Japan Winter Wildlife 2020 Tour 2 Travelogue 3 (Podcast 700)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2020 Tour 2 Travelogue 3 (Podcast 700)


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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.

Swan Lake
Swan Lake

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.

Water-Brake

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.

Water-Brake
Water-Brake

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.

And They're Off!
And They’re Off!

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.

Japanese Long-Tailed Tit
Japanese Long-Tailed Tit

Fleeting Fox

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.

Fleeting Fox
Fleeting 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.

Steller's Scuffle
Two Steller’s Sea Eagles in a Scuffle

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.

White-Tailed Eagle Departs
White-Tailed Eagle Departs

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.

Steller's Sea Eagle at Work
Steller’s Sea Eagle at Work

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.

White-Tailed Eagle at Work
White-Tailed Eagle at Work

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.

Great Spotted Woodpecker Peekaboo
Great Spotted Woodpecker Peekaboo

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.

Participants’ Comments

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.

Japan Winter Wildlife 2022

If you’d like to join me on the 2022 Japan Winter Wildlife Tour, when we next have spaces available, please check out the tour page, and contact us if you’d like to be put on the waitlist for the 2021 tour.

Winter Wonderland Tour 2022

Show Notes

Check out my available tours here: https://mbp.ac/tours

Music by Martin Bailey


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Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 2 Travelogue 2 (Podcast 655)

Japan Winter Wildlife 2019 Tour 2 Travelogue 2 (Podcast 655)

We pick up the trail on the second of my Japan Winter Wildlife Tours for 2019 today, as we continue to photograph the clumsily beautiful Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo.

My final selection of images from this incredibly productive tour is still slightly over 300, so I have a little more work to do there, but I’ve been able to reduce the number of images to share with you today to a final twelve, so we’ll finish this series covering this year’s Japan winter tours with this episode.

Swan Fly-By at Dawn

The morning after our first panning session with the swans at Lake Kussharo, we went back to the lake hoping for a few more fly-bys and we did have a couple that gave good results. My favorite of the morning is this image, with four of the Whooper Swans almost overhead, as they approached the lake.

Dawn Fly-By
Dawn Fly-By

I really do enjoy watching these huge birds fly overhead, and when they are this close, I literally shot this with my 100-400mm lens wide open at 100mm, you can often hear the wooshing sound as they flap those huge wings. Their wingspan can be as wide as 275 cm or 9 feet, and they weigh up 14 kg or 31 pounds, so it’s a hefty bird, and actually the largest that we photograph on this trip, although the sea eagles that we’ll also look at shortly take some beating when it comes to sheer awesomeness. My other settings for this shot were ISO 400 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/11.

Three Swan Pan

At the end of this day, we were back at the lake for another panning session, and I was again trying to get more than one swan in the frame, and did a pretty good job of it with this next image, in which we can see three swans in a line. The heads are sharp enough to keep the image, although I’d have liked them to be just a little bit sharper.

Three Swan Pan
Three Swan Pan

These panning shots are a lot of fun, and generally, we leave this location with lots of smiling faces, and that’s always good to see from my perspective. The hit ratio with this kind of shot is pretty low, but having two evenings to try it really helps too. My settings for this image where ISO 1000 for a 1/50 of a second at f/16, and I was out at 100 mm still with my 100-400mm lens. Although the lake was uncommonly not frozen on the first trip three weeks before this, as you can see in this image, it had mostly from over by the time we arrived on this trip.

Sulfur Mountain

The following morning we revisited the lake one last time, before continuing our journey to our last major destination of Rausu, for the sea eagles. On the way, our first stop was just 15 minutes from where we’d stayed, at Sulfur Mountain. You can see where it gets its name from with the yellow sulfur stained fumaroles in this somewhat apocalyptic looking photograph from our brief stop.

Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now

The steam from the fumaroles was really heavy on this day, but the breaks in the cloud and clear sky made for a really dramatic looking scene if you time the shot just right. I was exposing this so that the sun was almost completely over-exposed, and that of course made the shadows very dark, but the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro helped to bring that detail back out, so overall I’m happy with the results. My settings were 1/1250 of a second at ISO 100, at f/16, and my focal length was 35 mm, with Canon’s new RF 24-105mm f/4 lens.

