Although I’ve just completed my second Japan winter wildlife tour and final winter tour for this season, today we’re going to pick up the trail on the first of the two wildlife tours, as we leave the cranes in the snow behind, and move on to our final day with the Whooper Swans before heading over to Rausu for sea eagles and foxes etc.
Once again, fighting the clock, as usual, I still had 109 photos left in my collection of images that I still want to talk about in this travelogue series. I was hoping to complete this series with one more episode, but having gone through and shortlisted the images that I really want to talk about, I still have 27 images. We’ll just jump into it, and see if I can whittle down my selection to just ten images as we go.
On the eighth shooting day of the tour, and the fifth day in Hokkaido, we went back to the Kussharo Lake for one last Whooper Swan fly-in shoot before starting our drive over to Rausu and the Notsuke Peninsula. One of the reasons I ensure that we get at least two days in each location is because quite often, the weather can change and present us with different opportunities. On this visit, it was overcast and slightly misty. Conditions that I love to photograph the Whooper Swans in, and you can hopefully see why in this first image for today (below).
I really like it when we get white swans on a white background, often with just subtle differences in tone between the two. The thing that I really like about this photo is that the swan on the left of the frame is looking straight at me as he flew in. It has to feel a bit strange to them when they fly to their beach and see a line of photographers awaiting their arrival. They’re used to seeing people of course, but this is a reminder that they are not totally oblivious to our presence.
My settings for this image were 1/500 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 1000 and a focal length of 400mm with my 100-400mm lens. This is, of course, the Mark II version of this lens. Again this year we had a participant that had rented the original version without knowing and was somewhat disappointed. If you are buying this lens, and you find what you think is a good deal, check that it is not the original lens which is very long in the tooth now, and frankly with today’s camera resolution really punishing older lenses, I wouldn’t use one even if it was free, let alone cheap.
Although I love it when the white swans are on a white background, I also found this next photograph somewhat appealing, with two juvenile Whooper Swans still with their wings spread as they landed in the fresh snow on the frozen Kussharo Lake (below).
I’ve entitled this “Grey But Not Ugly (Ducklings)”. Sometimes the grey juvenile swans might look a bit like ugly ducklings, as in the fairy tale, but in this photo, I think it helps to accentuate them against the white background. I toyed with the idea of removing the three lines of thawed snow at the top of the frame, but decided against it, as I think they add a little depth to the background. My settings for this were f/11 at ISO 1000 still, but I had increased my shutter speed now to 1/640 as the light gradually came up. My focal length was 286 mm.
I have another swan shot that I wanted to show you, but I’ll skip that in a bid to still try and finish this travelogue series today. I did post it on Instagram while I was traveling, so check out my Instagram account if you don’t already follow me over there.
After the swans, we drove just a short way and called at Sulphur Mountain or Iouzan, for a quick session with the surreal fumaroles spewing out their sulphuric steam and painting themselves yellow in the process, as you can see in this image (below).
This place always seems a little bit apocalyptic to me. This is one of the few times when I decided to keep the ridge of the mountains behind the fumaroles in the shot, partly because the wind was blowing the steam away at a more acute angle than usual, but also because I felt it helped to show the surroundings a little better, providing a little more information about the place. My settings were a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/14, with ISO 320 at 70mm.
We then continued our journey towards Rausu, where we’d photograph the sea eagles, but on the way, took a diversion to the Notsuke Peninsula in the hope of seeing some Northern Red Fox, like the one we see in this next image (below).
This isn’t my best fox photo, but I kind of like the way he’s got the tip of his tongue sticking out as he scratching his face, looking quite content up on his snow bed, actually on the back of a trailer that is semi-abandoned on the peninsula. My settings for this were f/11 with a 1/800 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 560 mm. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
The following morning we went out for our first sea eagle shoot of the season from the fishing port of Rausu. Not long after we’d started shooting the captain of the boat told me that there had been some Orca spotted further down the coast, and asked if I’d like to go. It took me about 0.2 seconds to decide that we must do just that, so we sped along the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Although I’d love to have spent more time and got better photos, we still had a very special encounter and I still got some shots like this one (below).
We believe there were seven Orca in the pod we encountered. I have been traveling to Rausu and going out photographing the sea eagles in January and February every year since 2004, and I’ve never seen these amazing whales this early in the season. Wanting to get some really killer shots, pardon the pun, I’ve been trying to make time to visit in June or July for the past few years, but never seem to get time, especially now that I’m doing my Namibia tours at that time. This encounter has ratcheted up the priority of that trip a few rungs, so I might just have to do that this year. My settings for this image were f/9 at 321 mm and a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second with ISO 1250.
