2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #2 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 612)

2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #2 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 612)

Today we continue our travelogue to walk you through our adventure on the second of my Japan Winter Wildlife Photography tours for 2018, as we visit the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo.

We pick up the trail on day six, the middle day of our twelve-day tour. After spending the morning driving over from the area in which we’d photographed the Red-Crowned Cranes, and a brief touristy stop at Lake Mashuu to take in the scenery, we spent some time before lunch at Kotan, a small corner of Lake Kussharo, where there’s a pool of unfrozen water thanks to the hot springs that flow into the lake there. This gives the swans somewhere to gather as they winter here from Siberia.

This is often one of the most relaxing shoots on the trip, and this day was no different. I love just sitting out in the snow, often in the sun, and just waiting for the swans to do something, like this one, as he reared up and flapped his wings a number of times, basically just having a stretch (below). I struggled to decide which of my three favorite frames to share with you, as they all show very different wing positions, but I think this frame shows the most detail in this magnificent animal.

Feathered Friend
Feathered Friend

The swan is almost backlit, so relatively dark against the bright snow, but this is what’s helped in some ways to give me the detail that I captured in this image. Swans wings are something that I can look at for hours, so I am always happy to find so much detail to pore over. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1250 of a second at ISO 400, and I was using my 100-400mm lens at 400mm.

I also enjoyed watching a swan upon the snow beside me as it dosed, then occasionally just slowly opened this eye to look around and check that we weren’t getting too close for comfort (below). Again this is very much about the detail. When I zoom right in on the eyelids the amount of detail recorded is unbelievable and I love the warm colors in this image. 

Sleepy Swan
Sleepy Swan

These images were all shot hand-held, although if I recall for this one I probably was resting my elbow on my knee as I knelt in the snow, pretty much like my company logo, that I drew some twelve years ago based on a shooting style that I use a lot when shooting hand-held. My settings for this were a 1/800 of a second exposure at f/11, with ISO 400, and again a focal length of 400mm.

At the end of the afternoon, we did our usual panning session, photographing the Whooper Swans from our geothermally heated beach at Sunayu, as they flew along the strip of thawed lake while Miles Davis played out of the speakers from the nearby restaurant. The shots are relatively easy, although getting a completely sharp head is a little more difficult. We get enough shots to pick and choose a little though. This is my pick from this first session (below).

Two Flew
Two Flew

I like the warm light that was hitting the water again in this shot. We’d waited for the sun to go behind the mountain, but the sky was warming up nicely as sunset approached, and that was reflecting in the water. My settings were a 1/30 of a second at f/16, ISO 500 at 100mm. I was still using my 100-400mm lens but zoomed right out as I was kneeling in the sand just a few meters from the edge of the lake.

The following morning we went back to the lake after an early breakfast in the hopes of capturing some good fly-ins with the mountains in the background. It was nice to get a little bit of mist over the frozen lake, to begin with, although it cleared up relatively quickly. The great thing about photographing Whooper Swans is that they announce their arrival with that big whoop of theirs, so it’s easy to notice them coming, and here I caught one of them whooping in flight (below).

Announcing Arrival
Announcing Arrival

I’m not doing a lot to most of these images in post. Generally, I add a little bit of Clarity and pull the White Point in on the Levels slider in Capture One Pro, just to ensure that my whites are white. I, of course, am still using the technique known as ETTR or Expose To The Right, to get the brightest and highest quality image possible, but the raw processing engines that we use these days generally give you around two-thirds to a full stop of exposure back, so I like to use that additional dynamic range in situations like this.

Also for this image, I ran a graduated adjustment filter along the froze lake, and just brightened it up very slightly, as it looked a little grey compared to the brightly lit swans. That’s about it though, and these things are really just adding a tiny bit of polish, not critical changes. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, and a focal length of 300mm.

We enjoyed a number of fly-ins, with some nice shots, but one of my favorite close-up images came thirty minutes later, as a group of swans came into land, and one literally floated past me, enabling me to get in this close at 135mm (below).

Intimate Swan Landing
Intimate Swan Landing

I also like how there is a second swan in the distance, as this almost feels like a busy airport with a second plane queued up waiting to land after this first one. Of course, that second swan coming into the frame was pure luck, although I was consciously pulling back enough to include part of the mountains, to put this swan in his environment. I love photographing the swans in the mist with hardly any difference between the white of the swans and their surroundings, but when it’s clear like this, I like to try to add a little more of the surroundings for context. My settings were f/14 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure at ISO 640, at 135mm.

