Scanning 120 Film with the CanoScan 9000F MarkII (Podcast 690)

Scanning 120 Film with the CanoScan 9000F MarkII (Podcast 690)


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Four years ago I walked you through scanning 120 format film on my Epson Scanner, which was around six years or so old at the time, making ten now. When I came to scan the film that I had processed recently, I found that my scanner had broken, so I replaced it with a Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II. This scanner is also a few years old in design, but it’s the latest model that I could find that offers high-resolution scanning and the film guide for 120 film.

Note though that B&H Photo and Amazon.com don’t seem to stock this scanner anymore, and Canon’s website here in Japan also marks it as running low on stock. This is a sure sign that Canon is probably preparing to release something new, which I would like to have waited for, but I didn’t have that luxury with my old scanner having broken.

Preferences Scan Panel
Preferences Scan Panel

Regular flat-bed scanners designed just for documents shine light onto the document while scanning, but to be able to scan slides or negatives, the scanner has to have a light built into the lid to shine through the film, so this is something to be careful of when buying a scanner for this purpose. Also, not that all of the dedicated film scanners that I could find online were relatively low resolution. We’re talking about creating images that are around 10 to 15 megapixels, even when scanning medium format film, and that is just too low to be of any use in my opinion. Of course, if you never want to make any large prints, and your final use is the computer screen, then that resolution would be fine.

When I first installed the software that comes with my new Canon scanner, there were a number of limitations forced on me by the software, which would have resulted in lower quality scans, so we’ll cover this first, in case you have bought the same or a similar scanner. Note too that I have not been able to access these settings via the TWAIN scanner drivers that are installed, so I am not able to get higher resolution scans from within Affinity Photo or Photoshop, I have to use the Canon IJ Scanner Utility. There are other dedicated scanning applications available, but at this point, I have not tried any, so we’ll stick with the method I’m currently using.

Settings for Higher Resolution Scans

To enable higher resolution scans, when you first start the scanner software by opening the Canon IJ Scan Utility application and then clicking the ScanGear icon, switch to the Advanced Mode, then open the Preferences panel. Under the Scan menu Advanced Mode Settings section, enable both the Enable Large Image Scans checkbox and the Enable 48/16 bit Output checkboxes. Without these options, the scanner will only provide relatively low-resolution scans of medium format film.

You can also turn on Enable Large Image Scans by clicking the Settings button on the Scanner Utility and it’s a good idea to select TIFF for the Data Format under ScanGear, as you ideally want to be saving your images in a lossless format. JPEG is compressed generally, and will gradually degrade as you resave your images, so in my opinion, JPEG should really only be used as an output format. The only other options are PDF and PNG, neither of which are suitable formats for photographs.

What Resolution to Use?

In my earlier tutorial on this, I mentioned that I was scanning at 4200 dpi (dots per inch). I also mentioned that this was possibly overkill, but I did some more experimentation with my new scanner and found out a few other interesting points that I also want to relay. Firstly, I found that I was still seeing a usable quality increase in my scans when using 4800 dpi. This gives me scanned images that are slightly over 10,000 pixels square, which means the images are 100 megapixels. That’s almost ten times the resolution of the dedicated film scanners I saw, many of which are a similar price to the CanoScan that I decided on. I also tried the higher setting of 9600 dpi, but this just increased the file size. No more usable resolution was recorded.

This got me thinking about my original tests though, so I double-checked some other recent photos shot with my first TLR camera, the Yashica-D, but scanned with the new scanner, and I found that photos were limited by the optics of the Yashica, rather than the film or scanner. I just completed some tests using ILFORD DELTA 100 film and processed it with Perceptol, which is a very fine grain developer, and the images were all pretty soft compared to the images I’m getting from my new Rolleiflex.

Of course, the takeaway for you here is that this really is something that you need to test and decide on for yourself. With my Yashica-D, we were probably looking at me realistically only being able to scan up to around 3600 to 3800 dpi and still getting usable resolution, but with the Rolleiflex 3.5 with the Planer lens that is up to 4800 dpi. I’m not sure how this compares to other vintage medium format cameras, so the best thing to do is to keep increasing the resolution until you stop seeing any more usable detail.

Also, note that I am scanning with the Color Mode set to Grayscale (16bit). I’ve experimented with the color scanning modes, and there are lots of methods discussed online, such as scanning in color but only using certain color channels, and throwing the rest out, then ultimately going to a black and white image, but I really don’t see the benefits in doing that, so in my usual way, I have decided that these are hoops that we don’t need to jump through. 16bit Grayscale images are very high quality, and ultimately I want a neutral gray toned image, so this works for me.

Here’s a screenshot of my final settings in the ScanGear window, and you’ll notice that the Data Size number is in red, which is Canon shouting at me for scanning my image at such high quality. As I’ve already told the software that I want a high-quality scan, I find it a bit pointless to display this number in red, but that’s how it is. Also note that I am leaving Unsharp Mask turned on, but Image Adjustment and Grain Correction are off.

Scanning 120 Film CanonScan ScanGear
Scanning 120 Film CanonScan ScanGear

I am also leaving the Manual Exposure checkbox turned off most of the time, but if I inadvertently over-expose something, or the software just seemed to misunderstand the content of the image, I can override that with the Manual Exposure checkbox and adding a new percentage. Going higher than 100% seems to reduce the exposure and lower than 100% increases the exposure in the image. You can also adjust exposure using the Tone Curve options that you can see towards the bottom right corner of this screenshot.

You can actually see the images that you are about to scan pretty well, especially if you are working on a large display with this window maximized. I also like that I can scan up to three frames at a time now. The Epson scanner was only two frames at a time, so this is another benefit of replacing my scanner. I can now scan a 12 frame roll of film in four sections. One other thing to note is that the shiny side of the film should be facing down when scanning. That’s the front of the film, so although you can flip the scanned images if necessary it’s better to get the orientation right for your scan.

You’ll also note that the corner of my circular ND filter was showing in the top right corner of these images. I have since found a place that does custom made filters that should fit the Rolleiflex, but for a recent trip to photograph the rocks that you see in this screenshot, I had simply taped an ND to my lens hood, and because you don’t look through the shooting lens on a Twin Lens Reflex camera, I didn’t notice until after I’d shot these three images. I corrected this and continued to reshoot the rocks using an ISO 25 film from Rollei, but unfortunately, it looks like I got a bad batch. All of the images I shot on the following roll had a really strong mottling, almost like a leopard fur pattern. I ran more tests when I got home and found it to be that particular film, which was disappointing. Anyway, a bit of deftly cloning was enough to get rid of the filter ring in the corner, so I still came away with the photos I was looking for.

I am generally turning on the checkbox for all three images, and scanning them all at once. If there is a frame that you obviously don’t need to scan, you can do this by leaving the checkbox turned off. The software will only scan the images with a checkbox enabled. At the resolution and settings I’ve chosen, it takes about two to three minutes per frame to scan the images, so six to nine minutes to scan all three. I sometimes also find that the autodetection of the images doesn’t work every time, and I have to jiggle the film around a little to get the software to recognize them. One thing I have noticed though is that it helps to slide in the strip of plastic that comes with the scanner to effectively show the scanner where the start of the first frame is, as you can see in this photo.

