Having just completed this year’s Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Tour, today I’m going to start a three or four-part travelogue series to walk you through our antics as we made our way around the beautiful northern-most island of Japan for twelve days.
I’m always a little nervous as we start this tour, because the success of at least the first location, Biei, depends on us getting some falling snow while we are there. I plan for three days in this area partly to give us a better chance of getting that, but also because there are lots of things to shoot. In the past, we’ve gotten to the last few hours of daylight on day three before it snowed, and that was nerve-racking.
On this visit, it started snowing as we arrived in the area on day one, which is a huge relief and takes the pressure off for these first few days, but of course, we had to get out and do our photography before that became a given. We started with the trees behind the Takushinkan gallery, as usual. You wouldn’t know it from this shot, but without the falling snow, there is a brow of the hill just above the top of the trees behind them, and I love it when that is erased by the snow.
Even as the snow stops and the sky lightens I get completely put-off by this scene, and others in this area. The snow minimalizes everything and helps to create the look that I think suits this area so well.
Here’s another example, where the falling snow renders the scene in a beautiful minimalist style. I love how you can barely see the top of the hill against the very slightly darker sky here. I also love to see the faint shadow below the tree, and then how the patches of grasses punctuate the hillside.
This is really what this area is all about to me, and I love sharing these scenes with the guests on this tour. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I now have a piece of software on the Website that includes the EXIF shooting data with the image in the lightbox that is displayed when you click on the images, so if you want to check my settings for any of the shots, just click or tap on them to view the lightbox.
In stark contrast, as we walked along the hills in Biei, the late afternoon sun broken through the clouds to the right of this next scene, illuminating the foreground snow, outlining it’s texture while leaving the sky dark, which I enhanced a little in Capture One Pro to exaggerate the difference between the sky and the snow.
I do like this as well and think that I’ve kept a relatively minimalist feel to the image by not zooming in on the hut and the tree as much as I could have. Leaving them small in the scene helps to keep it simple, and also feels more effective when viewed as a large print, kind of as a reward for walking up close to the print.
The following image is another that you’ve seen before from previous years, but I can’t resist doing this. Again, it kind of requires you to look at a higher resolution version, but when you look closely at the line of trees in this image you can see that the falling snow has made the trees look like a pencil sketch, which once again, I find really appealing. I like to aim for a shutter speed of between a 1/40 and a 1/20 of a second to create this look.
Something that often comes up as I work with the group here is how I decide where to place the line of trees in the frame. My usual way of thinking about this is, if the subject is physically higher than I am, as in, I’m looking up at it, I tend, more often than not, to place that subject near to the top of the frame. If I place it anywhere else, you lose the feeling of it being higher, and I think that is important. Also, I ask what the better of the possibilities, a white field of snow, or a blank white sky. I personally prefer the snow, but that’s mostly in a symbolic sense. As far as the photo is concerned there really isn’t much difference.
The next photo from day two was a bit of a bonus. There wasn’t as much snow in Hokkaido, as usual, this year, and that has probably left more food in the hills for the crows, so this was the first time I’d seen what I conceitedly call Martin’s Tree with a murder of crows perched in it.
I left my shutter speed slow as some of the crows took flight, to add a little dynamism to the shot, and feel that the blurred crows add a slightly stronger Hitchcock feel to the scene. The texture in the sky for this shot also adds to that feeling, so I am pretty happy with this.
Another thing that I’ve not really seen at this spot in all of the years I’ve been traveling there, is the shadow of the tree on the snow, as we can see in this next image.
This was somewhat difficult to process, as I exposed for the highlights in the sky in the top right corner, leaving the foreground snow very dark. I did most of the work in three layers, one to bring out the detail and texture in the sky, a second to lighten that central bank of snow, as that was almost black, and then a third over the foreground snow. That third layer, covering most of the bottom of the frame has a tone-curve on it that snakes back and forth across the center line to create almost white snow while enhancing the shadow.
