Today we continue our travelogue to walk you through our adventure on the second of my Japan Winter Wildlife Photography tours for 2018, as we visit the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo.
We pick up the trail on day six, the middle day of our twelve-day tour. After spending the morning driving over from the area in which we’d photographed the Red-Crowned Cranes, and a brief touristy stop at Lake Mashuu to take in the scenery, we spent some time before lunch at Kotan, a small corner of Lake Kussharo, where there’s a pool of unfrozen water thanks to the hot springs that flow into the lake there. This gives the swans somewhere to gather as they winter here from Siberia.
This is often one of the most relaxing shoots on the trip, and this day was no different. I love just sitting out in the snow, often in the sun, and just waiting for the swans to do something, like this one, as he reared up and flapped his wings a number of times, basically just having a stretch (below). I struggled to decide which of my three favorite frames to share with you, as they all show very different wing positions, but I think this frame shows the most detail in this magnificent animal.
The swan is almost backlit, so relatively dark against the bright snow, but this is what’s helped in some ways to give me the detail that I captured in this image. Swans wings are something that I can look at for hours, so I am always happy to find so much detail to pore over. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1250 of a second at ISO 400, and I was using my 100-400mm lens at 400mm.
I also enjoyed watching a swan upon the snow beside me as it dosed, then occasionally just slowly opened this eye to look around and check that we weren’t getting too close for comfort (below). Again this is very much about the detail. When I zoom right in on the eyelids the amount of detail recorded is unbelievable and I love the warm colors in this image.
These images were all shot hand-held, although if I recall for this one I probably was resting my elbow on my knee as I knelt in the snow, pretty much like my company logo, that I drew some twelve years ago based on a shooting style that I use a lot when shooting hand-held. My settings for this were a 1/800 of a second exposure at f/11, with ISO 400, and again a focal length of 400mm.
At the end of the afternoon, we did our usual panning session, photographing the Whooper Swans from our geothermally heated beach at Sunayu, as they flew along the strip of thawed lake while Miles Davis played out of the speakers from the nearby restaurant. The shots are relatively easy, although getting a completely sharp head is a little more difficult. We get enough shots to pick and choose a little though. This is my pick from this first session (below).
I like the warm light that was hitting the water again in this shot. We’d waited for the sun to go behind the mountain, but the sky was warming up nicely as sunset approached, and that was reflecting in the water. My settings were a 1/30 of a second at f/16, ISO 500 at 100mm. I was still using my 100-400mm lens but zoomed right out as I was kneeling in the sand just a few meters from the edge of the lake.
The following morning we went back to the lake after an early breakfast in the hopes of capturing some good fly-ins with the mountains in the background. It was nice to get a little bit of mist over the frozen lake, to begin with, although it cleared up relatively quickly. The great thing about photographing Whooper Swans is that they announce their arrival with that big whoop of theirs, so it’s easy to notice them coming, and here I caught one of them whooping in flight (below).
I’m not doing a lot to most of these images in post. Generally, I add a little bit of Clarity and pull the White Point in on the Levels slider in Capture One Pro, just to ensure that my whites are white. I, of course, am still using the technique known as ETTR or Expose To The Right, to get the brightest and highest quality image possible, but the raw processing engines that we use these days generally give you around two-thirds to a full stop of exposure back, so I like to use that additional dynamic range in situations like this.
Also for this image, I ran a graduated adjustment filter along the froze lake, and just brightened it up very slightly, as it looked a little grey compared to the brightly lit swans. That’s about it though, and these things are really just adding a tiny bit of polish, not critical changes. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, and a focal length of 300mm.
We enjoyed a number of fly-ins, with some nice shots, but one of my favorite close-up images came thirty minutes later, as a group of swans came into land, and one literally floated past me, enabling me to get in this close at 135mm (below).
I also like how there is a second swan in the distance, as this almost feels like a busy airport with a second plane queued up waiting to land after this first one. Of course, that second swan coming into the frame was pure luck, although I was consciously pulling back enough to include part of the mountains, to put this swan in his environment. I love photographing the swans in the mist with hardly any difference between the white of the swans and their surroundings, but when it’s clear like this, I like to try to add a little more of the surroundings for context. My settings were f/14 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure at ISO 640, at 135mm.
At 9:30, we moved from Sunayu to Kotan, and I shot a number of images of the swans in the mist like we see in this image (below). To maintain the dreamy feel of the mist, I didn’t add much clarity to the entire image here, rather using an Adjustment layer and just brushed in some Clarity over the head and neck of the swan.
Also, the stones in the foreground were a little too prominent, so I cloned out a few, and then actually brushed in and layered a few more Adjustment layers across the bottom of the frame to reduce the clarity of the rocks, making the mist or steam around the base of the swan a little bit stronger. My settings for this were f/14 for a 1/800 of a second at ISO 500, and a focal length of 312mm.
About fifteen minutes later, as I was still waiting for something to happen in the mist, I heard the Whooper Swans announcing their arrival again, and turned to see a nice big group flying in over the frozen lake. The mountains in the background at Kussharo Lake make it, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful spots on the planet to photograph Whooper Swans.
Conscious of the beauty of the mountains, I stopped my aperture down to f/14 to get the background a little sharper than it would be at f/11 or so. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s visible and a welcome bit of depth of field in this situation. The swans on the left of the frame are a bit too bunched up for my liking, but the mountains here kind of make it a keeper. My other settings were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at ISO 500 and a 100 mm focal length.
This next shot fifteen minutes later again, at the same location, was a bit of a sight to see. There were three Whooper Swans flying in, in the foreground, and another twelve of them forming a beautiful evenly distributed line in the background (below).