Scanning 120 Film with the CanonScan 9000F Mark II
Scanning 120 Film with the CanonScan 9000F Mark II

Once you have the film set like this, you close the lid and start up the ScanGear software. If you already have the software open from a previous scan, just hit the Preview button again to take a look at your next three images. If you shoot 35mm film, by the way, you can also use this scanner. A film guide for mounted 35mm slides and 35mm film strips is included.

Change Color Space

One other thing that I have found is that the color space Dot Gain 20% does not seem to be supported by Capture One Pro, my photo editing software of choice. I have to open the files up in Photoshop and convert the color profile to ProPhoto RGB before I can edit the images in Capture One Pro. Of course, Adobe RGB or sRGB would also work, but I prefer to work in ProPhoto RGB. And, I have not yet found a way to automatically open the images in Photoshop or Affinity Photo after scanning with the ScanGear software. You can specify an app in other modules, but not when using the ScanGear drivers. These options are grayed out, so that adds a few extra clicks to the workflow, but it’s not a big deal.

Example Images

Here are two of these images that I scanned so that you can take a look at the end result. The film, by the way, is the recently rereleased FujiFilm Neopan Acros Mark II. I’m finding it really nice to work with, and the tones are great, but I have noticed a larger number of flaws in the emulsion that I would rather not see in a film. There are patches of white flakes, which I guess would be black flakes on the negative, on most frames that require a bit of cloning to remove. I haven’t really noticed these on the Rollei RPX 100 or the ILFORD DELTA 100 films that I’ve also been using.

Here also is a 100% crop of the first of the two images above, to show you the image quality at this resolution. As you can see, there is plenty of detail, but it’s bordering on getting a little soft. I’m at the top limit of useful resolution for sure.

Meotoiwa (Rolleiflex 100% Crop)
Meotoiwa (Rolleiflex 100% Crop)

Here too is a 100% crop from the same scene shot with my EOS R. The image is obviously sharper at 100%, partly because I’m pushing the resolution on my scans, but also because the Rollei is more organic with it being film.

Meotoiwa (EOS R 100%)
Meotoiwa (EOS R 100%)

Before we move on, here is one other example image shot with the FujiFilm Neopan Acros MarkII 100 ISO film, really to illustrate that this film really does have beautiful tones, and in true Neopan form, the blacks are beautifully rich, as you can see in the glossy black cat ornament here.

Frogs, Cats and Jizou
Frogs, Cats and Jizou

Storing Processed Film

I was also asked in the comments on one of my recent posts how I am storing my processed film, so let’s take a look at that, but unfortunately, I have not been able to find a similar product on B&H Photo or Amazon. If anyone knows of something similar to this on sale online anywhere, maybe you could share a link in the comments below.

Fujicolor RF Binder
Fujicolor RF Binder

Also, as you can see here, even just placing the loose pages on white paper enables you to see the negatives pretty well, but you can also drop this onto a lightbox and view the images with a loupe if you prefer because the polypropylene is perfectly clear. There are also iPad apps that provide a bright white screen so that you can use them as a Lightbox as well.

Fujicolor RF Binder Loose Page
Fujicolor RF Binder Loose Page

OK, so we’ll leave it there for today. I hope this has helped some if you were looking for information on scanning film, but with the products not being readily available everywhere, I’m sure I’ve left you with a job to find something available in your market. This will hopefully point you in the right direction though. I guess this is a sign of the overall interest levels in shooting film, but I am encouraged by the fact that FujiFilm just rereleased Neopan Acros. Hopefully, there are enough people still shooting, or starting to shoot film with its resurgence, that it compels more manufacturers to follow suit.

Thanks very much for listening today. If you enjoy this podcast please consider supporting us on Patreon, which comes with various tiers of benefits depending on your contribution, although all tiers provide access to the full blog posts for more than 780 episodes as well as access to the MBP Community. For further details check out our Patreon page at https://mbp.ac/patreon.

You can find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter LinkedIn, and Instagram, etc., and links to everything that I’m up to are at martinbaileyphotography.com, so do drop by and take a look. I’ll be back next week, with another episode, but in the meantime, you take care and have a great week, whatever you’re doing. Bye-bye.


Show Notes

SHOW NOTES HERE

Music by Martin Bailey


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Scanning Medium Format 120 Film (Podcast 479)

Scanning Medium Format 120 Film (Podcast 479)

This is part 4 of our Film Fun series, in which I walk you through scanning medium format 120 film into the computer.

The podcast released for this episode is just an iPhone optimized low-resolution version of the full-sized video, which will enable you to view during your commute etc. but to see any detail, it’s best to view the full-sized video below.

Here’s a rundown of the entire Film Fun series.

  • Part #1 – Loading and Unloading a Yashica-D TLR Camera with 120 Medium Format Film (see here)
  • Part #2 – Feeding 120 Film into a Paterson Reel for Developing (see here)
  • Part #2b – Feeding 120 Film into a Paterson Reel inside the Changing Bag (see here)
  • Part #3 – Developing a Roll of ILFORD 120 Black and White Film (see here)
  • Part #4 – Scanning Medium Format 120 Film (video below)

Although I shot film for around 20 years until around 2000, I never had the chance to develop my own, so this whole experience has been very new to me and a LOT of fun. I have much more experience scanning film though, so this video is perhaps the one which I am most confident of the content, but I have enjoyed the entire process, and I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on this initial Film Fun journey.

Here are the links to all of the products required for this process on B&H Photo. You can help to support the podcast by using these links. Use this link if you don’t see the products below: https://mbp.ac/bhfdp

Film Related Posts

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Show Notes

See this video on our Vimeo channel here: https://vimeo.com/martinbailey

See our Recommended Film Developing Products page on B&H: https://mbp.ac/bhfdp


Video

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The Five Color Lakes “Goshikinuma” Travelogue (Podcast 474)

The Five Color Lakes “Goshikinuma” Travelogue (Podcast 474)

This week we’re going to take a look at ten photographs from a recent visit to the Five Color Lakes or “Goshikinuma” in Fukushima, here in Japan. Goshikinuma literally means five color swamps, although that isn’t the prettiest translation, so pond is often used, although some are definitely large enough to be considered lakes.

Goshikinuma are five volcanic lakes in the Urabandai area of Fukushima, at the foot of Mount Bandai. They were formed when Mount Bandai erupted in July, 1888, killing approximately 500 people as it destroyed a number of towns. The eruption completely changed the landscape, creating a plateau area and dammed some rivers. The lakes get their five Colors from mineral deposits left by the eruption, ranging from a reddish green to beautiful cobalt blue.

I’ve visited these lakes many times. I used to live about 90 minutes from this area for the first four years that I lived in Japan, so 24 years ago now. I would sometimes drive out here after a night shift, and photograph these and other lakes in the area. On this occasion, my wife and I were staying at her father’s house to look after him for a few days, and I was able to get some time away before we returned to Tokyo, so I took a drive out to these lakes for the first time in a few years.