On our third day in the Biei area, we drove around to Mount Asahi to photograph the scenes either side of the ski slope there. On the way, we stopped to photograph the pillows of snow forming on top of the rocks in the river, that you can see here.
I usually shoot this with a much longer focal length, but I stayed pretty wide at 120 mm for this shot, as the individual pillows didn’t do much for me this year. They were small and not really well-formed, so I decided to portray the larger scene instead.
I took my new Rolleiflex TLR camera on this trip and shot a total of six rolls of 120 format film, and here is the first one I want to share with you, of the trees at the side of the ski slope.
I’d prefer to work a little more on this, as I’m still trying to get better results from the scanner software that people recommended in the comments on my recent post about scanning medium format film. The software is called SilverFast SE and although I can see the benefits of using it, the image quality that I’m currently getting isn’t as good as what I get with the native scanner drivers, so I’m trying to get some advice from their support team, and if that doesn’t help, I will probably rescan my film with the original Canon software.
The blue Shirahige waterfall behind our hotel was pretty much unchanged, but I thought I’d share a shot, to complete the documentation of the trip.
This is from the start of day four, as we walked around from the hotel before starting our drive to the next location.
I couldn’t resist stopping our bus as we drove out of town though when we were presented with this morning mist against the pastel dawn sky.
I originally converted this to black and white, which I liked, but these colors kept calling back out to me from the Apple Photos app, as I’d loaded both versions so that I could live with them for a while to help me make up my mind. I found myself preferring this, so I’ve now deleted the black and white version.
We’ll wrap it up there for today, as that takes us to our ten photo limit that I try to stick to. If you would like to join this tour, I have switched to running this twice a season from 2021 so we do have a few places left on each tour. Check out the tour page here: https://mbp.ac/hlpa
We rejoin my Hokkaido Landscape Photography Tour again this week, picking up the trail as we reach the West coast of the island, for some beautiful seascapes, as we journey on to the northern-most point of Japan.
In stark contrast to our three days in the Biei area, with her beautiful rolling snow-covered hills, when we hit the coast we are generally greeted by weather that fits the mood of the Japan Sea.
Shinto “Torii” Gate
After a sushi lunch during our drive over to the coast, we settled for the last hour of daylight on the beach facing the Shinto “Torii” Gate, that you see in this first image for today.
I was so pleased to get this heavy sky behind the Torii, and using the Luma Range mask tool in Capture One Pro, I was able to select just the darker parts of the sky and darken them down a little further, leaving the brighter areas alone, introducing some dramatic contrast to the photograph.
I also took the White Balance picker and from the white water got a custom white balance of just under 12,000 Kelvin, which brings out a little bit of warm sunlight on the horizon. I decided to keep these shots in color so as to not lose the vermillion color in the gate, or the warm color in the sky.
By the time I shot this, the light was so low that even at f/11 with an ISO of 250 I was still able to leave the shutter open for 4 seconds, which is why the sea is smoothed over in places, but this is also short enough to leave us some texture in the water and we can still see the waves forming a somewhat daunting looking line behind the gate.
Frozen “Torii” Gate
The following morning, after an early breakfast, we went back to the gate, and I was happy to see a covering of snow and icicles on the gate itself, so I shot it from the side to highlight that, and also to included the line of tetrapods to the left of the gate.
For this shot, I used a 10 stop Neutral Density filter to give me a 1-minute 30-second exposure at f/11, ISO 100. This long exposure is responsible for making the waves all disappear leaving a kind of mist over the rocks in the sea and the tetrapods.
I also really like the layers of fallen snow on the beach, which was another element that added to my decision to photograph the gate from this angle. The long exposure also caused the numerous waves that came in and out, while the shutter was open, to leave varying tones of white on the beach, accentuated by the dark sand.
After photographing the gate for a while, we made our way back to the bus, and on the way, I stopped to photograph the window of one of the Fisherman’s Workshops in the harbor.