At 9:30, we moved from Sunayu to Kotan, and I shot a number of images of the swans in the mist like we see in this image (below). To maintain the dreamy feel of the mist, I didn’t add much clarity to the entire image here, rather using an Adjustment layer and just brushed in some Clarity over the head and neck of the swan. 

Mist Opportunities
Mist Opportunities

Also, the stones in the foreground were a little too prominent, so I cloned out a few, and then actually brushed in and layered a few more Adjustment layers across the bottom of the frame to reduce the clarity of the rocks, making the mist or steam around the base of the swan a little bit stronger. My settings for this were f/14 for a 1/800 of a second at ISO 500, and a focal length of 312mm.

About fifteen minutes later, as I was still waiting for something to happen in the mist, I heard the Whooper Swans announcing their arrival again, and turned to see a nice big group flying in over the frozen lake. The mountains in the background at Kussharo Lake make it, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful spots on the planet to photograph Whooper Swans. 

Whooper Swans and Mountains
Whooper Swans and Mountains

Conscious of the beauty of the mountains, I stopped my aperture down to f/14 to get the background a little sharper than it would be at f/11 or so. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s visible and a welcome bit of depth of field in this situation. The swans on the left of the frame are a bit too bunched up for my liking, but the mountains here kind of make it a keeper. My other settings were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at ISO 500 and a 100 mm focal length.

This next shot fifteen minutes later again, at the same location, was a bit of a sight to see. There were three Whooper Swans flying in, in the foreground, and another twelve of them forming a beautiful evenly distributed line in the background (below).

Fifteen Whooper Swans
Fifteen Whooper Swans

I’ve cropped this down to a 16:9 aspect ratio, to enable the viewer to focus more on the lines of swans, and because I had to zoom into 400mm for this shot, the depth of field got much shallower, even at f/14. Because I’d zoomed in the top of the mountains wasn’t visible either, so it wasn’t so important to keep them in the frame. My shutter speed was still 1/1000 of a second at ISO 640 now.

Seventeen seconds later, the swans forming the distant rank in the previous image were over the mountains filling my frame at 100 mm, so once again the f/14 aperture worked well to give me lots of depth of field for a wider shot, as we can see here (below).

Dirty Bellied Swans
Dirty Bellied Swans

I kind of like this shot, although I’m not a huge fan of the dirty bellies on these swans. They sometimes get dirty like that because the water is very shallow in the thawed pools that they roost in, so the dirt and algae that form on the rocks on the lake bed rubs against them as they sleep. In the past, I’ve seen the swans fly in with small black balls of grit stuck to their undersides, and seeing that in my photos caused quite a strong negative reaction in me. I can just about live with this dirtiness, but I couldn’t even look at the grit shots for some reason.

Later this day, we went back to Sunayu and did another panning session. I’ve shared enough panned swan shots for this season though, so I won’t bore you with another today. The following morning we went back to Sunaya for one last dawn fly-in shoot before we’d start the next leg of our journey. This next image (below) is one of my favorite shots from this morning,  as eleven swans approached the beach relatively nicely spread out, and with the trees in the background.

Twelve Swans Approach
Twelve Swans Approach

The piled up snow on the right is a bit of an eyesore, but I still kind of like this, probably because of the contrast between the birds and the trees, and I also like how there is some steam coming up from the band of thawed water along the edge of the lake leading through the frame. My settings for this were f/14 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and a focal length of 176mm. 

A member of my group asked me about this, so I’d like to add that I am actually zooming out as I shoot this kind of image, to keep the swans framed nicely as they get closer. If I check my EXIF data on this kind of series of images, I see that I’m gradually zooming out making the focal length wider and wider as the birds approach.

OK, so let’s wrap it up there for this week. Next week we’ll continue our journey as we head over to Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula, where we’ll photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles, and visit the Notsuke Peninsula to photography the Ezo Deer and Northern Red Fox.

