This week I’d like to start by giving us all a pat on the back. This is a milestone episode, as we just reached number 700! I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’ve been releasing this podcast almost every week for coming up to fifteen years now! I’m also incredibly humbled by the fact that many of you have been following my antics for most of, if not all of that time. Thank you so much for sticking around!
We’re going to do a regular episode though, and conclude my Japan Winter Wildlife Tour #2 travelogue series, with a visit to Lake Kussharo to photograph the Whooper Swans, and then on to Rausu to photograph the sea eagles. I once again have way more than 10 photos to discuss, so although we had some fun photographing the landscape a little after we finished at the sea eagles, I’m going to skip those photos and give preference to the wildlife work, because this is really what this tour is all about.
Let’s start with a shot from the Whooper Swans. As you can see, there was a slight mist over the lake, which was still not frozen, due to this being the warmest winter in Japan for thirty years. I love the graduated horizon line of the lake, caused by the mist and the swans here have an almost painterly look, due probably in part to the quality of light, but also the fact that I was panning with them with a 1/50 second shutter speed.
I wish I’d not clipped the wing of the swan on the right side of the image, but I’m pretty happy with this all the same. I also kind of like that it’s a grey cygnet that is leading the pack here, rather than an adult, which I think may have been a little bit too obvious as a composition. That was pure luck of course and totally a hindsight observation.
I’ve become quite partial to this next kind of swan-panning shot as well. As the swans start to waterski on the lake as they land, again, at a 1/50 of a second, the water makes some beautiful textures that I can kind of get lost in visually. I also really like the slightly ruffled feathers under the near-wing of this swan. The lake being thawed this year contributed to keeping the swans cleaner than they sometimes are when it’s frozen. I imagine it’s because they are not forced to sit around in the shallow water at the same location, rubbing against the algae and sitting in their own mess. Either way, this is a completely fun way to shoot these awesome, yet sometimes clumsy-looking birds.
In this same location the following morning I used an 1/800 of a second shutter speed to freeze the movement instead of blurring it, and fell lucky with this next shot, as four swans lined up with a mallard duck at the end looking as though they are just starting off on a race of sorts. The mist had cleared, though it was still overcast, and the faster shutter speed enabled me to freeze the mountains on the far side of the lake, so I consciously tried to keep my camera higher to include the top of the mountains in the frame.
Japanese Long-Tailed Tit
The little guy in the next image is a Japanese Long-Tailed Tit, and probably one of the cutest birds I’ve ever photographed. I’ve seen these before in the trees near where we stop to photograph the swans, but never managed to get a shot so far. Fast-movers though, at 1/1600 of a second, this tiny bird is slightly soft, so I increased my shutter speed for a few more frames, but I like this one the best, as he flew down from his perch, on which he stopped for a less than one second at a time. A very difficult bird to photograph.
Another fleeting moment in this next image, as a Northern Red Fox found something in the hole that it was digging that didn’t agree with him, so he ’bout turned and shot off like a bullet. I was not ready for that speed again, so his head is blurred, but I think that, along with his pose, adds to the dynamic feel of the shot, so I’m going to run with it, like the fox.
It was so nice to have snow, like this, until the end of the season. Just a week until the start of March at this point, the warm winter had taken its toll, but the occasional cold front had kept most of our locations topped up with snow, and from the number of hand-warmers we got through on the bus, I think the participants probably didn’t believe me when I kept saying that it was warmer than usual.
Indeed, as we got into our first morning photographing the Sea Eagles the next day, with the wind chill and the cooling effect of the sea-ice, even this mad-dog and ex-English-man didn’t have the nerve to call it warm. We did have sea-ice, but to be completely honest, I wish it hadn’t come down in the Nemuro Straits at all this year. The warmer conditions had meant that the Steller’s Sea Eagles were nearing the point where they’d find a thermal to climb to set them off on their way back to Russia for the summer.
They weren’t moving much at all, and the staff of all the boats were starting to wind down for the season as well. I would not accept that the birds simply wouldn’t move, and managed to talk the skipper of our boat to let us charter his second boat for the group for the second two days. This won’t always be possible, but it did give us the freedom to call the shots and salvaged the situation. The ice was closer on the second day, but we spent some quality time near the harbor wall as well, and got this next image, which is one of my favorite Steller’s Sea Eagle shots of the season.
Once again, I’m going to live with the clipped wings and tail, as I think the bulk of the shot is interesting enough to not throw it out. I love the detail in these birds, and those talons and claws look absolutely lethal! These really are magnificent birds.
White-Tailed Eagle Departs
Later in the day, we headed back down the Notsuke Peninsula, where I’d photographed the fox two days earlier, and although I don’t usually stop for sea-eagles out there, we did find the White-Tailed Eagle in this shot sitting in a more interesting spot than usual. We waited until he flew, and sure, it’s a butt-shot, but this is one that I’m happy with. The surroundings, with the driftwood and perch, and those beautiful distant mountains on the Shiretoko Peninsula made for an almost perfect scene for this proud raptor to start his journey from.