I like the bleached look of the wood, from the summer months, as much as the harsh winter weather I imagine, and the ball of twine used to fix the fishing nets, as well as the hand-pump for pumping diesel into the boats, all add to the story. As, of course, do the fishing net and floats on the wall next to the window.
I increased my ISO to 250 for this, because I was hand-holding the EOS R, and I also wanted to freeze the snow to a degree, and the resulting 1/80 of a second shutter speed at f/8 helped me to acheive that.
Icing Sugar Beach and Tetrapods
The next stop gave us a few hours on a beach an hour south of the previous location, where the tetrapods half-buried in the sand, the waves and a stream that flows into the sea all collaborate to form some beautiful patterns, especially with a slightly long shutter speed, and another sprinkling of snow on the black sand.
The timing of this kind of shot can be critical, so although I usually just use the 2 second timer for landscape work, for this kind of photograph I use a cable-release. With the EOS R I actually bought the new Canon Bluetooth Remote Release BR-E1, which I used to release the shutter exactly as the time was right for the maximum effect of these waves rolling in and washing up the beach.
I was actually really impressed that when you connect the Bluetooth Remote, it automatically switches from a 2 second timer to instant release, which was just what I wanted. For this shot I was using an aperture of f/16 for a 0.6 second exposure at ISO 100, and a focal length of 39mm.
Stream and Tetrapods
Next to where I shot the previous image, there is a stream that flows down the beach into the sea, as you can see in this next image. I repositioned myself to include the mouth of the stream cutting through the snow, which formed a shape that was really nice this year.
I spent quite a long time for this shot, waiting for the various elements to come together. The large wave rolling in and crashing over the distant tetrapods, and the foreground wave behind the tetrapods, but also the wave that has just broke, high enough to wash up the beach forming those beautiful patterns.
And then the stream runs down into the waves on the beach, forming a whirlpool. I love it when a plan comes together! My settings for this image were the same as the previous one, but slightly longer focal length, at 58mm.
After lunch, we went back to the Torii gate that we’d visited a couple of times already, but the weather was improving, and the high pressure that comes with that forced the sea level down, so the rocks and sea bed were surrounding the gate, with just a few rock pools, and it really wasn’t worth shooting a third time in my opinion.
The following morning we continued our journey towards Wakkanai, the norther-most city of Japan, where we’d spend the next two nights. A little way up the coast, we made our first stop at a spot that I’ve found with various types of tetrapods along the beach, including the round ones that look like practice golf balls made of plastic. Only here, they’re made of concrete and covered in snow.
This was shot from the other side of a water duct that was running down to the sea, and I had to crop in tight along the bottom of the frame to avoid the duct’s wall, and that meant cropping into the two balls at the bottom of the frame, with the dusting of snow.
In my photographs I always try to focus on what most interests me, and for these shot, it’s those two darker balls, but I had to crop into them, which is of course not great, but when I look at the photo I still find myself diving in to the detail in those balls at the bottom of the frame. Luckily, the rest of the shot still appeals to me, with the layers of tetrapods and golf balls, and the 30-second exposure that I used with my 10 stop ND in the relatively bright sunlight still gave me a nice smooth sea, but with some texture.
Boat Graveyard 2019
A little later, we made our first visit to the Boat Graveyard, that I absolutely love to photograph each year. There wasn’t quite as much snow as usual in some areas, but the drifts behind these boats were still there in full form, and the grasses that are showing through almost add to the texture and grittiness of the shot, so I’m still very happy with this.
As with the Torii Gate shot earlier, I once again applied a Luma Range mask to the sky in this shot, to easily increase the contrast between the dark and light areas of the clouds, for added drama. I also cloned out a few stalks of grass that were poking into the frame along the bottom edge.
My settings were an aperture of f/14, for a 1/50 of a second at ISO 100, and a focal length of 16mm. I was using my EF 11-24mm lens with the Canon Control Ring Mount Adapter. This allows me to use my EF lenses with the EOS R, and have the Control Ring, so that I can change my ISO according to my custom settings, by turning the Control Ring.