2020 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshops

Note that although our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, we are now taking bookings for 2020, so if you think you might like to join us, please take a look at the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2020.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour and Workshop 2020

Show Notes

Book for 2020 here: https://mbp.ac/ww2020

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #2 Part 2 (Podcast 462)

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #2 Part 2 (Podcast 462)

This week is the last of a two part series to walk you through a selection of photos from my second Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour for 2015. We pick up the trail on day seven, with one last Whooper Swan photo, before the majestic sea eagles, and a surprise visit from a beautiful Northern Fox.

Towards the end of last week’s episode, when I walked you through the first 12 photos from Tour #2, I mentioned that the swans often run along the water in front of the frozen lake as they take off. This is the photo I was thinking of, and the unsteadiness of the water often gives the swans an ungainly look as they splash along the water gaining speed to take flight (below).

Whooper Swan Dash

Whooper Swan Dash

Man in the Mist

Men in the Mist

Also, as I mentioned last week, I generally shoot panning shots like this between 1/25 and 1/40 of a second exposure. 1/25 has a much higher failure rate for sharp heads, but can result in more aesthetically pleasing blurred shots. 1/40 of a second has a high success rate, but less wing movement. This particular image was shot at 1/30 of a second, so the head is slightly less sharp on close inspection, but beautiful wing movement is recorded, so it can be a good if somewhat risky balance.

Next is a fun shot that I made after breakfast on day seven, as we visited Sulphur Mountain, for what is usually an apocalyptic scene with the volcanic fumaroles spewing sulphuric steam into the atmosphere. As it was so warm in Hokkaido for pretty much most of this winter though, it was too misty to any more than a few close-up grab shots of the fumaroles, but I quite like this fun shot of two of our tour participants in the mist (right).

I have a couple of frames in which the subject to the right is more prominent, but I like the minimalism here, and just a hint of the figure looking quite sinister to the left of the image.

As we drove over to the fishing town of Rausu, where we would spend three days, going out each morning to photograph the sea eagles, we took a look at a couple of locations where I know there to be Ural Owls, but they were not on their nests this day, so we continued on after lunch to the Notsuke Peninsula.

As warm as it has been, with temperatures floating around freezing point most days, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see this, but it seemed very strange to be able to see the dried grasses and patches of dirt showing through what is usually just pure white snow plains (below).

Ezo Deer at Notsuke Peninsula

Ezo Deer at Notsuke Peninsula

The Ezo Deer are happy enough with the situation, as they can start their spring eating a little early this year, and were often so busy with their feast that they wouldn’t even look up for a photograph as we stalked them from the bus on the road that runs along the thin fishhook shaped strip of land that juts out into the sea on the east coast of Hokkaido.

We went out to photograph the sea eagles at dawn on all three mornings that we were in Rausu, and although the sea ice was very close to the shore on the first morning, high winds drove it out from our base in Rausu towards the Kunashiri Island on the other side of the Nemuro Strait from the second day. Still, we had three great mornings, with the middle shoot being a bit slow.

I’ll share a few eagle shots from the second morning in a moment, but after our first morning, we headed back out to the Notsuke Peninsula, but shortly after we got there, I received a phone call from a friend to tell me that one of the Ural Owls that we’d gone to photograph the day before, was currently on its perch, so we headed over there to photograph this adorable avian (below).

Ural Owl

Ural Owl

I often switch to portrait mode for these owls, because that enables me to fill the frame with the tree trunk, but for this shot, I used the landscape orientation, and showed the edges of the tree to give the owl a little more context, and I thought that worked pretty well here, and more than anything, I was happy that I’d been able to provide the group with an owl photo, following a couple of no-shows the previous day.

Back to the sea eagles now though, and here’s a photo of a Steller’s Sea Eagle from our second dawn shoot with them (below). Here he’s coming in to land on the sea ice, and I just love the detail in his feathers, and those crazily cool talons, and pensive stare as he concentrates on his approach.

Steller's Sea Eagle Coming in to Land

Steller’s Sea Eagle Coming in to Land

The following morning, having found a good perch in the foreground for the eagles to sit on as the sun came up, we waited for the sun and eagles to do just that, as we can see in this photo (below). The eagles generally just sit on these high perches of ice, and seem to just enjoy the sunrise as we do, but sometimes, as we see here, they jostle for position on these perches, and I was able to capture this particular jostle while the sun was still close to the horizon.