There’s an approximately four kilometer path that you can walk along getting a reasonable view of each of the five lakes, and I took a steady walk, stopping to shoot the images that we’ll look at today. The light is a little harsh in some of these, due to the time of day that I was able to visit, but I usually find that the colors in the lakes themselves is a little stronger when they are lit from above, rather than early morning or late in the day, so there’s a bit of a trade-off here.

Anyway, let’s jump in and start looking at the photos. First up, this is the Bishamon Pond which is a cobalt blue, as you can see. In the distance is the two peaks of Mount Bandai, the volcano that errupted creating the lakes. Apparently it was the erruption that took out the middle of the mountain, breaking it into two peaks. Bishamon is actually the Japanese name for Vaiśravaṇa, a buddhist deity, and Anime fans might recognize the name as Bishamonten in RG Veda.

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

I shot this at f/11 with a shutter speed of 1/13 of second, at ISO 100. Note that for most of the photos we’ll look at today, I’ve used Color Efex Pro to darken down the mountain a little, because it’s summer here now, and there was a little bit of haze in the middle of the day. I also applied the Reflector Efex filter to give the foreground water and trees a bit of punch. The original photos were OK but I felt they looked closer to the lush greens and vivid colored water of the scene with this boost.

This next photo is a little further along, at a corner of the Bishamon Pond, basically about five minutes to the right of the first photograph we looked at. Thinking about it, for these first few frames I was also using a Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo Polarizer filter to bring out the lush greens. I had it dialed down just a little though, because I didn’t want to remove the reflection of the trees in the water. This was shot at f/11 again, with a shutter speed of 1/15 of a second, ISO 100.

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

I removed the polarizer and put on an ND1000 for this next photo (below) with the exact same framing as the previous image. The ND1000 gives me 10 stops of darkness, which resulted in a 25 second exposure at f/16, ISO 100, so the flow of the water in the lake was recorded as streaks, which came as a bit of a nice surprise to me, as I didn’t think the water was moving that much. I also did a black and white version of this, as I usually do with long exposures, but for this one, I think I like the lush greens and blue of the lake too much to remove the color.

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

Bishamon Numa (Long Exposure)

As I walked along the trail, I came to a small concrete bridge across a stream that was running into the final corner of the Bishamon pond before I moved on. This time I could see the water flowing under the bridge I was on, so I used the ND1000 again for a 30 second exposure at f/14, ISO 200. This caused the water to smooth over as we see here (below).

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

My thinking with the composition on this one was that I wanted to show the water flowing in through this kind of a frame that was created by the reeds and grasses either side of the opening, but also the trees along the top and sides. The patch of blue water then gives us a destination to place ourselves, and then the trees in the distance stop the eye there, and for me at least, send my eyes back to the foreground again.

When viewed large you can see patches of movement in both the foreground reeds and the trees throughout the shot. I know that this bugs some people, but I feel that it adds to the movement and dynamism of a shot, and so I like doing long exposures, even when there are trees in the frame with a bit of a breeze.

I experimented quite a lot with the composition of this next photo (below) and ended up with the camera quite low, with that root running along the bottom to the middle. Because of the low angle I was able to include the stream, but then tilt the camera up a little to get the greenery along the top half of the frame and the tree trunks to the left in too. This is actually a good reminder of the feeling of the day. I was being stung by mosquitos the entire time, and for me this early summer green here in Japan almost symbolizes the heat and humidity that mozzies love so much.

Goshikinuma Stream

Goshikinuma Stream

Because this angle gave me a substantial amount of water in the stream in the bottom right quadrant, I used the ColorCombo Polarizer again to reduce the glare of the water, enabling us to see the bottom of the stream and not the silvery reflections that were there without it. This also made the ferns and other foliage that beautiful lush green, so although I don’t use a polarizer very often, this was another occasion when I thought it made sense.

The LB in Sing-Ray filter names stands for Lighter and Brighter, so although polarizers usually reduce the light entering the camera by around two stops, these are said to be around 1 1/3 of a stop. This gave me an exposure of 2.5 seconds at f/14, ISO 100.

Small Tree in Benten Numa (Pond)

Small Tree in Benten Numa (Pond)

The next of the lakes is Benten-numa, which held my attention for quite a while I waited for the breeze to do various things to the surface of the pond, and I’d found a small tree growing out of a foot of so of water, as we can see in these next couple of photographs.

Benten is actually a variation of the name Benzaiten, both of which are a Japanese Buddhist goddess, who originated from the Hindu goddess Saraswati. Bishamon and Benten are two of the Shichifukujin or Seven Gods of Good fortune. This is also commonly translated at Seven Lucky Gods in English, but that to me sounds like the gods themselves are lucky, so I prefer the former translation.

As I watched the water on the Benten lake, it went from completely still, just totally blue, to almost totally textured by the patterns formed by the breeze on the surface of the water.

In this first photo (right) you can see how the breeze is catching the water in bands. I included a small outcrop from the left side and the distant trees in this one too, for context, and shot a few frames to get one that had what I considered the most pleasing patterns.

I was using the 24-70mm lens until this point, but for this shot I switched to new 100-400mm lens at 153mm, so that I could pick out what was a relatively small detail in a larger scene. This was shot at f/16 for 13 seconds at ISO 100.

For the next photo (below) I zoomed in a little more to 227mm and framed up just the tree with a little surrounding water, and was sitting on a stone bench watching the patterns change in the breeze.

The white in the very bottom of these shots is the reflection of the white sky above the trees on the opposite bank of the pond, but the white at the back here was caused by the breeze.

For this shot I just like how the two white areas seem to frame the central band of color and the tree. I also like how the blue is broken up by the reddish mud on the bottom of the pond. I was using an ND400 for these shots by the way, for a 13 second exposure. Note too that I turned off the Image Stabilization on the 100-400mm while doing these long exposures, as it can mess up the photo by moving mid-exposure. I know the manual says that the lens senses when it’s on a tripod and behaves itself, but that’s not the case. The IS can and generally does mess up long exposures, even when using a tripod.

Small Tree in Benten Numa (Pond)

Small Tree in Benten Numa (Pond)

In the next photo we see a view of Rurinuma. Ruri is apparently translated as Lapis Lazuli or just Lapis, which is a deep blue colored semi-precious stone. The pond itself wasn’t very colorful while I was there, but I thought I’d capture this postcard scene while I was there, again, with Mount Bandai in the distance (below).

Rurinuma (Lapis Lazuli Pond)

Rurinuma (Lapis Lazuli Pond)

This was shot at f/14 with 1/10 of a second exposure at ISO 100. I didn’t see much point in doing a long exposure for this one, although the clouds had now started to make the sky more interesting, which was another reason that I was tempted to capture this scene.

The last pond that I have a photo from that I want to share is Aonuma. Ao is Japanese for blue, and although the official color for blue, is a true blue, in every day life, the Japanese often use the word “ao” to mean a greenish blue, very much like the color we see in this photograph (below). In fact, the Japanese call the green light in a set of traffic lights “ao” and although it is a bluer green than western traffic lights, it’s definitely not a true blue either.

Anyway, I found the reflections of the fresh green leaves, kind of doubling up with the greenish blue of the water here very appealing. I shot a few variations with different patches of trees, but this one is probably my favorite, because of the white branch top-left of center to just break it all up a little.

