This week, we revisit the Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido on my third and final Japan Winter Wildlife Tour for 2020. This is always an incredibly busy time for me, with three tours back to back, but it’s also a highlight of my year, as I meet all of the wonderfully talented and interesting guests that kindly participate in my tours, and this year was no exception. Our patience wasn’t tried by flight delays, and although I’ve decided to change the second wildlife tour to a landscape tour in 2021, the reduction in overseas visitors as the Corona Virus took hold actually made our trip more enjoyable, although I would have preferred that to be for different reasons.
Our first day with the Snow Monkeys on this trip was very similar to the first trip because there was again no snow. Even without the snow though, these guys weren’t just monkeys.
The opportunities that open up to us are different, but depending on how you approach it, definitely still worth being there, as with this first image, where I once again used the warm-colored background with the darker top, as well as the less diffused light to create a beautiful rim-light with the monkey’s fur.
This is a comparatively light-colored monkey anyway, which helps, but with well-controlled exposure, the results can be really nice. The only challenge was getting a monkey in a position where the background was far enough away to be completely blurred, and with enough contrast to form the rim-light.
I often find that even when exposing to the right, so that the histogram information is just touching the right shoulder, the monkey’s faces can still be slightly dark, so I generally tweak the Shadows sliders in Capture One Pro to bring that back out, and that’s the same if you’re using Lightroom.
That didn’t work as usual in this case though because I wanted to keep the top of the background dark, so rather than just increasing the Shadows slider for the entire image, I painted in an Adjustment Mask just around the monkey’s face, and increased the Shadows on the mask instead.
That enabled me to brighten the face without increasing the darkness of the background and losing some of that contrast that I was enjoying working with.
Another thing that I always enjoy doing, is walking down into the valley next to the river, to see what is happening there, away from the hot spring pool that is so popular.
On our first day, we were treated to a pair of young monkeys grooming (below, left), and I just love the pensive look on the larger monkey’s face here, but more so, the completely relaxed, almost meditative mood of the monkey being groomed. I also really like the background in this shot too. Once again, it was far enough away to be nice and blurred, but the pale brown tones make a nice change from the white, as much as I do love it when these guys are against the snow.
Talking of snow, although it wasn’t as much as forecast, it actually did snow overnight after our first day, and we were rewarded with some snow-covered patches as well as a bit of falling snow on our main, full day with the monkeys, as you can see in the next image (below, right).
The snow is a little dirty, and I have to admit, I cloned out two tiny triangular gaps in the snow where rock showed through, but it was nice to be able to get an almost completely white background, for the first time this season. It had snowed during the two and a half weeks between our two visits, so it wasn’t a completely snow-less year, but this was the first snow that I’d had, so it was nice to see.
You can see from this next image though, that the valley walls were still very much bare, with just a few patches of snow here and there. It takes a lot more snow than we’d had, and really multiple snowfalls, to cover the valley walls. A scuffle in the pool resulted in this mother and baby getting out, so as this young one clung to its mother for warmth, she surveyed the area and situation, trying to figure out what to do next.
As much as I enjoy intimately close images of my subjects, I do really enjoy placing them in their environment like this as well, giving the viewers of our images more context, although, as with most photographs, it’s always about how much the photographer wants you to see.
Most people don’t realize just how crowded this location can get, because most of the photographs you see are just of the animals. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this monkey is somewhat isolated in the mountains when the reality is that to the left of this scene, there are probably between 50 and a hundred people standing around with some form of an imaging device and a huge smile on their faces.
That is fine, of course. I have a huge smile on my face as well most of the time while I’m at the snow monkeys. The point is that we show what we want to show, and it can sometimes be deceiving, like the pose in this shot.
Everyone that sees this, including me when it happened, and when people look at the photo, recall the end of the Rocky movie, generally accompanied by a corny impression of Stallone calling out to Adrian.
Once again these primates prove to be some of our closest cousins, and for once, this wasn’t a fleeting moment. This monkey held her arms up for perhaps 20 seconds, then moved around to face the other side, giving us plenty of opportunities to record her proud pose.
Happy that we’d gotten some snow and some nice monkey photos, we headed back to Tokyo, and thankfully our flight was not delayed this time, so we made our way up to Hokkaido on schedule on the fourth morning of the tour, and made our way straight for the Red-Crowned Cranes, which continued to provide us with abundant photography opportunities.
The light was a little bit harsh at times though, so for this first photo, I actually drew a mask over the foreground and reduced the clarity, to try and take a little bit of the edge off the crunchy looking snow. It was nice to see the crane’s dancing together and many times on this trip they were kind enough to do it without other cranes getting in the way.
I put this post together in a bit of a jumbled order, as I selected my images, and came back to this point after writing the rest of the post, as I now know that I have way too many crane shots to share by the end of this episode. I still have 18 other images in addition to the rest of the shots that we will look at today, so I’m giving up trying to keep this series to just two episodes unless I can do a really good job of holding myself back on the swans and sea eagles later. I’ll cheat with the next shot too, sharing three images in one.
It can be a lot of fun to just make portraits of the cranes that get close enough to fill the frame with just parts of their bodies. The obvious shots are the head and the graceful poses that the cranes make as they go about their tasks, such as grooming and eating. I was trying to decide which one of these images to share and couldn’t, so I decided to just go with all three as a triptych. I anguished for a while over the order in which to place the images, but decided to just go with chronological order from left to right, as there flow became too choreographed each time I tried something that should have made more sense.
These photos were all shot at 560 mm with my Canon 200-400 mm lens with the 1.4X Extender. I actually found myself using a second extender for a focal length range of 280 – 560 mm with the internal Extender disengaged but then having the option to flip it back in for a focal length range of 392 – 784 mm. The image quality drops very slightly for some images, but the autofocus is still very snappy, although slightly more error-prone than when just using the internal Extender.
Here’s another shot made at 784 mm, with both the internal and external 1.4X Extenders engaged. I’m sure you’ll agree that the image quality is there, making this a viable way of shooting. I just really enjoy getting in close like this for some of my shots, especially with subjects as beautiful as these red-crowned cranes.
On the second day in Hokkaido, we visited the bridge in the town of Tsurui where the Red-Crowned Cranes sleep in the river, in what is supposed to be their safe haven. It would be if it wasn’t for the atrocious behavior of a select few visitors from neighboring countries. A few years ago, some Korean men dressed as government workers and went down under the bridge to get a photograph of the birds from a different angle, although the moment they did, the birds flew away and many didn’t return for a number of weeks.
This year, a Chinese man hired a taxi from Kushiro city to take him to the car park, where he set down his drone and proceeded to fly it down the river, once again startling the cranes, forcing them further back than ever. The cranes all used to roost where this foreground crane is now, and when they ventured closer to the bridge, they were only around 20 or 30 meters away, sometimes closer. These days though, after repeated abuses, they rarely come even this far forward.