Jostling for Position

Jostling for Position

One tip to keep in mind when shooting things like this, is that once the birds are in front of the sun, auto-focus gets all flustered, and generally doesn’t work until you see a more distinct silhouette, like in this photograph. If you are working from a boat like this, it’s a good idea if you use the back AF button to focus, to get focus while the birds are away from the sun, and assuming you don’t move closer to or further away from the subject, just don’t press the AF button again as the bird moves in front of the sun. If you do that, the focus can start to search and you’ll miss your shot.

Of course, you have to disable the focus from the shutter button as well, and this is a common way to set up a camera for wildlife and sports photographers. I won’t go into detail on this now, but if you are interested, let me know and I’ll do an episode on this, and go through the merits and demerits of focusing in this way.

Another thing to remember at times like this too, is to try not to look at the sun through the lens too long. You’ll end up doing it for a few seconds to get your image all lined up and composed nicely, but once you have your composition set and the lens focussed, move your eye up slightly, so that the sun is obscured, at least partially, by the top of the viewfinder.

This way you can still see enough to maintain focus and your composition without frying your eyeballs. Note too that this is only possible while the sun is very low in the sky. Once the sun rises much more than you see in this shot, it’s very dangerous to look at it directly through your camera, especially with a long lens, and even when it’s obscured slightly.

OK, so here’s my messy sea ice shot. It’s nice when we have sea ice, especially when it creates a nice an uniform background as it did in the earlier eagle shot. It can be quite messy though, as you can see in this next photograph, of a White-Tailed Eagle taking a fish from the sea (below).

The Catch

The Catch

I can live with the messy sea ice in this shot though, as I just love the wavy shapes and lines in this image. The wave formed by the lower line of the neck of this eagle is almost mirrored by the arch of the water that the bird has kicked up as he drew the fish from the water.

Of course, it’s easier to get a much cleaner background by shooting the eagles in flight, as I did with this next image (below). We have the mountains behind Rausu in the background here, and I went in really tight with the new 100-400mm lens from Canon at 271mm. I could have pulled out further of course, but sometimes I just like to really crop in tightly to capture the incredible detail in the magnificent raptors.

Pensive Flight

Pensive Flight

Here’s one last fun shot of the Steller’s Sea Eagles before we move on (below). This is not a multiple exposure or anything like that. These three stooges had been sitting on a bit of ice, just chewing the fat, as they do of a morning, and decided it would be fun to walk across this little chunk of ice to a larger piece, and I was lucky enough to capture the comical moment.

Not a Multiple Exposure

Not a Multiple Exposure

After our third dawn sea eagle shoot, we had some tough decisions to make, as the weather was closing in on us again. If you remember from the previous episodes, on Tour #1, there had been major road closures across eastern Hokkaido forcing us to stay in one hotel and extra night, and preventing us from getting to Rausu for two days. We brought the situation around by positioning ourselves to get in early enough on our second day to shoot the eagles, and then we shot twice more on our last day there, but it had been a difficult couple of days.

Well, although we’d finished three great eagle shoots on Tour #2, if we’d moved on to Utoro, where we do some finishing landscape work and have a great last dinner, there was a good chance that we would not be able to leave Utoro on our last morning, forcing us to miss our flight. There was also a good chance that our flight on this side of the island would be cancelled, so it was decision time.

We decided to change our plans, and abandon our last day in Utoro, in favour of traveling across the island to a different airport, so we changed our flights as well as our hotel for the last night. We did have enough good weather and time left to go through to the pass to Shari, at the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula for lunch though, and that also took us past the spot where we usually stop to do some intentional camera movement shots of the birch trees, as we see here (below).

Birch Trees in Snow

Birch Trees in Snow

We had a lot of ground to cover through the afternoon though, to get to Kushiro, and our new hotel, and to be in position for our newly arranged flight. Not wanting to spend the entire afternoon on the bus though, we headed for the Mashuu Lake, where we would have 45 minutes or so to shoot before heading on, but then just as we reached the area, we found this incredibly cute young Northern Fox (below) just sitting at the side of the road, and he posed for us for about 15 minutes before we had to leave.

Fox's Yawn

Fox’s Yawn

We all got lots of great photos of this young guy, but after we’d been there for a while, and I was shooting over the head of one of our participants, he got up and moved away, giving me his seat. Just as he did, the fox did this huge yawn, and although I wasn’t quite lined up properly, I was already focussed, and got what was probably my favourite photo from the entire tour.