Northern Red Fox

We also made our regular first stop at the Notsuke Peninsula during our drive and were greeted by this beautiful Northern Red Fox that posed for us on the snow for quite a while. To avoid frightening the foxes, we generally photograph them from the bus, and just open the windows, and of course, turn the engine off to stop the vibration.

Northern Red Fox
Northern Red Fox

Occasionally we see foxes on the peninsula with tails that are stripped of their fur, probably by the sea eagles or crows that sometimes bully them, but this fox has probably one of the most beautiful bushy tails that I’ve seen. I shot a number of images of him sitting up, zoomed in on his face, but the images felt somewhat empty without that tail, so I settled for this image. My settings for this shot were ISO 1250 for an 1/800 of a second at f/8. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in Extender engaged, and zoomed to 420 mm.

Sleepy Fox

Happy with our first encounter, I was surprised to get another fox shortly afterwards in a completely different environment, but every bit as cute as the first. This guy was quite a way off, so I had to shoot this with an external 2X Extender fitted as well as my 200-400mm lens with the internal Extender, for a focal length of 1065 mm, but as I’ve mentioned, the EOS R seems to quite like this combination, so I’m finding it very workable.

Sleepy Fox
Sleepy Fox

This fox was actually licking its paws then cleaning its face with them, but I’ve called this image Sleepy Fox as it almost looks like he’s got his head on his paws getting ready for a nice sleep. Because the light was relatively low, I was at ISO 5000 for this shot, for an 1/800 of a second at f/11, my widest aperture for this combination of Extenders. It’s always nice to get the fox up on the fishing nets like this, placing the foxes obviously in a fishing area from these visual clues, so the nets add a nice element of story.

Stags’ Play-Fighting

After a visit to the nature center, we turned our bus around and drove back down the Notsuke Peninsula, stopping this time for some Ezo Deer stags that were sizing up each others’ antlers. I like the flakes of snow in this, and the environment is beautiful, with the stags on the frozen brackish lake, just past the vegetation that they often feed on.

Stags' Play-Fighting
Stags’ Play-Fighting

Having said that, the lake is like a white sheet, so I’ve cropped this down to a 16:9 aspect ratio image, removing the top a little, as it wasn’t really adding anything. You can see from the angle of the right deer’s feet that they weren’t really pushing at each other here, but it’s nice to see them at least starting to get ready for this year’s rutting season. It seems I still had my 2X Extender fitted for this image, as my focal length was 685 mm, and my ISO was up at 6400 with a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second at f/11.

Steller’s Sea Eagle at ISO 12800

As I often say, with the camera’s we have these days, cranking up the ISO is really not that big a deal any more, as long as you ensure that you are exposing to the right, as in, adjusting your exposure so that the right-most data of your image is almost touching the right shoulder of the histogram. I was doing just that at dawn the following day, as we started the first of our three trips out on a boat to photograph the sea eagles.

Dawn Sea Eagle
Dawn Sea Eagle

This was around 30 minutes before the sun actually came up over the Kuril Islands, so even with a 1/200 of a second shutter speed at f/5, I still needed my ISO at 12800 to get this shot, but as you can see, there really isn’t a lot of grain in this image, even in the dark bird, simply because I increased my ISO enough to get my image data over close to the right shoulder of the histogram. Had I been too scared to do that, and left it at say ISO 3200, I guarantee you, the image would have been much noisier.

The Humble Butt Shot

Another thing that you will often hear when shooting with other photographers is people lowering their cameras as a bird or animal turns away from us, calling out the image as a “butt shot”. I do this myself too, so I’m not calling anyone out with this, but I do want to point out that I feel it’s a crying shame to completely rule out an image based on a popular idea that a certain type of photograph is in some way taboo.

