We pick up the trail on the second of my Japan Winter Wildlife Tours for 2019 today, as we continue to photograph the clumsily beautiful Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo.
My final selection of images from this incredibly productive tour is still slightly over 300, so I have a little more work to do there, but I’ve been able to reduce the number of images to share with you today to a final twelve, so we’ll finish this series covering this year’s Japan winter tours with this episode.
Swan Fly-By at Dawn
The morning after our first panning session with the swans at Lake Kussharo, we went back to the lake hoping for a few more fly-bys and we did have a couple that gave good results. My favorite of the morning is this image, with four of the Whooper Swans almost overhead, as they approached the lake.
I really do enjoy watching these huge birds fly overhead, and when they are this close, I literally shot this with my 100-400mm lens wide open at 100mm, you can often hear the wooshing sound as they flap those huge wings. Their wingspan can be as wide as 275 cm or 9 feet, and they weigh up 14 kg or 31 pounds, so it’s a hefty bird, and actually the largest that we photograph on this trip, although the sea eagles that we’ll also look at shortly take some beating when it comes to sheer awesomeness. My other settings for this shot were ISO 400 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/11.
Three Swan Pan
At the end of this day, we were back at the lake for another panning session, and I was again trying to get more than one swan in the frame, and did a pretty good job of it with this next image, in which we can see three swans in a line. The heads are sharp enough to keep the image, although I’d have liked them to be just a little bit sharper.
These panning shots are a lot of fun, and generally, we leave this location with lots of smiling faces, and that’s always good to see from my perspective. The hit ratio with this kind of shot is pretty low, but having two evenings to try it really helps too. My settings for this image where ISO 1000 for a 1/50 of a second at f/16, and I was out at 100 mm still with my 100-400mm lens. Although the lake was uncommonly not frozen on the first trip three weeks before this, as you can see in this image, it had mostly from over by the time we arrived on this trip.
The following morning we revisited the lake one last time, before continuing our journey to our last major destination of Rausu, for the sea eagles. On the way, our first stop was just 15 minutes from where we’d stayed, at Sulfur Mountain. You can see where it gets its name from with the yellow sulfur stained fumaroles in this somewhat apocalyptic looking photograph from our brief stop.
The steam from the fumaroles was really heavy on this day, but the breaks in the cloud and clear sky made for a really dramatic looking scene if you time the shot just right. I was exposing this so that the sun was almost completely over-exposed, and that of course made the shadows very dark, but the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro helped to bring that detail back out, so overall I’m happy with the results. My settings were 1/1250 of a second at ISO 100, at f/16, and my focal length was 35 mm, with Canon’s new RF 24-105mm f/4 lens.
Northern Red Fox
We also made our regular first stop at the Notsuke Peninsula during our drive and were greeted by this beautiful Northern Red Fox that posed for us on the snow for quite a while. To avoid frightening the foxes, we generally photograph them from the bus, and just open the windows, and of course, turn the engine off to stop the vibration.
Occasionally we see foxes on the peninsula with tails that are stripped of their fur, probably by the sea eagles or crows that sometimes bully them, but this fox has probably one of the most beautiful bushy tails that I’ve seen. I shot a number of images of him sitting up, zoomed in on his face, but the images felt somewhat empty without that tail, so I settled for this image. My settings for this shot were ISO 1250 for an 1/800 of a second at f/8. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in Extender engaged, and zoomed to 420 mm.
Happy with our first encounter, I was surprised to get another fox shortly afterwards in a completely different environment, but every bit as cute as the first. This guy was quite a way off, so I had to shoot this with an external 2X Extender fitted as well as my 200-400mm lens with the internal Extender, for a focal length of 1065 mm, but as I’ve mentioned, the EOS R seems to quite like this combination, so I’m finding it very workable.
This fox was actually licking its paws then cleaning its face with them, but I’ve called this image Sleepy Fox as it almost looks like he’s got his head on his paws getting ready for a nice sleep. Because the light was relatively low, I was at ISO 5000 for this shot, for an 1/800 of a second at f/11, my widest aperture for this combination of Extenders. It’s always nice to get the fox up on the fishing nets like this, placing the foxes obviously in a fishing area from these visual clues, so the nets add a nice element of story.
After a visit to the nature center, we turned our bus around and drove back down the Notsuke Peninsula, stopping this time for some Ezo Deer stags that were sizing up each others’ antlers. I like the flakes of snow in this, and the environment is beautiful, with the stags on the frozen brackish lake, just past the vegetation that they often feed on.
Having said that, the lake is like a white sheet, so I’ve cropped this down to a 16:9 aspect ratio image, removing the top a little, as it wasn’t really adding anything. You can see from the angle of the right deer’s feet that they weren’t really pushing at each other here, but it’s nice to see them at least starting to get ready for this year’s rutting season. It seems I still had my 2X Extender fitted for this image, as my focal length was 685 mm, and my ISO was up at 6400 with a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second at f/11.
Steller’s Sea Eagle at ISO 12800
As I often say, with the camera’s we have these days, cranking up the ISO is really not that big a deal any more, as long as you ensure that you are exposing to the right, as in, adjusting your exposure so that the right-most data of your image is almost touching the right shoulder of the histogram. I was doing just that at dawn the following day, as we started the first of our three trips out on a boat to photograph the sea eagles.
This was around 30 minutes before the sun actually came up over the Kuril Islands, so even with a 1/200 of a second shutter speed at f/5, I still needed my ISO at 12800 to get this shot, but as you can see, there really isn’t a lot of grain in this image, even in the dark bird, simply because I increased my ISO enough to get my image data over close to the right shoulder of the histogram. Had I been too scared to do that, and left it at say ISO 3200, I guarantee you, the image would have been much noisier.