I was a little annoyed that I’d got so much space above this little guys head, but this is a perfect space for the time and date on my iPhone lock screen, and it will also be great for adding copy on an ad or magazine cover for example, so I’m looking forward to getting this uploaded to OFFSET the stock agency that represents my work. I’ll share more of this little guy later, but I hope you like this shot. It’s definitely one of my favourites.

The last photography stop of the tour turned out to be Mashuu Lake, as you see here (below). This is a beautiful spot, but now with only thirty minutes left, as we spent 15 minutes shooting the fox, we only had time for a bit of a flying visit before we had to continue on to Kushiro.

Mashuu Lake

Mashuu Lake

We had some great local food in a quaint old bar that night, and then woke the next morning to a cancelled flight, as the weather had closed in even earlier than expected. Yukiko our tour conductor worked her magic, and after around 90 minutes of phone calls and planning discussions with me, we decided to change our flights again, and take a risk on driving over to yet another airport that still had some free seats on the next three flights, and had not yet cancelled their first flight of the day, which was a good sign, as all other airports were cancelling their flights as quickly as we could check on availability.

To cut a long story short-ish, our plans panned out, and although we lost our afternoon on day eleven and the morning on day twelve, we were repaid with a some wonderful fox photographs, a bonus landscape shoot at Mashuu Lake, and we still ended up back in Tokyo an hour earlier than planned, much to the relief of our guests who mostly had international flights to catch the following day.

As usual, at the end of the trip, I went around the bus with my iPhone and recorded a brief message from each member of the group, which I’ll play you now.

[Listen to the audio to hear what the group had to say.]

Also, one of the participants Rich Dyson, a very talented UK photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, has posted a detailed recount of our tour on his blog here, if you’d like to see the tour from a participants perspective. I am also going to be chatting with a few people from the tours in a Google Hangout at some point soon, so look out for those upcoming episodes.

2016 Japan Winter Wonderland Tours

OK, so that finishes my travelogue of our second Japan Winter Wildlife Tour for 2015. Note that we have been taking bookings for the 2016 tours for a while now, and both tours are already almost full, so if you would like to join us, check out the 2016 Tour page, and sign up sooner rather than later, to secure your place on a Japan Winter Wildlife Tour of a lifetime.

 


Show Notes

See Details of 2016 Tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2016

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #1 Part 2 (Podcast 460)

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #1 Part 2 (Podcast 460)

This week we complete our two part series to walk through 24 photos from the first of my two Japan Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido winter wonderland wildlife tours for 2015. As you’ll hear today, the weather gave us some unique challenges on this tour, but as usual we handled the situation, had an amazing time, and came away with some beautiful photos.

We finished last week in the middle of day six, when we were back with the Red-Crowned Cranes, as there was falling snow, which always makes the crane shots much more beautiful, and the cranes themselves are generally more excited when it snows, giving rise to spontaneous group dancing, as you can see in this photo (below). It’s often quite difficult to isolate just one or two cranes that dance or call, but when they are almost all dancing in a group like this, it’s hard to resist grabbing a shot or two.

Cranes' Party

Cranes’ Party

Not only does the snow clean up the ground, but having snow in the air really reduces the shot down to much more minimal elements, as it makes the background much cleaner too. I also like how there’s that one crane on the right that is looking distinctly out of sorts, like someone at a party that is a bit afraid to dance with the rest of the group.

In this next photo (below), a flock of Whooper Swans was flying in, or back to the area. I’m not sure which it is, because the swans are often here just hanging out in the safety of the reserve, but because there’s a risk of them carrying avian flu, the wardens sometimes come out on a snow mobile and scare them away. It’s really funny because the cranes know that the wardens only want to scare the swans, so they all just continue to walk around and do their thing as the swans all take flight before they get run over by the snow mobile.

Whooper Swans Fly Over

Whooper Swans Fly Over

Either way, with the snow and trees at the back of the reserve, then the swans in the air, again I couldn’t resist making a few photos. In this shot I particularly like that easter-egg style swan in the top left corner. I always like it when I find a little half-hidden element like that in a photo, so this is a nice touch for me, even though it was probably quite by accident in this case. I also think the cranes sort of scattered around the scene add something to raise this photo up a little.

