Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 2 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 654)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 2 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 654)

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 Mother's Arms
A Mother’s Arms

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.

A Ride Home
A Ride Home

Standing Ground
Standing Ground

Standing Ground

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.

Hokkaido

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.

Crane Landing
Crane Landing

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.

Ural Owl and Nuthatch
Ural Owl and Nuthatch

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.

Six Cranes Take Flight
Six Cranes 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.

Heaven from Bedlam
Heaven from Bedlam

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.

Whooper Swan Fly-By
Whooper Swan Fly-By

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.

Homeward Bound

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.

Homeward Bound
Homeward Bound

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.


Show Notes

See details of the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2020

Details of all available Tours & Workshops are here: https://mbp.ac/workshops

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

Subscribe in iTunes to get Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast as an MP3 with Chapters.

Visit this page for help on how to view the images in MP3 files.


Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 1 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 652)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 1 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 652)

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.

Snow Monkeys

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.

Act of Aggression
Act of Aggression

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.

Galloping Snow Monkeys
Galloping Snow Monkeys

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.

Very Snowy Monkey
Very Snowy Monkey

Exposure Considerations

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.

Leap of Faith
Leap of Faith

Red-Crowned Cranes

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.

Ruffled Feathers
Ruffled Feathers

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.

Crane Flyover

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.

Crane Flyover
Crane Flyover

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.

Catchlight Help

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.

Ural Owl Duo
Ural Owl Duo

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.

Three Cranes Take Flight
Three Cranes Take Flight
Red-Crowned Crane Preening
Red-Crowned Crane Preening

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.

Crane with Birch Trees
Crane with Birch Trees

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.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour

Show Notes

See details of the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2020

Details of all available Tours & Workshops are here: https://mbp.ac/workshops

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

Subscribe in iTunes to get Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast as an MP3 with Chapters.

Visit this page for help on how to view the images in MP3 files.


2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #2 Travelogue #1 (Podcast 611)

2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #2 Travelogue #1 (Podcast 611)

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.

Snow Monkeys

Stretchy Cheek
Stretchy Cheek

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).

Riding Mum's Neck
Riding Mum’s Neck

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.

Dignified
Dignified

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).

Post-Scratch
Post-Scratch

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).

Crane Head
Crane Head

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).

Two Crane's In Flight
Two Crane’s In Flight

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.

Ural Owl

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.

Cozy Ural Owl
Cozy Ural Owl

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.

Pink River

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).

Pink River
Pink River

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.

Cranes Singing in Snow
Cranes Singing in Snow
Loopback
Loopback

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.

Cranescape
Cranescape

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).

Final Flyout
Final Flyout

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.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour and Workshop 2020

Show Notes

Book for 2020 here: https://mbp.ac/ww2020

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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


Snow-less Monkeys – A Summer Visit Travelogue (Podcast 480)

Snow-less Monkeys – A Summer Visit Travelogue (Podcast 480)

A few weeks ago, I took my new Canon EOS 5Ds R over to the Monkey Park at Jigokudani, where we photograph the Snow Monkeys for the first three days on my Winter Wonderland Tours. This though was the first time I’ve visited during the summer, so the now Snow-less Monkeys showed me a very different face, making it an almost magical visit, in a different way to my winter experiences.

This was also the first time I’ve visited the snow monkeys alone. Even on my first reconnaissance visit, I went with a couple of friends, so as much as I love taking my winter groups there, it made a change to be there alone. Also, because of the lack of the snow, there were very few visitors in the park. This is totally understandable, as the winter is spectacular, but the summer should not be discounted, as we’ll see through the photographs that I’ll walk you through today in this travelogue style episode.

I’d been hoping to visit the snow monkeys during the summer for a while now, because the new babies are born in May, and I really wanted to photograph them while they are still very small. Each year I seem to be too busy to get over there, but with the release of the Canon EOS 5Ds R and my need to shoot some test shots, I thought this would be a good opportunity to see how the long lenses fared with this new ultra-high resolution camera. You can see my review of this camera in Episode 478, including some 100% crop images from this series, so I won’t go into much detail about the camera today.