Steller's Sea Eagle Butt Shot
Steller’s Sea Eagle Butt Shot

This shot of a Steller’s Sea Eagle is, I have to tell you, one of my favorite shots from this trip. I love the detail in the tail feathers and indeed the entire bird, and it doesn’t bother me one bit that this is a butt shot. Another thing that you’ll often hear bird photographers talking about is getting completely sharp wings, and this also is something that I purposefully do not try to do all the time. I like to use a shutter speed of around 1/1000 of a second, because it sometimes allows the wings to blur slightly, adding, in my opinion, some dynamism to the photograph.

I shot this with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second, and still have movement in the wing tips, but I like that here, so I’m happy with my choice of settings. My ISO was at 1600 by this time, as there was now much more light, and my aperture was down at f/10, with a focal length of 400mm.

Steller’s Sea Eagle and Sea Ice

Of course, shots from the front are great too, like in this next image. Quite often with birds, we end up with our shots being from the side, which are also nice, but because it’s less common to get a bird coming straight towards you, it is nice to get some shots like this.

Steller's Sea Eagle and Sea Ice
Steller’s Sea Eagle and Sea Ice

As you can see from these shots, we did also get a decent amount of sea ice on this second trip. The timing of the second trip does give us a better chance of getting sea ice, although I really don’t mind when we don’t get any. Since talking the skipper of the boat into going out even when there is no ice, around five years or more ago, it has become one of my favorite ways to photograph the eagles. When the ice is there though, it does add a nice additional element. My settings for this shot were ISO 1000 at 1/1600 of a second at f/10 and a focal length of 400 mm.

Steller’s Sea Eagle Silhouette

We went back down the Notsuke Peninsula once more on our second day in Rausu, but the photos weren’t great, so we’ll skip to the following morning, back out on the boat, as the sun rose above the Kuril Islands. I like to keep my eye out for an eagle flying close to the sun at this time, hoping for shots like this one, where the eagle is almost silhouetted against the sun’s disk.

Steller's Sea Eagle Silhouette
Steller’s Sea Eagle Silhouette

To enable me to get this sort of image, this is one of the few times when I use Auto-ISO, and allow the camera to control the exposure itself. That way when I’m shooting away from the sun the ISO shifts to give me a brighter bird, but then when the sun is in the frame, like this, the ISO drops automatically, giving me a silhouette. The other settings I did set manually, which were an 1/800 of a second and an aperture of f/10. My focal length was 371 mm.

Steller’s Sea Eagle’s Grimace

Another shot that I’m happy with from a few minutes later, while the sun was still pretty low in the sky, is this one, of a Steller’s Sea Eagle, probably landing, kicking up snow and ice, but with his wings still open, as though he’s about to take off. The three eagles in this shot are obviously quite dark, because I’m shooting into the sun, but I love this angle and the sense of movement in this majestic raptor.

Steller's Sea Eagle's Grimace
Steller’s Sea Eagle’s Grimace

Having photographed the subjects on this trip so many times, it takes a lot to impress my wife when I get home, but she was impressed with this shot, as it’s something pretty different to what I usually come home with, and that feels good. My settings for this were ISO 1600 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/10, and a focal length of 400 mm.

Fishing in Dawn’s Warm Glow

The following morning, once again, I got lots of great shots, although the increasing number of seagulls and crows made it more difficult than usual. Before we finished our third and final trip out to shoot the eagles though, I asked the skipper to throw some fish into the sea in the open water, rather than onto the ice, so that we could get some photos like this one, with the eagles taking the fish from the water.

Fishing in Dawn's Warm Glow
Fishing in Dawn’s Warm Glow

I really like that we have the warm glow of the dawn sky reflecting in the water in this photograph, as that makes up for the fact that we had to shoot back towards the sun a little. To ensure that the eagle was bright against the bright background, I actually shot this at ISO 4000, with a shutter speed of 1/1600 of a second at f/10. I was also very happy that the EOS R continued to perform well, autofocussing admirably against this contrasty water and ice. We did our usual drive around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula, and played with some Intentional Camera Movement and the waterfalls etc. around Utoro, but we’ll skip those images so that we can finish the series here.