I actually pulled back to 366 mm rather than trying to go full-frame, to ensure that I included more of the surroundings. I also used the Advance Color Editor in Capture One Pro to warm up the orange tones, as I found it a little bit too bleak for the wood, which I somehow felt needed to look a little warmer.
Although it was difficult to set up and actually get them to go for fish in the water this late in the season, and the eagles were pretty much constantly flying away from the sun, we did manage to get a few images of them taking fish from the water, rather than off the ice. I was not going to give up on these photos on this trip, both for myself, and most importantly, for my guests.
Hopefully, it will look pretty natural to you, but I had to increase the shadows slider to plus 80 to bring out even this amount of detail in the dark underside of this Steller’s Sea Eagle. Definitely a rescuable image, and pretty much as good as it was going to get under the circumstances.
At almost exactly the same location, just 50 seconds later, I got this shot of a White-Tailed Eagle doing pretty much the same thing, but with much better wing positions. The shadows slider is up at 70 for this shot too, and for both of these images I warmed up the blues slightly, again, using the Advanced Color Editor in Capture One Pro. I just felt that it needed a slight saturation boost.
As I said, we’ll skip three landscape images that are sitting in selection in chronological order, as I like to keep my posts down to ten images when possible and finish with one last wildlife shot. It’s been a number of years since we’ve seen any, but finally, our luck was in with a sighting of a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the Shiretoko National Park on our final morning of the tour.
Although the foreground branch is slightly obscuring the back of her head, I really like how this woodpecker is peeking back at us through this window between the arch of a broken branch and a second branch that is holding it up. The smattering of falling snow is a nice added touch to help us wrap up this three-part travelogue series covering my last Japan Winter Tour for this season.
Before we finish though, I did my traditional walk around the bus to get a comment from the participants, which I’m going to play you now. Please listen with the audio player above, starting from 10:17, to find out what each guest had to say about the tour.
I’m sitting in my studio on the second day of March 2020, having just completed this year’s three Japan Winter Tours. Despite this being the warmest winter for 60 years, and having no snow for the Snow Monkeys on one of our visits, all in all, it turned out to be an awesome winter tour season, and I have around 550 images from the three tours that I absolutely love. It was not without its challenges, and a great deal of luck helped to provide me and my groups with opportunities that I feel incredibly grateful for, and I’m completely stoked that the participants on my tours managed to come away with many images that I know they’ll treasure as much as I do mine.
Choosing to update our iOS app Photographer’s Friend between the second and third tours was a silly decision to make at such a busy time for me, but the changes I made were well worth it, and I’ve just finished writing an email to a user that helped me to think of another tweak that I’m now itching to code, but I’m going to try my best not to let that rule me too much over the next few weeks, and my goal is to put out at least five episodes of the podcast this month, to make up for only releasing two each month for January and February, as I am committed to releasing a minimum of three per month for our MBP Pro members, so let’s get to it.
We pick up the trail on February 2, as we arrived at Lake Kussharo to photograph the Whooper Swans. In this first image for today, we see one of the parents leading in four cygnets, as they flew to the area where the beach is warm and the lake is usually thawed there for a strip, from geothermal activity. It’s nice to see the swans raising such large families. Four is, I think, the most I’ve seen in one family here in Japan, though I have seen two adults with seven cygnets in a remove lake in Iceland, in 2015 or thereabouts.
Usually, these birds would land either on the ice of the frozen lake, or in the thin strip of water thawed by the geothermal activity, but with this year having been warmer than usual the lake was only frozen in the shaded corner that we visited first, and as you see in this next image, it was not frozen at all at this location. This is only the third time I’ve known the lake to be not frozen like this in the 17 years that I’ve been visiting Hokkaido in the winter. As I often say though, I enjoy making the most of the new opportunities we are presented with as the status quo shifts, and I can’t help but think that this kind of winter going to be less of an exception as global warming seems to be digging its claws into the planet.
For this shot, I pulled back on my Canon EF 100-400mm lens opening it up to 100mm to include the wider group of birds, but also pointed the camera upwards slightly, to include the top of the mountains on the far side of the lake. We also have that band of shimmering light along the horizon line that we often see caused by the cold air above the lake.
In case you missed this, I’m no longer calling out all of my camera settings, because the Meow Lightbox software that I’m using now displays this when you click on the images, and they just released an update that makes it even prettier than before, so don’t forget to click on the images and take a look whenever you want to see the settings I used when shooting.
We also did our usual panning, with a 1/50 of a second shutter speed to capture the movement in the wings of these beautiful birds as they take off from the lake. This image is one of my favorites from Tour #1. The head is slightly soft, but I love the look of the wings in this shot, and the wake in the water as the swan runs through it really appeals to me.
