This week I’d like to start by giving us all a pat on the back. This is a milestone episode, as we just reached number 700! I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’ve been releasing this podcast almost every week for coming up to fifteen years now! I’m also incredibly humbled by the fact that many of you have been following my antics for most of, if not all of that time. Thank you so much for sticking around!
We’re going to do a regular episode though, and conclude my Japan Winter Wildlife Tour #2 travelogue series, with a visit to Lake Kussharo to photograph the Whooper Swans, and then on to Rausu to photograph the sea eagles. I once again have way more than 10 photos to discuss, so although we had some fun photographing the landscape a little after we finished at the sea eagles, I’m going to skip those photos and give preference to the wildlife work, because this is really what this tour is all about.
Let’s start with a shot from the Whooper Swans. As you can see, there was a slight mist over the lake, which was still not frozen, due to this being the warmest winter in Japan for thirty years. I love the graduated horizon line of the lake, caused by the mist and the swans here have an almost painterly look, due probably in part to the quality of light, but also the fact that I was panning with them with a 1/50 second shutter speed.
I wish I’d not clipped the wing of the swan on the right side of the image, but I’m pretty happy with this all the same. I also kind of like that it’s a grey cygnet that is leading the pack here, rather than an adult, which I think may have been a little bit too obvious as a composition. That was pure luck of course and totally a hindsight observation.
I’ve become quite partial to this next kind of swan-panning shot as well. As the swans start to waterski on the lake as they land, again, at a 1/50 of a second, the water makes some beautiful textures that I can kind of get lost in visually. I also really like the slightly ruffled feathers under the near-wing of this swan. The lake being thawed this year contributed to keeping the swans cleaner than they sometimes are when it’s frozen. I imagine it’s because they are not forced to sit around in the shallow water at the same location, rubbing against the algae and sitting in their own mess. Either way, this is a completely fun way to shoot these awesome, yet sometimes clumsy-looking birds.
In this same location the following morning I used an 1/800 of a second shutter speed to freeze the movement instead of blurring it, and fell lucky with this next shot, as four swans lined up with a mallard duck at the end looking as though they are just starting off on a race of sorts. The mist had cleared, though it was still overcast, and the faster shutter speed enabled me to freeze the mountains on the far side of the lake, so I consciously tried to keep my camera higher to include the top of the mountains in the frame.
Japanese Long-Tailed Tit
The little guy in the next image is a Japanese Long-Tailed Tit, and probably one of the cutest birds I’ve ever photographed. I’ve seen these before in the trees near where we stop to photograph the swans, but never managed to get a shot so far. Fast-movers though, at 1/1600 of a second, this tiny bird is slightly soft, so I increased my shutter speed for a few more frames, but I like this one the best, as he flew down from his perch, on which he stopped for a less than one second at a time. A very difficult bird to photograph.
Another fleeting moment in this next image, as a Northern Red Fox found something in the hole that it was digging that didn’t agree with him, so he ’bout turned and shot off like a bullet. I was not ready for that speed again, so his head is blurred, but I think that, along with his pose, adds to the dynamic feel of the shot, so I’m going to run with it, like the fox.
It was so nice to have snow, like this, until the end of the season. Just a week until the start of March at this point, the warm winter had taken its toll, but the occasional cold front had kept most of our locations topped up with snow, and from the number of hand-warmers we got through on the bus, I think the participants probably didn’t believe me when I kept saying that it was warmer than usual.
Indeed, as we got into our first morning photographing the Sea Eagles the next day, with the wind chill and the cooling effect of the sea-ice, even this mad-dog and ex-English-man didn’t have the nerve to call it warm. We did have sea-ice, but to be completely honest, I wish it hadn’t come down in the Nemuro Straits at all this year. The warmer conditions had meant that the Steller’s Sea Eagles were nearing the point where they’d find a thermal to climb to set them off on their way back to Russia for the summer.
They weren’t moving much at all, and the staff of all the boats were starting to wind down for the season as well. I would not accept that the birds simply wouldn’t move, and managed to talk the skipper of our boat to let us charter his second boat for the group for the second two days. This won’t always be possible, but it did give us the freedom to call the shots and salvaged the situation. The ice was closer on the second day, but we spent some quality time near the harbor wall as well, and got this next image, which is one of my favorite Steller’s Sea Eagle shots of the season.
Once again, I’m going to live with the clipped wings and tail, as I think the bulk of the shot is interesting enough to not throw it out. I love the detail in these birds, and those talons and claws look absolutely lethal! These really are magnificent birds.
White-Tailed Eagle Departs
Later in the day, we headed back down the Notsuke Peninsula, where I’d photographed the fox two days earlier, and although I don’t usually stop for sea-eagles out there, we did find the White-Tailed Eagle in this shot sitting in a more interesting spot than usual. We waited until he flew, and sure, it’s a butt-shot, but this is one that I’m happy with. The surroundings, with the driftwood and perch, and those beautiful distant mountains on the Shiretoko Peninsula made for an almost perfect scene for this proud raptor to start his journey from.
