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.
Following on from my selection process episode last week, this week I’m going to tell you a little about each of my personal top ten favorite images from 2017.
We’ll work through my top ten in chronological order, starting from January and working through the year. My first image was a bit of a surprise for me, as I wasn’t all that fond of this image when I first shot it, but it quickly grew on me.
This image (below) is from my Hokkaido Landscape Photography Adventure Tour. Weather permitting, I’ll actually be at this same location just a day or so after releasing this episode, and I can’t wait to get back there. This particular spot is just off the ski slope at Mount Asahi in Hokkaido. A beautiful place to ski as well as to photograph, although we are careful not to get in the way of the skiers.
I shot this at f/14 for a 1/50 of a second, at ISO 100. Pretty much my default settings for when I’m working on a tripod. I think one of the things that prevented me from liking this image initially was that I had to compromise my composition because of foreground objects and the fact that I shot this from the other side of a small brook. I’d ideally wanted to go just a little bit wider and include more snow down in that trough in the center foreground, but that would have meant including some hazard warning poles and something else as well, and I obviously didn’t want to do that.
It’s funny because this is the reverse of how we sometimes find it difficult to remove images from a selection because of the emotional attachment that we generally have for a while after a shoot. In this case, I’d had a slightly negative emotional reaction caused by the fact that I had to compromise my preferred composition, but as that wore off over time, I found myself liking the image for its artistic merit, unhampered by my feelings from when I made the photograph.
Revisit Old Shoots
I’ve found this to be the case when going through images from old shoots too. We finish a shoot with certain expectations. It’s still fresh in our mind and we have a shortlist of images that we think went well, and give preference to finding and processing these images, and tend to skim over other images a little less enthusiastically.
Again though, if you go back and look through your old shoots with fresh eyes if your creativity was engaged, you’ll sometimes find that there are images in your set that are pretty good but you ruled out initially because of your fresh expectations. It’s because of this that I like to set aside some time every so often to look through images from six months to a year ago. It sometimes turns up some pleasant surprises.
Moving On, this image (below) is from my Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido wildlife tours. Specifically from the small fishing town of Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula, where we spend three days photographing the sea eagles. This is a White-Tailed Eagle having just caught a fish. In actuality we through the fish into the water, and quite often they are flatfish, which don’t usually swim near the surface, so I like this mostly because it’s a regular looking fish and we can still see the splash of water as well as the reflection of the eagle.
I cropped this down from the top edge to a 16:9 ratio image, mostly because there wasn’t anything interesting at the top, but also because it made it feel more dynamic with movement from left to right being forced into a narrower space. My settings for this were ISO 800 at f/10, with a 1/1000 of a second shutter speed. For more information on my settings and techniques for using long lenses for this kind of fast-paced focusing etc. please take a look at my podcast episode 584.
Next, we go from the wintery sub-zero temperatures of northern Japan to Namibia, when I visited a Himba settlement with my Namibia tour group. Without a doubt, one of my favorite images from the 2017 visit is this young Himba girl that I’d also photographed in 2015. It was amazing to see how she’d grown and was turning gradually into a young woman. I’m really hoping to be able to photograph her again this year when I return.
This Himba are an amazing people with beautiful culture and traditions, so it’s always a pleasure and a privilege to photograph them. I shot this at ISO 5000 inside one of their huts, to get out of the harsh sunlight. I had set my aperture to f/5.6 and my shutter speed to 1/80 of a second.
In my post-processing, I darkened down the background and added a vignette to focus our attention on the face. I exposed the image so that the white of her teeth and eyes were just starting to overexpose, and that helps to keep grain away in the dark areas, even at ISO 5000.
Lone Wildebeest on Plain
I also visited the Etosha National Park in Namibia for my first time in 2017. With a few hundred wildlife images to choose from, I found it difficult to remove many of them from my final selection but felt strongly that this shot of a wildebeest (below) should stay. It’s not a dynamic or powerful shot as such, but something about the stance and calmness of this image really appeals to me.
Lone Wildebeest on Plain
As I also mentioned last week, it was only as I revisited my Namibia wildlife work from this year that I really thought about converting this to black and white. I do a lot of black and white and have done monotone wildlife before too, but for some reason when processing my Namibia work it had never really appealed to me, until last week, when it hit me like a sledgehammer.
As is often the case, removing the color enables us to concentrate more of the form of the subject, and I love the texture and gradation in the mane of this magnificent animal, as well as the way black and white makes the wildebeest stand out so much, almost as though it has been superimposed onto the photograph. My settings for this image were ISO 400 at f/11 for 1/640 of a second. I was using my Canon 100-400mm lens with a 1.4X extender attached for a focal length of 560mm.
Colorful Fes Alleyway
I also ran my first tour in Morocco in 2017, and have absolutely fallen in love with this beautiful land and her people. Many of the places we visited had places where the locals had taken pride in decorating their town, like this beautifully painted alleyway is Fes (below).
Colorful Fes Alleyway
Because the local people don’t like having their photos taken without permission, which they rarely give, sometimes the best way to include people in a shot like this is to capture them while they are still so far away that they’re quite small in the frame, as I did here. This works fine, as it enables me to add a human element, but also leave lots of room for us to see the beautiful colors.
