Following on from the previous episode, today we continue on our journey photographing the wildlife of Eastern Hokkaido, starting with the beautiful Whooper Swans, then moving on to the Sea Eagles, with a cameo from an Ezo Deer and a Pod of Orca.
Whooper Swan Interior
Having left the cranes behind, we took a steady drive over to Lake Mashuu for a bit of a touristy landscape stop to help us wind-down a little after the last few busy days with the cranes. We arrived at Lake Kussharo mid-morning, and had an hour photographing in a corner of the lake before lunch, but it was very windy in the afternoon, and the swans were hunkered down, so we didn’t get to really start photographing them until the following morning, and one of my first shots from that morning is this.
It was shortly before 8 am when I shot this, so the winter sun had really just risen above the trees to our backs as we stood on the shore of Lake Kussharo. I really like how this swan seems to be shining from within with the beautiful warm light from the low sun. I obviously framed this very tightly in camera, to help us to see and appreciate the details in the feathers as the swan preens itself. With it being clear I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at ISO 800 at f/11.
Thirty minutes later, I shot this next image as the sun got brighter, and the light now less warm, but I had lowered my ISO to 400 with the same shutter speed and aperture, so it was now exactly one stop brighter.
As you can see, this part of the lake was not frozen at this point, and that is quite uncommon for this time of year. It would freeze completely before we revisited in three weeks time, but to not be frozen at the start of February is something that I’ve only seen once before.
This was one of those frantic calling sessions that the birds often do after landing, and it was followed by a somewhat vicious attack on these swans from a third swan that was just to their right as they called like this. I have photos of that too, but this is more beautiful, and although their fighting is only natural, I also kind of don’t want to sensationalize it.
A Dozen Swans in Flight
We spent around 90 minutes at our first location for the day, then moved on, to the place that we’d spent our first hour before lunch on the previous day, and were quickly rewarded with a couple of spectacular fly-ins. This is the second group that arrived in our corner of Lake Kussharo; a full dozen of swans, with the mountains on the opposite shore of the lake running along the bottom of the frame.
I’ve cropped this down from the top, to make it a 16:9 aspect ratio image, as the blue sky at the top, was not really adding any more than what we have here, and as I often say, if any aspect of an image isn’t adding something, it’s generally detracting from the overall appeal of the photograph. I feel also that this image is better balanced with roughly equal amounts of sky above and below the line of swans.
Here’s another photo from the little corner of the lake thirty minutes later, and here we see three swans doing another of their “Hey we just landed, isn’t it great that we can fly!” songs.
I generally don’t do a lot to my wildlife photos, but I did spend a few minutes on this to draw a mask over the birds and lighten the shadows a little, with the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro. I also drew a gradient mask over the dark trees and used the Luma Tone Curve to darken that down a little, as that helps to enhance the swans’ breath by adding some contrast. I always like it when you can see the breath of an animal. I feel that it literally breathes a little more life into the photograph.
After lunch on this day we did a 90 minute workshop session at the hotel, where I shared some details of the wildlife that we shoot on this trip, and did a short demonstration of how I processed some of my images so far in Capture One Pro, and then we went back out towards the end of the day, for our panning shoot with the swans.
I tried this year to time my panning shots so that I had other birds in the frame, as I have grown a little bit bored with my single bird panning shots. On the first trip, this shot with the context provided by the two other stationary swans is one of my favorites. In a couple of weeks I’ll share some shots from the second wildlife tour for this year, where I have multiple swans flying together, and all with relatively sharp heads.
This technique is really fun. I set my shutter speed at 1/40 of a second and my aperture to f/14, and finally, adjusted my ISO to 2000 for optimal exposure. I was using my Canon EOS R and the EF 100-400mm Mark II lens at 200mm for this particular shot.
The following morning, we visited the swans once more, and I have a shot of some of the swans flying in low that I really like, but we’re already at five images just of the swans, so we’ll move on now. We made our regular stop at the Sulfur Mountain, but this was one of the rare occasions when the mist and light weren’t quite working for me, so we’ll skip that too.
On our way over to the Notsuke Peninsula, before our final destination for the day at Rausu, where we’d spend three nights to photograph the sea eagles, we stopped at a place where I know there to be a Ural Owls nest. This is the nest where the owl had been tormented by people with no respect for the wildlife and had not been seen for five years now.
We stopped by each year in the hope that an owl might return, and finally, this year we found an owl on the nest. It was in the next tree, in an open concaved area, but it was lovely to see this bird. I’m just hoping that as the word gets out that he’s back, people are a little more respectful and don’t scare him away again.
As with the owl shot from the previous episode, I was using my 200-400mm lens for this, with the internal 1.4X Extender engaged and a 2X Extender fitted, giving me a focal length of 1120mm. This is working really well with the EOS R, due to the lower resolution. This combination is slightly soft with the 5Ds R, so it’s a nice little bonus to be able to shoot at this focal length when necessary.
When we got over to the Notsuke Peninsula it was nice to see that there was plenty of snow, and we quickly encountered some of the Ezo Deer that roam around the peninsula feeding on the grasses that make their way through the snow.
I really enjoy photographing these large deer. The surroundings are what make this photo for me, showing this hardy creature in his harsh surroundings. The bushes and foliage here are on a very thin strip of land that is the peninsula, and in the background, the expanse of white is the frozen brackish lake, between the mainland the peninsula.