I actually pulled back to 366 mm rather than trying to go full-frame, to ensure that I included more of the surroundings. I also used the Advance Color Editor in Capture One Pro to warm up the orange tones, as I found it a little bit too bleak for the wood, which I somehow felt needed to look a little warmer.
Although it was difficult to set up and actually get them to go for fish in the water this late in the season, and the eagles were pretty much constantly flying away from the sun, we did manage to get a few images of them taking fish from the water, rather than off the ice. I was not going to give up on these photos on this trip, both for myself, and most importantly, for my guests.
Hopefully, it will look pretty natural to you, but I had to increase the shadows slider to plus 80 to bring out even this amount of detail in the dark underside of this Steller’s Sea Eagle. Definitely a rescuable image, and pretty much as good as it was going to get under the circumstances.
At almost exactly the same location, just 50 seconds later, I got this shot of a White-Tailed Eagle doing pretty much the same thing, but with much better wing positions. The shadows slider is up at 70 for this shot too, and for both of these images I warmed up the blues slightly, again, using the Advanced Color Editor in Capture One Pro. I just felt that it needed a slight saturation boost.
As I said, we’ll skip three landscape images that are sitting in selection in chronological order, as I like to keep my posts down to ten images when possible and finish with one last wildlife shot. It’s been a number of years since we’ve seen any, but finally, our luck was in with a sighting of a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the Shiretoko National Park on our final morning of the tour.
Although the foreground branch is slightly obscuring the back of her head, I really like how this woodpecker is peeking back at us through this window between the arch of a broken branch and a second branch that is holding it up. The smattering of falling snow is a nice added touch to help us wrap up this three-part travelogue series covering my last Japan Winter Tour for this season.
Before we finish though, I did my traditional walk around the bus to get a comment from the participants, which I’m going to play you now. Please listen with the audio player above, starting from 10:17, to find out what each guest had to say about the tour.
This year’s Japan Winter Wildlife Tours provided us with a bumper crop of Red-Crowned Crane photos, so despite my sharing six of them already in the previous episode, today we’re going to look at ten more, with a bit of information about each image.
The first thing I noticed as I worked on my selection is that I have become quite partial to the square crop, probably due to the new-found love of medium format with my excursion into film from last autumn. That aesthetic has really grabbed me, and I love the freedom of not having to think about whether it’s portrait or landscape orientation. It just is!
So, three of these images are square format, and two are cropped to 4:5 aspect ratio because I thought that suited the images too. The remaining images are all original ratio, with four of them being landscape on one portrait. For my portrait-oriented images, I generally just slip the camera into portrait mode by rotating it in the tripod ring, or literally by turning the camera when shooting hand-held. Since I started working with the EOS R just over a year ago now, I made a decision not to buy the battery grip, so I have to crank my hand over to reach the shutter button, but with these cameras being so much smaller than their DSLR cousins, that has really not been a problem.
Anyway, here is the first shot, which is from the Akan Crane Center. The first nine images are all from February 21, from two different locations, and the final image is from the following morning. As I mentioned briefly last week, the cranes were relatively cooperative this year and performed for us in openings more than they have been in recent years.
For a while, the increasing number of cranes had made it difficult to get shots like this, without other cranes completely blocking the view, and that of course, is a very good thing. The increasing numbers, I mean. But photographically, it was getting pretty difficult to make uncluttered shots. The warmer weather though has meant more farmland poking through the snow, and that causes the cranes to disperse a little, with more feeding in the surrounding areas, and less of them concentrated in the crane centers.
Another part of this is that they stopped feeding the cranes live fish at this location a few years ago, mostly so as not to attract the sea eagles, which could have brought avian flu, and that would not be good for the cranes. As usual, when something changes, many of the other photographers that bring groups to Hokkaido were complaining, but also, as usual, I instantly saw the positive side to this. The Akan Crane center is now less crowded, on the whole, and the fewer cranes, conversely, brings more photography opportunities.
Let’s Make This Time Well-Spent
As the Corona Virus sweeps around the world, there are of course people losing loved ones, and I in no way want to make small of that, but if you and your loved ones can stay safe at this time, let’s also try to find a bright side. How often do you really get time to spend at home, with your families, with nothing special to do? Usually, we gather at Christmas and other special times of the year, but then the focus in on the event, and everyone rallies around to make that special. Right now, millions of people are being asked to simply stay at home, with no special meals, nothing more than each other, or just yourself, if you live alone.
This to me is a wonderful opportunity to catch up on those things that we always wanted to do, but couldn’t really find the time for. Even just reading those books that you bought but simply put aside, or going through the hordes of photos from trips that we went on, but didn’t get time to look through, because life got in the way. Well, guess what? It isn’t getting in the way anymore, so let’s use this time to do all of those things that we can do when staying at home is the order of the day. These are hard times for many, and really, if you lose a loved one, or lose yourself for that matter, my heart goes out to you, but if you stay safe, and make it through this, we’ll hopefully be looking back on this outbreak in a few years time and actually have some good memories of how we spent our time in self-isolation. Let’s make it count.