I’ve cropped this down to a 16:9 aspect ratio, to enable the viewer to focus more on the lines of swans, and because I had to zoom into 400mm for this shot, the depth of field got much shallower, even at f/14. Because I’d zoomed in the top of the mountains wasn’t visible either, so it wasn’t so important to keep them in the frame. My shutter speed was still 1/1000 of a second at ISO 640 now.
Seventeen seconds later, the swans forming the distant rank in the previous image were over the mountains filling my frame at 100 mm, so once again the f/14 aperture worked well to give me lots of depth of field for a wider shot, as we can see here (below).
I kind of like this shot, although I’m not a huge fan of the dirty bellies on these swans. They sometimes get dirty like that because the water is very shallow in the thawed pools that they roost in, so the dirt and algae that form on the rocks on the lake bed rubs against them as they sleep. In the past, I’ve seen the swans fly in with small black balls of grit stuck to their undersides, and seeing that in my photos caused quite a strong negative reaction in me. I can just about live with this dirtiness, but I couldn’t even look at the grit shots for some reason.
Later this day, we went back to Sunayu and did another panning session. I’ve shared enough panned swan shots for this season though, so I won’t bore you with another today. The following morning we went back to Sunaya for one last dawn fly-in shoot before we’d start the next leg of our journey. This next image (below) is one of my favorite shots from this morning, as eleven swans approached the beach relatively nicely spread out, and with the trees in the background.
The piled up snow on the right is a bit of an eyesore, but I still kind of like this, probably because of the contrast between the birds and the trees, and I also like how there is some steam coming up from the band of thawed water along the edge of the lake leading through the frame. My settings for this were f/14 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and a focal length of 176mm.
A member of my group asked me about this, so I’d like to add that I am actually zooming out as I shoot this kind of image, to keep the swans framed nicely as they get closer. If I check my EXIF data on this kind of series of images, I see that I’m gradually zooming out making the focal length wider and wider as the birds approach.
OK, so let’s wrap it up there for this week. Next week we’ll continue our journey as we head over to Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula, where we’ll photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles, and visit the Notsuke Peninsula to photography the Ezo Deer and Northern Red Fox.
2020 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshops
Note that although our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, 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.
Today we embark on the second of my 2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography tours, which is basically a repeat of the first tour, although no two tours are ever identical.
With the speed at which I can now work through my images in Capture One Pro, I have been able to complete all three of my Japan winter tours this year having gone through and made my initial selection of images, and having done most of the processing necessary on my selected images, by the time I finished each tour.
This is quite liberating, especially for my wildlife tours, as we generally shoot more on a wildlife trip, with my final count for images that I didn’t delete at 7,515. I generally only delete images that are technically a mess, like when the camera went off in my hand etc. so this is pretty much my final count for the trip.
Of these, I had around 680 images in my final selection when I got home. This represents images that I had selected, and done a little bit of culling, removing some each day, leaving images that I knew I wanted to look at again when I got home. My initial rating to look at something again is three stars, and I already started tagging the better of these with four stars, of which I had around 70 images. I really do enjoy being able to get to this point by the end of the trip, because it makes my work much easier after getting home, as I try to catch up on business.
I actually lost a chunk of time troubleshooting an email issue earlier this week too, and that, along with visiting the Canon headquarters yesterday to talk about an exciting project that I hope to be able to share with you soon, I’m now sitting down to prepare this week’s episode two days late, so let’s get into it.
As usual, we started our tour with a drive over to Nagano, south-west of Tokyo, where we’d spend the first three days photographing the snow monkeys. Snow-wise this has turned out to be another relatively light year, with patches of rock and earth showing through in many areas.
I guess I’ve probably been spoiled by the times that the snow completely covered the valley, but with a little care, it’s still possible to get great shots, even when there isn’t full snow coverage.
This first image for today is from the first day, when I noticed this male monkey, possibly the current alpha male, standing on the outside of the hot-spring bath, leaning on its wall, while an elderly female groomed him (right).
Although you’ll see some grey patches in the snow, I was conscious to align the background in such a way that the large patches of black rock showing through didn’t completely wreck my background.
I do like to just study the snow monkeys, and try to capture these moments when they are just doing something a little interesting. I shot a whole series of these two together, but like this one the most, as the male monkey gets the skin on his cheek stretched out in order for the older monkey to nip away a flea or whatever she’s found. My settings for this shot were a 1/320 of a second exposure at f/13, ISO 1600 at a focal length of 371 mm. I shoot the snow monkeys pretty much exclusively with my 100-400mm lens, as that’s all I take into the monkey park with me these days.
I had stopped the aperture down to f/13 because for most of the time the female monkey was a little bit further back, so I needed a deeper depth of field to get both faces sharp, but of course that wasn’t necessary for this shot, as both faces are pretty much the same distance from the camera.
The middle full day at the snow monkeys was a little bit uneventful for me on this tour, then on the third morning, in the couple of hours we have in the park before heading back to Tokyo, there was another flurry of action, one resulting in this photograph (below).
This again was a shot where getting full snow coverage was difficult, and in fact, there were a couple of patches of rock showing through on the right corners but I cloned them out. I literally waited though, hoping that this mother with her baby clinging to her neck would walk down through this relatively clean patch of snow, and, of course, they were cooperative.
My settings for this were a 1/800 of a second exposure to freeze the movement, and an aperture of f/9, ISO 800, at a focal length of 263 mm. A fast shutter speed of around 1/800 of a second or higher is generally necessary to get moving animals like this sharp. For birds in flight, I like to get between 1/000 up to 1/200o of a second when possible. For more information on techniques for getting sharp shots with telephoto lenses see episode 584.
Also on the final morning, there was a young monkey, maybe two and a half years old, sitting on the post of the steps down to the side of the hot spring pool. He stayed there for a minute or so, while a few of us shot portraits of him, like the one you can see here (right).