There was also a bit of the warm light of the sunset reflecting in the water, giving it a pinkish color, and the top of the frame is slightly darkened from the reflection of the mountains on the distant shore of the lake, and that helps to keep the eye in the image.
We cut our swan time a little short on this trip so that we could spend more time with the cranes as we’d been delayed in Tokyo due to bad weather in Hokkaido, so we’ll move on now, to the last major leg of the tour, as we move to the fishing town of Rausu, for the sea eagles. As usual though, on our way out of town, we stopped briefly at Iouzan, or Sulphur Mountain, for our group photo and to quickly shoot the apocalyptic fumaroles there.
There was only a slight breeze when we visited, so the steam hung around for longer than usual, making the timing more critical, to enable us to actually get a view of the sulfur-stained fumaroles.
As I prepared for this episode I looked through my sea eagle shots and found myself left with 160 images that I’d be happy to share. It was a bumper crop for sure. Out of these I selected my favorites, and still found myself with 36 photos. I don’t want to bore you with shot after shot of sea eagles, as magnificent a bird as they are, so I’ll skip the first day of eagles, and we’ll come back to them in a moment.
Northern Red Fox
On our second visit to the Notsuke Peninsula while in Rausu, we were able to photograph this beautiful proud looking Northern Red Fox sittings on top of some tetrapods. This is one of the only fox photos from both trips that I was happy with. I like the almost coordinated dried flowers against the patch of snow, and the nice clean coat on the fox is nice too.
I’m not sure if it’s some sort of mange, but many of the foxes on the peninsula currently have no fur on their tails or just a tuft on the end, so we found ourselves giving them names like pencil-tail and pipe-cleaner, which is kind of sad.
Steller’s Sea Eagles
The following morning we went out on the new boat that the company we use had just put into service, which was quite an honor. The owner of the company had rushed things through so that we could be first. The dawn shoot is when the eagles are most hungry, although it does leave us somewhat short of light, so much of the work is done with high ISO, starting at 6400 or sometimes higher, but then quickly trying to bring that down while increasing the shutter speed to 1/1600 to freeze the action. Ideally, I like a slightly deeper depth of field, but f/8 is just about enough to get the bulk of the bird in focus.
The catch, with the splash of water, as the fish is pulled from the sea is one of my favorite shots, but I also really like the pose in this next image, as the Steller’s Sea Eagle approaches the fix and raises his talons at the last moment. This is probably one of the most difficult images to get with the EOS R because the frame rate is too slow to rely on simply mashing down on the shutter button, hoping to capture this moment in a burst. I literally have to watch and release the shutter as this happens, so most of the time this is the first shot I get, followed by something like the previous shot.
Without doubt, my favorite photograph of the trip is this next one, which I shot at the end of the third eagle shoot on the third and final day in Rausu, We pulled the boat up alongside the quay wall, and because that has snow on it, the light is bounced back up onto the underside of the eagles putting them in beautiful light. I was really close to the bottom of the tail in this shot, so I’ve cropped it in a little from the top too, to balance it out, but I love the detail in this image, and how the flight feathers are spread as he tries to control his flight so close to the wall.
I find myself drawn towards the Steller’s Sea Eagle, as it really is an awesome looking bird, but we’ll wrap up the sea eagle shots with this one of the White-Tailed Eagle, also above the quay wall moments later, as he swoops down to grab the fish that the boat operators threw up onto the wall to attract the eagles. I like how the fine falling snow is visible in this shot, and I love how we can see the faint shadow of the eagle cast into the snow below it.
Oshin Koshin Falls
After our final eagle shoot, we checked out of our hotel, and made our way around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula and back up to Utoro on the other side, for our final night, and a bit of relaxing landscape work before we fly home. Here is one of the shots of the top of the Oshin Koshin Falls.
I often make my photos of these falls black and white, because there is usually a lot of black rock showing through, but on this visit, the back of the falls was also frozen, and perhaps is was the light bouncing around from that ice, but the ice around the falls was glowing with a beautiful faint glacial blue that I had also not seen before, and I certainly didn’t want to remove, so this year’s shot stays in color.
As usual, I recorded a comment from each of the participants as we ended this tour, which I included in the audio, starting at around 10:33. You can listen using the player at the top of this post. We’ll continue our travelogue series next week, as we embark on my second Japan Winter Wildlife Tour for 2020.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido 2022 Now Open for Bookings
This year was actually the last time for now that I planned to run the second tour that we’ll talk about next week because some of the locations that we visit are now so crowded that I don’t think it really works at the moment. Because of that, the one trip that I am planning in 2021 is already full, and I have now started to take bookings for the 2022 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop.
I will decide whether to make the third Japan Winter Tour a wildlife or a landscape trip based on information I gather in the coming months, but I am doubtful that it will be a wildlife tour, so if you would like to join me in Japan for the winter wildlife, please check out the details of the 2022 tour here. If you are reading this way into the future, check for the most recent available tours in the Tour & Workshops menu at the top of this page.