Eagles at Dawn
We’re going to go over ten images by a few to complete this series in two parts, so bear with me, as we start our first sea eagle shoot on the following morning. This was actually from the end of our first shoot, when we went over to the quay wall, where the snow reflects light back up onto the underside of the birds, enabling us to shoot them in almost studio conditions.
This is pretty much straight out of the camera, with just a little Clarity and Highlights sliders applied in Capture One Pro. I love it when we can see these magnificent animal’s talons hanging down like this. It makes me wonder what it must be like to live with feet that have those great big long claws on them. The birds do sometimes use their wings, but essentially those clawed talons are the eagle’s main interface with the world, and that must be both tough, and really cool at the same time.
The light was relatively low for this whole shoot, so to get my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second at f/8 I had to increase my ISO to 3200 for this shot. That’s not a problem for the EOS R though. I have some shots from the next trip where I was getting great results even at 12800, so there’s nothing to worry about here, as long as I’m exposing to the right.
Menacing White-Tailed Eagle
The other sea eagle that we photograph on this trip is the White-Tailed Eagle, which is more common than the endangered Steller’s Sea Eagle, and slightly smaller, but a beautiful eagle non-the-less. In this image you can see how menacing these eagles can look as they float in the air, waiting for their chance to pounce on something, like the fish that we throw out for them.
This shot, to me, has a kind of Edward Scissor-Hands feel to it, with the eagle’s talons almost mirroring the spiky looking splayed out flight feathers. There’s a bit of movement in the talons, as my shutter speed was a slightly slow 1/1000 of a second, but I’m not too worried about that. It adds a little bit of dynamism to the shot in my opinion.
We went back down the Notsuke Peninsula again on the second afternoon in Rausu, and although saw a number of Northern Red Foxes, the photos that I got on this trip weren’t anything to write home about, so we’ll skip them.
A Pod of Orca
Shortly after we started shooting on the final morning out with the Sea Eagles, the skipper of the boat that we use asked if we’d like to go and shoot a pod of Orca that had been spotted around 15 minutes down the coast. I, of course, said yes, so off we went to find a total of seven or perhaps eight Orca. Here you can see three of them as they surfaced.
This is my framing straight out of the camera, so I was pretty tight at 271mm. These are magnificent animals too. It’s such a privilege to be able to photograph so many beautiful and powerful animals on this trip. This is only the second time we’ve been able to photograph the Orca on this trip though, and that makes it even more special.
Steller’s Sea Eagle in Action
After photographing the Orca, we sped back down the coast to just outside the port at Rausu and continued to photograph the Sea Eagles. In this next image, you can see a Steller’s Sea Eagle doing what he does, snatching a fish out of the water.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that the EOS R, Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, can be focussed in a split second for images like this. I really don’t like cropping my images unless I have to, so the majority of the time, as with this photo, the framing that you see is the framing that I shot the image with. This is especially important now that I’m back down to 30 megapixels, as opposed to 50 with my 5Ds R bodies. Still, though, the detail in these images is exceptional, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m now really hoping that the rumors pan out, and the next 5Ds will be an RF Mount mirrorless camera.
Oshin Koshin Falls
We finished our trip with a drive around to the Utoro side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, doing some Intentional Camera Movement shots with the birch trees on the way, and shot the river estuary that I’ve shared images of before. We also visited the Oshin Koshin Falls, as usual, and I’ll share one last image that is a little different to what I usually end up with.
The way the frozen part of the falls framed the top portion was kind of cool on this visit, and I was able to get an almost complete border of ice along the top edge, without starting to see the top of the hill or sky above the falls, and I’ve not seen this very often, so decided to capitalize on the opportunity. I love the textures in this snow-covered ice, and believe it or not, this is not a black and white conversion, it’s a color photo. I used probably my three stop neutral density filter to give me a 0.6 second shutter speed at f/14, and I was using the incredibly sharp and compact Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 lens, which I have also fallen completely in love with.
On our final morning, we went for a walk in the Shiretoko National Park, before starting our drive to the airport to head back to Tokyo where we would all head home or set off on an onward journey. As usual, after our final shoot, I recorded comments from each member of the group, which I’ll play you now.
[Please listen with the audio player at the top of the post to hear the lovely comments from this group.]
OK, so we’ll wrap it up there in two parts, which was slightly rushed, but I have already finished the tour after this one, and want to move on to some other topics, so hopefully this is OK.
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.
Visit the 2020 tour page here if you might be interested in joining this tour and workshop: https://mbp.ac/ww2020
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Today we conclude our travelogue series to walk you through our adventure on the second of my Japan Winter Wildlife Photography tours for 2018.
Once again, I’m sitting down on a Monday morning here in my Tokyo studio, to decide which ten images we’ll look at for this final episode. It’s been just over three weeks since I finished this tour, but it’s been a whirlwind three weeks as I try to catch up on business left undone as I traveled, and as I try to pull in a few big jobs, such as making some very large prints for display at a new gallery Canon’s headquarters here in Tokyo. I’m hoping to bring you more on this in the coming weeks.
The result is though, although I came home from each of this year’s tours having made my initial selection of images, I’ve still to make time to actually whittle down my final selections, so I have ended up going through and doing part of that in preparation for each travelogue style podcast episode I’ve done. That helps too of course, and today I’ll get further into the process, and then I expect to get time to finish this work in a couple of weeks.
