2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #1 Travelogue #3 (Podcast 610)

2018 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour #1 Travelogue #3 (Podcast 610)

Although I’ve just completed my second Japan winter wildlife tour and final winter tour for this season, today we’re going to pick up the trail on the first of the two wildlife tours, as we leave the cranes in the snow behind, and move on to our final day with the Whooper Swans before heading over to Rausu for sea eagles and foxes etc.

Once again, fighting the clock, as usual, I still had 109 photos left in my collection of images that I still want to talk about in this travelogue series. I was hoping to complete this series with one more episode, but having gone through and shortlisted the images that I really want to talk about, I still have 27 images. We’ll just jump into it, and see if I can whittle down my selection to just ten images as we go.

Cygnus Cygnus

On the eighth shooting day of the tour, and the fifth day in Hokkaido, we went back to the Kussharo Lake for one last Whooper Swan fly-in shoot before starting our drive over to Rausu and the Notsuke Peninsula. One of the reasons I ensure that we get at least two days in each location is because quite often, the weather can change and present us with different opportunities. On this visit, it was overcast and slightly misty. Conditions that I love to photograph the Whooper Swans in, and you can hopefully see why in this first image for today (below).

Whooper Swans In White
Whooper Swans In White

I really like it when we get white swans on a white background, often with just subtle differences in tone between the two. The thing that I really like about this photo is that the swan on the left of the frame is looking straight at me as he flew in. It has to feel a bit strange to them when they fly to their beach and see a line of photographers awaiting their arrival. They’re used to seeing people of course, but this is a reminder that they are not totally oblivious to our presence.

My settings for this image were 1/500 of a second shutter speed at f/11, ISO 1000 and a focal length of 400mm with my 100-400mm lens. This is, of course, the Mark II version of this lens. Again this year we had a participant that had rented the original version without knowing and was somewhat disappointed. If you are buying this lens, and you find what you think is a good deal, check that it is not the original lens which is very long in the tooth now, and frankly with today’s camera resolution really punishing older lenses, I wouldn’t use one even if it was free, let alone cheap.

Although I love it when the white swans are on a white background, I also found this next photograph somewhat appealing, with two juvenile Whooper Swans still with their wings spread as they landed in the fresh snow on the frozen Kussharo Lake (below).

Grey But Not Ugly (Ducklings)
Grey But Not Ugly (Ducklings)

I’ve entitled this “Grey But Not Ugly (Ducklings)”. Sometimes the grey juvenile swans might look a bit like ugly ducklings, as in the fairy tale, but in this photo, I think it helps to accentuate them against the white background. I toyed with the idea of removing the three lines of thawed snow at the top of the frame, but decided against it, as I think they add a little depth to the background. My settings for this were f/11 at ISO 1000 still, but I had increased my shutter speed now to 1/640 as the light gradually came up. My focal length was 286 mm.

I have another swan shot that I wanted to show you, but I’ll skip that in a bid to still try and finish this travelogue series today. I did post it on Instagram while I was traveling, so check out my Instagram account if you don’t already follow me over there.

Apocalypse Now

After the swans, we drove just a short way and called at Sulphur Mountain or Iouzan, for a quick session with the surreal fumaroles spewing out their sulphuric steam and painting themselves yellow in the process, as you can see in this image (below).

Apocalyptic Mountain
Apocalyptic Mountain

This place always seems a little bit apocalyptic to me. This is one of the few times when I decided to keep the ridge of the mountains behind the fumaroles in the shot, partly because the wind was blowing the steam away at a more acute angle than usual, but also because I felt it helped to show the surroundings a little better, providing a little more information about the place. My settings were a 1/250 of a second shutter speed at f/14, with ISO 320 at 70mm.

We then continued our journey towards Rausu, where we’d photograph the sea eagles, but on the way, took a diversion to the Notsuke Peninsula in the hope of seeing some Northern Red Fox, like the one we see in this next image (below).

Fox Scratching Face
Fox Scratching Face

This isn’t my best fox photo, but I kind of like the way he’s got the tip of his tongue sticking out as he scratching his face, looking quite content up on his snow bed, actually on the back of a trailer that is semi-abandoned on the peninsula. My settings for this were f/11 with a 1/800 of a second shutter speed at ISO 1600, and a focal length of 560 mm. I was using my 200-400mm lens with the built-in 1.4X Extender engaged.

Orca Encounter!

The following morning we went out for our first sea eagle shoot of the season from the fishing port of Rausu. Not long after we’d started shooting the captain of the boat told me that there had been some Orca spotted further down the coast, and asked if I’d like to go. It took me about 0.2 seconds to decide that we must do just that, so we sped along the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Although I’d love to have spent more time and got better photos, we still had a very special encounter and I still got some shots like this one (below).

Winter Orca at Shiretoko
Winter Orca at Shiretoko

We believe there were seven Orca in the pod we encountered. I have been traveling to Rausu and going out photographing the sea eagles in January and February every year since 2004, and I’ve never seen these amazing whales this early in the season. Wanting to get some really killer shots, pardon the pun, I’ve been trying to make time to visit in June or July for the past few years, but never seem to get time, especially now that I’m doing my Namibia tours at that time. This encounter has ratcheted up the priority of that trip a few rungs, so I might just have to do that this year. My settings for this image were f/9 at 321 mm and a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second with ISO 1250.