Back to the cranes though. I love the ruffled feathers on this crane as the wind he created catches up with him as he touches down on the snow. With them being so graceful we often forget how much energy it takes to get these birds into the air and keep them there, so it’s a great reminder when we see this disruption in the feathers as they land.
As you can see, the light was pretty harsh on this day, with lots of texture in the well-trodden snow, but the detail in the feathers kind of makes up for that. It’s also nice to have a bit of a catch light in the crane’s eye, as we don’t always get that from this angle. We can move around to the right a little more, which I sometimes do if it looks like something is going to happen, but I prefer this location as I believe it generally gives a higher number of opportunities. I’d have been shooting this crane from behind if I was not where I was.
Ito Crane Sanctuary
Later in the day, we moved over to the Ito Crane Sanctuary, where we continued to get some lovely shots of these awesome avians. Depending on where you stand, and the luck of the draw, we sometimes find ourselves with a pretty low angle, shooting up at the birds slightly, which can be nice. As you can see in this image, it gives us a darker background for the birds, which I like to see some of the time. These two were doing a courtship dance on the hill at the sanctuary, with one of them getting slightly more excited than the other.
This was shot at 490 mm, and the crop is just to bring it to a 4:5 ratio, not actually cropping the height at all, so you can tell that we were relatively close. By comparison, the first image that we looked at was shot at 756 mm, using both the internal and an external 1.4X Extender on my 200-400mm lens.
I am coincidentally thinking of selling this lens, now that Canon has announced their upcoming 100-500 mm RF mount lens. As much as I have enjoyed using the 200-400 mm lens, since the updated 100-400mm was released that’s generally all that I am taking with me overseas, so I’m now using the 200-400mm only on these trips, and only really for the cranes.
I imagine that the Extender that is also going to be released for the RF mount will also work well with the 100-500, for a total range of 140 to 700 mm, and that will make it a very versatile combination.
As an aside, I checked the focus distance used for this shot using Raw Digger and found the Focus Distance Upper to be 42.04 m and the Lower was 33.46 m. I checked because the back bird is quite soft, obviously out of the depth of field slightly. This is why I still shoot wildlife at around f/11, but it was still outside of that depth of field.
I went into Raw Digger for these distances, so that I could calculate the actual shooting distance, and see how much actual Depth of Field I have, using my Photographer’s Friend app. I found that I would have been focussed at 37 meters or 120 feet, but Canon’s depth of field is way off. I’d have needed to stop down my aperture to f/115 to get that amount of depth of field at 30 megapixels. Even if I turn off Pixel Peepers mode, and use the archaic 8 x 10 print at arm’s length calculation, I’d have needed f/56. I think I’ll contact a friend at Canon and see if I can get some light shed on how these calculations are being done, and why they are so far off.
I like the shot either way, and was happy to see catchlights again, but my mind wanders like this from time to time, which is probably a good thing, as it helps me to think of cool new features for my app. 🙂
One of the reasons I like the Ito Crane Sanctuary is because it has some very nice trees, in particular the tree that you can see in the background of this next image. Although the tree is not complete, I think it adds a nice additional element to this shot, as a crane flew into the sanctuary. I also like that we have a few flakes of snow in the air. We didn’t get very much snow falling on this trip, but to be able to see the air here is nice.
This is uncropped, and I like how the tree on the far right frames that edge of the image as well, so I’ve left the bird on the left third, which also makes us feel as though he’s leaving the frame. He may have been taking off, but from the pose, I think this one was gliding in because a take-off requires much more frantic flapping.
Here’s another image with the base of that tree, and the beautiful grasses around it, helping to give some context for this crane which has just landed and is arching its back, stretching his muscles to relieve the tension caused by flying. I do this sometimes when I stand up after sitting for a while, but I don’t look even a millionth as graceful as these guys.
I do like to see the animals in their environment like this as well. Again, it’s the warm winter that’s helping those grasses to show through as much as they are. Often times there is so much snow that they get mostly buried. That’s nice too of course, with just the tree sticking out of the deep snow.
The dancing continued, to the point that even whittling down my selects became quite a task, let alone deciding which shots to share here, but these next few are some of my favorites. Although you can’t see the head of the right crane, I really like the way these two birds are weaving around each other as they dance, and I especially like that you can see the pink on the bottom of the feet on that right crane. That’s not something we see often, so was nice to get a shot of here.
This next image is literally one of my favorites from the entire trip. These are the same two cranes, just two frames later, and actually still the same second as the previous image, so this is an extension of the previous pose, but now, to me, they look like two flamenco dancers striking the same pose but in reverse, again, weaving around each other in maybe a tango, rather than flamenco, but a passionate dance all the same.
The last shot from February 21 is this image, as a couple started to move in preparation for their dance. It’s obviously not the optimal dance moment, but I just like the poses, almost like a couple at a family wedding, getting up to dance having had too much to drink, knowing that they’ll regret it in the morning but they’re going to do it anyway. OK, so I may be reading too much into that, but I have a vivid imagination.
This final image for today is from the following morning before we moved on to photograph the Whooper Swans. I was hoping to catch the cranes with their breath highlighted by the in the morning light but unfortunately, it was cloudy. The cranes still have to breathe though, and the dark background at the top of this photograph helps us to see that breath in the chilly Hokkaido morning air.