I’ve just counted the remaining images after the Whooper Swans that we left behind at the end of the previous episode, and I’ve got 376 of them to choose from today as we jump into this. As usual when I’m trying to make a selection of images, I’ve created a Collection Album and marked it as my Selects folder, and I’ve defined “Q” as my shortcut key, in Capture One Pro, to add images to that folder, so my first job is to go through and hit the Q key when I see something that I want to consider for talking about today.
After my first pass, I had 55 candidates to whittle down to ten. As these were obviously the better of the images left in my selection, before I started to remove any, I marked them all with four stars, so that I could easily pick up where I left off when I get around to finalizing my selection.
If we were to follow our trail chronologically we’d start today with a shot from Sulphur Mountain, but I’ve already shared a shot from there this season, so we’ll skip that. After our drive over to the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula, we made our first stop at the Notsuke Peninsula, which is like a small fishhook-shaped strip of land that juts out into the Nemuro Strait. Out there I got a few nice shots of the Ezo deer rutting, and a few nice-ish fox images, but nothing hugely special, so we’ll skip them.
As I continue writing this week’s post in preparation to record, I still have 25 images in my collection, but Monday has been another day of completing unplanned tasks, and I’m way behind, so I’m just going to start and pick images that I absolutely must talk about and see where we can get. Let’s actually jump in and look at a shot of a Steller’s Sea Eagle from the following morning, as we took our first trip out of the boat to photograph these magnificent birds.
I actually shot this first image with the camera flipped up into the vertical orientation, as I was trying to get some of the birds with their wings spread vertically in the frame. I do this relatively often, and I got a few shots like this that I like over the next few days. For this one though, the eagle had contracted his wings, so not needing the vertical orientation I decided to crop it down to a square. With the sky being uniformly blue, if I needed to, I could expand the sky back out to a wider ratio image, but I’ll only do that if I need that format, as it would require keeping a Photoshop PSD file instead of my raw file, and I like to avoid that when possible.
I love the way this eagle has streamlined his wings to start his dive and the way he has his eyes firmly locked on to his prey. The light isn’t always great when we photograph these guys either, so although I’m not a fan of blue skies, it is nice to get some nice light on the back of the bird. My settings for this were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at f/9 and my ISO set to 1000. My focal length was 349 mm with my 100-400mm lens.
After our dawn eagle shoot, we spent the afternoon on the Notsuke Peninsula again, and although we aren’t getting full snow coverage so much these days, we were lucky enough to get a Northern Red Fox rolling around on what is in actuality a very narrow strip of snow, as you can see here (below).
This fox was actually trying to scratch its back, but it made for a very cute shot, and I was happy to have nailed focus on the face during what was a very quick maneuver. I did have to crop this in from the right side a little though, as I was zoomed out just a little to 533 mm with my 200-400mm lens and the in-built 1.4X Extender engaged, and I was framing him with more space on the right, as I hadn’t expected the head to come up over the body like this. From my Canon EOS 5Ds R body though I still have a higher resolution image than I would have had with a 7D or 1D-X body, so I’m not too concerned about cropping a little like this if necessary.
My settings were f/11 for a 1/640 of a second at ISO 1000, and I was actually hand-holding the 200-400mm at 533 mm because we’d gotten off the bus to get closer to the foxes. That’s another reason that I was happy to find that this was nice and sharp as I was pushing the hand-holding a little bit too.
Moments later the fox was laying down in the snow, looking almost like a model posing, as you can see in this next image (below). I love the expression on its face here, almost as though it knows exactly how beautiful it is, especially in this pose.
I had to crop this one slightly less because the head was back further out but I had also zoomed to 560 mm for this frame. My other settings were the same. I have another fox shot that I’d like to look at, but I’ll resist the temptation for now. If you are interested in seeing more, please check it out on Instagram.
The following morning we went back out at dawn to photograph the eagles, and the day started with a somewhat rare sea mist in the Nemuro Strait, as you can see in this image. Although it sometimes feels pretty cold when we’re out of the boat to photograph the eagles, it doesn’t normally get cold enough for sea mist in this area, and the captain of the boat we go out on was saying that it had been quite some years since he’d seen this phenomenon. It’s not a great photo, but I couldn’t help sharing this to show you what the sea mist looked like (below).
Oh, and of course it’s a sunrise shot, with half a dozen or so sea eagles sitting around on the sea ice as well. When shooting into the sun like this I often expose to let the sun’s disk over-expose a little, and then bring it back under control with the Levels and Highlights sliders in Capture One Pro. That enables me to maintain a little more detail in the foreground, but I also of course still have the option of darkening this down for a silhouette if I want to. My settings were a 1/800 of a second at f/11 and ISO 500, and a focal length of 400mm.
I want to include a shot of a White-Tailed Eagle, as they make up around half the number of eagles that we shoot on this tour, but with the number of images I share being limited, I’m torn between a few possibilities. I think I’ll go with this shot (below) as it shows the eagle in its environment, with the beautiful mountains surrounding the port town of Rausu in the background.
This is also uncropped, and pretty much straight out of the camera, which is what I generally aim to do. Although I can crop when I have to, I don’t like to throw away pixels, so when I can zoom in nice and close, it’s great to nail a shot with a bird in flight filling the frame like this. I also really like how this eagle almost looks like it has a Mohican hairstyle, with that tuft of feathers sticking up on its head. I shot this at f/11 with a shutter speed of 1/1000 at ISO 1250, and a focal length of 400 mm.