Canon EOS R

Canon EOS R
Canon EOS R

Having completed all three of my Japan Winter Tours this year shooting almost exclusively with the new EOS R, Canon’s first full frame sensor mirrorless camera, I would just like to relay that I continued to be very happy with this camera, having now shot a total of around 16,000 images with it. There was the problem of the viewfinder fogging up, that I talked about in my review back in Episode 650, but other than that, it has way surpassed my expectations and even my hopes.

This doesn’t mean that my 5Ds R bodies are all of a sudden bad cameras, but I have instantly learned to appreciate the size and weight of the EOS R, and I’m now considering selling one of my two 5Ds R bodies, and keeping the funds on my point card at my local camera store, as I wait for the 5Ds R Mark II, which is rumored to also be coming along with the R Mount, and therefore obviously also a mirrorless camera. Although there have been plenty of people giving the EOS R a bad rap, personally, I’m incredibly pleased that I waited for Canon to finally release a full frame mirrorless camera, and I am really looking forward to being able to continue to use all of my beautiful Canon lenses moving forward.

Participant Comments

Before we wrap up this final travelogue episode for my 2019 winter season, I do of course have our final round of participant comments to play you from the bus on the final morning of the tour, as we headed towards the airport to fly back to Tokyo and disband.

[Please listen with the audio player at the top of this post to hear what each participant had to say about the trip.]

It was lovely, as usual, to hear the group again, now more than three weeks after the tour finished. Thanks to everyone for your wonderful comments!

Japan Winter Wildlife Tours 2020

OK, so we’ll wrap it up for now, but please do note that although Tour #1 has now sold out, we do still have some places open on the 2020 Japan Winter Wildlife Tour #2, so if you might be interested, please check that out here.


Show Notes

Michelle’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4mSMZwzAoNX_XmJ2YPP2Tw/videos

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

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

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Download this Podcast as an MP3 with Chapters.

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


2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #2 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 612)

2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #2 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 612)

Today we continue our travelogue to walk you through our adventure on the second of my Japan Winter Wildlife Photography tours for 2018, as we visit the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo.

We pick up the trail on day six, the middle day of our twelve-day tour. After spending the morning driving over from the area in which we’d photographed the Red-Crowned Cranes, and a brief touristy stop at Lake Mashuu to take in the scenery, we spent some time before lunch at Kotan, a small corner of Lake Kussharo, where there’s a pool of unfrozen water thanks to the hot springs that flow into the lake there. This gives the swans somewhere to gather as they winter here from Siberia.

This is often one of the most relaxing shoots on the trip, and this day was no different. I love just sitting out in the snow, often in the sun, and just waiting for the swans to do something, like this one, as he reared up and flapped his wings a number of times, basically just having a stretch (below). I struggled to decide which of my three favorite frames to share with you, as they all show very different wing positions, but I think this frame shows the most detail in this magnificent animal.

Feathered Friend
Feathered Friend

The swan is almost backlit, so relatively dark against the bright snow, but this is what’s helped in some ways to give me the detail that I captured in this image. Swans wings are something that I can look at for hours, so I am always happy to find so much detail to pore over. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1250 of a second at ISO 400, and I was using my 100-400mm lens at 400mm.

I also enjoyed watching a swan upon the snow beside me as it dosed, then occasionally just slowly opened this eye to look around and check that we weren’t getting too close for comfort (below). Again this is very much about the detail. When I zoom right in on the eyelids the amount of detail recorded is unbelievable and I love the warm colors in this image. 

Sleepy Swan
Sleepy Swan

These images were all shot hand-held, although if I recall for this one I probably was resting my elbow on my knee as I knelt in the snow, pretty much like my company logo, that I drew some twelve years ago based on a shooting style that I use a lot when shooting hand-held. My settings for this were a 1/800 of a second exposure at f/11, with ISO 400, and again a focal length of 400mm.