I love this photo, but it completely saddens me to think that these locations are being completely ruined by the actions of just a few irresponsible people looking for a few seconds of video or something “different”. Before long the cranes will roost completely around that distant bend in the river, and there will be nothing but trees and water and a bridge full of disappointed photographers.
I don’t like to call out people by their nationality, as it really is just a select few, but it seems that people from our neighboring countries are the main perpetrators in these irresponsible acts, and I for one, would love it if someone was able to educate them a little more on how to behave around wild animals. If you think highly enough of something to want to photograph it, surely it isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to want to keep it safe and protected.
Or maybe the drive for being here in the first place is more about just needing a shot that your photography buddies have, and is completely unrelated to any kind of admiration for the subjects. And to be fair, I am probably thinking this way purely because we are neighbors, as I’m sure there are photographers in other countries that sometimes go too far to get the shot. To me, there are no photographs that are worth disturbing the animals to the degree that some people tend to be OK with.
Ural Owl Pair
We’d visited the Ural Owl’s nest that I know of in the area the previous day, and being late in the season, and warmer than usual, there were no owls there. After breakfast on the second day though, we went back, and the pair were sitting in their tree, looking as cute as ever. Being nocturnal, they sleep mostly during the day, but the larger female owl opened her eyes for a few moments to look down as something, before closing them again for the rest of our visit.
For this shot, I’d used both the internal 1.4X Extender and an external 2.0X Extender, for a focal length of 1120mm. That is really pushing it, but most of the time the images are still pretty sharp, as long as you have a fast enough shutter speed and accurate focusing.
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2022
As my 2021 Japan Winter Wildlife Tour is already sold-out, if you’d like to join me on this tour, please take a look at the 2022 tour page, or check my tours page for a link to everything that is currently available.
Today we start a series of travelogue-style episodes to walk through the second of my two Japan Winter Wildlife Tours for 2019, as we kick off with the Snow Monkeys, then move on to the Red-Crowned Cranes in Hokkaido.
A Mother’s Arms
After driving over to the Nagano Prefecture from Tokyo, we headed into the Monkey Park on the first day, and the relatively small amount of snow that we saw on the way in was a good indication that this was going to be a somewhat challenging visit, but that to me, is part of the fun of running these tours. I get to see these locations in all conditions, and I will always come away with something to make these visits worthwhile, both for myself and more importantly, for my guests.
I shot less than usual, but as with this following image, there are still little gems to shoot even if the valley isn’t filled with pristine snow. This mother was sitting on the side of the hot spring pool that the monkeys often bathe in, picking up the grain that the wardens through down for the monkeys, but of course it’s the interaction with the young monkey that makes this shot worth sharing.
Even though the mother is preoccupied with the grain, she shows affection for the youngster in her arms with the way her right arm is wrapped around its shoulder, and closed eyes in an animal to me are always a sign of security and contentment.
To ensure that I got a sharp shot with my 100-400mm lens, I increased my ISO to 3200 for a 1/500 of a second exposure at f/10. If I’m shooting the monkeys running around on the valley walls, I generally try to get at least an 1/800 of a second shutter speed or higher, but for monkeys sitting around, this is enough. My focal length for this shot was 300mm.
Note too that I have drawn a mask over the babies face and increased the Shadows slider a little in Capture One Pro, just to ensure that we can see the baby down in the shadows.
A Ride Home
All of the shots that I’ll share from this visit to the snow monkeys are from the middle of the three days. I really enjoy standing in a spot where the monkeys walk down the mountain through the snow, and I did that a lot on this trip too, but because there hadn’t been any fresh snow, what there was had become quite brown with the mud from the monkeys’ feet, and wasn’t all that picturesque. If, like my tour participants, it was my first and perhaps only, visit I’d spend the time to clean up the dirty snow in my photos, but I won’t spend the time to do that myself.
After lunch on the second day though, as I walked back down to the hot spring pool, there were a few monkeys walking down the mountain in some still relatively clean snow, as you can see in this photograph. You will also be able to see how wet the snow is, as this patch resists the overwhelming temptation to become water.
For this shot I increased my shutter speed to an 1/800 of a second, just about enough to freeze the action, with an ISO of 2500 at f/10. My focal length was 176 mm, so you can tell I was pretty close.
This framing is also out of the camera. I clipped the back foot of the snow monkey, but I’m not too concerned about that. I like to frame my subjects as tight as possible, so I was pretty happy with this.
I increased the Shadows slider to brighten up the monkeys a little, and once again, I drew a mask over the baby’s face, and just increased the Shadows slider a little, to ensure that we can see it. Their faces tend to go a little dark, even in situations like this, especially as I’m exposing my images to ensure that the snow is white, and yet not over-exposed. That can make the monkeys a little bit dark overall.
This final image from the Snow Monkeys is from just a few minutes after the previous image. There was a procession of monkeys that came down the hill in a relatively short space of time, and it caused a small crowd to form, which probably started to intimidate the monkeys a little. In retaliation, this one climbed up on a log sticking out of the snow and shook the log a couple of times, which is a sign of aggression, aimed towards the crowd. That’s about as far as it went though. The monkey jumped off the log after a second or two and continued on its way.
The monkeys are, after all, very much accustomed to being close to the hoards of humans that visit the park each day, and in perspective, tolerate us really well, considering that they are still essentially wild animals.
My settings for this photograph were the same as the previous one. I shoot in manual mode so as to not have to worry about my exposure too much as I shoot, so once it’s set, I can just concentrate on getting my shots until the light conditions change.
In post, I opened up the Shadows on this image too, and once again drew a mask over the monkey’s face and just brightened it up a little. I also tweaked the Saturation slider a little, to bring out the red in the monkeys face. I don’t often do that, but for some reason, this monkey felt a little pale, so I thought I’d give it some help. Other than that, this photo is pretty much straight out of the camera.
After our three days with the Snow Monkeys, we took a steady drive back to Tokyo, then got an early flight up to Hokkaido on the fourth morning of the tour. Despite it being warmer than usual, I actually came away from the second trip this year with a huge number of images that I am really happy with. That’s a great problem to have, but it also means that as I prepare for this episode, I’m once again struggling to whittle down a selection of images to talk about. I have just gone through the images from the first four days in Hokkaido, and have 39 images that I’d love to share with you, and that obviously isn’t going to work. We’ll work through a few images anyway, and I’ll decide which one’s get chopped as we go along.
Room To Spread Wings
As I’ve mentioned recently, they have reduced the amount of corn that they are throwing down for the cranes, as their numbers are now increasing quite well. They have also stopped throwing out live fish at 2 pm each day at the Crane Center, and this means that the eagles no longer come to try and steal the fish. That was always fun, but it did mean that the Crane Center was often way too crowded on this second tour. Luckily for us though, these developments mean that although many locations in this area are now very crowded during this second tour, the Crane Center is not quite as bad, and because there is less food for the cranes, there are fewer cranes too.