On our final morning out on the boat to photograph the sea eagles, I did something that I love to do, which is just rolling with the fact that the light was low, and spent the first thirty minutes or so doing panning shots at 1/50 of a second shutter speed. Here’s one of my favorite images from this thirty minutes, with a Steller’s Sea Eagle flying over the sea ice, with his wings nicely blurred by the long shutter speed (below).
It’s relatively difficult to get eagles’ heads sharp when they are flying around the boat because their heads move up and down quite a lot, but if you shoot enough frames and have relatively good panning technique, it’s possible to get some shots with sharp heads, like this one. My other settings were f/11 at ISO 500, and a focal length of 312 mm.
The final eagle shot that I’d like to share today (below) is one to give you an appreciation of how large these birds are. On our last trip out it was really quite warm, and this enabled hordes of crows to get out to the ice from the port town of Rausu, and they were getting in the way in many of our shots, along with the seagulls. It’s really annoying when some of our best shots get bombed by a crow or seagull, but here the crow gives us a sense of scale, so I thought I’d share this anyway.
These crows are actually quite possibly larger than crows you are used to seeing at home too. They are Large-Billed Crows and measure up to almost 60 cm or 24 inches in length, and they are still dwarfed by the huge Steller’s Sea Eagle with its 2.5-meter wingspan. My settings for this shot were f/10 for 1/1250 of a second shutter speed at ISO 3200, and a focal length of 349 mm.
Oshin Koshin Falls
After our three days in Rausu photographing the sea eagles and heading out down the Notsuke Peninsula, we headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula and did our usual international camera movement photos of the birch trees, then after lunch headed up the north-western coast of the peninsula, and made our usual stop at the Oshin Koshin falls.
It’s been a while since I shared a photo of this, so here’s what I like to do, just zoom in a little and single out a small area of the falls (right).
Quite often my shots of the falls are black and white without actually converting them, but on this day the rock was a very dark brown, so I turned on the black and white checkbox just to remove the ambiguity, and I also used a very subtle “S” shaped tone curve to increase the contrast between the black and white tones in the scene.
I also like to shoot close-up waterfall shots like this in portrait orientation, because I feel it matches the flow of water from top to bottom, although I do generally shoot both orientations just to give myself options.
My settings were a 0.8-second shutter speed, using a three-stop neutral density filter, and an aperture of f/16 at ISO 100, and a focal length of 105 mm with my 24-105mm lens.
Severe Snow Storm
We were actually being chased down the peninsula by a very severe snow storm that would close down a number of the airports in the area for the next day, so I was being very careful to try to keep the group shooting without putting anyone in danger. As the winds started to whip around the peninsula though, I got this shot from across the road from the falls (below).
As you can see, I timed my shot to capture what I call a snow devil, which is like a dust devil, or a little whirlwind of snow being whipped up by the wind over the sea ice. It was also nice to see a bit of color in the water in the pools on the ice. My settings for this shot were 0.4 seconds at f/16, ISO 100 and a focal length of 105 mm. If I recall I was using an ND filter to capture just a bit of movement, hoping to intensify the feeling of movement in the snow devil, but I can’t really tell if that worked or not.
Conscious of the fact that the snowstorm might stop play for our final morning in Hokkaido the following day, we battled the elements a little to go down to the mouth of the river that I like to shoot as our final shoot for day eleven. As you can see in this final image for today (below) it was by this time pretty cold, and although you can’t see this in the photograph, it was also getting really quite windy by this point.
To me, the biggest indication in this image that it was pretty windy, is the way the snow has been blown of the top of the rocks in the river. If it was just cold and snowing, there would be pillows of snow on the rocks, but here, they’re just bare. Also, the rocks on the right side are showing through but partly frozen. This feels cold to me too.
For this image, I obviously converted it to black and white, but I also ran a gradient mask from the top of the frame to the horizon and reduced the exposure on that adjustment layer by half a stop, and that just makes the sky slightly grey, rather than being almost pure white. I was using a six-stop neutral density filter too, to give me an 8-second shutter speed at f/14, ISO 100. My focal length was 50 mm.
By dinner that night, the storm was well and truly set in. The tree outside our dining room lost a few branches as the wind whipped around the building, driving snow horizontally across the window. The storm died down by around 10 pm, but it had by this time pretty much engulfed all of eastern Hokkaido. We’d been planning our exit from the island on the final day, and decided that the best course of action was to skip our morning shoot in the national park and make our way to the airport straight after breakfast.
Which airport, we hadn’t yet decided. Our amazing tour conductor Yukiko had us seats booked provisionally at two other airports, giving us options, but I checked MeteoEarth, an app that I use on my iPhone to check wind direction and strength, among other things, and I found that there would be a band of relatively low wind literally from the base on the Shiretoko Peninsula to the Memanbetsu airport, where we originally intended to fly out from, but our travel window was going to be short.
If we used the time that we’d free-up by not driving to a different airport to do one last shoot, the storm would set in again and prevent us from leaving the peninsula. So, we drove straight after breakfast over as close to the airport as possible, and did a few short shoots there, before catching our plane as planned, and arriving back in Tokyo on schedule.
As usual, I recorded a comment from the participants who were up for it, and I’d like to play that for you now. Also, one of the participants recalled that she wanted to say something else later, so I’ll tag on that extra comment at the end. Let’s see what everyone had to say…
[Participant’s Comments: Please listen with the audio player at the top of the post to hear what people had to say about the tour.]
