Although I’ve just completed my second Japan winter wildlife tour and final winter tour for this season, today we’re going to pick up the trail on the first of the two wildlife tours, as we leave the cranes in the snow behind, and move on to our final day with the Whooper Swans before heading over to Rausu for sea eagles and foxes etc.
Once again, fighting the clock, as usual, I still had 109 photos left in my collection of images that I still want to talk about in this travelogue series. I was hoping to complete this series with one more episode, but having gone through and shortlisted the images that I really want to talk about, I still have 27 images. We’ll just jump into it, and see if I can whittle down my selection to just ten images as we go.
On the eighth shooting day of the tour, and the fifth day in Hokkaido, we went back to the Kussharo Lake for one last Whooper Swan fly-in shoot before starting our drive over to Rausu and the Notsuke Peninsula. One of the reasons I ensure that we get at least two days in each location is because quite often, the weather can change and present us with different opportunities. On this visit, it was overcast and slightly misty. Conditions that I love to photograph the Whooper Swans in, and you can hopefully see why in this first image for today (below).
I really like it when we get white swans on a white background, often with just subtle differences in tone between the two. The thing that I really like about this photo is that the swan on the left of the frame is looking straight at me as he flew in. It has to feel a bit strange to them when they fly to their beach and see a line of photographers awaiting their arrival. They’re used to seeing people of course, but this is a reminder that they are not totally oblivious to our presence.
My settings for this image were 1/500 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 1000 and a focal length of 400mm with my 100-400mm lens. This is, of course, the Mark II version of this lens. Again this year we had a participant that had rented the original version without knowing and was somewhat disappointed. If you are buying this lens, and you find what you think is a good deal, check that it is not the original lens which is very long in the tooth now, and frankly with today’s camera resolution really punishing older lenses, I wouldn’t use one even if it was free, let alone cheap.
Although I love it when the white swans are on a white background, I also found this next photograph somewhat appealing, with two juvenile Whooper Swans still with their wings spread as they landed in the fresh snow on the frozen Kussharo Lake (below).
I’ve entitled this “Grey But Not Ugly (Ducklings)”. Sometimes the grey juvenile swans might look a bit like ugly ducklings, as in the fairy tale, but in this photo, I think it helps to accentuate them against the white background. I toyed with the idea of removing the three lines of thawed snow at the top of the frame, but decided against it, as I think they add a little depth to the background. My settings for this were f/11 at ISO 1000 still, but I had increased my shutter speed now to 1/640 as the light gradually came up. My focal length was 286 mm.
I have another swan shot that I wanted to show you, but I’ll skip that in a bid to still try and finish this travelogue series today. I did post it on Instagram while I was traveling, so check out my Instagram account if you don’t already follow me over there.
After the swans, we drove just a short way and called at Sulphur Mountain or Iouzan, for a quick session with the surreal fumaroles spewing out their sulphuric steam and painting themselves yellow in the process, as you can see in this image (below).
This place always seems a little bit apocalyptic to me. This is one of the few times when I decided to keep the ridge of the mountains behind the fumaroles in the shot, partly because the wind was blowing the steam away at a more acute angle than usual, but also because I felt it helped to show the surroundings a little better, providing a little more information about the place. My settings were a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/14, with ISO 320 at 70mm.
We then continued our journey towards Rausu, where we’d photograph the sea eagles, but on the way, took a diversion to the Notsuke Peninsula in the hope of seeing some Northern Red Fox, like the one we see in this next image (below).
This isn’t my best fox photo, but I kind of like the way he’s got the tip of his tongue sticking out as he scratching his face, looking quite content up on his snow bed, actually on the back of a trailer that is semi-abandoned on the peninsula. My settings for this were f/11 with a 1/800 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 560 mm. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
The following morning we went out for our first sea eagle shoot of the season from the fishing port of Rausu. Not long after we’d started shooting the captain of the boat told me that there had been some Orca spotted further down the coast, and asked if I’d like to go. It took me about 0.2 seconds to decide that we must do just that, so we sped along the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Although I’d love to have spent more time and got better photos, we still had a very special encounter and I still got some shots like this one (below).
We believe there were seven Orca in the pod we encountered. I have been traveling to Rausu and going out photographing the sea eagles in January and February every year since 2004, and I’ve never seen these amazing whales this early in the season. Wanting to get some really killer shots, pardon the pun, I’ve been trying to make time to visit in June or July for the past few years, but never seem to get time, especially now that I’m doing my Namibia tours at that time. This encounter has ratcheted up the priority of that trip a few rungs, so I might just have to do that this year. My settings for this image were f/9 at 321 mm and a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second with ISO 1250.
