Japan Winter Wildlife 2016 Tour 2 Travelogue #4 (Podcast 518)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2016 Tour 2 Travelogue #4 (Podcast 518)

This week we conclude our series of four episodes to walk through 40 images from my second Japan Winter Wildlife tour for 2016. Today we visit the Notsuke Peninsula to find an adorable Northern Red Fox, then back to the Seal Eagles, before finishing with a little bit of landscape work in Utoro.

We pick up the trail on day ten of our 12 day tour, after our second session photographing the sea eagles from a boat in Rausu, when we headed back out initially to see if we could find an Ural Owl. We revisited a few spots where I know there to be a nest, but there was no owl for us to photograph, so we’d missed out on this tour.

After that, we headed over to the Notsuke Peninsula, where we were treated with an encounter with this beautiful Northern Red Fox (below). He was sitting on top of a snow covered truck trailer with fishing nets and floats poking through the snow. And, having seen my image of the fox yawning from last year, one of the participants was just saying that she’d love for him to yawn, and he did the honors.

Northern Red Fox Yawning with Fishing Floats

Northern Red Fox Yawning with Fishing Floats

I actually shot this at 1,120mm. I was using my 200-400mm lens, with the internal 1.4X Extender engaged, and a 2X Extender fitted. Ideally, if I’m going to attach the 2X Extender for a focal length of 800mm, I like to keep the internal Extender out of the mix, but I gave this a try, and it worked out OK. The image is a little bit soft, with all that magnification, but with it being a 50 megapixel file, there’s enough resolution to still print pretty large if I needed to, so all is good.

My settings here were 1/640 of a second at f/11, ISO 400. The aperture of f/11 is forced on me here because of the Extenders. It’s an f/4 lens, but the 2X Extender forces me down to f/8, and the 1.4X Extender forces the aperture down to f/11, so there’s no going wider, and of course, no auto-focus past f/8, so I was manually focusing here too, while resting on the window of our bus.

The following morning, on Day eleven, we headed back out for our third morning on the boat, to photograph the sea eagles. The weather had kept us from doing dawn shoots each of the previous days, but this works for us when it’s overcast, because there is no sunrise to speak of, that would make for a beautiful back drop. Also, as there was no sea ice for the entire season this year, there’s nothing for the sea eagles to perch on with the sunset in the background, so in many ways, the later starts suit us more.

On this third morning though, the weather was promising to provide us with a bit of color in the sky from the sunrise, and that would give us some new opportunities that we had not had on the first two days, so I was quietly optimistic that this would turn out to be a good shoot.

We started while it was still relatively dark, but the sun over the Kunashiri Island was reflecting in the water by this point. Here you can see that I decided to silhouette this White-Tailed Eagle against the slightly orange water.

White-Tailed Eagle Swoops in Silhouette

White-Tailed Eagle Swoops in Silhouette

We generally start off a shoot like this, where the birds fly closer to the sun, with our cameras set to Aperture Priority mode, as that helps the camera to shift the exposure as the background gets brighter. That automatically gives us a silhouette as the birds fly over a bright background, and helps to prevent the background from blowing out too much.

By the time I’d made this photograph though, I was back in Manual mode. I’m just more comfortable in Manual mode, so I like to switch back as soon as I can. My settings here were 1/500 of a second at f/8, ISO 2000, at 278mm.

It does mean though that as we photograph towards the sun, the exposure needs to be tweaked, but as suns rays started to form over the Kunashiri Island, I adjusted my exposure and got a few frames like this one, with a White-Tailed Eagle flying over this almost biblical looking backdrop (below). I have a number of these that I really like, although this is probably one of my favorites.

White-Tailed Eagle with Sun's Rays

White-Tailed Eagle with Sun’s Rays

As you can see, there was still a good amount of cloud around from the storms over the previous few days, but these really helped to create a dramatic sky to form those sun rays, making the nice backdrop for the eagle in flight. There are a couple of areas of the clouds that are a little over-exposed, but I’m happy with the balance. If you try to stop clouds around the sun from blowing out completely, the entire image can get a bit dark, and when you consider how bright these areas are in reality, I don’t think it’s necessary to go much darker than this. My settings were 1/1000 of a second, to freeze the bird in flight, with an aperture of f/10, ISO 640, at 330mm.

This next image is from eighteen minutes later, when a caught a Steller’s Sea Eagle catching one of the fish that we threw out, from a somewhat still patch of water. If you look at the very top of the frame here, you can see a little bit of more textured water creeping in. These still patches are left in our wake, after we’ve maneuvered through the water, and can help to give us a slightly different feel to our images, as you can see here (below).

Steller's Sea Eagle Catching Fish from Calm Sea

Steller’s Sea Eagle Catching Fish from Calm Sea

This is one of a pair of images from my final selection, with the other having much more distance between the splash and the eagle, which I prefer, but you can’t see the eagles face in the other image, so I chose this one to share with you. My settings here were 1/1000 of a second at f/8, ISO 1600, at 400mm.