So, that’s it for this year’s Japan Winter photography tour season. I hope you’ve enjoyed traveling with us, and for those that are listening, I’d like to extend a huge thank you to everyone that joined this year’s tours.
2020 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshops
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.
Although I’ve just completed my second Japan winter wildlife tour and final winter tour for this season, today we’re going to pick up the trail on the first of the two wildlife tours, as we leave the cranes in the snow behind, and move on to our final day with the Whooper Swans before heading over to Rausu for sea eagles and foxes etc.
Once again, fighting the clock, as usual, I still had 109 photos left in my collection of images that I still want to talk about in this travelogue series. I was hoping to complete this series with one more episode, but having gone through and shortlisted the images that I really want to talk about, I still have 27 images. We’ll just jump into it, and see if I can whittle down my selection to just ten images as we go.
On the eighth shooting day of the tour, and the fifth day in Hokkaido, we went back to the Kussharo Lake for one last Whooper Swan fly-in shoot before starting our drive over to Rausu and the Notsuke Peninsula. One of the reasons I ensure that we get at least two days in each location is because quite often, the weather can change and present us with different opportunities. On this visit, it was overcast and slightly misty. Conditions that I love to photograph the Whooper Swans in, and you can hopefully see why in this first image for today (below).
I really like it when we get white swans on a white background, often with just subtle differences in tone between the two. The thing that I really like about this photo is that the swan on the left of the frame is looking straight at me as he flew in. It has to feel a bit strange to them when they fly to their beach and see a line of photographers awaiting their arrival. They’re used to seeing people of course, but this is a reminder that they are not totally oblivious to our presence.
My settings for this image were 1/500 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 1000 and a focal length of 400mm with my 100-400mm lens. This is, of course, the Mark II version of this lens. Again this year we had a participant that had rented the original version without knowing and was somewhat disappointed. If you are buying this lens, and you find what you think is a good deal, check that it is not the original lens which is very long in the tooth now, and frankly with today’s camera resolution really punishing older lenses, I wouldn’t use one even if it was free, let alone cheap.
Although I love it when the white swans are on a white background, I also found this next photograph somewhat appealing, with two juvenile Whooper Swans still with their wings spread as they landed in the fresh snow on the frozen Kussharo Lake (below).
I’ve entitled this “Grey But Not Ugly (Ducklings)”. Sometimes the grey juvenile swans might look a bit like ugly ducklings, as in the fairy tale, but in this photo, I think it helps to accentuate them against the white background. I toyed with the idea of removing the three lines of thawed snow at the top of the frame, but decided against it, as I think they add a little depth to the background. My settings for this were f/11 at ISO 1000 still, but I had increased my shutter speed now to 1/640 as the light gradually came up. My focal length was 286 mm.
I have another swan shot that I wanted to show you, but I’ll skip that in a bid to still try and finish this travelogue series today. I did post it on Instagram while I was traveling, so check out my Instagram account if you don’t already follow me over there.
After the swans, we drove just a short way and called at Sulphur Mountain or Iouzan, for a quick session with the surreal fumaroles spewing out their sulphuric steam and painting themselves yellow in the process, as you can see in this image (below).
This place always seems a little bit apocalyptic to me. This is one of the few times when I decided to keep the ridge of the mountains behind the fumaroles in the shot, partly because the wind was blowing the steam away at a more acute angle than usual, but also because I felt it helped to show the surroundings a little better, providing a little more information about the place. My settings were a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/14, with ISO 320 at 70mm.
We then continued our journey towards Rausu, where we’d photograph the sea eagles, but on the way, took a diversion to the Notsuke Peninsula in the hope of seeing some Northern Red Fox, like the one we see in this next image (below).
This isn’t my best fox photo, but I kind of like the way he’s got the tip of his tongue sticking out as he scratching his face, looking quite content up on his snow bed, actually on the back of a trailer that is semi-abandoned on the peninsula. My settings for this were f/11 with a 1/800 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 560 mm. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
The following morning we went out for our first sea eagle shoot of the season from the fishing port of Rausu. Not long after we’d started shooting the captain of the boat told me that there had been some Orca spotted further down the coast, and asked if I’d like to go. It took me about 0.2 seconds to decide that we must do just that, so we sped along the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Although I’d love to have spent more time and got better photos, we still had a very special encounter and I still got some shots like this one (below).
We believe there were seven Orca in the pod we encountered. I have been traveling to Rausu and going out photographing the sea eagles in January and February every year since 2004, and I’ve never seen these amazing whales this early in the season. Wanting to get some really killer shots, pardon the pun, I’ve been trying to make time to visit in June or July for the past few years, but never seem to get time, especially now that I’m doing my Namibia tours at that time. This encounter has ratcheted up the priority of that trip a few rungs, so I might just have to do that this year. My settings for this image were f/9 at 321 mm and a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second with ISO 1250.
OK, so we’re five images in, and I usually do ten images per episode. Let’s take a look at some sea eagle shots, and see if we can finish this today, and move on to the second wildlife trip next week. Rather than trying to show images from all three days that we photograph the eagle, let’s just look at some of my favorites from this trip, in chronological order.
First, here’s a White-Tailed Eagle catching one of the fish that we throw out from the boat (below). Quite often it’s a flatfish, which you wouldn’t normally expect an eagle to scoop from the surface of the sea, but still, these can be quite dramatic shots.