OK, so we’re five images in, and I usually do ten images per episode. Let’s take a look at some sea eagle shots, and see if we can finish this today, and move on to the second wildlife trip next week. Rather than trying to show images from all three days that we photograph the eagle, let’s just look at some of my favorites from this trip, in chronological order.
First, here’s a White-Tailed Eagle catching one of the fish that we throw out from the boat (below). Quite often it’s a flatfish, which you wouldn’t normally expect an eagle to scoop from the surface of the sea, but still, these can be quite dramatic shots.
Unless these birds open their beaks when they are startled or angry, they have pretty expressionless faces, and in this image, the sea eagle looks very calm and relaxed as he snatches up his breakfast. There was no sea ice on this first trip. It’s getting less common, with us having no ice at all some years now, although we did get some on the second tour, as we’ll see in the coming weeks. My settings for this were a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed at f/11, with ISO 640 and a focal length of 400mm.
This is image not-cropped at all. I love to go in very tight with my 100-400mm lens, and although the bird’s wings sometimes go out of the frame, and I sometimes don’t mind that, it’s great when I can get something like this in a 50-megapixel file without cropping. The detail is just amazing!
This next image of a Steller’s Sea Eagle grabbing his breakfast too is also not cropped (below). That’s the framing that I shot the image at, and again, the 50-megapixel file absolutely blows me away. I love shooting wildlife like this with my Canon 5Ds R, even though it’s a slow frame rate camera, that most wildlife photographers try to avoid.
I have lots of shots with the entire splash in as well, but I just love getting in close and seeing all of this beautiful detail, and you lose some of that as you pull back to include more. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1600 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and again, zoomed right in to 400mm.
This final eagle shot is cropped down quite a way, to a file just over 22 megapixels, as the bird was quite a way off when he was doing his aerial acrobatics. That’s another great thing about the high resolution we have now though, should we choose to use it. I can crop in quite a way and still have a bigger file than the 7D Mark II or even the 1D X Mark II. There are of course times when a higher frame rate would be useful, but I’m making it work at the slower frame rates, so I couldn’t be happier.
I’m in awe of these magnificent eagles. Just look how he can fly pretty much upside down, yet his head is still pointing straight up, with his eye on his prey. These are absolutely incredible animals. My settings were still f/11 with a shutter speed of 1/1600 at ISO 640, and a focal length of 400mm, although cropped, as I mentioned.
After our three days with the sea eagles, we headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula to spend our final night in Utoro. On the way, we stopped for our traditional ICM or Intentional Camera Movement session, which is always fun and generally provides us with some nice shots, as you can see here (below).
For this kind of shot, I generally set my aperture to around f/14 or f/16, and set my shutter speed to 1/25 of a second, and then adjust my exposure with the ISO. If it’s too bright, I sometimes use a three-stop neutral density filter, as I believe I had to do on this day, as it was bright sunlight. I then start with the camera pointing higher up in the trees, then move it downwards quickly, releasing the shutter just as the snow starts to come into the bottom of the frame. I prefer it when the bottom of the frame is just white, but there were some sticks showing through on this day, leaving those smaller streaks.
We continued on and photographed the Oshin Koshin Falls and the sea ice which was packed wall to wall on this side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. I did one ten minute exposure of the sea ice to see if it was actually moving, and apart from a very thin line near the horizon, it was totally stationary. There wasn’t even any vertical movement from waves under the ice, which was surprising.
We continued on in the town, and took a walk down to the mouth of a river to see what we could do and I was relatively happy with this last photo for today (below) which actually is the last image that we’ll talk about from the first of this year’s two Japan Winter wildlife tours.
Here I believe I used a three-stop ND filter, for a 1.3-second exposure, to smooth over the water in the river a little. I converted this to black and white, but the original was almost completely black and white anyway, with the dark stones in the river and low light. My other settings were f/14 at ISO 100, with a focal length of 35 mm.
Before we finish, as usual, I’ve recorded a message from each member of the group that I’d like to play for you now.
[Please listen to the audio with the player at the top of the post to hear what the participants had to say.]