Looking at the EXIF data, I see that this next photo (below) was shot about 90 minutes later, and once again, the Whooper Swans were in the air. I’d actually caught the aperture dial on my camera, probably as I lifted it off my bag, as I rushed back from lunch to shoot this. So, instead of f/11 as I’d meant to shoot this, I actually shot it at f/7.1, so just over a stop over-exposed.

Sky Full of Swans

Sky Full of Swans

Luckily though, because Lightroom gives us an extra stop of wiggle room, I was happy to see that it didn’t think this was over-exposed, so I reduced the Exposure slider by 0.90 and ended up with this lovely luminescent look in the sky, and the swans just floating up there, so I decided to just roll with it.

Using Multi Function Lock

Still, it’s better to not make the mistake in the first place, so I decided to use Multi Function Lock on all of my Canon cameras from now on, to prevent this from happening again. I often set this up, but rarely actually used the camera’s Lock switch, until now.

All you have to do is go to the “Multi function lock” option in the custom functions menu, and turn on everything that you want to lock with your Lock switch. I have turned this on for the Main Dial and Quick Control Dial, which are the ones that I tend to turn by mistake. Then after I’ve set up my exposure, I just flick the Lock switch on, on the back of my camera, and this now prevents me from accidentally changing my exposure. Turning the Lock off is an extra step to do when you do need to change something, but I’ve caught these dials often enough that I’m OK with this.

During the third day with the cranes, there was a group of Ezo Deer stags that kept coming in and out of the enclosure. I have a number of shots, but probably this next one (below) is my favourite. I disengaged the 1.4X Extender on the 200-400mm lens, and shot this at 400mm, which is the same as 640mm with the 7D Mark II’s crop factor, so this guy was a way out, but I really wanted to include a bit of the environment in this photograph. I love the trees in the background and again, the falling snow adds so much to these photographs. I’m really pleased we were able to go back here on the third day.

Ezo Deer Dignity

Ezo Deer Dignity

Weather Turns for the Worst

Well, as happy as we were that the snow had started to fall on our sixth day of the tour, as we made our way to Kawayu, where we were due to spend the next two days shooting the Whooper Swans at Kussharo Lake, the weather started to really close in on us. We walk a fine line on these Hokkaido Tours, and after eight years of running these tours, we were finally locked down in our hotel this time.

When we woke up on the seventh day, all of the roads in and out of Kawayu had been closed due to the heavy snow, but that was just the start. Roads all over eastern Hokkaido were closed over the morning, and Rausu, the fishing village that we were due to photograph the sea eagles in had 180cm of snow over the following day or so, totally isolating them, and blocking the roads for four full days.

On the first day of the road blocks, we spent the day in a room with my projector, and did a whole day of workshops. The group was ready for a bit of a break by this point, and my presentations went down well, keeping the group productive, but rested. In fact, we plan to do a half day workshop at this point, so we only really added a half a day to this initially.

The following day, day eight of the tour, we were scheduled to drive to Rausu, but we still couldn’t leave the hotel. Needless to say, we weren’t even able to go to the Whooper Swans just 15 minutes down the road, which was frustrating, but two years ago, when snow like this fell in Hokkaido, the day that our group left actually, a number of people died, some just a few paces from their houses, because they literally could not find their way back home, which is heartbreaking, so these safety measures are necessary unfortunately.

Our Driver Saves the Day!

We spent most of the day in the hotel, in the dining area, going through our images, doing little impromptu show-and-tells here and there, and helping each other with post-processing etc. Then, shortly before 3pm, our driver came to tell us that we could probably get down the road to Iouzan, or Sulphur Mountain, as the roads that far had been cleared. Needless to say we were all in our warm clothes and on the bus ready to go in lightening speed.

We can only spend about 45 minutes near to the fumaroles anyway, as the sulphur in the air starts to make your tongue go all tingly if you spend too long there, but it felt so good to get out in the cold, even though the trudge up to the fumaroles was pretty heavy going in the deep snow.

Here is one of my shots from this brief afternoon respite (below). I used my new 100-400mm lens here to get in really close on one of the yellow steam-bellowing fumaroles, then I took this into Nik’s Color Efex Pro to bring out some of the detail and texture.

Fumaroles

Fumaroles

As much as we’d hoped the roads to clear by the end of day eight, when we should have been in Rausu, the roads didn’t open. In fact, by this time, the military had been called in and were digging the town out, as nothing had gotten in or out of the town for almost three days by this point, so we ended up staying a third night at Kawayu. The hotels are usually very full at this time of year, but of course, just as we couldn’t leave, the next groups couldn’t get in, so we were fine to stay an extra night.

