Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 2 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 654)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 2 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 654)

Today we start a series of travelogue-style episodes to walk through the second of my two Japan Winter Wildlife Tours for 2019, as we kick off with the Snow Monkeys, then move on to the Red-Crowned Cranes in Hokkaido.

A Mother’s Arms

After driving over to the Nagano Prefecture from Tokyo, we headed into the Monkey Park on the first day, and the relatively small amount of snow that we saw on the way in was a good indication that this was going to be a somewhat challenging visit, but that to me, is part of the fun of running these tours. I get to see these locations in all conditions, and I will always come away with something to make these visits worthwhile, both for myself and more importantly, for my guests.

I shot less than usual, but as with this following image, there are still little gems to shoot even if the valley isn’t filled with pristine snow. This mother was sitting on the side of the hot spring pool that the monkeys often bathe in, picking up the grain that the wardens through down for the monkeys, but of course it’s the interaction with the young monkey that makes this shot worth sharing.

Even though the mother is preoccupied with the grain, she shows affection for the youngster in her arms with the way her right arm is wrapped around its shoulder, and closed eyes in an animal to me are always a sign of security and contentment.

To ensure that I got a sharp shot with my 100-400mm lens, I increased my ISO to 3200 for a 1/500 of a second exposure at f/10. If I’m shooting the monkeys running around on the valley walls, I generally try to get at least an 1/800 of a second shutter speed or higher, but for monkeys sitting around, this is enough. My focal length for this shot was 300mm.

Note too that I have drawn a mask over the babies face and increased the Shadows slider a little in Capture One Pro, just to ensure that we can see the baby down in the shadows.

A Mother's Arms
A Mother’s Arms

A Ride Home

All of the shots that I’ll share from this visit to the snow monkeys are from the middle of the three days. I really enjoy standing in a spot where the monkeys walk down the mountain through the snow, and I did that a lot on this trip too, but because there hadn’t been any fresh snow, what there was had become quite brown with the mud from the monkeys’ feet, and wasn’t all that picturesque. If, like my tour participants, it was my first and perhaps only, visit I’d spend the time to clean up the dirty snow in my photos, but I won’t spend the time to do that myself.

After lunch on the second day though, as I walked back down to the hot spring pool, there were a few monkeys walking down the mountain in some still relatively clean snow, as you can see in this photograph. You will also be able to see how wet the snow is, as this patch resists the overwhelming temptation to become water.

For this shot I increased my shutter speed to an 1/800 of a second, just about enough to freeze the action, with an ISO of 2500 at f/10. My focal length was 176 mm, so you can tell I was pretty close.

This framing is also out of the camera. I clipped the back foot of the snow monkey, but I’m not too concerned about that. I like to frame my subjects as tight as possible, so I was pretty happy with this.

I increased the Shadows slider to brighten up the monkeys a little, and once again, I drew a mask over the baby’s face, and just increased the Shadows slider a little, to ensure that we can see it. Their faces tend to go a little dark, even in situations like this, especially as I’m exposing my images to ensure that the snow is white, and yet not over-exposed. That can make the monkeys a little bit dark overall.

A Ride Home
A Ride Home

Standing Ground
Standing Ground

Standing Ground

This final image from the Snow Monkeys is from just a few minutes after the previous image. There was a procession of monkeys that came down the hill in a relatively short space of time, and it caused a small crowd to form, which probably started to intimidate the monkeys a little. In retaliation, this one climbed up on a log sticking out of the snow and shook the log a couple of times, which is a sign of aggression, aimed towards the crowd. That’s about as far as it went though. The monkey jumped off the log after a second or two and continued on its way.

The monkeys are, after all, very much accustomed to being close to the hoards of humans that visit the park each day, and in perspective, tolerate us really well, considering that they are still essentially wild animals.

My settings for this photograph were the same as the previous one. I shoot in manual mode so as to not have to worry about my exposure too much as I shoot, so once it’s set, I can just concentrate on getting my shots until the light conditions change.

In post, I opened up the Shadows on this image too, and once again drew a mask over the monkey’s face and just brightened it up a little. I also tweaked the Saturation slider a little, to bring out the red in the monkeys face. I don’t often do that, but for some reason, this monkey felt a little pale, so I thought I’d give it some help. Other than that, this photo is pretty much straight out of the camera.