Aonuma (Blue Pond)

Aonuma (Blue Pond)

After this, I did what a lot of people do, and jumped into a taxi at the end of the trail, and had the driver take me back to the start of the trail, where I’d parked my car. I used a taxi partly because I needed to get back to my wife’s family home before dinner, but also because the sky was starting to get interesting, and I wanted to capture this next shot before the opportunity was lost (below).

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

Bishamon Numa (Pond)

The heavy cloud at this point had pretty much stolen all of the color from the water, and the trees were looking pretty drab by this point, so it was an easier decision to discard the color now. I was also happy to have the guy in the boat as an additional element too. I wasn’t so happy with the pose, as he was digging around for something on the bottom of the lake, but I waited for him to look relatively natural as he went about his work. This was shot at f/14 for 1/60 of a second at ISO 100.

I actually also had an old Yashica-D twin lens reflex medium format camera with me on this day, and shot a number of frames with that too as I walked around the lakes. Depending on how much time I can free up over the next week, I am hoping to do a couple of videos in the coming weeks to walk you through my first attempts at developing my own medium format film, so do stay tuned if that sort of thing interests you.

Just to clarify though, I’m not moving to film or anything like that. I love the freedom of digital, but I have always longed to develop my own film, and although I’ll be scanning the negatives, I’ve really enjoyed researching all of the tools and chemicals that are required, and can’t wait to dive in and develop that first film, and share the experience with you.


Show Notes

My ND1000 on B&H: https://mbp.ac/nd1000

My ND400 on B&H: https://mbp.ac/x400

The Singh-Ray ColorCombo Polarizer: http://www.singh-ray.com/shop/lighter-brighter-lb-colorcombo-polarizer/

Music by Martin Bailey

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Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography (Podcast 472)

Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography (Podcast 472)

Ten ways to do this and five ways to do that, are popular types of posts, and can often be a bit corny, which is one of the reasons why I don’t do these very often, but a number of things have been on my mind recently, so I thought I’d pull these various topics together into a list of “ten ways to improve your photography”.

I’m going to talk about this mostly from a nature or landscape photographers perspective, but much of what I have to say today is relevant for all photographers. There’s all sorts of other stuff that you can do to improve your photography in various areas of course, so think of this as my short list of advice. Here we go…

1 – Get in closer

When we approach a scene, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the entire scene and reach straight for our wide angle lens. Great! If the entire scene is worth capturing, do that! But, bear in mind that quite often, what we are reacting to is not the scene as a whole, but a number of smaller beautiful elements within the scene.

Our brains are amazing machines, that instantly stitch together various elements that make us excited about a location, but when we pull all of these elements into a wide angle photograph, each of them individually gets smaller, and can become relatively insignificant when viewed by others in a single photograph.

If you are able to print that image out large and have people view the details, it may give the viewer the same sense of wonder that you had in the field, so as I say, if it’s a beautiful scene, by all means make your wide angle shot of it, but then reach for a longer lens, and pick out all of the individual elements that you are truly attracted too.

Vík í Mýrdal Church (Shot at 105mm to remove town below)
Vík í Mýrdal Church (Shot at 105mm to remove town below and increase impact.)

One of the things that I find works for me, is simply taking a moment before I even select a lens, to take the entire scene in. There are parts of the scene that are making you say “wow”. Just ask yourself where these parts of the scene are, and if they would be more powerful brought together in one photograph, or broken out simply depicting each interesting element or fewer elements in multiple photographs.

2 – Simple is Best

When I’m teaching photography in the field, I often find myself saying “If an element doesn’t add something to the image, then it detracts from it.”

You are responsible for everything included in the frame. Before you release the shutter, scan the frame, and ensure that you are only including elements that play a part in your scene, adding to the overall story you want to tell. If any element is not adding to the scene, leaving it in the frame may actually detract from the overall beauty or effectiveness of the final image.

Your options of course are, as in point #1, to get in closer, either by moving closer or selecting a longer lens, zooming in to narrow your frame, enabling you to exclude unwanted elements. Sometimes of course, you will be faced with a decision. You may have an unwanted element that you don’t want in the frame, but a second element nearby that belongs in your photograph. When this is the case you have to consider if moving your own position to the left or right, or getting higher or lower, will enable you to include one element without the other.

If you absolutely cannot frame the scene to eliminate an unwanted element, ask yourself if you are OK with removing it later on the computer? How easy will that be to do?

I love snow scenes, such as the one shown here, because they enable us to reduce a scene down to the bare minimum. With an overcast sky too, we are left with literally only essential elements to make up the photograph. The tree, the fence posts and the subtle line of the top of the hill. Nothing else. (Shot on my Hokkaido Landscape Photograph Tour.)

Hanazono Tree with Fence Posts
Hanazono Tree with Fence Posts

You may also be able to use a slower shutter speed to de-emphasize unwanted elements too. For example, if you are photographing a street with people walking along it, but you only want the architecture, consider putting on a Neutral Density (ND) filter, and slowing your shutter speed right down. With a multi-second or even multi-minute exposure, anyone that is not standing totally still will simply disappear, but the static buildings will of course stay right where they are.

See my post “All about Neutral Density Filters” for more information on what you’d need and how to use them.

Steller's Sunrise
Steller’s Sunrise

3 – Background is King

Many people, myself included, love to use a large aperture like f/2.8 to get a shallow depth of field, and blur the background and maybe also any foreground objects in a scene, to give our images a beautiful ethereal look. For many people though, too little attention is paid to what is happening in that out of focus bokeh. Without paying attention to where the out of focus patches of color or light in the background fall, you can ruin your image, or at the very least, miss a chance to make a nice photo exceptional.

As you line up your shot, look not only at your main subject, but see how the out of focus background is interacting with them. If you have a natural ball of light for example, consider placing that behind your subject, be it a flower or a person, or the sea eagle at sunrise that we see in this photograph (right).

If that doesn’t work for you, take it totally away from them. Having a large ball of light or patch of color half behind your subject can work, but quite often it will just look like sloppy framing, and generally best avoided.

4 – Use Live View When Possible

To help you with some of the compositional advice that we just covered, whenever possible, use Live View on your camera.

Using Live View
Using Live View

Live View doesn’t work well for action shots, which are more easily captured while looking through the viewfinder, but for slower paced shooting like still life or landscapes, it can be a very helpful. The reason it helps, is because Live View condenses the otherwise three dimensional world down to two dimensions, emulating our final photographic image. Electronic viewfinders on many mirrorless cameras do the same thing.

When we look through a physical viewfinder on an SLR or rangefinder camera, we are still looking at a three dimensional world. Although the frame of the viewfinder helps us to a degree, our brain still moves between the various layers of the scene subconsciously, separating them, and making it more difficult of us to identify elements that will look out of place in a two dimensional photograph.

In Live View, pay attention to the flattened layers of your image, and move around to stop elements from stacking up in an awkward way, or to purposefully align background elements to enhance your main subject, as we mentioned earlier. If your camera does not have Live View by the way, do check your images on your LCD before moving on. If something looks out of place, fix it.