Having less snow than usual presented us with other bonuses, such as this large piece of driftwood, that was visible on the bank near the boats, and again, more grasses than usual added a nice touch for this photograph. I was drawn to the light coming through the snow clouds, and there is a single stalk of grass poking up through the snow in the center of the top third, that crooks over to the right, then kicks back up towards the sky.
I was actually drawn to this grass and the light more than the log, but I think the grass was happy enough to step back and play a supporting role in this photograph. I did very little to this, really just converting it to black and white, and giving it a small tweak on the levels and Luma tone curve to bring out the texture of the snow a little.
My settings were f/14, for a 1/50 of a second shutter speed at ISO 100, and a focal length of 92mm, now back working with my RF 24-105mm lens. I’ve been incredibly happy with the image quality of this new lens along with the EOS R, which I used almost exclusively throughout this tour.
Fish Drying Frames
After lunch in Wakkanai, we headed over to the fish drying frames that you see in this photograph. I did a long exposure for this, for 60 seconds, to introduce a little bit of movement in the sky, more visible to the right of the frame, and also to smooth over the sea that you can perhaps just make out poking through the gap at the end of the frames.
I shot this from the side as well, but I do like the symmetrical nature of this shot, with the structures balanced equally in the frame. It’s kind of a one-point perspective, like the compositions that we see a lot in Stanley Kubrik’s movies. My other settings for this were f/14 at ISO 100, and a 61mm focal length.
Boat Graveyard in Snow
The following morning we went back to the Boat Graveyard for some different light, and were treated to a little falling snow, as we can see in this image. My guests often ask about shutter speeds and falling snow, and here I increased my ISO to 400 at f/14 to get a 1/125 of a second shutter speed, which is sufficient to mostly freeze the snow in the air. Some of the snow closer to the camera is streaking slightly, but the further away snow is all suspended in mid-air. I find that to be just the right balance for this shot.
I zoomed in quite a lot to 87 mm for this shot, again, mostly to accentuate the snow in the air against the boats that are obviously larger in the frame at this focal length. And I also processed this slightly darker to add drama and context for the snow.
MBP Pro Membership
Of course, you might not be able to see all of the detail that I’m talking about in the Web-sized version, so note that I am also now releasing a high-resolution eBook article of all of my posts, which are available as part of my new MBP Pro subscription, which is currently available at the Bronze level, until I ramp it up further in March, after I finish my winter tours. There will be prorated upgrade prices available too, so if you are interested, jump on board now, and then consider the upgrade later at no extra cost.
Hokkaido Landscape Photography Adventure 2021
Many people have also been inquiring about spaces on my Hokkaido Landscape Photography Adventure Tour, which is sold out for 2020, but I have now updated our website with a 2021 page, so you can now book for that if you are interested. Details and the reservation payment buttons are now available at https://mbp.ac/hlpa.
See details of our currently available Hokkaido Landscape Photography Adventure tour here: https://mbp.ac/hlpa
Welcome to part three of a four part series to share my experiences and ten more images from my recent East Greenland photography adventure, including some breaching whale photos!
I’m now back in Tokyo having completed my Iceland Full Circle Tour with a great group, and I’ll be reporting on that and share some Iceland work with you in a couple of weeks. Today we’re going to continue this Greenland series, picking up the trail on the morning of August 29.
Shortly after leaving Tasiilaq, we encountered a number of humpback whales, and I shot this photo of the fluke as one of them dived (below). I always enjoy encounters with whales. It never ceases to amaze me how they let us get so close, like this.
Humpback Whale Fluking
I shot this at 234mm with my 100-400mm lens, and it’s uncropped so you can appreciate how close we get. If we were simply whale watching, we could actually get closer, and our speed boat drivers often tried to, but we need to keep a little more distance than they can get so that we get a nice background in the shot as well.
After this encounter, we continued on a long sail to a remote settlement known as Tiilerilaaq, as you can see in this photograph as we approached the town (below). It took us about 3 hours to get to Tiilerilaaq, including a few stops for the whales of course.