Hokkaido

After our three days with the Snow Monkeys, we took a steady drive back to Tokyo, then got an early flight up to Hokkaido on the fourth morning of the tour. Despite it being warmer than usual, I actually came away from the second trip this year with a huge number of images that I am really happy with. That’s a great problem to have, but it also means that as I prepare for this episode, I’m once again struggling to whittle down a selection of images to talk about. I have just gone through the images from the first four days in Hokkaido, and have 39 images that I’d love to share with you, and that obviously isn’t going to work. We’ll work through a few images anyway, and I’ll decide which one’s get chopped as we go along.

Room To Spread Wings

As I’ve mentioned recently, they have reduced the amount of corn that they are throwing down for the cranes, as their numbers are now increasing quite well. They have also stopped throwing out live fish at 2 pm each day at the Crane Center, and this means that the eagles no longer come to try and steal the fish. That was always fun, but it did mean that the Crane Center was often way too crowded on this second tour. Luckily for us though, these developments mean that although many locations in this area are now very crowded during this second tour, the Crane Center is not quite as bad, and because there is less food for the cranes, there are fewer cranes too.

That might not sound like a good thing, but there have been so many cranes for the last few years, that when they actually do something, it was very difficult to isolate the bird or pair that was performing for a nice photograph. That is definitely getting easier to do now though, because of the lower number of birds, although it’s still nice when a bird lands, like this, in a frame with no other birds in the foreground or background.

Crane Landing
Crane Landing

It’s also nice when we have a full covering of snow like this, and the overcast sky on this visit meant that there wasn’t too much contrast in the snow, which is great. I much prefer to see these beautiful birds in photographs shot in overcast conditions, as it’s easier to appreciate the detail in their feathers. I also really like it when the white of the bird is very similar to the white background. That’s probably one of the most appealing things about the photographs that we do on this trip to me.

So as to freeze most of the motion in these birds as they move around or fly, I had set my shutter speed to 1/1600 of a second at ISO 1000, and my aperture was at f/11, to ensure that I had enough depth of field to get two birds sharp when they are in the frame together, although that’s obviously not important for this photograph.

Ural Owl and Nuthatch

In the afternoon, we headed over to an owl’s nest that I know of, and although there was a pair on the nest during our first visit, there was only one owl this time. As I often say though, when we lose something, we often gain something else, and in this photograph, we have a surprise visit by a beautiful little Eurasian Nuthatch, posing perfectly for us on the side of the tree, and probably making enough sound scratching at the bark as he flitted around, to cause the owl to look over in his direction.

Ural Owl and Nuthatch
Ural Owl and Nuthatch

Although I had fitted a 2X Extender to my 200-400mm lens as well as engaging the built-in Extender, I’d actually not zoomed in fully for this, so that we could see these animals in their environment, so my focal length for this shot was 811 mm. To get my exposure of just 1/160 of a second I had to increase my ISO to 3200, at f/11. Of course, with both Extenders engaged, f/11 was the widest aperture available to me. The base f/4 aperture of the lens becomes f/5.6 when you engage the internal Extender, then we have to add two more stops, so f/8 then f/11 for the 2X Extender.

Dancing Cranes Triptych

I’m going to talk about the next three images as a set, because this is how I’m considering them, like a triptych. All three images were shot within 15 seconds of each other, as a pair of cranes danced at our final location for this day. We were here to do some panning shots with the cranes as the light dropped, but I couldn’t resist changing my settings to a faster shutter speed to try and freeze this movement a little.

Again, this is one of those situations where the birds are hardly distinguishable from the background, except for the parts of them that are black, or their red crowns. It was great that neither of these birds was banded, and despite me having to shoot these at ISO 8000, there is virtually no grain in these images, thanks to the EOS R, and because I was exposing to the right. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but most people are afraid to increase the ISO because it increases grain, but believe me, most of the time the increased exposure will counter this to the point where you will get a much cleaner image.