The Humble Butt Shot
Another thing that you will often hear when shooting with other photographers is people lowering their cameras as a bird or animal turns away from us, calling out the image as a “butt shot”. I do this myself too, so I’m not calling anyone out with this, but I do want to point out that I feel it’s a crying shame to completely rule out an image based on a popular idea that a certain type of photograph is in some way taboo.
This shot of a Steller’s Sea Eagle is, I have to tell you, one of my favorite shots from this trip. I love the detail in the tail feathers and indeed the entire bird, and it doesn’t bother me one bit that this is a butt shot. Another thing that you’ll often hear bird photographers talking about is getting completely sharp wings, and this also is something that I purposefully do not try to do all the time. I like to use a shutter speed of around 1/1000 of a second, because it sometimes allows the wings to blur slightly, adding, in my opinion, some dynamism to the photograph.
I shot this with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second, and still have movement in the wing tips, but I like that here, so I’m happy with my choice of settings. My ISO was at 1600 by this time, as there was now much more light, and my aperture was down at f/10, with a focal length of 400mm.
Steller’s Sea Eagle and Sea Ice
Of course, shots from the front are great too, like in this next image. Quite often with birds, we end up with our shots being from the side, which are also nice, but because it’s less common to get a bird coming straight towards you, it is nice to get some shots like this.
As you can see from these shots, we did also get a decent amount of sea ice on this second trip. The timing of the second trip does give us a better chance of getting sea ice, although I really don’t mind when we don’t get any. Since talking the skipper of the boat into going out even when there is no ice, around five years or more ago, it has become one of my favorite ways to photograph the eagles. When the ice is there though, it does add a nice additional element. My settings for this shot were ISO 1000 at 1/1600 of a second at f/10 and a focal length of 400 mm.
Steller’s Sea Eagle Silhouette
We went back down the Notsuke Peninsula once more on our second day in Rausu, but the photos weren’t great, so we’ll skip to the following morning, back out on the boat, as the sun rose above the Kuril Islands. I like to keep my eye out for an eagle flying close to the sun at this time, hoping for shots like this one, where the eagle is almost silhouetted against the sun’s disk.
To enable me to get this sort of image, this is one of the few times when I use Auto-ISO, and allow the camera to control the exposure itself. That way when I’m shooting away from the sun the ISO shifts to give me a brighter bird, but then when the sun is in the frame, like this, the ISO drops automatically, giving me a silhouette. The other settings I did set manually, which were an 1/800 of a second and an aperture of f/10. My focal length was 371 mm.
Steller’s Sea Eagle’s Grimace
Another shot that I’m happy with from a few minutes later, while the sun was still pretty low in the sky, is this one, of a Steller’s Sea Eagle, probably landing, kicking up snow and ice, but with his wings still open, as though he’s about to take off. The three eagles in this shot are obviously quite dark, because I’m shooting into the sun, but I love this angle and the sense of movement in this majestic raptor.
Having photographed the subjects on this trip so many times, it takes a lot to impress my wife when I get home, but she was impressed with this shot, as it’s something pretty different to what I usually come home with, and that feels good. My settings for this were ISO 1600 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/10, and a focal length of 400 mm.
Fishing in Dawn’s Warm Glow
The following morning, once again, I got lots of great shots, although the increasing number of seagulls and crows made it more difficult than usual. Before we finished our third and final trip out to shoot the eagles though, I asked the skipper to throw some fish into the sea in the open water, rather than onto the ice, so that we could get some photos like this one, with the eagles taking the fish from the water.
I really like that we have the warm glow of the dawn sky reflecting in the water in this photograph, as that makes up for the fact that we had to shoot back towards the sun a little. To ensure that the eagle was bright against the bright background, I actually shot this at ISO 4000, with a shutter speed of 1/1600 of a second at f/10. I was also very happy that the EOS R continued to perform well, autofocussing admirably against this contrasty water and ice. We did our usual drive around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula, and played with some Intentional Camera Movement and the waterfalls etc. around Utoro, but we’ll skip those images so that we can finish the series here.
Canon EOS R
Having completed all three of my Japan Winter Tours this year shooting almost exclusively with the new EOS R, Canon’s first full frame sensor mirrorless camera, I would just like to relay that I continued to be very happy with this camera, having now shot a total of around 16,000 images with it. There was the problem of the viewfinder fogging up, that I talked about in my review back in Episode 650, but other than that, it has way surpassed my expectations and even my hopes.
This doesn’t mean that my 5Ds R bodies are all of a sudden bad cameras, but I have instantly learned to appreciate the size and weight of the EOS R, and I’m now considering selling one of my two 5Ds R bodies, and keeping the funds on my point card at my local camera store, as I wait for the 5Ds R Mark II, which is rumored to also be coming along with the R Mount, and therefore obviously also a mirrorless camera. Although there have been plenty of people giving the EOS R a bad rap, personally, I’m incredibly pleased that I waited for Canon to finally release a full frame mirrorless camera, and I am really looking forward to being able to continue to use all of my beautiful Canon lenses moving forward.
Before we wrap up this final travelogue episode for my 2019 winter season, I do of course have our final round of participant comments to play you from the bus on the final morning of the tour, as we headed towards the airport to fly back to Tokyo and disband.
[Please listen with the audio player at the top of this post to hear what each participant had to say about the trip.]
It was lovely, as usual, to hear the group again, now more than three weeks after the tour finished. Thanks to everyone for your wonderful comments!