Tiilerilaaq – East Greenland
To get there we headed east out of Tasiilaq, then north-east up and traveled around one third of the way up the Ammassalik Fjord, then north-west along the Ikasagtivaq channel. At the end of the channel, we dog-leg left along a short channel to the settlement.
It was almost disappointing to see such modern boats moored here, but as you can imagine, these boats are very important to the Inuit people, so they tend push the boat out a bit when deciding on their rides (pardon the pun).
We climbed up onto the quay, and made lunch on a few palettes that were stacked there, then took a while to walk around the town. At about the farthest point we could walk, this house was surrounded by grass and the cotton grass, Eriophorum, which is found most commonly on Arctic tundra.
House in Tiilerilaaq
The foliage in Greenland seems to almost have a sense of urgency about it, trying to cram all that it needs to do into just the few short months of summer, before the harsh winter sets in again.
In the distance in this photograph, you can see the Sermilik Fjord which we’d sailed down earlier in the trip, and we continued to access through the tiny passage in the middle of this image shortly after I shot this. We of course took this opportunity to shoot more of the amazing icebergs, although we tended to be a little more particular now that we’d seen and photographed so many.
One thing that we like to do is to find icebergs with arches, such as the one in this image, and then try to find some supporting actors, like the berg that you can see in the distance through the arch, and the foreground berg, with much of its blue underwater portion visible (below).
Icebergs Near Takiseq
This was near a tiny island called Takiseq, around a third of the distance that we’d travel down the Sermilik Fjord. Just along from here we also encountered the jagged iceberg that you can see in this next image (below).
We’d been shooting sunburst images with the sun just above the berg, but here I actually like the sky and the flare caused by the sun instead of the sunburst, and there is a bit of a sunburst in the reflection just left of center here, that I also find quite appealing.
We continued to photograph the icebergs as we made our way down the fjord into open ocean, and started heading back towards Tasiilaq, when we had one of the most magical experiences of my life so far. We’d seen whales on this stretch of water a number of times so far, but at the end of this day, we saw them breaching in the distance, and tension on our boat instantly raised as we initially started to speed towards them, seeing two breach at the same time.
Then, our speed boat driver stopped, and let us know that the whales were coming towards us, and that we should just wait for them to swim past. Despite the whales being so far away when we first spotted them, in just a minute or so, they were close enough to the boat for me to capture this photograph (below) as one of them breached heading straight for us.
Breaching Humpback Whale – Front View
This is cropped slightly, and also rotated a little to straighten the horizon, but pretty much a full 50 megapixel photo, so I was incredibly happy to have captured this shot. We also have a cameo appearance from the seagull, kind of mirroring the flight of one of the largest mammals on the planet.
Just 38 second later, the whales were beside our boat, and I shot this image, of another humpback whale from this side this time (below). This is un-cropped, though rotated slightly to straighten the horizon, so the detail in this image is incredible.
Breaching Humpback Whale – Side View
I have some photos of the splash that follows these jumps, although as photos, they don’t mean much, because you can’t see the cause, but the splash that these huge animals make as they reenter the water was also an incredible sight to see. I have a few other shots of the breaching, but these two are my favorites, and I was absolutely over the moon to have not only witnessed this, but to have be able to capture a number of quality images as well.
The mental image of the two that breached together will haunt me for years to come, but I have no complaints with what I did capture. I recall spending hours in a Zodiac the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica in 2011, waiting and hoping to see, and maybe photograph, a whale breaching, then just as we had to leave to go back to the ship, our Zodiac driver told us that he’d just seen one breach behind us. This old ghost was exorcised by these new photographs. I guess now I just have to hope that one day I’ll capture a breaching pair to exorcise my new ghosts as well.
5Ds R Still Rocking It!
