Following on from the previous episode, today we continue on our journey photographing the wildlife of Eastern Hokkaido, starting with the beautiful Whooper Swans, then moving on to the Sea Eagles, with a cameo from an Ezo Deer and a Pod of Orca.
Whooper Swan Interior
Having left the cranes behind, we took a steady drive over to Lake Mashuu for a bit of a touristy landscape stop to help us wind-down a little after the last few busy days with the cranes. We arrived at Lake Kussharo mid-morning, and had an hour photographing in a corner of the lake before lunch, but it was very windy in the afternoon, and the swans were hunkered down, so we didn’t get to really start photographing them until the following morning, and one of my first shots from that morning is this.
It was shortly before 8 am when I shot this, so the winter sun had really just risen above the trees to our backs as we stood on the shore of Lake Kussharo. I really like how this swan seems to be shining from within with the beautiful warm light from the low sun. I obviously framed this very tightly in camera, to help us to see and appreciate the details in the feathers as the swan preens itself. With it being clear I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at ISO 800 at f/11.
Thirty minutes later, I shot this next image as the sun got brighter, and the light now less warm, but I had lowered my ISO to 400 with the same shutter speed and aperture, so it was now exactly one stop brighter.
As you can see, this part of the lake was not frozen at this point, and that is quite uncommon for this time of year. It would freeze completely before we revisited in three weeks time, but to not be frozen at the start of February is something that I’ve only seen once before.
This was one of those frantic calling sessions that the birds often do after landing, and it was followed by a somewhat vicious attack on these swans from a third swan that was just to their right as they called like this. I have photos of that too, but this is more beautiful, and although their fighting is only natural, I also kind of don’t want to sensationalize it.
A Dozen Swans in Flight
We spent around 90 minutes at our first location for the day, then moved on, to the place that we’d spent our first hour before lunch on the previous day, and were quickly rewarded with a couple of spectacular fly-ins. This is the second group that arrived in our corner of Lake Kussharo; a full dozen of swans, with the mountains on the opposite shore of the lake running along the bottom of the frame.
I’ve cropped this down from the top, to make it a 16:9 aspect ratio image, as the blue sky at the top, was not really adding any more than what we have here, and as I often say, if any aspect of an image isn’t adding something, it’s generally detracting from the overall appeal of the photograph. I feel also that this image is better balanced with roughly equal amounts of sky above and below the line of swans.
Here’s another photo from the little corner of the lake thirty minutes later, and here we see three swans doing another of their “Hey we just landed, isn’t it great that we can fly!” songs.
I generally don’t do a lot to my wildlife photos, but I did spend a few minutes on this to draw a mask over the birds and lighten the shadows a little, with the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro. I also drew a gradient mask over the dark trees and used the Luma Tone Curve to darken that down a little, as that helps to enhance the swans’ breath by adding some contrast. I always like it when you can see the breath of an animal. I feel that it literally breathes a little more life into the photograph.
After lunch on this day we did a 90 minute workshop session at the hotel, where I shared some details of the wildlife that we shoot on this trip, and did a short demonstration of how I processed some of my images so far in Capture One Pro, and then we went back out towards the end of the day, for our panning shoot with the swans.
I tried this year to time my panning shots so that I had other birds in the frame, as I have grown a little bit bored with my single bird panning shots. On the first trip, this shot with the context provided by the two other stationary swans is one of my favorites. In a couple of weeks I’ll share some shots from the second wildlife tour for this year, where I have multiple swans flying together, and all with relatively sharp heads.
This technique is really fun. I set my shutter speed at 1/40 of a second and my aperture to f/14, and finally, adjusted my ISO to 2000 for optimal exposure. I was using my Canon EOS R and the EF 100-400mm Mark II lens at 200mm for this particular shot.
The following morning, we visited the swans once more, and I have a shot of some of the swans flying in low that I really like, but we’re already at five images just of the swans, so we’ll move on now. We made our regular stop at the Sulfur Mountain, but this was one of the rare occasions when the mist and light weren’t quite working for me, so we’ll skip that too.
On our way over to the Notsuke Peninsula, before our final destination for the day at Rausu, where we’d spend three nights to photograph the sea eagles, we stopped at a place where I know there to be a Ural Owls nest. This is the nest where the owl had been tormented by people with no respect for the wildlife and had not been seen for five years now.
We stopped by each year in the hope that an owl might return, and finally, this year we found an owl on the nest. It was in the next tree, in an open concaved area, but it was lovely to see this bird. I’m just hoping that as the word gets out that he’s back, people are a little more respectful and don’t scare him away again.
As with the owl shot from the previous episode, I was using my 200-400mm lens for this, with the internal 1.4X Extender engaged and a 2X Extender fitted, giving me a focal length of 1120mm. This is working really well with the EOS R, due to the lower resolution. This combination is slightly soft with the 5Ds R, so it’s a nice little bonus to be able to shoot at this focal length when necessary.
