Japan Winter Wildlife 2016 Tour 1 Travelogue #1 (Podcast 510)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2016 Tour 1 Travelogue #1 (Podcast 510)

I’m just back from the first of my two Japan winter wildlife tours for 2016, so today we’re going to start to walk through the tour day by day, sharing some of my resulting images as we go.

I was able to go through my images for each day and at least give the one’s I liked three stars, and although I reduced this number a little bit during the trip, I came home with over 7,000 images, more than 800 of which still had three stars against them. I spent much of the weekend going through and comparing similar images, reducing the number further, but as I started to prepare for this series, I still had 175 final selects.

This is a good crop of images, but my goal from any trip is to reduce my selection down to as few images as possible, so this will be an on-going job over the next week, and probably also after I’ve finished the second of these two wildlife tours. To enable me to start this series though, I went through the images and selected a shortlist, but this was such a productive tour, even that shortlist started off at around 80 images. Finally though, after much deliberation, I’ve narrowed it down 40 images to show you, so we’ll make this a four episode series.

Canon EOS 5Ds R for Wildlife Photography

Before we start I’d also like to mention that despite this being a wildlife tour, I actually decided to leave my 7D Mark II camera body at home. As you may recall, I’m working mostly now with two Canon EOS 5Ds R bodies, which many people have dismissed as a wildlife camera. Of course, with just 5 frames per second, it’s not the best camera to capture every wing position of a bird in flight, but having fallen head over heals in love with the incredibly high quality 50 megapixel images from this camera, I knew that I just would not use the 7D Mark II. I’ve shot wildlife with much less capable cameras than the 5Ds R anyway, so I figured I’d just put myself in a position to make it work, and as we’ll see, work it did, so I’ve blown yet another 5Ds myth out of the water on this trip.

We started the tour on February 1st, with our drive over to Jigokudani in the Nagano Prefecture, about 3 to 4 hours north-west of Tokyo, to photograph the adorable Snow Monkeys. As usual, I spent a lot of my time just trying to capture interesting expressions on the faces of these incredible characters. In this first image (below) I got the distinct feeling that this monkey was looking at one of the visitors to the monkey park saying “seriously?”. At the end of her gaze there was probably a tourist with a selfie-stick, or a bright pink ski jacket on.

Seriously?

Seriously?

I was aware that I was cutting off the hands of the monkey being groomed in the background, but when I zoomed out more to include them, the image kind of lost it’s balance, so I let them go, and I don’t think it hurts the image much. I was also trying to get an angle where there was a lot of snow in the background. It was perhaps just a little colder than most years, but with 2016 being an el niño year, we have actually had very little snow, so we didn’t have the best backgrounds for much of the work at the snow monkey park.

I shot this at f/8 for 1/320 of a second at ISO 800, with a focal length of 241mm, with the Canon EF 100-400mm Mark II lens. The owners of the monkey park have actually put a barrier up around the pool, so you now have to shoot from about a meter or so from the monkeys, so the 100-400mm is now a little better suited to shooting here than the 70-200mm, which I’ve shot with here in the past.

I’m shooting mainly with 100-400mm now anyway, but I think the 70-200mm could be a little short here sometimes with this new restriction. This added distance does help to give more people a chance to get photos though, and seems to keep the crowds moving more, so it’s a welcome change in my opinion.

To keep the overall number of images down, that last image is the only one I’ll share from the first afternoon. After this, we went to our beautiful traditional Japanese hotel to find that our bags have all been magically transported to our rooms while we were shooting in the monkey park, and enjoyed their baths and a wonderful evening meal.

The next morning we made our way back into the park for a full day. This next image is more a conscious decision that I would like to make some new images of the monkeys just doing their thing (below). This little guy was just sitting on the edge of the pool, seemingly gazing at the snow as it fell. In reality, I think he was looking at some monkeys fighting on the valley wall opposite the pool, but I can get away with my interpretation here I think.

It's Snowing!

It’s Snowing!

I shot this at f/6.3, 1/320 of a second, ISO 640 at 371mm. I chose a slightly wider aperture for the shallower depth of field, to help me blur the background a little. Without the snow the background can get very busy, so I wanted to just reduce the structure a little here.

Another thing that we find ourselves doing is trying to capture the snow monkeys jumping from the side of the pool to a stepping stone set in the middle of it, as we see in this photo (below). I increased my shutter speed to 1/500 of a second to help freeze the action, although I also panned with the monkey here too, making the rocks around the pool a little blurred, but that’s fine. It’s more important for the monkey to be sharp.

Jumping Snow Monkey

Jumping Snow Monkey

I also opened up the aperture further to f/5.6, to help me get that faster shutter speed, and I increased the ISO to 800. This was shot with a focal length of 214mm, and so far none of these images are cropped. I’ll try to mention when I have cropped an image, so if I don’t mention this, assume that the images are un-cropped, so I have nice big 50 megapixel files to play with here.

A Mother's Hug

A Mother’s Hug

During this full second day, we generally spend more time exploring the park, looking for opportunities like this one, as a mother huddled with her young one (right).

This isn’t the best photo of this type that I’ve made, but I always do enjoy seeing the affection between the mothers and their young.

In reality, this is as much about both of them keeping warm than it is about the mother protecting the baby, but it’s still nice to see and capture.

For this photograph I stopped down the aperture a little bit, to f/10. There wasn’t a lot of light, so this already put me at 1/160 of a second with ISO 1000, but it was fine as the monkeys weren’t moving, so my image stabilization did it’s job as I hand-held at 300mm.

Of course, at 300mm, we have less than 1cm of depth of field at this distance, so only the baby’s face is totally sharp, but for an image like this I’m not too worried about getting both faces sharp.

If I had wanted them both sharp, I could have gotten a little lower to get them both closer to the focus plane, but the lower I got, the more the mother’s arm would cover the baby’s face, and I didn’t want that either.

High Speed Snow Monkey

High Speed Snow Monkey

Towards the end of the second day, after the staff of the monkey park had thrown out the barley that they feed to the monkeys, I set myself up in a position from which I like to photograph the monkeys running down a track on the side of the valley.

I like the resulting photos from this spot, but I also wanted to try to see how good the 5Ds R would track with a monkey running towards me, as I started to see if this camera really can handle wildlife photography.

I was happy to find that the 5Ds R handled this situation about as well as the 7D Mark II does as far as auto-focus performance. The main drawback of the 5Ds over the 7D Mark II though, is that the focus points cover a much smaller area of the frame on the 5Ds. If you can live with that, it’s really not a problem.

In this photo (right), I like the way the monkey’s fur is blowing in the wind that she created as she ran pretty quickly down the hill.

I did slightly crop this image from the top right, partly for a better composition, but also to get rid of some of the dark rocks on the valley wall, as there wasn’t enough snow to cover them as I often like to see this location.

Even with the crop though, I still have a 34 megapixel image, so almost 1.5 times the resolution of the 7D Mark II, which means I could print this much larger without having to up-size the base image. Up-sizing is always an option, but anytime you are creating pixels you don’t get as good quality a print as you do printing with a file that is natively large enough to print without up-sizing.

We return to the monkey park for the morning of our third day, but to keep the overall number of images down, we’re going to skip that this time, and move on to Hokkaido, which is the northern-most island of Japan, where we pick up the trail after a 90 minute domestic flight, as we start day four.

Until shortly before our tour, there had actually been no snow at all at the Akan Crane Center, where we would start our photography of the beautiful Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes. Again, this is the el niño weather patterns at work. We’d had plenty of snow for my Hokkaido Landscape Photography Tour before this tour, but much of that snow isn’t making it’s way to the south coast of Hokkaido this year, so the ground at the crane center was not looking great this year. We’d had some snow by this point, but it was all clumped up and not very pretty.