As you can see, for this image, there isn’t any snow in the background, but here I was doing the reverse of what I did in the first shot. There was actually a number of patches of snow on the cliff-side behind the monkey, so I aligned my camera so that I did not include them. Patches of white on a darker background can be just as, if not more distracting, than having dark patches in the white snow.
I know that it can be difficult to keep the background in mind when trying to capture something that might only be possible to shoot for a few seconds, but I really feel that this is one of the things that we can train ourselves to do to take our photography to the next level.
My settings for this image were 1/400 of a second exposure at f/8, ISO 1600, and a focal length of 278 mm. By the way, that isn’t a runny nose that you can see on this monkey’s top lip. I can see from some of the other photos that it’s a scar or a scab that’s almost healed.
Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes
After a nice ride back to Tokyo on the third day of the tour, we headed up to Hokkaido bright and early on day four, and kicked off our two days photographing the beautiful Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes. I personally think these are possibly the most graceful and beautiful birds on the planet, and I always feel privileged to be able to stand close enough to them to get such intimate photographs as this image from our first day with them on Tour #2 for this year (below).
I actually have another shot of this bird still scratching its head, but I feel this frame gives a better view of the detail of the foot and head of this magnificent bird. That foot looks almost prehistoric to me, giving us a clear indication of bird’s relationship to their dinosaur predecessors. For this image, I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged and zoomed in to the maximum focal length of 560 mm. My shutter speed was set to 1/1600 of a second at f/11 with ISO 1000.
I tried to resist including this next image to keep the number of photos and potentially the number of travelogue episodes to a minimum, but I lost my personal battle with this one. Again, I just love the detail in this shot and the fact that there is a beautiful little catch-light in the crane’s eye. Also, it’s interesting, to me at least, to be able to see the crane’s pointy little tongue in its open beak (below).
I cropped this down to a square and also cropped down from the top edge for about 5% of the image, but it’s still plenty big enough for a large print should I ever need one. My settings were f/11 for a 1/1600 of a second at ISO 1000, and a focal length, once again, of 560 mm.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it often seems as though when we lose one opportunity, we gain something else. For a number of years there have been so many crane’s at the Akan Crane Center, that when some of them take off, there are often so many other cranes along the bottom of the frame that it was getting really difficult to make photos like this next image I want to look at (below).
Of course, the crane’s increasing in number is a great thing, but that’s only happening in Japan, due to the conservation efforts of people in Hokkaido. There is only thought to be just over 3,000 of these birds in existence, with the Hokkaido population now estimated to be around 2,000, and growing, while the Korea and China populations shrink due to degradation of their natural habitat.
The reason that there were fewer birds at the crane center this year is because of the lack of snow, as this leaves surrounding farmland bare, so the cranes can forage in a wider area, removing the need for them to come to the crane center for food. Not having much snow isn’t good for our photography, as the ground can look very messy, but having fewer cranes does make it easier to single them out and get photos of them doing their thing without having too many other cranes in the way.
At the end of the first day in Hokkaido, I took the group to a Ural Owl’s nest where we quickly photographed the owl, as you can see in this shot (below). I usually like to shoot this owl in the morning, because there is often light on the bird, but it was overcast, so there would be no harsh shadows, and going at the end of the first day gave us more time on the second day to go back to the cranes quickly after breakfast.
I shot this with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged and a 2X Extender fitted, for a focal length of 1,120mm. It is very slightly soft, but just about works, and with the distance that we have to shoot from, it’s a viable option. My other settings were a 1/125 of a second, on a tripod of course, with the aperture set to f/11 and the ISO at 2500. f/11 is, of course, the widest aperture I can select with both extenders fitted, and I have to focus manually at f/11 too, so it’s a somewhat challenging shot.
The following morning we went to the bridge hoping to photograph the crane’s in the mist with some hoarfrost on the trees, but it didn’t quite happen. It was slightly too warm, but we did get some nice pink light on the river at some points, as you can see in this image (below).
I did wait until one of the cranes was dancing to release the shutter for this shot, but it’s not my best crane’s in the river shot. Nothing is guaranteed in nature though, so this scene just wasn’t to be for this tour, as the following morning had completely black trees.
After breakfast, we were treated with a flurry of snow at the crane center, and at one point a pair of crane’s that did not have leg bands on sang for me in a clearing, apart from a third distant crane making a cameo appearance, as you can see here (below). The snow really transforms an image but unfortunately, it didn’t fall for long, so I’m pleased to have got something while it lasted.
I also cropped this down a little as the birds were quite far away, and that helped me to remove a second crane on the left side of the frame too. I also had to clone out hundreds of yellow corn kernels that had been thrown out for the crane’s to eat. At least we had a good covering of snow now though, and with it being overcast the texture of the snow isn’t too obtrusive, so in general, there was a lot working in our favor at this point. My settings for this image were f/11 for a 1/1250 of a second at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 560 mm.
I tend to do a lot of what I call crane “studies” when there is a crane close to where we stand at the crane center, and when there isn’t much else happening, but quite often these become some of my favorite images from the trip.
This next image (right) is one of these, probably because it takes a little bit of time to understand what you’re looking at. My wife cannot understand this shot, no matter how hard she looks at it.
The crane is, of course, twisting its neck around and looping it back to preen its feathers while raising the right wing slightly. I really like it when I can get shots like this with very little difference between the subject and the background.
I’m also really happy that again there is a bit of light falling on the eye here, to separate it from the dark feathers in front of the eye. Without that bit of detail, I think this would be lost. And of course, the detail in the ruffled feathers on the bird’s neck and wing, as well as the detail in the body, really adds to the appeal of this image for me.
I shot this at f/11 for a 1/1000 of a second at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 560 mm. Even at f/11 the base of the crane’s neck is getting slightly soft, but that helps to separate it from the head, so this aperture worked well.
OK, so we’re at 10 images, but I’m going to talk about two more quickly, as that takes us to the end of the cranes allowing us to move on to the Whooper Swans next week.