It’s always lovely to hear what the participants have to say, and this was a great group, so listening brings back some nice memories of our time together. I do hope you’ve enjoyed following along with this travelogue. We’ll continue next week with tour #2, which presented a few different opportunities, and possibly my best red fox shot to date, which we’ll see in a few weeks.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020
Our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, but we are now taking bookings for 2020, so if you think you might like to join us, please take a look at the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2020.
This week we continue our series of episodes to walk through 40 images from my second Japan Winter Wildlife tour for 2016, and today we visit the Whooper Swans, Sulphur Mountain and the majestic sea eagles.
We pick up the trail on day eight of the tour, which was our second morning with the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido, Japan. On one of the two days at this location, we sometimes take a drive to the Bihoro Pass to photograph the sunrise over this caldera lake, but as this is a wildlife tour, we generally give preference to capturing some beautiful wildlife, and the forecast was for snow this day, which meant the pass would be in cloud.
I decided to take the group back to Sunayu to see if we could get something different from the previous morning, which was pretty spectacular, and boy am I glad that I made that decision. I didn’t think we could beat the previous day, but I actually think in some ways we did just that. The swans were flying in through a beautiful mist with snow in the air, so they looked like they were flying inside a giant softbox, as we can see in this photograph (below).
Swans from Heaven
Swans from Heaven Histogram
Here you can see just how soft the light was. The majority of the information in this image is in the top 8% or so of the histogram, with a thin slither of detail running along the bottom to the middle. In fact, I’ll post a screenshot here (right) so that you can see what I mean.
Of course, if we simply left the exposure to the camera to set, that histogram would show all of the information in the middle, and the beautiful white swans would all be a middle grey, which would not look very nice at all. So, to overcome that, I use Manual mode and set my exposure based on a frame full of white snow on the frozen lake, and ensure that my exposure is around +2 and do a test shot, then adjust so that the histogram on the camera shows me that the right-most data is just about touching the right shoulder, meaning the information I’m capturing is white, but not overexposed.
I know this isn’t new to many of you, but in case this isn’t making much sense, here is my process for this. First of all, I decide what aperture I want, based on the scene. As there is going to be more than one swan in the scene, I want a deepish depth of field, so I went for f/11. I also know that I need to have a relatively fast shutter speed to almost but not totally freeze the swans in flight, so I chose 1/400 of a second. This needs to be a bit faster for a single bird up close, but for a scene like this, 1/400 of a second is just about fast enough. Then, with the camera pointing at nothing but the white snow, I adjust the ISO while watching the caret on the exposure meter move until it reaches +2. In this light, that took me to ISO 800. Note that +2 is generally about right for overcast snow, but for snow in bright sunlight, you sometimes only need to adjust to +1 or +1 and 1/3 of a stop.
Then, once the exposure was set like this in Manual mode, we just wait for the birds to arrive. I often call out my settings so that the group can check it against their settings. Sometimes a member of the group calls out for my settings, so I shout them back, and we all just make sure we’re set during the downtime between fly-ins. It is of course necessary to keep updating these settings as the sun gets higher in the sky, but the beauty of setting them like this in Manual mode is that when you have something else in the frame, like the dark trees in the background that we looked at last week, the exposure doesn’t move, which is exactly what we want.
The swans are white, and the snow is white, so we want to record them that way in our images. If we use Exposure Compensation with +2 stops of exposure dialed in, when the birds are over a dark background like the trees, the meter will be fooled into increasing the exposure too much, trying to brighten up the trees, and that would result in totally overexposed swans and snow.
Of course, with the mist, we have to rely on our ears to know when the swans are coming. In the first photograph, you can see that the middle swan in the right side group is calling. They often call like this as they fly-in, which helps us to know that they are coming, so that we can look for them emerging from the mist for shots like this.
In the next image here (below) you can see a larger group that flew in and dispersed somewhat as they landed. I like the way they are forming an arch in this photograph, with the one at the bottom left with his paddles down, as he comes in to land. As I often say, these birds are incredibly beautiful, with a wing span between 205 to 275 cm, which is 81 to 108 inches. That’s a nine foot wingspan for the largest of these birds.
They’re heavy too, some weighing up to 11.4 kg, or 25 pounds, so it’s hardly surprising that in all their beauty, they can look a little bit clumsy sometimes, especially when they spread those bit black feet out as we can see here. The red-crowned cranes are beautiful, and the sea eagles majestic, but some of the participants leave with a deep love for these Whooper Swans, and I’m totally with them on that.