When we got over to the Notsuke Peninsula it was nice to see that there was plenty of snow, and we quickly encountered some of the Ezo Deer that roam around the peninsula feeding on the grasses that make their way through the snow.
I really enjoy photographing these large deer. The surroundings are what make this photo for me, showing this hardy creature in his harsh surroundings. The bushes and foliage here are on a very thin strip of land that is the peninsula, and in the background, the expanse of white is the frozen brackish lake, between the mainland the peninsula.
Eagles at Dawn
We’re going to go over ten images by a few to complete this series in two parts, so bear with me, as we start our first sea eagle shoot on the following morning. This was actually from the end of our first shoot, when we went over to the quay wall, where the snow reflects light back up onto the underside of the birds, enabling us to shoot them in almost studio conditions.
This is pretty much straight out of the camera, with just a little Clarity and Highlights sliders applied in Capture One Pro. I love it when we can see these magnificent animal’s talons hanging down like this. It makes me wonder what it must be like to live with feet that have those great big long claws on them. The birds do sometimes use their wings, but essentially those clawed talons are the eagle’s main interface with the world, and that must be both tough, and really cool at the same time.
The light was relatively low for this whole shoot, so to get my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second at f/8 I had to increase my ISO to 3200 for this shot. That’s not a problem for the EOS R though. I have some shots from the next trip where I was getting great results even at 12800, so there’s nothing to worry about here, as long as I’m exposing to the right.
Menacing White-Tailed Eagle
The other sea eagle that we photograph on this trip is the White-Tailed Eagle, which is more common than the endangered Steller’s Sea Eagle, and slightly smaller, but a beautiful eagle non-the-less. In this image you can see how menacing these eagles can look as they float in the air, waiting for their chance to pounce on something, like the fish that we throw out for them.
This shot, to me, has a kind of Edward Scissor-Hands feel to it, with the eagle’s talons almost mirroring the spiky looking splayed out flight feathers. There’s a bit of movement in the talons, as my shutter speed was a slightly slow 1/1000 of a second, but I’m not too worried about that. It adds a little bit of dynamism to the shot in my opinion.
We went back down the Notsuke Peninsula again on the second afternoon in Rausu, and although saw a number of Northern Red Foxes, the photos that I got on this trip weren’t anything to write home about, so we’ll skip them.
A Pod of Orca
Shortly after we started shooting on the final morning out with the Sea Eagles, the skipper of the boat that we use asked if we’d like to go and shoot a pod of Orca that had been spotted around 15 minutes down the coast. I, of course, said yes, so off we went to find a total of seven or perhaps eight Orca. Here you can see three of them as they surfaced.
This is my framing straight out of the camera, so I was pretty tight at 271mm. These are magnificent animals too. It’s such a privilege to be able to photograph so many beautiful and powerful animals on this trip. This is only the second time we’ve been able to photograph the Orca on this trip though, and that makes it even more special.
Steller’s Sea Eagle in Action
After photographing the Orca, we sped back down the coast to just outside the port at Rausu and continued to photograph the Sea Eagles. In this next image, you can see a Steller’s Sea Eagle doing what he does, snatching a fish out of the water.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that the EOS R, Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, can be focussed in a split second for images like this. I really don’t like cropping my images unless I have to, so the majority of the time, as with this photo, the framing that you see is the framing that I shot the image with. This is especially important now that I’m back down to 30 megapixels, as opposed to 50 with my 5Ds R bodies. Still, though, the detail in these images is exceptional, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m now really hoping that the rumors pan out, and the next 5Ds will be an RF Mount mirrorless camera.
Oshin Koshin Falls
We finished our trip with a drive around to the Utoro side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, doing some Intentional Camera Movement shots with the birch trees on the way, and shot the river estuary that I’ve shared images of before. We also visited the Oshin Koshin Falls, as usual, and I’ll share one last image that is a little different to what I usually end up with.
The way the frozen part of the falls framed the top portion was kind of cool on this visit, and I was able to get an almost complete border of ice along the top edge, without starting to see the top of the hill or sky above the falls, and I’ve not seen this very often, so decided to capitalize on the opportunity. I love the textures in this snow-covered ice, and believe it or not, this is not a black and white conversion, it’s a color photo. I used probably my three stop neutral density filter to give me a 0.6 second shutter speed at f/14, and I was using the incredibly sharp and compact Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 lens, which I have also fallen completely in love with.
On our final morning, we went for a walk in the Shiretoko National Park, before starting our drive to the airport to head back to Tokyo where we would all head home or set off on an onward journey. As usual, after our final shoot, I recorded comments from each member of the group, which I’ll play you now.