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2020
OK, so we’ll wrap it up for now, but please do note that although Tour #1 has now sold out, we do still have some places open on the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tour #2, so if you might be interested, please check that out here.
Following on from the previous episode, today we continue on our journey photographing the wildlife of Eastern Hokkaido, starting with the beautiful Whooper Swans, then moving on to the Sea Eagles, with a cameo from an Ezo Deer and a Pod of Orca.
Whooper Swan Interior
Having left the cranes behind, we took a steady drive over to Lake Mashuu for a bit of a touristy landscape stop to help us wind-down a little after the last few busy days with the cranes. We arrived at Lake Kussharo mid-morning, and had an hour photographing in a corner of the lake before lunch, but it was very windy in the afternoon, and the swans were hunkered down, so we didn’t get to really start photographing them until the following morning, and one of my first shots from that morning is this.
It was shortly before 8 am when I shot this, so the winter sun had really just risen above the trees to our backs as we stood on the shore of Lake Kussharo. I really like how this swan seems to be shining from within with the beautiful warm light from the low sun. I obviously framed this very tightly in camera, to help us to see and appreciate the details in the feathers as the swan preens itself. With it being clear I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at ISO 800 at f/11.
Thirty minutes later, I shot this next image as the sun got brighter, and the light now less warm, but I had lowered my ISO to 400 with the same shutter speed and aperture, so it was now exactly one stop brighter.
As you can see, this part of the lake was not frozen at this point, and that is quite uncommon for this time of year. It would freeze completely before we revisited in three weeks time, but to not be frozen at the start of February is something that I’ve only seen once before.
This was one of those frantic calling sessions that the birds often do after landing, and it was followed by a somewhat vicious attack on these swans from a third swan that was just to their right as they called like this. I have photos of that too, but this is more beautiful, and although their fighting is only natural, I also kind of don’t want to sensationalize it.
A Dozen Swans in Flight
We spent around 90 minutes at our first location for the day, then moved on, to the place that we’d spent our first hour before lunch on the previous day, and were quickly rewarded with a couple of spectacular fly-ins. This is the second group that arrived in our corner of Lake Kussharo; a full dozen of swans, with the mountains on the opposite shore of the lake running along the bottom of the frame.
I’ve cropped this down from the top, to make it a 16:9 aspect ratio image, as the blue sky at the top, was not really adding any more than what we have here, and as I often say, if any aspect of an image isn’t adding something, it’s generally detracting from the overall appeal of the photograph. I feel also that this image is better balanced with roughly equal amounts of sky above and below the line of swans.
Here’s another photo from the little corner of the lake thirty minutes later, and here we see three swans doing another of their “Hey we just landed, isn’t it great that we can fly!” songs.
I generally don’t do a lot to my wildlife photos, but I did spend a few minutes on this to draw a mask over the birds and lighten the shadows a little, with the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro. I also drew a gradient mask over the dark trees and used the Luma Tone Curve to darken that down a little, as that helps to enhance the swans’ breath by adding some contrast. I always like it when you can see the breath of an animal. I feel that it literally breathes a little more life into the photograph.
After lunch on this day we did a 90 minute workshop session at the hotel, where I shared some details of the wildlife that we shoot on this trip, and did a short demonstration of how I processed some of my images so far in Capture One Pro, and then we went back out towards the end of the day, for our panning shoot with the swans.
I tried this year to time my panning shots so that I had other birds in the frame, as I have grown a little bit bored with my single bird panning shots. On the first trip, this shot with the context provided by the two other stationary swans is one of my favorites. In a couple of weeks I’ll share some shots from the second wildlife tour for this year, where I have multiple swans flying together, and all with relatively sharp heads.
This technique is really fun. I set my shutter speed at 1/40 of a second and my aperture to f/14, and finally, adjusted my ISO to 2000 for optimal exposure. I was using my Canon EOS R and the EF 100-400mm Mark II lens at 200mm for this particular shot.
The following morning, we visited the swans once more, and I have a shot of some of the swans flying in low that I really like, but we’re already at five images just of the swans, so we’ll move on now. We made our regular stop at the Sulfur Mountain, but this was one of the rare occasions when the mist and light weren’t quite working for me, so we’ll skip that too.
On our way over to the Notsuke Peninsula, before our final destination for the day at Rausu, where we’d spend three nights to photograph the sea eagles, we stopped at a place where I know there to be a Ural Owls nest. This is the nest where the owl had been tormented by people with no respect for the wildlife and had not been seen for five years now.
We stopped by each year in the hope that an owl might return, and finally, this year we found an owl on the nest. It was in the next tree, in an open concaved area, but it was lovely to see this bird. I’m just hoping that as the word gets out that he’s back, people are a little more respectful and don’t scare him away again.
As with the owl shot from the previous episode, I was using my 200-400mm lens for this, with the internal 1.4X Extender engaged and a 2X Extender fitted, giving me a focal length of 1120mm. This is working really well with the EOS R, due to the lower resolution. This combination is slightly soft with the 5Ds R, so it’s a nice little bonus to be able to shoot at this focal length when necessary.
When we got over to the Notsuke Peninsula it was nice to see that there was plenty of snow, and we quickly encountered some of the Ezo Deer that roam around the peninsula feeding on the grasses that make their way through the snow.
I really enjoy photographing these large deer. The surroundings are what make this photo for me, showing this hardy creature in his harsh surroundings. The bushes and foliage here are on a very thin strip of land that is the peninsula, and in the background, the expanse of white is the frozen brackish lake, between the mainland the peninsula.