At the end of the afternoon, we did our usual panning session, photographing the Whooper Swans from our geothermally heated beach at Sunayu, as they flew along the strip of thawed lake while Miles Davis played out of the speakers from the nearby restaurant. The shots are relatively easy, although getting a completely sharp head is a little more difficult. We get enough shots to pick and choose a little though. This is my pick from this first session (below).

Two Flew
Two Flew

I like the warm light that was hitting the water again in this shot. We’d waited for the sun to go behind the mountain, but the sky was warming up nicely as sunset approached, and that was reflecting in the water. My settings were a 1/30 of a second at f/16, ISO 500 at 100mm. I was still using my 100-400mm lens but zoomed right out as I was kneeling in the sand just a few meters from the edge of the lake.

The following morning we went back to the lake after an early breakfast in the hopes of capturing some good fly-ins with the mountains in the background. It was nice to get a little bit of mist over the frozen lake, to begin with, although it cleared up relatively quickly. The great thing about photographing Whooper Swans is that they announce their arrival with that big whoop of theirs, so it’s easy to notice them coming, and here I caught one of them whooping in flight (below).

Announcing Arrival
Announcing Arrival

I’m not doing a lot to most of these images in post. Generally, I add a little bit of Clarity and pull the White Point in on the Levels slider in Capture One Pro, just to ensure that my whites are white. I, of course, am still using the technique known as ETTR or Expose To The Right, to get the brightest and highest quality image possible, but the raw processing engines that we use these days generally give you around two-thirds to a full stop of exposure back, so I like to use that additional dynamic range in situations like this.

Also for this image, I ran a graduated adjustment filter along the froze lake, and just brightened it up very slightly, as it looked a little grey compared to the brightly lit swans. That’s about it though, and these things are really just adding a tiny bit of polish, not critical changes. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400, and a focal length of 300mm.

We enjoyed a number of fly-ins, with some nice shots, but one of my favorite close-up images came thirty minutes later, as a group of swans came into land, and one literally floated past me, enabling me to get in this close at 135mm (below).

Intimate Swan Landing
Intimate Swan Landing

I also like how there is a second swan in the distance, as this almost feels like a busy airport with a second plane queued up waiting to land after this first one. Of course, that second swan coming into the frame was pure luck, although I was consciously pulling back enough to include part of the mountains, to put this swan in his environment. I love photographing the swans in the mist with hardly any difference between the white of the swans and their surroundings, but when it’s clear like this, I like to try to add a little more of the surroundings for context. My settings were f/14 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure at ISO 640, at 135mm.

At 9:30, we moved from Sunayu to Kotan, and I shot a number of images of the swans in the mist like we see in this image (below). To maintain the dreamy feel of the mist, I didn’t add much clarity to the entire image here, rather using an Adjustment layer and just brushed in some Clarity over the head and neck of the swan. 

Mist Opportunities
Mist Opportunities

Also, the stones in the foreground were a little too prominent, so I cloned out a few, and then actually brushed in and layered a few more Adjustment layers across the bottom of the frame to reduce the clarity of the rocks, making the mist or steam around the base of the swan a little bit stronger. My settings for this were f/14 for a 1/800 of a second at ISO 500, and a focal length of 312mm.

About fifteen minutes later, as I was still waiting for something to happen in the mist, I heard the Whooper Swans announcing their arrival again, and turned to see a nice big group flying in over the frozen lake. The mountains in the background at Kussharo Lake make it, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful spots on the planet to photograph Whooper Swans. 

Whooper Swans and Mountains
Whooper Swans and Mountains

Conscious of the beauty of the mountains, I stopped my aperture down to f/14 to get the background a little sharper than it would be at f/11 or so. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s visible and a welcome bit of depth of field in this situation. The swans on the left of the frame are a bit too bunched up for my liking, but the mountains here kind of make it a keeper. My other settings were 1/1000 of a second shutter speed at ISO 500 and a 100 mm focal length.

This next shot fifteen minutes later again, at the same location, was a bit of a sight to see. There were three Whooper Swans flying in, in the foreground, and another twelve of them forming a beautiful evenly distributed line in the background (below).