Having now actually finished all of my Japan Winter Tours for this season, I’m back in the studio and ready to start sharing our experiences from the two trips.
We started our journey as usual, with a bus ride from our hotel in Tokyo, over to Yudanaka, in the Nagano Prefecture, where we walked the thirty-minute snow trail into the Monkey Monkey at Jigokudani. In recent years there hasn’t been a lot of snow at the Snow Monkeys, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a good amount of snow on the ground as we entered the park.
You can get a feel for the snow in this first photo for today, as a monkey showed aggression to another, kicking up the fresh snow on the valley wall in the process.
Still In Love with the Canon EOS R
As I mentioned in my review of the Canon EOS R in episodes 650 and 651, I shot pretty much everything in this years winter tours with the EOS R, and as I shot this image I was still getting used to the idiosyncrasies of Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless offering.
I am happy to report though, that as of the beginning of March 2019, I’ve now shot around 17,000 images with the EOS R, and I am still 100% in love with this camera. It has been so much more than I had expected, and even more of a camera than I’d hoped for. I’ve now decided to sell one of my two EOS 5Ds R bodies, and I’ll save the money from that to put towards the 5Ds R Mark II, which I am now really hoping will also be an RF Mount mirrorless camera.
Galloping Snow Monkeys
The biggest thing that has taken some time getting used to with the EOS R is that even in the high-performance electronic viewfinder mode when you are shooting in burst mode, you no longer see the fluid movement of your subject in the viewfinder. You essentially have to track a moving subject based on a series of still images, so you are almost looking at a stroboscopic representation of reality.
It does work though, and although I occasionally missed photos that I would probably have got with a DSLR camera, the other benefits such as being able to see your exposure and live histogram right in the viewfinder, in my opinion, far outway the demerits of the EOS R.
Real Snow Monkeys
On our second day in the monkey park, it snowed heavier than I’ve ever known it to while we were actually in the park, and it was an amazing day! I have been there when it snows, many times, but this day was just something else.
You can hopefully get an idea of how heavy the falling snow was, from the amount of it stuck to this snow monkey’s fur. Composition-wise, I briefly toyed with the idea of making this a shorter crop, maybe 4:5 aspect ratio, but decided to stay with my original framing, because I think having the swath of snow at the bottom of the frame in this photo helps the viewer to understand that the monkey is high up. You might not be able to see that he was looking down at me from a hill, but the sense of height probably comes across because of the snow bank at the bottom of the frame, so I decided to leave it in.
For the Snow Monkeys, I generally shoot stationary ones such as in the previous image with between a 320th and a 500th of a second exposure. For shots like the one before that where they are running around, I try to get a shutter speed of between an 800th and a 1250th of a second. To achieve this, I increased my ISO to around 2000 or higher when necessary.
My aperture will be between f/8 for a single subject and f/11 or even f/14 if there are multiple snow monkeys in the frame that need to be relatively sharp. And, of course, I was exposing to the right, as always. This means that I expose so that the right-most data on my histogram is as far over to the right side as possible, without being over-exposed. This gives me the cleanest and highest quality images possible, even at high ISOs.
It’s this control over the exposure that enables me to get beautiful white snow with texture in it, and because I set my exposure in manual mode, I don’t have to mess around with exposure compensation as the darker subjects take up more or less of the frame.
This is also why I am able to capture things like the subtle shadow of this snow money leaping from a tree stump. If you find that hard to see, or can’t really see the texture in the snow, then your monitor may be set too bright. It’s important to darken down your display as part of a calibration process, otherwise, subtle details like this can be missed.
It didn’t snow on our third morning with the Snow Monkeys, and although I have a bumper crop of images from this very productive visit, we’ll move on now to day four of the tour, as we fly up to Hokkaido and start our two days photographing the beautiful Red-Crowned Cranes.
We weren’t so lucky with the snow at the cranes though. It’s becoming less and less common for it to snow while we are with the cranes. I’m actually just happy that we have a full covering of snow on the ground most of the time now, although I do wish for falling snow still. It didn’t happen on any of the days we visited this year though. As you can see from this photo though, when there isn’t fresh snow, the ground can be very heavily textured.
I’m still relatively happy with this photo, as it shows the beautiful detail of the ruffled feathers of the crane, as well as the pose you will often see these birds do as they land. Because the cranes often land behind other cranes, I was also somewhat happy to be able to photograph this one, that landed a little closer, and in front of the other birds, for a change. Of course, the birds in the background of this shot, are Whooper Swans, which we move on to photograph after our two days with the cranes. I was using a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second here at ISO 500, and an aperture of f/11.
The only time I used my Canon EOS 5Ds R during the tour was as my second camera while we were with the cranes, because they sometimes fly over our heads as they leave the crane center, and you can see that in this next image.
We were lucky to get a nice sky while at the cranes though, as you can see, and this shot happened to have the crane lined up nicely with most of that stretch of blue between the clouds, which I thought was nice.