Shortly after this shot we boarded our big bus and headed north for a couple of hours to Lake Kussharo, where we’d start to photograph the Whooper Swans for a few days. Next week we’ll cover that, and then move on to the Sea Eagles to complete the tour and conclude all three of this year’s Japan Winter Tours.
This week, we revisit the Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido on my third and final Japan Winter Wildlife Tour for 2020. This is always an incredibly busy time for me, with three tours back to back, but it’s also a highlight of my year, as I meet all of the wonderfully talented and interesting guests that kindly participate in my tours, and this year was no exception. Our patience wasn’t tried by flight delays, and although I’ve decided to change the second wildlife tour to a landscape tour in 2021, the reduction in overseas visitors as the Corona Virus took hold actually made our trip more enjoyable, although I would have preferred that to be for different reasons.
Our first day with the Snow Monkeys on this trip was very similar to the first trip because there was again no snow. Even without the snow though, these guys weren’t just monkeys.
The opportunities that open up to us are different, but depending on how you approach it, definitely still worth being there, as with this first image, where I once again used the warm-colored background with the darker top, as well as the less diffused light to create a beautiful rim-light with the monkey’s fur.
This is a comparatively light-colored monkey anyway, which helps, but with well-controlled exposure, the results can be really nice. The only challenge was getting a monkey in a position where the background was far enough away to be completely blurred, and with enough contrast to form the rim-light.
I often find that even when exposing to the right, so that the histogram information is just touching the right shoulder, the monkey’s faces can still be slightly dark, so I generally tweak the Shadows sliders in Capture One Pro to bring that back out, and that’s the same if you’re using Lightroom.
That didn’t work as usual in this case though because I wanted to keep the top of the background dark, so rather than just increasing the Shadows slider for the entire image, I painted in an Adjustment Mask just around the monkey’s face, and increased the Shadows on the mask instead.
That enabled me to brighten the face without increasing the darkness of the background and losing some of that contrast that I was enjoying working with.
Another thing that I always enjoy doing, is walking down into the valley next to the river, to see what is happening there, away from the hot spring pool that is so popular.
On our first day, we were treated to a pair of young monkeys grooming (below, left), and I just love the pensive look on the larger monkey’s face here, but more so, the completely relaxed, almost meditative mood of the monkey being groomed. I also really like the background in this shot too. Once again, it was far enough away to be nice and blurred, but the pale brown tones make a nice change from the white, as much as I do love it when these guys are against the snow.
Talking of snow, although it wasn’t as much as forecast, it actually did snow overnight after our first day, and we were rewarded with some snow-covered patches as well as a bit of falling snow on our main, full day with the monkeys, as you can see in the next image (below, right).
The snow is a little dirty, and I have to admit, I cloned out two tiny triangular gaps in the snow where rock showed through, but it was nice to be able to get an almost completely white background, for the first time this season. It had snowed during the two and a half weeks between our two visits, so it wasn’t a completely snow-less year, but this was the first snow that I’d had, so it was nice to see.
You can see from this next image though, that the valley walls were still very much bare, with just a few patches of snow here and there. It takes a lot more snow than we’d had, and really multiple snowfalls, to cover the valley walls. A scuffle in the pool resulted in this mother and baby getting out, so as this young one clung to its mother for warmth, she surveyed the area and situation, trying to figure out what to do next.
As much as I enjoy intimately close images of my subjects, I do really enjoy placing them in their environment like this as well, giving the viewers of our images more context, although, as with most photographs, it’s always about how much the photographer wants you to see.
Most people don’t realize just how crowded this location can get, because most of the photographs you see are just of the animals. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this monkey is somewhat isolated in the mountains when the reality is that to the left of this scene, there are probably between 50 and a hundred people standing around with some form of an imaging device and a huge smile on their faces.
That is fine, of course. I have a huge smile on my face as well most of the time while I’m at the snow monkeys. The point is that we show what we want to show, and it can sometimes be deceiving, like the pose in this shot.
Everyone that sees this, including me when it happened, and when people look at the photo, recall the end of the Rocky movie, generally accompanied by a corny impression of Stallone calling out to Adrian.
Once again these primates prove to be some of our closest cousins, and for once, this wasn’t a fleeting moment. This monkey held her arms up for perhaps 20 seconds, then moved around to face the other side, giving us plenty of opportunities to record her proud pose.
Happy that we’d gotten some snow and some nice monkey photos, we headed back to Tokyo, and thankfully our flight was not delayed this time, so we made our way up to Hokkaido on schedule on the fourth morning of the tour, and made our way straight for the Red-Crowned Cranes, which continued to provide us with abundant photography opportunities.
The light was a little bit harsh at times though, so for this first photo, I actually drew a mask over the foreground and reduced the clarity, to try and take a little bit of the edge off the crunchy looking snow. It was nice to see the crane’s dancing together and many times on this trip they were kind enough to do it without other cranes getting in the way.