Eagles at Dawn
We’re going to go over ten images by a few to complete this series in two parts, so bear with me, as we start our first sea eagle shoot on the following morning. This was actually from the end of our first shoot, when we went over to the quay wall, where the snow reflects light back up onto the underside of the birds, enabling us to shoot them in almost studio conditions.
This is pretty much straight out of the camera, with just a little Clarity and Highlights sliders applied in Capture One Pro. I love it when we can see these magnificent animal’s talons hanging down like this. It makes me wonder what it must be like to live with feet that have those great big long claws on them. The birds do sometimes use their wings, but essentially those clawed talons are the eagle’s main interface with the world, and that must be both tough, and really cool at the same time.
The light was relatively low for this whole shoot, so to get my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second at f/8 I had to increase my ISO to 3200 for this shot. That’s not a problem for the EOS R though. I have some shots from the next trip where I was getting great results even at 12800, so there’s nothing to worry about here, as long as I’m exposing to the right.
Menacing White-Tailed Eagle
The other sea eagle that we photograph on this trip is the White-Tailed Eagle, which is more common than the endangered Steller’s Sea Eagle, and slightly smaller, but a beautiful eagle non-the-less. In this image you can see how menacing these eagles can look as they float in the air, waiting for their chance to pounce on something, like the fish that we throw out for them.
This shot, to me, has a kind of Edward Scissor-Hands feel to it, with the eagle’s talons almost mirroring the spiky looking splayed out flight feathers. There’s a bit of movement in the talons, as my shutter speed was a slightly slow 1/1000 of a second, but I’m not too worried about that. It adds a little bit of dynamism to the shot in my opinion.
We went back down the Notsuke Peninsula again on the second afternoon in Rausu, and although saw a number of Northern Red Foxes, the photos that I got on this trip weren’t anything to write home about, so we’ll skip them.
A Pod of Orca
Shortly after we started shooting on the final morning out with the Sea Eagles, the skipper of the boat that we use asked if we’d like to go and shoot a pod of Orca that had been spotted around 15 minutes down the coast. I, of course, said yes, so off we went to find a total of seven or perhaps eight Orca. Here you can see three of them as they surfaced.
This is my framing straight out of the camera, so I was pretty tight at 271mm. These are magnificent animals too. It’s such a privilege to be able to photograph so many beautiful and powerful animals on this trip. This is only the second time we’ve been able to photograph the Orca on this trip though, and that makes it even more special.
Steller’s Sea Eagle in Action
After photographing the Orca, we sped back down the coast to just outside the port at Rausu and continued to photograph the Sea Eagles. In this next image, you can see a Steller’s Sea Eagle doing what he does, snatching a fish out of the water.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that the EOS R, Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, can be focussed in a split second for images like this. I really don’t like cropping my images unless I have to, so the majority of the time, as with this photo, the framing that you see is the framing that I shot the image with. This is especially important now that I’m back down to 30 megapixels, as opposed to 50 with my 5Ds R bodies. Still, though, the detail in these images is exceptional, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m now really hoping that the rumors pan out, and the next 5Ds will be an RF Mount mirrorless camera.
Oshin Koshin Falls
We finished our trip with a drive around to the Utoro side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, doing some Intentional Camera Movement shots with the birch trees on the way, and shot the river estuary that I’ve shared images of before. We also visited the Oshin Koshin Falls, as usual, and I’ll share one last image that is a little different to what I usually end up with.
The way the frozen part of the falls framed the top portion was kind of cool on this visit, and I was able to get an almost complete border of ice along the top edge, without starting to see the top of the hill or sky above the falls, and I’ve not seen this very often, so decided to capitalize on the opportunity. I love the textures in this snow-covered ice, and believe it or not, this is not a black and white conversion, it’s a color photo. I used probably my three stop neutral density filter to give me a 0.6 second shutter speed at f/14, and I was using the incredibly sharp and compact Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 lens, which I have also fallen completely in love with.
On our final morning, we went for a walk in the Shiretoko National Park, before starting our drive to the airport to head back to Tokyo where we would all head home or set off on an onward journey. As usual, after our final shoot, I recorded comments from each member of the group, which I’ll play you now.
[Please listen with the audio player at the top of the post to hear the lovely comments from this group.]
OK, so we’ll wrap it up there in two parts, which was slightly rushed, but I have already finished the tour after this one, and want to move on to some other topics, so hopefully this is OK.
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2020
Note that we do still have some places open on the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours, so if you might be interested, please check that out here.
Visit the 2020 tour page here if you might be interested in joining this tour and workshop: https://mbp.ac/ww2020
If you are thinking of picking up a Canon EOS R, support us, at no extra cost to yourself, by using our affiliate links embedded in this post.
Having completed my two Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017, today we conclude our travelogue series for tour one with a condensed walkthrough of our last four days over on the Shiretoko Peninsula.
We spend three days in Rausu, where we photograph the sea eagles, and in the afternoon, we generally head down the Notsuke Peninsula, to photograph the deer and northern red foxes. On the way over to Rausu we visit a number of Ural Owl nests that I know of, but none of the owls are on their nests this year.
I have spoken to a guide friend in Hokkaido and apparently they all disappeared at the end of last year. This is probably due to some of the Asian country visitors throwing things at the nests to make the owls open their eyes or fly. The problem of Asian visitors treating the wildlife with total disrespect is a growing issue in Hokkaido, which needs action to be taken. I will be talking more about this in the coming weeks, as something absolutely despicable happened at the cranes the day before we arrived to photograph them on tour two.
Anyway, on our way over to Rausu on our first afternoon, we paid our first visit to the Notsuke Peninsula, and had an encounter with the oldest Ezo Deer stag I’ve ever seen (right).
