This year’s Japan Winter Wildlife Tours provided us with a bumper crop of Red-Crowned Crane photos, so despite my sharing six of them already in the previous episode, today we’re going to look at ten more, with a bit of information about each image.
The first thing I noticed as I worked on my selection is that I have become quite partial to the square crop, probably due to the new-found love of medium format with my excursion into film from last autumn. That aesthetic has really grabbed me, and I love the freedom of not having to think about whether it’s portrait or landscape orientation. It just is!
So, three of these images are square format, and two are cropped to 4:5 aspect ratio because I thought that suited the images too. The remaining images are all original ratio, with four of them being landscape on one portrait. For my portrait-oriented images, I generally just slip the camera into portrait mode by rotating it in the tripod ring, or literally by turning the camera when shooting hand-held. Since I started working with the EOS R just over a year ago now, I made a decision not to buy the battery grip, so I have to crank my hand over to reach the shutter button, but with these cameras being so much smaller than their DSLR cousins, that has really not been a problem.
Anyway, here is the first shot, which is from the Akan Crane Center. The first nine images are all from February 21, from two different locations, and the final image is from the following morning. As I mentioned briefly last week, the cranes were relatively cooperative this year and performed for us in openings more than they have been in recent years.
For a while, the increasing number of cranes had made it difficult to get shots like this, without other cranes completely blocking the view, and that of course, is a very good thing. The increasing numbers, I mean. But photographically, it was getting pretty difficult to make uncluttered shots. The warmer weather though has meant more farmland poking through the snow, and that causes the cranes to disperse a little, with more feeding in the surrounding areas, and less of them concentrated in the crane centers.
Another part of this is that they stopped feeding the cranes live fish at this location a few years ago, mostly so as not to attract the sea eagles, which could have brought avian flu, and that would not be good for the cranes. As usual, when something changes, many of the other photographers that bring groups to Hokkaido were complaining, but also, as usual, I instantly saw the positive side to this. The Akan Crane center is now less crowded, on the whole, and the fewer cranes, conversely, brings more photography opportunities.
Let’s Make This Time Well-Spent
As the Corona Virus sweeps around the world, there are of course people losing loved ones, and I in no way want to make small of that, but if you and your loved ones can stay safe at this time, let’s also try to find a bright side. How often do you really get time to spend at home, with your families, with nothing special to do? Usually, we gather at Christmas and other special times of the year, but then the focus in on the event, and everyone rallies around to make that special. Right now, millions of people are being asked to simply stay at home, with no special meals, nothing more than each other, or just yourself, if you live alone.
This to me is a wonderful opportunity to catch up on those things that we always wanted to do, but couldn’t really find the time for. Even just reading those books that you bought but simply put aside, or going through the hordes of photos from trips that we went on, but didn’t get time to look through, because life got in the way. Well, guess what? It isn’t getting in the way anymore, so let’s use this time to do all of those things that we can do when staying at home is the order of the day. These are hard times for many, and really, if you lose a loved one, or lose yourself for that matter, my heart goes out to you, but if you stay safe, and make it through this, we’ll hopefully be looking back on this outbreak in a few years time and actually have some good memories of how we spent our time in self-isolation. Let’s make it count.
Back to the cranes though. I love the ruffled feathers on this crane as the wind he created catches up with him as he touches down on the snow. With them being so graceful we often forget how much energy it takes to get these birds into the air and keep them there, so it’s a great reminder when we see this disruption in the feathers as they land.
As you can see, the light was pretty harsh on this day, with lots of texture in the well-trodden snow, but the detail in the feathers kind of makes up for that. It’s also nice to have a bit of a catch light in the crane’s eye, as we don’t always get that from this angle. We can move around to the right a little more, which I sometimes do if it looks like something is going to happen, but I prefer this location as I believe it generally gives a higher number of opportunities. I’d have been shooting this crane from behind if I was not where I was.
Ito Crane Sanctuary
Later in the day, we moved over to the Ito Crane Sanctuary, where we continued to get some lovely shots of these awesome avians. Depending on where you stand, and the luck of the draw, we sometimes find ourselves with a pretty low angle, shooting up at the birds slightly, which can be nice. As you can see in this image, it gives us a darker background for the birds, which I like to see some of the time. These two were doing a courtship dance on the hill at the sanctuary, with one of them getting slightly more excited than the other.