Jigokudani, which translates to Hell Valley, is up the mountains in Nagano prefecture, about a 4 hour drive north-west of Tokyo. I left early on the morning of June 22 (2015) and after grabbing some lunch on the way, I arrived shortly after noon and started shooting.

In the winter time, especially when the weather starts to close in, the snow monkeys crowd into the hot spring pool to keep warm. Not surprisingly, in the summer, when the temperatures start to rise, there isn’t really any need to bath to keep warm, but it was nice to see a few monkeys going in and out and the pool during my time in the park.

In many ways, the mother monkeys show a lot of affection for their young, but in some ways, there’s a lot of tough love going around as well, as I witnessed as this mother carrying her sleepy baby under here belly walked straight into the pool with him still down there. The baby quickly clambered up onto her back, but looked a little bewildered for a while as he regained his sense of place.

Six Week Snow Monkey on Mother's Back

Six Week Snow Monkey on Mother’s Back

This was shot with the 100-400mm Mark II lens at 400mm, f/5.6 for 1/500 of a second at ISO 200. Again,  although I’m not going to go into much detail about the 5Ds R today, this is the time that I started to realize that shooting hand-held with long lenses at this resolution is absolutely possible. Even at 100% these images are tack sharp, as I showed in my review.

Another obvious difference in my photos from this visit is the present of green. Even in this first image, the water is green as it reflects the color of the lush green foliage from around the pool. In this next photo (below) it was also strange for me to capture green leaves near the baby monkey, although it isn’t anywhere near as pretty in this photo as when the monkeys are surrounded by snow.

Who Me!?

Who Me!?

I really liked the pose in this photo, as though the baby monkey has been caught doing something he shouldn’t be, with that very human “Who me?” pose. This was also shot at 400mm, with a 1/500 of second exposure at f/8, ISO 400.

Drowsy Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Drowsy Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Next up, is probably my favorite snow monkey photo from this visit. This six week old snow monkey stopped for a moment during his play, and looked over towards me, but with such a cute out or sorts kind of look on his face, so I couldn’t help capturing this image (right).

The monkey’s half coconut mouths are still made of incredibly pink, soft skin at this age, and make you just want to reach out and scrumple it up, like a kitten.

The pixie-like ears are lovely too, but here those dopy looking eyes just stole my heart. For the last six months my photo of the yawning red fox from Hokkaido has been on my iPhone lock-screen, but now I’ve changed it for this photo, so I get to smile now every time I unlock my phone. 🙂

Once again, this was shot hand-held at 400mm, 1/500 of a second, f/5.6 at ISO 400.

Aaaaaaah!

Aaaaaaah!

I struggled with the decision of which of a series from around this next photo I would include in this episode. There was a mother grooming a baby, and pulling her face in all directions.

Some of them had the older sibling looking on, much as a small human child might watch mother tending a new born baby, and others such as this shot, the year old sibling was just going about their business to the right.

I chose this shot though, as this was the point when the baby seemed to lose her ability to simply bear being tugged around, and opened her mouth showing her discomfort.

The light had dropped a little at this point, so I had increased the ISO to 1000, still shooting at 1/500 of a second, at f/6.3, and now using the 200-400mm lens with the built-in extender engaged at 442mm. This is a big lens though, so I was now also using a tripod with a gimbal head.

I composed this next photo much tighter. I often like to include the mother’s face too, but here I wanted just the baby to be the main subject. Again, I like the hand position here, with the left hand kind of shielding her head and the right hand clutching firmly on her mother’s furry arm. This photo to me is more about the vulnerability of these six week old babies. I shot this at 1/250 of a second, f/6.3, ISO 640 at 490mm.

Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Six Week Old Snow Monkey

Six Week Old Snow Monkey in Mother's Arms

Six Week Old Snow Monkey in Mother’s Arms

I also find it interesting that many of the babies showed large patches of black skin below their still very thin fur. I didn’t realise that they had these markings as you can’t see this once the fur has grown more later in the year.

This next image (right) is another favorite. Again a somewhat vulnerable pose, but just look at he affection shown for the baby by the mother, by the way she’s holding the baby’s face!