[Please listen with the audio player at the top of the post to hear the lovely comments from this group.]
OK, so we’ll wrap it up there in two parts, which was slightly rushed, but I have already finished the tour after this one, and want to move on to some other topics, so hopefully this is OK.
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2020
Note that we do still have some places open on the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours, so if you might be interested, please check that out here.
Visit the 2020 tour page here if you might be interested in joining this tour and workshop: https://mbp.ac/ww2020
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Although I’ve just completed my second Japan winter wildlife tour and final winter tour for this season, today we’re going to pick up the trail on the first of the two wildlife tours, as we leave the cranes in the snow behind, and move on to our final day with the Whooper Swans before heading over to Rausu for sea eagles and foxes etc.
Once again, fighting the clock, as usual, I still had 109 photos left in my collection of images that I still want to talk about in this travelogue series. I was hoping to complete this series with one more episode, but having gone through and shortlisted the images that I really want to talk about, I still have 27 images. We’ll just jump into it, and see if I can whittle down my selection to just ten images as we go.
On the eighth shooting day of the tour, and the fifth day in Hokkaido, we went back to the Kussharo Lake for one last Whooper Swan fly-in shoot before starting our drive over to Rausu and the Notsuke Peninsula. One of the reasons I ensure that we get at least two days in each location is because quite often, the weather can change and present us with different opportunities. On this visit, it was overcast and slightly misty. Conditions that I love to photograph the Whooper Swans in, and you can hopefully see why in this first image for today (below).
I really like it when we get white swans on a white background, often with just subtle differences in tone between the two. The thing that I really like about this photo is that the swan on the left of the frame is looking straight at me as he flew in. It has to feel a bit strange to them when they fly to their beach and see a line of photographers awaiting their arrival. They’re used to seeing people of course, but this is a reminder that they are not totally oblivious to our presence.
My settings for this image were 1/500 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 1000 and a focal length of 400mm with my 100-400mm lens. This is, of course, the Mark II version of this lens. Again this year we had a participant that had rented the original version without knowing and was somewhat disappointed. If you are buying this lens, and you find what you think is a good deal, check that it is not the original lens which is very long in the tooth now, and frankly with today’s camera resolution really punishing older lenses, I wouldn’t use one even if it was free, let alone cheap.
Although I love it when the white swans are on a white background, I also found this next photograph somewhat appealing, with two juvenile Whooper Swans still with their wings spread as they landed in the fresh snow on the frozen Kussharo Lake (below).
I’ve entitled this “Grey But Not Ugly (Ducklings)”. Sometimes the grey juvenile swans might look a bit like ugly ducklings, as in the fairy tale, but in this photo, I think it helps to accentuate them against the white background. I toyed with the idea of removing the three lines of thawed snow at the top of the frame, but decided against it, as I think they add a little depth to the background. My settings for this were f/11 at ISO 1000 still, but I had increased my shutter speed now to 1/640 as the light gradually came up. My focal length was 286 mm.
I have another swan shot that I wanted to show you, but I’ll skip that in a bid to still try and finish this travelogue series today. I did post it on Instagram while I was traveling, so check out my Instagram account if you don’t already follow me over there.
After the swans, we drove just a short way and called at Sulphur Mountain or Iouzan, for a quick session with the surreal fumaroles spewing out their sulphuric steam and painting themselves yellow in the process, as you can see in this image (below).
This place always seems a little bit apocalyptic to me. This is one of the few times when I decided to keep the ridge of the mountains behind the fumaroles in the shot, partly because the wind was blowing the steam away at a more acute angle than usual, but also because I felt it helped to show the surroundings a little better, providing a little more information about the place. My settings were a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/14, with ISO 320 at 70mm.
We then continued our journey towards Rausu, where we’d photograph the sea eagles, but on the way, took a diversion to the Notsuke Peninsula in the hope of seeing some Northern Red Fox, like the one we see in this next image (below).
This isn’t my best fox photo, but I kind of like the way he’s got the tip of his tongue sticking out as he scratching his face, looking quite content up on his snow bed, actually on the back of a trailer that is semi-abandoned on the peninsula. My settings for this were f/11 with a 1/800 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 560 mm. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
The following morning we went out for our first sea eagle shoot of the season from the fishing port of Rausu. Not long after we’d started shooting the captain of the boat told me that there had been some Orca spotted further down the coast, and asked if I’d like to go. It took me about 0.2 seconds to decide that we must do just that, so we sped along the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Although I’d love to have spent more time and got better photos, we still had a very special encounter and I still got some shots like this one (below).