This was shot at 490 mm, and the crop is just to bring it to a 4:5 ratio, not actually cropping the height at all, so you can tell that we were relatively close. By comparison, the first image that we looked at was shot at 756 mm, using both the internal and an external 1.4X Extender on my 200-400mm lens.
I am coincidentally thinking of selling this lens, now that Canon has announced their upcoming 100-500 mm RF mount lens. As much as I have enjoyed using the 200-400 mm lens, since the updated 100-400mm was released that’s generally all that I am taking with me overseas, so I’m now using the 200-400mm only on these trips, and only really for the cranes.
I imagine that the Extender that is also going to be released for the RF mount will also work well with the 100-500, for a total range of 140 to 700 mm, and that will make it a very versatile combination.
As an aside, I checked the focus distance used for this shot using Raw Digger and found the Focus Distance Upper to be 42.04 m and the Lower was 33.46 m. I checked because the back bird is quite soft, obviously out of the depth of field slightly. This is why I still shoot wildlife at around f/11, but it was still outside of that depth of field.
I went into Raw Digger for these distances, so that I could calculate the actual shooting distance, and see how much actual Depth of Field I have, using my Photographer’s Friend app. I found that I would have been focussed at 37 meters or 120 feet, but Canon’s depth of field is way off. I’d have needed to stop down my aperture to f/115 to get that amount of depth of field at 30 megapixels. Even if I turn off Pixel Peepers mode, and use the archaic 8 x 10 print at arm’s length calculation, I’d have needed f/56. I think I’ll contact a friend at Canon and see if I can get some light shed on how these calculations are being done, and why they are so far off.
I like the shot either way, and was happy to see catchlights again, but my mind wanders like this from time to time, which is probably a good thing, as it helps me to think of cool new features for my app. 🙂
One of the reasons I like the Ito Crane Sanctuary is because it has some very nice trees, in particular the tree that you can see in the background of this next image. Although the tree is not complete, I think it adds a nice additional element to this shot, as a crane flew into the sanctuary. I also like that we have a few flakes of snow in the air. We didn’t get very much snow falling on this trip, but to be able to see the air here is nice.
This is uncropped, and I like how the tree on the far right frames that edge of the image as well, so I’ve left the bird on the left third, which also makes us feel as though he’s leaving the frame. He may have been taking off, but from the pose, I think this one was gliding in because a take-off requires much more frantic flapping.
Here’s another image with the base of that tree, and the beautiful grasses around it, helping to give some context for this crane which has just landed and is arching its back, stretching his muscles to relieve the tension caused by flying. I do this sometimes when I stand up after sitting for a while, but I don’t look even a millionth as graceful as these guys.
I do like to see the animals in their environment like this as well. Again, it’s the warm winter that’s helping those grasses to show through as much as they are. Often times there is so much snow that they get mostly buried. That’s nice too of course, with just the tree sticking out of the deep snow.
The dancing continued, to the point that even whittling down my selects became quite a task, let alone deciding which shots to share here, but these next few are some of my favorites. Although you can’t see the head of the right crane, I really like the way these two birds are weaving around each other as they dance, and I especially like that you can see the pink on the bottom of the feet on that right crane. That’s not something we see often, so was nice to get a shot of here.
This next image is literally one of my favorites from the entire trip. These are the same two cranes, just two frames later, and actually still the same second as the previous image, so this is an extension of the previous pose, but now, to me, they look like two flamenco dancers striking the same pose but in reverse, again, weaving around each other in maybe a tango, rather than flamenco, but a passionate dance all the same.
The last shot from February 21 is this image, as a couple started to move in preparation for their dance. It’s obviously not the optimal dance moment, but I just like the poses, almost like a couple at a family wedding, getting up to dance having had too much to drink, knowing that they’ll regret it in the morning but they’re going to do it anyway. OK, so I may be reading too much into that, but I have a vivid imagination.
This final image for today is from the following morning before we moved on to photograph the Whooper Swans. I was hoping to catch the cranes with their breath highlighted by the in the morning light but unfortunately, it was cloudy. The cranes still have to breathe though, and the dark background at the top of this photograph helps us to see that breath in the chilly Hokkaido morning air.
Shortly after this shot we boarded our big bus and headed north for a couple of hours to Lake Kussharo, where we’d start to photograph the Whooper Swans for a few days. Next week we’ll cover that, and then move on to the Sea Eagles to complete the tour and conclude all three of this year’s Japan Winter Tours.
Having now actually finished all of my Japan Winter Tours for this season, I’m back in the studio and ready to start sharing our experiences from the two trips.