Although it was a clear day, the draped cloths and Moroccan flags cut out enough light that I needed an ISO of 2500 at f/11, for a shutter speed of 1/320 of a second. For much of this tour, with there being quite a lot of street photography, I forced myself to use Aperture Priority and set a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 of a second, so that I could freeze any sudden movement in the subjects when necessary. I could have used a slower shutter speed and ISO here, but there often wasn’t enough time to override my settings or drop back into Manual mode, especially as many of my shots had to be grabbed before the unaware subjects got much closer than this.
Camels and Handler in Sahara
While in Morocco I arranged for a shoot in the Sahara Desert with two camel handlers each with five camels. My group actually rode these camels into the desert, which was an experience unto itself, but it was such a treat to be able to photograph these people with their animals like you see in this image (below).
Camels and Handler in Sahara
I was happy with the location that I asked the camel handlers to stop at, with this beautiful view of the sand dunes as a backdrop. I did clone out a number of patches of vegetation from the distant dunes, to clean this up, but I’m very happy with the results.
I used my 24-105mm lens on one body and my 100-400mm lens on a second body so that I could quickly switch between the two. I don’t mind changing lenses in the desert, despite the dust. In fact, I didn’t expect to use the 100-400mm until we actually started shooting, so I put the lens on to the body while out there. Unless there is a lot of wind, generally you can get away with a lens change, especially if you turn your back to any breeze and shield your camera with your body.
My settings were ISO 800 at f/10 for a 1/250 of a second, at 200mm. Again, I was using Aperture Priority here and was actually getting quite comfortable with it by this point. I continued to use Aperture Priority because as you’ll see a few photos from now when we panned around to the right of this scene, we were shooting into the sun and then later the sunset, and Aperture Priority helped to adjust the exposure as we switched from regular lighting to silhouettes.
Camel Handler with Camels
This next image (below) is another one that sort of grew on me. I was excited when shooting it, and thought it had potential, but I didn’t think for a moment that it was going to make my top ten for the year until I started to go through my Morocco images time and again during the process of whittling down my selection. Every time this image flashed up onto the screen, it brought a smile to my face.
Camel Handler with Camels
I don’t know if it’s the Lawrence of Arabia type appeal, with the camel handler in his headwear, or the way this man carries himself, just sitting in the sand that he’s so familiar with, and his five camels standing patiently behind him. I found Morocco to have a wonderfully romantic and poetic air to it, that moved me quite deeply, and I sense a lot of that in this image, so there was no way I could remove it from my top ten selection.
Again, still using an automated mode, I could have switched to a slower shutter if I’d taken control, but it took a lot of work for me to get used to giving up that control during my Morocco tour, so while it made sense, I stayed in Aperture Priority, and so this image was shot at ISO 4000 at f/11 for 1/320 of a second, at 200mm. No big deal really either. The image is as clean as can be, so I have no regrets.
Camel Silhouettes at Sunset
I tried really hard to remove one of my two camel train images from my top ten as well, but I love both of these shots so much, that they both had to stay. I shot this second camel train image (below) as the sun started to turn the sky firey-red and the wispy clouds were making beautiful patterns in the sky. These natural phenomena were a perfect backdrop for our camel handler as we marched him all over the dunes to get our photographs.
Camel Silhouettes at Sunset
I shot this at ISO 500 at f/10 for 1/320 of a second at 35mm, so a lot wider than the first camel train shot. Because I was now shooting into the bright sky, the Auto-ISO dropped down to 500, keeping my shutter speed at 1/320 because I’d set a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 of a second, and I think I had +0.3 of a stop Exposure Compensation dialed in, which is why the actual shutter speed increased by a third of a stop.
Moroccan Man in Well
As we left the Moroccan Sahara to continue our journey, our wonderful guide had our bus driver pull in to a sandy patch of land with what looked like a series of adobe turrets built at intervals across the land. It turns out that there is an underground irrigation channel with wells inside each of these turret-like structures, and when you go underground through a door in their base, you can actually walk into the underground canal.
We were guided into the tunnel by the man you see in this next image (below) who graciously posed for us, looking up into the light pouring down into the darkness from the mouth of the well.
Moroccan Man (Karim) in Well
Taken a little by surprise at this photographic treat, I lowered my exposure compensation to -2.0 to prevent my camera from making the man’s blue garments over-expose due to the very dark background, and also give to give me a 1/40 of a second shutter speed at f/4 in the very low light, even though my auto-ISO had reached the limit I’d set, which was 6400.
I absolutely love this shot though, and although I’m not really much of a people photographer, I think this and the final image that we’ll look at in a moment are my favorite photographs of my top ten for 2017.
Moroccan Man in Adobe Building
In the final image, we see a proud man that lives in an ancient ighrem or fortified village, called Aït Benhaddou, and his families home was built around the 15th or 16th century. An incredibly generous gentleman, he invited our tour group into his home for tea, and then came with us outside, into a nearby building with an opening in the roof, so that we could photograph him in this amazing light.