Although I am always prepared to bring the group back to the crane center if it does snow, even on the third day as we are due to move on, to cut a long story short, we didn’t have any falling snow at the cranes this year, and although that didn’t stop us shooting, it does mean that I don’t really have any photos that include the ground that I’m happy to show you, especially as I have so many other photos that I really do want to share with you.

But, where the weather took some opportunities away from us, it did present us with some other amazing opportunities, particularly on day five, our second day with the cranes, so we’ll look at some of those shortly. For now, here is one photo from the end of day four, when we’d visited a spot for a sunset shoot, where we know the cranes often fly over a line of trees against the sunset, as you can see here (below).

Cranes at Sunset

Cranes at Sunset

Of course, the cranes are in silhouette against the sunset, as are the trees, but that is what this image is all about. I really like the texture in the sky in this image, and this was one of the few flyovers we had where the cranes were this high, so I was pleased to be able to make the most of the opportunity.

As I explained to my group, although I usually shoot in Manual mode when there is snow in the scene during the day, this is one of the few times where I generally switch to aperture priority, because the brightness of the sky changes greatly as you pan across the scene with the cranes, so if you set your exposure for off to one side, by the time the birds get to this point, the sky would be over-exposed.

For this image, I was in Aperture Priority mode, with -2/3 of a stop exposure compensation dialed in. I had set my camera to not select a shutter speed any slower than 1/500 of a second, as I wanted the crane’s wings to be sharp, and I also selected Auto-ISO, so that the camera could increase my ISO as necessary to maintain a fast shutter speed. The resulting settings with my aperture set to f/10 were 1/640 of a second shutter speed at ISO 125, at 217mm. Apart from +18 on the Clarity slider in Lightroom, this is straight out of the camera, so I’m pretty happy with these settings.

If you’ve been following my tours over the years, you’ll know that on the second and third mornings in Hokkaido, we visit a bridge called Otowabashi. Otowa aptly means the “sound of wings” and this is where we hope to photograph the Red-Crowned Cranes in the river, where they spend the night. The thing with this location though, is that we really need there to be hoar frost on the trees around the river, to change what can be a relatively drab scene, into one of the most beautiful locations on the planet.

For the hoar frost to form, it generally needs to be colder than -16°C or 3°F, with no wind. When we left the hotel before dawn on day five, it was only -7°C (19°F) so we were pretty sure that there would be no hoar frost, and there wasn’t, but as you can see from this photograph (below) we were treated with some pretty beautiful mist, which turned a lovely pink color as the sun rose.

Cranes in Morning Mist

Cranes in Morning Mist

I shot this at f/11, with a 1/160 of a second shutter speed at ISO 800, using my Canon 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged, giving me a focal length of 560mm. I had hoped for a while that the mist we see here would stick to the trees and freeze, but it was not cold enough. We still got some great insurance shots though, with the beautiful pink mist, so we were all quite happy as we made our way back to the hotel for breakfast before heading over to the Akan Crane Center again for our second day there.

As I mentioned earlier, the ground was a bit of a mess, but on this day, we were presented with a myriad of photographic opportunities overhead, as the cranes flew in over a beautiful blue sky with patches of fluffy clouds. I’m really not a fan of blue skies, and my images rarely contain them, but the cranes and eagles at this location can be incredibly beautiful against a blue sky, as we see in this photograph (below).

Frolicking Flight

Frolicking Flight

I really like this image, for a number of reasons. The fluffy clouds against the blue sky make a lovely backdrop for one. I also love how the cranes are not just all flying as they usually do, but they were just hanging there, all in different poses, almost like a family unit enjoying the fact that they can fly together like this, on such a beautiful day. This is un-cropped, and the detail in each of the cranes is amazing. There is even a catch-light in the eye of the top of the two cranes on the right.

I shot this with my 200-400mm with the 1.4X Extender engaged at 560mm, and for this one, because the birds were almost directly overhead, I’d taken it off the tripod and was hand-holding it. The shutter speed was 1/1000 of a second at f/10, ISO 320.

While shooting with the 200-400mm on my Really Right Stuff tripod and gimbal head, I kept my 100-400mm lens on a second 5Ds R body on a BlackRapid strap over my shoulder. I like to use the BlackRapid strap for this kind of fast paced shooting as it enables me to quickly bring the camera up to my eye, and also distributes the weight better than a regular strap over the shoulder or neck.

Having the second body gives me a little more freedom to hand-hold and zoom out as necessary as cranes fly overhead, as they did for this shot (below). I ended up at 227mm for this, so my 200-400mm would have done the job as well, but I would not have had time, for this shot, to get it off the gimbal head and zoom out before these guys were overhead.

Two Cranes in Flight

Two Cranes in Flight

Whenever I change my settings on one camera, I also change them on the second camera, so this image was also shot with a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at f/10, ISO 320. I can’t wait for Canon to listen to my request for built-in Bluetooth or some other close range communication capabilities so that my cameras can talk to each other, and automatically synchronize some of the key settings that I would specify in the custom functions. It would be amazing if I could keep my Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO settings synched between cameras, automatically. Ideally if the bodies share the same functionality and settings, being able to synchronize a wider range of settings would be even better.

As usual, one of the highlights of visiting the crane center, is the eagles and black-eared kites that arrive at 2pm to steal the fish that the owners of the center throw out for the cranes. Shortly before 2pm, the White-Tailed Eagle that we see in this image soared overhead, once again, over this beautiful textured blue sky, so I couldn’t resist this image (below).

White-Tailed Eagle in Flight

White-Tailed Eagle in Flight

This too is un-cropped, and although it’s tempting to crop in a little, I really like how the cloud texture kind of frames the image, and I’m also thinking that with the amount of detail that I still have in the eagle, that this would make a beautiful large print. I also have hundreds of other images with these eagles filling the frame, so I’m going to leave this guy in his beautiful environment for this shot. I’ve done this with some of the soaring crane shots as well, and I can’t wait to print some of these out really large. The setting for this image are 1/1000 of a second, f/10, ISO 320, again at 560mm.

The display with the eagles usually lasts between 10 and 20 minutes, but on this particularly day, the eagles kept coming back for just over an hour. It was incredible. I have so many shots that I’m really happy with. It’s going to be pretty much impossible to whittle the images from this tour down to a reasonable number as I usually like to. As I said, the conditions in many ways were not ideal, but thanks to the other opportunities we were presented with, this was perhaps the most productive tour that I’ve run so far.

We’ll pick up the trail in Part 2 of this series with a photo of the beautiful Black-Eared Kite, and a couple more eagle shots before we see what happened at the bridge at dawn on day five. Were we lucky enough to get the hoar frost? Tune in again next week to find out.

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.

Winter Wonderland Tours 2018

 


Show Notes

Details of the 2018 Tours: https://mbp.ac/ww2018

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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Snow-less Monkeys – A Summer Visit Travelogue (Podcast 480)

Snow-less Monkeys – A Summer Visit Travelogue (Podcast 480)

A few weeks ago, I took my new Canon EOS 5Ds R over to the Monkey Park at Jigokudani, where we photograph the Snow Monkeys for the first three days on my Winter Wonderland Tours. This though was the first time I’ve visited during the summer, so the now Snow-less Monkeys showed me a very different face, making it an almost magical visit, in a different way to my winter experiences.

This was also the first time I’ve visited the snow monkeys alone. Even on my first reconnaissance visit, I went with a couple of friends, so as much as I love taking my winter groups there, it made a change to be there alone. Also, because of the lack of the snow, there were very few visitors in the park. This is totally understandable, as the winter is spectacular, but the summer should not be discounted, as we’ll see through the photographs that I’ll walk you through today in this travelogue style episode.

I’d been hoping to visit the snow monkeys during the summer for a while now, because the new babies are born in May, and I really wanted to photograph them while they are still very small. Each year I seem to be too busy to get over there, but with the release of the Canon EOS 5Ds R and my need to shoot some test shots, I thought this would be a good opportunity to see how the long lenses fared with this new ultra-high resolution camera. You can see my review of this camera in Episode 478, including some 100% crop images from this series, so I won’t go into much detail about the camera today.