I was using my 100-400mm lens for the entire time while shooting from the boat. It worked really well with the Canon EOS 5Ds R camera, and although I cropped some of these images a little bit, I still ended up with some beautiful high resolution images that I’m finding are printing absolutely beautifully, and I’m loving having the freedom to go full-frame wide, as well as zoom right in and then crop as necessary, and still have a larger image than those from my 7D Mark II. Of course, there are times when I don’t have to crop at all, and then the detail captured is absolutely off the charts.

OK, so this next image is the last eagle photo that I’ll share from this season. Here we see a Steller’s Sea Eagle coming in, with those incredible talons out in position to catch his fish (below). As I mentioned last week, these birds will pretty much always fly into the wind when they swoop down like this, and the wind was coming from the land out towards the sea, with the sun across the sea over the Kunashiri Island, so even though I’ve photographed this guy from a different angle than most of the other shots, the light is still coming from behind him, which is a shame, but cannot be helped.

Steller's Sea Eagle Swooping to Catch Fish Talons Forward

Steller’s Sea Eagle Swooping to Catch Fish Talons Forward

To bring back some of the detail I’ve increased the Shadows slider in Lightroom right up to 100, and the Blacks slider up to 60, then bumped the Clarity slider up to 55. Because I was exposing to the right, to get the white on the eagle perfectly exposed, my shadows weren’t totally plugged up, and my ISO being at 400 by this point also helped, so there isn’t a lot of noise that has been introduced by this somewhat extreme processing. My other settings for this were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed, at f/10, with a focal length of 400mm.

After our final eagle shoot, we started the drive around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula, to the town of Utoro on the other side, where we’d spend our final night. On the way, we made our customary stop at a copse of birch trees, where I introduce the group to the wonders of intentional camera movement photography. As the weather was clear by this point, and quite bright, the copse on the side of the road that I usually like to photograph was a little bit too bright, so we walked back a little way, to another batch of trees that had a darker background, as you can see in this photograph (below).

Birch Trees Over Dark Background

Birch Trees Over Dark Background

You know, I never get tired of photographing the wildlife on this trip, but I have to admit, I didn’t really need another white on white birch tree shot, and although I’d been shaking it up a little bit on the first tour for this year, I was really happy to get something really quite different on this second tour. I think the fewer number of birch trees against the black background worked really well here, and although I’m not overly happy with those few patches of blue, I think this complements the other white on white shots quite well.

As usual, my settings for this image were 1/25 of a second, and to get to that shutter speed, I’d selected an aperture of f/13, ISO 100, and I was using my 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens at 61mm. Although it’s usually dark enough to get down to 1/25 of a second with an aperture of f/16 or so, it was so bright on this day, that we had to use an ND8 neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light hitting our sensors, and because not everyone had one, we loaned each other these filters and played with the scene a little longer than usual before heading on for lunch, and then on to Utoro.

Oshinkoshin Falls

Oshinkoshin Falls

As we reached the coast again, it seemed ironic for there to have been sea ice, all the way up to the shore, and stretching out into the Sea of Okhostk, as far as the eye could see. There has been no ice in Rausu for the entire season this year, but by this point, it had made it’s way down to Utoro. It just wasn’t going around the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula and down into the Nemuro Strait, which is of course where we need it, to be able to photograph the sea eagles with the sea ice.

Our first stop in Utoro was to shoot the Oshinkoshin Falls, as you can see in this photo (right). Again, because it was a clear day, it was a bit too bright for photographing waterfalls. They are much better to photograph on overcast days, but we made the most of the situation, as usual.

For this I used an ND8 neutral density filter, to give me a three stop longer exposure, taking my shutter speed to 0.4 seconds at f/16. I generally like to go a little bit longer, up to around 0.8 or one second, but it was too bright for that, and I don’t like to go smaller than an f/16 aperture because that starts to introduce diffraction. My next ND down is an ND1000, which is a bit too dark as well, so I just lived with this exposure.

After photographing the falls, I crossed the road to the fence from which we can look out across the sea, and made this next photo (below).

Some Ice Floes

Some Ice Floes

For this photo I was using the ND1000 which is 10 stops, coupled with a three stop ND8 for a 120 second exposure at f/22. As you can see, the foreground sea ice has hardly moved, but the ice further out to sea has moved during the exposure, so it has blurred, along with the clouds where were moving a bit, although not a great deal.

Now, before you start thinking that I’m being a hypocrite here, as I just said that I don’t like to go below f/16 because of diffraction, I will, if I have a good reason to, but then I’m basically committing to opening the image in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, and using the Digital Lens Optimizer to remove the diffraction, which it is actually very good at. Canon designed the lenses by computer, so they can basically reverse engineer the light as it travels through the lens, and remove the affects of diffraction.