I’ve said before, that I know this is anthropomorphic, I tend to personify pretty much everything, including inanimate objects, but with these guys being so like us, it’s hard not to do this.

I shot this at 1/160 of a second, f/6.3, ISO 640 at 560mm. I actually over-exposed the fur on the mother’s head here, so that I could get a good exposure on the baby’s face which was in deep shadow otherwise.

The mother’s tend to keep their new baby’s quite close to them sometimes, but they also simply let them run around and play with other babies as well, and I caught two of them keeping each other company in this next photograph (below). Again, I just want to scrunch their mouths up, they’re so cute! It might not come across well in these photos, but these little guys are probably only around 20 centimeters tall when they’re sitting down like this, so the palm of my hand would envelop their entire face and head, so it wouldn’t really work, but I’d love to give it a try.

Two Baby Snow Monkeys

Two Baby Snow Monkeys

Of course, you’re not allowed to touch the snow monkeys. It’s OK if they touch you though. At one point, I sat down on a bench that they have out during the summer, and felt something tugging on my photographers vest. One of these babies had jumped up on the bench beside me and was tugging at the straps on the side of my vest. After a while he turned around and started playing with my camera bag, then a year old monkey came flying out of the rocks and pulled the baby off the bench and started play-fighting with it in the dirt below. I have some video of this that I might include in a slideshow at some point if it works. This photo (above) was shot at 1/320 of a second, f/8, ISO 800 at 560mm.

The park closes at 5pm which left me with a couple of hours before it would get dark, and I’d booked into a cheap business hotel in a nearby town, so I’d grab something for dinner at the convenience store on my way there later, and this gave me a couple of hours before it got dark, which I used to drive up to the Shigakougen highlands, and do some landscape work after this. I went back their on the afternoon of the second day too, so I’ll report on the landscape work I did during this trip in the next episode.

Next up, here’s something that you don’t see in the winter either, from the morning of the following day, June 23 (2015). When it’s cold the monkey’s sit in the snow with there bony behinds, to keep the contact area with the cold snow to a minimum. In early summer though, these rocks were probably quite a comfortable temperature for them, as I saw them lying around on the rocks quite a lot. I thought it was so cute that this baby decided to have a feed as him mum chilled out on the rocks though (below). I shot this at 1/400, f/7.1, ISO 800 at 400mm.

Baby Snow Monkey Feeding as Mother Lays Down

Baby Snow Monkey Feeding as Mother Lays Down

One thing that I wanted to do while I was here during the summer is get a shot of the monkeys with the fresh summer greenery in the background. Unfortunately I didn’t see any mother’s with their new babies in this environment–they all seems to be hanging out close to the hot spring pool–but I kind of like this shot of a mother with a year old youngster and the green background. You just can’t get this sort of image in the winter when the valley walls are covered in snow. Of course, I prefer the winter. The snow puts these monkeys in an incredibly beautiful environment, but this is something different (below). Shot at 1/250 of a second, f/8, ISO 400 at 200mm.

Young Snow Monkey with Mother

Young Snow Monkey with Mother

White Baby Snow Monkey

White Baby Snow Monkey

There was one mother that seemed to be keeping her new-born very close to her, and that was this one, that had given birth to an almost totally white baby (right).

She let the baby move up to a foot or so away from her a few times, and I shared one of those photos in my 5Ds R review, but photographically, I wasn’t able to really capture anything that I liked of this baby.

I’m sharing this one as our last image for this week, as I wanted to include it as a record, because this is quite a strange phenomenon. The baby isn’t albino. It has pigment in it’s eyes and some black patches of skin like the others, but it’s fur is just almost totally white.

Apparently there was a pale colored monkey born last year too, but it reverted to the normal coloring before the winter came, so this may be the only time we’ll see this. I’ll certainly keep my eye out for this little monkey during our 2016 Winter Wonderland Tours though.