I put this post together in a bit of a jumbled order, as I selected my images, and came back to this point after writing the rest of the post, as I now know that I have way too many crane shots to share by the end of this episode. I still have 18 other images in addition to the rest of the shots that we will look at today, so I’m giving up trying to keep this series to just two episodes unless I can do a really good job of holding myself back on the swans and sea eagles later. I’ll cheat with the next shot too, sharing three images in one.
It can be a lot of fun to just make portraits of the cranes that get close enough to fill the frame with just parts of their bodies. The obvious shots are the head and the graceful poses that the cranes make as they go about their tasks, such as grooming and eating. I was trying to decide which one of these images to share and couldn’t, so I decided to just go with all three as a triptych. I anguished for a while over the order in which to place the images, but decided to just go with chronological order from left to right, as there flow became too choreographed each time I tried something that should have made more sense.
These photos were all shot at 560 mm with my Canon 200-400 mm lens with the 1.4X Extender. I actually found myself using a second extender for a focal length range of 280 – 560 mm with the internal Extender disengaged but then having the option to flip it back in for a focal length range of 392 – 784 mm. The image quality drops very slightly for some images, but the autofocus is still very snappy, although slightly more error-prone than when just using the internal Extender.
Here’s another shot made at 784 mm, with both the internal and external 1.4X Extenders engaged. I’m sure you’ll agree that the image quality is there, making this a viable way of shooting. I just really enjoy getting in close like this for some of my shots, especially with subjects as beautiful as these red-crowned cranes.
On the second day in Hokkaido, we visited the bridge in the town of Tsurui where the Red-Crowned Cranes sleep in the river, in what is supposed to be their safe haven. It would be if it wasn’t for the atrocious behavior of a select few visitors from neighboring countries. A few years ago, some Korean men dressed as government workers and went down under the bridge to get a photograph of the birds from a different angle, although the moment they did, the birds flew away and many didn’t return for a number of weeks.
This year, a Chinese man hired a taxi from Kushiro city to take him to the car park, where he set down his drone and proceeded to fly it down the river, once again startling the cranes, forcing them further back than ever. The cranes all used to roost where this foreground crane is now, and when they ventured closer to the bridge, they were only around 20 or 30 meters away, sometimes closer. These days though, after repeated abuses, they rarely come even this far forward.
I love this photo, but it completely saddens me to think that these locations are being completely ruined by the actions of just a few irresponsible people looking for a few seconds of video or something “different”. Before long the cranes will roost completely around that distant bend in the river, and there will be nothing but trees and water and a bridge full of disappointed photographers.
I don’t like to call out people by their nationality, as it really is just a select few, but it seems that people from our neighboring countries are the main perpetrators in these irresponsible acts, and I for one, would love it if someone was able to educate them a little more on how to behave around wild animals. If you think highly enough of something to want to photograph it, surely it isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to want to keep it safe and protected.
Or maybe the drive for being here in the first place is more about just needing a shot that your photography buddies have, and is completely unrelated to any kind of admiration for the subjects. And to be fair, I am probably thinking this way purely because we are neighbors, as I’m sure there are photographers in other countries that sometimes go too far to get the shot. To me, there are no photographs that are worth disturbing the animals to the degree that some people tend to be OK with.
Ural Owl Pair
We’d visited the Ural Owl’s nest that I know of in the area the previous day, and being late in the season, and warmer than usual, there were no owls there. After breakfast on the second day though, we went back, and the pair were sitting in their tree, looking as cute as ever. Being nocturnal, they sleep mostly during the day, but the larger female owl opened her eyes for a few moments to look down as something, before closing them again for the rest of our visit.
For this shot, I’d used both the internal 1.4X Extender and an external 2.0X Extender, for a focal length of 1120mm. That is really pushing it, but most of the time the images are still pretty sharp, as long as you have a fast enough shutter speed and accurate focusing.
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2022
As my 2021 Japan Winter Wildlife Tour is already sold-out, if you’d like to join me on this tour, please take a look at the 2022 tour page, or check my tours page for a link to everything that is currently available.
I’m sitting in my studio on the second day of March 2020, having just completed this year’s three Japan Winter Tours. Despite this being the warmest winter for 60 years, and having no snow for the Snow Monkeys on one of our visits, all in all, it turned out to be an awesome winter tour season, and I have around 550 images from the three tours that I absolutely love. It was not without its challenges, and a great deal of luck helped to provide me and my groups with opportunities that I feel incredibly grateful for, and I’m completely stoked that the participants on my tours managed to come away with many images that I know they’ll treasure as much as I do mine.
Choosing to update our iOS app Photographer’s Friend between the second and third tours was a silly decision to make at such a busy time for me, but the changes I made were well worth it, and I’ve just finished writing an email to a user that helped me to think of another tweak that I’m now itching to code, but I’m going to try my best not to let that rule me too much over the next few weeks, and my goal is to put out at least five episodes of the podcast this month, to make up for only releasing two each month for January and February, as I am committed to releasing a minimum of three per month for our MBP Pro members, so let’s get to it.