That might not sound like a good thing, but there have been so many cranes for the last few years, that when they actually do something, it was very difficult to isolate the bird or pair that was performing for a nice photograph. That is definitely getting easier to do now though, because of the lower number of birds, although it’s still nice when a bird lands, like this, in a frame with no other birds in the foreground or background.
It’s also nice when we have a full covering of snow like this, and the overcast sky on this visit meant that there wasn’t too much contrast in the snow, which is great. I much prefer to see these beautiful birds in photographs shot in overcast conditions, as it’s easier to appreciate the detail in their feathers. I also really like it when the white of the bird is very similar to the white background. That’s probably one of the most appealing things about the photographs that we do on this trip to me.
So as to freeze most of the motion in these birds as they move around or fly, I had set my shutter speed to 1/1600 of a second at ISO 1000, and my aperture was at f/11, to ensure that I had enough depth of field to get two birds sharp when they are in the frame together, although that’s obviously not important for this photograph.
Ural Owl and Nuthatch
In the afternoon, we headed over to an owl’s nest that I know of, and although there was a pair on the nest during our first visit, there was only one owl this time. As I often say though, when we lose something, we often gain something else, and in this photograph, we have a surprise visit by a beautiful little Eurasian Nuthatch, posing perfectly for us on the side of the tree, and probably making enough sound scratching at the bark as he flitted around, to cause the owl to look over in his direction.
Although I had fitted a 2X Extender to my 200-400mm lens as well as engaging the built-in Extender, I’d actually not zoomed in fully for this, so that we could see these animals in their environment, so my focal length for this shot was 811 mm. To get my exposure of just 1/160 of a second I had to increase my ISO to 3200, at f/11. Of course, with both Extenders engaged, f/11 was the widest aperture available to me. The base f/4 aperture of the lens becomes f/5.6 when you engage the internal Extender, then we have to add two more stops, so f/8 then f/11 for the 2X Extender.
Dancing Cranes Triptych
I’m going to talk about the next three images as a set, because this is how I’m considering them, like a triptych. All three images were shot within 15 seconds of each other, as a pair of cranes danced at our final location for this day. We were here to do some panning shots with the cranes as the light dropped, but I couldn’t resist changing my settings to a faster shutter speed to try and freeze this movement a little.
Again, this is one of those situations where the birds are hardly distinguishable from the background, except for the parts of them that are black, or their red crowns. It was great that neither of these birds was banded, and despite me having to shoot these at ISO 8000, there is virtually no grain in these images, thanks to the EOS R, and because I was exposing to the right. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but most people are afraid to increase the ISO because it increases grain, but believe me, most of the time the increased exposure will counter this to the point where you will get a much cleaner image.
Six Cranes Take Flight
Unfortunately, for this next image, it had started to become so dark that my original image was around a stop under the right side of the histogram, so although I had my ISO set to 6400, has a little bit more visible grain in it than the previous images. Also, although I generally like to see sharper heads in my panning shots, for this image, I’m not letting that prevent me from really liking this. I love the form of the blurred wings of these six cranes as they run across the snow and start to take flight.
I also really like the bit of snow kicked up by the last few cranes, adding a nice additional element of interest. I actually deliberated as to whether or not I should do this, but I removed half a crane that was sticking into the shot from the left edge. I didn’t mind that it was cut off, because it kind of indicated that there were more birds to come, but it was slightly annoying that it was cut off, so I decided to remove it. My settings for this were a 1/30 of a second shutter speed with an aperture of f/5.6 and an ISO of 6400. I should have left my ISO up at 8000 or higher, but this was one of those times when the light was fading quicker than I noticed, so it kind of got away from me a little.
Otowa Bridge Bedlam
The following morning we visited the Otowa Bridge as usual, but despite leaving the hotel at 4 am the bridge was already packed when we arrived. We set up and waited to see if the hoar frost formed, but it was a little too warm for it to get really nice. We did have places to shoot from, but the shots weren’t great. To be completely honest, the bridge is becoming unworkable on this second tour, and although we’ll visit next year, it’s possible that we won’t even go early. On the following morning, before we left this area, we had a little bit of extra time in bed and didn’t try to get a place, opting rather to just shoot through the shoulders of the people that were already there.
This worked, and I’m relatively happy with this image, as the cranes started to rise, with a few walking around and one of them with his wings spread. I’m pleased that we were able to get some shots like this, but it’s getting really difficult. Thankfully the other parts of this tour are still great though. My settings for this were ISO 6400 for a 1/500 of a second at f/9. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in Extender engaged for a focal length of 560 mm.
Whooper Swan Fly-By
After the cranes, we headed over to Lake Kussharo where we photograph the Whooper Swans for two days. We made our customary stop at Lake Mashuu on the way, and stopped at a corner of Lake Kussharo for an hour before lunch, then having checked in and got our rooms sorted at the hotel, we went back to the lake for our panning session to end the day. Before the sun dropped behind the mountains though, we were treated with a fly-by at a good height, allowing me to shoot this next photograph.
I love the softly out of focus distant clouds in the background, and the swans here are beautifully sharp and uncommonly clean. They are often quite dirty on their undersides because of the algae on the bottom of the lake that rubs against them, but these pair are really quite clean, which makes all the difference. I also really like how the back one, of the two birds, is banking a little, almost as though he’s just come out of a corner. To freeze the action like this, I’d set my shutter speed to 1/1600 of a second at ISO 1600, with an aperture of f/11. I was zoomed in to 400mm with my EF 100-400mm Mark II lens.
We’ll finish today with a panning shot as we slowed down our shutter speeds, but unlike my usual swan panning shots, again, we were lucky enough to have another fly-by, and this time I left my camera in my panning settings, so it’s made a very ethereal image, and again, one that I believe has enough artistic merit that I’m not going to throw it out just because the swans’ heads aren’t sharp.
This actually reminds me of a photo that one of the participants shot on my very first tour to this location back in 2008, where the head wasn’t sharp, but the image blew me away, so I’m really pleased to have been able to get this image. My settings were 1/50 of a second at f/16, with an ISO of 640. It was really just luck that I had such a deep depth of field because of my panning settings, but it has enable me to capture quite a lot of definition in the mountain in the background as well, which I really like.
OK, so we’ll wrap it up there for this first episode. We’re actually doing pretty well, already into the swans, so I’ll try to get our final selection down to ten or maybe twelve images so that we can finish this series next week and move on to some other topics that I have lined up for you.
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 start a travelogue series to walk you through the first of my two Japan Winter Wildlife photography tours, during which we visit the snow monkeys in Nagano for three days before traveling up to Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan for a further nine days of majestic winter wildlife.