Jigokudani, which translates to Hell Valley, is up the mountains in Nagano prefecture, about a 4 hour drive north-west of Tokyo. I left early on the morning of June 22 (2015) and after grabbing some lunch on the way, I arrived shortly after noon and started shooting.

In the winter time, especially when the weather starts to close in, the snow monkeys crowd into the hot spring pool to keep warm. Not surprisingly, in the summer, when the temperatures start to rise, there isn’t really any need to bath to keep warm, but it was nice to see a few monkeys going in and out and the pool during my time in the park.

In many ways, the mother monkeys show a lot of affection for their young, but in some ways, there’s a lot of tough love going around as well, as I witnessed as this mother carrying her sleepy baby under here belly walked straight into the pool with him still down there. The baby quickly clambered up onto her back, but looked a little bewildered for a while as he regained his sense of place.

Six Week Snow Monkey on Mother's Back

Six Week Snow Monkey on Mother’s Back

This was shot with the 100-400mm Mark II lens at 400mm, f/5.6 for 1/500 of a second at ISO 200. Again,  although I’m not going to go into much detail about the 5Ds R today, this is the time that I started to realize that shooting hand-held with long lenses at this resolution is absolutely possible. Even at 100% these images are tack sharp, as I showed in my review.

Another obvious difference in my photos from this visit is the present of green. Even in this first image, the water is green as it reflects the color of the lush green foliage from around the pool. In this next photo (below) it was also strange for me to capture green leaves near the baby monkey, although it isn’t anywhere near as pretty in this photo as when the monkeys are surrounded by snow.

Who Me!?

Who Me!?

I really liked the pose in this photo, as though the baby monkey has been caught doing something he shouldn’t be, with that very human “Who me?” pose. This was also shot at 400mm, with a 1/500 of second exposure at f/8, ISO 400.

Drowsy Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Drowsy Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Next up, is probably my favorite snow monkey photo from this visit. This six week old snow monkey stopped for a moment during his play, and looked over towards me, but with such a cute out or sorts kind of look on his face, so I couldn’t help capturing this image (right).

The monkey’s half coconut mouths are still made of incredibly pink, soft skin at this age, and make you just want to reach out and scrumple it up, like a kitten.

The pixie-like ears are lovely too, but here those dopy looking eyes just stole my heart. For the last six months my photo of the yawning red fox from Hokkaido has been on my iPhone lock-screen, but now I’ve changed it for this photo, so I get to smile now every time I unlock my phone. 🙂

Once again, this was shot hand-held at 400mm, 1/500 of a second, f/5.6 at ISO 400.

Aaaaaaah!

Aaaaaaah!

I struggled with the decision of which of a series from around this next photo I would include in this episode. There was a mother grooming a baby, and pulling her face in all directions.

Some of them had the older sibling looking on, much as a small human child might watch mother tending a new born baby, and others such as this shot, the year old sibling was just going about their business to the right.

I chose this shot though, as this was the point when the baby seemed to lose her ability to simply bear being tugged around, and opened her mouth showing her discomfort.

The light had dropped a little at this point, so I had increased the ISO to 1000, still shooting at 1/500 of a second, at f/6.3, and now using the 200-400mm lens with the built-in extender engaged at 442mm. This is a big lens though, so I was now also using a tripod with a gimbal head.

I composed this next photo much tighter. I often like to include the mother’s face too, but here I wanted just the baby to be the main subject. Again, I like the hand position here, with the left hand kind of shielding her head and the right hand clutching firmly on her mother’s furry arm. This photo to me is more about the vulnerability of these six week old babies. I shot this at 1/250 of a second, f/6.3, ISO 640 at 490mm.

Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Six Week Old Snow Monkey in Mother's Arms

Six Week Old Snow Monkey in Mother’s Arms

I also find it interesting that many of the babies showed large patches of black skin below their still very thin fur. I didn’t realise that they had these markings as you can’t see this once the fur has grown more later in the year.

This next image (right) is another favorite. Again a somewhat vulnerable pose, but just look at he affection shown for the baby by the mother, by the way she’s holding the baby’s face!

I’ve said before, that I know this is anthropomorphic, I tend to personify pretty much everything, including inanimate objects, but with these guys being so like us, it’s hard not to do this.

I shot this at 1/160 of a second, f/6.3, ISO 640 at 560mm. I actually over-exposed the fur on the mother’s head here, so that I could get a good exposure on the baby’s face which was in deep shadow otherwise.

The mother’s tend to keep their new baby’s quite close to them sometimes, but they also simply let them run around and play with other babies as well, and I caught two of them keeping each other company in this next photograph (below). Again, I just want to scrunch their mouths up, they’re so cute! It might not come across well in these photos, but these little guys are probably only around 20 centimeters tall when they’re sitting down like this, so the palm of my hand would envelop their entire face and head, so it wouldn’t really work, but I’d love to give it a try.

Two Baby Snow Monkeys

Two Baby Snow Monkeys

Of course, you’re not allowed to touch the snow monkeys. It’s OK if they touch you though. At one point, I sat down on a bench that they have out during the summer, and felt something tugging on my photographers vest. One of these babies had jumped up on the bench beside me and was tugging at the straps on the side of my vest. After a while he turned around and started playing with my camera bag, then a year old monkey came flying out of the rocks and pulled the baby off the bench and started play-fighting with it in the dirt below. I have some video of this that I might include in a slideshow at some point if it works. This photo (above) was shot at 1/320 of a second, f/8, ISO 800 at 560mm.

The park closes at 5pm which left me with a couple of hours before it would get dark, and I’d booked into a cheap business hotel in a nearby town, so I’d grab something for dinner at the convenience store on my way there later, and this gave me a couple of hours before it got dark, which I used to drive up to the Shigakougen highlands, and do some landscape work after this. I went back their on the afternoon of the second day too, so I’ll report on the landscape work I did during this trip in the next episode.

Next up, here’s something that you don’t see in the winter either, from the morning of the following day, June 23 (2015). When it’s cold the monkey’s sit in the snow with there bony behinds, to keep the contact area with the cold snow to a minimum. In early summer though, these rocks were probably quite a comfortable temperature for them, as I saw them lying around on the rocks quite a lot. I thought it was so cute that this baby decided to have a feed as him mum chilled out on the rocks though (below). I shot this at 1/400, f/7.1, ISO 800 at 400mm.

Baby Snow Monkey Feeding as Mother Lays Down

Baby Snow Monkey Feeding as Mother Lays Down

One thing that I wanted to do while I was here during the summer is get a shot of the monkeys with the fresh summer greenery in the background. Unfortunately I didn’t see any mother’s with their new babies in this environment–they all seems to be hanging out close to the hot spring pool–but I kind of like this shot of a mother with a year old youngster and the green background. You just can’t get this sort of image in the winter when the valley walls are covered in snow. Of course, I prefer the winter. The snow puts these monkeys in an incredibly beautiful environment, but this is something different (below). Shot at 1/250 of a second, f/8, ISO 400 at 200mm.

Young Snow Monkey with Mother

Young Snow Monkey with Mother

White Baby Snow Monkey

White Baby Snow Monkey

There was one mother that seemed to be keeping her new-born very close to her, and that was this one, that had given birth to an almost totally white baby (right).

She let the baby move up to a foot or so away from her a few times, and I shared one of those photos in my 5Ds R review, but photographically, I wasn’t able to really capture anything that I liked of this baby.

I’m sharing this one as our last image for this week, as I wanted to include it as a record, because this is quite a strange phenomenon. The baby isn’t albino. It has pigment in it’s eyes and some black patches of skin like the others, but it’s fur is just almost totally white.