Artistically I prefer this photo, but I have a second from the side which shows the stags antlers better, and they are so big that the aging stag can no longer fully grow them with them becoming misshaped.
I was in two minds as to whether or not to include this image, but I decided to, because on tour two we found this old guy laying by the road almost dead. He looked in such a bad way that I felt sure he’d be bead before we revisited the peninsula the following day, but he had moved about 20 meters and was actually eating while laying down when we went back.
On the third day that we visited there was some blood and fur on the group where he had been, so we think that he had probably died and the park wardens removed his body, as the foxes had started to eat him. I’m not sure if that’s what happened, and I’m not sure that I agree to depriving the foxes of a good meal either, but that’s what we saw.
I shot this image with my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged, for a focal length of 506mm and a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at f/9 with the ISO set to 2000. I could have gone a little slower on the shutter speed as he wasn’t moving much, but I was shooting hand-held with this long lens, so it’s better to speed it up a little.
Northern Red Foxes
On the same afternoon, we were able to photograph a lot of northern red foxes. More than I’ve seen on the Notsuke Peninsula before, and some of them were in pairs, like the ones in this photo (below). Here this pair were comparing the size of their mouths, which is something I believe they do to establish their pecking order, or to threaten the other fox.
Foxes Comparing Mouth Size
Although I love to photograph the foxes on the snow, it was nice for a change to find them on top of these fishing nets. These nets too are usually under snow anyway, but we’ve had a warm winter in Hokkaido again this year. I shot this image with the same settings as the previous image, but with a focal length of 461mm.
The following morning, at the start of day nine, we went out for our first voyage to shoot the sea eagles. I have literally hundreds of photos of the eagles from this trip, so it was difficult to whittle down my selection to represent these majestic birds in this single episode, but I’ve tried to give you a good cross section as we progress today.
Most of the time the eagles are swooping down parallel to our boat, so the majority of our shots are naturally from the side, but occasionally they swoop towards us, as we see in this first photo of a Steller’s Sea Eagle (below).
Wrong Time and Plaice
There was no sea ice again for this first tour, which made it the third tour in a row now, as we didn’t get ice on either tour last year. I actually prefer it is many ways when there is no ice, as we now just through fish into the sea, so it looks more natural than the eagles taking fish from the top of the ice. Of course, the chances of an eagle catching a plaice from the surface of the water are almost zero, but we’ll have to overlook that.
I shot this image at f/10 with a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at ISO 800. For all of the eagle shots from the boat I used my 100-400mm Mark II lens.
Another shot that I wanted to share from this first eagle shoot is this one, of a White-Tailed Eagle. I have many shots of the eagles nicely framed, but something that I like to do is to get in so close that I purposefully crop off the wings to get a more intimate look at the bird, as I did here (below).
Of course I can pull back and get the entire bird in, but I just like doing this, even though it drives some people crazy. It gives us a better look at the details of the bird and the water droplets left by the catch. I shot this at 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, with an aperture of f/10 at 400mm.
Canon EOS 5Ds R for Wildlife
In case you didn’t catch my mentioning this last year, you might want to note that I am shooting all of my images with a Canon EOS 5Ds R, including these very fast past wildlife shots. The autofocus is definitely up to the task, and with good technique you can certainly work with the slow frame rate. Rather than shooting long bursts though, you have to time your exposures perfectly.
I generally wait until the eagle sticks out its talons now before starting to release the shutter, and this usually gives me one frame with the talons forward, sometimes one with the bird looking like it’s standing straight up in the water standing on the fish, and a second or third frame of the bird pulling the fish out of the water. With just two to three frames per swoop, I don’t have to look through so many images, and I feel that this technique has helped to make me a better photographer.
After lunch we drove back down the Notsuke Peninsula, and were able to capture a number of northern red fox images again, but we got better images on our visit from the last day, so we’ll skip those today. Next up is a shot from the following morning with the eagles, as an example of my first frame of a burst, where a Steller’s Sea Eagle has his talons out forward, reaching for a fish (below).
Steller’s Sea Eagle with Talons Out
As you may be able to see, we had some light snow on this second morning with the eagles, which adds some nice atmosphere. It was heavily overcast though, so I was shooting with ISO 4000 at this point, at 1/1000 of a second, with an aperture of f/9.
Push the ISO Not the Image
Using high ISOs still scares many people, but if you take control of your exposure and ensure that you are exposing to the right, so that the image data is close to the right side of the histogram, you really don’t see any grain, even with the super-high resolution of the 5Ds R body. That’s another myth that people like to use as an excuse to not like this camera by the way. I’ve taken great pride in blowing these myths out of the water over the last two years.
High ISOs on most modern DSLR cameras are only a problem if you allow them to intimidate you. Most people are scared to increase the ISO so they shoot a darker image and then try to lighten it up in post processing, but this causes the image to be recorded in the middle of the histogram, where you do start to see more grain, so when you push the image in post you amplify the grain. Then people feel thankful that they didn’t push the ISO further, adding more grain, but the reverse is true.
It’s much better to push up your ISO in the camera rather than push the image in post. Yes, I know all about ISO Invariance, but that only works if you can keep your base image at ISO 100, and when there is as little light as there was on some of these shoots, that’s not possible. I discussed how I tested the ISO invariance of my 5Ds R in episode 520 if you’d like to take a look.
At the end of our second eagle shoot, we spent 15 minutes photographing the eagles over the harbor wall. Because the wall has snow on it, it bounces beautiful diffused light back up onto the underside of the eagles, as you can see in this shot (below).