This tour seems to become more and more productive, despite me trying to gradually up my game, selecting my images with higher standards each year. As I prepared for this podcast I went through my current selects, which total 458 images, and on my first pass, I had a massive 147 images that I felt were good enough to talk about. I’ve ended up starting this first episode still not knowing how many images we have to talk about.
I guess we’ll just jump in at the start of the tour, as we got into photographing the snow monkeys. There wasn’t a lot of snow in the valley where the monkeys bathe in their hot spring bath, so the background was going to be a bit messy, but as is often the case, when weather conditions take one thing away, they generally give us something back.
The temperature was a little colder than usual, causing a lot of steam to rise from the hot water, as you can see in the first image for today (below), so with patience and a bit of luck, it was possible to capture some beautiful images of the snow monkeys at just the right time as the mist cleared around them, but stayed in the background enough to clean it up nicely.
The expressions on the faces of the snow monkeys as they bathe never cease to amaze me, in how human-like they are, and I felt very fortunate that the mist cleared just long enough for me to capture this moment. You might not think it from looking at this, but it really is split-second timing, so getting a nice expression at the same time as getting a window through the mist takes a fair amount of patience.
I generally only take my 100-400mm lens into the Snow Monkey park these days, as that’s all I need. My settings for this shot were an aperture of f/8 for 1/250 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 400mm.
The next image is from our second day with the snow monkeys, and there was less mist over the hot spring pool, but again, a great expression in this snow monkey as it relaxes in the bath (below). This time the monkey looks a little like an old curmudgeon with the way its lips are being pushed out by the side of the pool.
Because it had been snowing, there are lots of droplets of water in the monkey’s hair, which has become a bit frizzy from the moisture too, adding an almost comical element. I cropped this down just a tad around the top and side edges, for a closer look, but I was zoomed to the full extent of my lens at 400mm for this shot. My ISO was set to 1000 for a 1/320 of a second exposure at f/8.
Capturing the expressions on the monkeys’ faces or their human-like mannerisms has become a bit of an obsession for me over the years, so I was happy to capture this next image too, of a young monkey riding its mother’s back with his finger in his mouth (below).
The mother here is foraging for grain that is thrown out for them by the park wardens, and this was one of the few areas where there was a good full snow covering, so that worked well. It’s great that these monkeys have snow on their backs too, as that helps to show how harsh their environment can be. My settings were ISO 400 for a 1/500 of a second at f/8, and I was relatively wide with a focal length of 170 mm for this.
The last image (right) that I want to share from the snow monkeys is from later in the day, down the valley a little, where we often find monkeys huddling together to keep warm.
These can be difficult shots to compose, as the background was just brown rock, with some patches of bright snow, so I went in as close as I could to crop all of that out.
It felt natural to go to the vertical portrait orientation, as that helped me to get the three adult monkeys’ faces in while including the baby’s face and his mother’s hands.
I was aware that I was cropping away the two smaller monkeys hands and cutting the mother’s ear in half, but I felt this was necessary to really show the expressions on the monkeys’ faces while keeping the background to a minimum.
I’m very happy with the results though. I get so much from the expressions on these faces, especially the middle monkey with its eyes closed. We can read many different feelings or emotions into that expression.
My settings were ISO 1250 for a 1/400 of a second at f/11, and a focal length of 321 mm.
The third morning with the snow monkeys was somewhat uneventful, with most of the monkeys staying up in the sunlight on the mountains rather than coming down to the pool or the valley, so I didn’t really get anything to share from our final few hours in the park for tour #1.
After returning to Tokyo and spending a night in the hotel near the airport, we flew to Hokkaido bright and early the following morning and went straight to the Akan Crane Center. Apparently, there has been so little snow in Eastern Hokkaido this year that the grass was still showing until two days before we arrived. Luckily, there had been some snow, but as you can see in this first photo (below) it had been well trodden by the cranes and swans, and the harsh sunlight didn’t make it look as good as we’d hoped.
Still, it was nice to catch these two cranes singing in an open area, and I love how the wings and tail of the crane to the right are splayed open so that we can see all the beautiful detail inside. That and the fact that we can actually see their thin tongues makes up for the fact that the birds would otherwise simply be looking in the wrong direction. My settings were ISO 400 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/11, and I was using my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged, for a focal length of 560 mm.
In this next image (below) we see two red-crowned cranes crossing as they sang together, and once again, apart from a swans head in the bottom right of the frame, which I cloned out, they were in a clear enough area that I was able to capture them with some nice space around them. I do wish the snow was less textured, but there wasn’t a lot we could do about that. I was more just happy to have any snow at all at this point.
It’s also a pity that these cranes were so far to the right of the field that the sun wasn’t catching their eyes, giving them a catch-light, but had I been further to the right myself, I would obviously not have gotten this angle and the cross-over, so there is always an element of luck, whether it works for us or against us. I’m still happy with the photo mind. My settings were ISO 400 for a 1/1250 of a second at f/10, again at 560 mm.
At the end of our first day in Hokkaido, we moved to a place where I like to do some panning shots as the light drops. The wind direction caused most of the cranes to fly away from where we are able to photograph them from, but I still got a few shots that I quite like, such as this one (below).
Although I like to get the heads of birds sharp in my panning shots, the reality is that at 1/40 of a second you really will only get just a few images where that happens, and sometimes, as with this image, the aesthetic nature of other parts of the image win over the technical desire to get a sharp head. Here I simply love the shape of the feathers, especially those on the right wing of the right of the two cranes. You can almost feel the air rushing between those flight features causing them to ripple as they have here.
My settings were ISO 100 for a 1/40 of a second, at f/14, at 533 mm. I find that around 1/40 of a second is a nice sweet-spot for panning images with large birds like these. I try to work between a 1/25 and a 1/50 with a 1/25 giving much more blur, but also getting much more difficult to get anything sharp enough to act as a visual anchor for the image.
We went to the Otowa Bridge at dawn on our second morning in Hokkaido, but unfortunately, it clouded over as we waited for the sun to rise, so hoarfrost did not form on the trees either side of the river. I got a few nice shots of some of the crane’s flying towards us as they left the river, but the dark background really doesn’t work very well, so I’ll keep them to myself.
Last year we had so little success finding a Ural owl on the nests that I know that we usually visit later in the tour, that I decided to take the group to a nest that is close to where we photograph the cranes. The local photographers have done a good job of putting ropes in place at a point where you can’t get so close that you might disturb the owl too much, and more importantly, this stops people throwing things at the tree to wake the owl up, or make him fly.
And yes, you’d be amazed, but there are people from certain neighboring countries that have been seen doing this. This is also why so many of the owls have moved deeper into the woods, so now there are fewer photo opportunities for all of us, thanks to irresponsible actions of a selfish few.