Sea Eagles

OK, so we’re five images in, and I usually do ten images per episode. Let’s take a look at some sea eagle shots, and see if we can finish this today, and move on to the second wildlife trip next week. Rather than trying to show images from all three days that we photograph the eagle, let’s just look at some of my favorites from this trip, in chronological order.

First, here’s a White-Tailed Eagle catching one of the fish that we throw out from the boat (below). Quite often it’s a flatfish, which you wouldn’t normally expect an eagle to scoop from the surface of the sea, but still, these can be quite dramatic shots. 

Cool Snatch
Cool Snatch

Unless these birds open their beaks when they are startled or angry, they have pretty expressionless faces, and in this image, the sea eagle looks very calm and relaxed as he snatches up his breakfast. There was no sea ice on this first trip. It’s getting less common, with us having no ice at all some years now, although we did get some on the second tour, as we’ll see in the coming weeks. My settings for this were a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed at f/11, with ISO 640 and a focal length of 400mm.

This is image not-cropped at all. I love to go in very tight with my 100-400mm lens, and although the bird’s wings sometimes go out of the frame, and I sometimes don’t mind that, it’s great when I can get something like this in a 50-megapixel file without cropping. The detail is just amazing!

This next image of a Steller’s Sea Eagle grabbing his breakfast too is also not cropped (below). That’s the framing that I shot the image at, and again, the 50-megapixel file absolutely blows me away. I love shooting wildlife like this with my Canon 5Ds R, even though it’s a slow frame rate camera, that most wildlife photographers try to avoid.  

Steller's Sea Eagle Catch
Steller’s Sea Eagle Catch

I have lots of shots with the entire splash in as well, but I just love getting in close and seeing all of this beautiful detail, and you lose some of that as you pull back to include more. My settings for this shot were f/11 for a 1/1600 of a second exposure at ISO 640, and again, zoomed right in to 400mm.

This final eagle shot is cropped down quite a way, to a file just over 22 megapixels, as the bird was quite a way off when he was doing his aerial acrobatics. That’s another great thing about the high resolution we have now though, should we choose to use it. I can crop in quite a way and still have a bigger file than the 7D Mark II or even the 1D X Mark II. There are of course times when a higher frame rate would be useful, but I’m making it work at the slower frame rates, so I couldn’t be happier. 

Steller's Sea Eagle Aerial Acrobatics
Steller’s Sea Eagle Aerial Acrobatics

I’m in awe of these magnificent eagles. Just look how he can fly pretty much upside down, yet his head is still pointing straight up, with his eye on his prey. These are absolutely incredible animals. My settings were still f/11 with a shutter speed of 1/1600 at ISO 640, and a focal length of 400mm, although cropped, as I mentioned.

After our three days with the sea eagles, we headed around the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula to spend our final night in Utoro. On the way, we stopped for our traditional ICM or Intentional Camera Movement session, which is always fun and generally provides us with some nice shots, as you can see here (below).

Enchanted Forest
Enchanted Forest

For this kind of shot, I generally set my aperture to around f/14 or f/16, and set my shutter speed to 1/25 of a second, and then adjust my exposure with the ISO. If it’s too bright, I sometimes use a three-stop neutral density filter, as I believe I had to do on this day, as it was bright sunlight. I then start with the camera pointing higher up in the trees, then move it downwards quickly, releasing the shutter just as the snow starts to come into the bottom of the frame. I prefer it when the bottom of the frame is just white, but there were some sticks showing through on this day, leaving those smaller streaks.

We continued on and photographed the Oshin Koshin Falls and the sea ice which was packed wall to wall on this side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. I did one ten minute exposure of the sea ice to see if it was actually moving, and apart from a very thin line near the horizon, it was totally stationary. There wasn’t even any vertical movement from waves under the ice, which was surprising.

We continued on in the town, and took a walk down to the mouth of a river to see what we could do and I was relatively happy with this last photo for today (below) which actually is the last image that we’ll talk about from the first of this year’s two Japan Winter wildlife tours.

River Mouth and Sea Ice
River Mouth and Sea Ice

Here I believe I used a three-stop ND filter, for a 1.3-second exposure, to smooth over the water in the river a little. I converted this to black and white, but the original was almost completely black and white anyway, with the dark stones in the river and low light. My other settings were f/14 at ISO 100, with a focal length of 35 mm.

Before we finish, as usual, I’ve recorded a message from each member of the group that I’d like to play for you now.

[Please listen to the audio with the player at the top of the post to hear what the participants had to say.]