Steller’s Sea Eagle Over Harbor Wall
It was still snowing, adding that second level of atmosphere over the eagle, but also along the bottom of the image where the sky was slightly darker, making the snow stand out a little more. Pretty much all of the images that we’ve looked at so far are totally un-cropped, so the level of detail in these 50 megapixel files is absolutely incredible.
My Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4000 printer has been sitting dormant for the last two months as I’ve travelled, but I’m looking forward, now that I’ve actually finished all three tours, to getting caught up on other work, then having a mad printing session, and this is one of the images that I can’t wait to print out pretty big and explore the detail in the print. Of course, I can see the detail on the screen, especially now that I’m using the new BenQ 4K display, but there’s nothing like poring over a nice big print to appreciate the detail in an image.
After lunch, we visited the Notsuke Peninsula again, and encountered a number of foxes that seemed bent on providing us with some more excellent photographic opportunities, as we can see here (below). This young fox was playing with a piece of fur, perhaps from a coat or other garment. It doesn’t look like natural fur, not to me at least.
Although the fur isn’t natural, I still quite like this image, showing the playful nature of these beautiful animals, despite them braving some pretty harsh weather through the winter out of the peninsula. He threw this fur up into the air and caught it, then shook it around as dogs often do, so it was fun to watch as well as photograph. My settings were 1/1000 of a second at f/11, ISO 1600.
Here’s another shot of a fox from the same afternoon, as one got up and stretched on top of another fishing net, this time black, providing some nice contrast. It’s snowing again, adding the atmosphere that I like, and the sea in the background adds extra context (below).
Ezo Fox Stretch
I make good use of the digital level in the viewfinder of the 5Ds R, to help me ensure that things like the horizon in this shot are straight right in camera, even when hand-holding. This helps me to keep as many pixels as possible for big prints. I’ll crop an image if necessary, but generally I like to avoid it, even just by the small amount required to rotate an image to straighten a wonky horizon. I shot this at 1/500 of a second at f/9, with ISO 3200.
For the first two days that we ventured out to photograph the eagles it had been overcast, so there was no dawn shoot, but on the third morning we were due to go out, it was going to be clear, so we set out before the sun came up, and this allowed us to photograph the eagles in the warm dawn light, as you can see in this next image (below).
I’ve included this shot not only to illustrate the warm light, but also because I like the water frozen in time as the Steller’s Sea Eagle whisks his frozen fish from the water. We were also lucky on this day that the wind direction had changed, now blowing in from the open sea, which meant that the birds had the sun of their faces more often, as they flew into the wind. I shot this at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second at ISO 1600.
Another shot from this morning that I really like is this one of a Steller’s Sea Eagle breaking free from the water (below). He had taken a large wave and sunk down until the water came over his head, and I have a shot of that too, but he doesn’t look overly majestic, but then in this frame with all that water behind him he looks every bit as magnificent as these birds are.
This image is cropped a little bit from the top right corner, as it happened a little bit far away, and I was at the full reach of my 100-400mm lens. My settings were f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second at ISO 1600.
I still have to go back and further cull my eagle shots from this first Japan wildlife tour for 2017, but it was an incredibly productive trip. The great thing about shooting when it’s clear at Rausu is that you can get beautiful views of Mount Rausu behind the town, so I capitalized on that a little as I saw this eagle doing some acrobatics in this photograph that we’ll finish our eagle shots with (below).
Eagle Acrobatics Before Mount Rausu
If I had planned this, I would probably have stopped my aperture down to f/14, to get just a little bit more definition in the mountain, but I like the separation that the eagle being totally sharp affords us, so it doesn’t bother me too much. I shot this at f/10, with a 1/1250 of a second shutter speed at ISO 800.
ICM (Intentional Camera Movement)
After our eagle shoot we checked out of our hotel and headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula heading for Utoro, and on the way we stopped for our birch tree intentional camera movement shoot, which has become tradition as we start to wind down after our hectic tour (below). To get this effect, I simply set the shutter speed to 1/25 of a second then move the camera downwards quickly, and release the shutter just as the bottom of the trees starts to enter the frame.
I shot the light side of the road first, as I’ve done for many years, then also walked across the road to a spot where we can get a very dark background caused by some pine trees behind a front line of birch. I have started to prefer this scene to the white one, although I do find this comes across a little more sinister, especially compared to the light, airy version.
After our birch tree shoot, we continued our drive to the Utoro side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. As is often the case, as we reached the coast, we were greeted by sea ice, covering the water as far as the eye could see. It just doesn’t always make its way around the tip of the peninsula and down into Rausu. We spent some time photographing the Oshinkoshin Falls and visited the Shiretoko National Park at the end of our eleventh day, and on the morning of the last day.
In the park I lead a group to look for some woodpeckers and other birds, and Yukiko our tour conductor lead a second group down to the end of the valley for a bit of landscape work, and just a nice walk really. I got a few shots of a great spotted woodpecker and a nuthatch, but they aren’t special enough to share here, so we’ll wrap this up for today, and conclude this series.
Before we actually close though, I’d like to play you the recording that I made on the bus on our last morning, to get some wonderful comments from our great tour group.
[Please listen to the audio with the player above to hear what the group said about the tour]
It’s always nice to hear the voices of the participants like this, especially as I’ve now also finished tour two as I prepare this episode. In three or four weeks as I complete the travelogue for tour two, it will be nice to hear from my second wildlife group for 2017 as well. A special bond is formed with many of the members of my tour groups, so I treasure these recordings, as well as the group photos that I make on each trip.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019
Because our 2018 tours have now filled, we’ve now started to take bookings for 2019, so if you might be 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.