5 – Take Control of Your Exposure

There is a global conspiracy between the camera manufacturers and display manufacturers, that is designed to make us mediocre, if we aren’t careful. The problem starts with cameras being designed to automatically set exposure in a very safe way. If you don’t help your camera in any way, the image will be recorded with all of the information in the middle of the histogram, which means that it is actually quite dark.

The problem isn’t always obvious though, because straight out of the factory, our computer displays are usually set by default to be very, very bright. Some set at around 80% or even 100% brightness. Then, when we look at the dark photos from our cameras that are shooting an average, safe exposure, they look great, because the display is brightening them up so much.

You might think that this is fine, because it all sorts itself out, but there are two main reasons why you should not be satisfied with this situation. The first reason, is because the printer manufacturers aren’t in on the conspiracy. If you shoot a dark image, and think it’s OK because your display is too bright, when you print it, it will be way too dark. This is one of the biggest complaints that I hear from people that start to print their images for the first time, and it also effects people that send their images to third party printers to be printed. Although most of the time, third party printers will brighten up images before printing, again, helping to keep the conspiracy a secret.

If you never print your images, you may still think you are off the hook, but that may not be the case. The other issue with trusting the camera’s meter, is that it introduces unnecessary noise to your photographs. The lighter your photographs are, the less noisy they will be. Even if you decide to darken down the image again on your computer to regain a certain mood for example, you will record better quality images by exposing them so that the information is almost touching the right side of your histogram.

This might be quite difficult to understand, but the histogram maps out the amount of data being recorded in our image from the darkest to the lightest information. The darkest image data is on the far left, and the brightest image data is on the far right. The way images are recorded means that there is a higher signal to noise ratio in the bright parts of our images, and noise increases in the darker areas.

If your image is recorded as the camera would recommend, with all the data in the middle of the histogram, you will see more noise across the image, and your shadows will be very noisy indeed, and in fact my be so dark that there is no information recorded in the shadows at all.

By increasing your exposure until the brightest part of your scene is just about touching the right side of the histogram, you will have much cleaner image data, and quite often your shadow areas will not to very noisy either, because you’ve moved them away from the far left of the histogram, where all the really nasty noise lives.

Even if your shadow data does end up on the far left, there’s a good chance that it won’t be totally black, and although it may be a little noisy, there’s be enough texture and detail that it doesn’t become much of a problem. There are times of course, when an almost totally black background is quite effective and therefore desirable, as I found with this image, shown here with its histogram for reference (below).

Crane in Flight with Histogram
Crane in Flight with Histogram

To increase your exposure, you can use Exposure Compensation, and keep increasing the exposure until your image data is close to the right side of the histogram, but then as you reframe or your subjects move, the amount of Exposure Compensation required can fluctuate, and you might start to over-expose images if you don’t stay on top of this.

Depending on where you are in your photography, this can be a very daunting prospect, but to really control and understand your exposure, I urge you to try shooting in Manual mode. It sounds like more work to set your exposure yourself, but it actually frees you from the need to constantly adjust Exposure Compensation, especially when working in similar lighting conditions.

To start with, you might try finding your exposure in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, then memorise the settings, and switch to Manual, then dial in those settings. Note though, that even if you go straight to Manual mode, you are not flying blind. The exposure meter still works, and you can see where the camera thinks the exposure should be in the viewfinder, so you use this as a guide.

As you frame up your scene and start to adjust your exposure, take a guess at where it should be. If there is a lot of white in your scene for example, you may need to adjust so that the exposure meter shows exposure at +2 stops. Or if there is say half of your scene that is very light color, and half very dark, you may need to have the caret on the exposure meter at zero. Once you’ve adjusted your exposure, shoot a test frame and check that, or check your exposure in Live View before shooting, and then do any fine tuning necessary before you start shooting for real. Once set up though, you may find that you don’t have to change your exposure again, until you move to a new location.

Sure, you do have to stay on top of Manual exposure, and for some types of photography, it can be too much to deal with, but as you become good at adjusting your exposure, it is easier than using Exposure Compensation, and you can keep your image data over on the right side of the histogram much more easily.

This results in you creating beautiful bright images with much less or even no noise at all. To close the loop on the conspiracy theory though, note that you now have to darken your display down so that you see your images as they really are now. Because your images are now much brighter, they’ll look normal when your display is darker. If you calibrate your display, you can often have the software help you to set the brightness to the necessary level for viewing in your ambient lighting conditions. You might find your display being set as low at 10% to 30% of it’s full brightness.

Monitor at 20% Brightness
Monitor at 20% Brightness

Because you are now shooting bright images, and viewing them at the correct brightness, an added benefit is that they will now come out of your printer looking beautifully bright, as you expected them to be, and that’s a nice added bonus.

6 – Use the RGB Histogram

The histogram is one of the most useful tools on our cameras, but its usefulness is cut in half by the manufacturers setting them to a Brightness display by default. If you are using a Brightness histogram, which is just a white graph on a black background, or something similar, you have no idea how each individual color channel is being recorded.

Keeping in mind that most cameras record images in RGB color, the Brightness histogram is simply an average of the three colors, Red, Green and Blue. Using a scale of 1 to 10 to explain this, image you have a field of red flowers, that you want to expose nice and brightly, at 10, which represents the right side of the histogram, but there is very little green or blue in the scene. Let’s say there’s just 1 part green and 1 part blue to the 10 parts red. The total is 12, and this is then divided by 3 to get the average brightness of the three colors, so the Brightness histogram of our field of red flowers would show most of the information in the lowest quarter of the histogram, despite the red actually being very close to the right side.

You can see this at work in this photograph (below). This is actually a photograph of the back of my camera, while framing up another photograph on my computer screen, so there’s some weirdness going on in the photo, which you need to ignore. You can clearly see though, that the Brightness histogram would have us believe that the scene is much darker than it really is, because it’s an average of the Red, Green and Blue channels.

RGB and Brightness Histogram Comparison
RGB and Brightness Histogram Comparison

If you have taken control of your exposure, and perhaps Exposing to the Right (ETTR) as we mentioned in the last point, this will obviously cause problems, because you can’t actually tell how bright each color in your scene really is. To avoid this, select the RGB histogram on your camera. This will show you each color channel separately, so that you don’t inadvertently over expose any individual colors.

Unfortunately, most cameras are not only fooling us, they actually fool themselves by setting their average exposure based on the total brightness of the scene, rather than looking at individual color data, which is why you can sometimes end up with blotchy colors in scenes like where one color is prominent over the others. The camera basically overexposes the prominent color to give us a average brightness image. Another great reason for using the RGB histogram and taking control of your exposure.

7 – Constantly Question Yourself

In Craft & Vision’s PHOTOGRAPH magazine Issue #5 I published an article called “The Mental Checklist”. In this I discuss how in the early years of doing this podcast, I started to ask myself questions constantly as I worked in the field. I would find myself starting to explain the steps that I was going through towards making my photographs, as though I was explaining it to you, the podcast listener or reader, in a future episode.

The cool thing is, that the very act of questioning each step in my process, led me to identify mistakes before I made them. It didn’t take long for me to realize, that this was actually helping me to improve my photography. The even cooler thing is that you don’t actually have to be making a podcast to do this yourself.