This was just 17 seconds after the first shot we looked at today, so my settings were the same at 1/400 of a second exposure at f/11, ISO 400. My focal length at this point was 105mm, so I had my 100-400mm lens almost wide open for this shot.
This last photo of the Whooper Swans (below) was shot ten minutes later, and was our last fly-in before we went back to the hotel for breakfast. Here, the swans had circled around, and looked like they were going to land, as in the previous image, but these three kept going and flew directly over our heads. I was probably pointing my camera up to around 10 degrees off straight up for this shot, and you can hopefully see from the angle of the swans that they are about to fly overhead.
The light was still incredible as well. My exposure was the same as the first few images, as the sun was well over the trees behind us now, so pretty stable, but just illuminating that mist all around the birds, really, just like they were in a giant soft box. As we walked back to the bus there was a wonderful buzz in the group as we all knew that we’d witnessed some sublimely beautiful moments during this pre-breakfast shoot. It doesn’t get much better than this.
After breakfast, we had a bit of a drive over to Rausu, the fishing village where we’d spend the next three days photographing the sea eagles, but on the way, as usual, we stopped for a quick shoot at Iozan, or Sulphur Mountain. Unfortunately, the mist that had made the swans so beautiful was doing it’s thing over at the mountain too, so the conditions weren’t great.
I remember that everyone in the group had already walked back to the bus as I was still trying to capture something in the occasional brief moments of clarity, as the wind blew the mist away for literally just a split second at a time. I had pretty much given up on the images too, thinking that they were not going to work out, but then when I looked at this one, it felt as though I was looking at the fumaroles underwater, and not a total throw out, so I decided to include it here to help document our trip (below).
My settings were 1/125 of a second exposure at f/11, ISO 200. I was using my 24-70mm f/2.8L II Lens for this shot, at 67mm. After this stop, we drove to a number of places where there are sometimes Ural Owls, but unfortunately we didn’t find any. In fact, we drove back out from Rausu a number of times as I tried to give the group an Ural Owl photo, but we weren’t able to find one on this trip.
The following morning, we went out for our first shoot from the boat at Rausu, where we were to shoot the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles. The El Niño weather this year took it’s toll on Tour #2 as well, and this became the first year that we didn’t have any sea ice at all. It just didn’t come. Thanks to my negotiation a few years ago though, we now go out anyway, and get great shots of the sea eagles taking the fish from the water, which I personally think actually looks better than them catching them off the top of the sea ice.
Here we can see a Steller’s Sea Eagle from the front as he takes a fish from the sea. There was a storm coming, and winds were high, so there was a bit of swell as well, and the light was relatively low. My settings were 1/1000 of a second at f/8, ISO 1600, so it was workable, and the results really do show what it was like this year.
Steller’s Sea Eagle Catching Fish with One Foot
As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, the Canon EOS 5Ds R bodies that I used on this trip really did work well in terms of autofocus during the entire trip. I found them more capable of snapping focus onto the bird than my 7D Mark II and even better than my old 1D X. I was sometimes raising the camera and focusing literally just moments before I released the shutter, and there was probably less than 2% of my images in which the focus snapped to the background water. The success ratio was much higher under similar conditions than when using my other cameras.
Of course, the slower frame rate makes the 5Ds more difficult to use for wildlife, but I found this liberating too. I had to be much more deliberate when choosing the moment to release the shutter, and I was shooting many of these eagles shots with just one frame, or a burst of two to three frames, rarely more. I actually feel as though the limitations that I placed on myself by taking only two 5Ds R bodies, actually made me hone my skills further, possibly even making me a better photographer.
You can also see here that I have a little bit of movement in the wing tips of the eagle. This is something that annoys the hell out of some bird photographers, but this is exactly why I like to photograph big birds like this at around 1/1000 of a second. It’s fast enough to freeze most of their motion, but leaves a bit of blur in the wing tips on some frames, and that’s just the amount of dynamism I like in my photographs.
When there’s no ice, the pace of shooting is incredibly fast. The eagles are hungry, and they are literally in their hundreds, so we are shooting maybe five to ten swoops like the one in this next photograph (below) each minute some times. I selected this image to show you from hundreds of frames, and still this was only one minute after the last photograph.