This is the third of a four part series to walk through the first of my two Japan winter wildlife tours for 2016, continuing with a visit to Sulphur Mountain, then on to the Notsuke Peninsula, and Rausu, where we photograph the majestic Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles.
We pick up the trail after our final shoot with the beautiful Whooper Swans on the morning of day eight, as we swing by the apocalyptic Iouzan, or “Sulphur Mountain”, before we start our drive over to Rausu. This is a fun spot to shoot, with the fumaroles spewing their sulphuric steam into the atmosphere, as we see in this photograph (below).
I’m a little torn on this photo, as I obviously am not a huge fan of having this large an expanse of overexposure around the sun, but in general, I do like the feel of this shot with the steam bellowing out and the snow in the air. This snow was not present in the images where the sun was hiding behind thicker cloud, and I just kept coming back to this one, which is why I selected it to share with you today. I guess that means I prefer this shot, although the large patch of white does disturb me a little.
I shot this image at f/11 for a 1/250 of a second, ISO 100 at 70mm, using my 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens. For the processing of this image, I ran it through Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 3, and added a bit of Detail Extractor, to bring out the texture in the sulphur stained rock and the steam, as well as the snow. To prevent a harsh line forming around the area of overexposure, I placed a couple of minus control points over that area for the Detail Extractor filter, which enabled me to maintain a nice smooth gradation from white to the surrounding grey steam.
Between Sulphur Mountain and the Notsuke Peninsula, we called at two Ural Owl nests that I know of, hoping to capture one of these lovely birds, but neither of the nests was occupied on this day unfortunately, so after lunch, we pressed on for a pretty productive drive along the peninsula. The first shot I’d like to share from there is this one, of an Ezo Deer stag (below).
Ezo Deer Stag
The light was coming from behind the stag, which isn’t ideal, but the Shadows slider in Lightroom brought out plenty of detail in this side of the animal. I always love to see the texture in the antlers on these deer, as the rutting and foraging in the snow that they do with them strips off the brown coating, leaving those beautiful white tips to what are essentially then bear bones.
I shot this image at f/8, 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X extender engaged. On the Notsuke Peninsula, we generally just stop the bus and open the windows, then shoot resting our lenses on the window frame or bus seat head-rests, and it seems to work pretty well. Unlike some of the other subjects that we photograph on this tour, if we got off the bus here, these guys would be long gone before we could raise our cameras.
There were a few stags that started practicing their rutting behavior, as you can see in this next photo (below), locking antlers and pushing each other back and forth. I’ve cropped this down a little, to a 34 megapixel file, as these guys were a little way off, even at 560mm.
Ezo Deer Rutting
I actually had a lot of trouble auto-focusing on these guys with the bright back-lit snow. I could tell something was wrong as I shot, but when I looked at my images at the hotel later, almost all of them were blurred, and then I found one that I was wide enough to see an area of sharpness way in the foreground. I thought at first that it may have been a shortcoming of the 5Ds, but it turns out that two other Canon shooters had exactly the same problems at this spot. One with a 1D X and the other with a 7D Mark II. We also noted that all of the Nikon shooters had no problems at all, so they were able to snigger at us on this occasion. I shot this with the same settings as the previous image.
Shortly afterwards, as we drove along the peninsula, I spotted this Northern Red Fox sitting at the side of the road, so we stopped the bus and shot some portraits (below). I love these foxes, when they’re all clean like this, they’re such beautiful animals.
Northern Red Fox
I actually shot this in portrait mode, but then decided to crop it down to a square anyway. My settings were f/8, for a 1/640 of a second at ISO 1250, 454mm. Again, we were shooting from the bus. The angle isn’t great looking down on him, but I’m happy enough with this. I think my shot from last year is better though, especially as the fox was sitting on a bank of snow that was leaning downwards, away from the bus, so it looked like we were pretty much at eye-level. Much better.
A moment after this photo, the fox jumped in the air and with his muzzle dug a mouse out of the snow. At first I thought he’d heard it scuttling around and hunted it before our eyes, but it turns out it was a carcass that he’d buried earlier, and for some reason decided to dig it up and eat it in front of a bus load of photographers. There was a lot of grass between him and us at this point though, and they weren’t particularly pretty photos, so none of them made my final selection. After a visit to the Nature Center on the peninsula, we took a steady drive back to the hotel as the sun set.
The next morning, we boarded our boat at 8:30am, to go out and photograph the sea eagles. Unfortunately, with 2016 being an el niño year, the sea ice is nowhere to be seen. It usually comes in a few times between the middle of January to the end, but even when it’s late, it’s usually here in the first few days of February. We visited on Feb 9, 10 and 11, and there was nothing. Even as I prepare this on February 19, we’re yet to see any sea ice in Rausu.
Having said that, as I’ve mentioned before, we now take the boat out anyway, and throw fish into the sea, which the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles come down in their droves to catch, and honestly, I love the resulting photographs. In many ways, I actually prefer these photographs to the sea ice photographs, because it looks a lot more natural to see the eagles taking the fish from the water rather than off the top of a piece of sea ice, as you can see in this photograph (below).
White-Tailed Eagle Catching Fish
The other thing that was a little bit against us on this first outing, was that there was very heavy cloud cover. Even though the sun had come up more than two hours before we started shooting, for this photograph to get a shutter speed of 1/640 of a second at f/5.6, I needed to set my ISO to 3200. That’s no big deal. I shot some at 6400 as well, and because I’m still exposing to the right, there isn’t a lot of grain. I’d prefer to shoot at lower ISOs of course, but if it’s a toss-up between getting shots with a bit of grain, or not getting any shots, I’ll take the shots anytime.