Just ask yourself questions as you work. As you approach a scene, ask yourself where you should stand or set up your tripod. Do you need to photograph the wide seen first, or are the details what are really capturing your attention? If so, reach for your longer lens. Do you want a fast shutter speed, or slow one. If slow is better, do you need to fit an ND filter? Will a polarizer filter help you to reduce reflections or intensify color saturation?

You might ask yourself if this is the right time to even be shooting the scene or subject? Will it help to just be patient and wait for the light to improve, or would it be better to come back at a different time of day? Is there a soda can in the scene that you could remove to save yourself from removing it later in post?

Once you’ve made your exposure, check the image and ask more questions. Did you get the background right? Is there a post sticking out of your subject’s head? How is the exposure? Rinse and repeat!

Jewel on the Shore
Jewel on the Shore

The more you shoot, the more questions you will ask yourself, but as you become more experienced, many of the habits that you form will become automatic, and fade into the background. There should never come a point though where you stop asking questions. Keep asking yourself why you are doing this or why you aren’t doing that, what if you do something totally different entirely? This is the key to refining and improving your processes, and ultimately to improving your photographs.

8 – Be Patient

My company motto is “Let’s not rush to ‘arrive’. It’s all about the journey.”

This is in some ways, a play on words, as a large part of my business is based on our tours & workshops, when we literally are enjoying each step of a journey, often in some of the most scenically beautiful locations on the planet.

The other part of this though, is that people seem to be very impatient these days. The Internet culture of having every at our fingertips is making people impatient. Everyone wants to ‘arrive’. To make it big, or to become a great photographer, but many people are looking for shortcuts.

Some incredibly talented people find them, and more power to them, but for the vast majority of us, the only way to get good at something, is to do it, year in year out, until we really make it our own, and then we have to keep doing it to stay on top of our game, and hopefully continue to improve.

Another part to this of course, is having patience in the field. Sometimes when we arrive at a place, especially where nature or wildlife is concerned, we don’t get our dream shot straight away. In fact, if your dream shot is ambitious, the chances are you won’t get that dream shot on your first visit, or your second, or maybe for many years.

I had been traveling to Hokkaido to photograph the red-crowned cranes for eight years before I was able to bag what I considered my dream shot. It was a beautiful moment, and I still love the photograph. But guess what? I’m now looking to shoot something better. Each year I travel there with my Japan winter wildlife tour participants, but in all honesty, if I wasn’t doing the tours, I’d go each year anyway. The locations we visit are magical. I don’t call them the Winter Wonderland Tours for nothing. 🙂

QI #2
QI #2

I’m not saying though, that you should not try to get your dream shot every time you pick up the camera. Within the bounds of a single shoot, just being patient. Giving yourself a chance to get some great shots is still vitally important. It doesn’t matter whether your are close to home or on the other side of the planet. If you’ve invested time in getting to a location to make photos, give yourself a chance to make the best that you can.

9 – Don’t Over-Research – Learn How to Solve Problems Yourself

The Internet may be making people impatient, but it can of course be an amazing tool, that I believe we are very fortunate to now have at our fingertips. We live in an amazing age! But, I am starting to see more and more information junkies, paralyzed by information overload.

Of course, it’s perfectly OK to read up on things that you are interested in. Assimilate as much as you can as time allows, and if you simply like reading, maybe the Internet has replaced books or magazines to a degree. That’s fine! But please don’t be fooled into thinking that rampantly reading every single photography related article that you can find is going to make you a great photographer.

It helps, of course. Learn what you can, but I’m coming across more and more people that have read so much about the technical side of photography, that they start to get confused. There’s so much information swimming around in their heads that when it comes to actually using some of that information, they can’t figure out which technique to use. Overthinking a situation can be as paralyzing as not having a clue as to what you need to do in the first place.

It’s much better to develop problem solving skills to overcome hurdles or figure out problems by ourselves. You’ll draw from all of the information that you have already made your own, but your work will be much more original and you’ll be more likely to think your way around the next problem if you practice thinking for yourself instead and spending all of your time online trying to assimilate the entire accumulated knowledge of the Internet.

Martin in Landmannalaugar
Landmannalaugar

This probably sounds contradictory coming from some that’s writing on a blog that I would like you to visit and read, or listen to the Podcast, but I’d really like to think that you will value what I have to say enough to keep me on your reading list. I’m not saying that you should stop reading blogs and Web pages altogether, but I do urge you to ask yourself if you are spending so much time online that you are reducing the amount of time that you could be out in the field with your camera. If the answer to this is yes, then it’s probably time to cut back a little.

One other part of researching that I think should be avoided more is looking at too many photos of locations that you intend to visit before you actually go. Looking at photos is a great way to find locations that you’d like to visit, but once you have that location on your list, don’t go too crazy looking at more work from there.

If you turn up at a location with too many image implanted in your head, you’ll spend your whole time looking for those images, and stop being open to your own creativity. You have to give your own photography room to breath, and there’s no room for that if you head is full of other peoples’ images.

Turn up knowing what a location can offer, and research the best times of day or time of the year to be there, but then let your own creativity take over, and see if you can’t make something better than has already been made there, not just come home with your own copy of someone else’s photograph.

10 – Don’t be a Fair Weather Photographer

One of the things that I feel places unnecessary restrictions and even holds back many photographers is the belief that it needs to be a sunny day before you can make any good photographs. This could not be further from the truth.

I cringe whenever I hear from someone returning from a trip complaining that it rained the entire time. Rain can be a pain to work with. You need to ensure that you not only have weatherproof gear, or protection to keep your gear working in the rain, but you also need to ensure that you wear the right clothing to keep yourself safe and dry when the weather turns foul.

But a sky full of rain or storm clouds can provide you with much better photographs than a blue sky, even if you have some nice fluffy clouds to break it up. Colors are also more “saturated” when wet. This isn’t necessarily a pun either. There’s a reason why we call rich, deep colors saturated. The contrast in our scene is often lower too when it’s overcast or raining, so we don’t have to compensate for a bright sky by underexposing foliage for example.

Martin in Oirase Keiryu
Martin in Oirase Keiryu

So, the next time you have some free time, and you are hoping for a nice sunny day, think again. You might be passing up an opportunity to shoot some beautiful dramatic images if you decide to curl up with your iPad instead of going outside when the forecast is for overcast, rain or snow.

OK, that’s it for today. As I said in the introduction, this is not an exhaustive list. There’s lots of other stuff that could have included here, but these are the things that I’ve been thinking about recently, and I hope that it is of some use to you.


Show Notes

Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure (Tour): https://mbp.ac/hlpa

All current Tours & Workshops: https://mbp.ac/workshops

Music by Martin Bailey


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Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #1 Part 2 (Podcast 460)

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2015 Tour #1 Part 2 (Podcast 460)

This week we complete our two part series to walk through 24 photos from the first of my two Japan Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido winter wonderland wildlife tours for 2015. As you’ll hear today, the weather gave us some unique challenges on this tour, but as usual we handled the situation, had an amazing time, and came away with some beautiful photos.