Steller’s Sea Eagle Swooping to Catch Fish
As you can see there was a little bit of snow in the air too, which I quite like. I think it adds atmosphere to the images. My settings here were the same as the previous photograph. Again, I was using Manual mode as usual, so unless the light or my intensions change, it’s pretty much locked in. I’m still exposing to the right though. If you look at the white on the eagle’s wings and legs, they are pure white, almost but not quite overexposed. If you left the exposure to the camera these bands of white would be totally blown out. In fact, I’d say that on the camera, the white on this Steller’s Sea Eagle probably were flashing as they started to look overexposed to the camera. Lightroom actually gives you about two thirds to a stop of exposure back, as it reprocesses our images.
A few minutes later again, here we see a White-Tailed Eagle coming in to catch his fish. I had actually changed my ISO from 1600 to 1250 for this shot, so I imagine I had been checking my images and saw that the white on the eagles was close to blowing out, and brought my exposure down by a third of a stop. Again, when I make changes, I call out my new settings to the group.
White-Tailed Eagle Swooping to Catch Fish Talons Forward
I like the snow in this photo again, adding a bit of atmosphere, and the pensive look on the face of the eagle focusing on that fish, is one of the things that makes these birds so awesome. I always feel so privileged to be around these magnificent animals.
These last three images were from the first day with the eagles. We were photographing some of the eagles on the harbor wall from the boat just briefly as we finished our shoot, but the wind was getting stronger and stronger by the minute, as the storm approached, so we had to cut it short by a few minutes, and then our driver forged through the fresh snow that was already making road conditions very difficult, even for the ten minute ride back to our hotel. We were to be locked down for the rest of the day as the storm passed, so we had a morning to look through our photographs, and I did a workshop session through the afternoon.
Unusually for Rausu, the storm did pass overnight, so although we were not able to go out for a dawn shoot, we did go out after breakfast for a second session with the sea eagles. In this next image you can see that the sun was poking through the clouds a little bit, which actually increases the contrast quite a lot, making for darker shadows. I do like how the light has caught the water in this photograph though (below).
Steller’s Sea Eagle Catching Fish
The wind was still blowing from the land out to sea, which means that the birds would always fly towards the land with the sun behind them. This is the luck of the draw really. We can’t control the wind direction, but we can make the most of the conditions we are dealt. I have a lot of photographs that I’m happy with from this second morning, although it was probably the least productive of the three days due to the lighting, until the last ten minutes or so that is.
We went back to the harbor wall for a while, and at first, I was not expecting much, but then I realized that the eagles were, to a degree, struggling to land on the snow covered harbor wall because of the still high winds. This meant that they would just float over the wall, sometimes folding their wings back a little to reduce the drag, and allow themselves to fall closer to the wall in an attempt to land, as we can see here (below).
Steller’s Sea Eagle Making a Fist
This is another one of my favorite photos from this year’s winter wildlife tours. This Steller’s Sea Eagle looks like a boxer with his fists clenched, about to lunge forwards across the ring to deal a mighty blow against his opponent. The other beautiful thing about this and the following image that we’ll look at, is that the eagles are over a large expanse of snow on the harbor wall at this point, so that is reflecting light back up, illuminating the underside of the birds, which makes for much more beautiful images.
This next photograph (below) is one that we also looked at in episode 514, when I walked you through my image editing and selection process for tour #2 this year. Take a look if you’d like to see a 100% crop of the eagles face, and you’ll probably understand why I am so excited about shooting wildlife with the 5Ds R bodies. The results are absolutely spectacular.
Steller’s Sea Eagle Coming in to Land
Of course, this is as the Steller’s Sea Eagle opens his wings to slow his decent as he gets closer to the harbor wall. According to my EXIF data, this was less than a second after the previous photograph. They were both shot at 08:08:49. They were both shot at 1/1000 of second, at f/10, ISO 400 too, as I was able to bring the ISO down slightly as we photographed over the wall, due to the better light.
That takes us to the end of our 10 photographs for today, so we’ll wrap it up there for this episode. I’ll be back next week where we’ll take a look at a photograph of an adorable Norther Red Fox from later this day, and a few more photographs from a dawn shoot with the eagle on our third and final morning with them, before we head over to Utoro on the other side of the Shiretoko Peninsula for a little bit of landscape work, and a stunningly beautiful woodpecker to end our 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.
This week we start a 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 next week, the weather gave us some unique challenges on this tour, but as usual we had an amazing time, and came away with some pretty cool photos.