It was a pleasure to spend time with the snow monkeys over these two days in the summer months. I still prefer the winter, but there were plenty of photographic opportunities at this time of year too, and this is of course the only time that you can see the new-born babies, as they’re much bigger when we visit in winter, although they’re still as cute as can be. 🙂

Like I say, I’ll share some landscape work from the Shigakougen (Highlands) next week. I actually ended up shooting some stitched panoramas with the new 5Ds R, giving me image over 140 megapixels that can be printed at 24 x 43 inches at 450 ppi, which I’m hoping to do soon, as I can free up some time. Stay tuned for a report on these things if you are interested.


Show Notes

Pick up a Canon EOS 5Ds R from B&H Photo here: https://mbp.ac/bh5ds

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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


Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour #2 2014 Part 1 (Podcast 412)

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour #2 2014 Part 1 (Podcast 412)

Today I’m going to walk you through 10 photos from my second Winter Wonderland Tour for 2014, in the first of what will be a two part series. Although we didn’t have much snow in Hokkaido at the start of Tour #1, record snow falls in Nagano got us off to a slow start, but as usual, we made the most of the situation and ended up with some photos that we probably wouldn’t have got otherwise.

The cold that usually sets in further north seems to have made it’s way much further south across the globe this year. Literally the day after we got back from Tour #1 we had the heaviest snow fall in Tokyo for more than 40 years, which was ironic because there had been much less snow than usual in Hokkaido while we were there.

As I prepared for Tour #2 though a week later, the forecast was for more snow, though they’d initially said it would not be as heavy as the big snow fall we’d had the previous weekend. They were wrong. Record levels of snow fell over the weekend, and by the Sunday as participants arrived to get started all of the roads to Nagano where we start our tour photographing the snow monkeys became impassable.

With four feet of snow falling in some areas in just one night, the military were out trying to dig people out from their cars, as they’d become trapped in sections of the highway. As participants arrived for our pre-tour dinner, I had to keep them waiting for 15 minutes or so as I talked through our options with our tour operator, the company that I outsource the logistics to.

There wasn’t much we could do other than wait and see if the roads would be cleared in time for us to get over to the Snow Monkeys before we would fly to Hokkaido in three days time. I spent an hour on the phone with our tour operator the following morning again, and we decided to make our way over to Nagano on the bullet train, which had just started running again.

This in itself was a bit of a nightmare as everyone that needed to get to Nagano were on these early bullet trains, because of course all of the roads were blocked. Still, the group were patient and we made our way across Tokyo on the train system, and they were all at least able to get a seat on the bullet train. I took one for the team and stood at the back of the carriage with the luggage that we couldn’t keep with the group. The bullet train isn’t designed for people with a lot of luggage, so there was no other option.

We usually go into the Monkey Park on the first afternoon, but the local trains that would get us closer to the town in which we usually stay were also not running, so it took us most of the day just to get to our hotel. Still, we were there, and we had a nice walk around the town for an hour or so before dinner.

The next problem that we had to deal with though, is that the track to the monkey park was still covered in very deep snow. The owners of the park had asked us not to go in until the afternoon, to give them time to clear the path.

One Happy Monkey

One Happy Monkey

As we’d already missed our first afternoon though, and there was a good chance that we’d have to forfeit our third morning with the snow monkeys too, I decided to ignore that request, and we walked into the park. The track was actually better than I’d expected, so everyone made it in, even though it did take a little longer than usual.

After apologizing to the park owner for ignoring his request, we started our photography. The next problem that we ran into was that the pipeline for the hot water that fills the pool that the monkeys usually bath in had ruptured, so there were no monkeys in the pool.

This was a bit of a shame, as people love to get their shots of the monkeys in the pool, but this meant that the monkeys were doing things that they didn’t usually do. Most of the troop for example were down in the valley by the river, and the large amount of snow put them in a beautiful environment, and we were presented with photos such as this one (right) of a snow monkey sitting in the snow just lapping up the warm sun.

The monkeys are so human-like, that we can easily relate to their poses and give them feelings that they may not actually have, at least in the way we feel them, but this monkey just looks so happy to be sitting in its little chair of snow soaking up the sun. This area is often just brown rocks and dirt, and the background is usually a rocky too, so things weren’t too bad, and the participants were enjoying their time with the monkeys.