I’ve adjusted the shadows and clarity sliders in Capture One Pro to help bring out the detail in the crane, but there wasn’t much of a catchlight in this crane’s eye, due to the angle of the head. I zoomed in on the image though and saw a very faint catchlight, so I used an Adjustment brush to draw over it and then increased the exposure creating an almost false, but very convincing catchlight in the crane’s eye. Unfortunately, you probably can’t see the catchlight in the web version, although it is visible in the eBook article that accompanies this post, available to all MBP Pro Members.
Ural Owl Duo
After spending most of the first day in Hokkaido with the cranes, I took the group to a location where there is a tree that often has one or sometimes two Ural Owls, and on this day, we were lucky enough to get the latter as you can see in this next image.
These are beautiful animals, but because of the bad behavior of many photographers that try to photograph them, the local authorities have cordoned off an area to shoot from that is quite a distance from these owls. That’s fine, and at least the owls are staying in this nest because they aren’t quite as bothered as others, but it does mean that you need a very long focal length to frame these owls like this.
I shot this with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged, and an external 2.0X Extender fitted, giving me a focal length of 1120mm. Needless to say this requires me to shoot with a tripod, but the EOS R actually gives a slightly sharper image with this lens and extender combination than my 5Ds R, probably because it’s lower resolution and therefore a little more forgiving.
Three Cranes Take Flight
The following morning, we made our first visit to the Otowa Bridge, which as I’ve mentioned before, translates to the “Sound of Wings” Bridge, which I find simply beautiful, especially as it’s in the town of Tsurui, which means “Cranes are Here”. How cool is that!?
This is the location where we need it to be below around -16°C or 3°F, with little to no wind, and a bit of humidity, to make the trees go white with hoar frost, and hopefully some nice mist on the river. On the two mornings that we visited on this trip, it was -23°C and -25°C, which is -9°F and -13°F respectively, and this is actually a little bit too cold, as the mist was at times too heavy to even see the cranes.
Luckily though, there were times when the mist cleared enough for us to photograph the cranes, and at one point, we were really lucky to have three cranes fly away from the group. This isn’t common so early when it’s this cold, as the cranes need to warm up a little before they can fly, but someone must have been smiling on my group on this particular morning.
Even though we were able to see the cranes, I used a Luma Range mask in Capture One Pro to select the three cranes in flight, and the line of cranes behind them, and just darkened them down a little more, to make them stand out against the misty white background. With the sun well above the horizon by this point though, my settings were a 1/500 of a second at f/14, and ISO 320, and a focal length of 526mm.
Red-Crowned Crane Preening
After breakfast, we went to the Akan Crane Center again for most of the day, and once again, it was a bright, mostly cloudless day. On days like this, although I still enjoy flight shots, the birds standing in the snow show quite a lot of texture, as we saw earlier, so I tend to spend a lot of time zoomed in very tight on the nearby cranes, doing what I call studies or almost portraits of these beautiful birds, as we can see in this photo.
I just love the detail that we can see in this kind of photograph, and also how the white of the bird almost merges into the white snow in the background. I actually have a few photos of dancing cranes from the second trip that are so similar in tone between the cranes and the background that it’s hard to see where one ends and the other starts, but I’ll share that in a few weeks time.
Crane with Birch Trees
In the middle of the afternoon, I took the group over to a different location, where we were able to photograph the cranes flying over a prettier background, with some lovely white birch trees, which make a nice backdrop. With the sun at our backs, we also get really nice catchlights in the eyes.
The following morning, we went back to the Otowa Bridge, and had great hoar frost again, although the mist was even stronger as it was a few degrees colder than the previous day. My photos look pretty much the same though, so I won’t share another today. After breakfast, we checked out of our lovely hotel in Tsurui and started our journey on to the Whooper Swans, then further still to photograph the Sea Eagles at Rausu, on the Shiretoko Peninsula.
As we’ve reached our ten photos for this episode though, we’ll finish there for today and conclude the Tour #1 travelogue in part two next week, before covering Tour #2 in another probably two episodes.
Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2020
Note that we do still have some places open on the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tours, so if you might be interested, please check that out here.
This week we conclude our travelogue series to walk you through my 2018 Morocco Tour & Workshop, as we finish up our shoot of the camels in the Sahara, then photograph some wonderful characters before ending our trip with the Portuguese Cistern at El Jadida.
In the previous episode we looked at a number of photos of the camel handlers with their turbans blowing in the wind as well as leading their camels through the dunes in the Sahara Desert. To stick to our ten images per post though, we left the last couple of images from this shoot until this week, so let’s jump right in and look at these now.
Camels at Sunset
We’d waited until the sun was on the horizon for our last few shots, of which this is one of my favorites. You can see now why it wasn’t such a bit deal that three tourists had ridden their own camels across the brow of this sand dune, as it was pretty much going to be a silhouette by the time we shot it anyway.