I don’t like to use Digital Photo Professional, because I absolutely hate everything else about the program, but I will use it if absolutely necessary, such as in times like this, when I have to stop down for a really long exposure. Because I have to save the image as a TIFF to get something with the Lens Optimizer corrections, I then just take that TIFF file into Silver Efex Pro to convert to black and white.

After we photographed the Ice Floe and the falls, we drove along to just past the town of Utoro, and went to the mouth of a river there, and I made this photograph (below). I shot this at my sweet-spot aperture of f/14, which is my soft-ceiling for how small I like to go before I even start to think about diffraction.

Utoro Ice Floe from River

Utoro Ice Floe from River

This once again was converted to black and white in Silver Efex Pro. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m trying to convert more of my images to black and white in Lightroom, but I’m just really not getting the look I like for all of my images, so I’m finding it hard to leave Silver Efex behind, and I still have not found another application that works as well, as dated as Silver Efex is now. My shutter speed for this image was 70 second, at ISO 100, 67mm, with my 24-70mm lens.

After this last shoot for the day, we went to our hotel and enjoyed our last dinner together as a group, in the amazing banquet hall and buffet at the hotel that we use here. The next morning we went up into the Shiretoko National Park for our final shoot of the tour, and as usual, we split the group into two, with one group going down into the valley to look for deer, and I remained at the top, hoping to photograph the Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker

After an hour or so of walking around, enjoying the fresh morning air and the snow, we still hadn’t heard a single peck from the woodpeckers, so we went back to the bus, and just as I’d broken down my camera, we saw one flying from tree to tree on the other side of the car park.

I didn’t have time to put an Extender back on, but those among the group that were interested all rushed back off the bus to capture this beautiful little guy, that we can see in this image (right).

I had to crop in quite a bit on this, but still have a 25 megapixel image, so again, more resolution than I would have had using my 7D Mark II, but I have the freedom to crop a little wider as necessary, which I’m enjoying.

I love the catchlight in this woodpeckers eye, and the detail captured overall is astonishing, especially when you consider it was hand-held with the 200-400mm with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged for a 560mm focal length.

I did ensure that I had a good shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second though, to help me keep it steady, and my ISO was set to 400, for what would turn out to be the last photograph of the tour.

After this little bit of excitement to end our morning shoot, we drove towards the Memanbetsu Airport where we’d fly home from, and as usual, I went around the bus with my digital recorder and recorded a message from each of the amazing participants for this tour, so I’d like to play that to you now.

[Listen to the audio using the player at the top of the post to hear what the participants had to say about our tour.]

How great to hear there voice of the group again, now more than a month after we parted company. Thanks so much everyone. It was an absolutely pleasure traveling with you all.

And that concludes our Japan Winter Wonderland travelogues for this year. I hope I haven’t bored you going through each tour in so much detail. I really did have a great time running these tours, and in spite of the weather taking away a number of opportunities, I honestly feel that we were presented with many more amazing opportunities, and this turned out to be the most productive season we’ve had for a while, so I hope you’ve enjoyed looking through my images with me.

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

Subscribe in iTunes for Enhanced Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

Download this Podcast in Enhanced Podcast M4A format. This requires Apple iTunes or Quicktime to view/listen.


Japan Winter Wildlife 2016 Tour 1 Travelogue #4 (Podcast 513)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2016 Tour 1 Travelogue #4 (Podcast 513)

Today I bring you the concluding episode of a four part series to walk through the first of my two Japan winter wildlife tours for 2016, with more sea eagles, some ICM, the Oshinkoshin Falls and a seascape, then a foxy finish.

We pick up the trail this week on day ten of the tour, in the middle of our second session photographing the sea eagles from a boat, just outside the port at the fishing village of Rausu, on the eastern side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, which is the horn shaped stretch of land on the far east side of Hokkaido, Japan.

When I first saw this first photograph that we’re going to look at today, it took me a few moments to figure out what was actually going on. The Steller’s Sea Eagle is the heaviest eagle in the world, though wing span measurements can actually put it just behind a couple of species in terms of standard bird measurements. With their weight though, comes a certain amount of clumsiness. They fly beautifully most of the time, but sometimes they seem to tie themselves in knots, as this one did here (below).

Inside-Out Eagle

Inside-Out Eagle

His lower wing is basically upside-down, so the majority of what we see of his wings is the top side, with his belly pointing up diagonally to the top left corner of the photo, but his head is cranked back around the wrong way, as he tries to look at something below. This all results in him kind of looking as though he’s been turned inside-out, so I thought this was a fun shot.

The settings for this were 1/1000 of a second at f/8, ISO 1000 at 400mm. I cropped this in from the top right to remove a couple of other birds in the bottom left corner, giving me a final image size of 28 megapixels, from my Canon EOS 5Ds R 50 megapixel camera. I was also using my 100-400mm Mark II lens at full stretch for this photograph.