This next image is going to look very contradictory after I talked about the lower numbers of cranes at the Akan Crane Center earlier. Basically, almost all of the cranes at the center for some reason walked to the corner of the enclosure and watched something. We believe a fox had killed and was eating something down there, but it was really strange to watch all of the birds walk calmly over to the corner of the field and just watch!
I’ve called this image “Cranescape” kind of paying homage to one of the participants on this trip, Joe Fuhrman, who is a well-known and accomplished photographer, concentrating mostly on birds and other wildlife. Joe’s list of publications that have used his images is as long as your arm. As we photographed this I could hear Joe behind me saying “birdscape, birdscape”. Having coined the phrase flowerscape, this stuck with me, and I heard Joe use this term a few times during our trip, so I’m going to use it occasionally too from now on.
It is, of course, an amazing success story for the people of Hokkaido that have brought this population of cranes back from near extinction, although incredibly sad to think that the hundred or so crane’s in this photo represent 3% of their entire global population.
At this end of our second day with the cranes, we visited a location where I like to do panning shots as the cranes fly to the river for the night. It was almost dark by the time the crane’s left, but I was able to get this shot at ISO 5000 of the very last group that luckily flew across this beautiful dark background (below).
You won’t be able to see it so much in this smaller web version, but there is actually quite a lot of grain in this image, because it was almost completely dark, and even at the high ISO I had to push it a bit to get the detail back out. But, I like it so the grain isn’t going to ruin that for me. I was panning, of course, using a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second at f/11, and a focal length of 280 mm.
2020 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshops
OK, so let’s wrap it up there for this week. Note that although our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, 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.
Today we start a travelogue series to walk you through the first of my two Japan Winter Wildlife photography tours, during which we visit the snow monkeys in Nagano for three days before traveling up to Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan for a further nine days of majestic winter wildlife.
This tour seems to become more and more productive, despite me trying to gradually up my game, selecting my images with higher standards each year. As I prepared for this podcast I went through my current selects, which total 458 images, and on my first pass, I had a massive 147 images that I felt were good enough to talk about. I’ve ended up starting this first episode still not knowing how many images we have to talk about.
I guess we’ll just jump in at the start of the tour, as we got into photographing the snow monkeys. There wasn’t a lot of snow in the valley where the monkeys bathe in their hot spring bath, so the background was going to be a bit messy, but as is often the case, when weather conditions take one thing away, they generally give us something back.
The temperature was a little colder than usual, causing a lot of steam to rise from the hot water, as you can see in the first image for today (below), so with patience and a bit of luck, it was possible to capture some beautiful images of the snow monkeys at just the right time as the mist cleared around them, but stayed in the background enough to clean it up nicely.
The expressions on the faces of the snow monkeys as they bathe never cease to amaze me, in how human-like they are, and I felt very fortunate that the mist cleared just long enough for me to capture this moment. You might not think it from looking at this, but it really is split-second timing, so getting a nice expression at the same time as getting a window through the mist takes a fair amount of patience.
I generally only take my 100-400mm lens into the Snow Monkey park these days, as that’s all I need. My settings for this shot were an aperture of f/8 for 1/250 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 400mm.
The next image is from our second day with the snow monkeys, and there was less mist over the hot spring pool, but again, a great expression in this snow monkey as it relaxes in the bath (below). This time the monkey looks a little like an old curmudgeon with the way its lips are being pushed out by the side of the pool.
Because it had been snowing, there are lots of droplets of water in the monkey’s hair, which has become a bit frizzy from the moisture too, adding an almost comical element. I cropped this down just a tad around the top and side edges, for a closer look, but I was zoomed to the full extent of my lens at 400mm for this shot. My ISO was set to 1000 for a 1/320 of a second exposure at f/8.
Capturing the expressions on the monkeys’ faces or their human-like mannerisms has become a bit of an obsession for me over the years, so I was happy to capture this next image too, of a young monkey riding its mother’s back with his finger in his mouth (below).
The mother here is foraging for grain that is thrown out for them by the park wardens, and this was one of the few areas where there was a good full snow covering, so that worked well. It’s great that these monkeys have snow on their backs too, as that helps to show how harsh their environment can be. My settings were ISO 400 for a 1/500 of a second at f/8, and I was relatively wide with a focal length of 170 mm for this.
The last image (right) that I want to share from the snow monkeys is from later in the day, down the valley a little, where we often find monkeys huddling together to keep warm.
These can be difficult shots to compose, as the background was just brown rock, with some patches of bright snow, so I went in as close as I could to crop all of that out.
It felt natural to go to the vertical portrait orientation, as that helped me to get the three adult monkeys’ faces in while including the baby’s face and his mother’s hands.
I was aware that I was cropping away the two smaller monkeys hands and cutting the mother’s ear in half, but I felt this was necessary to really show the expressions on the monkeys’ faces while keeping the background to a minimum.
I’m very happy with the results though. I get so much from the expressions on these faces, especially the middle monkey with its eyes closed. We can read many different feelings or emotions into that expression.
My settings were ISO 1250 for a 1/400 of a second at f/11, and a focal length of 321 mm.
The third morning with the snow monkeys was somewhat uneventful, with most of the monkeys staying up in the sunlight on the mountains rather than coming down to the pool or the valley, so I didn’t really get anything to share from our final few hours in the park for tour #1.
After returning to Tokyo and spending a night in the hotel near the airport, we flew to Hokkaido bright and early the following morning and went straight to the Akan Crane Center. Apparently, there has been so little snow in Eastern Hokkaido this year that the grass was still showing until two days before we arrived. Luckily, there had been some snow, but as you can see in this first photo (below) it had been well trodden by the cranes and swans, and the harsh sunlight didn’t make it look as good as we’d hoped.