Unless these birds open their beaks when they are startled or angry, they have pretty expressionless faces, and in this image, the sea eagle looks very calm and relaxed as he snatches up his breakfast. There was no sea ice on this first trip. It’s getting less common, with us having no ice at all some years now, although we did get some on the second tour, as we’ll see in the coming weeks. My settings for this were a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed at f/11, with ISO 640 and a focal length of 400mm.
This is image not-cropped at all. I love to go in very tight with my 100-400mm lens, and although the bird’s wings sometimes go out of the frame, and I sometimes don’t mind that, it’s great when I can get something like this in a 50-megapixel file without cropping. The detail is just amazing!
This next image of a Steller’s Sea Eagle grabbing his breakfast too is also not cropped (below). That’s the framing that I shot the image at, and again, the 50-megapixel file absolutely blows me away. I love shooting wildlife like this with my Canon 5Ds R, even though it’s a slow frame rate camera, that most wildlife photographers try to avoid.
I have lots of shots with the entire splash in as well, but I just love getting in close and seeing all of this beautiful detail, and you lose some of that as you pull back to include more. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1600 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and again, zoomed right in to 400mm.
This final eagle shot is cropped down quite a way, to a file just over 22 megapixels, as the bird was quite a way off when he was doing his aerial acrobatics. That’s another great thing about the high resolution we have now though, should we choose to use it. I can crop in quite a way and still have a bigger file than the 7D Mark II or even the 1D X Mark II. There are of course times when a higher frame rate would be useful, but I’m making it work at the slower frame rates, so I couldn’t be happier.
I’m in awe of these magnificent eagles. Just look how he can fly pretty much upside down, yet his head is still pointing straight up, with his eye on his prey. These are absolutely incredible animals. My settings were still f/11 with a shutter speed of 1/1600 at ISO 640, and a focal length of 400mm, although cropped, as I mentioned.
After our three days with the sea eagles, we headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula to spend our final night in Utoro. On the way, we stopped for our traditional ICM or Intentional Camera Movement session, which is always fun and generally provides us with some nice shots, as you can see here (below).
For this kind of shot, I generally set my aperture to around f/14 or f/16, and set my shutter speed to 1/25 of a second, and then adjust my exposure with the ISO. If it’s too bright, I sometimes use a three-stop neutral density filter, as I believe I had to do on this day, as it was bright sunlight. I then start with the camera pointing higher up in the trees, then move it downwards quickly, releasing the shutter just as the snow starts to come into the bottom of the frame. I prefer it when the bottom of the frame is just white, but there were some sticks showing through on this day, leaving those smaller streaks.
We continued on and photographed the Oshin Koshin Falls and the sea ice which was packed wall to wall on this side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. I did one ten minute exposure of the sea ice to see if it was actually moving, and apart from a very thin line near the horizon, it was totally stationary. There wasn’t even any vertical movement from waves under the ice, which was surprising.
We continued on in the town, and took a walk down to the mouth of a river to see what we could do and I was relatively happy with this last photo for today (below) which actually is the last image that we’ll talk about from the first of this year’s two Japan Winter wildlife tours.
Here I believe I used a three-stop ND filter, for a 1.3-second exposure, to smooth over the water in the river a little. I converted this to black and white, but the original was almost completely black and white anyway, with the dark stones in the river and low light. My other settings were f/14 at ISO 100, with a focal length of 35 mm.
Before we finish, as usual, I’ve recorded a message from each member of the group that I’d like to play for you now.
[Please listen to the audio with the player at the top of the post to hear what the participants had to say.]
It’s always lovely to hear what the participants have to say, and this was a great group, so listening brings back some nice memories of our time together. I do hope you’ve enjoyed following along with this travelogue. We’ll continue next week with tour #2, which presented a few different opportunities, and possibly my best red fox shot to date, which we’ll see in a few weeks.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020
Our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, but we are now taking bookings for 2020, so if you think you might like to join us, please take a look at the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2020.
Having completed my two Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017, today we conclude our travelogue series for tour one with a condensed walkthrough of our last four days over on the Shiretoko Peninsula.
We spend three days in Rausu, where we photograph the sea eagles, and in the afternoon, we generally head down the Notsuke Peninsula, to photograph the deer and northern red foxes. On the way over to Rausu we visit a number of Ural Owl nests that I know of, but none of the owls are on their nests this year.
I have spoken to a guide friend in Hokkaido and apparently they all disappeared at the end of last year. This is probably due to some of the Asian country visitors throwing things at the nests to make the owls open their eyes or fly. The problem of Asian visitors treating the wildlife with total disrespect is a growing issue in Hokkaido, which needs action to be taken. I will be talking more about this in the coming weeks, as something absolutely despicable happened at the cranes the day before we arrived to photograph them on tour two.
Anyway, on our way over to Rausu on our first afternoon, we paid our first visit to the Notsuke Peninsula, and had an encounter with the oldest Ezo Deer stag I’ve ever seen (right).
Artistically I prefer this photo, but I have a second from the side which shows the stags antlers better, and they are so big that the aging stag can no longer fully grow them with them becoming misshaped.
I was in two minds as to whether or not to include this image, but I decided to, because on tour two we found this old guy laying by the road almost dead. He looked in such a bad way that I felt sure he’d be bead before we revisited the peninsula the following day, but he had moved about 20 meters and was actually eating while laying down when we went back.
