Having completed the second of my two Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017 recently, today we start a travelogue series to walk you through our adventures with a selection of photographs to illustrate.
As this tour is a repeat of the first tour, and we do this every year, I’m going to skip over some of the details, and we will work through these images as quickly as possible. I’ve selected 30 shots to share, so this will be a three part series. We start with our visit to Nagano, four hours north-west of Tokyo, to photograph the adorable Snow Monkeys.
On our first afternoon the snow was getting a bit old, with lots of texture from footprints, and there wasn’t much action in the hot spring pool, so I concentrated on getting behavior shots, like this one (below). I enjoy photographing these little groups of huddling monkeys, especially when they have a relatively clear background like this.
The monkeys look relatively static in a single frame of course, but the truth is they are moving around quite a lot while in these huddles, so it’s always necessary to try and capture a moment when you can see lots of faces with good angles. I have about six shots of this group that I like, but I chose this to share because the smaller monkeys all look relatively relaxed, and the main adult looks to be tolerating the photographers around them. In most of the other frames, he looks a little bit tense.
I shot this with a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/14, ISO 1000 at 227mm. I stopped down to f/14 so that I could get most of the faces acceptably sharp. Even at f/14 the monkey on the far right’s face is starting to go a little soft, but it’s sharp enough. For all of these snow monkey images I was using my 100-400mm Mark II lens from Canon.
The following day, we were blessed with a ton of snow to change up our opportunities. We walked in to the park before they opened, and were kept waiting for a while as the park owners cleared some of the heavy snow on the paths, but once we got in, we had a ball for a while as the snow continued to fall.
As you can see, the Snow Monkeys were living up to their names, absolutely covered in snow. As you can perhaps see from the posture of this monkey, she was shivering from the cold. The snow was still driving across the frame, and although you might wonder why they just didn’t get into the pool to warm up, they actually don’t get in when it’s very cold, as it was on this day.
You might be able to see that the face isn’t quite sharp for this shot, but that’s intentional in this case. Here I wanted to highlight the snow on the monkey, and that driving across the frame and across the face, and I feel this works better in this case.
There wasn’t a lot of light because of the sky still heavy with snow, so I needed to increase my ISO to 2000 for a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/10, 241mm.
For this next photo (right) I went back to f/14, because there were two faces, and I wanted them both pretty sharp.
Here once again we can see and almost feel the harshness of the environment that these monkeys live in. It’s easy to think of this adult monkey cuddling the youngster to keep it warm, but there is as much an element of the adult using the youngster like a hot water bottle too. I’m sure there are mutual benefits.
I have a few frames with the adult monkey’s eyes closed as well, and in many ways, I like these more, but on this occasion, I do like the direct contact, the connection with those piercing eyes in both monkeys here.
Having stopped down to f/14 for this, I needed an ISO of 4000 for a shutter speed of 1/160 of a second, at 255mm. As I mentioned recently, it’s often better to increase your ISO and continue to expose to the right, than it is to shoot a darker image with a lower ISO and then amplify the grain in post.
As the snow stopped falling, I started to simply watch the monkeys going about their business, and just looking for an action or mannerism that adds a touch more interest to the photo. This monkey was just picking the grain that’s thrown out for them from the snow, when they shook the snow from their fur, by rotating the head around (below) as you’ll have seen dogs do when they shake off water.
There’s still plenty of snow stuck to the monkey here, which adds a little extra element of interest and of course the head isn’t totally sharp as it shakes around, but I had increased my shutter speed to 1/640 of a second, in preparation for some possible action, so it’s sharp enough and the blur that is left just helps to show the movement. My other settings were f/11, and the light had increased now to the point that I was able to reduce my ISO to 800, and my focal length was 248mm.
After lunch, I went down by the river in the valley, as there really wasn’t a lot happening around the pool, and there was a mother sitting with a baby, as we can see in this photo (right).
For this shot, I selected an image with the mother’s eyes closed, to help direct our eyes down to the youngster. The thing I like about this shot more than anything is that arch in the mother’s soft fur around the youngster’s head. That just looks so comfortable and warm.
Another decision I made is to leave my aperture at f/11, and allow the mother’s face to go a little soft, but again, that’s so that our eyes are guided more quickly to the youngsters face and that arch of fur.
It’s important to use the aperture to control the depth of field to help guide how the viewer sees the image. You probably won’t be able to appreciate this in the web version, but in the larger image this is a very subtle but an effective touch to help polish the photo, in my opinion.
My other settings were 1/500 of a second, ISO 500 with a focal length of 158mm.
As I travel on my tours, we often run into other groups, and I generally know their leader, and enjoy catching up and hearing what other people are up to. One thing I’ve noticed though, is that most of them have something to complain about. A popular one right now is that the Akan Crane Center where we spend most of the first two days in Hokkaido, have stopped feeding live fish to the cranes at two o’clock, because they don’t want to attract the sea eagles that could bring avian flu to the cranes.
Sure, the sea eagles at the cranes has always been a highlight of the day. A lot of the locals buy season tickets, and only turn up for the eagles, then leave as soon as the feeding frenzy is over. It’s easy to see why other leaders would complain about this, but when I first heard of this decision this year, I punched the air and gave out a little woot! Why? Because the lack of feeding is not only stopping the eagles coming, but it’s reduced the number of cranes at the center too.
So, you probably wonder why that’s a good thing too, right? When I first started to photograph the cranes more than ten years ago now, there were not so many of them.