We started our journey as usual, with a bus ride from our hotel in Tokyo, over to Yudanaka, in the Nagano Prefecture, where we walked the thirty-minute snow trail into the Monkey Monkey at Jigokudani. In recent years there hasn’t been a lot of snow at the Snow Monkeys, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a good amount of snow on the ground as we entered the park.
You can get a feel for the snow in this first photo for today, as a monkey showed aggression to another, kicking up the fresh snow on the valley wall in the process.
Still In Love with the Canon EOS R
As I mentioned in my review of the Canon EOS R in episodes 650 and 651, I shot pretty much everything in this years winter tours with the EOS R, and as I shot this image I was still getting used to the idiosyncrasies of Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless offering.
I am happy to report though, that as of the beginning of March 2019, I’ve now shot around 17,000 images with the EOS R, and I am still 100% in love with this camera. It has been so much more than I had expected, and even more of a camera than I’d hoped for. I’ve now decided to sell one of my two EOS 5Ds R bodies, and I’ll save the money from that to put towards the 5Ds R Mark II, which I am now really hoping will also be an RF Mount mirrorless camera.
Galloping Snow Monkeys
The biggest thing that has taken some time getting used to with the EOS R is that even in the high-performance electronic viewfinder mode when you are shooting in burst mode, you no longer see the fluid movement of your subject in the viewfinder. You essentially have to track a moving subject based on a series of still images, so you are almost looking at a stroboscopic representation of reality.
It does work though, and although I occasionally missed photos that I would probably have got with a DSLR camera, the other benefits such as being able to see your exposure and live histogram right in the viewfinder, in my opinion, far outway the demerits of the EOS R.
Real Snow Monkeys
On our second day in the monkey park, it snowed heavier than I’ve ever known it to while we were actually in the park, and it was an amazing day! I have been there when it snows, many times, but this day was just something else.
You can hopefully get an idea of how heavy the falling snow was, from the amount of it stuck to this snow monkey’s fur. Composition-wise, I briefly toyed with the idea of making this a shorter crop, maybe 4:5 aspect ratio, but decided to stay with my original framing, because I think having the swath of snow at the bottom of the frame in this photo helps the viewer to understand that the monkey is high up. You might not be able to see that he was looking down at me from a hill, but the sense of height probably comes across because of the snow bank at the bottom of the frame, so I decided to leave it in.
For the Snow Monkeys, I generally shoot stationary ones such as in the previous image with between a 320th and a 500th of a second exposure. For shots like the one before that where they are running around, I try to get a shutter speed of between an 800th and a 1250th of a second. To achieve this, I increased my ISO to around 2000 or higher when necessary.
My aperture will be between f/8 for a single subject and f/11 or even f/14 if there are multiple snow monkeys in the frame that need to be relatively sharp. And, of course, I was exposing to the right, as always. This means that I expose so that the right-most data on my histogram is as far over to the right side as possible, without being over-exposed. This gives me the cleanest and highest quality images possible, even at high ISOs.
It’s this control over the exposure that enables me to get beautiful white snow with texture in it, and because I set my exposure in manual mode, I don’t have to mess around with exposure compensation as the darker subjects take up more or less of the frame.
This is also why I am able to capture things like the subtle shadow of this snow money leaping from a tree stump. If you find that hard to see, or can’t really see the texture in the snow, then your monitor may be set too bright. It’s important to darken down your display as part of a calibration process, otherwise, subtle details like this can be missed.
It didn’t snow on our third morning with the Snow Monkeys, and although I have a bumper crop of images from this very productive visit, we’ll move on now to day four of the tour, as we fly up to Hokkaido and start our two days photographing the beautiful Red-Crowned Cranes.
We weren’t so lucky with the snow at the cranes though. It’s becoming less and less common for it to snow while we are with the cranes. I’m actually just happy that we have a full covering of snow on the ground most of the time now, although I do wish for falling snow still. It didn’t happen on any of the days we visited this year though. As you can see from this photo though, when there isn’t fresh snow, the ground can be very heavily textured.
I’m still relatively happy with this photo, as it shows the beautiful detail of the ruffled feathers of the crane, as well as the pose you will often see these birds do as they land. Because the cranes often land behind other cranes, I was also somewhat happy to be able to photograph this one, that landed a little closer, and in front of the other birds, for a change. Of course, the birds in the background of this shot, are Whooper Swans, which we move on to photograph after our two days with the cranes. I was using a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second here at ISO 500, and an aperture of f/11.