We believe there were seven Orca in the pod we encountered. I have been traveling to Rausu and going out photographing the sea eagles in January and February every year since 2004, and I’ve never seen these amazing whales this early in the season. Wanting to get some really killer shots, pardon the pun, I’ve been trying to make time to visit in June or July for the past few years, but never seem to get time, especially now that I’m doing my Namibia tours at that time. This encounter has ratcheted up the priority of that trip a few rungs, so I might just have to do that this year. My settings for this image were f/9 at 321 mm and a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second with ISO 1250.
OK, so we’re five images in, and I usually do ten images per episode. Let’s take a look at some sea eagle shots, and see if we can finish this today, and move on to the second wildlife trip next week. Rather than trying to show images from all three days that we photograph the eagle, let’s just look at some of my favorites from this trip, in chronological order.
First, here’s a White-Tailed Eagle catching one of the fish that we throw out from the boat (below). Quite often it’s a flatfish, which you wouldn’t normally expect an eagle to scoop from the surface of the sea, but still, these can be quite dramatic shots.
Unless these birds open their beaks when they are startled or angry, they have pretty expressionless faces, and in this image, the sea eagle looks very calm and relaxed as he snatches up his breakfast. There was no sea ice on this first trip. It’s getting less common, with us having no ice at all some years now, although we did get some on the second tour, as we’ll see in the coming weeks. My settings for this were a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed at f/11, with ISO 640 and a focal length of 400mm.
This is image not-cropped at all. I love to go in very tight with my 100-400mm lens, and although the bird’s wings sometimes go out of the frame, and I sometimes don’t mind that, it’s great when I can get something like this in a 50-megapixel file without cropping. The detail is just amazing!
This next image of a Steller’s Sea Eagle grabbing his breakfast too is also not cropped (below). That’s the framing that I shot the image at, and again, the 50-megapixel file absolutely blows me away. I love shooting wildlife like this with my Canon 5Ds R, even though it’s a slow frame rate camera, that most wildlife photographers try to avoid.
I have lots of shots with the entire splash in as well, but I just love getting in close and seeing all of this beautiful detail, and you lose some of that as you pull back to include more. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1600 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and again, zoomed right in to 400mm.
This final eagle shot is cropped down quite a way, to a file just over 22 megapixels, as the bird was quite a way off when he was doing his aerial acrobatics. That’s another great thing about the high resolution we have now though, should we choose to use it. I can crop in quite a way and still have a bigger file than the 7D Mark II or even the 1D X Mark II. There are of course times when a higher frame rate would be useful, but I’m making it work at the slower frame rates, so I couldn’t be happier.
I’m in awe of these magnificent eagles. Just look how he can fly pretty much upside down, yet his head is still pointing straight up, with his eye on his prey. These are absolutely incredible animals. My settings were still f/11 with a shutter speed of 1/1600 at ISO 640, and a focal length of 400mm, although cropped, as I mentioned.
After our three days with the sea eagles, we headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula to spend our final night in Utoro. On the way, we stopped for our traditional ICM or Intentional Camera Movement session, which is always fun and generally provides us with some nice shots, as you can see here (below).
For this kind of shot, I generally set my aperture to around f/14 or f/16, and set my shutter speed to 1/25 of a second, and then adjust my exposure with the ISO. If it’s too bright, I sometimes use a three-stop neutral density filter, as I believe I had to do on this day, as it was bright sunlight. I then start with the camera pointing higher up in the trees, then move it downwards quickly, releasing the shutter just as the snow starts to come into the bottom of the frame. I prefer it when the bottom of the frame is just white, but there were some sticks showing through on this day, leaving those smaller streaks.
We continued on and photographed the Oshin Koshin Falls and the sea ice which was packed wall to wall on this side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. I did one ten minute exposure of the sea ice to see if it was actually moving, and apart from a very thin line near the horizon, it was totally stationary. There wasn’t even any vertical movement from waves under the ice, which was surprising.
We continued on in the town, and took a walk down to the mouth of a river to see what we could do and I was relatively happy with this last photo for today (below) which actually is the last image that we’ll talk about from the first of this year’s two Japan Winter wildlife tours.
Here I believe I used a three-stop ND filter, for a 1.3-second exposure, to smooth over the water in the river a little. I converted this to black and white, but the original was almost completely black and white anyway, with the dark stones in the river and low light. My other settings were f/14 at ISO 100, with a focal length of 35 mm.
Before we finish, as usual, I’ve recorded a message from each member of the group that I’d like to play for you now.
[Please listen to the audio with the player at the top of the post to hear what the participants had to say.]
It’s always lovely to hear what the participants have to say, and this was a great group, so listening brings back some nice memories of our time together. I do hope you’ve enjoyed following along with this travelogue. We’ll continue next week with tour #2, which presented a few different opportunities, and possibly my best red fox shot to date, which we’ll see in a few weeks.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020
Our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, but we are now taking bookings for 2020, so if you think you might like to join us, please take a look at the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2020.