OK, so we’re five images in, and I usually do ten images per episode. Let’s take a look at some sea eagle shots, and see if we can finish this today, and move on to the second wildlife trip next week. Rather than trying to show images from all three days that we photograph the eagle, let’s just look at some of my favorites from this trip, in chronological order.
First, here’s a White-Tailed Eagle catching one of the fish that we throw out from the boat (below). Quite often it’s a flatfish, which you wouldn’t normally expect an eagle to scoop from the surface of the sea, but still, these can be quite dramatic shots.
Unless these birds open their beaks when they are startled or angry, they have pretty expressionless faces, and in this image, the sea eagle looks very calm and relaxed as he snatches up his breakfast. There was no sea ice on this first trip. It’s getting less common, with us having no ice at all some years now, although we did get some on the second tour, as we’ll see in the coming weeks. My settings for this were a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed at f/11, with ISO 640 and a focal length of 400mm.
This is image not-cropped at all. I love to go in very tight with my 100-400mm lens, and although the bird’s wings sometimes go out of the frame, and I sometimes don’t mind that, it’s great when I can get something like this in a 50-megapixel file without cropping. The detail is just amazing!
This next image of a Steller’s Sea Eagle grabbing his breakfast too is also not cropped (below). That’s the framing that I shot the image at, and again, the 50-megapixel file absolutely blows me away. I love shooting wildlife like this with my Canon 5Ds R, even though it’s a slow frame rate camera, that most wildlife photographers try to avoid.
I have lots of shots with the entire splash in as well, but I just love getting in close and seeing all of this beautiful detail, and you lose some of that as you pull back to include more. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1600 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and again, zoomed right in to 400mm.
This final eagle shot is cropped down quite a way, to a file just over 22 megapixels, as the bird was quite a way off when he was doing his aerial acrobatics. That’s another great thing about the high resolution we have now though, should we choose to use it. I can crop in quite a way and still have a bigger file than the 7D Mark II or even the 1D X Mark II. There are of course times when a higher frame rate would be useful, but I’m making it work at the slower frame rates, so I couldn’t be happier.
I’m in awe of these magnificent eagles. Just look how he can fly pretty much upside down, yet his head is still pointing straight up, with his eye on his prey. These are absolutely incredible animals. My settings were still f/11 with a shutter speed of 1/1600 at ISO 640, and a focal length of 400mm, although cropped, as I mentioned.
After our three days with the sea eagles, we headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula to spend our final night in Utoro. On the way, we stopped for our traditional ICM or Intentional Camera Movement session, which is always fun and generally provides us with some nice shots, as you can see here (below).
For this kind of shot, I generally set my aperture to around f/14 or f/16, and set my shutter speed to 1/25 of a second, and then adjust my exposure with the ISO. If it’s too bright, I sometimes use a three-stop neutral density filter, as I believe I had to do on this day, as it was bright sunlight. I then start with the camera pointing higher up in the trees, then move it downwards quickly, releasing the shutter just as the snow starts to come into the bottom of the frame. I prefer it when the bottom of the frame is just white, but there were some sticks showing through on this day, leaving those smaller streaks.
We continued on and photographed the Oshin Koshin Falls and the sea ice which was packed wall to wall on this side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. I did one ten minute exposure of the sea ice to see if it was actually moving, and apart from a very thin line near the horizon, it was totally stationary. There wasn’t even any vertical movement from waves under the ice, which was surprising.
We continued on in the town, and took a walk down to the mouth of a river to see what we could do and I was relatively happy with this last photo for today (below) which actually is the last image that we’ll talk about from the first of this year’s two Japan Winter wildlife tours.
Here I believe I used a three-stop ND filter, for a 1.3-second exposure, to smooth over the water in the river a little. I converted this to black and white, but the original was almost completely black and white anyway, with the dark stones in the river and low light. My other settings were f/14 at ISO 100, with a focal length of 35 mm.
Before we finish, as usual, I’ve recorded a message from each member of the group that I’d like to play for you now.
[Please listen to the audio with the player at the top of the post to hear what the participants had to say.]
It’s always lovely to hear what the participants have to say, and this was a great group, so listening brings back some nice memories of our time together. I do hope you’ve enjoyed following along with this travelogue. We’ll continue next week with tour #2, which presented a few different opportunities, and possibly my best red fox shot to date, which we’ll see in a few weeks.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020
Our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, but 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.
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.