The only time I used my Canon EOS 5Ds R during the tour was as my second camera while we were with the cranes, because they sometimes fly over our heads as they leave the crane center, and you can see that in this next image.
We were lucky to get a nice sky while at the cranes though, as you can see, and this shot happened to have the crane lined up nicely with most of that stretch of blue between the clouds, which I thought was nice.
I’ve adjusted the shadows and clarity sliders in Capture One Pro to help bring out the detail in the crane, but there wasn’t much of a catchlight in this crane’s eye, due to the angle of the head. I zoomed in on the image though and saw a very faint catchlight, so I used an Adjustment brush to draw over it and then increased the exposure creating an almost false, but very convincing catchlight in the crane’s eye. Unfortunately, you probably can’t see the catchlight in the web version, although it is visible in the eBook article that accompanies this post, available to all MBP Pro Members.
Ural Owl Duo
After spending most of the first day in Hokkaido with the cranes, I took the group to a location where there is a tree that often has one or sometimes two Ural Owls, and on this day, we were lucky enough to get the latter as you can see in this next image.
These are beautiful animals, but because of the bad behavior of many photographers that try to photograph them, the local authorities have cordoned off an area to shoot from that is quite a distance from these owls. That’s fine, and at least the owls are staying in this nest because they aren’t quite as bothered as others, but it does mean that you need a very long focal length to frame these owls like this.
I shot this with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged, and an external 2.0X Extender fitted, giving me a focal length of 1120mm. Needless to say this requires me to shoot with a tripod, but the EOS R actually gives a slightly sharper image with this lens and extender combination than my 5Ds R, probably because it’s lower resolution and therefore a little more forgiving.
Three Cranes Take Flight
The following morning, we made our first visit to the Otowa Bridge, which as I’ve mentioned before, translates to the “Sound of Wings” Bridge, which I find simply beautiful, especially as it’s in the town of Tsurui, which means “Cranes are Here”. How cool is that!?
This is the location where we need it to be below around -16°C or 3°F, with little to no wind, and a bit of humidity, to make the trees go white with hoar frost, and hopefully some nice mist on the river. On the two mornings that we visited on this trip, it was -23°C and -25°C, which is -9°F and -13°F respectively, and this is actually a little bit too cold, as the mist was at times too heavy to even see the cranes.
Luckily though, there were times when the mist cleared enough for us to photograph the cranes, and at one point, we were really lucky to have three cranes fly away from the group. This isn’t common so early when it’s this cold, as the cranes need to warm up a little before they can fly, but someone must have been smiling on my group on this particular morning.
Even though we were able to see the cranes, I used a Luma Range mask in Capture One Pro to select the three cranes in flight, and the line of cranes behind them, and just darkened them down a little more, to make them stand out against the misty white background. With the sun well above the horizon by this point though, my settings were a 1/500 of a second at f/14, and ISO 320, and a focal length of 526mm.
Red-Crowned Crane Preening
After breakfast, we went to the Akan Crane Center again for most of the day, and once again, it was a bright, mostly cloudless day. On days like this, although I still enjoy flight shots, the birds standing in the snow show quite a lot of texture, as we saw earlier, so I tend to spend a lot of time zoomed in very tight on the nearby cranes, doing what I call studies or almost portraits of these beautiful birds, as we can see in this photo.
I just love the detail that we can see in this kind of photograph, and also how the white of the bird almost merges into the white snow in the background. I actually have a few photos of dancing cranes from the second trip that are so similar in tone between the cranes and the background that it’s hard to see where one ends and the other starts, but I’ll share that in a few weeks time.
Crane with Birch Trees
In the middle of the afternoon, I took the group over to a different location, where we were able to photograph the cranes flying over a prettier background, with some lovely white birch trees, which make a nice backdrop. With the sun at our backs, we also get really nice catchlights in the eyes.
The following morning, we went back to the Otowa Bridge, and had great hoar frost again, although the mist was even stronger as it was a few degrees colder than the previous day. My photos look pretty much the same though, so I won’t share another today. After breakfast, we checked out of our lovely hotel in Tsurui and started our journey on to the Whooper Swans, then further still to photograph the Sea Eagles at Rausu, on the Shiretoko Peninsula.
As we’ve reached our ten photos for this episode though, we’ll finish there for today and conclude the Tour #1 travelogue in part two next week, before covering Tour #2 in another probably two episodes.
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2020
Note that we do still have some places open on the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours, so if you might be interested, please check that out here.