Moroccan Man in Adobe Building
Again, because of the low light, I opened up my aperture to f/4, as wide as it goes for my 24-105mm, and still had to shoot this at ISO 6400 for a 1/60 of a second exposure. There’s virtually no grain in the image though, as I exposed it so that the whites were bordering on overexposure, which helps to stop the shadows getting too dark, and it’s the shadow areas that become more problematic if you don’t protect them.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to visit Morocco for the first time last year, and I’m hoping that we’ll get enough people sign up for the 2018 tour to make it possible to visit again. It’s a magical country with beautiful people and a sense of poetry that I honestly wasn’t prepared for.
As I spoke with our guide towards the end of the 2017 tour, he told me that 2018 would be even better, because, in his words, “Morocco is in your eyes now”. This might not seem very special, but it’s this sort of turn of phrase and philosophy that can reel me in and make me love a country and her people like nothing else.
Share Your Own Work
There was a great response to my call for you to share your work at the end of last week’s episode, in which I discussed my selection and editing process for this top ten. I’d like to invite those of you that have not yet posted a link to take a moment to share your own top ten in the comments for this post (below).
If you haven’t selected your own top ten, I really do recommend setting some time aside to do this. It helps to hone various skills that help us to become better photographers, as well as enabling us to put a stake in the ground at the end of each year, and that builds into a great visual record of our progress as we continue on this wonderful journey of our, into 2018 and beyond.
This week we conclude our travelogue series to walk you through the second of my Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017, with a number of Sea Eagle photographs.
We pick up the trail at dawn on day ten, when we were out on a boat to photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles at sunrise and for a while after that. The sea ice drifts down from Russia and we hope that it drifts far enough to make it’s way around the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula and down into the Nemuro Strait, close to the fishing town of Rausu.
Last year the ice didn’t make it down, and this year there wasn’t a lot of ice, and what there was, was quite far away, but we made the most of it while it was there for this second tour. In this first photo from dawn on day ten (below) we see a Steller’s Sea Eagle flying close to the sun’s disk as it rose over the Kunashiri Island.
Steller’s Sea Eagle at Sunrise
I sometimes go to Aperture Priority mode when shooting into the sun like this, because it’s easier to work that way when some of the images will be facing away from the sun, and that’s how I started out on this shoot, but I am really not comfortable working in an automatic exposure mode, so by the time I shot this I had already switched back to Manual, and was just exposing so that the disk of the sun and the sky around it just starting to blow out, just a little. I then just brought those areas back under control in Capture One Pro afterwards.
Another thing I do is use the digital level in the viewfinder of the Canon EOS 5Ds R camera, so that I can try to keep the horizon straight. With fast paced wildlife work I don’t always get it straight, but this shot did not require any rotation. It actually looks like it’s tilted to the left slightly, but that’s an optical illusion, probably caused by the slant of the island above the horizon. My settings for this image were f/8 for a 1/640 of a second exposure, at ISO 2500.
A few minutes later as the sun rose further, I shot this next image, of a sea eagle whisking away a fish that another eagle had tried to take (below). These guys often seem so comical with their big yellow beaks, especially when they aren’t happy about something. They’re almost like cartoon characters to watch.
I had adjusted my exposure slightly as the sun came up, now at f/11 to get more depth of field, especially with the multiple birds in the frame, and with my shutter speed still set to 1/640 of a second, I was now at ISO 2000. Again, I’d allowed the sky to blow out a little here, to get some detail in the birds, and reduced the sky in post.
Once the sun had come up we just sailed around stopping in a number of places to photograph the eagles on the ice. I generally try to get us lined up with something of interest, and for the next three shots, I was watching the eagles on the ice formation that we see in this photo (right).
Shortly before I shot this image, I had noticed a White-Tailed Eagle sitting on top of this triangle of ice, and lowered my camera to tell the participant of my tour that was standing next to me, so that we could get a photo of it taking off, but then before I raised my camera again, it did take off, and the participant got the shot, and I didn’t. That’s fine of course, I’m there to enable my participants, but I was still kicking myself for a moment.
Luckily, eagles like to sit on top of these pillars of ice, and pretty soon a second eagle rested up there, so I trained my camera on it, and waited. The eagles are also not shy when it comes to getting themselves in a prime position, so as I watched, the second eagle in this shot came crashing down onto this perch, and the eagle that was already there had to move down to the lower perch. They seem to have their pecking order all worked out. The one that is going to take the place knows that the other will just move, and they generally seem to do so quite peacefully. My settings for this image were f/10 for a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, with a focal length of 400mm.
I still didn’t have a shot of the eagle taking off from the ice, but I couldn’t resist shooting this somewhat comical image of four White-Tailed Eagles sitting on this ice formation (below). We spend between 90 minutes and two hours with the eagles each time we go out on the boat, and if the weather permits us to go out for all three days, we generally start to get time to just relax and enjoy moments like this.
King of the Hill
Of course, when there is no ice, and we just throw fish straight into the water, the action is more full on. It’s a much faster paced shoot, and I do enjoy that type of photography, but when the ice is here, it does make for something a little bit different from your regular sea eagle shots, especially as this is becoming a somewhat uncommon experience these days. My settings for this image were f/10 for a 1/1600 of a second exposure at ISO 1600. My focal length for this image was 271mm. For all of these eagle shots I was shooting with my Canon 100-400mm Mark II lens.
Eagle Takes Flight
Not wanting to miss the eagle on the tallest pinnacle of ice taking off again though, I went back to portrait orientation and zoomed in a little to 349mm and waited. My patience and shoulder ache was rewarded, as you can see in this next image (right).