On the third day that we visited there was some blood and fur on the group where he had been, so we think that he had probably died and the park wardens removed his body, as the foxes had started to eat him. I’m not sure if that’s what happened, and I’m not sure that I agree to depriving the foxes of a good meal either, but that’s what we saw.
I shot this image with my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged, for a focal length of 506mm and a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at f/9 with the ISO set to 2000. I could have gone a little slower on the shutter speed as he wasn’t moving much, but I was shooting hand-held with this long lens, so it’s better to speed it up a little.
Northern Red Foxes
On the same afternoon, we were able to photograph a lot of northern red foxes. More than I’ve seen on the Notsuke Peninsula before, and some of them were in pairs, like the ones in this photo (below). Here this pair were comparing the size of their mouths, which is something I believe they do to establish their pecking order, or to threaten the other fox.
Foxes Comparing Mouth Size
Although I love to photograph the foxes on the snow, it was nice for a change to find them on top of these fishing nets. These nets too are usually under snow anyway, but we’ve had a warm winter in Hokkaido again this year. I shot this image with the same settings as the previous image, but with a focal length of 461mm.
The following morning, at the start of day nine, we went out for our first voyage to shoot the sea eagles. I have literally hundreds of photos of the eagles from this trip, so it was difficult to whittle down my selection to represent these majestic birds in this single episode, but I’ve tried to give you a good cross section as we progress today.
Most of the time the eagles are swooping down parallel to our boat, so the majority of our shots are naturally from the side, but occasionally they swoop towards us, as we see in this first photo of a Steller’s Sea Eagle (below).
Wrong Time and Plaice
There was no sea ice again for this first tour, which made it the third tour in a row now, as we didn’t get ice on either tour last year. I actually prefer it is many ways when there is no ice, as we now just through fish into the sea, so it looks more natural than the eagles taking fish from the top of the ice. Of course, the chances of an eagle catching a plaice from the surface of the water are almost zero, but we’ll have to overlook that.
I shot this image at f/10 with a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at ISO 800. For all of the eagle shots from the boat I used my 100-400mm Mark II lens.
Another shot that I wanted to share from this first eagle shoot is this one, of a White-Tailed Eagle. I have many shots of the eagles nicely framed, but something that I like to do is to get in so close that I purposefully crop off the wings to get a more intimate look at the bird, as I did here (below).
Of course I can pull back and get the entire bird in, but I just like doing this, even though it drives some people crazy. It gives us a better look at the details of the bird and the water droplets left by the catch. I shot this at 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, with an aperture of f/10 at 400mm.
Canon EOS 5Ds R for Wildlife
In case you didn’t catch my mentioning this last year, you might want to note that I am shooting all of my images with a Canon EOS 5Ds R, including these very fast past wildlife shots. The autofocus is definitely up to the task, and with good technique you can certainly work with the slow frame rate. Rather than shooting long bursts though, you have to time your exposures perfectly.
I generally wait until the eagle sticks out its talons now before starting to release the shutter, and this usually gives me one frame with the talons forward, sometimes one with the bird looking like it’s standing straight up in the water standing on the fish, and a second or third frame of the bird pulling the fish out of the water. With just two to three frames per swoop, I don’t have to look through so many images, and I feel that this technique has helped to make me a better photographer.
After lunch we drove back down the Notsuke Peninsula, and were able to capture a number of northern red fox images again, but we got better images on our visit from the last day, so we’ll skip those today. Next up is a shot from the following morning with the eagles, as an example of my first frame of a burst, where a Steller’s Sea Eagle has his talons out forward, reaching for a fish (below).
Steller’s Sea Eagle with Talons Out
As you may be able to see, we had some light snow on this second morning with the eagles, which adds some nice atmosphere. It was heavily overcast though, so I was shooting with ISO 4000 at this point, at 1/1000 of a second, with an aperture of f/9.
Push the ISO Not the Image
Using high ISOs still scares many people, but if you take control of your exposure and ensure that you are exposing to the right, so that the image data is close to the right side of the histogram, you really don’t see any grain, even with the super-high resolution of the 5Ds R body. That’s another myth that people like to use as an excuse to not like this camera by the way. I’ve taken great pride in blowing these myths out of the water over the last two years.
High ISOs on most modern DSLR cameras are only a problem if you allow them to intimidate you. Most people are scared to increase the ISO so they shoot a darker image and then try to lighten it up in post processing, but this causes the image to be recorded in the middle of the histogram, where you do start to see more grain, so when you push the image in post you amplify the grain. Then people feel thankful that they didn’t push the ISO further, adding more grain, but the reverse is true.
It’s much better to push up your ISO in the camera rather than push the image in post. Yes, I know all about ISO Invariance, but that only works if you can keep your base image at ISO 100, and when there is as little light as there was on some of these shoots, that’s not possible. I discussed how I tested the ISO invariance of my 5Ds R in episode 520 if you’d like to take a look.
At the end of our second eagle shoot, we spent 15 minutes photographing the eagles over the harbor wall. Because the wall has snow on it, it bounces beautiful diffused light back up onto the underside of the eagles, as you can see in this shot (below).