This next image is another favorite from the trip (below). I love it when there is a little bit of snow in the air, as there is in these eagle shots for today, but this one I feel has a really nice extra dimension to the image due to the snow. The pensive look on the face of the Steller’s Sea Eagle, and his outstretched talons, are really cool, as he swoops in to catch that frozen fish that you can see in the bottom right corner.

Steller's Sea Eagle Catching Fish

Steller’s Sea Eagle Catching Fish

This is cropped in a little from the bottom left corner, giving me a 38 megapixel photograph, and to bring out some detail in his underwings, I’ve increased the Shadows slider in Lightroom to +48, and added +14 Clarity, to bring back a little pop that I lose by increasing the Shadows. This was shot at 1/1000 of second at f/8, ISO 1000, with a focal length of 349mm.

This next shot (below) is one of those where the appeal of the contents of the image overrides the fact that I have clipped the top of one of these eagles wings off. Just as this Steller’s Sea Eagle swooped down to catch a fish, a White-Tailed Eagle came in much more quickly and made off with the fish before the Steller’s Sea Eagle’s eyes. You can almost sense the frustration in the Steller as the White-Tailed nonchalantly whisks away its trophy.

Foiled Plan

Foiled Plan

This was a 1/1000 of a second exposure at f/8, ISO 1000, at 300mm. I’ve actually done a little bit more slider juggling with this image than I usually do, because the patch of white on the Steller’s Sea Eagle’s right wing was close to being over exposed, so I’ve decreased the Whites slider to -87, and the Highlights slider to -62, then increased the Shadows slider to +49 and the Blacks slider to +15, then added +36 Clarity to bring back the punch.

This next shot (below) is one of the images that I mentioned last week, where I pretty much nailed the composition in camera, with the eagle almost filling the frame, so it is a totally un-cropped 50 megapixel image, and I can’t wait to get some time to print this. I’m working on a large print order as I prepare this podcast, so I’m looking forward to a bit of personal printing after I get back from Tour #2, which will be around the time that I release this episode.

Steller's Sea Eagle Catching Fish

Steller’s Sea Eagle Catching Fish

This image was shot at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second, ISO 1000 and a focal length of 241mm. This was actually the second of two frames, with the eagles wings down, much closer to the water in the first frame, so this second frame was better as he started to gain some loft.

OK, so just two more eagle shots now, I promise! This is a White-Tailed Eagle snatching his frozen prey from the sea, and in this one, I kind of like how the feathers are splayed out, and almost coming far enough forward to hide the eagle’s face (below).

White-Tailed Eagle Catching Fish

White-Tailed Eagle Catching Fish

I cropped this slightly from the top left corner, giving me a 40 megapixel photo, and the clarity of the bird’s head just blows me away. I was really pleased with how well the 5Ds R’s auto-focus performed pretty much throughout this trip (expect for the problem that I mentioned last week, when all Canon shooters had an issue with the brightly back-lit deer). My settings for this were f/8 for 1/1000 of a second at ISO 640, and a focal length of 286mm.

That was the last photo from our second session with the eagles, and then we spent about 45 minutes photographing around the port, then we went to the local Shinto shrine and the group had a full-blown Shinto blessing. This is an optional activity that we’ve been doing for a few years now, but it’s a really nice cultural event, that the majority of the group usually take part in.

During the afternoon I did a second workshop session, and took the group through Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro, before we enjoyed a little bit of down time to go through some of our hundreds of eagle photos. The following morning, we went back out for our third and final session with the eagles. The light was quite low as we started, so this time, instead of increasing my ISO high enough to freeze the action, for the first 20 minutes or so, I had some fun shooting panning images, like this one (below).

Steller's Sea Eagle Fishing

Steller’s Sea Eagle Fishing

I had my shutter speed down at 1/60 of a second at f/7.1, with ISO 1600 for this shot. As with the swans, the hit ratio for getting the head sharp on a bird traveling at speed with this low a shutter speed is pretty low, but I was really pleased when I chimped and saw this one looking pretty good on the camera’s LCD. This is uncropped too, so I have all that lovely blurriness and a sharp head at 50 megapixels.

After this final session with the eagles, we went back to the hotel for breakfast, then started our drive around to the other side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, to the town of Utoro for one last night. On the way, we stopped for our fun intentional camera movement, or ICM, shoot of the birch trees, as you can see in this photograph (below).

Distant Stand

Distant Stand

This is always a fun shoot, with a line of 15 photographers, including me, at the side of the road, all bowing up and down at the trees, looking like a group of highly appreciative Japanese tourists. To get this look, I generally recommend a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second, which with the light on this day required an aperture of f/18 at ISO 100, and then I like to release the shutter during a downward swoop with the camera, just as I see the bottom of the trees come into the frame.