Apparently there was a pale colored monkey born last year too, but it reverted to the normal coloring before the winter came, so this may be the only time we’ll see this. I’ll certainly keep my eye out for this little monkey during our 2016 Winter Wonderland Tours though.

It was a pleasure to spend time with the snow monkeys over these two days in the summer months. I still prefer the winter, but there were plenty of photographic opportunities at this time of year too, and this is of course the only time that you can see the new-born babies, as they’re much bigger when we visit in winter, although they’re still as cute as can be. 🙂

Like I say, I’ll share some landscape work from the Shigakougen (Highlands) next week. I actually ended up shooting some stitched panoramas with the new 5Ds R, giving me image over 140 megapixels that can be printed at 24 x 43 inches at 450 ppi, which I’m hoping to do soon, as I can free up some time. Stay tuned for a report on these things if you are interested.


Show Notes

Pick up a Canon EOS 5Ds R from B&H Photo here: https://mbp.ac/bh5ds

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour #2 2014 Part 1 (Podcast 412)

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour #2 2014 Part 1 (Podcast 412)

Today I’m going to walk you through 10 photos from my second Winter Wonderland Tour for 2014, in the first of what will be a two part series. Although we didn’t have much snow in Hokkaido at the start of Tour #1, record snow falls in Nagano got us off to a slow start, but as usual, we made the most of the situation and ended up with some photos that we probably wouldn’t have got otherwise.

The cold that usually sets in further north seems to have made it’s way much further south across the globe this year. Literally the day after we got back from Tour #1 we had the heaviest snow fall in Tokyo for more than 40 years, which was ironic because there had been much less snow than usual in Hokkaido while we were there.

As I prepared for Tour #2 though a week later, the forecast was for more snow, though they’d initially said it would not be as heavy as the big snow fall we’d had the previous weekend. They were wrong. Record levels of snow fell over the weekend, and by the Sunday as participants arrived to get started all of the roads to Nagano where we start our tour photographing the snow monkeys became impassable.

With four feet of snow falling in some areas in just one night, the military were out trying to dig people out from their cars, as they’d become trapped in sections of the highway. As participants arrived for our pre-tour dinner, I had to keep them waiting for 15 minutes or so as I talked through our options with our tour operator, the company that I outsource the logistics to.

There wasn’t much we could do other than wait and see if the roads would be cleared in time for us to get over to the Snow Monkeys before we would fly to Hokkaido in three days time. I spent an hour on the phone with our tour operator the following morning again, and we decided to make our way over to Nagano on the bullet train, which had just started running again.

This in itself was a bit of a nightmare as everyone that needed to get to Nagano were on these early bullet trains, because of course all of the roads were blocked. Still, the group were patient and we made our way across Tokyo on the train system, and they were all at least able to get a seat on the bullet train. I took one for the team and stood at the back of the carriage with the luggage that we couldn’t keep with the group. The bullet train isn’t designed for people with a lot of luggage, so there was no other option.

We usually go into the Monkey Park on the first afternoon, but the local trains that would get us closer to the town in which we usually stay were also not running, so it took us most of the day just to get to our hotel. Still, we were there, and we had a nice walk around the town for an hour or so before dinner.

The next problem that we had to deal with though, is that the track to the monkey park was still covered in very deep snow. The owners of the park had asked us not to go in until the afternoon, to give them time to clear the path.

One Happy Monkey

One Happy Monkey

As we’d already missed our first afternoon though, and there was a good chance that we’d have to forfeit our third morning with the snow monkeys too, I decided to ignore that request, and we walked into the park. The track was actually better than I’d expected, so everyone made it in, even though it did take a little longer than usual.

After apologizing to the park owner for ignoring his request, we started our photography. The next problem that we ran into was that the pipeline for the hot water that fills the pool that the monkeys usually bath in had ruptured, so there were no monkeys in the pool.

This was a bit of a shame, as people love to get their shots of the monkeys in the pool, but this meant that the monkeys were doing things that they didn’t usually do. Most of the troop for example were down in the valley by the river, and the large amount of snow put them in a beautiful environment, and we were presented with photos such as this one (right) of a snow monkey sitting in the snow just lapping up the warm sun.

The monkeys are so human-like, that we can easily relate to their poses and give them feelings that they may not actually have, at least in the way we feel them, but this monkey just looks so happy to be sitting in its little chair of snow soaking up the sun. This area is often just brown rocks and dirt, and the background is usually a rocky too, so things weren’t too bad, and the participants were enjoying their time with the monkeys.

As I stood up by the pool again, I had one of those moments where something happened so quickly that I wasn’t able to photograph it, and have ended up with an image in my mind that will haunt me until I can capture something similar. The heavy snow was in banks up on the valley wall behind the pool that the monkeys usually bath in, and as I turned having heard a screech from an adult monkey, the monkey burst through the bank of snow having been bullied by another monkey. The snow went everywhere and the expression the monkey’s face was classic. I’m not sure if there’ll ever be enough snow to get a second chance to make a photograph, but I’ll be trying, that’s for sure.

As I watched though, there was another adult monkey further around the bank of snow, and it seemed to have gotten into a position where climbing back up the bank would be more difficult than jumping across to this side, so I watched for a while, and was rewarded with this photograph (below).

Leaping Snow Monkey

Leaping Snow Monkey

Because I was shooting in Manual mode as usual, I already had my exposure locked in, and had zoomed to 280mm with my 70-200mm lens with the 1.4X Extender fitted, and luckily the auto-focus was able to lock in on the face of the monkey at just the right point as he leaped. The shutter speed of 1/400 of a second was fast enough to freeze the monkey in mid-air, and capture all of the falling snow showing the dynamism of the action unfolding, so I was pretty pleased with this one.

All in all it turned out to be a great day, and the group had some great snow monkey shots to show for their effort. Now we had to deal with the problem of getting back to Tokyo. There were still over 200 people trapped in their cars on the highways as we enjoyed our photography, and that felt pretty bad in some ways, because there had unfortunately been a number of fatalities.

Things were starting to look up for our tour though. The bus that we should have come out to Nagano on was able to take a detour around on a different highway that had now been cleared of snow, so Yukiko our tour conductor and I went to the hotel that our bus driver had just arrived in after we’d taken the group back to the hotel, and we worked on our strategy for getting back to Tokyo.

The road that we usually used was still blocked, but by this time all other roads were now open, so we decided to forfeit the last morning with the monkeys, opting to start our journey back to Tokyo after breakfast. As it happened, our usual road also cleared on the morning that we left, but there was still a good chance that we’d end up in heavy traffic and we couldn’t risk being late back to Tokyo, as that would put the rest of the trip in jeopardy. We had a flight to catch to Hokkaido the next morning.

We ended up getting back quite smoothly, and so with a couple of extra hours, we drove around to Odaiba, a small beach with a view of the Rainbow Bridge, and I worked with the group on some long exposure techniques, resulting in some nice shots for the group, but I didn’t have time to get a shot of my own, so I’ve got nothing to show you.

On the morning of February 20 we got our flight to Hokkaido without issue, and by mid-morning we were out on the snow photographing the Red-Crowned Cranes, grus japonensis. As I’ve mentioned before though, one of the highlights of photographing the cranes, is feeding time at 2pm, when fish are thrown out for the cranes, but most of them are stolen by opportunistic Black Kites, White-Tailed Eagles, and the occasional Steller’s Sea Eagle. Here we see a White-Tailed Eagle flying over the cranes with his “catch”.

White-Tailed Eagle with Catch

White-Tailed Eagle with Catch

I shot this with the new 200-400mm lens with the built in 1.4X Extender engaged and fully zoomed in to 560mm. I love it when we get this fine snow fall like this too, which I brought out some with some heavier than usual use of the Clarity slider in Lightroom, taking it up to 38.