Still, it was nice to catch these two cranes singing in an open area, and I love how the wings and tail of the crane to the right are splayed open so that we can see all the beautiful detail inside. That and the fact that we can actually see their thin tongues makes up for the fact that the birds would otherwise simply be looking in the wrong direction. My settings were ISO 400 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/11, and I was using my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged, for a focal length of 560 mm.
In this next image (below) we see two red-crowned cranes crossing as they sang together, and once again, apart from a swans head in the bottom right of the frame, which I cloned out, they were in a clear enough area that I was able to capture them with some nice space around them. I do wish the snow was less textured, but there wasn’t a lot we could do about that. I was more just happy to have any snow at all at this point.
It’s also a pity that these cranes were so far to the right of the field that the sun wasn’t catching their eyes, giving them a catch-light, but had I been further to the right myself, I would obviously not have gotten this angle and the cross-over, so there is always an element of luck, whether it works for us or against us. I’m still happy with the photo mind. My settings were ISO 400 for a 1/1250 of a second at f/10, again at 560 mm.
At the end of our first day in Hokkaido, we moved to a place where I like to do some panning shots as the light drops. The wind direction caused most of the cranes to fly away from where we are able to photograph them from, but I still got a few shots that I quite like, such as this one (below).
Although I like to get the heads of birds sharp in my panning shots, the reality is that at 1/40 of a second you really will only get just a few images where that happens, and sometimes, as with this image, the aesthetic nature of other parts of the image win over the technical desire to get a sharp head. Here I simply love the shape of the feathers, especially those on the right wing of the right of the two cranes. You can almost feel the air rushing between those flight features causing them to ripple as they have here.
My settings were ISO 100 for a 1/40 of a second, at f/14, at 533 mm. I find that around 1/40 of a second is a nice sweet-spot for panning images with large birds like these. I try to work between a 1/25 and a 1/50 with a 1/25 giving much more blur, but also getting much more difficult to get anything sharp enough to act as a visual anchor for the image.
We went to the Otowa Bridge at dawn on our second morning in Hokkaido, but unfortunately, it clouded over as we waited for the sun to rise, so hoarfrost did not form on the trees either side of the river. I got a few nice shots of some of the crane’s flying towards us as they left the river, but the dark background really doesn’t work very well, so I’ll keep them to myself.
Last year we had so little success finding a Ural owl on the nests that I know that we usually visit later in the tour, that I decided to take the group to a nest that is close to where we photograph the cranes. The local photographers have done a good job of putting ropes in place at a point where you can’t get so close that you might disturb the owl too much, and more importantly, this stops people throwing things at the tree to wake the owl up, or make him fly.
And yes, you’d be amazed, but there are people from certain neighboring countries that have been seen doing this. This is also why so many of the owls have moved deeper into the woods, so now there are fewer photo opportunities for all of us, thanks to irresponsible actions of a selfish few.
Because of the new distance, I had to put a 2X Extender on to my 200-400mm lens, and with the internal 1.4X Extender engaged, I had to manually focus for this shot at 1,120 mm. The image is very slightly soft too, because of using two Extenders, but it’s sharp enough. I love the smiling eyes on this owl, probably because he no longer has to worry about having things thrown at him. My other settings were ISO 800, for a 1/320 of a second at f/11.
The rest of the day at the Akan Crane Center was a little uneventful again, so especially with the heavily textured snow, I don’t have any real picks, but we did visit the panning location at the end of the day again, and I quite like this next image (below) from that shoot.
Again, the cranes were running and taking off in the opposite direction to what I usually look forward to shooting at this location, but I think this works, because of the beautiful patterns of the wings as this group of cranes starts to take off against the dark background. My settings were ISO 800, this time at my slowest panning shutter speed of 1/25 of a second, at f/14, and a focal length of 560 mm.
The following morning we revisited the Otowa Bridge, and this time we were a bit luckier with the hoarfrost, as you can see in this last image for today (below). It wasn’t the strongest frost I’ve seen, but it was enough to make the scene quite beautiful, and compared to the previous day, we got some great images.
Because it was pretty cold though, relative to already very low temperatures of course, the crane’s were not very active, except for a flurry of dancing while it was still pretty dark, and then these three crane’s walked quite a way into the foreground, but otherwise, this was more about capturing the scene. My settings were ISO 800 for a 1/400 of a second at f/14, and a focal length of 400 mm.
After breakfast on our third day in Hokkaido, we drove over to the next location where we’d planned to spend two days photographing the Whooper Swans, but when the forecast was for snow at the crane center, on our fifth day I decided to bring the group back to the crane’s where we got some pretty special images of them in the falling snow and with a much cleaner covering of snow on the ground.
That’s a few days further into the travelogue though, and as we’ve reached my usual ten photo limit, we’ll wrap it up there for today, and pick up the trail next week with some Whooper Swan shots before returning to the cranes.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020
Our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, but we have just started 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.
This week is the first of a two part series to walk you through a selection of photos from my second Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour for 2015. These tours are in many ways the highlight of my year, so I’m sad to see them finished, but the resulting photos will keep me going for a while as I now start to work into my year.
The itinerary for this tour is identical to Tour #1 that we discussed in the previous two episodes, but of course it was a different group, and different photographs, and the weather presented its challenges again, although it was slightly more manageable than the first wildlife tour for this year.
We started the tour on February 16, a Monday morning, as always, and headed out on our chartered bus to Nagano for the first three days, to photograph the adorable snow monkeys. This first photograph that I want to take a look at (below), is pretty much a regular scene at the snow monkeys, as they bathe and groom each other, while sitting in the hot spring bath that has been made their own.
Grooming Snow Monkeys
I’ve selected this photograph to start with for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I just like the relaxed atmosphere, with the youngsters sitting close to mum on the right, and the older of the two grooming her. Then there’s the two adults on the left grooming too.
