This week we continue our travelogue series to walk you through the second of my Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017, with a few more crane shots, then moving on to the Whooper Swans, Sea Eagles and Foxes.
We pick up the trail on day five of the tour, when the wind was whipping up a snow devil at the Akan Crane Center, as we can see in this first image for this episode (below). The cranes get somewhat excited when the wind gets up, and they lean into it, and spread their wings, and jump up and down a bit. I got various photographs from this few minutes, but the snow was not so apparent in many of them, so I selected this one where the snow really stands out and the left side crane still has it’s wings splayed out, seemingly enjoying the moment.
Part of the reason that I like this, is because the drifting snow hides part of the background, and helps to take our attention away from the heavily textured foreground, which I don’t like. I also ran a gradual layer up to the bottom of the crane’s legs in Capture One Pro, and then lowered the clarity to reduce the texture in the snow along the bottom of the frame. My settings for this image where 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 320 at 560mm with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in Extender engaged.
Cranes Gradually Returning
The following morning, we went back to the bridge in Tsurui, for our second chance at some mist and hoar frost. On the previous day, there had been snow on the trees, which was nice, but it wasn’t cold enough for the hoar frost, and that requires mist too. So, I was pleased to see that it was a few degrees colder as we left the hotel, and sure enough, as the sun started to rise, a bit of mist formed, and started to stick to the trees on either side of the river, forming the hoar frost (below).
There were around twice as many cranes on this day as the previous day, following the irresponsible and selfish acts of the Korean photographers on Feb 19, as I explained in Episode 564. We waited for quite a while hoping for a little more action, but the cranes weren’t very active. This is probably my favorite image from this second morning, with the crane in the back right of the scene flapping its wings, almost looking like an orchestra conductor, although the rest of the cranes don’t look very interested in his actions.
Panning with Whooper Swans
After breakfast we checked out of our hotel, and moved over to the Kussharo Lake area, where we’d photograph the Whooper Swans for a couple of days. We stopped at Lake Mashuu on the way, and then Kotan, a small corner of the lake, before we went to Sunayu, the place where we do panning shots as the light drops, and you can see an example of that in this next photograph (below).
As you can see, there was still a little sunlight catching the wings of the swans in this image, which I like, but the contrast is much greater when the birds are in sunlight, so I generally like to do this after the sun has gone behind the mountains. I do like the detail caught in the wings of the foreground bird though, and I often like to try and get at least two swans in the frame at once, mainly because I already have so many shots of single swans, I just like to see what I can do with more. My settings for this image were 1/40 of a second at f/16, ISO 200, at 100mm with my 100-400mm Mark II lens.
Hoping for Sharp Heads
I went a bit crazy with the multiple swans thing for this next image (below) getting three and a half of them in the frame. I considered cloning out the half swan on the right, but not only would that be too much work, I really don’t mind him showing that there are more birds out of frame. We also get a hint of that from the footprints in the foreground, from a bird that has already left the frame.
My settings for this were again, 1/40 of a second shutter speed, at f/16, but now the sun has gone well behind the mountains, maybe even below the horizon, so my ISO was up at 1250 at this point, and again, I was at 100mm. As I select my favorites from these panning shots, I’m generally looking for at least one sharp head. The reality is that at these shutter speeds, most frame look like the heads on the other three birds, but we usually get a few images with heads sharp, and that for me is what this is all about.
Looking for Extremes
Once I get a sharp head, I’m then looking at the wing position. Sometimes the wings look better than others, and sometimes the wings almost disappear, and that doesn’t look good at all. In this next image, I was happy to see the foreground swan’s wings at full extent upwards, and the second swan’s wings are at full extend downwards. Extremes like this are often nice, as long as the head is sharp.
There are times when I will work with these swan photos when the head isn’t sharp, if the shapes and form of the bird is pleasing enough, but I generally find myself weeding these images out of my selection as I try to get my numbers down. I guess I’m just a bit of a traditionalist in this respect. The settings for this were the same as the previous image.
After we spend two days photographing the Whooper Swans, we move on to Rausu to photograph the sea eagles and foxes. On the way out of town, we stop at Iouzan, or “Sulphur Mountain” to do a group shot with the steaming geothermal vents in the background, and go up to the fumaroles for a while to capture scenes like this one (below).