Because of the new distance, I had to put a 2X Extender on to my 200-400mm lens, and with the internal 1.4X Extender engaged, I had to manually focus for this shot at 1,120 mm. The image is very slightly soft too, because of using two Extenders, but it’s sharp enough. I love the smiling eyes on this owl, probably because he no longer has to worry about having things thrown at him. My other settings were ISO 800, for a 1/320 of a second at f/11.
The rest of the day at the Akan Crane Center was a little uneventful again, so especially with the heavily textured snow, I don’t have any real picks, but we did visit the panning location at the end of the day again, and I quite like this next image (below) from that shoot.
Again, the cranes were running and taking off in the opposite direction to what I usually look forward to shooting at this location, but I think this works, because of the beautiful patterns of the wings as this group of cranes starts to take off against the dark background. My settings were ISO 800, this time at my slowest panning shutter speed of 1/25 of a second, at f/14, and a focal length of 560 mm.
The following morning we revisited the Otowa Bridge, and this time we were a bit luckier with the hoarfrost, as you can see in this last image for today (below). It wasn’t the strongest frost I’ve seen, but it was enough to make the scene quite beautiful, and compared to the previous day, we got some great images.
Because it was pretty cold though, relative to already very low temperatures of course, the crane’s were not very active, except for a flurry of dancing while it was still pretty dark, and then these three crane’s walked quite a way into the foreground, but otherwise, this was more about capturing the scene. My settings were ISO 800 for a 1/400 of a second at f/14, and a focal length of 400 mm.
After breakfast on our third day in Hokkaido, we drove over to the next location where we’d planned to spend two days photographing the Whooper Swans, but when the forecast was for snow at the crane center, on our fifth day I decided to bring the group back to the crane’s where we got some pretty special images of them in the falling snow and with a much cleaner covering of snow on the ground.
That’s a few days further into the travelogue though, and as we’ve reached my usual ten photo limit, we’ll wrap it up there for today, and pick up the trail next week with some Whooper Swan shots before returning to the cranes.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020
Our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, but we have just started taking bookings for 2020, so if you think you might like to join us, please take a look at the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2020.
Having completed the second of my two Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017 recently, today we start a travelogue series to walk you through our adventures with a selection of photographs to illustrate.
As this tour is a repeat of the first tour, and we do this every year, I’m going to skip over some of the details, and we will work through these images as quickly as possible. I’ve selected 30 shots to share, so this will be a three part series. We start with our visit to Nagano, four hours north-west of Tokyo, to photograph the adorable Snow Monkeys.
On our first afternoon the snow was getting a bit old, with lots of texture from footprints, and there wasn’t much action in the hot spring pool, so I concentrated on getting behavior shots, like this one (below). I enjoy photographing these little groups of huddling monkeys, especially when they have a relatively clear background like this.
The monkeys look relatively static in a single frame of course, but the truth is they are moving around quite a lot while in these huddles, so it’s always necessary to try and capture a moment when you can see lots of faces with good angles. I have about six shots of this group that I like, but I chose this to share because the smaller monkeys all look relatively relaxed, and the main adult looks to be tolerating the photographers around them. In most of the other frames, he looks a little bit tense.
I shot this with a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/14, ISO 1000 at 227mm. I stopped down to f/14 so that I could get most of the faces acceptably sharp. Even at f/14 the monkey on the far right’s face is starting to go a little soft, but it’s sharp enough. For all of these snow monkey images I was using my 100-400mm Mark II lens from Canon.
Tough Life for a Snow Monkey
The following day, we were blessed with a ton of snow to change up our opportunities. We walked in to the park before they opened, and were kept waiting for a while as the park owners cleared some of the heavy snow on the paths, but once we got in, we had a ball for a while as the snow continued to fall.
As you can see, the Snow Monkeys were living up to their names, absolutely covered in snow. As you can perhaps see from the posture of this monkey, she was shivering from the cold. The snow was still driving across the frame, and although you might wonder why they just didn’t get into the pool to warm up, they actually don’t get in when it’s very cold, as it was on this day.
You might be able to see that the face isn’t quite sharp for this shot, but that’s intentional in this case. Here I wanted to highlight the snow on the monkey, and that driving across the frame and across the face, and I feel this works better in this case.
There wasn’t a lot of light because of the sky still heavy with snow, so I needed to increase my ISO to 2000 for a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/10, 241mm.
Snow Monkey Cuddle
For this next photo (right) I went back to f/14, because there were two faces, and I wanted them both pretty sharp.
Here once again we can see and almost feel the harshness of the environment that these monkeys live in. It’s easy to think of this adult monkey cuddling the youngster to keep it warm, but there is as much an element of the adult using the youngster like a hot water bottle too. I’m sure there are mutual benefits.
I have a few frames with the adult monkey’s eyes closed as well, and in many ways, I like these more, but on this occasion, I do like the direct contact, the connection with those piercing eyes in both monkeys here.
Having stopped down to f/14 for this, I needed an ISO of 4000 for a shutter speed of 1/160 of a second, at 255mm. As I mentioned recently, it’s often better to increase your ISO and continue to expose to the right, than it is to shoot a darker image with a lower ISO and then amplify the grain in post.
As the snow stopped falling, I started to simply watch the monkeys going about their business, and just looking for an action or mannerism that adds a touch more interest to the photo. This monkey was just picking the grain that’s thrown out for them from the snow, when they shook the snow from their fur, by rotating the head around (below) as you’ll have seen dogs do when they shake off water.
Shaking Off Snow
There’s still plenty of snow stuck to the monkey here, which adds a little extra element of interest and of course the head isn’t totally sharp as it shakes around, but I had increased my shutter speed to 1/640 of a second, in preparation for some possible action, so it’s sharp enough and the blur that is left just helps to show the movement. My other settings were f/11, and the light had increased now to the point that I was able to reduce my ISO to 800, and my focal length was 248mm.
After lunch, I went down by the river in the valley, as there really wasn’t a lot happening around the pool, and there was a mother sitting with a baby, as we can see in this photo (right).
For this shot, I selected an image with the mother’s eyes closed, to help direct our eyes down to the youngster. The thing I like about this shot more than anything is that arch in the mother’s soft fur around the youngster’s head. That just looks so comfortable and warm.
Another decision I made is to leave my aperture at f/11, and allow the mother’s face to go a little soft, but again, that’s so that our eyes are guided more quickly to the youngsters face and that arch of fur.
It’s important to use the aperture to control the depth of field to help guide how the viewer sees the image. You probably won’t be able to appreciate this in the web version, but in the larger image this is a very subtle but an effective touch to help polish the photo, in my opinion.
My other settings were 1/500 of a second, ISO 500 with a focal length of 158mm.