Before we move on, I’d also like to remind you of how happy I am with the performance of the Canon EOS 5Ds R cameras. Coupled with the 100-400mm Mark II lens in this case, the autofocus snapped straight on to these whales as they appeared from the water. If you keep in mind that we have no idea where they are going to pop-up as they breach like this, you can probably appreciate how difficult it could be to frame them quickly and achieve focus, but it was not a problem at all, for me at least.
So, when people try to pigeon hole the 5Ds as a landscape and still life camera, just point them to my Web site, and together we can hopefully continue to explode these myths, spread by people that are trying to find reasons not want this camera. If you don’t want or need the resolution, of course the new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is in many ways now a better camera, but I do wish people would just buy what they want and be happy with it, rather than putting down all other gear that they don’t want, in a strange war dance to protect their fragile egos.
The following day, we had a day off from the speed boats, and had a walk around Tasiilaq in the morning, then in the afternoon, another professional photographer that had been tagging along with us, and I, chartered a helicopter, on the understanding that we would be able to open the windows to shoot the landscape from the air.
I was initially going to only take one camera, with my 24-70mm lens on it, but before we left the hotel, I decide to also take my 100-400mm on a second 5Ds R, and I also slipped my 11-24mm lens into my vest pocket. We took off from the heliport in Tasiilaq and before we knew it, we’d flown over the mountains north-west of the town, and were flying over the Sermilak Fjord. This takes a couple of hours to get to buy boat, so it was surprising how quickly we got above this area.
This first aerial photograph that I want to share (below) is of an iceberg that we saw, with that amazing blue pool, almost looking like the eye of a fish, or a huge island, with a second island to the bottom right.
Iceberg with Blue Pool
If you look carefully, you can just see the base of this iceberg receding into the water, but I have some other shots where the base is much brighter and more prominent, and I’ll share one of those with you in the concluding episode of this series next week.
Moments later, we were over the Hann Glacier, which we’d also sailed to earlier. We had moored on the little outcrop of land that you can see towards the bottom left corner of this image (below). The slot canyon style photo that I shared with you last week was from this location.
The Hann Glacier
I had actually not liked any of the shots of the glacier itself from our previous visit, but seeing it from above like this gave a whole new look, and enabled me to put things into perfective, although I’ll share some shots next week of the main glacier that covers the huge expanse of the Greenland mainland.
We continued on and landed our helicopter across from the Heim Glacier, and had a quick walk down to the rocky shore, as you can see in this photograph (below). To the right of the Heim Glacier you can also see strands of the Kagtilersorpia Glacier.
The Heim and Kagtilerscorpia Glaciers
I switched to my 11-24mm lens for this image, and shot this wide open at 11mm. This not only helps to show the expanse of the landscape, but gives the impression that all of the rocks on the beach are pointing inwards, and the same goes for the chunks of ice in the water, and the sky. They all seem to be pointing towards a central vanishing point, and I really like this look.
Shooting from a Helicopter
Before we wrap up, I just wanted to mention a tip for shooting from a helicopter, based on this experience. Just as I had been shooting at around a 1/500 of a second shutter speed to overcome the vibration and movement of our speed boat while on the water, in a helicopter there is much more vibration to overcome.
Because of this, I kept my shutter speed as high as possible for the aerial shots. I increased my ISO to 800, and shot between 1/1600 and 1/3200 of a second while in the air. The shots came out great, with no blurred images, despite hand-holding a 50 megapixel camera. I was very happy with the results, which was a relief, when you consider that this little excursion cost me about $900, but it was worth every penny.
We’ll continue to look at four more aerial photographs from this flight in the next episode, along with some Aurora shots among other things to wrap up this series. I hope you’ll tune in again next week.
With a few minutes in my hotel room before dinner, I figured I’d just record a quick message to say hi from Hokkaido on day eight of our first landscape only photography adventure. To hear my message listen with the below audio player, and here are the selection of photos that I mention. I hope you enjoy them.
I have updated the 2016 tour page too. There may be a few tweaks based on experience from last four days of the tour, but it will go ahead so if you’d like to join us please sign-up here to secure your place.