We pick up the trail on February 2, as we arrived at Lake Kussharo to photograph the Whooper Swans. In this first image for today, we see one of the parents leading in four cygnets, as they flew to the area where the beach is warm and the lake is usually thawed there for a strip, from geothermal activity. It’s nice to see the swans raising such large families. Four is, I think, the most I’ve seen in one family here in Japan, though I have seen two adults with seven cygnets in a remove lake in Iceland, in 2015 or thereabouts.
Usually, these birds would land either on the ice of the frozen lake, or in the thin strip of water thawed by the geothermal activity, but with this year having been warmer than usual the lake was only frozen in the shaded corner that we visited first, and as you see in this next image, it was not frozen at all at this location. This is only the third time I’ve known the lake to be not frozen like this in the 17 years that I’ve been visiting Hokkaido in the winter. As I often say though, I enjoy making the most of the new opportunities we are presented with as the status quo shifts, and I can’t help but think that this kind of winter going to be less of an exception as global warming seems to be digging its claws into the planet.
For this shot, I pulled back on my Canon EF 100-400mm lens opening it up to 100mm to include the wider group of birds, but also pointed the camera upwards slightly, to include the top of the mountains on the far side of the lake. We also have that band of shimmering light along the horizon line that we often see caused by the cold air above the lake.
In case you missed this, I’m no longer calling out all of my camera settings, because the Meow Lightbox software that I’m using now displays this when you click on the images, and they just released an update that makes it even prettier than before, so don’t forget to click on the images and take a look whenever you want to see the settings I used when shooting.
We also did our usual panning, with a 1/50 of a second shutter speed to capture the movement in the wings of these beautiful birds as they take off from the lake. This image is one of my favorites from Tour #1. The head is slightly soft, but I love the look of the wings in this shot, and the wake in the water as the swan runs through it really appeals to me.
There was also a bit of the warm light of the sunset reflecting in the water, giving it a pinkish color, and the top of the frame is slightly darkened from the reflection of the mountains on the distant shore of the lake, and that helps to keep the eye in the image.
We cut our swan time a little short on this trip so that we could spend more time with the cranes as we’d been delayed in Tokyo due to bad weather in Hokkaido, so we’ll move on now, to the last major leg of the tour, as we move to the fishing town of Rausu, for the sea eagles. As usual though, on our way out of town, we stopped briefly at Iouzan, or Sulphur Mountain, for our group photo and to quickly shoot the apocalyptic fumaroles there.
There was only a slight breeze when we visited, so the steam hung around for longer than usual, making the timing more critical, to enable us to actually get a view of the sulfur-stained fumaroles.
As I prepared for this episode I looked through my sea eagle shots and found myself left with 160 images that I’d be happy to share. It was a bumper crop for sure. Out of these I selected my favorites, and still found myself with 36 photos. I don’t want to bore you with shot after shot of sea eagles, as magnificent a bird as they are, so I’ll skip the first day of eagles, and we’ll come back to them in a moment.
Northern Red Fox
On our second visit to the Notsuke Peninsula while in Rausu, we were able to photograph this beautiful proud looking Northern Red Fox sittings on top of some tetrapods. This is one of the only fox photos from both trips that I was happy with. I like the almost coordinated dried flowers against the patch of snow, and the nice clean coat on the fox is nice too.
I’m not sure if it’s some sort of mange, but many of the foxes on the peninsula currently have no fur on their tails or just a tuft on the end, so we found ourselves giving them names like pencil-tail and pipe-cleaner, which is kind of sad.
Steller’s Sea Eagles
The following morning we went out on the new boat that the company we use had just put into service, which was quite an honor. The owner of the company had rushed things through so that we could be first. The dawn shoot is when the eagles are most hungry, although it does leave us somewhat short of light, so much of the work is done with high ISO, starting at 6400 or sometimes higher, but then quickly trying to bring that down while increasing the shutter speed to 1/1600 to freeze the action. Ideally, I like a slightly deeper depth of field, but f/8 is just about enough to get the bulk of the bird in focus.
The catch, with the splash of water, as the fish is pulled from the sea is one of my favorite shots, but I also really like the pose in this next image, as the Steller’s Sea Eagle approaches the fix and raises his talons at the last moment. This is probably one of the most difficult images to get with the EOS R because the frame rate is too slow to rely on simply mashing down on the shutter button, hoping to capture this moment in a burst. I literally have to watch and release the shutter as this happens, so most of the time this is the first shot I get, followed by something like the previous shot.
Without doubt, my favorite photograph of the trip is this next one, which I shot at the end of the third eagle shoot on the third and final day in Rausu, We pulled the boat up alongside the quay wall, and because that has snow on it, the light is bounced back up onto the underside of the eagles putting them in beautiful light. I was really close to the bottom of the tail in this shot, so I’ve cropped it in a little from the top too, to balance it out, but I love the detail in this image, and how the flight feathers are spread as he tries to control his flight so close to the wall.
I find myself drawn towards the Steller’s Sea Eagle, as it really is an awesome looking bird, but we’ll wrap up the sea eagle shots with this one of the White-Tailed Eagle, also above the quay wall moments later, as he swoops down to grab the fish that the boat operators threw up onto the wall to attract the eagles. I like how the fine falling snow is visible in this shot, and I love how we can see the faint shadow of the eagle cast into the snow below it.