We finished last week in the middle of day six, when we were back with the Red-Crowned Cranes, as there was falling snow, which always makes the crane shots much more beautiful, and the cranes themselves are generally more excited when it snows, giving rise to spontaneous group dancing, as you can see in this photo (below). It’s often quite difficult to isolate just one or two cranes that dance or call, but when they are almost all dancing in a group like this, it’s hard to resist grabbing a shot or two.

Cranes' Party

Cranes’ Party

Not only does the snow clean up the ground, but having snow in the air really reduces the shot down to much more minimal elements, as it makes the background much cleaner too. I also like how there’s that one crane on the right that is looking distinctly out of sorts, like someone at a party that is a bit afraid to dance with the rest of the group.

In this next photo (below), a flock of Whooper Swans was flying in, or back to the area. I’m not sure which it is, because the swans are often here just hanging out in the safety of the reserve, but because there’s a risk of them carrying avian flu, the wardens sometimes come out on a snow mobile and scare them away. It’s really funny because the cranes know that the wardens only want to scare the swans, so they all just continue to walk around and do their thing as the swans all take flight before they get run over by the snow mobile.

Whooper Swans Fly Over

Whooper Swans Fly Over

Either way, with the snow and trees at the back of the reserve, then the swans in the air, again I couldn’t resist making a few photos. In this shot I particularly like that easter-egg style swan in the top left corner. I always like it when I find a little half-hidden element like that in a photo, so this is a nice touch for me, even though it was probably quite by accident in this case. I also think the cranes sort of scattered around the scene add something to raise this photo up a little.

Looking at the EXIF data, I see that this next photo (below) was shot about 90 minutes later, and once again, the Whooper Swans were in the air. I’d actually caught the aperture dial on my camera, probably as I lifted it off my bag, as I rushed back from lunch to shoot this. So, instead of f/11 as I’d meant to shoot this, I actually shot it at f/7.1, so just over a stop over-exposed.

Sky Full of Swans

Sky Full of Swans

Luckily though, because Lightroom gives us an extra stop of wiggle room, I was happy to see that it didn’t think this was over-exposed, so I reduced the Exposure slider by 0.90 and ended up with this lovely luminescent look in the sky, and the swans just floating up there, so I decided to just roll with it.

Using Multi Function Lock

Still, it’s better to not make the mistake in the first place, so I decided to use Multi Function Lock on all of my Canon cameras from now on, to prevent this from happening again. I often set this up, but rarely actually used the camera’s Lock switch, until now.

All you have to do is go to the “Multi function lock” option in the custom functions menu, and turn on everything that you want to lock with your Lock switch. I have turned this on for the Main Dial and Quick Control Dial, which are the ones that I tend to turn by mistake. Then after I’ve set up my exposure, I just flick the Lock switch on, on the back of my camera, and this now prevents me from accidentally changing my exposure. Turning the Lock off is an extra step to do when you do need to change something, but I’ve caught these dials often enough that I’m OK with this.

During the third day with the cranes, there was a group of Ezo Deer stags that kept coming in and out of the enclosure. I have a number of shots, but probably this next one (below) is my favourite. I disengaged the 1.4X Extender on the 200-400mm lens, and shot this at 400mm, which is the same as 640mm with the 7D Mark II’s crop factor, so this guy was a way out, but I really wanted to include a bit of the environment in this photograph. I love the trees in the background and again, the falling snow adds so much to these photographs. I’m really pleased we were able to go back here on the third day.

Ezo Deer Dignity

Ezo Deer Dignity

Weather Turns for the Worst

Well, as happy as we were that the snow had started to fall on our sixth day of the tour, as we made our way to Kawayu, where we were due to spend the next two days shooting the Whooper Swans at Kussharo Lake, the weather started to really close in on us. We walk a fine line on these Hokkaido Tours, and after eight years of running these tours, we were finally locked down in our hotel this time.

When we woke up on the seventh day, all of the roads in and out of Kawayu had been closed due to the heavy snow, but that was just the start. Roads all over eastern Hokkaido were closed over the morning, and Rausu, the fishing village that we were due to photograph the sea eagles in had 180cm of snow over the following day or so, totally isolating them, and blocking the roads for four full days.

On the first day of the road blocks, we spent the day in a room with my projector, and did a whole day of workshops. The group was ready for a bit of a break by this point, and my presentations went down well, keeping the group productive, but rested. In fact, we plan to do a half day workshop at this point, so we only really added a half a day to this initially.

The following day, day eight of the tour, we were scheduled to drive to Rausu, but we still couldn’t leave the hotel. Needless to say, we weren’t even able to go to the Whooper Swans just 15 minutes down the road, which was frustrating, but two years ago, when snow like this fell in Hokkaido, the day that our group left actually, a number of people died, some just a few paces from their houses, because they literally could not find their way back home, which is heartbreaking, so these safety measures are necessary unfortunately.

Our Driver Saves the Day!

We spent most of the day in the hotel, in the dining area, going through our images, doing little impromptu show-and-tells here and there, and helping each other with post-processing etc. Then, shortly before 3pm, our driver came to tell us that we could probably get down the road to Iouzan, or Sulphur Mountain, as the roads that far had been cleared. Needless to say we were all in our warm clothes and on the bus ready to go in lightening speed.

We can only spend about 45 minutes near to the fumaroles anyway, as the sulphur in the air starts to make your tongue go all tingly if you spend too long there, but it felt so good to get out in the cold, even though the trudge up to the fumaroles was pretty heavy going in the deep snow.

Here is one of my shots from this brief afternoon respite (below). I used my new 100-400mm lens here to get in really close on one of the yellow steam-bellowing fumaroles, then I took this into Nik’s Color Efex Pro to bring out some of the detail and texture.

Fumaroles

Fumaroles

As much as we’d hoped the roads to clear by the end of day eight, when we should have been in Rausu, the roads didn’t open. In fact, by this time, the military had been called in and were digging the town out, as nothing had gotten in or out of the town for almost three days by this point, so we ended up staying a third night at Kawayu. The hotels are usually very full at this time of year, but of course, just as we couldn’t leave, the next groups couldn’t get in, so we were fine to stay an extra night.

After a lot of consideration between me and the company who I entrust with the logistics of my Japan tour, we decided to check the group out of our Kawayu hotel on the ninth morning of the tour. We were going to take our chances that the roads into Rausu would open by the end of the day, but we also booked tentatively in hotels in a town at the closest point to Rausu that we could get if the roads did not open.

As a bonus for the group, I talked a friend of mine, a local guide, into letting me take our group to two owls nests that we can’t usually visit with such a big group. He knows me well, and knows that my groups are always very well behaved, so he cut us some slack. The result is the following two photographs. We visited two Ural Owl nests, both of which had not one, but a pair of Ural Owls. This first photograph (below) shows the first pair, with their eyes half open as they keep their eye on the group but get some rest at the same time.

Ural Owl Pair

Ural Owl Pair

In another location, there was a younger, smaller owl with full grown adult, in this incredibly cute pose (below). I was using my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4X Extender engaged on the 7D Mark II so these were shot at a hair under 900mm, so you can tell how far away this second pair was, but still, I love seeing these guys in their environment like this.