As I travel on my tours, we often run into other groups, and I generally know their leader, and enjoy catching up and hearing what other people are up to. One thing I’ve noticed though, is that most of them have something to complain about. A popular one right now is that the Akan Crane Center where we spend most of the first two days in Hokkaido, have stopped feeding live fish to the cranes at two o’clock, because they don’t want to attract the sea eagles that could bring avian flu to the cranes.
Sure, the sea eagles at the cranes has always been a highlight of the day. A lot of the locals buy season tickets, and only turn up for the eagles, then leave as soon as the feeding frenzy is over. It’s easy to see why other leaders would complain about this, but when I first heard of this decision this year, I punched the air and gave out a little woot! Why? Because the lack of feeding is not only stopping the eagles coming, but it’s reduced the number of cranes at the center too.
So, you probably wonder why that’s a good thing too, right? When I first started to photograph the cranes more than ten years ago now, there were not so many of them.
Of course, the birds increasing numbers is a great thing, but photographically, when there are so many of them, it can be very difficult to get a photo of the cranes doing something without a lot of other cranes in the foreground and/or background.
It’s been a number of years since I was able to get a shot like this one (right), with just two cranes calling together, without lots of other cranes in the frame.
It’s so easy to focus on what we lose, but whenever we lose something, we generally gain something else, so I was not disappointed to hear about the lack of feeding this year, as I generally pretty quickly find the silver lining in every situation.
I was really happy to capture this shot, the first for a number of years, especially as there was a fine snow falling, adding those tiny specks across the dark top half of the image.
My settings for this photo were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at f/14, with an ISO of 1600, at 560mm with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
Another thing that gets easier when the cranes are fewer in numbers, is this kind of photographic study (right).
I’ve been doing these for many years now, and find it a great way to kill time between the more dynamic action that we sometimes see. I enjoy just watching for cranes that are preening themselves, for example, and trying to capture a moment when we can see something that isn’t always visible, like the inside of the bird’s wings here.
I’m also attracted to the two black rims of the crane’s eyes that we can see on either side of its head. Most of all though I just love the detail in the underside of the wings, and the contrast between the black and white, and again, the fact that there are no other cranes messing up the shot.
I also like that it’s still snowing lightly, adding those little white specks across the dark wing feathers.
My settings for this were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed, at f/14, with the ISO set to 1600, and a focal length of 473mm.
After a steady first day at the cranes, I took the group to a location where I know there are cranes that fly out across some dark background trees as the light drops at the end of the day, so it’s a great place to do slow shutter speed panning shots, like this next image (below).
Into the Snow
The crane’s heads move quite a lot as they fly, so they aren’t an easy bird to pan with, but if you shoot enough, some of the frames have heads sharp enough to make the photograph work. For this image I also like how the falling snow has once again left it’s mark on the image, with long streaks this time, thanks to my 1/40 of a second shutter speed.
With the light as low as it was by this time, we don’t need any neutral density filters. In fact, even to get a 1/40 of a second shutter speed, I had at ISO 3200 at f/11, with a focal length of 300mm.
Too Few Cranes
Although I was happy to get a few less cranes at the Akan Crane Center, I was disturbed to see so few at river from the Otowabashi (bridge) on our second day in Hokkaido. There are just 19 cranes in this photograph (below) although I actually counted 25 in total.
Snowy Morning at Setsuri River
Although it was too warm to get the hoar frost on the trees, we’d been lucky to get some fine snow that had stuck to all of the trees, making them go white anyway, so the scene was not a total throwaway. The warm dawn light reflected on the river was nice too, but I’m sharing this photo more to raise a very concerning issue that has to be stopped.
Photographers Lacking Respect for Wildlife
The night before, the owner of the hotel that we stay in had told me about something despicable that happened on February 19th, five days before I shot this photograph. It turns out that a group of Korean photographers had dressed as workmen, and forged passes pretending to have permission to walk 200 meters down the river towards the cranes, with the intention of photographing them from a different location to where all others safely shoot from.
This of course startled the cranes, and most of them flew away unnaturally. In the photos that I shared with you in Episode 561, I can count approximately 120 cranes at this same location. These numbers were before any of them had flown from this location on both mornings.
The river where these birds roost is their safe haven. They sleep in the river, because unfrozen water is warmer than the cold air. Water also provides protection from predetors, both physically and by alerting the cranes to anything approaching through the sound of footsteps in the water. They have gradually moved further down the river, away from the bridge from which we photograph them, probably because of the sheer number of photographers at this location each morning now, many of whom lack the respect to even keep their voices down as we all work.
To forge passes and dress up like workmen just to get a photo that is “different” from everyone else, has caused these birds to change their behavior. There were almost one fifth the number of cranes when we visited five days after this incident. The following morning when we went back, I counted approximate 60 cranes, so they are gradually coming back, but still only around half of the group size compared to three weeks previous to this incident.
Height of Selfishness
These Korean photographers should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. They not only changed the dynamic of the scene itself for all other photographers, but much more importantly, they caused an endangered species to change their behavior, which can have a knock on effect to perhaps even result in fewer chicks born this year.
The Red-Crowned Crane is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. How can anyone believe that it’s OK to upset their natural habitat for a photograph!? I will be doing everything I can to increase exposure of this kind of act, and hopefully find ways to help educate photographers on the need to treat wildlife with respect.
Before we move on, I do want to point out that I know that this is not only about Korean and other Asian photographers, although there is a disproportionate number of Asian photographers that lack respect for wildlife. I have of course seen Western visitors lacking in due respect, so this isn’t necessarily about the origin of the photographer, but something has to be done to educate people, and I’m going to do what I can to help, starting with highlighting this issue here, and there will be more to come.
Crane in Flight
On a lighter note, let’s get back to us photographing the cranes, with one last image to finish with for today. After breakfast, we headed back over to the Akan Crane Center for our second day there, and I shot this image of a Red-Crowned Crane in flight (below).
Crane in Flight
I’m happy with this shot, because of the positioning of the bird in the top third intersection, also with the cloud nicely positioned below. I’m particularly happy with this though because of the incredible sharpness and great catchlight in the eye of the crane. Due to the angle of the light, it’s often not possible to get a good catchlight, so this is a great added bonus. This is not cropped at all, so at 50 megapixels, when you zoom in and check out the detail, it makes the hair on the back of my head stand up. I shot this at 1/1000 of a second at f/11, with the ISO set to 320, and a focal length of 442mm.
We’ll pick up the trail next week with two last crane shots before moving on to the whooper swans, eagles and foxes.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019
Because our 2018 tours have now filled, we’ve started to take bookings for 2019, so if you are interested, please check the details and book at https://mbp.ac/ww2019. If you’d like to be added to the wait list for 2018, please drop us a line.
Last week we completed the first of my two Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017. Today I’m starting a travelogue series to walk you through our adventures via a selection of my photographs.