I was pleased to have not gone right in to 400mm for this shot, because I wanted to include the second eagle, being as he was so close. I’ve cropped this image down from the top, making it a 4:5 ratio, as the white sky wasn’t adding anything to the image.
I generally like to crop in the preset ratios, rather than just arbitrarily cropping, as it makes life easier later when printing. Canvas stretcher bars and frames are easier to match up if you use the regular print sizes.
For this image I had dropped my shutter speed down to 1/125o of a second, at f/11, ISO 1600. This was the last shot that I want to share from our second day out with the eagles.
The following morning we went back out again, but the weather wasn’t going to be so good, and we’d had two sunrise shoots on the first two days, so I decided to take the group out on the second boat for our third morning. As we sailed out in the light it was an almost eerie scene with hundreds of eagles sitting around on the ice waiting for the fish, as you can see in the background of this photo (below).
How Many Eagles!?
I actually shot some video with my iPhone of the wider, more eerie scene, but here i was trying to include some action with the three eagles in flight. You can see just how many eagles there are though, and this is only what just happened to be in the background of a shot at 214mm. To the naked eye it’s really quite a scene. I shot this at f/10 for a 1/1600 of a second exposure at ISO 2000.
The other thing that I like to do when we have the ice, is to just try to capture moments where there is a little bit of movement to freeze, like the snow kicked up by this eagle as he lands on the snow covered ice (below). I have actually trimmed this down a little from the top left corner to remove an eagle that was sticking into the frame, but I still have an image larger than I could get with the 1DX Mark II or 7D Mark II, so I continued this year to have no regrets about my decision to sell my original 1DX or the 7D Mark II.
Snow Kickin’ Eagle
I have to admit feeling a slight pang of envy as some of the participants had brought 1D X Mark II cameras with them. I do like the 1 series bodies from Canon
, and would be all over what would be something like a 1Ds Mark IV if it had a 50 megapixel or higher sensor in it, but I’m making it work with the not so weather proof 5 series bodies, and I absolutely love the detail in the images that I’m getting, and the ability to crop like this a little when necessary. The settings for this photo were the same as the previous image.
The final eagle shot that I wanted to share for this season is of a White-Tailed Eagle in flight, as he decided to look over towards the boat for some reason (below). He’s not looking directly at me, but it’s close enough to feel the eye contact.
The light had increased just slightly on this overcast morning, so I was now at f/11 for a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed and my ISO set to 1600, and my focal length was 400mm. I was also exposing for the sky in this image which was relatively bright compared to the dark bird. I then brightened up the bird by increasing the shadows slider in Capture One Pro, and that’s the same slider in Lightroom of course.
After the eagle shoot, we started our drive around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula to go around from Rausu to the Utoro side, and on the way, we stopped for our usual ICM or Intentional Camera Movement shoot with the birch trees. For many years I’ve shot the lighter color background version, and we started with that on this tour too, but then I went across the road to a patch of trees with a dark background, for this kind of image (below).
I prefer this patch now, probably just because I’ve gotten a little bit bored of the original photo, but I do like the eerie, almost haunted feel of this dark background. I find myself thinking in sets of images a lot as well these days, so I can also see a pair of prints, with the light and dark version next to each other, almost like a Yin and Yang sort of thing.
One other thing that I thought of as I was there shooting this ICM shot on the last tour was to make a straight photograph, without the camera movement, so that you could see exactly what it is that is making the streaks of color and contrast in the ICM shot, so here that is (below).
Haunted Trees without ICM
It’s nothing to look at as a photo of course, but hopefully this will help you to visualize what we’re doing here. I basically set the camera to a slowish shutter speed of 1/25 of a second at around f/16 or smaller if necessary to get the slow shutter speed, and I also of course set the ISO to 100 for the same reason. I then frame up my patch of trees and focus on them, then raise the camera upwards, steady my posture, then lower the camera quickly, releasing the shutter just as I know the bottom of the trees is a little way into the frame. If you time it right, the white snow starts to blur up into the base of the trees for this beautiful surreal effect.
We went to the Oshin Koshin falls as well, and then up into the Shiretoko National Park for a beautiful walk and to try to find some woodpeckers. We would usually have better look with the woodpeckers earlier in the day, and generally we go back into the park for a few hours on the last morning, but a nasty weather front was closing in, and was threatening to disrupt our return flight, so I made the decision to change our return flight to a different airport, so that I could get the group back to Tokyo on time on our last day. This meant that we had to forfeit our final shoot in the park, and head over to the airport after breakfast on the final day.
So, that brings us to the end of the photographs, but as usual, I recorded a message from each participant as we left Utoro to head for the airport. Here’s what they had to say…
[Please listen to the audio with the player above to hear what the group members had to say about the tour.]
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019
Because our 2018 tours have now filled, we’ve started to take bookings for 2019, so if you are interested, please check the details and book at https://mbp.ac/ww2019. If you’d like to be added to the wait list for 2018, please drop us a line. But be aware that the 2018 tours do now have a relatively long cancel list, so booking on the 2019 tours is a probably better at this point.