Steller’s Sea Eagle Over Harbor Wall
It was still snowing, adding that second level of atmosphere over the eagle, but also along the bottom of the image where the sky was slightly darker, making the snow stand out a little more. Pretty much all of the images that we’ve looked at so far are totally un-cropped, so the level of detail in these 50 megapixel files is absolutely incredible.
My Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4000 printer has been sitting dormant for the last two months as I’ve travelled, but I’m looking forward, now that I’ve actually finished all three tours, to getting caught up on other work, then having a mad printing session, and this is one of the images that I can’t wait to print out pretty big and explore the detail in the print. Of course, I can see the detail on the screen, especially now that I’m using the new BenQ 4K display, but there’s nothing like poring over a nice big print to appreciate the detail in an image.
After lunch, we visited the Notsuke Peninsula again, and encountered a number of foxes that seemed bent on providing us with some more excellent photographic opportunities, as we can see here (below). This young fox was playing with a piece of fur, perhaps from a coat or other garment. It doesn’t look like natural fur, not to me at least.
Although the fur isn’t natural, I still quite like this image, showing the playful nature of these beautiful animals, despite them braving some pretty harsh weather through the winter out of the peninsula. He threw this fur up into the air and caught it, then shook it around as dogs often do, so it was fun to watch as well as photograph. My settings were 1/1000 of a second at f/11, ISO 1600.
Here’s another shot of a fox from the same afternoon, as one got up and stretched on top of another fishing net, this time black, providing some nice contrast. It’s snowing again, adding the atmosphere that I like, and the sea in the background adds extra context (below).
Ezo Fox Stretch
I make good use of the digital level in the viewfinder of the 5Ds R, to help me ensure that things like the horizon in this shot are straight right in camera, even when hand-holding. This helps me to keep as many pixels as possible for big prints. I’ll crop an image if necessary, but generally I like to avoid it, even just by the small amount required to rotate an image to straighten a wonky horizon. I shot this at 1/500 of a second at f/9, with ISO 3200.
For the first two days that we ventured out to photograph the eagles it had been overcast, so there was no dawn shoot, but on the third morning we were due to go out, it was going to be clear, so we set out before the sun came up, and this allowed us to photograph the eagles in the warm dawn light, as you can see in this next image (below).
I’ve included this shot not only to illustrate the warm light, but also because I like the water frozen in time as the Steller’s Sea Eagle whisks his frozen fish from the water. We were also lucky on this day that the wind direction had changed, now blowing in from the open sea, which meant that the birds had the sun of their faces more often, as they flew into the wind. I shot this at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second at ISO 1600.
Another shot from this morning that I really like is this one of a Steller’s Sea Eagle breaking free from the water (below). He had taken a large wave and sunk down until the water came over his head, and I have a shot of that too, but he doesn’t look overly majestic, but then in this frame with all that water behind him he looks every bit as magnificent as these birds are.
This image is cropped a little bit from the top right corner, as it happened a little bit far away, and I was at the full reach of my 100-400mm lens. My settings were f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second at ISO 1600.
I still have to go back and further cull my eagle shots from this first Japan wildlife tour for 2017, but it was an incredibly productive trip. The great thing about shooting when it’s clear at Rausu is that you can get beautiful views of Mount Rausu behind the town, so I capitalized on that a little as I saw this eagle doing some acrobatics in this photograph that we’ll finish our eagle shots with (below).
Eagle Acrobatics Before Mount Rausu
If I had planned this, I would probably have stopped my aperture down to f/14, to get just a little bit more definition in the mountain, but I like the separation that the eagle being totally sharp affords us, so it doesn’t bother me too much. I shot this at f/10, with a 1/1250 of a second shutter speed at ISO 800.
ICM (Intentional Camera Movement)
After our eagle shoot we checked out of our hotel and headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula heading for Utoro, and on the way we stopped for our birch tree intentional camera movement shoot, which has become tradition as we start to wind down after our hectic tour (below). To get this effect, I simply set the shutter speed to 1/25 of a second then move the camera downwards quickly, and release the shutter just as the bottom of the trees starts to enter the frame.
I shot the light side of the road first, as I’ve done for many years, then also walked across the road to a spot where we can get a very dark background caused by some pine trees behind a front line of birch. I have started to prefer this scene to the white one, although I do find this comes across a little more sinister, especially compared to the light, airy version.
After our birch tree shoot, we continued our drive to the Utoro side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. As is often the case, as we reached the coast, we were greeted by sea ice, covering the water as far as the eye could see. It just doesn’t always make its way around the tip of the peninsula and down into Rausu. We spent some time photographing the Oshinkoshin Falls and visited the Shiretoko National Park at the end of our eleventh day, and on the morning of the last day.
In the park I lead a group to look for some woodpeckers and other birds, and Yukiko our tour conductor lead a second group down to the end of the valley for a bit of landscape work, and just a nice walk really. I got a few shots of a great spotted woodpecker and a nuthatch, but they aren’t special enough to share here, so we’ll wrap this up for today, and conclude this series.
Before we actually close though, I’d like to play you the recording that I made on the bus on our last morning, to get some wonderful comments from our great tour group.
[Please listen to the audio with the player above to hear what the group said about the tour]
It’s always nice to hear the voices of the participants like this, especially as I’ve now also finished tour two as I prepare this episode. In three or four weeks as I complete the travelogue for tour two, it will be nice to hear from my second wildlife group for 2017 as well. A special bond is formed with many of the members of my tour groups, so I treasure these recordings, as well as the group photos that I make on each trip.
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.