Six Cranes Take Flight

Unfortunately, for this next image, it had started to become so dark that my original image was around a stop under the right side of the histogram, so although I had my ISO set to 6400, has a little bit more visible grain in it than the previous images. Also, although I generally like to see sharper heads in my panning shots, for this image, I’m not letting that prevent me from really liking this. I love the form of the blurred wings of these six cranes as they run across the snow and start to take flight.

Six Cranes Take Flight
Six Cranes Take Flight

I also really like the bit of snow kicked up by the last few cranes, adding a nice additional element of interest. I actually deliberated as to whether or not I should do this, but I removed half a crane that was sticking into the shot from the left edge. I didn’t mind that it was cut off, because it kind of indicated that there were more birds to come, but it was slightly annoying that it was cut off, so I decided to remove it. My settings for this were a 1/30 of a second shutter speed with an aperture of f/5.6 and an ISO of 6400. I should have left my ISO up at 8000 or higher, but this was one of those times when the light was fading quicker than I noticed, so it kind of got away from me a little.

Otowa Bridge Bedlam

The following morning we visited the Otowa Bridge as usual, but despite leaving the hotel at 4 am the bridge was already packed when we arrived. We set up and waited to see if the hoar frost formed, but it was a little too warm for it to get really nice. We did have places to shoot from, but the shots weren’t great. To be completely honest, the bridge is becoming unworkable on this second tour, and although we’ll visit next year, it’s possible that we won’t even go early. On the following morning, before we left this area, we had a little bit of extra time in bed and didn’t try to get a place, opting rather to just shoot through the shoulders of the people that were already there.

Heaven from Bedlam
Heaven from Bedlam

This worked, and I’m relatively happy with this image, as the cranes started to rise, with a few walking around and one of them with his wings spread. I’m pleased that we were able to get some shots like this, but it’s getting really difficult. Thankfully the other parts of this tour are still great though. My settings for this were ISO 6400 for a 1/500 of a second at f/9. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in Extender engaged for a focal length of 560 mm.

Whooper Swan Fly-By

After the cranes, we headed over to Lake Kussharo where we photograph the Whooper Swans for two days. We made our customary stop at Lake Mashuu on the way, and stopped at a corner of Lake Kussharo for an hour before lunch, then having checked in and got our rooms sorted at the hotel, we went back to the lake for our panning session to end the day. Before the sun dropped behind the mountains though, we were treated with a fly-by at a good height, allowing me to shoot this next photograph.

Whooper Swan Fly-By
Whooper Swan Fly-By

I love the softly out of focus distant clouds in the background, and the swans here are beautifully sharp and uncommonly clean. They are often quite dirty on their undersides because of the algae on the bottom of the lake that rubs against them, but these pair are really quite clean, which makes all the difference. I also really like how the back one, of the two birds, is banking a little, almost as though he’s just come out of a corner. To freeze the action like this, I’d set my shutter speed to 1/1600 of a second at ISO 1600, with an aperture of f/11. I was zoomed in to 400mm with my EF 100-400mm Mark II lens.

Homeward Bound

We’ll finish today with a panning shot as we slowed down our shutter speeds, but unlike my usual swan panning shots, again, we were lucky enough to have another fly-by, and this time I left my camera in my panning settings, so it’s made a very ethereal image, and again, one that I believe has enough artistic merit that I’m not going to throw it out just because the swans’ heads aren’t sharp.

Homeward Bound
Homeward Bound

This actually reminds me of a photo that one of the participants shot on my very first tour to this location back in 2008, where the head wasn’t sharp, but the image blew me away, so I’m really pleased to have been able to get this image. My settings were 1/50 of a second at f/16, with an ISO of 640. It was really just luck that I had such a deep depth of field because of my panning settings, but it has enable me to capture quite a lot of definition in the mountain in the background as well, which I really like.

OK, so we’ll wrap it up there for this first episode. We’re actually doing pretty well, already into the swans, so I’ll try to get our final selection down to ten or maybe twelve images so that we can finish this series next week and move on to some other topics that I have lined up for you.

Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2020

Note that we do still have some places open on the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours, so if you might be interested, please check that out here.