Although I’m not very good in automated shooting modes, because we were sometimes shooting into the sun like this, and other times shooting away from it, I do work hard to get used to using Aperture Priority with Auto-ISO in situations like this, and it leads to some nice silhouettes as the camera darkens down the exposure to avoid blowing out the sunset.
I also set the camera to keep my shutter speed relatively high to avoid camera shake, and to capture the walking camels, so it all came together with a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second at f/13, with the ISO at 200 and a focal length of 97mm.
Rock the Kasbah
As the sun went down, we had the camel handlers walk across this dune a few times, and moved around a little for a slightly different perspective. For this last shot of the camels I went a little higher to include the top of what looks like a Kasbah, although in reality I think it is the lodge that we’d stayed in on the previous night before moving to our luxury tents a few hours before this shoot.
As there was a lot of clear sky above the line of camels in this photograph, I decided to crop it down to a more cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio, which I quite like. The settings for this were a 1/250 of a second at f/13, with an ISO of 640 and a focal length of 97mm. For both of these images I was using my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 Mark II lens.
After spending the night in the Sahara, the following day we drove back through the dunes in our four-wheel drive vehicles, and switched back to our bus to continue our journey.
Man in the Well
Shortly after starting our drive, we stopped for a shoot that I’d been looking forward to since last year. We visited Karim again, the man who poses for us down an irrigation channel with a well hole, through which beautiful light pours for what I think are incredible photographs.
I actually shot most of my images down here in portrait orientation, including this one, but with this I’ve taken it into Photoshop and extended the canvas so that it is a 3:2 aspect ratio in landscape orientation, and then selected the two areas to either side of the original photograph, hit the delete key, and then had Photoshop fill in the sides with Content-Aware Fill. With it being so dark I just had to clean up a few artifacts to get a landscape orientation version, which I really like.
Because it’s so dark down this well I was also looking forward to using my 85mm f/1.4 L lens down here, which I opened up to f/2, so it was letting in two stops more light than my f/4 lens does wide open. This enabled me to capture a brighter image than last year, although my ISO was still at 6400, at 1/20 of a second.
We ended the day at Ouarzazate, where we had a quick shoot of the beautiful fortified town of Aït Benhaddou before heading to our hotel for the night. We went back the following morning, when I shot this image with the warm morning sun bathing the town.
I used a 6 stop neutral density filter for a 2.5 second exposure to make the water in the river smooth over a little, although we hardly notice that in the photograph with the fortified town being so vibrant. I’d set my aperture to f/14 and ISO to 100 with a focal length of 56mm.
Moroccan Man in Window
When we got into the town itself, our guide arranged a few shoots with the local people, starting with this man who we’d photographed with his donkey outside, before going into his house to photograph him in a window like this. It was funny, because the house was mostly very traditional, with the Berber mark above him on the wall and similar authentic artifact, but just above to the right of the frame here, was a huge Gladiator poster in a frame, which had been given to this man as he was an extra in the movie.
Running with my semi-automated shooting modes, the shutter speed was a little higher than necessary here at 1/320 of a second, but I’d opened up the aperture to f/2.2, and these settings gave me an ISO of 2000 at a focal length of 85mm. With all the rustic red shades in this image, one of my favorite parts is the man’s blue turban, which is a nice color contrast against the reds.
I had also been really looking forward to revisiting the gentleman in the next few photographs, as his images were some of my favorites from last year’s trip as well. This is Mr. Jamal Eddine Mohammed who lives in this ancient town and has appeared as an extra in many movies shot here too.
He’s a wonderful character and great looking gentleman to photograph. When I told him that I thought he looked like Sir. Alec Guinness, he smiled and then reeled off a string of other actors names who he’s been told he looks like, and they were pretty much all in there in his rugged good looks.
I framed this up with him directly in front of the dark area of a gateway at the foot of his house, but I used my 85 mm lens opened up to f/2.5 to give me a nice shallow depth of field and some separation between him and the background. This also resulted in a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second and my ISO was at 125.
Inside an Adobe Building
We also went back into the adobe building that we’d photographed Mr. Mohammed in last year as well, and although I have another great shot of him close up, looking up into the light again, here is a wider framed image showing him in his environment, with the dusty Tajine pots lined up along a ledge.
Once again the dark conditions resulted in my ISO going up to 6400, the maximum that I set for my Auto-ISO range, and my shutter speed was then forced down to a 1/20 of a second exposure at f/4, and my focal length was at 35mm.
As I’ve mentioned many times though, it’s better to let your ISO go higher and record a brighter image than to resist the higher ISO resulting in a darker image, because brightening up a dark image introduces more grain than the higher ISO does.
After our shoots at Aït Benhaddou, we continued our journey to Marrakesh, the last place that we’d spend two nights at before heading back to Casablanca via El Jadida.
To be completely honest with you, I’m not a huge fan of Marrakesh. I find the people to be more aggressive than the rest of Morocco, and even just getting out an audio recorder to record the ambient sounds of the market square there instantly resulted in two young men rushing over to hold out their hats for tips.