The other reason I chose this photo is to talk you through a point about the mist on the pool, that can often ruin your photos if you aren’t careful. As you photograph the snow monkeys, quite often, there is a lot of steam coming off the hot water in the pool, and that can greatly reduce the contrast in your images, but it often comes in waves, and can be used to good effect with a little bit of attention as well as luck.
For this shot, you can see that there is mist in the background, that reduces the visibility of the background, and cleans it up to a degree. Not quite so easy to see if a little mist in the foreground too. Essentially you need to compose your shots, and wait for pockets of clarity, and hope that your subjects don’t move before you are able to get your shots. In this case, the clearing in the steam that lasted literally less than a second, is almost like a portal through to the snow monkeys, and it opened up just enough to see the groups of monkeys clearly, but making the surrounding image bright and minimal, almost like a lightened vignette, which I thought works well.
After an afternoon in the Monkey Park on the first day, we spend the first of two nights in a beautiful traditional Japanese hotel in the area, with great food, and wonderful warm staff, and then make our way back into the park for a full day on day two. The park can get very crowded, but most people go to the pool, especially the thirty minute tourist groups, and then they leave. This leaves certain areas like down by the river and the snow covered sides of the valley for us photographers, and I’m happy to shoot there, with scenes such as this one (below) to be photographed.
Again, here we have a family group, with mum and two kids, possibly even the same family. The young monkeys always look like boys to me, but there’s no telling, at least when they’re sitting down. This feels like mum grooming the little brother or sister though, and the older brother sitting by, as they do, quietly, getting less attention than their younger sibling.
As we see in this next shot from the second day (below), the monkeys aren’t always just sitting around getting groomed. Here I caught a youngster at full pelt as he raced through the snow on the valley wall. I have shot both of these tours almost exclusively with the new 7D Mark II camera, to try to get the most out of it’s auto-focus system, and although it has one major weakness, which I’ve just about overcome now, it has held up very well indeed, even compared to the Canon EOS 1D X, which is four times the price. I’ll be reporting on this again in a few weeks, so stay tuned if you’re interested.
I shot this at 200mm with the new 100-400mm lens from Canon, and was cutting it pretty fine here as I gradually zoomed out while tracking this little monkey along the snow. This is un-cropped, but you can see I almost lost his hand out of the bottom of the frame, so I’m pleased to have got this particular shot.
On the last of our three days with the snow monkeys, we were lucky enough to get a bit of falling snow, which always makes a big difference. In this photograph for example (below), the snow settling on the monkey had mostly melted, but left little beads of water on the monkey’s fur, as it relaxed in the pool.
Of course, the way I’ve framed this, I wanted to make this guy look like a philosopher, deep in thought. I have a few different angles of this monkey, from the left and right sides as well, but I like this one that is straight on. Had the eyes been open, I’d have focused on them, but then, if the eyes had been open, I may not have even shot this. I just like the deep thoughtful expression here, and this is probably one of my favourite photos from the trip.
After the snow monkeys, on day four of the tour, we fly up to Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan, for our first two days with the most elegant birds on the planet, in my opinion, the Japanese Red-Crowned Crane. Here we see two cranes doing their mating song, as they strut through the snow (below). These birds grow up to 158cm tall, which is only a bit shorter than my wife, so they’re big birds, and as you can see here, the female is generally a little shorter than the male.
There are so many cranes, that it’s often quite difficult to get a good clear shot of just two cranes when they dance or call like this. For this photograph, I had zoomed my 200-400mm with the 1.4X Extender engaged, right out to 560mm, which on the 7D Mark II is the equivalent of almost 900mm, but still, I had to crop this down a little to remove a third crane on the right of the frame.
Another tip here though, is to not forget to flip your camera into portrait mode for shots like this. Not only is that more aesthetically pleasing, with the tall birds and plenty of room above their heads to see the falling snow, but it also helps to remove other birds either side, due to the narrower aspect.
At the end of the fourth day, we visited a different location where I know there are often a lot of cranes that fly out to their roost at the end of the day as the light drops. This is great for getting slow shutter panning shots, like this one (below). For panning shots, sometimes I like to get the head sharp, as we’ll see later, but sometimes, just getting everything blurred in this way can also work, as I believe it does here.
Crane Entering Warp Speed
I won’t pretend that I have a magic formula to get one style of photograph over the other. Honestly, I generally just slow my shutter speed down to between 1/25 of a second and 1/40, and try my best to pan smoothly with the birds as they fly. When taking off though, the speed of the bird is somewhat erratic, as is the up and down motion, so most of the time it comes down to just shooting a lot, and then picking out the best shots from your bursts.
The following morning we went to the bridge where we have a view of the cranes roosting in the river, but it wasn’t cold enough for the hoar frost to form on the trees, so although we got a few fly-outs, I don’t really have anything to show you here.
We went back to the crane centre after breakfast though, and as usual were treated with the White-Tailed Eagles and Black Kites at 2pm when they feed fish to the cranes, but again, I’ve showed you shots of that so many times, I’m going to skip that for today.
The great thing about this tour, is that we had snow falling on and off for much of the scheduled two days with the cranes. In this next photo the snow was lighter than the first crane shot for today, but still adds a beautiful sense of atmosphere to images like this (below).
I’ve select this shot to show you, again, because I like it, but also to point out that the cranes’ tails are white. When you see photos like the first one of the cranes calling together, it’s easy to think that their tails are black, but it’s actually a line of black feathers along the back edge of their wings, which they fluff up and use for decoration when they call like that. As you can see though, when they lift their wings, their tails are totally white.
Quite often, after the cranes are fed their fish, and the eagles and kites steal most of them, we move on to another location, like the one for panning on the previous day. Because we’d not had much blue sky during our two days though, I decided to keep the group in the Akan Crane Centre for a few more hours on this second day there, and it paid off, as we see here (below).
