here was 1/25 of a second at ISO 100. To leave the streaks of snow like this I generally shoot between 1/15 and a 1/40 of a second.
The other subject that really relies on falling snow is the line of trees behind the Takushinkan gallery that I mentioned earlier, so we rushed back there, but in the three minutes it takes to walk down the street, as heavy at it had been, the snow stopped. Partly because it’s not a bad photo, but mainly to show you the difference, here is a photo of the trees with the big sky as the snow eased (below).
When it’s clear, with a mainly blue sky, I don’t even shoot this scene, mostly because it’s boring, but also because you can see distant trees and mountains behind the right-most trees, and I don’t like that. Here the sky had a bit of interest and was still blocking out the distant mountains.
Snow on Demand
Pretty sure that the snow wasn’t far away, we took this opportunity to go inside the gallery and admire the work of it’s founder, the late Shinzo Maeda. The group was very excited to see Biei in other seasons, and just enjoyed looking at the beautiful work. As I’d hoped though, as we drew to a natural end of our viewing session, the snow started to fall again.
We went back to the bus, grabbed our camera and tripods, and went back to the line of trees to make this photo (below). Less than an hour after the previous image, I think this will help you to appreciate just how important the falling snow is to our images here in Biei. You can see that the snow has not only completely whited out the sky, but there is now no sign of the top of hill that runs directly behind the trees.
I also simply love it when you can view the image large and see countless snowflakes in the image. I’ve just started using BenQ’s new 32 inch 4K display and viewing all of the detail in these images full screen is an incredible experience, almost like being there again, but without needing to wrap up warm. This was a 1/50 of a second exposure at f/14, ISO 100.
I was using my Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens for this shot, as my 24-105mm isn’t quite wide enough, and this means that I had that big bulbous front element of the 11-24mm pointing directly into the snow for this shot. In relatively light snow, I generally just use my rocket blower to keep the front element clean while shooting, but when the snow gets this heavy, I use a lens cloth to wipe it off between shots, but then I keep the cloth over the front of the lens as I move around to the back of the camera, and then only take it away as my two second timer ends and the exposure is made.
Man Made Patterns in Nature
After this we headed for lunch, and passed a spot with another tree on a hill with a nice line of vegetation to its right. I have some shots of that which I like, but to the right of the tree, a spell of sunlight caught the ridges in the snow caused by the plough lines on the hill, as you can see in this photo (below).
Just a day and a half into this year’s tour, I was starting to feel as though we were in control of the weather. It was almost snowing on demand, but when the sun would help us to define patterns like this, or simply provide more texture in the fallen snow, it would pop out for us from behind the clouds. As the tour progressed this continued to an almost uncanny degree.
On the morning of day three, we drove around to Mount Asahi, and walked up the ski slopes there a little way, to photograph the beautiful mix of evergreen and deciduous trees in their winter coats. One of my favorite images from 2016 was shot here, but I found that a crucial foreground tree had been removed, so last year’s image of that particular scene remains my favorite.
There was some beautiful snow to the left of the trees in that earlier shot, but without a discernible main subject when zooming in close to the scene, I decided to go a little wider, and include the cable car, the cables of which I had painstakingly removed from my shot from last year. As you can see in this photo (below) I had also hidden the tower to the right, behind the right of the two foreground trees in last year’s image.
I kind of like this shot still. It helped me to show the patterns in the snow to the left, and I think the cable car gives us a little bit of perspective, after all, this is a ski ground. I didn’t increase my shutter speed, because the cable car itself doesn’t move fast, so I shot this again at f/14, for a 1/40 of a second at ISO 100.
Back down the hill, near the end of the ski slopes, a stream cuts it’s way through the snow, making some beautiful leading lines. The stream itself is actually quite ugly, so I didn’t want to include it, but as I looked at the scene, it was the trough in the snow that appealed to me, not the stream, so I searched for a composition that would work, and this is what I came up with (below).
If i recall there was a tree in the foreground just to the right of this scene that I was trying to keep out too, and this feels perhaps a little cramped without a little more space below those two branches sticking out of the snow in the foreground, but I’m still pretty happy with the results. I shot this at f/14 for 1/50 of a second at ISO 100.
On the morning of day four, we would leave Biei, and drive most of the morning over to the west coast of Hokkaido from where we’d start to circumnavigate the northern tip of the island. Because we’d be on the bus all morning, before breakfast on this last day we go for one last Biei shoot behind the hotel, where the beautiful Shirahige Falls flows in her beautiful blue tones (below).
This and one other shot of these falls would end up being the only two images from the 120 final selects from this trip that I would leave in color. I actually have a third black and white image from the falls, but I wanted to share this color version today. We visit before the sun comes up, because the light is naturally bluer at this time, but there is a lot of blue already in the water, from the mineral content, and I only increased the saturation a little to bring it out a little bit more for this image. This was shot at ISO 400 for a 3.2 second exposure at f/14. I didn’t need to use a neutral density filter, as it was still a while before sunrise so the light was naturally low.
Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure 2018
We’ll wrap it up there for this first travelogue, and pick up the trail again next week. I have just updated the tour page to start taking bookings for the 2018 Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure tour and workshop, so if you think you might be interested, please do take a look. You can find the page at https://mbp.ac/hlpa, and if you have any questions at all, please drop me a line via our contact page.
See details of the tour and sign up for next year here: https://mbp.ac/hlpa
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