As I stood up by the pool again, I had one of those moments where something happened so quickly that I wasn’t able to photograph it, and have ended up with an image in my mind that will haunt me until I can capture something similar. The heavy snow was in banks up on the valley wall behind the pool that the monkeys usually bath in, and as I turned having heard a screech from an adult monkey, the monkey burst through the bank of snow having been bullied by another monkey. The snow went everywhere and the expression the monkey’s face was classic. I’m not sure if there’ll ever be enough snow to get a second chance to make a photograph, but I’ll be trying, that’s for sure.

As I watched though, there was another adult monkey further around the bank of snow, and it seemed to have gotten into a position where climbing back up the bank would be more difficult than jumping across to this side, so I watched for a while, and was rewarded with this photograph (below).

Leaping Snow Monkey

Leaping Snow Monkey

Because I was shooting in Manual mode as usual, I already had my exposure locked in, and had zoomed to 280mm with my 70-200mm lens with the 1.4X Extender fitted, and luckily the auto-focus was able to lock in on the face of the monkey at just the right point as he leaped. The shutter speed of 1/400 of a second was fast enough to freeze the monkey in mid-air, and capture all of the falling snow showing the dynamism of the action unfolding, so I was pretty pleased with this one.

All in all it turned out to be a great day, and the group had some great snow monkey shots to show for their effort. Now we had to deal with the problem of getting back to Tokyo. There were still over 200 people trapped in their cars on the highways as we enjoyed our photography, and that felt pretty bad in some ways, because there had unfortunately been a number of fatalities.

Things were starting to look up for our tour though. The bus that we should have come out to Nagano on was able to take a detour around on a different highway that had now been cleared of snow, so Yukiko our tour conductor and I went to the hotel that our bus driver had just arrived in after we’d taken the group back to the hotel, and we worked on our strategy for getting back to Tokyo.

The road that we usually used was still blocked, but by this time all other roads were now open, so we decided to forfeit the last morning with the monkeys, opting to start our journey back to Tokyo after breakfast. As it happened, our usual road also cleared on the morning that we left, but there was still a good chance that we’d end up in heavy traffic and we couldn’t risk being late back to Tokyo, as that would put the rest of the trip in jeopardy. We had a flight to catch to Hokkaido the next morning.

We ended up getting back quite smoothly, and so with a couple of extra hours, we drove around to Odaiba, a small beach with a view of the Rainbow Bridge, and I worked with the group on some long exposure techniques, resulting in some nice shots for the group, but I didn’t have time to get a shot of my own, so I’ve got nothing to show you.

On the morning of February 20 we got our flight to Hokkaido without issue, and by mid-morning we were out on the snow photographing the Red-Crowned Cranes, grus japonensis. As I’ve mentioned before though, one of the highlights of photographing the cranes, is feeding time at 2pm, when fish are thrown out for the cranes, but most of them are stolen by opportunistic Black Kites, White-Tailed Eagles, and the occasional Steller’s Sea Eagle. Here we see a White-Tailed Eagle flying over the cranes with his “catch”.

White-Tailed Eagle with Catch

White-Tailed Eagle with Catch

I shot this with the new 200-400mm lens with the built in 1.4X Extender engaged and fully zoomed in to 560mm. I love it when we get this fine snow fall like this too, which I brought out some with some heavier than usual use of the Clarity slider in Lightroom, taking it up to 38.

As I mentioned a couple of episodes ago, I’m loving being able to actually zoom with this lens, as I’ve been doing my wildlife work with prime lenses for many years now. Still though, I’m really enjoying shooting eagle detail shots with their wings clipped, as we see in this image. I disengaged the 1.4X Extender for this, and zoomed out slightly to 315mm, but still got in really close as I like it.

Fuselage

Fuselage

This shows you just how close the eagles get though. This was really almost directly overhead, as the White-Tailed Eagle banked around for another pass at the fish that had been thrown out on the snow.

There are still times though when a second camera with a wider lens helps, so I had been keeping a 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm lens sitting on my camera bag between my tripod legs, and reached for it when this family of cranes flew in from behind me. This was shot at 85mm, so almost zoomed completely out.