As I mentioned a couple of episodes ago, I’m loving being able to actually zoom with this lens, as I’ve been doing my wildlife work with prime lenses for many years now. Still though, I’m really enjoying shooting eagle detail shots with their wings clipped, as we see in this image. I disengaged the 1.4X Extender for this, and zoomed out slightly to 315mm, but still got in really close as I like it.

Fuselage

Fuselage

This shows you just how close the eagles get though. This was really almost directly overhead, as the White-Tailed Eagle banked around for another pass at the fish that had been thrown out on the snow.

There are still times though when a second camera with a wider lens helps, so I had been keeping a 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm lens sitting on my camera bag between my tripod legs, and reached for it when this family of cranes flew in from behind me. This was shot at 85mm, so almost zoomed completely out.

Family Unit in Flight

Family Unit in Flight

These photos were from our second day with the cranes, and I reached for the 70-200mm again a few hours later, as a crane took off and flew almost directly over my head. I shot this next image at 70mm, so you can see just how close the cranes sometimes get (below).

Overhead

Overhead

To ensure that you can get shots like this when using two cameras in Manual mode, you do have to keep adjusting the exposure on your second camera when you change the main camera. Especially on days like this, as you can see, when there’s patchy cloud. You generally find that you have to switch between two different settings, one for cloudy and one for clear.

This is still easier than working with Aperture Priority and Exposure Compensation though, as there is just not enough time to change the compensation as the birds move from a white background to a blue sky, or even darker background, as we saw with the earlier eagle shot. This change in background throws your exposure all over the place if you use an automatic mode, and this is why Manual makes so much more sense here.

In the ten years that I’ve been photographing the cranes, probably the only time that I could have safely used Aperture Priority was for this next shot, when the sky was almost a perfect 18% grey, almost as though someone had held up a huge grey card for me. Here there was heavy snow cloud moving in, but the cranes were still brightly lit with sunlight through a clearing in the clouds, and I thought the play on contrast was quite interesting.

Cranes on Grey

Cranes on Grey

Soon it was feeding time on the second day though, and we were treated to another incredible display from the kites and eagles, as we can see in this photo of a White-Tailed Eagle bank around again, almost seemingly showing off his beautiful wings. This was shot at 560mm, and actually cropped slightly along the top and right for better composition.

Prowess

Prowess

After feeding time we went over to a different sanctuary for the red-crowned cranes for a few more hours, before heading back to the hotel.

This is the location of course where we also get up early and go to the Otowa Bridge in the hope of getting some mist on the river and hoar frost on the trees, as we had one day on the first tour this year. This hadn’t happened on our first visit on this tour, but it almost came together on our second morning, as you can see in this image.

Cranes at Roost

Cranes at Roost

This was one of my first shots, as the trees went white, and a little bit of mist formed over the river in the background. This was actually a 10 second exposure, so I felt that a black and white conversion suited it better, with the flowing water and sleeping cranes still almost all motionless. Unfortunately though, the mist didn’t really get any better than this. It was still quite beautiful and better than nothing for sure, but not the best conditions. Still, that’s nature for you. Nothing is guaranteed. All we can do is be there at the best time of year for this to happen, and keep our fingers crossed.

After breakfast on this third day in Hokkaido we took a steady drive over to Kussharo Lake, where we’d start to photograph the Whooper Swans for two days. When we got to Kotan, a small corner of the lake that we usually visit first the wind was high blowing snow across the scene, and the ice was thick enough for us to walk out on to, and set up our long lenses for shots like this, of a swan stretching its wings.

Angel Wings

Angel Wings

This is probably one of my favorite shots of the trip this year. I love it when you can see the air due to mist, snow, rain or just about anything that gives you a sense of the air in the photo. This was shot with the 200-400mm again, right out at 560mm with the Extender engaged, and is totally un-cropped. This is one time when of course clipping the wings would have ruined the photo, so I was happy to get this.

I had also opened my aperture up to f/5.6 for a shallow depth-of-field, and so the snappy focus of this lens was very welcome too. Although my tests have shown that the 200-400mm is quite sluggish with the 5D Mark III for birds in flight, here it was snappy enough to focus on the swan as I noticed him rear up and start to stretch.

After Kotan, we went further along the lake to Sunayu where we did our customary panning shoot, which is a lot of fun, but we’re up to our 10 photos for this episode, so we’ll leave it there for today, and start the second part of this travelogue with a panning shot before moving on with the rest of the tour.

Join us in 2015!

Note that we are already taking bookings for the 2015 Winter Wonderland Tours, so if you’d like to join us, go and register at https://mbp.ac/ww2015 or click on the image below for details.


Show Notes

Details of the 2015 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido tours: https://mbp.ac/ww2015

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

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Podcast 326 : 2012 Snow Monkey & Hokkaido Tour/Workshop #1

Podcast 326 : 2012 Snow Monkey & Hokkaido Tour/Workshop #1

From Feb 13 to 24, 2012, we took a group of photographers to Nagano to photograph the amazing Snow Monkeys for three days, and then on to Hokkaido for a further nine days. This was the fifth iteration of my now very popular Winter Wildlife Wonderland tour here in Japan, and today and then again next week, I’m going to take you through some of the photographs that I came back with.

In previous years, I’ve gone through a blow by blow account of our entire trip, usually requiring a three or four episode series of Podcasts to get through it, but the content of our trip this year was pretty much exactly the same as 2011, so I’m going to make this a two part series, and we’re going to concentrate on just 12 of my images each week, and just touch on the location details as necessary. If you want to here more detail about the locations, do go back and listen to episodes 279, 281 and 282 from 2011 as well.

Before we jump in and start looking at the photos, here are a few statistics about my editing process. This photography adventure has us shooting wildlife or landscapes from dawn ’til dusk some days, and shooting for at least 5 hours a day, even on the short days, so we come back with a lot of photographs. I shot just over 7,000 images and I’ve been to these locations more times than I can remember. I don’t shoot any where near as much as some of the participants for who are on their first visit.

I won’t go into detail on the actual rating system that I use, as I’ve covered this in other episodes, but basically, I go through my images in Lightroom, and give 4 stars to anything that’s good enough to publish and hit the X key to reject anything that was either technically faulted, as in blurred, or not exposed how I’d intended it to be, and I also delete perfectly good images, if I was shooting in burst mode and ended up with many images of the same subject. With wildlife, as a bird is flapping its wings for example, you often use burst mode more than for other more controlled subject types, simply because you’re trying to capture the best or most pleasing wing position. The same goes with the Snow Monkeys for example, as they have incredibly expressive faces, and you want to be able to capture a few variations and pick the best later. So, by the time I’d finished deleting images on my first kull, I was down to 4,500 images and 417 that had 4 stars against them.

The 417 images that I’d initially chose were selected as much as possible down to just a few of each subject. For example, I might have 10 frames of a certain subject doing a certain activity, like Snow Monkeys in a huddle, but from that, I’ll only select the stronger compositions, and images that I also don’t have in my library from previous years. There’s not much point in reposting something almost identical to my previous work. Of course, if you are shooting with a higher resolution camera, there is merit in replacing images from previous trips, but I was back there with the same cameras that I’ve been shooting these locations with for the last three years or so, so that isn’t going to be the case.

Then, I spent the next week after getting back from the tour, going through my selection numerous times, weeding out the lesser images, until by March 4, I was down to 120 images. This was still way too many to show people though, so I continued to work through my images each day until I reached a tight edit of 60 images on March 9. This can be an agonizing process, and I kicked out a whole bunch of images that I really liked, but that just didn’t add anything to my image library, and I want to show the minimum number of images possible, so as to keep my audience engaged. Even sixty would be too many images for a portfolio of course, but that’s not what I’m creating here.

Anyway, once I had my 60 finalists, I uploaded them to my gallery, and to Flickr, and a smaller selection was added to Google+, so some of you will have already seen these, but let’s jump in and start to look at a very tight edit of my final selection. First, let’s look at a couple of Snow Monkey shots, the first of which is this huddle of five monkeys.