We started our tour with a three day visit to the adorable Snow Monkeys, which are a three hour drive north-west of Tokyo, in our chartered bus. Although it was unseasonably warm, with temperatures floating around freezing point, there was still a good covering of recent snow on the hillside beside the hot spring bath in which the monkeys bath.
Here is one of my favourite shots from this visit (below), with this snow monkey just sitting, in a wonderfully human pose, and also with what I consider a great expression on their face. I just love the wrinkles on this older monkey’s face, and that distant gaze which makes me feel that they’re deep in thought about whatever it is that monkeys think about.
I also really like how it’s difficult to figure out what’s going off with the monkey’s right hand. At first glance, it’s as though the monkey has their right hand resting on their leg, but with the angle of their right arm, unless the have a severely broken arm, their actual hand has to be tucked down between their legs. What we can see here must be their left foot, sitting on top of their right leg.
The next shot shows two young monkeys playing boisterously, as they bite each others mouthes, in the hot spring pool (below). Between answering questions and otherwise looking out for my group, I love picking out moments like this as the youngsters play with each other.
The Bity Game
I also spent some time photographing the monkeys advancing towards me again, still testing the 7D Mark II, now also with the new 100-400mm lens from Canon, but I’m going to save my findings for a later podcast episode, in which I’ll concentrate on updating my 7D Mark II review, so please stay tuned for that. I am very impressed with both the 7D2 and the 100-400mm though, and will add a few comments in this episode, but need a little more time to collate my thoughts on some of the shortcomings of the 7D Mark II, which I touched on earlier in my first impressions review and have not yet entirely overcome.
Eagles and Cranes
After the Snow Monkeys, we travel up to Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan for a further nine days shooting the incredible wildlife up there. Our first location is two days with the Red-Crowned Cranes, and the other wildlife that visit them, such as this White-Tailed Eagle (below).
Honing In on Prey
At 2pm each day, they throw fish out for the cranes, which attracts these White-Tailed Eagles and Black Kites, which swoop down to steal the fish, making for a 20 minute photography frenzy, which is incredibly exciting. Although I still enjoy shooting my straight eagle-in-flight shots, I’m really trying now to capture poses that are a little different to my current range of shots, such as this look as the eagle hones in on his prey.
At the cranes, I ended up shooting most of the time with my 7D Mark II on the 200-400mm 1.4X EXT lens. This shot (above) was captured at 490mm, so the 1.4X Extender was engaged, but not at the full zoom of the lens. Of course though, because the 7D Mark II has a 1.6X crop factor, the effective focal length of this shot was 784mm, so much greater than I could get with my 1D X on the same lens.
I of course also have many photos of the cranes from the first day, but in trying to keep the number of photos I include down to 12 per episode, we’ll jump now to a photograph from the end of the fourth day, the first day in Hokkaido, when we visited a spot where the cranes sometimes fly to roost. For this photo (below) of cranes flying over the lighter part of the sky as we looked towards the sun, I actually brightened the sky to almost white and darkened the cranes down to full black silhouettes to really emphasise the form of the cranes.
While in the Kushiro area, we have two mornings where we visit the river at Otowabashi, which directly translates as the “Sound-of-wings Bridge”. Here we are hoping to be lucky enough for the temperature to be cold enough for hoar frost to form on the trees along the river, and for some mist over the water. Unfortunately on the two days we visited it wasn’t cold enough this time for the entire riverside to go white, but there was a patch at the side of the river where some beautiful hoar frost formed, as we see in this photograph (below).
Frosty Morning Cranes
We waited for some of the cranes to walk down the river to these trees, to capture this surreal scene. It’s always so magical to see, even if it’s only a small part of the river, especially when you single this out with the frame of the camera, when we can basically make everything else go away.
With the new Mark II 100-400mm lens from Canon on my 1D X, I had walked along the enclosure at the Akan Crane Center later in the day, and noticed a pair of cranes taking off coming directly towards me, so I selected one of the two, and tracked with it for the entire take off, until they went right overhead. With the lens zoomed right out to 100mm, here is one of the last frames before the crane got too big to fit in the photograph (below).
Red-Crowned Crane Flyover
I have to tell you, I absolutely love this new 100-400mm lens. It is incredibly sharp, and having that kind of reach in a hand-holdable lens for the first time in almost 10 years is almost as much of a revelation as going back to a telephoto zoom with the 200-400mm last year, after shooting with telephoto primes for such a long time. The only thing that is taking a bit of getting used to is the twist zoom action on this lens.