Slightly different from my shots at this location from previous years, I walked along a little to the end of our stand of birch trees, and included a distant stand of darker trees in the middle of the right side of the frame. I quite like the results, and it does make a difference from my other shots which are although all subtly different, still very much the same. 🙂

After lunch, we called at the Oshinkoshin Falls just outside of Utoro, for some nice silky waterfall shots. These are a large double waterfall, although the left side is generally frozen over at this time of year, and although I always photograph the entire waterfall, I am really not fond of the photos when I do that. To me, these falls are all about the smaller details that we can pick out with a long lens, as I’ve done here (below).

Oshinkoshin Falls

Oshinkoshin Falls

For waterfalls, I like to use a shutter speed of between 0.5 and 1 second, with around 0.6 to 0.8 being about my sweet-spot. For this, I was at 0.6 seconds at f/11, with ISO 100, and a focal length of 148mm. I shot about seven or eight frames as I gradually worked my composition down to this section of the waterfalls. My second favorite end result was a vertical orientation image, which matches the vertical flow of the water, but I prefer this shot, with the vertical flash of rock on he left, and the cascade on the right, almost like two shots in one.

For our last shoot of the day, we made our way down to a spot where a river flows into the Sea of Okhostk, for a few seascapes, and for those that were interested, long exposure shots, like this one (below). I used an ND8 and an ND1000 to block out a total of 13 stops of light, giving me a 2 minutes and 30 second exposure. I love how silky the water goes in really long exposures like this, and of course, you need to go this long to really make the clouds move a long way in this kind of photograph.

Okhostk Seascape

Okhostk Seascape

I’d managed to develop a hole in the rubber base my right Baffin Impact boot, which I was not happy about as I’ve only been using these boots for three seasons. My previous Baffin boots lasted seven seasons, and even then I only changed them because the soles were wearing down too much. I gave my last pair hell, and they just kept going, so when I get a minute, I think an email to the Baffin team is in order. Anyway, because of this, as I shot this, my right boot was gradually filling with icy cold water, which was not an incredibly nice feeling.

This part of the tour always makes a nice change from the fast paced shooting of the first 11 days. After some nice relaxing shoots through the afternoon, we enjoyed our last dinner together in one of the best hotels in Hokkaido, before taking a nice walk in the Shiretoko National Park on our final morning, day twelve. Yukiko, our tour conductor took one participant down into the valley where there are often Ezo deer to photograph, and I lead another group around the top area of the park, looking for some birds to photograph. We saw some pygmy woodpeckers, and a few other species, but they were mostly too far away to shoot, so I didn’t get anything worth sharing.

Just as we thought it was safe to put away our long lenses though, we drove past this northern red fox (below) shortly before lunch time. The group had started to wind down at this point, as we’d already recorded the message that I’ll play you shortly, but we couldn’t resist getting our long glass out one last time for this final wildlife opportunity.

Snowy Faced Northern Red Fox

Snowy Faced Northern Red Fox

This lovely red fox watched us for a while as he walked along, then he turned his back to us and started to walk off into the distance. It looked like he was totally oblivious to our existence, but Dan, who we’ll here from in a moment, showed me his photo of the fox as he walked away, and his ears were pointing straight back towards the bus. He wasn’t going to put a bus load of photographers out of mind quite that easily. I shot this at f/11 for 1/500 of a second, ISO 400 at 560mm.

So, as usual, at the end of the tour, I walked around the bus with a digital recorder and recorded a message from each of the participants, that I’d like to play you now to finish.

[Listen to the audio with the player at the top of the post to hear what each participant said about the tour.]

Although the weather conditions weren’t the best we’ve had by a long shot, I found this tour to be probably one of the most productive so far, hence the necessity to do four episodes to cover all of the photos I wanted to share with you, and I have another 135 images still that I’d love to show you if we were sitting down together with a glass or two of something. Maybe we’ll have to save that though, for a bit of post-dinner lounge time that we might share on a future tour.

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

View all currently available Tours & Workshops: https://mbp.ac/workshops

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

Subscribe in iTunes for Enhanced Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

Download this Podcast in Enhanced Podcast M4A format. This requires Apple iTunes or Quicktime to view/listen.


Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #1 Part 2 (Podcast 460)

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #1 Part 2 (Podcast 460)

This week we complete our two part series to walk through 24 photos from the first of my two Japan Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido winter wonderland wildlife tours for 2015. As you’ll hear today, the weather gave us some unique challenges on this tour, but as usual we handled the situation, had an amazing time, and came away with some beautiful photos.

We finished last week in the middle of day six, when we were back with the Red-Crowned Cranes, as there was falling snow, which always makes the crane shots much more beautiful, and the cranes themselves are generally more excited when it snows, giving rise to spontaneous group dancing, as you can see in this photo (below). It’s often quite difficult to isolate just one or two cranes that dance or call, but when they are almost all dancing in a group like this, it’s hard to resist grabbing a shot or two.