As usual the tour was a lot of fun, and very productive. I was able to keep up with my initial selection of photographs each day as the tour progressed, and I ended up shooting just under 6,000 images, which isn’t a lot for a wildlife trip, but I’m shooting with 5Ds R bodies which are slow, and I’ve been to the locations we visit so many times I can be more selective than the participants.
At the end of each day, I went through and deleted any obvious mistakes and images where I missed focus etc. and put a 3 star rating against any of the images that I wanted to look at again. I created a Smart Album in Capture One Pro to automatically pick up all 3 star or higher images so that I could easily go back in and review my selection. Whenever I had some spare time, I’d go back in and remove images that I didn’t feel so strongly about and came home with around 880 images that still had a three star rating.
Over the last week, in between catching up with other tasks that I need to complete before starting the second tour on February 19, when I release this first travelogue episode, I’ve continued to go back in and whittle down my selection to currently 320 images. I’ve run out of time to get down to my final selection, so to start preparing for this episode I’ve gone through my selection and marked all of the images that I want to talk about, and I’m currently at 120, which would take three months to talk about, so I obviously have to get that number down further.
As a record of this first selection, I changed the star rating to 4 for all but a few which were just for illustration purposes. I really would like to talk about this trip is just three episodes, four at most, so at 10 images per episode we’re talking 30 to 40 images or just a little more. As I’m running out of time, I’m going to steam through and select the images that I feel I absolutely must talk about, and see where that leads.
Great Weather for Most of the Trip
The weather was very cooperative, giving us two great mornings with hoar frost on the river with the Japanese Red-Crowned cranes, which is always a treat, but we didn’t get any falling snow while we were with the cranes. We still had a great time though, and got some beautiful photos, as you’ll see as we progress through this travelogue.
We started the tour with an optional dinner at a hotel in Tokyo, before meeting to start the tour officially the following morning to head out to Nagano for our first three days to photograph the adorable snow monkeys. I was very happy to see that we had a lot of snow in the valley as we walked in, as last year there had been very little snow.
We spent our first afternoon with the monkeys, getting the group accustomed to photographing in the snow, and getting used to shooting in Manual mode to get the best possible results in these winter wonderland conditions. I had some nice shots from the first afternoon, but although there was lots of snow on the ground, it wasn’t fresh and it didn’t snow while we were there.
The following morning though, we awoke to a good covering of fresh snow, that was still falling, so when we arrived in the monkey park when they opened at 9am, the snow on the valley walls was still untouched, and that’s a bit of a treat to work with. The first photo that I want to share is this one of a female snow monkey making her way through the fresh snow (below).
Snow Monkey Forging Through Deep Snow
On the previous day this snow had been chunky and nasty from a thousand snow monkey footprints, but with the fresh snow it was transformed. It was also very soft, almost powder snow, so it looked great as the monkeys walked through it, and of course, it stuck to their fur, which helps to illustrate the harshness of the conditions that they live in.
I shot this at f/10 at ISO 800 for a shutter speed of 1/400 of a second. That’s about as slow as I like to go for a moving subject, and I generally try to speed this up as the light increases. It worked here though, because the monkey wasn’t running at speed.
As the monkeys got more active, running around, often in confrontation, I increased my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second by increasing my ISO to 1250 and reducing my aperture to f/8 for this next photograph (below). Here we see a young snow monkey retaliated as another monkey showed aggression towards him.
Snow Monkey’s Arrest
Again, the soft snow was sticking to the monkeys as they ran around, and this always adds a nice extra element to improve the photographs, and another of the reasons why I love it when we have fresh snow.
Also, although I am often happy to just capture a quiet moment, more like a portrait than a wildlife shot, I do like it when I can capture some dynamic movement and a different expression like this. It takes a bit more patience as you need to be watching constantly, but that’s the biggest part of the fun of wildlife photography.
This next image (right) is more in the other camp, the quiet portrait, although the timing was still pretty critical. This little guy with a huge coat of fur was just chilling out, and was actually wide awake, but to get a more peaceful looking image, I released the shutter when he had his eyes closed for a few moments, as I much prefer this kind of image if the monkey is just sitting around.
For this image I had also dropped my shutter speed back down to 1/800 of a second at f/8 with ISO 800. This is my ready for action zone. It’s fast enough to capture some moderately fast action, but of course that also works for static subjects like this little guy.
I tweaked my Manual settings again, as the light changed, so I increased my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second and reduced my ISO to 640, at the same aperture of f/8, for this next crazy image (below). It looks like this monkey is laughing maniacally while looking directly at the camera. The reality is that she’s retaliating to aggression in the group, and for a moment looked at me.
I have a second frame where she looks like the joker from Batman, but we’ll move on as I try to keep the number of images down to ten for today. A word on the cropping before we do move on though. I shot this in landscape orientation, with the monkey on the left third, and I have cropped down to a square removing the right third of the image, as I feel it suits the image better, with the monkey looking straight at the camera.
I left the second image of this laughing monkey uncropped though, because she was looking to the right of the frame, and therefore the image looked better with some space for her to look into.
This last image from the snow monkeys (below) shows another relatively young monkey walking down the valley wall in the fresh snow. This is another reward for being patient and aware, as well as a bit of luck. The fresh snow around the hot spring pool was starting to get trodden down, except for a patch on the top left. I recalled that monkeys often climb down the mountain and walk through this point, so I started to watch for some coming down.
Shoulder High Snow
Only a few moments later, I could see two monkeys way up on the mountain side, and sure enough, they made their way through to this point, so I was able to photograph them coming through the fresh snow. This is actually the second one. The one that actually broke the snow first got so buried in it the photograph was a bit of a mess, so this is the better of the two, again with lots of snow on the monkeys fur, showing the harshness of their environment.
We came back into the park for a third day, just for a few hours before heading back to Tokyo for the night, then we set off for Hokkaido bright and early on the fourth morning, with our first stop being to photograph the beautiful and graceful Red-Crowned Cranes.
On the first day, we got lots of great photos of the cranes flying overhead. I have many with just one crane, which are nice, but they often feel a little bit documentary, so I thought I’d share this one, with six adult cranes flying together, which I quite like (below).
Six Adult Cranes in Flight
I always find it interesting that some of the cranes fly with their legs tucked in when it’s cold, rather than letting them hang out to the back like the others in this group. They leave their legs tucked away like that sometimes until literally just before they land, as though they are lowering the landing gear.
No Fish Fed to the Cranes
During this trip the crane center that we visit had been forced to stop feeding the cranes live fish, as this attracts the sea eagles. Although that’s become one of the main attractions in addition to photographing the cranes, the eagles travel further distances and therefore risk bring avian flu to the group, so there was no feeding at two o’clock and subsequently no eagles. Apparently after a meeting with the government bodies on February 14 they are now feeding fish to the cranes again, but not at 2pm, which has become too well know by the eagles, so this year, there are no eagles here. Luckily for my group we spend three quality days with the eagles anyway later in the trip.