After a lot of consideration between me and the company who I entrust with the logistics of my Japan tour, we decided to check the group out of our Kawayu hotel on the ninth morning of the tour. We were going to take our chances that the roads into Rausu would open by the end of the day, but we also booked tentatively in hotels in a town at the closest point to Rausu that we could get if the roads did not open.

As a bonus for the group, I talked a friend of mine, a local guide, into letting me take our group to two owls nests that we can’t usually visit with such a big group. He knows me well, and knows that my groups are always very well behaved, so he cut us some slack. The result is the following two photographs. We visited two Ural Owl nests, both of which had not one, but a pair of Ural Owls. This first photograph (below) shows the first pair, with their eyes half open as they keep their eye on the group but get some rest at the same time.

Ural Owl Pair

Ural Owl Pair

In another location, there was a younger, smaller owl with full grown adult, in this incredibly cute pose (below). I was using my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged on the 7D Mark II so these were shot at a hair under 900mm, so you can tell how far away this second pair was, but still, I love seeing these guys in their environment like this.

Ural Owls in Tree

Ural Owls in Tree

After these two Ural Owl shoots, we went for lunch at a nearby hotel, and then started to drive over towards Rausu. There was an almost electric buzz on the bus from the excitement of shooting the owls, and for a while we almost forgot that we were still in the midst of a bit of a crisis getting to our next location. Well, the group were happy and able to forget to a degree, but me and Yukiko our tour conductor, and the back-office team on the other end of the phone were frantically trying to decide whether or not we should actually lock in on our tentative mid-way bookings, or continue to bank on the roads to Rausu opening.

Then, we got word that the roads between where we had our tentative hotel bookings and Rausu had just be closed and would not open again that day. By the time we called our hotels, we’d lost a few rooms, but were able to find another, and the group ended up in three different hotels in a town just outside the road blocks. We all had dinner together, and Yukiko and I split into two groups so that we were with the bulk of the participants.

Game On!

Bright and early the next morning, we called and found that the roads from where we were staying to Rausu would open at 7:30am, and the roads into Rausu would open at 7am, so we wrangled the team together, and after breakfast started to make a beeline for our special little fishing village on the Shiretoko Peninsula. Usually in Rausu, weather permitting, we go out for a dawn shoot each day for three days, and spend two hours photographing the incredible Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles.

Unfortunately the high winds had kept the seas high, and broken up the sea-ice that had been in the channel between Rausu and Kunashiri Island, so a dawn shoot would have been called off anyway. But, with two shoots abanded, we arranged with the skipper of our boat to go out from 10am, as soon as we arrived in Rausu. There was some ice trapped in the harbour still, which made for some great photographs, but the highlight for me was after I persuaded the skipper to take us outside the harbour walls, and throw some fish into the sea, one-by-one of course, and give us a chance to shoot the sea eagles as they swoop down to catch the fish, as we see in this photo (below).

You know, as much as I love it when we have great sea ice, I really love it when we can do this, as it looks much more natural to actually capture the eagles taking fish from the water, instead of from the top of a block of ice. Here I captured a Steller’s Sea Eagle throwing up a truck load of water as he snatched his fish from the sea. There was still a lot of swell, so our boat was rocking all over the place, and the eagles also had their jobs cut out grabbing the fish, but it did make for some beautifully dramatic splashes.

Steller's Sea Eagle at Work

Steller’s Sea Eagle at Work

Finally in Rausu, we made the most of our time, and arranged for two more two hour sessions the following day, so we actually ended up going out three times, as we’d always planned. I know that this might sound a little conceited, but one of the benefits of traveling with me in Japan is that I know the language and have a great relationship with all the people that we work with, and this not only makes for tours that run like clockwork when things are going well, but it really helps us to swing things around when circumstances out of our control threaten to put the mockers on our experience. We refuse to give in, and will turn any situation around for our group. It’s just what we do!

Here’s a shot of a White-Tailed Eagle (below), gliding close to the surface of the water as he hones in on his fish. I love the action shots, with all the spray, but this image really appeals to me too. The light from the sky and distant mountains was really beautiful reflected on the water here, making these shots quite special in my opinion.