Show Notes

See details of the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2020

Details of all available Tours & Workshops are here: https://mbp.ac/workshops

Music by Martin Bailey


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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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Shigakougen Blue-Green Landscape Travelogue (Podcast 481)

Shigakougen Blue-Green Landscape Travelogue (Podcast 481)

I recently visited the Shigakougen or Shiga Highlands in Nagano here in Japan, as part of my trip to test the Canon EOS 5Ds R, and one of my main goals was to capture the blue-green summer foliage, so today we’re going to walk through three separate shoots on June 22, 23 and 24, 2015.

On June 22, I’d spent the afternoon with the Snow Monkeys on my first summer visit, and we looked at photos from the monkeys in the last episode. The monkey park closes at 5pm in the summer, which gave me another couple of hours of daylight, so I headed up the mountain to the Shigakougen area, as I was hoping to get some landscape photos of some of the many ponds in the area.

As you arrive in the highland plateau after driving up the mountain, the first pond is called Ichinuma, which literally means the first pond or number one pond. I parked my car in the car park down the road, and walked around to Ichinuma, and as I arrived the air was clear, and I recall thinking that I’d love it if we got a little bit of mist to add atmosphere to the images. I’d made maybe three exposures of the lush greenery on the other side of the pond, and then all of a sudden, a mist rolled in across the surface of the water and some low cloud came over from the back of the trees, as we see in this image (below). I couldn’t believe my luck, with this mist coming in this way, perfectly on cue!

Ichinuma in the Mist (Panorama #2)

Ichinuma in the Mist (Panorama #2)

Although the 50 megapixels of the 5Ds R is plenty to give me some great large prints, even if I crop down to this kind of panorama, I had been using the 100-400mm Mark II lens, and picking out just small sections of the trees, as we’ll see in some other images after this. I had just rotated the camera in the lenses tripod ring, to capture some vertical shots to stitch together for a panorama, so I went ahead with the series of frames as the mist rolled in.

The thing that you have to be careful with when shooting in conditions like this is if you aren’t relatively quick getting your images, the mist and cloud can move so far that it makes it difficult for Photoshop to stitch the images together because the content of the adjacent frames can be too different. I was shooting in Live View, as I often do for landscape work, and there’s a bit of a lag after making your exposure before the image comes back, and you can make the next exposure, but as soon as it came back, I panned the camera around by around half a frame, to give Photoshop plenty of overlap, and then quickly shot my next frame.

The final image that we see here (above) is from five vertical images, and is a whopping 140 megapixels. I can print this image at 24 x 43 inches at 432 ppi, without any resizing, which will give absolutely amazing detail in the final print. These images were shot at 0.6 sec, f/10, ISO 100 at 112mm.

Ichinuma Trees

Ichinuma Trees

As quickly as it rolled in, just five minutes after the last image, the mist was gone, as we can see here (right).

I was feeling really fortunate to have arrived when I did and get that beautiful mist and low cloud, but with it gone, I concentrated again on capturing the lush greens.

The line of bright yellow-green color along the waterline is from ferns, giving way to the green leaves on the azalea bushes around the base of the trees. When you zoom in on this image, you can actually see spots of orange red as the azalea were flowering, another reason that I decided to visit this area at this time.

Although I like the wide aspect of the panorama images we’ll look at today, and also the landscape orientation images, here I went for a vertical orientation to emphasize the vertical tree trunks and their reflection in the water.

Note that I also composed this so that none of the tree trunks are cut off along the side edges of the image. It can be difficult with woods to find a good place to frame your shot, but it really helps with images like this if you can find a good clean edge like this.

Note that I had also zoomed in to 148mm so as not to include any of the sky, now that the low cloud was gone. The sky was just white and lacked texture, so would have just been a distraction. This was shot at 0.8 sec, f/10 at ISO 100.

This next image (below) is another stitched panorama, from six vertical frames this time. Again, this is the shot that I had just set my camera up for when the mist rolled in, so with the missed gone, I shot another series of images and stitched them together in Photoshop. Again, my goal here now was to capture the lush greens, with that flash of brighter green from the ferns punctuating the line between the real and the reflected world.