This week we continue our travelogue series to walk you through the second of my Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017, with a few more crane shots, then moving on to the Whooper Swans, Sea Eagles and Foxes.
We pick up the trail on day five of the tour, when the wind was whipping up a snow devil at the Akan Crane Center, as we can see in this first image for this episode (below). The cranes get somewhat excited when the wind gets up, and they lean into it, and spread their wings, and jump up and down a bit. I got various photographs from this few minutes, but the snow was not so apparent in many of them, so I selected this one where the snow really stands out and the left side crane still has it’s wings splayed out, seemingly enjoying the moment.
Revere the Drifting Snow
Part of the reason that I like this, is because the drifting snow hides part of the background, and helps to take our attention away from the heavily textured foreground, which I don’t like. I also ran a gradual layer up to the bottom of the crane’s legs in Capture One Pro, and then lowered the clarity to reduce the texture in the snow along the bottom of the frame. My settings for this image where 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 320 at 560mm with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in Extender engaged.
Cranes Gradually Returning
The following morning, we went back to the bridge in Tsurui, for our second chance at some mist and hoar frost. On the previous day, there had been snow on the trees, which was nice, but it wasn’t cold enough for the hoar frost, and that requires mist too. So, I was pleased to see that it was a few degrees colder as we left the hotel, and sure enough, as the sun started to rise, a bit of mist formed, and started to stick to the trees on either side of the river, forming the hoar frost (below).
There were around twice as many cranes on this day as the previous day, following the irresponsible and selfish acts of the Korean photographers on Feb 19, as I explained in Episode 564. We waited for quite a while hoping for a little more action, but the cranes weren’t very active. This is probably my favorite image from this second morning, with the crane in the back right of the scene flapping its wings, almost looking like an orchestra conductor, although the rest of the cranes don’t look very interested in his actions.
Panning with Whooper Swans
After breakfast we checked out of our hotel, and moved over to the Kussharo Lake area, where we’d photograph the Whooper Swans for a couple of days. We stopped at Lake Mashuu on the way, and then Kotan, a small corner of the lake, before we went to Sunayu, the place where we do panning shots as the light drops, and you can see an example of that in this next photograph (below).
Whooper Swan Duet
As you can see, there was still a little sunlight catching the wings of the swans in this image, which I like, but the contrast is much greater when the birds are in sunlight, so I generally like to do this after the sun has gone behind the mountains. I do like the detail caught in the wings of the foreground bird though, and I often like to try and get at least two swans in the frame at once, mainly because I already have so many shots of single swans, I just like to see what I can do with more. My settings for this image were 1/40 of a second at f/16, ISO 200, at 100mm with my 100-400mm Mark II lens.
Hoping for Sharp Heads
I went a bit crazy with the multiple swans thing for this next image (below) getting three and a half of them in the frame. I considered cloning out the half swan on the right, but not only would that be too much work, I really don’t mind him showing that there are more birds out of frame. We also get a hint of that from the footprints in the foreground, from a bird that has already left the frame.
My settings for this were again, 1/40 of a second shutter speed, at f/16, but now the sun has gone well behind the mountains, maybe even below the horizon, so my ISO was up at 1250 at this point, and again, I was at 100mm. As I select my favorites from these panning shots, I’m generally looking for at least one sharp head. The reality is that at these shutter speeds, most frame look like the heads on the other three birds, but we usually get a few images with heads sharp, and that for me is what this is all about.
Looking for Extremes
Once I get a sharp head, I’m then looking at the wing position. Sometimes the wings look better than others, and sometimes the wings almost disappear, and that doesn’t look good at all. In this next image, I was happy to see the foreground swan’s wings at full extent upwards, and the second swan’s wings are at full extend downwards. Extremes like this are often nice, as long as the head is sharp.
Wings Up Down
There are times when I will work with these swan photos when the head isn’t sharp, if the shapes and form of the bird is pleasing enough, but I generally find myself weeding these images out of my selection as I try to get my numbers down. I guess I’m just a bit of a traditionalist in this respect. The settings for this were the same as the previous image.
After we spend two days photographing the Whooper Swans, we move on to Rausu to photograph the sea eagles and foxes. On the way out of town, we stop at Iouzan, or “Sulphur Mountain” to do a group shot with the steaming geothermal vents in the background, and go up to the fumaroles for a while to capture scenes like this one (below).
Light Through Steam
Although this is a location that I’ve shot to death, it’s still nice to capture with the group. I never get tired of seeing what the steam and wind will present us with. Here I waited for a bit of a tunnel of light through the steam, between some of the main fumaroles. I also decided to add a bit of a vignette to this image in Capture One Pro, to emphasize this tunnel of steam. My settings for this image were 1/320 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 100 at 80mm, with my 24-105mm Mark II lens.
No Ural Owls in Hokkaido!
As usual, we stopped to see if we could find any Ural Owls at the nests I know, but there are none to be found this year. They all disappeared last December, and I believe this is because of the actions of some of the East Asian photographers visiting the nests. I’ve heard reports of them throwing things at the nests to get the owls to open their eyes or to fly, and this has probably caused the owls to retreat further back into the woods, away from the reach of humans.
Oil Drum Fox
So, once again they’ve screwed it up for everyone. The sooner they understand the wildlife that they are trying to photograph, and treat it with the respect it deserves, the better things will be for everyone that would like to photograph the animals, and of course, most importantly, for the sake of the wildlife itself.