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 continue our journey on the first of my two Japan Winter Wildlife photography tours for 2018, as we photograph the Whooper Swans, but then go back to the Red-Crowned Cranes for a chance of photographing them in the fresh and falling snow.
On day six of the tour, we left the cranes and moved on to photograph the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan. After stopping for a somewhat touristy visit to Lake Mashuu, we first spent an hour at a small corner of the Kussharo Lake called Kotan.
Not long after we arrived, a fight broke out between two swans that had just flown into a part of the lake that doesn’t freeze totally because of the geothermal hot water that flows into it there. I don’t like to sensationalize fights between animals, but there can sometimes be something quite beautiful as swans in a flurry cause the water of the environment to take to the air, as we can see in this first image for today (below).
These fights can be quite brutal, sometimes drawing blood, and it often makes me wonder what one swan might not like about the other, but they are common and sometimes unrelenting. A part of nature I guess. I had set my camera to ISO 320 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure, so the airborne water droplets were pretty much suspended in place, and the flailing wings of the birds frozen in time. My aperture was set to f/11 and my focal length was 312 mm with my 100-400mm lens.
After lunch a little further down the road beside the lake, we photographed the swans again for a while and were lucky enough to get some daytime fly-ins, which we don’t see that often. Here we see two pairs of swans flying with the mountains on the other side of the lake as a backdrop. It was around 2:30 pm when I shot this, but already the afternoon light is starting to warm up as the sun nears the horizon.
Two Pairs of Whooper Swans
My settings for this shot were ISO 400 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/11, and a focal length of 110 mm. After this, we went to check in to our hotel early, as it’s close by, and then came back to the same location to photograph the Whooper Swans as the sun dropped behind the mountains with a slow shutter speed, panning with them to capture the movement of their wings, as you can see in the next image (below).
Streaks and Blur
We didn’t get many chances on this first day, so this is probably my best shot, but I do like the warm color over the mostly frozen lake behind the swan, and the “X” shape made by the swan’s wings and their reflection. As I mentioned last week, I generally like to do large bird panning shots with a shutter speed of between 1/25 and a 1/50 of a second. This was a 1/40 of a second, and that generally gives you a better chance of getting the head sharp.
While in the Kushiro area for the first two days in Hokkaido, there had been no falling snow, and the ground where we’d been photographing the Red-Crowned Cranes was very heavily textured from the cranes walking on it, and from the contrast added by the bright sunlight.
So, when the weather forecast indicated that it may well be snowing on our fourth day in Hokkaido, because we were still close enough to go back to the crane’s, I decided to do just that. Swans are beautiful birds, but when there is a chance of photographing crane’s in the snow, in my opinion, that’s always going to be the better option.
To hopefully illustrate my point, here is one of my first photos after we arrived at the Akan Crane Center on our bonus visit (below). These four cranes flew in and landed in a clear, which was a stroke of luck in itself, but the falling snow in this scene and the clean, fresh snow on the ground gives this image a much better look than the images I shared in last week’s travelogue from a few days earlier.
Four on the Floor
I recall myself and the participants all being very excited as we captured these images. There is an electric excitement when standing in front of a field of birds as beautiful as this in what is probably one of their most majestic conditions. My settings for this were ISO 3200 with 1/800 of a second shutter speed, so you can probably appreciate how little light there was. My aperture was f/10 and my focal length was 442 mm with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
Just a few minutes later there was another group of five cranes that flew in, as we can see in this next image (below). There were no birds with bands on their legs in both this group and the previous group, which is another stroke of luck. Quite often the crane’s in the best shots have bands on their legs, and that kind of spoils the image. Occasionally I’ll clone them out, but that’s generally more work than I like to do to an image. Not from an ethical perspective, I just don’t like spending any more time on post processing than necessary.
Five in the Sky
As you can see, even without the snow on the ground included in the shot, the snow in the air still transforms the background to a beautiful painterly backdrop. My settings for this shot were the same as the previous image, but I’d disengaged the internal Extender and was shooting at 400mm, the full extent without the Extender.
After this, the snow got a little finer and the wind got up more, and many of the cranes just seemed to hunker down and start to simply bear the weather. This presents its own photographic opportunities, as you can see in this next image (below) although I was hoping for a little more action.