Fifteen Whooper Swans
Fifteen Whooper Swans

I’ve cropped this down to a 16:9 aspect ratio, to enable the viewer to focus more on the lines of swans, and because I had to zoom into 400mm for this shot, the depth of field got much shallower, even at f/14. Because I’d zoomed in the top of the mountains wasn’t visible either, so it wasn’t so important to keep them in the frame. My shutter speed was still 1/1000 of a second at ISO 640 now.

Seventeen seconds later, the swans forming the distant rank in the previous image were over the mountains filling my frame at 100 mm, so once again the f/14 aperture worked well to give me lots of depth of field for a wider shot, as we can see here (below).

Dirty Bellied Swans
Dirty Bellied Swans

I kind of like this shot, although I’m not a huge fan of the dirty bellies on these swans. They sometimes get dirty like that because the water is very shallow in the thawed pools that they roost in, so the dirt and algae that form on the rocks on the lake bed rubs against them as they sleep. In the past, I’ve seen the swans fly in with small black balls of grit stuck to their undersides, and seeing that in my photos caused quite a strong negative reaction in me. I can just about live with this dirtiness, but I couldn’t even look at the grit shots for some reason.

Later this day, we went back to Sunayu and did another panning session. I’ve shared enough panned swan shots for this season though, so I won’t bore you with another today. The following morning we went back to Sunaya for one last dawn fly-in shoot before we’d start the next leg of our journey. This next image (below) is one of my favorite shots from this morning,  as eleven swans approached the beach relatively nicely spread out, and with the trees in the background.

Twelve Swans Approach
Twelve Swans Approach

The piled up snow on the right is a bit of an eyesore, but I still kind of like this, probably because of the contrast between the birds and the trees, and I also like how there is some steam coming up from the band of thawed water along the edge of the lake leading through the frame. My settings for this were f/14 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and a focal length of 176mm. 

A member of my group asked me about this, so I’d like to add that I am actually zooming out as I shoot this kind of image, to keep the swans framed nicely as they get closer. If I check my EXIF data on this kind of series of images, I see that I’m gradually zooming out making the focal length wider and wider as the birds approach.

OK, so let’s wrap it up there for this week. Next week we’ll continue our journey as we head over to Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula, where we’ll photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles, and visit the Notsuke Peninsula to photography the Ezo Deer and Northern Red Fox.

2020 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshops

Note that although our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, we are now taking bookings for 2020, so if you think you might like to join us, please take a look at the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2020.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour and Workshop 2020

Show Notes

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

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #1 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 609)

2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #1 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 609)

Today we continue our journey on the first of my two Japan Winter Wildlife photography tours for 2018, as we photograph the Whooper Swans, but then go back to the Red-Crowned Cranes for a chance of photographing them in the fresh and falling snow.

On day six of the tour, we left the cranes and moved on to photograph the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan. After stopping for a somewhat touristy visit to Lake Mashuu, we first spent an hour at a small corner of the Kussharo Lake called Kotan.

Not long after we arrived, a fight broke out between two swans that had just flown into a part of the lake that doesn’t freeze totally because of the geothermal hot water that flows into it there. I don’t like to sensationalize fights between animals, but there can sometimes be something quite beautiful as swans in a flurry cause the water of the environment to take to the air, as we can see in this first image for today (below).

Swan Fight

Swan Fight

These fights can be quite brutal, sometimes drawing blood, and it often makes me wonder what one swan might not like about the other, but they are common and sometimes unrelenting. A part of nature I guess. I had set my camera to ISO 320 for a 1/1000 of a second exposure, so the airborne water droplets were pretty much suspended in place, and the flailing wings of the birds frozen in time. My aperture was set to f/11 and my focal length was 312 mm with my 100-400mm lens.

After lunch a little further down the road beside the lake, we photographed the swans again for a while and were lucky enough to get some daytime fly-ins, which we don’t see that often. Here we see two pairs of swans flying with the mountains on the other side of the lake as a backdrop. It was around 2:30 pm when I shot this, but already the afternoon light is starting to warm up as the sun nears the horizon.