As I mentioned last week though, when something gets taken away from us, we generally gain something else, and this year was an incredible year for the Northern Red Fox, as you can see in this image, of this cute guy sitting on an old rusty oil drum.
The snow melted quickly this year, so we were treated with a number of environments to photograph these beautiful animals in. On tour #1 we had them on top of the fishing nets, and again here on oil drums. A nice white snowy background is great too, but it’s nice to shake it up a little bit.
My settings here were 1/800 of a second exposure at f/10, ISO 320 at 560mm, which is my 200-400mm lens at full reach with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.
The following morning, we had our first trip out on a boat to photograph the sea eagles. For the first time in four tours, we actually had sea ice, which works well for some shots, but my favorite image from this first morning is this one of a White-Tailed Eagle catching a fish from the open water. I’d asked the skipper to go to open water towards the end of our time out at sea, so that we could get some shots like this, as opposed to over the ice.
I have of course cropped this down some, from the top, to make it a 1:2 ratio, as I didn’t think the top of the image was adding anything to the scene. I’m really pleased that the head of the eagle is sharp here too. With the autofocus settings I use the camera does a great job of locking on to the body of the eagle and staying with it, even as the wings move across the eagle. And of course there’s a certain amount of skill involved in just framing and focusing on the bird at high speed, and with the low frame rate of the Canon EOS 5Ds R camera, I have to be very careful about when I release the shutter to capture the action. My settings here were 1/1000 of a second at f/10, ISO 800 and a focal length of 330mm.
Later this day, we went back out to the Notsuke Peninsula, to photograph the foxes again. The pair that you can see in this image have been hanging out together the whole season, probably brothers, and here (below) you can see them comparing mouth sizes. I actually missed the optimal moment here, as I had lowered my camera for a second, and on this occasion was too slow to raise it again as I saw them do this.
Still, I’m happy enough with this image, although the light was on the wrong side of the foxes. Luckily the sliders and curves in Capture One Pro enable me to bring out a lot of detail in the shadow side of the animals, so I still photograph them, especially when they are interacting like this. My settings were a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at f/11, ISO 1000, at 340mm.
A few minutes later I shot one of these guys stretching and yawning at the same time, as we can see in this final photograph for this episode (below). Again, the light is coming from the wrong side, but that’s not a big deal. I love the relaxed posture of this fox, and the texture of the fur in this shot is beautiful. I also like how we can see his claws sticking out of his furry feet.
Foxes Yawny Stretch
These are a truly beautiful animal and I’m really pleased that we had such a good year with them this year. I hope that they stick around for next year’s tours too. My settings for this shot was the same as the previous image.
We’ll wrap it up there for this week. Next week I’ll be back with the third and final part of this travelogue, as we cover the next two days with the sea eagles, then our final bit of landscape work before heading back to Tokyo to complete the tour. We’ll also hear from the participants next week, with our usual recording of their kind comments.
Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019
Because our 2018 tours have now filled, we’ve started to take bookings for 2019, so if you are interested, please check the details and book at https://mbp.ac/ww2019. If you’d like to be added to the wait list for 2018, please drop us a line. Note though that the 2018 wait list is getting a bit long now, so if you want to secure a place, 2019 is a safer bet.
This week we conclude our series of four episodes to walk through 40 images from my second Japan Winter Wildlife tour for 2016. Today we visit the Notsuke Peninsula to find an adorable Northern Red Fox, then back to the Seal Eagles, before finishing with a little bit of landscape work in Utoro.
We pick up the trail on day ten of our 12 day tour, after our second session photographing the sea eagles from a boat in Rausu, when we headed back out initially to see if we could find an Ural Owl. We revisited a few spots where I know there to be a nest, but there was no owl for us to photograph, so we’d missed out on this tour.
After that, we headed over to the Notsuke Peninsula, where we were treated with an encounter with this beautiful Northern Red Fox (below). He was sitting on top of a snow covered truck trailer with fishing nets and floats poking through the snow. And, having seen my image of the fox yawning from last year, one of the participants was just saying that she’d love for him to yawn, and he did the honors.
Northern Red Fox Yawning with Fishing Floats
I actually shot this at 1,120mm. I was using my 200-400mm lens, with the internal 1.4X Extender engaged, and a 2X Extender fitted. Ideally, if I’m going to attach the 2X Extender for a focal length of 800mm, I like to keep the internal Extender out of the mix, but I gave this a try, and it worked out OK. The image is a little bit soft, with all that magnification, but with it being a 50 megapixel file, there’s enough resolution to still print pretty large if I needed to, so all is good.
My settings here were 1/640 of a second at f/11, ISO 400. The aperture of f/11 is forced on me here because of the Extenders. It’s an f/4 lens, but the 2X Extender forces me down to f/8, and the 1.4X Extender forces the aperture down to f/11, so there’s no going wider, and of course, no auto-focus past f/8, so I was manually focusing here too, while resting on the window of our bus.
The following morning, on Day eleven, we headed back out for our third morning on the boat, to photograph the sea eagles. The weather had kept us from doing dawn shoots each of the previous days, but this works for us when it’s overcast, because there is no sunrise to speak of, that would make for a beautiful back drop. Also, as there was no sea ice for the entire season this year, there’s nothing for the sea eagles to perch on with the sunset in the background, so in many ways, the later starts suit us more.