Oshin Koshin Falls
After our final eagle shoot, we checked out of our hotel, and made our way around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula and back up to Utoro on the other side, for our final night, and a bit of relaxing landscape work before we fly home. Here is one of the shots of the top of the Oshin Koshin Falls.
I often make my photos of these falls black and white, because there is usually a lot of black rock showing through, but on this visit, the back of the falls was also frozen, and perhaps is was the light bouncing around from that ice, but the ice around the falls was glowing with a beautiful faint glacial blue that I had also not seen before, and I certainly didn’t want to remove, so this year’s shot stays in color.
As usual, I recorded a comment from each of the participants as we ended this tour, which I included in the audio, starting at around 10:33. You can listen using the player at the top of this post. We’ll continue our travelogue series next week, as we embark on my second Japan Winter Wildlife Tour for 2020.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2022 Now Open for Bookings
This year was actually the last time for now that I planned to run the second tour that we’ll talk about next week because some of the locations that we visit are now so crowded that I don’t think it really works at the moment. Because of that, the one trip that I am planning in 2021 is already full, and I have now started to take bookings for the 2022 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop.
I will decide whether to make the third Japan Winter Tour a wildlife or a landscape trip based on information I gather in the coming months, but I am doubtful that it will be a wildlife tour, so if you would like to join me in Japan for the winter wildlife, please check out the details of the 2022 tour here. If you are reading this way into the future, check for the most recent available tours in the Tour & Workshops menu at the top of this page.
This year’s Japan Winter Wildlife Tour 1 was completed successfully on February 7, and the second tour starts today, when I release this episode, to walk you through our antics with the first group. The warm winter that kept me on my toes during the Hokkaido Landscape Tour in January continued to provide us with some challenges as a group. The Snow Monkeys, that we visit for the first three days on the tour, were just monkeys, as in, there was no snow. I’ve visited when there has been very little snow before, but this year, there was literally no snow in the valley where the monkeys live.
This wasn’t ideal, but I continue to work on the premise that an opportunity lost is an opportunity gained. In this first image that I want to share from the trip, you can see the warm light of the distant valley wall behind the monkey, and the contrast allowed me to create almost a rim-light with the monkey’s fur.
The monkey was just sitting on the grain silo that is situated just after the bring from the entrance to the hot spring pool area, and often provides a nice platform for this sort of image, but usually with a white background. People talk so much about “getting something different”. Well, there you have it. 🙂
Seriously though, I do like this shot, and finding angles and backgrounds that complimented the monkeys became the theme for our time there this year. It did snow overnight on the first day in Shibuonsen, near the Monkey Park, but it was not the storm that was forecast, and pretty much melted away before the second day even got started. It was not going to spoil out fun though, so we kept plugging away at the opportunities presented to us.
In this next image (below) I used the water in the hot spring pool as a relatively neutral background, as the cloudy sky over the valley was reflecting in the water, as well as producing an almost soft-box style smooth light for our subjects.
The moment is everything with this kind of image, as the caring look of the monkey on the left lasted literally just a second, and the angle of the head on the smaller monkey, almost signifying a reciprocation of those feelings, was equally as fleeting. I can’t help but instill some of our human emotions on these close cousins of ours though, and I’m sure that at least to some degree, these feelings are not just my imagination.
Although you can check my shooting settings by clicking on the images and viewing them in the Lightbox, to just give you an insight into my thought process, I generally try to keep a relatively fast shutter speed of around 1/500 of a second when photographing the monkeys, even when they are just sitting around like this, as their movements are often quite fast. Even just head or hand movement blurs easily with slower shutter speeds.
I also stay aware of the aperture and generally shoot multiple snow monkeys at no wider than f/8, as one of the two heads only have to be a little further or closer to the camera for one of them to be out of focus, and I prefer to avoid that when possible. When I can, I try to go to f/11 to keep multiple faces relatively sharp, as you’ll see in this next photo of the mother and child. Once I have decided on my aperture and shutter speed with this kind of consideration in mind, I control my exposure with my ISO. For the previous shot, it was at 3200, but for the mother and child shot, I changed it 6400, to give me that extra stop of sensitivity to counter the narrower aperture setting.
Another thing that I like to do, is to look for a pose like the one in this next image (right). Here I’m leading you to believe that the monkey is calm, and still, looking down into the recess at the edge of the pool. We read into this, making us feel as though the monkey is deep in thought, and that is the beauty of photography as an expressive medium. The reality is that this monkey was simply looking, again for probably less than a second, at a piece of grain that it had picked up from the pool wall, and a moment later it popped it into its mouth and continued to look feverishly for more grain.
They say that the camera never lies, and maybe it doesn’t, but the photographer is always in control of the instant at which we release the shutter, and ultimately that gives us the ability to create a mood or feeling in an image that was never there, and maybe, you didn’t need to know that.
First Cancelled Flight in 14 Years!