Two Pairs of Whooper Swans

Two Pairs of Whooper Swans

My settings for this shot were ISO 400 for a 1/1000 of a second at f/11, and a focal length of 110 mm. After this, we went to check in to our hotel early, as it’s close by, and then came back to the same location to photograph the Whooper Swans as the sun dropped behind the mountains with a slow shutter speed, panning with them to capture the movement of their wings, as you can see in the next image (below).

Streaks and Blur

Streaks and Blur

We didn’t get many chances on this first day, so this is probably my best shot, but I do like the warm color over the mostly frozen lake behind the swan, and the “X” shape made by the swan’s wings and their reflection. As I mentioned last week, I generally like to do large bird panning shots with a shutter speed of between 1/25 and a 1/50 of a second. This was a 1/40 of a second, and that generally gives you a better chance of getting the head sharp.

While in the Kushiro area for the first two days in Hokkaido, there had been no falling snow, and the ground where we’d been photographing the Red-Crowned Cranes was very heavily textured from the cranes walking on it, and from the contrast added by the bright sunlight.

So, when the weather forecast indicated that it may well be snowing on our fourth day in Hokkaido, because we were still close enough to go back to the crane’s, I decided to do just that. Swans are beautiful birds, but when there is a chance of photographing crane’s in the snow, in my opinion, that’s always going to be the better option.

To hopefully illustrate my point, here is one of my first photos after we arrived at the Akan Crane Center on our bonus visit (below). These four cranes flew in and landed in a clear, which was a stroke of luck in itself, but the falling snow in this scene and the clean, fresh snow on the ground gives this image a much better look than the images I shared in last week’s travelogue from a few days earlier.

Four on the Floor

Four on the Floor

I recall myself and the participants all being very excited as we captured these images. There is an electric excitement when standing in front of a field of birds as beautiful as this in what is probably one of their most majestic conditions. My settings for this were ISO 3200 with 1/800 of a second shutter speed, so you can probably appreciate how little light there was. My aperture was f/10 and my focal length was 442 mm with my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.

Just a few minutes later there was another group of five cranes that flew in, as we can see in this next image (below). There were no birds with bands on their legs in both this group and the previous group, which is another stroke of luck. Quite often the crane’s in the best shots have bands on their legs, and that kind of spoils the image. Occasionally I’ll clone them out, but that’s generally more work than I like to do to an image. Not from an ethical perspective, I just don’t like spending any more time on post processing than necessary.

Five in the Sky

Five in the Sky

As you can see, even without the snow on the ground included in the shot, the snow in the air still transforms the background to a beautiful painterly backdrop. My settings for this shot were the same as the previous image, but I’d disengaged the internal Extender and was shooting at 400mm, the full extent without the Extender.

After this, the snow got a little finer and the wind got up more, and many of the cranes just seemed to hunker down and start to simply bear the weather. This presents its own photographic opportunities, as you can see in this next image (below) although I was hoping for a little more action.

Hunkered Down

Hunkered Down

Still, I like this kind of shot too. There’s a kind of austere beauty to it that really appeals to me. I guess it’s the wildlife version of some of the minimalist landscape work that I love to do so much. My settings for this were ISO 2000 for a 1/800 of a second at f/10, and a focal length of 480 mm. I could, of course, have slowed my shutter speed down some, with the birds being so still, but I do like how the small flakes of snow are totally frozen in time, so that’s not something that I’m going to be too concerned about.

We also of course never know when the cranes are going to burst into action and start dancing around, as one did in this next image (below) so I generally like to just leave my camera settings to be ready for action while with the cranes. I love the painterly feel to this image as well. There was a very beautiful quality to the light for most of this day in the heavy snow. This is another reason why I love photographing anything in the snow.

Odd One Out

Odd One Out

I’ve heard this accredited to the legendary Jay Maisel, although I can’t find proof of that online, but I love to quote the saying “Never trust air you can’t see.” In New York, that might have a different meaning, but to me, I love it when there is something in the air to make it visible, be it snow, rain, mist, fog or steam. It seems that my favorite images have something in the air to stop it being totally transparent, and that’s a quality that I really value when I’m making photographs.