Ural Owls in Tree

Ural Owls in Tree

After these two Ural Owl shoots, we went for lunch at a nearby hotel, and then started to drive over towards Rausu. There was an almost electric buzz on the bus from the excitement of shooting the owls, and for a while we almost forgot that we were still in the midst of a bit of a crisis getting to our next location. Well, the group were happy and able to forget to a degree, but me and Yukiko our tour conductor, and the back-office team on the other end of the phone were frantically trying to decide whether or not we should actually lock in on our tentative mid-way bookings, or continue to bank on the roads to Rausu opening.

Then, we got word that the roads between where we had our tentative hotel bookings and Rausu had just be closed and would not open again that day. By the time we called our hotels, we’d lost a few rooms, but were able to find another, and the group ended up in three different hotels in a town just outside the road blocks. We all had dinner together, and Yukiko and I split into two groups so that we were with the bulk of the participants.

Game On!

Bright and early the next morning, we called and found that the roads from where we were staying to Rausu would open at 7:30am, and the roads into Rausu would open at 7am, so we wrangled the team together, and after breakfast started to make a beeline for our special little fishing village on the Shiretoko Peninsula. Usually in Rausu, weather permitting, we go out for a dawn shoot each day for three days, and spend two hours photographing the incredible Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles.

Unfortunately the high winds had kept the seas high, and broken up the sea-ice that had been in the channel between Rausu and Kunashiri Island, so a dawn shoot would have been called off anyway. But, with two shoots abanded, we arranged with the skipper of our boat to go out from 10am, as soon as we arrived in Rausu. There was some ice trapped in the harbour still, which made for some great photographs, but the highlight for me was after I persuaded the skipper to take us outside the harbour walls, and throw some fish into the sea, one-by-one of course, and give us a chance to shoot the sea eagles as they swoop down to catch the fish, as we see in this photo (below).

You know, as much as I love it when we have great sea ice, I really love it when we can do this, as it looks much more natural to actually capture the eagles taking fish from the water, instead of from the top of a block of ice. Here I captured a Steller’s Sea Eagle throwing up a truck load of water as he snatched his fish from the sea. There was still a lot of swell, so our boat was rocking all over the place, and the eagles also had their jobs cut out grabbing the fish, but it did make for some beautifully dramatic splashes.

Steller's Sea Eagle at Work

Steller’s Sea Eagle at Work

Finally in Rausu, we made the most of our time, and arranged for two more two hour sessions the following day, so we actually ended up going out three times, as we’d always planned. I know that this might sound a little conceited, but one of the benefits of traveling with me in Japan is that I know the language and have a great relationship with all the people that we work with, and this not only makes for tours that run like clockwork when things are going well, but it really helps us to swing things around when circumstances out of our control threaten to put the mockers on our experience. We refuse to give in, and will turn any situation around for our group. It’s just what we do!

Here’s a shot of a White-Tailed Eagle (below), gliding close to the surface of the water as he hones in on his fish. I love the action shots, with all the spray, but this image really appeals to me too. The light from the sky and distant mountains was really beautiful reflected on the water here, making these shots quite special in my opinion.

Surveying the Waves

Surveying the Waves

Here’s one final shot of a White-Tailed Eagle, once again kicking up some water as he takes his fish from the sea. It’s great when you actually get a good view of the fish, and this almost frontal view of the action really brings this shot to life. Note that although last year I hand-held the 200-400mm lens on the 1D X for our three eagles shoots on each tour, this year, the 100-400mm on the 7D Mark II was the obvious choice.

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

The focus issues that I’ve found with the Snow Monkeys running directly towards me don’t occur in these eagle shots, and although the success rate is still slightly lower than the 1D X, for a quarter of the price, the 7D Mark II really is turning out to be a great little camera, and the 100-400mm is astonishingly quick to focus and sharp as tacks. I’m not sure that I will, but I am seriously considering selling my 1D X at this point. I will keep the 200-400mm, because having that 1.4X Extender built right in, and being able to shoot at almost 900mm with the 7D Mark II is too good to pass up, but the 1D X’s days might literally be numbered.

With just one night in Rausu, although we still got our three eagle shoots in, we had to hit the road after lunch, and start to head around to the other side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, to the town of Utoro, for the last night of our tour. As you probably recall from previous years, one of the things I love to do during this drive, is stop at a grove of birch trees to do a little bit of Intentional Camera Movement, as you can see in this photograph (below).

Winter Birches

Winter Birches

For this kind of image, I like to set my shutter speed at around 1/20 of a second, and with the light towards the end of the day here, this required an aperture of f/14 at ISO 100 to get a nice exposure, with white-whites, and nothing over-exposed. There are lots of ways to do this sort of shot, but I like to swipe the camera downwards, and release the shutter just as I expect the bottom of the trees to enter the frame.

With practice you can do this quite consistently, but of course the speed at which you move the camera, and the slightly different path that your vertical panning action moves the camera, makes each frame subtly different. It’s lots of fun though, and because we were doing this later in the day than we usually do, we have some beautiful late afternoon light hitting the sides of the birch trees, giving us a lovely warm highlight along the right side of many of the trees.

We spend our last night in Hokkaido in a wonderful hotel in Utoro with what is probably the best buffet in the whole of Japan, and although we have great food throughout these tours, the last night is always a great special treat to finish with. I made a bit of a speech, and thanked the group for their cooperation and understanding about the challenging weather situation. The participants really were amazing on this tour, and although I know that they appreciated the work we put in to keep us as close to our original plan as possible, with a less understanding group, the situation could have been made a lot worse, so I want to thank you all again here too, as I know some of you will be listening.

On the final morning, we went down and spend some time doing seascapes. The sea-ice on the Utoro side of the peninsula was packed in right up to the shore and out as far as the eye could see, so we did some nice minimalist seascapes, before moving on to the Oshinkoshin Falls, for what would be our last shoot of the tour.

The falls were beautiful and although the left falls were totally iced over, the trees around the top of the falls were all frozen over, as you can see here (below), so once again I used the 100-400mm lens to get in close and single out just the top of the falls. I used an ND8 neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed down to a quarter of a second at f/16, ISO 100, and this is just about enough to make the water go all silky, emphasising the movement.

White Oshinkoshin Falls

White Oshinkoshin Falls

After an hour shooting the falls, it was time to head towards the airport and get one last lunch in together before heading back to Tokyo. As usual, I recorded a message from each participant as we headed down the coast of the peninsula, so I’ll play that for you now.

[Listen to the audio to find out what our participants had to say about the tour.]

And that brings us to the end of our travelogue of the 2015 Winter Wonderland Tour #1. As I release this, I’ll literally be heading out of the door to go and meet the Tour #2 group, and do it all again. Well, hopefully this time without the disruptions that we had on Tour #1, but I’m really looking forward to getting started again, and will be back in two weeks time with another update and some new photographs to share with you. Note too that I’m also probably going to be doing some Google Hangouts to share some of the participants photos with you too in the coming months, which should be a lot of fun and help you to see the tour from a different perspective to my own.

2016 Japan Winter Wonderland Tours

Note that we are already taking bookings for the 2016 tours. Actually, they are now almost full, so if you are thinking of joining us, check out the details on the Tours & Workshops page, and sign up sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.

 


Show Notes

See Details of 2016 Tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2016

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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