As fun as the snow monkeys are to shoot, and I did get a lot of shots that I am happy with, without the snow, there is only so much we could do, so we decided as a group to skip the third morning that we had planned, and we drove back to Tokyo after breakfast, and did a bit of sigh-seeing in the city before heading to the hotel where we’d spend the night, before our flight to Hokkaido, which should have been the following morning.
I say should, because ironically, having had no snow at the snow monkey, a snowstorm kicked in up in Hokkaido, and for the first time in 14 years of doing these tours, the first two flights, including ours, were canceled. The evening flight did go ahead, but Japan Airlines, despite having many people trying to travel, did not change their plane to a larger one, opting instead to leave us stranded at the airport. Luckily, we were able to book an extra night at the same hotel, although they charged almost double their usual room fees as people stranded looked for accommodation. Tired of JAL’s lack of initiative, in more ways than this, I have already instructed our travel partner for our Japan tours to book with ANA from next year.
We were able to get seats on the first flight the following morning, and the snow that had prevented us from flying provided us with a much welcome covering of snow as we settled into some of the best Red-Crowned Crane photography we’ve had for a few years. Truth be told, there are actually two complete cranes cloned out either side of these two singing together, but still, just having the birds themselves framed without other birds overlapping, and on good snow, was a bit of a treat.
This shot also nicely illustrates the answer to a pop-quiz question that I often put to my tour guests while at the cranes. I ask what color the cranes tail is, and 99% of the time the answer that I get is “black” because people usually see what we have here on the left. But if you look at the crane on the right here, you’ll see that the tail of the bird is actually pure white. The plume of black feathers that looks like a tail on the bird on the left is actually the feathers that line the back edge of their wings.
During what you might consider the down-time that we get at the cranes, while there are no birds flying in or out, or dancing or singing, I often just scour the field for birds like the one you see in this next image, just feeding, or preening. They are often close enough to almost fill the frame with the animal like this, and I enjoy just poring over the detail in these shots.
I cropped this down to a 4:5 aspect ratio, as there was obviously a lot of white space either side of the crane. I like to stick to standard cropping ratios like 4:5, square, or if wider I like 16:9 and even 2:1. The main reason is for conformity when printing, except for 16:9 which is more just because images look great on the TV at this standard wide-screen ratio.
In the middle of the afternoon on our first day in Hokkaido, I took the group to a Ural Owl’s nest, to get photos like this one, which was shot with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged and a 2X Extender fitted, giving me a focal length of 1,120mm. It’s amazing that autofocus still works down at f/11, which is the aperture I’m forced to from f/4 with three stops of extender fitted, but it works pretty well, and the image quality is absolutely fine with the Canon EOS R.
There aren’t many opportunities for different angles at this location, and we have to shoot from a distance to protect the owls, and that’s fine. After this, the owl actually regurgitated a pellet, which is the bones of mice or other animals that the owl has eaten, wrapped perfectly in their fur. He stretched his head up, so I thought that was what he was going to do, then he leaned forward and ejected the pellet. I have a shot in which you can see the pellet coming out of his mouth, but it’s not very pretty, so I’ll share this straight shot for now.
The last location for the day was to do some panning shots as the crane’s left to go to the river to roost for the night. I really enjoy this kind of photography and love it when we get a few flight-outs to enable the group a number of chances to nail a few of these shots. I slow my shutter down to around a 1/50 of a second for panning shot, as I find this gives a good balance between getting more shots that work and still being aesthetically pleasing.
I like how the heads of the cranes in this shot are visible through their blurred wings. I also find that with these birds being predominantly white, they look great over a black background, so I’ve actually darkened the shadows slightly with the levels slider and Luma Tone Curve in Capture One Pro.
The previous four shots were all from day one with the cranes, but that should have been day two, so instead of moving on to the Whooper Swans the following morning, we went back to the crane until lunchtime, giving us a number of other opportunities. The first of which is this group of four cranes coming in to land. The first crane perhaps landed a little bit sooner than the others had hoped, causing them to stack up like this.
It was also really nice, as with the earlier photo, to get some crane action in an opening. Even on this trip, most of the landings happened behind other cranes, but more than in recent years, there were landings in openings like this.
It also pays to watch the birds after they land, as I find that especially with tall birds like these cranes, they often arch their backs probably to relieve the tension in their muscles from flying, and this time, the three adults in this group all did just that, as you can see here.
I’m not a big fan of the space between the birds in this shot, but it was nice to get three of them arching together, and without having to clone out any other birds, so I’m happy with this.
We’ll wrap it up there for this week, as that brings us to 10 images. If you would like to join the 2021 Japan Winter Wildlife Tour, please note that it is already full, but you can contact me to join the cancellation list, which is still relatively short at the time of releasing this podcast. Sign up for our newsletters for notification of the 2022 tour when I start taking bookings or check out the Tours and Workshops page, as I plan to start taking bookings very soon!
I am preparing this on the Friday before release, and I’m trying frantically to release version 3.2 of my Photographer’s Friend app with some great new functionality, so I’m probably going to have to skip next week again. Sorry about that, but for any Photographer’s Friend users among you, I think you’ll appreciate the work I’ve put into it over this last week. For the Android users that are still waiting, I will try my hardest to get you an Android version this year.