Family Unit in Flight

Family Unit in Flight

These photos were from our second day with the cranes, and I reached for the 70-200mm again a few hours later, as a crane took off and flew almost directly over my head. I shot this next image at 70mm, so you can see just how close the cranes sometimes get (below).

Overhead

Overhead

To ensure that you can get shots like this when using two cameras in Manual mode, you do have to keep adjusting the exposure on your second camera when you change the main camera. Especially on days like this, as you can see, when there’s patchy cloud. You generally find that you have to switch between two different settings, one for cloudy and one for clear.

This is still easier than working with Aperture Priority and Exposure Compensation though, as there is just not enough time to change the compensation as the birds move from a white background to a blue sky, or even darker background, as we saw with the earlier eagle shot. This change in background throws your exposure all over the place if you use an automatic mode, and this is why Manual makes so much more sense here.

In the ten years that I’ve been photographing the cranes, probably the only time that I could have safely used Aperture Priority was for this next shot, when the sky was almost a perfect 18% grey, almost as though someone had held up a huge grey card for me. Here there was heavy snow cloud moving in, but the cranes were still brightly lit with sunlight through a clearing in the clouds, and I thought the play on contrast was quite interesting.

Cranes on Grey

Cranes on Grey

Soon it was feeding time on the second day though, and we were treated to another incredible display from the kites and eagles, as we can see in this photo of a White-Tailed Eagle bank around again, almost seemingly showing off his beautiful wings. This was shot at 560mm, and actually cropped slightly along the top and right for better composition.

Prowess

Prowess

After feeding time we went over to a different sanctuary for the red-crowned cranes for a few more hours, before heading back to the hotel.

This is the location of course where we also get up early and go to the Otowa Bridge in the hope of getting some mist on the river and hoar frost on the trees, as we had one day on the first tour this year. This hadn’t happened on our first visit on this tour, but it almost came together on our second morning, as you can see in this image.

Cranes at Roost

Cranes at Roost

This was one of my first shots, as the trees went white, and a little bit of mist formed over the river in the background. This was actually a 10 second exposure, so I felt that a black and white conversion suited it better, with the flowing water and sleeping cranes still almost all motionless. Unfortunately though, the mist didn’t really get any better than this. It was still quite beautiful and better than nothing for sure, but not the best conditions. Still, that’s nature for you. Nothing is guaranteed. All we can do is be there at the best time of year for this to happen, and keep our fingers crossed.

After breakfast on this third day in Hokkaido we took a steady drive over to Kussharo Lake, where we’d start to photograph the Whooper Swans for two days. When we got to Kotan, a small corner of the lake that we usually visit first the wind was high blowing snow across the scene, and the ice was thick enough for us to walk out on to, and set up our long lenses for shots like this, of a swan stretching its wings.

Angel Wings

Angel Wings

This is probably one of my favorite shots of the trip this year. I love it when you can see the air due to mist, snow, rain or just about anything that gives you a sense of the air in the photo. This was shot with the 200-400mm again, right out at 560mm with the Extender engaged, and is totally un-cropped. This is one time when of course clipping the wings would have ruined the photo, so I was happy to get this.

I had also opened my aperture up to f/5.6 for a shallow depth-of-field, and so the snappy focus of this lens was very welcome too. Although my tests have shown that the 200-400mm is quite sluggish with the 5D Mark III for birds in flight, here it was snappy enough to focus on the swan as I noticed him rear up and start to stretch.

After Kotan, we went further along the lake to Sunayu where we did our customary panning shoot, which is a lot of fun, but we’re up to our 10 photos for this episode, so we’ll leave it there for today, and start the second part of this travelogue with a panning shot before moving on with the rest of the tour.

Join us in 2015!

Note that we are already taking bookings for the 2015 Winter Wonderland Tours, so if you’d like to join us, go and register at https://mbp.ac/ww2015 or click on the image below for details.


Show Notes

Details of the 2015 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido tours: https://mbp.ac/ww2015

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

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

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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