Ichinuma Panorama #3

Ichinuma Panorama #3

The resulting image is this time 160 megapixels, and can be printed at 24 x 44 inches at 453 ppi, which again is going to give incredible detail. Of course, I could print much larger, but I’m basing this on my own large format printer’s maximum width of 24 inches. If I had a 44 inch large format printer, I could print this at 44 x 82 inches still at 244 ppi, and that would be amazing too, and this all made possible by the 5Ds R with its 50 megapixel sensor and a bit of stitching. Of course with a lower resolution camera I could have done multi-row stitches, but I never felt it worth going to that much trouble.

I spent a total of 15 minutes at Ichinuma on the 22nd, before heading back down the mountain to a business hotel for the night. The next morning I got up bright and early and went back to the monkey park until lunch time, then after grabbing something to eat at the convenience store, I drove back up to the highlands. I had booked a hotel just across the road from Ichinuma on the 23, as I wanted to get back to the pond at dawn the following day.

For now, I was going to make the most of the afternoon driving around the various spots I know in the area. I drove past them all initially, because the sun was still high, and went up to the highest point at Shibu Pass (Shibutouge), which is just inside the border on Gunma Prefecture, next to Nagano Prefecture, where I made this photograph (below).

Shibutouge (Shibu Pass)

Shibutouge (Shibu Pass)

This was shot with the new 11-24mm f/4 L lens from Canon, which I reviewed in episode 465. I opened the lens right out to 11mm for this shot, at f/11, ISO 100 for 1/100 sec, and processed it in Silver Efex Pro 2 for this beautiful contrasty black and white. The scene at this time of year is nothing really special, so I was really happy to see this somewhat dramatic sky, that lasted really just a few minutes shortly after I arrived, and then a bank of cloud came over from behind me and it poured with rain for a while, so I was lucky here with my timing again.

Shibutuoge, which is about 20 to 30 minutes past the main pond area, was the furthest I went, and having done a u-turn, I stopped at the location where I shot this next image of Yokote Mountain, again with some nice stormy skies (below). This was again shot with the 11-24mm at 15mm this time, for 1/60 sec at f/14, ISO 100.

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies

At this location I’d actually done a few series of bracket shots, thinking that I might have to do some HDRs because the sky was so bright, and I was still at this point thinking that the 5Ds R probably had slightly less dynamic range compared to my 5D Mark III. As I suspected might be the case though, I got home and found that I simply hated all of the HDR images that I was able to create from my bracketed images. I also found that my usual claim, that I can usually get everything I need from a single frame, even when parts of it seem very dark, continued to be the case with the 5Ds R.

It can be scary when you see the base image in the camera, but I now know that I can trust my instincts again, even with the 5Ds R. Here (below) is the original photo of the previous image, straight out of the camera, so that you can see what I mean. I just expose to the right, so that the brightest part of the scene is on the far right side of the histogram, and there is enough detail in the shadows to bring it all back out with some slider adjustments in Lightroom. You’d think that there was no information in the black foreground here, but as we see from the previous image, that’s not the case.

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies (Original)

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies (Original)

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the 5Ds R actually has slightly better dynamic range than the 5D Mark III according to DxO Mark’s tests. They have the 5D Mark III at 11.7 EV and the 5Ds R at 12.4 EV dynamic range, which is surprising, but great to hear.

I continued to drive back down the mountains towards Ichinuma and stopped at another pond on the way, called Kidoike. It was raining, so I decided to go with the flow, and include the droplets of rain in the surface of the pond, as you can see if you look closely in this photo (below).

Kidoike Reflection with Rain

Kidoike Reflection with Rain

Again here, I’m watching the edges of the frame, trying to find the best place to cut off the scene, so as not to have dissected tree trunks. I’d have preferred a smooth clear reflection, but I think the soft summer rain adds a different kind of mood to this image, which I don’t dislike too much either. This was a 0.5 sec exposure, at f/14, ISO 100 at 105mm. I headed back to my hotel for the night after this final visit to the Kidoike.