Five Monkeys

Five Monkeys

Here there was a group including the alpha male, three of the wives probably from his harem, and a youngster. They were huddled in this way on top of a box, which is one of the reasons why I cropped in tightly like this for this image, to exclude the box, and this is kind of an important lesson here. Some people will choose to include the box and that’s fine, but I usually try to exclude that sort of thing. But even if that had not been the case, you often find that a tight crop can enhance an image anyway, so it’s always worth bearing in mind.

I also chose to photograph the monkeys at this time because they were all looking this way, with the one on the left almost looking directly at the camera. These Japanese Macaques have such expressive almost human eyes, that really pull you into an image. I think the eyes add so much to this image, that I included it in my set, despite the large dark patch above the monkey’s heads. I would have much preferred it if I could have gotten a white background all across the top, but it wasn’t possible from any angle, unless I’d grown by a foot or so.

I found another huddle though, again on top of a wooden box, but this one did have a white background, so I really like this next shot too, especially as the two monkeys in the middle were huddling around a baby, who’s face we can just see poking out from between them. This again adds so much to an image in my opinion.

Five Monkeys

Five Monkeys

Note that I lightened the baby’s face by about half a stop of exposure in Lightroom, by brushing it on with the Local Adjustments tool. This just helps to bring out the face a little more, as it was quite dark there, in between the two adults. By the way, the main lenses I use at the Snow Monkeys are my 24-70 and 70-200mm lenses. You are very close to the monkeys. So close in fact that you have to be careful not to touch them when shooting by the pool, and these two shots were made at 200mm and 165mm respectively.

I only posted one monkey shot where they were actually in the water in the hot spring bath at this location, mainly because space is limited down by the pool, and I didn’t spend much time down there, preferring to allow as many of my group to go down there as possible. I’ve posted lots of these kind of photos from previous years, so the few that I did get, weren’t really going to add anything to my image library.

Japanese Serow

Japanese Serow

Most years while we’re at the Snow Monkeys location, we see a Japanese Serow, which is a type of antelope, high on the valley side, and I’ve photographed him many times, but until this year, I have never gotten any photographs that I really liked, because the background has been too messy, or his pose was just not very interesting. This year though, I was happy to get three shots that I really do like of the Japanese Serow, and this is the one with the best background, and the pose isn’t bad either.

These are curious looking animals, with their ten centimeter or so horns, that you can actually see better in the other two shots, but can just make out in this shot too. Their thick set and coat make them look quite bulky, which they need to be to get through these harsh winters, but they’re still quite a nice animal to shoot. This by the way was shot with my 300mm F2.8 lens, with the 1.4X Extender fitted.

After the first three days with the Snow Monkeys, we flew up to Hokkaido, and for the first few days, we were shooting most of the day at the Akan International Crane Center, but again, since I’ve shot there so many times already, I have to get something that beats my previous year’s images to make it worth showing, and one that I was happy with was not of the cranes, but the White-Tailed Eagles that come in at 2PM to steal the fish that are thrown out for the cranes. I got two frames of a pair of eagles either fighting, or courting, it’s sometimes hard to tell, and this is the second of the two images. I posted the first in my gallery too, showing the eagle flipped over and the other zooming in on him, and this second frame shows them just after they’ve past each other.

Near Miss

Near Miss

I shot this one with my 5D Mark II and the 300mm F2.8 lens with the 1.4X Extender fitted again, but as these guys were quite a way off, I’ve had to crop this one a little more than I usually like to, but I’ve still got enough resolution to do a 13×19″ print, which is about as much as I can stand to crop, but I had no control over how far away the eagles would be when they did this of course, so I have to live with it.

In this next shot, a single White-Tailed Eagle came much closer, and although I have lots of shots of these beautiful birds in flight, I chose to keep this one in because I really like the wing shape here.

White-Tailed Eagle

White-Tailed Eagle

This is also one of the only locations where I often find myself including a bright blue sky in my shots. I’m not partial to blue skies, but this place usually gives me some nice eagle and crane shots where I think the sky really adds to the images. This was shot with the 300mm without the extender, but on the 1D Mark IV and was only cropped very slightly this time.

If you’ve been following this Podcast for a while, you’ll probably remember my Distant Dance photo from February 2008, which was the first time I took a workshop group to Hokkaido, and we visited the Otowa Bridge, in the hope of it being cold enough, and the air still enough, for there to be frost on the trees, and mist over the river. Well, on that first visit, it happened, and was magical, but although we’ve had year’s when it was still quite pretty out there, it didn’t happen again quite the same for the following three years.

I’ve been praying for frost and mist before each trip ever since, and I think my prayers were answered a little too much, at least for the first few hours at the bridge this year. As the sun rose, and convection kicked it, the temperature dropped from -21°C to -26°C, and there was no wind at all, but with temperatures this low, although the trees were beautiful, there was actually too much mist to be able to see the cranes in the river.

In this shot, you can see just how beautiful the scene was, and luckily there were three swans in the foreground to add interest, but you’d never know looking at this shot that there were around 200 majestic red-crowned cranes sleeping in the river, shrouded by the mist.

Dawn on the River

Dawn on the River

This is a stitched panorama, shot at 300mm on the 1Ds Mark III, so a relatively wide shot. Of course, I really like this shot too. It’s a beautiful scene unto itself, and if you look really closely, you can actually see some of the cranes in the left side of the image in the mist. Note by the way, if you expand your browser window as wide as possible and click on the images, you can view them at 1280 pixels wide, which will hopefully enable you to appreciate the detail more.

Here’s another photo of the swans from the last image, but this time shot at 600mm, so that you can see more detail in the trees to the right of the scene, and the layers formed by that beautiful mist. I know that it’s difficult to make out three swans here, but basically it’s two swans with their heads under their wings sleeping, with one in the middle with his head up.

Misty Awakening

Misty Awakening

It’s important to note here too that I was shooting in manual mode, with the meter showing the image over-exposed by around two stops. If I left it to my camera, with the current metering system, it would have been rendered much darker, and no where near as beautiful and delicate as this. This may well change with the RGB aware metering in the 5D Mark III and 1D X that will be with us shortly, but for now, this is a big issue to keep in mind in these locations.

There was a couple of hours after sunrise where the mist was simply too thick to see the cranes in the distance, and also with it being so cold, the cranes took their time livening up and moving around. That was a bit of a blessing in disguise, as it would have been totally frustrating if we could hear the cranes honking and dancing but not be able to see them. Fortunately though, the mist did start to clear at around 8:15, and we were able to get some very atmospheric shots, like this one, where you can perhaps make out two cranes honking in the middle of the frame, with a flock of pintail ducks flying over their heads.

Song For The Pintails

Song For The Pintails

This again is a stitch, to extend the image over to the right a little. I made a note to continue to shoot multiple images across the scene once I’d shot something that I thought might work, and I was pleased that I did. I ended up with some very wide panoramas, that I’m looking forward to printing, but for the Web let’s look at one more that’s wide, but not the widest.

Short Flight (Panorama)

Short Flight (Panorama)

Here I noticed a crane taking a short flight from one part of the river to another, and grabbed a couple of frames, then again, ran across the scene for a few more frames, to enable me to make a panorama. I actually posted just the single image with the crane in flight as well as this panorama, to give me more printing options, but I prefer these wide versions, especially with large prints in mind.

After an amazing few hours at the Otowa Bridge, which incidentally translates to “The Sound of Wings Bridge”, we went for breakfast, then back to the Crane Center. Here’s one of the images that I got of the cranes that I simply could not throw out. The orthodox photographer in me wanted to throw this out, because there was too little space left on the left side of the frame.

See Ya!

See Ya!

Basically this was one of those shots where I’d noticed the crane flying over-head, but by the time I’d rased my camera and focussed, the bird was too far past, and I didn’t have time to reframe. For some reason though, maybe the artist in me, as opposed to the technician, I really like this. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t throw it out.