My settings for this image were ISO 1600, so we can tell that the light was increasing gradually, and my shutter speed was 1/800 at f/10, with a focal length of 560 mm.

At this point, I’m still trying to whittle down the images that I’ll talk about in this travelogue series, and I’m looking at another nine photographs from my picks from the cranes. We’ll continue on with three more images, and then try to move back to the swans and sea eagles for the final episode next week.

I couldn’t resist leaving this next image in the set, partly because I like the texture and detail in the black feathers along the back of the wings on this pair of cranes as they sing together, and partly because this photo reminds me of the difficulty that we often have in getting a clean shot of the crane’s when they dance or sing.

Crane's Song

Crane’s Song

In reality, for this shot, I have cloned out a swan sitting on the ground just behind the two cranes, two more cranes that were strutting along to the right of the swan, and a third crane standing in the space to the left of these cranes. Years ago I wouldn’t have done that, but as the cranes thankfully grow in numbers, it’s become more and more difficult to capture them in the clear and I figure because this is art, not photojournalism, I can do whatever I like.

Of course, it still feels great to nail a shot without having to do that, and most of my work is almost straight out of the camera, but I’m not too concerned these days about removing something when necessary. I was at ISO 1250 for a 1/800 of a second shutter speed with an aperture of f/11 and focal length of 560 mm for this shot.

Talking about detail, that’s also why I like this next image too (below). This is a crane coming in to land, relatively close to us, as I shot this at 400mm and it’s uncropped. I really like the ruffled feathers on the back of this crane’s wings, as the wind that he disturbs as he lands catches up with him. I also like how he has the ice on his legs, probably from sleeping in the river where they roost, that we also looked at last week.

Ruffled Feathers

Ruffled Feathers

It’s nice too that I was able to capture this while the crane was still over the dark trees in the background. When I first started traveling to this crane center in the winter some 15 years ago, the entire back of the field had dark trees along it like that, but they cut most of them down due to disease, many years ago now, so all we have are these last few trees on the right. They still make a great backdrop when the stars align though. My settings for this photograph were ISO 1600 for 1/800 of a second at f/11. 

Every so often the cranes come quite close to the front of the enclosure and they started to do that in the afternoon shortly before we had to leave to return to the area that we were supposed to be photographing the Whooper Swans in. Here (below) we see a single crane almost posing for the camera, with ruffled wing feathers and a lovely neck and head position.

Posing Crane

Posing Crane

I also love the foot as the crane lifts its right leg, again, almost looking like it’s posing for me. This was shot at 350 mm, so relatively close, and my ISO was set to 1250 for 1/800 of a second shutter speed at f/11.

We’ll wrap up this episode with that, and as I release this, I’ll actually be back with the Sea Eagles in Rausu on my final Japan winter tour for this season. I still feel incredibly fortunate to be able to make a living partly from running these tours, and I get an untold amount of pleasure out of the enjoyment that I see on the faces of my tour participants as we photograph these elegant and majestic subjects, especially when my decisions as we travel enable us to do more than would be possible if my group was traveling with a company that does not maintain the flexibility that I do in my tours.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020

Our 2019 Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours have been sold out for a while now, but we have just started taking bookings for 2020, so if you think you might like to join us, please take a look at the tour page at https://mbp.ac/ww2020.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour and Workshop 2020


Show Notes

Booking for 2020 is now open here: https://mbp.ac/ww2020

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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


2017 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour 2 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 565)

2017 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour 2 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 565)

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

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).

Dawn Conductor

Dawn Conductor

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

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.

Swan Frenzy

Swan Frenzy

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

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.

Apocalyptic Fumaroles

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

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

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.

The Catch

The Catch

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.

Foxy Faceoff

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.

Foxy Faceoff

Foxy Faceoff

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

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.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour 2019

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour 2019


Show Notes

Check out details of the 2019 tours here: https://mbp.ac/ww2019

Contact us to be added to the 2018 wait list: https://mbp.ac/contact

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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