Cranes' Party

Cranes’ Party

Not only does the snow clean up the ground, but having snow in the air really reduces the shot down to much more minimal elements, as it makes the background much cleaner too. I also like how there’s that one crane on the right that is looking distinctly out of sorts, like someone at a party that is a bit afraid to dance with the rest of the group.

In this next photo (below), a flock of Whooper Swans was flying in, or back to the area. I’m not sure which it is, because the swans are often here just hanging out in the safety of the reserve, but because there’s a risk of them carrying avian flu, the wardens sometimes come out on a snow mobile and scare them away. It’s really funny because the cranes know that the wardens only want to scare the swans, so they all just continue to walk around and do their thing as the swans all take flight before they get run over by the snow mobile.

Whooper Swans Fly Over

Whooper Swans Fly Over

Either way, with the snow and trees at the back of the reserve, then the swans in the air, again I couldn’t resist making a few photos. In this shot I particularly like that easter-egg style swan in the top left corner. I always like it when I find a little half-hidden element like that in a photo, so this is a nice touch for me, even though it was probably quite by accident in this case. I also think the cranes sort of scattered around the scene add something to raise this photo up a little.

Looking at the EXIF data, I see that this next photo (below) was shot about 90 minutes later, and once again, the Whooper Swans were in the air. I’d actually caught the aperture dial on my camera, probably as I lifted it off my bag, as I rushed back from lunch to shoot this. So, instead of f/11 as I’d meant to shoot this, I actually shot it at f/7.1, so just over a stop over-exposed.

Sky Full of Swans

Sky Full of Swans

Luckily though, because Lightroom gives us an extra stop of wiggle room, I was happy to see that it didn’t think this was over-exposed, so I reduced the Exposure slider by 0.90 and ended up with this lovely luminescent look in the sky, and the swans just floating up there, so I decided to just roll with it.

Using Multi Function Lock

Still, it’s better to not make the mistake in the first place, so I decided to use Multi Function Lock on all of my Canon cameras from now on, to prevent this from happening again. I often set this up, but rarely actually used the camera’s Lock switch, until now.

All you have to do is go to the “Multi function lock” option in the custom functions menu, and turn on everything that you want to lock with your Lock switch. I have turned this on for the Main Dial and Quick Control Dial, which are the ones that I tend to turn by mistake. Then after I’ve set up my exposure, I just flick the Lock switch on, on the back of my camera, and this now prevents me from accidentally changing my exposure. Turning the Lock off is an extra step to do when you do need to change something, but I’ve caught these dials often enough that I’m OK with this.

During the third day with the cranes, there was a group of Ezo Deer stags that kept coming in and out of the enclosure. I have a number of shots, but probably this next one (below) is my favourite. I disengaged the 1.4X Extender on the 200-400mm lens, and shot this at 400mm, which is the same as 640mm with the 7D Mark II’s crop factor, so this guy was a way out, but I really wanted to include a bit of the environment in this photograph. I love the trees in the background and again, the falling snow adds so much to these photographs. I’m really pleased we were able to go back here on the third day.

Ezo Deer Dignity

Ezo Deer Dignity

Weather Turns for the Worst

Well, as happy as we were that the snow had started to fall on our sixth day of the tour, as we made our way to Kawayu, where we were due to spend the next two days shooting the Whooper Swans at Kussharo Lake, the weather started to really close in on us. We walk a fine line on these Hokkaido Tours, and after eight years of running these tours, we were finally locked down in our hotel this time.

When we woke up on the seventh day, all of the roads in and out of Kawayu had been closed due to the heavy snow, but that was just the start. Roads all over eastern Hokkaido were closed over the morning, and Rausu, the fishing village that we were due to photograph the sea eagles in had 180cm of snow over the following day or so, totally isolating them, and blocking the roads for four full days.

On the first day of the road blocks, we spent the day in a room with my projector, and did a whole day of workshops. The group was ready for a bit of a break by this point, and my presentations went down well, keeping the group productive, but rested. In fact, we plan to do a half day workshop at this point, so we only really added a half a day to this initially.

The following day, day eight of the tour, we were scheduled to drive to Rausu, but we still couldn’t leave the hotel. Needless to say, we weren’t even able to go to the Whooper Swans just 15 minutes down the road, which was frustrating, but two years ago, when snow like this fell in Hokkaido, the day that our group left actually, a number of people died, some just a few paces from their houses, because they literally could not find their way back home, which is heartbreaking, so these safety measures are necessary unfortunately.

Our Driver Saves the Day!