The following morning, we went back to the bridge, but it wasn’t cold enough to get any frost on the trees, so we decided not to shoot there, and as we got ready to go back to the bus, my friend, photographer Jeremy Woodhouse, who we met most days in Nagano and Hokkaido, told me about two apple trees nearby that I didn’t know about. He actually drove around there to show us where they were, so rather than going home empty handed this morning, we spend 20 minutes photographing these lovely trees on the snow covered hills.

Apple Trees

Apple Trees

I’ve learned lots of little added bonus spots over the years, from friends like Jeremy, and Japanese photographer Yoshiaki Kobayashi, and as the tour leader it’s great to have a few options like this, so I’m very grateful to these guys for sharing as they do. Of course, I share my own information with others just as much, so that we all end up with better tours each year, and in turn, happier customers.

On the third day in Hokkaido, six days, or half way into the tour, we moved over to the Kussharo Lake, where we photograph the Whooper Swans that spend the winter in the little pools warmed by hot springs that flow into the lake, and prevent it from totally freezing over. Here is the last image for today, which I shot laying down in the snow, with my angle finder on my camera, so that I could look down into the finder, rather than straining my neck trying to look into the finder on the back of the camera.

Swan Lake

Swan Lake

I had the camera rested on my hand, which was resting in the snow, and framed up the scene, waiting for a swan to spread its wings like this. On the first day with the swans, it was bitterly cold, so I didn’t want to lay in the snow for long, so I was pleased when after about 20 minutes this swan did as I wanted. There was also another swan positioned perfectly in the mist to the left, which adds to the overall atmosphere of the shot, so I’m very pleased with this one.

That’s it for this week, and we’ll pick up the trail later on in this same day, with more swans shots from the Kussharo Lake in episode 327 next week.

Note that I’m about to release details of two Snow Monkey and Hokkaido Photo Adventures in 2013. The first will be with Chris Marquardt, so we’ll be providing some of the workshop elements in German, although I’ll also be there, so even if you don’t speak German, Chris and I will be helping the group in English too. This first tour will be from January 28 to February 8, 2013.

The second tour is going to be from February 18 through March 1, 2013, and you can see details of both tours on my Workshops page. If you’d like to receive notice as soon as the details are released, you can also sign up for my Tour Newsletters (at mbp.ac/news, and I’ll put a link to those in the shownotes).

Note too that although I can’t say who it is this week, if you are catching up on this Podcast more than a few days after this episode is released on March 13, 2012, you’ll see that we will have a very special guest with us on the second too. I’ll be able to mention who that is next week too, but I have to tell you that I’m really excited about this, and I think you will be too.

One last bit of housekeeping before we finish, and that is that I was interviewed recently by my friend Ibarionex Perello, of The Candid Frame podcast. I’ve secretly wanted to be on that Podcast for many years, and it turns out that Ibarionex hadn’t asked because he thought he’d interviewed me a long while ago. When we were chatting last year and the subject came up, I reminded Ibarionex that I hadn’t been on his show, so he kindly changed that. If you don’t already subscribe to The Candid Frame, please do. It’s one of the few other Photography related Podcasts that I listen to regularly, and I know you’ll enjoy it. I’ll put a link to my interview in the show notes, or you can find it by going over to thecandidframe.com

Thanks very much for listening today. Remember that you can find me on Google+ and Twitter etc. All links are on the top page at martinbaileyphotography.com, so do drop by and take a look. I’ll be back next week, with another episode, but in the meantime, you take care, and have a great week, whatever you’re doing. Bye bye.


Show Notes

Subscribe to Tour Information Newsletters: https://mbp.ac/news

The Candid Frame Interview with Martin: http://thecandidframe.blogspot.com/2012/03/candid-frame-132-martin-bailey.html

Music by UniqueTracks


Audio

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Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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Podcast 233 : Snow Monkey Tour and Workshop 2010

Podcast 233 : Snow Monkey Tour and Workshop 2010

This week you’re going join me on my Snow Monkey Photography Tour and Workshop, from Jan 28th to Jan 30, 2010, as I discuss the trip along with looking at some of my images.

This year was the first time I added the option to join me for a three day tour to photograph the Snow Monkeys in Nagano Prefecture, before we headed off to Hokkaido. Ten of the 12 people that had signed up for Hokkaido chose to join me for the Snow Monkey leg, and two more people that live locally had signed up just for the Snow Monkey trip, so we maintained our fully booked status and headed off to Nagano on a chartered bus, on the morning of January 28th. It took us the scheduled 4 hours to get over to Nagano, and we stopped for lunch just outside the town we were to stay in, and photography the monkeys.

To give us the most possible time shooting on this first day, we parked up and headed straight for the Monkey Park, which is about a 40 minute walk from the car park when the track is snow covered. For me as the organizer, this walk was the first hurdle, as we’d got some more senior participants with us this year, and I was a little worried that they’d all make it OK, but they were great, and although some of them took their time, we got into the park at Jigokudani, which basically translates as Hell Valley, including the few flights of stone steps up the mountain at the end, which can be pretty tiring.

It wasn’t that cold, probably around minus 2 degrees Celsius, or 28 degrees Fahrenheit. When you are dressed for standing around in the cold though, a 40 minute walk along an icy mountain track can generate quite a lot of heat, so most people were loosening their clothing on the way out. We arrived at the park just after 1PM, and the group started shooting straight away. Some of us shot the white balance card on the X-Rite Color Passport, to set a custom white balance on our cameras. Color balance and nailing exposure is something that I spend some time on, on the trip, especially as there is snow in many scenes, which makes exposure a little more challenging.

Here’s a photo of half of my group, around the hot spring pool in which the Snow Monkeys congregate. You can see just how close we get to the monkeys here. They are totally accustomed to us humans being right next to them as they warm themselves in the pool.

The Group

The Group

You can also see the wires strung across the side of the valley, across from the pool, and you can see how patchy the snow was, adding a little more challenge to the shooting, trying to get some nice backgrounds. I shot a few wide shots, but because the surrounding weren’t that attractive again this year, I didn’t share anything other than portraits of the monkeys.

In this next image of another member of our group photographing a monkey with a 17-40mm wide angle lens, and here you can see positive indifference in the monkey’s expression. You can also see that around the pool there is no settled snow. This is of course because the pool warms the rocks, so it doesn’t settle much here. Also, although the river banks, that you can also shoot the monkeys on is usually under snow, there was hardly any this year. We were lucky to get a few shots early on the second and third days with snow on the monkeys. We’ll look at some of these later.

Michael In Action

Michael In Action

Let’s start looking through some of my images in the order that I shot them now. There’s a lot to look through, so I won’t talk about all the shooting details of each image, to save time. First up is image 2426 (below). One of the things that I try to do while shooting the Snow Monkeys is to capture expressions or actions other than the norm. I shot this expression through the steam from the hot water, so there’s a bit of a lack of contrast, but I was able to salvage enough of an image to share, and I really wanted to do so because I love this expression. It looks to me like a forced smile, or a “Cheese!” for the photographer. You can also think of this as being like exaggerated chattering teeth, as the monkey shivers in the cold. Either way, it was a great moment to capture.

Smile Please!

Smile Please!

That is the only image I want to look at from the first afternoon. I uploaded others, and you can see all of the images in my gallery. I’ll put a link to list all shots in the show-notes.

The next is image is number 2431 (below), from the morning of the 29th. We were lucky enough to have some snow on the second day, so I was excited about the possibility of the group getting some shots of the monkeys with snow on their hair. These are getting more difficult to capture as the snow levels in the valley drop. There are two I want to look at here, and wanted to talk about not being able to see the eyes in this first shot. Normally, I wouldn’t include an image of an animal without being able to see the eyes, or at least closed eyes, as in some of my favorite Snow Monkey shots from last year.