Still, I like this kind of shot too. There’s a kind of austere beauty to it that really appeals to me. I guess it’s the wildlife version of some of the minimalist landscape work that I love to do so much. My settings for this were ISO 2000 for a 1/800 of a second at f/10, and a focal length of 480 mm. I could, of course, have slowed my shutter speed down some, with the birds being so still, but I do like how the small flakes of snow are totally frozen in time, so that’s not something that I’m going to be too concerned about.
We also of course never know when the cranes are going to burst into action and start dancing around, as one did in this next image (below) so I generally like to just leave my camera settings to be ready for action while with the cranes. I love the painterly feel to this image as well. There was a very beautiful quality to the light for most of this day in the heavy snow. This is another reason why I love photographing anything in the snow.
Odd One Out
I’ve heard this accredited to the legendary Jay Maisel, although I can’t find proof of that online, but I love to quote the saying “Never trust air you can’t see.” In New York, that might have a different meaning, but to me, I love it when there is something in the air to make it visible, be it snow, rain, mist, fog or steam. It seems that my favorite images have something in the air to stop it being totally transparent, and that’s a quality that I really value when I’m making photographs.
My settings for this image were ISO 1600, so we can tell that the light was increasing gradually, and my shutter speed was 1/800 at f/10, with a focal length of 560 mm.
At this point, I’m still trying to whittle down the images that I’ll talk about in this travelogue series, and I’m looking at another nine photographs from my picks from the cranes. We’ll continue on with three more images, and then try to move back to the swans and sea eagles for the final episode next week.
I couldn’t resist leaving this next image in the set, partly because I like the texture and detail in the black feathers along the back of the wings on this pair of cranes as they sing together, and partly because this photo reminds me of the difficulty that we often have in getting a clean shot of the crane’s when they dance or sing.
In reality, for this shot, I have cloned out a swan sitting on the ground just behind the two cranes, two more cranes that were strutting along to the right of the swan, and a third crane standing in the space to the left of these cranes. Years ago I wouldn’t have done that, but as the cranes thankfully grow in numbers, it’s become more and more difficult to capture them in the clear and I figure because this is art, not photojournalism, I can do whatever I like.
Of course, it still feels great to nail a shot without having to do that, and most of my work is almost straight out of the camera, but I’m not too concerned these days about removing something when necessary. I was at ISO 1250 for a 1/800 of a second shutter speed with an aperture of f/11 and focal length of 560 mm for this shot.
Talking about detail, that’s also why I like this next image too (below). This is a crane coming in to land, relatively close to us, as I shot this at 400mm and it’s uncropped. I really like the ruffled feathers on the back of this crane’s wings, as the wind that he disturbs as he lands catches up with him. I also like how he has the ice on his legs, probably from sleeping in the river where they roost, that we also looked at last week.
It’s nice too that I was able to capture this while the crane was still over the dark trees in the background. When I first started traveling to this crane center in the winter some 15 years ago, the entire back of the field had dark trees along it like that, but they cut most of them down due to disease, many years ago now, so all we have are these last few trees on the right. They still make a great backdrop when the stars align though. My settings for this photograph were ISO 1600 for 1/800 of a second at f/11.
Every so often the cranes come quite close to the front of the enclosure and they started to do that in the afternoon shortly before we had to leave to return to the area that we were supposed to be photographing the Whooper Swans in. Here (below) we see a single crane almost posing for the camera, with ruffled wing feathers and a lovely neck and head position.
I also love the foot as the crane lifts its right leg, again, almost looking like it’s posing for me. This was shot at 350 mm, so relatively close, and my ISO was set to 1250 for 1/800 of a second shutter speed at f/11.
We’ll wrap up this episode with that, and as I release this, I’ll actually be back with the Sea Eagles in Rausu on my final Japan winter tour for this season. I still feel incredibly fortunate to be able to make a living partly from running these tours, and I get an untold amount of pleasure out of the enjoyment that I see on the faces of my tour participants as we photograph these elegant and majestic subjects, especially when my decisions as we travel enable us to do more than would be possible if my group was traveling with a company that does not maintain the flexibility that I do in my tours.
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.
Today I bring you the second of a four part series to walk through the first of my two Japan winter wildlife tours for 2016, continuing with the black-eared kites, white-tailed eagles, red-crowned cranes and whooper swans.
We pick up the trail this week on day 5 of the tour, during the 2PM frenzy when the folks at the crane center throw out fish, supposedly for the red-crowned cranes, but most of them are taken by the white-tailed eagles and black-eared kites. Here we see a photo of the black-eared kite as he banked around showing me all of the beautiful detail on his underside (below).