We spent most of the day in the hotel, in the dining area, going through our images, doing little impromptu show-and-tells here and there, and helping each other with post-processing etc. Then, shortly before 3pm, our driver came to tell us that we could probably get down the road to Iouzan, or Sulphur Mountain, as the roads that far had been cleared. Needless to say we were all in our warm clothes and on the bus ready to go in lightening speed.

We can only spend about 45 minutes near to the fumaroles anyway, as the sulphur in the air starts to make your tongue go all tingly if you spend too long there, but it felt so good to get out in the cold, even though the trudge up to the fumaroles was pretty heavy going in the deep snow.

Here is one of my shots from this brief afternoon respite (below). I used my new 100-400mm lens here to get in really close on one of the yellow steam-bellowing fumaroles, then I took this into Nik’s Color Efex Pro to bring out some of the detail and texture.

Fumaroles

Fumaroles

As much as we’d hoped the roads to clear by the end of day eight, when we should have been in Rausu, the roads didn’t open. In fact, by this time, the military had been called in and were digging the town out, as nothing had gotten in or out of the town for almost three days by this point, so we ended up staying a third night at Kawayu. The hotels are usually very full at this time of year, but of course, just as we couldn’t leave, the next groups couldn’t get in, so we were fine to stay an extra night.

After a lot of consideration between me and the company who I entrust with the logistics of my Japan tour, we decided to check the group out of our Kawayu hotel on the ninth morning of the tour. We were going to take our chances that the roads into Rausu would open by the end of the day, but we also booked tentatively in hotels in a town at the closest point to Rausu that we could get if the roads did not open.

As a bonus for the group, I talked a friend of mine, a local guide, into letting me take our group to two owls nests that we can’t usually visit with such a big group. He knows me well, and knows that my groups are always very well behaved, so he cut us some slack. The result is the following two photographs. We visited two Ural Owl nests, both of which had not one, but a pair of Ural Owls. This first photograph (below) shows the first pair, with their eyes half open as they keep their eye on the group but get some rest at the same time.

Ural Owl Pair

Ural Owl Pair

In another location, there was a younger, smaller owl with full grown adult, in this incredibly cute pose (below). I was using my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged on the 7D Mark II so these were shot at a hair under 900mm, so you can tell how far away this second pair was, but still, I love seeing these guys in their environment like this.

Ural Owls in Tree

Ural Owls in Tree

After these two Ural Owl shoots, we went for lunch at a nearby hotel, and then started to drive over towards Rausu. There was an almost electric buzz on the bus from the excitement of shooting the owls, and for a while we almost forgot that we were still in the midst of a bit of a crisis getting to our next location. Well, the group were happy and able to forget to a degree, but me and Yukiko our tour conductor, and the back-office team on the other end of the phone were frantically trying to decide whether or not we should actually lock in on our tentative mid-way bookings, or continue to bank on the roads to Rausu opening.

Then, we got word that the roads between where we had our tentative hotel bookings and Rausu had just be closed and would not open again that day. By the time we called our hotels, we’d lost a few rooms, but were able to find another, and the group ended up in three different hotels in a town just outside the road blocks. We all had dinner together, and Yukiko and I split into two groups so that we were with the bulk of the participants.

Game On!

Bright and early the next morning, we called and found that the roads from where we were staying to Rausu would open at 7:30am, and the roads into Rausu would open at 7am, so we wrangled the team together, and after breakfast started to make a beeline for our special little fishing village on the Shiretoko Peninsula. Usually in Rausu, weather permitting, we go out for a dawn shoot each day for three days, and spend two hours photographing the incredible Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles.

Unfortunately the high winds had kept the seas high, and broken up the sea-ice that had been in the channel between Rausu and Kunashiri Island, so a dawn shoot would have been called off anyway. But, with two shoots abanded, we arranged with the skipper of our boat to go out from 10am, as soon as we arrived in Rausu. There was some ice trapped in the harbour still, which made for some great photographs, but the highlight for me was after I persuaded the skipper to take us outside the harbour walls, and throw some fish into the sea, one-by-one of course, and give us a chance to shoot the sea eagles as they swoop down to catch the fish, as we see in this photo (below).

You know, as much as I love it when we have great sea ice, I really love it when we can do this, as it looks much more natural to actually capture the eagles taking fish from the water, instead of from the top of a block of ice. Here I captured a Steller’s Sea Eagle throwing up a truck load of water as he snatched his fish from the sea. There was still a lot of swell, so our boat was rocking all over the place, and the eagles also had their jobs cut out grabbing the fish, but it did make for some beautifully dramatic splashes.

Steller's Sea Eagle at Work

Steller’s Sea Eagle at Work

Finally in Rausu, we made the most of our time, and arranged for two more two hour sessions the following day, so we actually ended up going out three times, as we’d always planned. I know that this might sound a little conceited, but one of the benefits of traveling with me in Japan is that I know the language and have a great relationship with all the people that we work with, and this not only makes for tours that run like clockwork when things are going well, but it really helps us to swing things around when circumstances out of our control threaten to put the mockers on our experience. We refuse to give in, and will turn any situation around for our group. It’s just what we do!