On the morning of June 24, I got up at 4am, for a dawn shoot. The sun was set to rise at 4:32am I think it was, so this would give me just enough time to throw on some clothes, grab my camera and go back across to Ichinuma. Because I’d gotten some shots with mist on the surface of the water two days before this, I actually considered going back to Kidoike first, because it had been raining the previous day, and I wanted that clear reflection. I decided to stick with my original plan though, as I really wanted to capture a different mood at Ichinuma.

I wanted to capture the foliage in the dawn light which I figured would give it the blue-green look that I associate with Japanese summer foliage, and I was lucky enough to get that, back at Ichinuma, as planned (below). As I’ve mentioned in the past, there is a very blurry line between the colors blue and green in Japanese culture. Ao means blue, and midori means green, but the Japanese will often also refer to green, as “ao” which is blue, but they really green. Confusing, I know, but that’s how it is.

Ichinuma with Dawn Mist

Ichinuma with Dawn Mist

This image was shot at 0.3 sec, f/16, ISO 200 at 100mm. I actually really wish I could somehow get a white horse on that shore in this photo. There is a Japanese artist named Kaii Higashiyama (1909-1999), who created a wonderful series of paintings depicting blue-green scenes very much like this photograph, but he painted in a majestic white horse. They are truly beautiful prints.  The best example I can find online to show you is on the cover of a children’s book called “The White Horse” here.

I spent maybe 15 minutes at Ichinuma, as I was confident I’d gotten my shots, and I wanted to get back up to Kidoike while the sun was still behind the mountains. Once direct sunlight hit these ponds the mist would be gone, and the blue-green would be gone too. As I drove up towards Kidoike, a valley filled with morning mist came into view, so I had to stop the car and walk back up to where I made this photo (below).

Birch Trees in Mist (Shigakougen)

Birch Trees in Mist (Shigakougen)

I seem to be really attracted to birch trees. I think they’re perhaps my favorite tree. I just love the contrast that their white trunks provides, as in the other images we’ve been looking at today too. This was actually quite challenging, as the valley has ski lifts and telegraph wires and other structures strewn all over the place. I shot something a little wider than this too, but there was a large pole to the left, and wires running all over the top, and I don’t have the patience on the computer to mess around removing them. This image still captures the mood of the scene though.

I love being out at dawn when all of this is happening. It’s just a shame that Japan doesn’t adjust the clocks in the summer time. The sun rises around 4:30 and sets just after 7pm in summer time. We could put the clocks forward by two hours and actually be able to utilize the light evenings, but the fear is that the salary men would have an even harder time dragging themselves out of the office if it was still light outside.

There is still talk of doing this, but I wish they’d hurry up. It would open up many photographic opportunities in both the mornings and the evenings. The reality is that to get to any of these places from Tokyo, you pretty much have to drive through the night and sleep in the car for a while, or stay in a hotel, which is what I generally end up doing these days.

Let’s look at the last image of this series, from back at Kidoike, shortly before the sun hit the top of the trees (below). This is another stitched panorama, from around six frames. I used the new panorama stitching feature in Lightroom 6 to create this one. It’s actually really good. It is quick and saves the resulting file as a DNG so you still get all of the benefits of a raw file.

Kidoike Panorama

Kidoike Panorama

The only problem is that you can’t easily fill in areas where there is background showing. In this image there was a slither of white in the top left, that I was not able to crop out, or I would have gotten too close to the top of some of the trees, so I ended up going into Photoshop anyway, to content aware fill that slither of white. Again, I’m longing for a while horse here. Maybe some day I’ll make enough money to put on a production and actually make that happen. 🙂

The exposure for this one is 1/5 sec, f/11, ISO 100 at 100mm. We can tell that the light was coming up as the sun came over the mountains, because the shutter speed was much faster at this point. Shortly after this, the sun hit the lake, the mist disappeared, and the contrast got up so I packed my stuff into the car, and started to drive back to Tokyo.

I hope the very similar theme in most of these images wasn’t too boring for you. I had a definite goal with these images, which affected the composition and time of the images. I’m very happy with the results, and can’t wait to actually start printing some of these. Some of them are already available as fine art prints if there are any collectors among you, and believe me, these are going to look stunning! They may well be some of the first 5Ds R fine art prints to hit the market too, which is pretty cool.

 


Show Notes

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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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

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