On the other hand, if you prearrange a shoot with people, as our guide did the morning after we arrived, with a number of the watermen, you can still get some nice shots. For me this year, this image of an aged waterman with a great toothy smile is about the only shot from Marrakesh that has made it to my final selection.
These watermen are fun to shoot, as they are colorful and have a certain showmanship element, although I do wonder if people actually ever drink their water these days, with it being so much more available than it would have been when this quant tradition originally formed.
My settings for this shot were a 1/200 of a second exposure at f/4, and my ISO was at 100 with a focal length of 105mm.
Portuguese Cistern of El Jadida
The following day, we drove over to the coast to a town called El Jadida, for the final real highlight of the tour, which is a visit to the old Portuguese Cistern there, as we can see in the final few images for this series.
I’d negotiated to allow us to take and use one tripod inside the cistern, so with my Arca Swiss standard Really Right Stuff quick release clamp on my tripod, and the fact that many guests had compatible plates and brackets on their cameras, we took my tripod in.
I of course let all the guests that wanted to use it do so for as long as they wanted, so the above image was shot at ISO 5000, as I continued to do most of my shooting handheld. It works fine though, and unless you zoom in to 100% and inspect the shadows you can’t really see any grain. Even printed this would look fine as grain shows up even less in prints.
This is a wonderful rugged environment that I really enjoy photographing. I generally just expose to the point that the highlights in the hole in the roof and the brightly lit area below it are just starting to blow out, and then bring out the shadow detail in post using the Highlights and Shadows sliders in Capture One Pro. My other settings were a 1/40 of a second shutter speed at f/5.6 and a focal length of 45mm.
I made a few more exposures after getting my tripod back to use before we left, and this is one of the resulting images, so at ISO 100, for a ten-second exposure at f/14. It’s hard to tell the difference without really jumping in and inspecting the shadows, but it is a slightly cleaner image.
My focal length was 35mm for this final photo of this travelogue series. After this, we drove for a few more hours up the coast back to Casablanca where we’d started our trip almost two weeks earlier.
By the time we got to our hotel and recorded a comment from each member of the group as you’ll hear in the recording I’d almost completely lost my voice from the cold that I’d caught. It turns out that we’d find from blood tests after I got back to Japan that I had also been infected with some sort of virus and some of the values in the test results later showed one of the doctors that I talked to a week or so ago that I probably should have been hospitalized.
Luckily I made it back to Japan OK, although a little worse for wear, and it took me another ten days and a seven-day course of antibiotics to fully recover, but I did really enjoy this year’s Morocco tour, once I got in after my fiasco with the customs officials on arrival.
Anyway, here is the recording from each of the guests. (Use the player above to listen to the audio.)
To follow up on the comment made by Ken at the start of these comments, it turns out that the Japanese Rugby Team have the nickname The Cherry Blossoms, which Ken had pointed out early in the tour and reminded me of a number of times, often accompanied by copious amounts of laughter from the group. I’m never going to live that down!
A Happy New Year for 2019!
Before we finish I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year as 2018 draws to an end, and we start 2019 with hope for a peaceful, safe and fruitful year ahead.
If you buy using the gear links in this post you help to support the podcast at no extra cost to yourself. Thank you!
Today we continue our Morocco Travelogue series as we visit the Chouwara Tanneries, a weaving workshop and some other cultural delights in the ancient city of Fes.
We pick up the trail as we visited the Chouwara Tanneries, which as you can see from the first photo for today, is a hive of activity as various companies share the complex of vats in which the workers are processing their leather (below).
For this image I used my Canon EF 11-24mm lens at 15mm, to include as much of the tannery as possible, just to get a more descriptive overview of the place. Because I was looking down on the complex, there is quite a bit of distortion, even after having removed a bit of it with the Keystone correction tool in Capture One Pro. My other settings were an aperture of f/8 for 1/125 of a second at ISO 125. F/8 is slightly wide for this type of image, but at 15mm that still gives me plenty of depth of field, so it’s fine.
As you can see from this and the next image, the tanneries are a hive of activity, as the workers all go about their daily tasks. Here we see two of them cleaning up the leather hides that they are processing with rather large knives.
I’d switched to my 24-105mm lens for this shot, and zoomed right in to 105 mm to get as much detail as possible this time. I love the texture and grittiness of this place, and for some reason, I’m really attracted to the reflection of a window in the vat close to the top right corner of this image. My settings were f/10 for a 1/125 of a second at ISO 1000.
I shot this next photograph for a couple of reasons. The first being, that it helps us to see the relationship between the men obviously overseeing the workers, and the workers themselves. As the tanneries are a conglomerate, I’m sure there are lots of small groups that work together, sharing the facility, but there is a definite hierarchical structure within each group.