Here’s a shot of a White-Tailed Eagle (below), gliding close to the surface of the water as he hones in on his fish. I love the action shots, with all the spray, but this image really appeals to me too. The light from the sky and distant mountains was really beautiful reflected on the water here, making these shots quite special in my opinion.

Surveying the Waves

Surveying the Waves

Here’s one final shot of a White-Tailed Eagle, once again kicking up some water as he takes his fish from the sea. It’s great when you actually get a good view of the fish, and this almost frontal view of the action really brings this shot to life. Note that although last year I hand-held the 200-400mm lens on the 1D X for our three eagles shoots on each tour, this year, the 100-400mm on the 7D Mark II was the obvious choice.

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

The focus issues that I’ve found with the Snow Monkeys running directly towards me don’t occur in these eagle shots, and although the success rate is still slightly lower than the 1D X, for a quarter of the price, the 7D Mark II really is turning out to be a great little camera, and the 100-400mm is astonishingly quick to focus and sharp as tacks. I’m not sure that I will, but I am seriously considering selling my 1D X at this point. I will keep the 200-400mm, because having that 1.4X Extender built right in, and being able to shoot at almost 900mm with the 7D Mark II is too good to pass up, but the 1D X’s days might literally be numbered.

With just one night in Rausu, although we still got our three eagle shoots in, we had to hit the road after lunch, and start to head around to the other side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, to the town of Utoro, for the last night of our tour. As you probably recall from previous years, one of the things I love to do during this drive, is stop at a grove of birch trees to do a little bit of Intentional Camera Movement, as you can see in this photograph (below).

Winter Birches

Winter Birches

For this kind of image, I like to set my shutter speed at around 1/20 of a second, and with the light towards the end of the day here, this required an aperture of f/14 at ISO 100 to get a nice exposure, with white-whites, and nothing over-exposed. There are lots of ways to do this sort of shot, but I like to swipe the camera downwards, and release the shutter just as I expect the bottom of the trees to enter the frame.

With practice you can do this quite consistently, but of course the speed at which you move the camera, and the slightly different path that your vertical panning action moves the camera, makes each frame subtly different. It’s lots of fun though, and because we were doing this later in the day than we usually do, we have some beautiful late afternoon light hitting the sides of the birch trees, giving us a lovely warm highlight along the right side of many of the trees.

We spend our last night in Hokkaido in a wonderful hotel in Utoro with what is probably the best buffet in the whole of Japan, and although we have great food throughout these tours, the last night is always a great special treat to finish with. I made a bit of a speech, and thanked the group for their cooperation and understanding about the challenging weather situation. The participants really were amazing on this tour, and although I know that they appreciated the work we put in to keep us as close to our original plan as possible, with a less understanding group, the situation could have been made a lot worse, so I want to thank you all again here too, as I know some of you will be listening.

On the final morning, we went down and spend some time doing seascapes. The sea-ice on the Utoro side of the peninsula was packed in right up to the shore and out as far as the eye could see, so we did some nice minimalist seascapes, before moving on to the Oshinkoshin Falls, for what would be our last shoot of the tour.

The falls were beautiful and although the left falls were totally iced over, the trees around the top of the falls were all frozen over, as you can see here (below), so once again I used the 100-400mm lens to get in close and single out just the top of the falls. I used an ND8 neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed down to a quarter of a second at f/16, ISO 100, and this is just about enough to make the water go all silky, emphasising the movement.

White Oshinkoshin Falls

White Oshinkoshin Falls

After an hour shooting the falls, it was time to head towards the airport and get one last lunch in together before heading back to Tokyo. As usual, I recorded a message from each participant as we headed down the coast of the peninsula, so I’ll play that for you now.

[Listen to the audio to find out what our participants had to say about the tour.]

And that brings us to the end of our travelogue of the 2015 Winter Wonderland Tour #1. As I release this, I’ll literally be heading out of the door to go and meet the Tour #2 group, and do it all again. Well, hopefully this time without the disruptions that we had on Tour #1, but I’m really looking forward to getting started again, and will be back in two weeks time with another update and some new photographs to share with you. Note too that I’m also probably going to be doing some Google Hangouts to share some of the participants photos with you too in the coming months, which should be a lot of fun and help you to see the tour from a different perspective to my own.

2016 Japan Winter Wonderland Tours

Note that we are already taking bookings for the 2016 tours. Actually, they are now almost full, so if you are thinking of joining us, check out the details on the Tours & Workshops page, and sign up sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.

 


Show Notes

See Details of 2016 Tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2016

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

Subscribe in iTunes for Enhanced Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

Download this Podcast in Enhanced Podcast M4A format. This requires Apple iTunes or Quicktime to view/listen.