The previous image was shot at 330mm and this next image was shot at 360mm, with my 100-400mm lens. This is the perfect lens for photographing these eagles from the boat, even on a full frame camera. I have some shots that we’ll take a look at that have the eagle almost filling the frame, uncropped, at 241mm, so it’s really not worth trying to hand-hold the 200-400mm from the boat, especially when there is as much swell as we had on this day.
Steller’s Sea Eagle Catching Fish
I did crop this photo of course, just a little bit either side, and with a 16:9 aspect crop as this Steller’s Sea Eagle was quite close to the bottom of the frame, so the narrower crop helps to balance the image a little better. My settings here were still f/5.6 for a 1/640 of a second, now at ISO 2500, so I’d brought it down just a little bit.
Picking my Moment
As I’ve mentioned, I was shooting with the high resolution Canon EOS 5Ds R camera on this tour, and many people are pigeon-holing this camera as a landscape and still life body. That really isn’t the case, as I’m sure you’ll start to appreciate with these eagle shots. The frame rate is of course going to limit our shooting, at only 5 frames per second, and I doubt that I was even getting that under these conditions, but you know what, I actually really enjoyed the challenge.
Rather than shooting in long bursts while tracking with the birds, as I have always done with my 1D X or 7D Mark II, I found that I was waiting for the exact moment that I wanted the frame, and often shooting just one frame, sometimes two, but never more than three frames. Sure, I will have missed a few critical wing positions, but I found that I was getting the wing position I wanted with my first frame the majority of the time.
I also enjoyed not having to go through so many photographs. I was coming back from the two hour sessions that we have on the boat each morning with between 500 and 600 frames, rather than a thousand or more, which is what I used to have to look through. And, at the end of the day, I have these beautiful big 50 megapixel images that open up doors for me with regards to very large prints and cropping, so I am really pleased with my decision to leave the 7D Mark II at home.
Because we had not found an Ural Owl on either of the nests that I know about the previous day, after a quick rest-room stop at the hotel, we took a 90 minute drive back to the nearer of the two nests. We were happy to spend that time too, as we were rewarded with photos like this one (below).
Ural Owl in Tree
These owls are just beautiful, and it’s always a pleasure to see one, especially when their eyes are open, like this. As I mentioned in a previous episode, I’m finding that with the 5Ds R, for at least some of my images, I’m actually pulling back a little, and really showing the wildlife in their environment more, because I still have a huge amount of detail, even with the subject quite small in the frame. I have some closer one’s which I might share at some point, but here, I disengaged the 1.4X Extender, and pulled back a little to 376mm, to include this beautiful old tree that the owl is perched in.
My other settings were f/8, for a 1/320 of a second, at ISO 1000. I allowed the sky to blow out a little bit in the camera, as it was not as important for the photograph as getting the owl nicely exposed. In Lightroom though, the data on the histogram is not quite touching the right side, so it’s not actually over-exposed. At least as Lightroom sees it.
We don’t stay long at the owl, as I don’t like to disturb them too much. We took it in turns getting into a good position either side of the tree, and then took our leave. Afterwards, we had another drive down the Notsuke Peninsula but this time saw absolutely nothing. It was as though we were in a totally different place than the previous day, with the deer and foxes. I’m pleased this happened on the second day though, or the group would have wondered why we were even there.
The following morning, we went out for our second session with the sea eagles. This time we had about an extra two stops of light, which was really welcome, as a lot of the group hadn’t really capitalized on the first morning with it being so dark. Even as we got started, my ISO was down at 1600 for this first image (below).
White-Tailed Eagle with Talons Ready
I love the clarity of this shot, and the reflections of the feathers, but most of all, those outstretched talons accompanied by the White-Tailed Eagle’s gaze are awesome. I cropped this one just slightly from the top left corner, but this is still a 44 megapixel photograph. This was shot at f/6.3 for 1/1000 of a second, ISO 1600 at 286mm.
This next image is the back end of a juvenile White-Tailed Eagle, as it whisks its frozen pray out of the water. I really like this angle, although you can’t see the eagle’s head, but the high wing position forming a beautiful V shape is really appealing to me, and the droplets of water and the splash are nicely frozen by the 1/1000 of a second exposure.
V for Victory
My aperture was at f/8 at this point, and my ISO down to 1250, with a focal length of 360mm. I did crop this one in slightly from the bottom left this time, leaving me again with a 44 megapixel file. I actually generally don’t release the shutter or even frame them up when I notice that the eagle is a juvenile, as I rarely share or use these images, but I’m pleased I reacted to this shot. It’s perhaps one of my favorites from the trip.
This next image is perhaps my heaviest crop from the trip, down to a tiny 25.2 megapixels, but I couldn’t resist sharing this shot (below). I noticed these four sea eagles converging, so I focused on the middle Steller’s Sea Eagle, and hoped for the best.
Four Sea Eagles
They were a way out, but I though this was a fun mishmash of avian brawn as they circled our boat, and I thought it was extra cool that one of them is looking straight at the camera from the midst of all this. My settings for this shot were f/8, 1/1000 of a second, at ISO 1250, with a focal length of 312mm. I wished I’d had a chance to zoom in, but it happened too quickly for that.
That’s our ten photos for today, so we’ll be back with 5 more eagle shots from the same day, then one more from our third day with them, before we head around to the other side of the Shiretoko Peninsula for our final day before returning to Tokyo and disbanding.
2018 Winter Wonderland Tours
Before we finish, I’d like to remind you that we are now taking bookings for the 2018 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours. For details and to book your place, visit the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2018. Our 2017 tours are already sold out, but if you’d like to be put on the wait list, please contact us.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
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
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.