On this third morning though, the weather was promising to provide us with a bit of color in the sky from the sunrise, and that would give us some new opportunities that we had not had on the first two days, so I was quietly optimistic that this would turn out to be a good shoot.
We started while it was still relatively dark, but the sun over the Kunashiri Island was reflecting in the water by this point. Here you can see that I decided to silhouette this White-Tailed Eagle against the slightly orange water.
White-Tailed Eagle Swoops in Silhouette
We generally start off a shoot like this, where the birds fly closer to the sun, with our cameras set to Aperture Priority mode, as that helps the camera to shift the exposure as the background gets brighter. That automatically gives us a silhouette as the birds fly over a bright background, and helps to prevent the background from blowing out too much.
By the time I’d made this photograph though, I was back in Manual mode. I’m just more comfortable in Manual mode, so I like to switch back as soon as I can. My settings here were 1/500 of a second at f/8, ISO 2000, at 278mm.
It does mean though that as we photograph towards the sun, the exposure needs to be tweaked, but as suns rays started to form over the Kunashiri Island, I adjusted my exposure and got a few frames like this one, with a White-Tailed Eagle flying over this almost biblical looking backdrop (below). I have a number of these that I really like, although this is probably one of my favorites.
White-Tailed Eagle with Sun’s Rays
As you can see, there was still a good amount of cloud around from the storms over the previous few days, but these really helped to create a dramatic sky to form those sun rays, making the nice backdrop for the eagle in flight. There are a couple of areas of the clouds that are a little over-exposed, but I’m happy with the balance. If you try to stop clouds around the sun from blowing out completely, the entire image can get a bit dark, and when you consider how bright these areas are in reality, I don’t think it’s necessary to go much darker than this. My settings were 1/1000 of a second, to freeze the bird in flight, with an aperture of f/10, ISO 640, at 330mm.
This next image is from eighteen minutes later, when a caught a Steller’s Sea Eagle catching one of the fish that we threw out, from a somewhat still patch of water. If you look at the very top of the frame here, you can see a little bit of more textured water creeping in. These still patches are left in our wake, after we’ve maneuvered through the water, and can help to give us a slightly different feel to our images, as you can see here (below).
Steller’s Sea Eagle Catching Fish from Calm Sea
This is one of a pair of images from my final selection, with the other having much more distance between the splash and the eagle, which I prefer, but you can’t see the eagles face in the other image, so I chose this one to share with you. My settings here were 1/1000 of a second at f/8, ISO 1600, at 400mm.
I was using my 100-400mm lens for the entire time while shooting from the boat. It worked really well with the Canon EOS 5Ds R camera, and although I cropped some of these images a little bit, I still ended up with some beautiful high resolution images that I’m finding are printing absolutely beautifully, and I’m loving having the freedom to go full-frame wide, as well as zoom right in and then crop as necessary, and still have a larger image than those from my 7D Mark II. Of course, there are times when I don’t have to crop at all, and then the detail captured is absolutely off the charts.
OK, so this next image is the last eagle photo that I’ll share from this season. Here we see a Steller’s Sea Eagle coming in, with those incredible talons out in position to catch his fish (below). As I mentioned last week, these birds will pretty much always fly into the wind when they swoop down like this, and the wind was coming from the land out towards the sea, with the sun across the sea over the Kunashiri Island, so even though I’ve photographed this guy from a different angle than most of the other shots, the light is still coming from behind him, which is a shame, but cannot be helped.
Steller’s Sea Eagle Swooping to Catch Fish Talons Forward
To bring back some of the detail I’ve increased the Shadows slider in Lightroom right up to 100, and the Blacks slider up to 60, then bumped the Clarity slider up to 55. Because I was exposing to the right, to get the white on the eagle perfectly exposed, my shadows weren’t totally plugged up, and my ISO being at 400 by this point also helped, so there isn’t a lot of noise that has been introduced by this somewhat extreme processing. My other settings for this were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed, at f/10, with a focal length of 400mm.
After our final eagle shoot, we started the drive around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula, to the town of Utoro on the other side, where we’d spend our final night. On the way, we made our customary stop at a copse of birch trees, where I introduce the group to the wonders of intentional camera movement photography. As the weather was clear by this point, and quite bright, the copse on the side of the road that I usually like to photograph was a little bit too bright, so we walked back a little way, to another batch of trees that had a darker background, as you can see in this photograph (below).
Birch Trees Over Dark Background
You know, I never get tired of photographing the wildlife on this trip, but I have to admit, I didn’t really need another white on white birch tree shot, and although I’d been shaking it up a little bit on the first tour for this year, I was really happy to get something really quite different on this second tour. I think the fewer number of birch trees against the black background worked really well here, and although I’m not overly happy with those few patches of blue, I think this complements the other white on white shots quite well.
As usual, my settings for this image were 1/25 of a second, and to get to that shutter speed, I’d selected an aperture of f/13, ISO 100, and I was using my 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens at 61mm. Although it’s usually dark enough to get down to 1/25 of a second with an aperture of f/16 or so, it was so bright on this day, that we had to use an ND8 neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light hitting our sensors, and because not everyone had one, we loaned each other these filters and played with the scene a little longer than usual before heading on for lunch, and then on to Utoro.