We had a number of beautiful fly-outs, but it’s always nice when we can get one with a nice textured sky in the background, like this. I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of blue skies, especially in landscape photography, but as a backdrop for a pair of beautiful birds like this, I can put up with it. 🙂
On days six and seven, we spend time with the Whooper Swans over at Kussharo Lake, as well as do an afternoon workshop session at the hotel, before going back out to do more panning, with the swans this time, as we see in this photograph (below).
Neck and Neck Whooper Swans
As I mentioned earlier, I like to do panning shots between 1/25 and 1/40 of a second shutter speed. At 1/40, my percentage of sharp heads goes up dramatically, as in this shot. I love it when I can get two birds, both with sharp heads, and different wing positions, like this. The frozen lake makes for a nice background too.
As we’ll see in the first shot that we’ll look at in the next episode, the last shot of the Whooper Swans, most of the time they actually take off on water in front of this ice, and that can give some interesting effects to a panning shot too.
Although the weather stopped us from going to Bihoro Pass for a landscape shoot on this second tour again, we were able to go back to Kussharo Lake for their fly-in just after dawn on day seven of the tour. I have a handful of quite dramatic shots with the frozen lake in the foreground, but preferring the minimalist approach, my favourite is probably this shot, with the swans and just the tips of the mountains on the other side of the lake just showing through the low cloud (below).
Whooper Swans with Misty Mountains
As we walked back to the bus across from where we’d held our dawn shoot, I heard a knocking coming from the woods behind the carpark, and found this fellow doing his thing, stripping the bark off a tree and looking for breakfast (below).
I shot this with the 200-400mm and internal 1.4X Extender, at ISO 1600. I was shooting hand-held, because we had to get back to the hotel to get our breakfast before they stopped serving it, but it was lovely to see this little White-Backed Woodpecker, as I haven’t seen one with the group for a few years now.
After breakfast, we came back to the lake at a different spot, and did some studies of the swans as they just hung out on the snow covered frozen lake. I have a whole series of these, mostly pairs of birds, but this is one of my favourites (below). I love the way this Whooper Swan was all fluffed up as they preened themselves, and you’ve just got to love those big goofy feet and short legs on these otherwise amazingly beautiful birds.
Whooper Swan Preening
There was a layer of mist behind the birds here, giving the light a beautiful soft quality that really lent itself to this kind of study. I’ll probably share a few more shots in a portfolio or other publications, but we’ll leave it there for today, as we’re up to our 12 photos for this episode.
2016 Japan Winter Wonderland Tours
Note that we have been taking bookings for the 2016 tours for a little while now, and both tours are already almost full, so if you would like to join us, check out the 2016 Tour page, and sign up sooner rather than later, to secure your place on a Japan Winter Wildlife Tour of a lifetime.
After an incredibly busy and exciting February, I’m now back from my Snow Monkey and Hokkaido Winter Wonderland tours, and from today will release a series of episodes to update you on how both trips went. First I’ve selected 22 images from Tour #1 which ran from January 27 to Feb 7, which I’ll break into two parts, and then follow up with a Tour #2 update later in the month.
With Tour #1 being the eight iteration of this tour now, I’m sure you don’t need to know every detail of the tour, so I’ll really just go through this by showing you some representative photos. As you know, we start the tour with three days over in Nagano Prefecture photographing the incredibly adorable snow monkeys. Despite having some good snow falls from December through early January, there was surprisingly little snow–a trend that would plague this tour to a degree as you’ll hear.
As usual though, it’s still possible to get shots that look as though the entire valley is snow-covered, by ensuring that there are no bare patches in your photos, as with this first image, of a young snow monkey riding on his mothers back.
Riding Mum’s Back
I never tire of watching these monkeys going about their daily life, and as they come down from the valley walls to feed, the young often ride on mum’s back like this, and then as mum stops to feed, the baby jumps down and starts to forage as well.
Snow Monkey Deep in Thought
Another thing I never tire of is trying to capture intensely human expressions in intimate portrait images such as this one. Again, despite the patches of bare rock showing through, it isn’t difficult to angle yourself to get a pure white background, and a shallow depth-of-field helps to create this lovely dreamy effect.
This was shot at f/5.6 at 280mm, using a 70-200mm lens with a 1.4X Extender fitted. This young lady was sitting on the fence along the path down to the hot-spring pool, and sat for me for a while so I was able to get a variety of poses. This one with her eyes closed was my favourite as it enables us to believe that she is deep in thought, a very human trait, although I’m sure these monkeys also do that to a certain degree.
Note that as it’s often difficult to focus exactly on the eyes with the fur around the face sometimes getting in the way, I sometimes manually tweak the focus to ensure that the eye, or the eye-lid in this case, is perfectly sharp.
After spending three days with the monkeys we headed back to Tokyo, and spend the night in a business hotel in the city before heading out to Hokkaido on the first flight, bright and early on the morning of January 30.
As I’ve photographed all of the subjects on this tour many times, I’m starting to get very particular, not only about actually releasing the shutter, but also about the images that I select from those that I do shoot, so I find that I haven’t been selecting many crane shots, having already made so many photos that I’m already happy with.
We would be treated with some great weather that really opened up some lovely new opportunities during our two days, but the first shot that I wanted to share today from the Akan International Crane Center, is this one of a black kite, shot during the 2 o’clock feeding time.
Black Kite Soaring
Although I often photograph the kites during the feeding time, I rarely share any of the shots, because they usually pale in comparison to the White-Tailed Eagles and sometimes Steller’s Sea Eagles that also come in to steel the fish, but for this one I just love the detail and the pose, and that beautiful catchlight in the eye. There’s also an almost painterly feel to the textures and patterns in the feathers in this shot, which I really like.