Surveying the Waves

Surveying the Waves

Here’s one final shot of a White-Tailed Eagle, once again kicking up some water as he takes his fish from the sea. It’s great when you actually get a good view of the fish, and this almost frontal view of the action really brings this shot to life. Note that although last year I hand-held the 200-400mm lens on the 1D X for our three eagles shoots on each tour, this year, the 100-400mm on the 7D Mark II was the obvious choice.

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

The focus issues that I’ve found with the Snow Monkeys running directly towards me don’t occur in these eagle shots, and although the success rate is still slightly lower than the 1D X, for a quarter of the price, the 7D Mark II really is turning out to be a great little camera, and the 100-400mm is astonishingly quick to focus and sharp as tacks. I’m not sure that I will, but I am seriously considering selling my 1D X at this point. I will keep the 200-400mm, because having that 1.4X Extender built right in, and being able to shoot at almost 900mm with the 7D Mark II is too good to pass up, but the 1D X’s days might literally be numbered.

With just one night in Rausu, although we still got our three eagle shoots in, we had to hit the road after lunch, and start to head around to the other side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, to the town of Utoro, for the last night of our tour. As you probably recall from previous years, one of the things I love to do during this drive, is stop at a grove of birch trees to do a little bit of Intentional Camera Movement, as you can see in this photograph (below).

Winter Birches

Winter Birches

For this kind of image, I like to set my shutter speed at around 1/20 of a second, and with the light towards the end of the day here, this required an aperture of f/14 at ISO 100 to get a nice exposure, with white-whites, and nothing over-exposed. There are lots of ways to do this sort of shot, but I like to swipe the camera downwards, and release the shutter just as I expect the bottom of the trees to enter the frame.

With practice you can do this quite consistently, but of course the speed at which you move the camera, and the slightly different path that your vertical panning action moves the camera, makes each frame subtly different. It’s lots of fun though, and because we were doing this later in the day than we usually do, we have some beautiful late afternoon light hitting the sides of the birch trees, giving us a lovely warm highlight along the right side of many of the trees.

We spend our last night in Hokkaido in a wonderful hotel in Utoro with what is probably the best buffet in the whole of Japan, and although we have great food throughout these tours, the last night is always a great special treat to finish with. I made a bit of a speech, and thanked the group for their cooperation and understanding about the challenging weather situation. The participants really were amazing on this tour, and although I know that they appreciated the work we put in to keep us as close to our original plan as possible, with a less understanding group, the situation could have been made a lot worse, so I want to thank you all again here too, as I know some of you will be listening.

On the final morning, we went down and spend some time doing seascapes. The sea-ice on the Utoro side of the peninsula was packed in right up to the shore and out as far as the eye could see, so we did some nice minimalist seascapes, before moving on to the Oshinkoshin Falls, for what would be our last shoot of the tour.

The falls were beautiful and although the left falls were totally iced over, the trees around the top of the falls were all frozen over, as you can see here (below), so once again I used the 100-400mm lens to get in close and single out just the top of the falls. I used an ND8 neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed down to a quarter of a second at f/16, ISO 100, and this is just about enough to make the water go all silky, emphasising the movement.

White Oshinkoshin Falls

White Oshinkoshin Falls

After an hour shooting the falls, it was time to head towards the airport and get one last lunch in together before heading back to Tokyo. As usual, I recorded a message from each participant as we headed down the coast of the peninsula, so I’ll play that for you now.

[Listen to the audio to find out what our participants had to say about the tour.]

And that brings us to the end of our travelogue of the 2015 Winter Wonderland Tour #1. As I release this, I’ll literally be heading out of the door to go and meet the Tour #2 group, and do it all again. Well, hopefully this time without the disruptions that we had on Tour #1, but I’m really looking forward to getting started again, and will be back in two weeks time with another update and some new photographs to share with you. Note too that I’m also probably going to be doing some Google Hangouts to share some of the participants photos with you too in the coming months, which should be a lot of fun and help you to see the tour from a different perspective to my own.

2016 Japan Winter Wonderland Tours

Note that we are already taking bookings for the 2016 tours. Actually, they are now almost full, so if you are thinking of joining us, check out the details on the Tours & Workshops page, and sign up sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.

 


Show Notes

See Details of 2016 Tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2016

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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