In my opinion it should zoom faster through it’s range than it actually does. A number of times I found myself having to re-position my hand and lost a shot or two because I couldn’t zoom quickly enough through the range, although it did get easier as I used the lens, so it’s certainly something that you can get used to, and so not a huge issue.
Next up, here I’m still looking for more exciting poses, as this White-Tailed Eagle starts a dive to steel the cranes’ fish again (below). There’s just something so special about being out in the cold in front of a field full of cranes, and then having these magnificent raptors come and visit just for that 20 minutes or so each day, and perform their acrobatics for us. Although it’s a crane center, it’s hardly surprising that it fills up with locals shortly before 2pm each day, as everyone tries to photograph this spectacle.
Here also is a shot of one of the Black Kites which also visit at this time (below). Compared to the eagles these are smaller, and are often ignored by people here in favour of the eagles, but I probably shoot these just as much, because I think they are also incredibly beautiful birds. If you look closely at this photo you can also see that this kite has a fish in his talons, which I think adds a nice additional element to compliment this awesome creature.
Black Kite with Fish
A Bit of Panning
Each day, when we head over to the location where we photograph the cranes as they fly to their roost, I first swing by another location where there are sometimes many cranes that are about to set off on that flight. On our second day in this area there were lots of cranes, so I had the group do a bit of panning, with longer exposure than we usually use to capture the action during the day.
We set our shutter speeds to 1/25 of a second to record the movement in the wings of these beautiful birds as they took off and flew out of the reserve (below). In this first shot the sun was almost on the horizon bathing everything in beautiful warm light, as you can see from the wings of the birds here.
Cranes in Motion
The cranes’ heads move up and down slightly as they fly, so it’s virtually impossible to get a totally steady head at these shutter speeds, but I’m still pretty happy with the results, and have selected quite a few of these in my final selection of images from this tour.
Here’s another photo which I made at 1/20 of a second this time, now at ISO4000 as it was almost dark, but this helped the background to go much darker now, so the cranes really stand out against the background (below). For most of the tour we shoot in Manual exposure mode and use the ISO to adjust the exposure more than aperture or shutter speed. For these panning shots, we selected the shutter speed first, because it’s important to get it down nice and slow, but generally we choose the aperture first for depth of field, then shutter speed to freeze or blur the action, then adjust the exposure with the ISO.
The following morning, we awoke to snow, so instead of moving on to the Whooper Swans according to our itinerary, I took the group back to the cranes for a third day, as they are so special when it snows. It just totally changes the scene, although it does offer it’s own challenges. On this particular day, the wind was blowing directly towards us, so we had to continuously use an air blower to blow the water droplets off the front of our lenses every time we shot, and then ensure that we turned the camera down and away from the snow when we weren’t shooting.
The results were worth it though of course. The cranes just look so much better when it snows, and they tend to get more excited too. Here there were multiple groups of cranes singing in unison (below). I generally try to avoid or remove parts of birds poking into the frame like the one on the right of this shot, but for some reason I actually quite like this one. It’s almost as though he’s sticking his head in the door to see what all the ruckus is all about.
I also really like the way the crane’s ruffle their wings up like that, as we can see from the left-most crane. When their wings are folded down, as in the next photo (below), it often looks as though they have black tails, but you can see from the photo above that their tails are actually pure white. It’s the line of black feathers along the back edge of their wings that they seem to use as decoration.
We’ll finish on this photo for today, as I hope this can help you to understand why I really do love to get some falling snow while we’re with the cranes. It not only cleans up the surface of the snow, but the snow in the air adds another dimension that you just don’t get with clear air.
Before we do finish, I’d like to let you know that we’ve just had a last minute cancellation for the tour that starts literally in just seven days, and although it may well be backfilled or too late by the time you read/listen to this, if you are interested in joining us, you can book your place here or see details on our 2015 Winter Wonderland Tour page. Note that our site manages inventory for these tour bookings, so if you take a look and the tour is marked as sold out, it means that someone else beat you too this open spot.
[UPDATE: This 2015 tour #2 cancellation slot has now been filled.]
2016 Japan Winter Wonderland Tours
Also, note that we have already been taking bookings for the 2016 tours for a little while now, and each is already over half full, so if you would like to join us, check out the Tours & Workshops page, and sign up sooner rather than later, as these tours are now selling out quite quickly.