Just to recap, during this 12 day wildlife tour, I shot exclusively with two Canon EOS 5Ds R bodies, and although I was able to use many of my shots at full-frame, without cropping, some of them are cropped slightly, as is this one. I cropped this down to a 31 megapixel file, as the kite was a little bit far away and so even with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged, giving me a focal length of 560mm, I needed just a little more reach.
As I mentioned last week, sometimes I’m leaving the bird smaller in the frame to include more of their environment, but when it’s just a plain blue sky, I prefer to see the bird a little larger like this. At 31 megapixels though, I still have a file 1.5X larger than the files from my 7D Mark II, and the auto-focus held up well to the fast paced shooting, so I was very happy with my decision to go with the 5Ds bodies.
The detail is simply incredible still of course, and I love that there is such a beautiful, pronounced catch-light in this kite’s eye for this photograph. I shot this at f/10 for a 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, and as I say, I focal length of 560mm
This next shot was a stroke of luck, as two white-tailed eagles flew close together, coming straight towards me, and at pretty much the same distance from the camera, so I have both of their faces tack-sharp, with the one of the left of the photograph looking straight into the lens (below).
Two White-Tailed Eagles in Flight
I cropped this one down just a little from the top right corner, and then cropped to a 16:9 aspect ratio to match the width of the birds better, giving me a 38 megapixels image. This was also shot at f/10, 1/1000 of a second, ISO 400 at 560mm. This was shot just 20 minutes after the previous kite photograph, but the sky here is much paler because I’m looking across the sky, closer to the horizon, instead of almost straight up, where the sky is at it’s bluest.
Here’s another sort of fun shot, as this white-tailed eagle gives me the evil eye as he banks around in preparation for a swoop to steal some fish (below). Again here, I was shooting across the sky a little, so the blue is a little paler.
This is exactly the same settings as well, f/10, 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, 560mm. I cropped this one quite a bit, to 27 megapixels, as the eagle was quite a distance from me at this point. Again though, it’s still a bigger file than the 7D Mark II, so I’m happy with this. I don’t want this to sound like I’m knocking the 7D Mark II, or any other fast frame rate body. I’m just enjoying the fact that I can sometimes get full frame wildlife shots and maintain the beautiful high resolution of the 5Ds R body, or even when I have to crop in some, I’m still getting great quality files, and I have the freedom to do both, which has been quite liberating.
As I mentioned last week, we’d had some beautiful warm colored mist from the bridge on the first morning that we visited, but the ideal scene from that location is when the temperature drops below -16°C or 3°F, with no wind, and then if we’re lucky, hoar frost forms on the trees, making them turn a beautiful white. When we left the hotel on the second morning, for our second and last chance to see this phenomenon, it was just about cold enough, so my hopes were high. As the sun started to near the horizon and the light increased, we were treated with this scene (below) as the cranes started to awake and call in their river roost.
I’m often asked if it isn’t cold standing in the water, but if the water isn’t frozen, we know that it’s at least above freezing point, so compared to the air which is well below freezing, it probably feels quite warm to the cranes. Having said that, they huddle up quite closely over night, then, start to sing and dance and spread out as the sun arrives to warm them up, so it’s still a harsh environment that they live in, but when it gives us photos like this, I’m glad that they do.
The hoar frost doesn’t form often, so this was a special treat. My settings here were f/10 for 1/8 of a second at ISO 1600, 506mm, so I was zoomed out just a little with my 200-400mm with the extender engaged, and this image is uncropped.
As the sun rises, the warmer colored light gives the hoar frost a pinkish glow which is quite beautiful too, as we can see in this image. We shot for a good hour or so after the sun rose, trying to capture moments like this, when the red-crowned cranes are dancing or singing, or just running around happy to have survived another night.
Not long after this shot, the warmth of the sun started to melt the hoar frost, so the trees started to go back to black gradually, but I was still very happy that the group was treated to this scene. We have missed this quite a few times in recent years, so this made a very welcome change. Fingers crossed for the Tour #2 group now. We’ll be at this location again a few days after I release this episode, and I’d love for us to get this again.
Without any falling snow, there was no reason to go back to the crane center after breakfast, so we moved on, as planned, to Lake Kussharo, to photograph the whooper swans. The swans are actually the biggest of the birds that we photo, with wing-spans up to 9 feet. They’re not quite as graceful as the cranes or as majestic as the eagles. In fact they can come across as quite clumsy sometimes, but often, they are a beautiful bird to watch and photograph.