As we reached the coast again, it seemed ironic for there to have been sea ice, all the way up to the shore, and stretching out into the Sea of Okhostk, as far as the eye could see. There has been no ice in Rausu for the entire season this year, but by this point, it had made it’s way down to Utoro. It just wasn’t going around the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula and down into the Nemuro Strait, which is of course where we need it, to be able to photograph the sea eagles with the sea ice.
Our first stop in Utoro was to shoot the Oshinkoshin Falls, as you can see in this photo (right). Again, because it was a clear day, it was a bit too bright for photographing waterfalls. They are much better to photograph on overcast days, but we made the most of the situation, as usual.
For this I used an ND8 neutral density filter, to give me a three stop longer exposure, taking my shutter speed to 0.4 seconds at f/16. I generally like to go a little bit longer, up to around 0.8 or one second, but it was too bright for that, and I don’t like to go smaller than an f/16 aperture because that starts to introduce diffraction. My next ND down is an ND1000, which is a bit too dark as well, so I just lived with this exposure.
After photographing the falls, I crossed the road to the fence from which we can look out across the sea, and made this next photo (below).
Some Ice Floes
For this photo I was using the ND1000 which is 10 stops, coupled with a three stop ND8 for a 120 second exposure at f/22. As you can see, the foreground sea ice has hardly moved, but the ice further out to sea has moved during the exposure, so it has blurred, along with the clouds where were moving a bit, although not a great deal.
Now, before you start thinking that I’m being a hypocrite here, as I just said that I don’t like to go below f/16 because of diffraction, I will, if I have a good reason to, but then I’m basically committing to opening the image in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, and using the Digital Lens Optimizer to remove the diffraction, which it is actually very good at. Canon designed the lenses by computer, so they can basically reverse engineer the light as it travels through the lens, and remove the affects of diffraction.
I don’t like to use Digital Photo Professional, because I absolutely hate everything else about the program, but I will use it if absolutely necessary, such as in times like this, when I have to stop down for a really long exposure. Because I have to save the image as a TIFF to get something with the Lens Optimizer corrections, I then just take that TIFF file into Silver Efex Pro to convert to black and white.
After we photographed the Ice Floe and the falls, we drove along to just past the town of Utoro, and went to the mouth of a river there, and I made this photograph (below). I shot this at my sweet-spot aperture of f/14, which is my soft-ceiling for how small I like to go before I even start to think about diffraction.
Utoro Ice Floe from River
This once again was converted to black and white in Silver Efex Pro. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m trying to convert more of my images to black and white in Lightroom, but I’m just really not getting the look I like for all of my images, so I’m finding it hard to leave Silver Efex behind, and I still have not found another application that works as well, as dated as Silver Efex is now. My shutter speed for this image was 70 second, at ISO 100, 67mm, with my 24-70mm lens.
After this last shoot for the day, we went to our hotel and enjoyed our last dinner together as a group, in the amazing banquet hall and buffet at the hotel that we use here. The next morning we went up into the Shiretoko National Park for our final shoot of the tour, and as usual, we split the group into two, with one group going down into the valley to look for deer, and I remained at the top, hoping to photograph the Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
After an hour or so of walking around, enjoying the fresh morning air and the snow, we still hadn’t heard a single peck from the woodpeckers, so we went back to the bus, and just as I’d broken down my camera, we saw one flying from tree to tree on the other side of the car park.
I didn’t have time to put an Extender back on, but those among the group that were interested all rushed back off the bus to capture this beautiful little guy, that we can see in this image (right).
I had to crop in quite a bit on this, but still have a 25 megapixel image, so again, more resolution than I would have had using my 7D Mark II, but I have the freedom to crop a little wider as necessary, which I’m enjoying.
I love the catchlight in this woodpeckers eye, and the detail captured overall is astonishing, especially when you consider it was hand-held with the 200-400mm with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged for a 560mm focal length.
I did ensure that I had a good shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second though, to help me keep it steady, and my ISO was set to 400, for what would turn out to be the last photograph of the tour.
After this little bit of excitement to end our morning shoot, we drove towards the Memanbetsu Airport where we’d fly home from, and as usual, I went around the bus with my digital recorder and recorded a message from each of the amazing participants for this tour, so I’d like to play that to you now.
[Listen to the audio using the player at the top of the post to hear what the participants had to say about our tour.]
How great to hear there voice of the group again, now more than a month after we parted company. Thanks so much everyone. It was an absolutely pleasure traveling with you all.
And that concludes our Japan Winter Wonderland travelogues for this year. I hope I haven’t bored you going through each tour in so much detail. I really did have a great time running these tours, and in spite of the weather taking away a number of opportunities, I honestly feel that we were presented with many more amazing opportunities, and this turned out to be the most productive season we’ve had for a while, so I hope you’ve enjoyed looking through my images with me.
2018 Winter Wonderland Tours
Before we finish, I’d like to remind you that we are now taking bookings for the 2018 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours. For details and to book your place, visit the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2018. Our 2017 tours are already sold out, but if you’d like to be put on the wait list, please contact us.