Of course, the birds increasing numbers is a great thing, but photographically, when there are so many of them, it can be very difficult to get a photo of the cranes doing something without a lot of other cranes in the foreground and/or background.
It’s been a number of years since I was able to get a shot like this one (right), with just two cranes calling together, without lots of other cranes in the frame.
It’s so easy to focus on what we lose, but whenever we lose something, we generally gain something else, so I was not disappointed to hear about the lack of feeding this year, as I generally pretty quickly find the silver lining in every situation.
I was really happy to capture this shot, the first for a number of years, especially as there was a fine snow falling, adding those tiny specks across the dark top half of the image.
My settings for this photo were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at f/14, with an ISO of 1600, at 560mm with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
Another thing that gets easier when the cranes are fewer in numbers, is this kind of photographic study (right).
I’ve been doing these for many years now, and find it a great way to kill time between the more dynamic action that we sometimes see. I enjoy just watching for cranes that are preening themselves, for example, and trying to capture a moment when we can see something that isn’t always visible, like the inside of the bird’s wings here.
I’m also attracted to the two black rims of the crane’s eyes that we can see on either side of its head. Most of all though I just love the detail in the underside of the wings, and the contrast between the black and white, and again, the fact that there are no other cranes messing up the shot.
I also like that it’s still snowing lightly, adding those little white specks across the dark wing feathers.
My settings for this were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed, at f/14, with the ISO set to 1600, and a focal length of 473mm.
After a steady first day at the cranes, I took the group to a location where I know there are cranes that fly out across some dark background trees as the light drops at the end of the day, so it’s a great place to do slow shutter speed panning shots, like this next image (below).
The crane’s heads move quite a lot as they fly, so they aren’t an easy bird to pan with, but if you shoot enough, some of the frames have heads sharp enough to make the photograph work. For this image I also like how the falling snow has once again left it’s mark on the image, with long streaks this time, thanks to my 1/40 of a second shutter speed.
With the light as low as it was by this time, we don’t need any neutral density filters. In fact, even to get a 1/40 of a second shutter speed, I had at ISO 3200 at f/11, with a focal length of 300mm.
Too Few Cranes
Although I was happy to get a few less cranes at the Akan Crane Center, I was disturbed to see so few at river from the Otowabashi (bridge) on our second day in Hokkaido. There are just 19 cranes in this photograph (below) although I actually counted 25 in total.
Although it was too warm to get the hoar frost on the trees, we’d been lucky to get some fine snow that had stuck to all of the trees, making them go white anyway, so the scene was not a total throwaway. The warm dawn light reflected on the river was nice too, but I’m sharing this photo more to raise a very concerning issue that has to be stopped.
Photographers Lacking Respect for Wildlife
The night before, the owner of the hotel that we stay in had told me about something despicable that happened on February 19th, five days before I shot this photograph. It turns out that a group of Korean photographers had dressed as workmen, and forged passes pretending to have permission to walk 200 meters down the river towards the cranes, with the intention of photographing them from a different location to where all others safely shoot from.
This of course startled the cranes, and most of them flew away unnaturally. In the photos that I shared with you in Episode 561, I can count approximately 120 cranes at this same location. These numbers were before any of them had flown from this location on both mornings.
The river where these birds roost is their safe haven. They sleep in the river, because unfrozen water is warmer than the cold air. Water also provides protection from predetors, both physically and by alerting the cranes to anything approaching through the sound of footsteps in the water. They have gradually moved further down the river, away from the bridge from which we photograph them, probably because of the sheer number of photographers at this location each morning now, many of whom lack the respect to even keep their voices down as we all work.
To forge passes and dress up like workmen just to get a photo that is “different” from everyone else, has caused these birds to change their behavior. There were almost one fifth the number of cranes when we visited five days after this incident. The following morning when we went back, I counted approximate 60 cranes, so they are gradually coming back, but still only around half of the group size compared to three weeks previous to this incident.
Height of Selfishness
These Korean photographers should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. They not only changed the dynamic of the scene itself for all other photographers, but much more importantly, they caused an endangered species to change their behavior, which can have a knock on effect to perhaps even result in fewer chicks born this year.
The Red-Crowned Crane is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. How can anyone believe that it’s OK to upset their natural habitat for a photograph!? I will be doing everything I can to increase exposure of this kind of act, and hopefully find ways to help educate photographers on the need to treat wildlife with respect.
Before we move on, I do want to point out that I know that this is not only about Korean and other Asian photographers, although there is a disproportionate number of Asian photographers that lack respect for wildlife. I have of course seen Western visitors lacking in due respect, so this isn’t necessarily about the origin of the photographer, but something has to be done to educate people, and I’m going to do what I can to help, starting with highlighting this issue here, and there will be more to come.
Crane in Flight
On a lighter note, let’s get back to us photographing the cranes, with one last image to finish with for today. After breakfast, we headed back over to the Akan Crane Center for our second day there, and I shot this image of a Red-Crowned Crane in flight (below).
I’m happy with this shot, because of the positioning of the bird in the top third intersection, also with the cloud nicely positioned below. I’m particularly happy with this though because of the incredible sharpness and great catchlight in the eye of the crane. Due to the angle of the light, it’s often not possible to get a good catchlight, so this is a great added bonus. This is not cropped at all, so at 50 megapixels, when you zoom in and check out the detail, it makes the hair on the back of my head stand up. I shot this at 1/1000 of a second at f/11, with the ISO set to 320, and a focal length of 442mm.
We’ll pick up the trail next week with two last crane shots before moving on to the whooper swans, eagles and foxes.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019
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Check out details of the 2019 tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2019
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