We spent our first 90 minutes or so in a corner of the lake at a place called Kotan, where a hot spring flowing into the lake stops a little waterhole from melting, so there is usually a decent sized group of whooper swans there. I like to just set my exposure, and just sit in the snow and wait for something to happen. The tricky part is actually focusing quickly enough to capture a shot like this (below) when that something does happen.
Whooper Swans Fighting
I was able to capture this foreground swan as he tried to escape from the attack of the swan in the back. This is not cropped, so you can probably imagine how relieved I was as I zoomed in on my camera’s LCD, first to find that it was sharp, but then to see that I had not clipped the tip of the swan’s wing off along the top edge of the frame. Sometimes the image is still good enough to keep with a clipped wing, but it’s still nice to include it all as I did here.
The settings for this image are f/8, 1/1000 of second shutter speed, ISO 200 at 340mm with my 100-400mm lens. I haven’t done a lot to these wildlife photos in post. For this image, in Lightroom, I increased the Shadows slider to +40 to bring out the shadows a little, reduced the White slider by -15 to bring some specular highlights under control, and bumped the Clarity up to +20 to give the image a little bit of punch.
Towards the end of the day, we moved along the lake to a place called Sunayu, and slowed down our shutter speeds to try and do some panning shots of the swans. Unfortunately they weren’t helping us by flying back and forth along the beach, but we did have some fly-ins as we waited, as you can see in this photograph (below).
Swans at Dusk
I like this shot, although the swans heads aren’t sharp. The warm light over the mountains is really quite lovely though, and the soft wings of the swans is really appealing to me. It would have been nice to have the heads sharp, but at 1/50 of a second, the chances of this get quite slim, so I have chose this frame for it’s overall aesthetic value rather than technical accuracy. I’ve cropped this down to a 16:9 ratio as well, as the top of the frame wasn’t adding a lot. The aperture at this point was set to f/14, to give me that slow shutter speed, and the ISO was set to 320, with a focal length of 312mm.
The following morning, on day six, we went back to the lake hoping for some fly-ins, although we only had one decent sized group. Here is a photo of them coming in with the mountains on the other side of the lake in the background (below).
Whooper Swans Arrive
This isn’t my best fly-in shot, by far, but I’ve included it here to illustrate the sort of thing that we do at this location. My settings for this were f/10, 1/500 of a second, ISO 200 at 100mm with my 100-400mm lens, so I’d pulled back as wide as the lens would go here.
We went back to Kotan for a while after breakfast, then after lunch on this day, we did a workshop session at the hotel. I walked the group through a bit of information about the snow monkeys and birds we photograph on this tour, and then I talked about my Lightroom catalog management and backup strategy, which the group seemed to find useful. Then, towards the end of the afternoon, we went back out again to try and get the swans to fly for our panning shots.
We weren’t very successful, except for a few birds that did fly along the strip of water at Sunayu for us. Here is one of my resulting photographs, although once again, we didn’t really get enough goes at this to get a totally sharp head. I found this shot kind of amusing though, as the swan seems to be skating along the ice with one foot (below).
Whooper Swan Skating
My settings here were f/11, 1/40 of a second to capture that wing movement, and an ISO of 320 at 188mm, once again with my 100-400mm lens. This isn’t cropped or rotated either, so a nice bit of in camera framing going off here.
The next morning, rather than going up the Bihoro Pass as we often do, for a landscape shoot overlooking the lake, the group voted unanimously to go back to Sunaya to try and get another fly-in or two, so we had an early breakfast and checked-out before leaving for the lake, to make the most efficient use of our time. Once again, we didn’t get many fly-ins, but I was happy with this shot (below) of a group of five whooper swans as they fly in front of the group shortly after 9am.
The great thing about photographing at this point in the morning, is that the sun is behind us, so the light on the birds is beautiful. Again here I’ve cropped the image down from the top to a 16:9 ratio, for better balance, and I quite like the slight misty feel to this, as the mountains gradually fade into the scene. I was using a fast shutter speed for this, at 1/800 of a second at f/11, ISO 400 at 124mm.
That brings us to our tenth photo for this episode, so we’ll leave it there and I’ll pick up the trail shortly after this on the eight day of the tour, as we make a brief stop at Iouzan or Sulphur Mountain as we start our drive over to the Notsuke Peninsula and then Rausu, where we’ll spend three days photographing the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles from a boat on the Sea of Okhotsk. I hope you’ll join us again then.
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.