The other reason I shot this is because I was happy to see so many of the workers wearing waders this year. Maybe it’s because it was a little cooler, as this year’s tour was a few weeks later than last year’s, but if this is a new development, it’s great to see. We did still see some people in the dye vats just wearing shorts, like the guy just above the middle of the frame here, and that cannot be good for them. My settings for this photo were once again 105 mm at f/10, 1/125 of a second and this time with an ISO of 500.
Following our theme of visiting local workers and craftsman, later in the day, we visited an old building in which we were able to photograph two weavers making cloth on their looms. It was quite a place to visit, as these people worked mainly by the light from a skylight that we’ll take a look at in a moment, but with such low light, even at 1/50 of a second at f/5.6, I had to crank up my ISO to 6400 to get this photograph (below).
Again, I find the grittiness of this environment and the quality of the light very appealing. These looms are powered by a foot pedal, and and I found it quite peaceful for the only noise in this workshop to be the sound of two man-powered looms rattling away creating their cloth one line of thread at a time.
Weaver’s Workshop Skylight
Here now is what I saw as I looked straight up having taken a few steps back from where I shot the previous image. To maintain the grey in the cloudy sky, I exposed this so that the sky through the skylight was not over-exposed, but that left the rest of the image very dark, so I cranked up the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro to its maximum of 100, so that we can see detail in the pillars and what would be the third floor of this rather run-down building that housed the weavers.
I found it fascinating that these people were working in this building, and also that there was some kind of vine growing up towards the main light source, which is this hole in the roof. My settings were f/5.6 for a 1/200 of a second shutter speed at ISO 100, with a focal length of 11 mm.
Public Bath Furnace
Of course, visiting all of these locations is possible because I hire an amazing guide in Morocco, with lots of contacts, and he knows what we want. I was reminded of this many times on this day in Fes, but one opportunity that really brought this home for me, was when he led us down an alley into a doorway, where we saw this many stoking the fire in a furnace that was heating the water of a public bath.
With the floor being covered with the wood-shavings that the man was feeding the fire with, it’s surprising that this entire building hasn’t gone up in smoke, but I guess they’ve been working this way for centuries, so I am obviously overthinking things.
My settings for this image were f/5.6 for a 1/160 of a second at ISO 2000, and a focal length of 41 mm. Fire can be quite challenging, but as usual, I just exposed this so that the brightest part of the scene, the fire, was just on starting to become over-exposed, then I increased the Highlights slider in Capture One Pro to bring the fire back under control, and increased the Shadows slider to brighten up the rest of the image, which had fallen a little dark as I exposed for the fire.
Man in Mosque
As my group and I aren’t Muslims we are not allowed inside most of the mosques that we see on our travels, but under our guide’s advice, there are a few that we were able to photograph from the doorway, and I quite liked this photograph, which I was able to time to get a man walking across the end of the corridor.
My settings for this photo were f/8 at 1/125 of a second, and ISO 6400, so there is a little bit of grain showing up in the shadow areas of this image. I like the striking red carpet though, the arches, and then the warm glow of the light at the end of the corridor.
This next image has turned out to be one of my favorite shots from the entire trip. Our guide led us down a very narrow alleyway, which at some points was not much wider than shoulder width. My group and I took turns to stand at the end and get a few shots each. I was fortunate that a lady in a red Djellaba appeared at the end of the alleyway just long enough for me to add a striking color contrast to set off the blue and orange color of the alley walls.
I actually like this so much that I released this as my December desktop wallpaper, and currently have it as the desktop background on my computers. My settings for this were f/8 for a 1/20 of a second at ISO 6400, and a focal length of 24mm.
By the nature of touring Morocco in a bus, we inevitably have some pretty substantial drives between our locations, but we generally break these up by stopping for meals at interesting places, among other things. On our way from Fes to Erfoud, we stopped in a small town called Zaida, where I photographed this man with a great characteristic face cooking some vegetable Tajines. The Tajine is a traditional Moroccan dish and can be found in lots of variations at most restaurants.
For this image, I opened up my aperture a little to f/5, for a slightly shallow depth of field, and at ISO 100 that gave me a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second, so you can tell it was a bright sunny day. That’s also what’s responsible for the accentuating the lines on the man’s face, as the sun shone down on him from high in the sky.
Shepherd Near Tillicht
Around two-thirds of the way into our drive from Fes to Erfoud, where we would give up our bus for a few days, and venture into the Sahara in four-wheel drive vehicles, we stopped to photograph this elderly gentleman tending his sheep and goats.
I found it interesting that the mountains and ground we were surrounded by were so arid, and yet there’s snow on the mountains in the distance. There’s also the unfortunate but inevitable contrast of the somewhat traditional Moroccan architecture to the left, and what are probably cell phone towers right next to it. My settings for this photo were f/14 for a 1/160 of a second at ISO 200, and a focal length of 78 mm.
We’ll finish here for today, as that was our tenth image, and we’ll pick up the trail next week, as we head into the Sahara and then continue our journey on to Marrakesh and beyond.
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