Note too that this was the first time I was really using the new Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with the integrated 1.4X Extender, and having now used it for most of the last month, I can tell you that I am absolutely head over heals in love with that lens. I’ll be doing a full review based on my findings hopefully by the end of the month, so stay tuned for that if you are interested.
A day later, on January 31, we were treated to a few flurries of snow, and some driving snow, which we’ll look at shortly, but first, here’s one of my favourite photos from the snow fall, when this crane was hovering over a group of other cranes, seemingly waiting for clearance to touch-down.
Waiting for Clearance
Note that I trimmed this down to a 16:9 aspect ratio, removing the top of the image which was not really necessary. I could of course have moved the camera down while shooting, and included more cranes but I kind of like just having a hint of the crowd below, rather than trying to tell the whole story here.
Also note that although I used to use Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro to bring out the snow in a photograph like this in the past, I now find that just cranking the Clarity slider up in Lightroom a great job, and that of course saves us from having to create a TIFF or PSD file just for this purpose, which is always a welcome benefit of completing an image in Lightroom.
A few hours later, and the wind really started to get up, causing the snow to drift, and the cranes coming in to land just hung in the air for what seemed like minutes as they tried to land. This next shot is actually a two photos stitched together, extending the image out to the left a little, to not only show the crane trying to land, but the whooper swans that were hunkered down bearing the cold of the driving snow.
Crane Lands in Snow Storm
Having shot the cranes with prime lenses for almost ten years now, I really found it to be a revelation to once again be able to zoom in and out from 200mm to 560mm with the build-in Extender engaged. Whereas until now I would have had three cameras at this location, I shot almost exclusively with the 200-400mm lens.
In the past I’d have had the 600mm f/4 lens on a gimbal head, and the 300mm lens probably with the 1.4X Extender fitted over one shoulder and the 70-200mm, maybe with a second 1.4X Extender fitted over my other shoulder. Quite often as cranes took flight, I’d start shooting with the 600mm, then switch to the 300mm as they drew closer, and then scramble for my 70-200mm as they flew over-head.
The result was of course that quite often I wouldn’t switch cameras quickly enough, and the birds would be too close as I started to frame them. Now being able to simply zoom out is totally liberating. In this shot, I was able to pull back to 200mm to keep this family unit of cranes all nicely framed as they flew towards me. A number of times I found myself giggling like a 14 year-old at my new sense of freedom. As I started to check the incredible image quality later in the hotel I was positively maniacal.
The Family Unit
As we often do after the afternoon feeding session at the crane centre, it was a clear day, so we headed to the Kikuchi Farm where we photographed a number of cranes as they flew close to the setting sun, as it dropped behind the trees that line the back edge of the field that the farmer kindly opens to the public during the winter months.
Having missed out on our first visit to the Otowa Bridge the previous day, on February 1 we were treated with some beautiful hoar frost on the trees and mist over the river, as we can see in this next photograph. The cranes went absolutely crazy for a while at around 7:30 am. The temperature was probably down to around -18°C (0°F) and no wind, and these are the perfect conditions for this phenomenon to occur.
This has only happened a few times during the tours, despite having two cracks at it each time, so we were very fortunate to have such great conditions. I selected this particular frame by the way, because of the two cranes in the back left jumping up kick their legs out at each other, and a number of other cranes in the back right also dancing, but it’s not going to be all that obvious in the Web version.
Later that day, our third in Hokkaido, we headed over to the Kussharo Lake where we’d spend two full days photographing the Whooper Swans and doing a bit of landscape work, as well as the first of my classroom style workshop sessions at the hotel.
This first image from the Kussharo lake is a black and white conversion of a simple image of the large tree overhanging a part of the lake at a place called Kotan, which doesn’t freeze due to the hot-springs running into the lake there.
There was a somewhat heavy sky on this first day, which I generally find lends itself to a black and white such as this, so I used my 14mm lens to go really wide and include most of the tree and a number of the swans that winter here.
The swans at Kussharo lake would generally head further south to spend the winter in slightly warmer prefectures, but the fact that these hot springs keep the lake from totally freezing, and that there are a few locals that are tasked with feeding the birds, makes this a good place for them to winter.
As the sun get’s low in the sky or behind heavy cloud, we move to another part of the lake and I work with the group on some panning techniques, to shoot images such as this one, of a Whooper Swan in flight. At around 1/50 of a second you can get some beautiful wing movement, and occasionally you’ll catch the head just right, so that it’s sharp like this. It’s a fun technique to play with, and the resulting images can be very rewarding.
The following morning, Feb 2, we were up bright and early again for a short hike up to a viewpoint at Bihoro Pass, for a view of the Kussharo Lake from above. The lake is basically a caldera; the mouth of a volcano that has filled with water leaving a small island in the middle, which you can see here is just poking out from the clouds over the lake on this particular morning.
I ran this photo through Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro to enhance the colour and texture a little, and I love the warm light on the foreground hillside, as well as the warm glow along the horizon, and then of course those fingers of cloud spreading out across the entire sky. I shot this at 16mm to really enhance the cloud formation.
As I discuss in my next Craft & Vision ebook that should be released later this month, although it’s great to shoot the grand wide vista, it’s also important to keep the more intimate long focal length landscape in mind too, so before we left, I also made this photo, of the cloud creeping into the woods around the lake.
This was shot at 168mm with my 70-200mm lens, and again run through Color Efex Pro to bring out a little more texture in the trees and clouds. This is something else that I go into detail on in my new book, so do keep an eye out for that in a few weeks time, or sign up for our newsletter to hear about it as soon as it becomes available.
After this dawn shoot, we move on to Sulphur Mountain where we shoot the apocalyptic volcanic fumaroles, and we were lucky enough to find our Ural Owl at our secret location too, before heading over to Rausu for three days of sea eagles. We’ll pick up the trail in the next episode though, when I’ll share another 10 images from the last four days of the tour.
Note too 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.