Although this is a location that I’ve shot to death, it’s still nice to capture with the group. I never get tired of seeing what the steam and wind will present us with. Here I waited for a bit of a tunnel of light through the steam, between some of the main fumaroles. I also decided to add a bit of a vignette to this image in Capture One Pro, to emphasize this tunnel of steam. My settings for this image were 1/320 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 100 at 80mm, with my 24-105mm Mark II lens.
No Ural Owls in Hokkaido!
As usual, we stopped to see if we could find any Ural Owls at the nests I know, but there are none to be found this year. They all disappeared last December, and I believe this is because of the actions of some of the East Asian photographers visiting the nests. I’ve heard reports of them throwing things at the nests to get the owls to open their eyes or to fly, and this has probably caused the owls to retreat further back into the woods, away from the reach of humans.
So, once again they’ve screwed it up for everyone. The sooner they understand the wildlife that they are trying to photograph, and treat it with the respect it deserves, the better things will be for everyone that would like to photograph the animals, and of course, most importantly, for the sake of the wildlife itself.
As I mentioned last week though, when something gets taken away from us, we generally gain something else, and this year was an incredible year for the Northern Red Fox, as you can see in this image, of this cute guy sitting on an old rusty oil drum.
The snow melted quickly this year, so we were treated with a number of environments to photograph these beautiful animals in. On tour #1 we had them on top of the fishing nets, and again here on oil drums. A nice white snowy background is great too, but it’s nice to shake it up a little bit.
My settings here were 1/800 of a second exposure at f/10, ISO 320 at 560mm, which is my 200-400mm lens at full reach with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
The following morning, we had our first trip out on a boat to photograph the sea eagles. For the first time in four tours, we actually had sea ice, which works well for some shots, but my favorite image from this first morning is this one of a White-Tailed Eagle catching a fish from the open water. I’d asked the skipper to go to open water towards the end of our time out at sea, so that we could get some shots like this, as opposed to over the ice.
I have of course cropped this down some, from the top, to make it a 1:2 ratio, as I didn’t think the top of the image was adding anything to the scene. I’m really pleased that the head of the eagle is sharp here too. With the autofocus settings I use the camera does a great job of locking on to the body of the eagle and staying with it, even as the wings move across the eagle. And of course there’s a certain amount of skill involved in just framing and focusing on the bird at high speed, and with the low frame rate of the Canon EOS 5Ds R camera, I have to be very careful about when I release the shutter to capture the action. My settings here were 1/1000 of a second at f/10, ISO 800 and a focal length of 330mm.
Later this day, we went back out to the Notsuke Peninsula, to photograph the foxes again. The pair that you can see in this image have been hanging out together the whole season, probably brothers, and here (below) you can see them comparing mouth sizes. I actually missed the optimal moment here, as I had lowered my camera for a second, and on this occasion was too slow to raise it again as I saw them do this.
Still, I’m happy enough with this image, although the light was on the wrong side of the foxes. Luckily the sliders and curves in Capture One Pro enable me to bring out a lot of detail in the shadow side of the animals, so I still photograph them, especially when they are interacting like this. My settings were a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at f/11, ISO 1000, at 340mm.
A few minutes later I shot one of these guys stretching and yawning at the same time, as we can see in this final photograph for this episode (below). Again, the light is coming from the wrong side, but that’s not a big deal. I love the relaxed posture of this fox, and the texture of the fur in this shot is beautiful. I also like how we can see his claws sticking out of his furry feet.
These are a truly beautiful animal and I’m really pleased that we had such a good year with them this year. I hope that they stick around for next year’s tours too. My settings for this shot was the same as the previous image.
We’ll wrap it up there for this week. Next week I’ll be back with the third and final part of this travelogue, as we cover the next two days with the sea eagles, then our final bit of landscape work before heading back to Tokyo to complete the tour. We’ll also hear from the participants next week, with our usual recording of their kind comments.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019
Because our 2018 tours have now filled, we’ve started to take bookings for 2019, so if you are interested, please check the details and book at https://mbp.ac/ww2019. If you’d like to be added to the wait list for 2018, please drop us a line. Note though that the 2018 wait list is getting a bit long now, so if you want to secure a place, 2019 is a safer bet.
Check out details of the 2019 tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2019
Contact us to be added to the 2018 wait list: https://mbp.ac/contact
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