Looking at Hands

Looking at Hands

Here though, I was happy to include this image, because we have such a strong visual clue as to what the eyes are doing. This monkey seems to be staring pensively at his hands, so although the eyes are not visible here, we can imagine them looking at the hands. You could even argue that the photo is stronger for the lack of the eyes, making us think about what the monkey is looking at more. With these monkeys being so much like us humans, we often want them to be highly intelligent, and they are, without doubt. On this occasion though, the monkey was sifting through the snow for seeds, and rather than looking at his hands, he was just checking the snow for seeds to eat. As an image, it still works, but a little background information on this occasion takes the potency out of the image to a degree.

Snowy Hands

Snowy Hands

In the next image, 2432 (left), shot about five minutes later, we see the monkey, again with an interesting gesture. This time his hands are together with fingers locked, in another pose that I for one consider to show thoughtfulness. It’s poses like this that I look for when shooting these guys. It’s not always that I see the pose, and then raise the camera. I might already have my camera trained on the subject, but then when they do something like this, I’ll make the exposure.

The other thing to note here, as I mentioned earlier, is that the snow will mess with your exposure metering here. The background around the head of the monkey here is slightly blown out. If I had left my camera in Aperture Priority mode, I’d have had to do exposure compensation to make sure the face of the monkey was not too dark in the shadows here. I could of course use spot metering, and meter on the fur, but I personally prefer to just use Manual mode, and take full control. As I set my exposure, I can see that the snow is blowing out slightly, but I can chose to ignore that, to get a good exposure on the monkey. If you allow the background to blow out too much, it can start to bleed into the detail on the edges of the main subject, or that fine fluffy fur around the edge of the monkey here, but the amount I overexposed required 12 points of Recovery in Lightroom to bring under control, so it really isn’t a problem. You can actually see as well that the light wispy hair actually protect the white snow directly behind it, stopping it from blowing out. The only parts that showed as blow out are pure white, a short distance away from the monkey.

Next we see another gesture in image 2433 (below), as this cute little monkey sticks his tongue out. I was actually standing above the pool, not on the lower level that we saw some participants standing on earlier. I was looking down to see if everyone was alright, having just been talking with some of the group members on the higher level. I turned and saw this little guy, and noticed his tongue sticking out, as I crouched to photograph him.

Tongue Out

Tongue Out

Hurumph!

Hurumph!

One thing that I should mention, although it’s pretty obvious, is that you really need to make sure that the eyes are sharp, when shooting animals. Especially when shooting with a wide aperture it can be difficult to get the focus right on the eyes. If you are shooting across the subject, as I am here, it can sometimes be a good idea to stop down a little, to get both eyes sharp, as I have here, stopping down to F5.6. I will sometimes stay wide when shooting across the subject like this, especially if I’m a little further away, but when I do, I always try to make sure the nearest eye is sharp. If the furthest eye is sharp it can look pretty weird or just like sloppy focusing.

I’ve photographed the distinguished macaque in image 2438 (right) a number of times, and just love doing tight portraits like this one of him. I uploaded a few others as well. Some of them where we can see his teeth as he chews on some grain or grass, but I like this particular image because of his slanted mouth, again, making him somewhat human with a dissatisfied look on his face. I used the 70-200mm F2.8 lens for this, leaning back to achieve the minimum focus distance for this lens. I can’t wait to take the new 70-200mm out here, as it has a few inches shorter minimal focus distance, which will make it perfect for this location with limited space to shoot from.

I couldn’t help including image 2439 (bel0w), in which we see four monkeys totally relaxed in their hot tub. It’s nice to get a group like this, all with their eyes closed, and with no other distractions in the frame. One thing to note here is that it can be difficult to get a group like this without cutting off their hands on one side of the frame. It can also be easy for someone with less experience to forget about the edges of the frame too, and only realize that they cut the hands on when they look at the shot on the PC later. It’s always helpful to scan the edges of the frame to ensure that all of the important elements are in the frame, and equally importantly, that nothing distracting is entering the edges of the frame. Another thing to pay attention to at this location is that people with bright clothing standing above the pool can sometimes reflect in the water, ruining a good shot. If you look at the water in the top right of this image, you can see the shape of someone standing on the edge of the pool, but luckily their clothing didn’t make them too noticeable. I did point this possibility out to the participants and some had not thought of or noticed this, so it was a good thing to pay attention to.

Hot Tubbers 2010

Hot Tubbers 2010

In image 2440 (below), again I’ve shot at the moment the macaque to the right looked directly at me. She was being groomed and pretty relaxed, but for some reason turned to look at me as I started to photograph the two of them. Maybe I moved quickly, or the sound of my shutter caught her attention. They are very used to us being there, but sometimes I think we catch their attention, and that worked out OK for me on this occasion.

Huh!?

Huh!?

The baby monkeys can be incredibly cute, as we can see in image 2444 (below). This little guy was chewing on something, and so I got that scrunched up nose, as he looked back at something to his side. In addition to being a cute little monkey photograph though, I wanted to mention that I expanded the white snow in the background with the clone tool for this shot, as there was a large dark patch to the right of the monkey as we view the image. The lack of snow can cause problems, and although I rarely clone to this extent, as it was a large expanse of out of focus background, I figured I’d go for it on this one, so that I could still use a relatively cute shot.

Crumpled Nose

Crumpled Nose

Almost done, this second to last shot, number 2445 (below), was a bit of a grab shot, but I was pretty pleased with it. We’d been shooting down by the river, and a few of us were about to head up the path that we can see this monkey sitting on, and head in to eat lunch, if I recall. Something about the way the monkey was just sitting and staring out across the valley struck me, so I fired off a frame or two. You can also see here that although there has been a lot of snow, it’s melted off in many places. We really were lucky to be able to get the images with snow on the monkeys that we looked at earlier.

Surveying the Valley

Surveying the Valley

Cold Feet

Cold Feet

And finally, I wanted to look at image 2449 (left), from the last morning, before we headed back to Tokyo. It was a Saturday morning, and the ledge around the hot spring pool was packed with local tourists. I was really happy that I’d avoided the weekend for our main day, and we spend a few hours shooting around the river and paths, and this was one of my last shots, as the last few participants finished up their shooting. Again, I was just looking for something other than a straight shot, so when this monkey lifted his foot, as if to protect it from the cold snow for a brief time, I made my exposure.

We left at lunch time, and headed back to Tokyo. On the way, I used some of the time on the bus to share my digital workflow with some of the participants, crowded around my laptop screen. This was good to do, as you will often learn something from seeing other’s work-flows, and I’m pretty happy with mine, so I thought I’d share it and it seemed to go down well.

To finish, although I played this in a quick update Podcast before we went to Hokkaido, here’s some quick comments from some of the participants that I recorded on the bus as we drove back to Tokyo on the Saturday afternoon!

<Playing Recording – Only available in the audio>

So, that’s it. We did have a great time over these first three days. I can’t wait to take another group out there again next year. Note that I am still finalizing the plans for next year, and will be releasing information on the Workshops page in the very near future. If you would like me to mail you to let you know when any details are announced, please mail me using the contact form. Note too that I am thinking of not making the Snow Monkey tour a solo option next year. There will be a shorter Hokkaido tour, and then the following week we’ll do the Snow Monkey tour, and then go straight to Hokkaido as one group. If there is enough demand to do a second Snow Monkey tour separate of the one integrated with the Hokkaido trip, then I’ll consider adding a second. If you absolutely, certainly, definitely are only interested in a Snow Monkeys trip and do not want to join us in Hokkaido, please state that when you drop me a line. I’ll keep that in mind as I finalize the plans.

I hope you enjoyed your virtual tour with the Snow Monkeys. They are amazing, that’s for sure.


Podcast show-notes:

WebSpy giveaway: http://www.webspy.com.au/blogs/index.php/new-webspy-soho-giveaway/

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

Download the Enhanced Podcast M4A files directly.