Sublime Hoar Frost
As I mentioned earlier, we had some beautiful hoar frost at the river, giving us some sublime photography opportunities on our second morning in Hokkaido, day five of the tour. The temperatures got down to around -25° C (-13° F) for a while, which was great, because we need it to be cold with no wind for the hoar frost to form, but when it’s this cold the mist can be a little too thick. We patiently waited though, and as the mist sometimes thinned we were rewarded with photos such as this one (below).
Cranes in River Mist at Dawn
The cranes are still mostly asleep as it needs to warm up a little more for them to become active, and they are also roosting further down the river than usual this year, but I still love this scene. The sunlight was by this point directly hitting the trees to the right, and just catching the top of the mist in places, but what makes this shot for me is the layers of wispy mist flowing over the back of the scene, at the top of my frame here.
At the severe risk of sounding conceited here, when I came back to this photo a few days later, as it popped up on my screen the soft layers of mist and overall color palette felt very much like a Turner painting to me. There’s just something so ethereal and calming about this that really appeals to me.
I’m going to resist showing you another photo from this first morning of hoar frost, because as I’ve worked through my selection I’m now close to being able to finish the cranes in this first episode, and I have something slightly better from the second morning, so we’ll press on and look at a couple of photos from the second day with the cranes.
As I’d mentioned, we didn’t have any falling snow with the cranes, so I tended to concentrate on birds in the air, because the snow is a little too chunky and contrasty for my liking. Of course, for first time participants they’ll still get great shots, but I can be a bit more picky having visited so many times.
Also still trying to avoid showing just cranes with a blue sky background, this photo (below) has become a bit of a favorite because of the trees in the background, that add a lot more texture and detail than my usual images at the crane center.
Crane in Front of Trees
I shot this with my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged, but pulled back to 420mm. At f/10 though, at this focal length, the background gets relatively nicely blurred, while still keeping this large bird fully in focus, so there’s some nice separation and the snow on the distant hills is nice and soft, almost looking like clouds, apart from the bit of detail in the top left corner.
At the end of our second day with the cranes, I took the group to a location where there are usually a few cranes that fly out as it gets dark, giving us an opportunity to shoot a few panning shots before it does actually get dark. With no control over where the birds fly, most of them on this day flew over the top of the snow, rather than climbing a little higher to get a dark background, and white on white doesn’t look quite as good with the cranes. Instead, I thought I’d share this image (below) of three cranes starting to run as they took off, to fly to the river where they’d roost for the night.
Three Cranes Taking Off
For panning shots like this I generally select a shutter speed between 1/25 and 1/50 of a second, or perhaps a little bit faster, but not much. For this image I was using 1/30 of a second shutter speed at f/11 with the ISO set to 800. This gave me plenty of movement in the wings so I’m relatively happy with this, although I do prefer it when the birds are actually in flight and over a dark background.
OK, so as I’ve worked through this, selecting the images that I want to share with you, I’m at the point where we can finish the Snow Monkeys and Cranes with just three more images from the last morning at the bridge with the hoar frost, so we’ll push this episode to twelve images, then move on to Whooper Swans next week. We’ll probably be able to finish in three episodes then, so we’re doing well here.
As I’ve mentioned in previous years, the bridge from where we photograph the cranes on the river is called “Otowasbashi” where “bashi” or “hashi” just means bridge, but I love the fact that “Otowa” in Japanese means “the sound of wings”. The name of the town is “Tsurui” which means “Cranes are Here”, and I also find that very cool. To top it all, the bridge on which the photographers stand is actually a second bridge built just for photographers, to keep them off the main road which runs parallel to it.
This image was shot at 7:22, about 30 minutes after the sun had risen, so there was still a bit of warmth in the light hitting the scene, and I love the shape that the mist forms in this photograph. The cranes were waking up slowly because it was almost but not quite as cold as the previous day at around -23° C (-9° F). This is perfect for the mist. It was thick for a while, but not too thick, as you can see (below).
Cranes Call in Mist
Basically as the scene unfolds and the mist forms pleasing patterns, we stand and wait with our fingers crossed for the birds to do something to add a little more interest to the scene. For me here that was the two cranes that were singing to the right. I pulled my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged back to 480mm so that I could get both banks of the river in too, which I often like to do. My shutter speed here was 1/500 of a second at f/14, ISO 800.
The cold kept the birds from really waking up though, until 7:55. My group were getting cold and wanted to go back to the hotel for breakfast, but knowing the potential of the scene and the fact that the birds would eventually all wake up, we gave it a little more time, and then most of them started to dance and sing, for one last frenzy of shutters from the bridge.
When all of the cranes are dancing together, it can actually be a bit messy as a scene so my favorite at the moment is this shot (below) there are two birds dancing just left of center, with good clearance through to the background, and there are also a few other birds dancing in the right side, though less obvious. You can also see that the light has cooled down a lot by this point, partly because it had clouded over a little, but also because the sun was now higher in the sky, and the mist had also died down considerably.
Dancing at Dawn
After grabbing lots of shots of the dancing frenzy, I switched to video and got thirty-seconds of footage of the entire group dancing, which is really quite special, so I’ll be inserting that into a slideshow or other video at some point.
For this final photo (below) from the bridge and for today, shot about 20 minutes later, just before we left, there was a small group of cranes that had warmed up enough to fly out, probably heading over to the crane center that we’d photographed them at for the last two days.
Cranes Take Flight at River
The cranes quickly climbed and flew over the trees to the right of the frame here, but I’m happy with this shot, where they are all still in a clear patch, making it easy to understand what we’re looking at. For this shot I zoomed in just a little to 490mm and shot this at f/14 for a 1/500 of a second at ISO 1600, which incidentally was the same for the previous image as well.
We’ll leave it there for this week, as we left the cranes for this tour, to move on and shoot the Whooper Swans, which we’ll pick up next week.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019
Because our 2018 tours have now filled, we’ve now started to take bookings for 2019, so if you might be interested, please check the details and book at https://mbp.ac/ww2019. If you’d like to be added to the wait list for 2018, please drop us a line.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour 2019
CP+ 2017 Canon Large Format Printer Booth
One other piece of housekeeping before we finish, I’m proud and thrilled to tell you that Canon will be using five of my images at their large format printer booth at the CP+ show in Yokohama Japan, from February 23 to 26, 2017. One of the image will be printed at B0 (zero) size, which is 40 x 56 inches, and the other four will be trimmed to approximately one meter wide and 2.5 meters high, to show the capabilities of both the 5Ds R camera and the new imagePROGRAF PRO line of printers.
If you will be visiting the show, please do stop by the Canon large format printer booth and take a look. If you get a chance to take a photo too, please do and send me a copy, because I can’t go myself. I’ll be on the second of these tours while the show is on.