It’s always lovely to hear what the participants have to say, and this was a great group, so listening brings back some nice memories of our time together. I do hope you’ve enjoyed following along with this travelogue. We’ll continue next week with tour #2, which presented a few different opportunities, and possibly my best red fox shot to date, which we’ll see in a few weeks.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tour & Workshop 2020

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

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

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2017 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour 1 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 562)

2017 Japan Winter Wildlife Photography Tour 1 Travelogue #2 (Podcast 562)

Having completed the first of my two Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido, Japan Winter Wildlife tours for 2017, today we continue our travelogue series to walk you through our adventures along with a selection of photographs.

We pick up the trail today on day six. Last week we’d completed our last visit to the bridge to photograph the Red-Crowned Cranes in their idillic misty river surroundings, and after breakfast we drove over to Lake Kussharo to photograph the Whooper Swans there.

We first stopped in a corner of the lake called Kotan, then, after lunch, seeing how the group were obviously flagging from our early starts over the last three days, we went to the hotel to check in early, but then came back out as the sun went down to do some panning. This first shot for today is from that panning session (below).

Whooper Swan Over Frozen Lake

Whooper Swan Over Frozen Lake

The lake was thawing a little in places, which doesn’t always look great in a regular photograph, but in this panning image with the way it causes streak on the background I’m actually quite happy with this. It adds a bit of texture to the background that we don’t usually have.

On the morning of day seven, we went back to the beach at the lake in the hope of getting some fly-ins. It was quite cold on this morning though, so as with the cranes, the swans will stay in their roost longer when it’s cold. We also found that a lot of them just swam in from nearby thawed patches, so we only got a few opportunities to photograph them in flight on this first morning.

One shot from this session that I’m half happy with is this one (below) where three Whooper Swans did fly in with the mountains around the lake in the background. The main thing that I don’t like about this image is the blue sky. I’m really not a fan of blue skies. They just don’t appeal to me, except occasionally when a bird is almost full frame with a blue sky behind it, and even then, just plain blue bugs me.

Swans and Mountains

Swans and Mountains

You’ll notice also that I cropped this down to a 1:2 ratio, and I did that for two reasons. The first reason is that the focus points on the 5Ds R are all quite close to the center of the frame, so by default if I have autofocus engaged I’ll end up with the subject inside that focussing frame. The other thing is that I didn’t want to include much of the lake, as it wasn’t fully frozen and therefore overly textured. Both of these reasons resulted in me including too much of that crappy blue sky, so I cropped most of it away. I was at f/11 for 1/1000 of a second at ISO 400 for this shot.

After breakfast, we went back to Kotan, the place we’d visited first the previous day, and we basically just hung out with the swans, nice and intimate on the edge of the lake. At one point, we were too intimate for my 100-400mm lens, so when this Whooper Swan fully stretched out his wings right in front of me they went clean out of the edge of the frame.

Display of Wings

Display of Wings

I’m not against cropping the wings off of birds, in fact I do it quite a lot, but in this case it was unintentional and an awkward crop. Luckily this first frame is also pretty cool, as we can see all the lovely detail in the underside of the backlit wings, and you lose that when they are fully spread, so all is good. For this I was at f/8 for 1/800 of a second at ISO 125.

This spot is generally very relaxing, once you put out of mind the occasional group of annoying tourists that appear from time to time to destroy the tranquility, and I generally just really like sitting in the snow, and watching the swans do their thing. While we were there, a small group of swans walked to the unfrozen pool in the lake from our right, and I shot this next photo (below) where one of the swans was just looking straight at me, as though he was wondering what we were doing there.

Yeah!?

Yeah!?

I like the intimate low angle for this shot. I sometimes use the Canon Angle Finder C for this kind of low handheld work, but there wasn’t time to put that on, so I literally just rolled over on the ice looking into the camera vertically, as though in portrait orientation from my perspective, and used the digital level in the viewfinder to get the horizon pretty much straight. My settings were f/8 for a 1/800 of a second at ISO 200.

We went back to the hotel for lunch, and did a 90 minute workshop session in the afternoon, then headed back out for another panning session as the sun went down. I got my usual sort of panning shots, so I won’t share one today, but I do have some cool shots from our last morning with the swans to share now.

Whooper Swan Fly-ins Galore!

We arrived back at the lake the following morning having had an early breakfast and checking out, and unlike the previous day, when we didn’t really get any fly-ins, this morning was pretty amazing. A group arrived as we did, before anyone was ready to shoot them, but then we were presented with some beautiful fly-ins over the hour or so that we were there.

Although only two swans, one of my favorite shots from this morning session, was this one (below). I love the tonal qualities in this image, with the soft diffused light from the overcast sky on the swans, and look at that lovely grey, textured sky. To me this is worlds better than that yucky blue sky in the photo from the previous day.

Whooper Swans Fly In

Whooper Swans Fly In

I also really like it when we can include a beautiful background like this, with the mountains on the far side of the lake below the clouds. This really puts the animals in their environment, which always feels nice to me. There is actually a third location on this lake where there are lots of swans, but I don’t take the group there, because it’s not very pretty. For me, the background at this location is what really makes the images when it comes together.

I was also happy that the underside of these swans was clean. If you noticed the yellow belly on the swan in the previous photo, this comes from the bottom of the lake, as some of the places they rest has very shallow water, and because they forage on the lake bed, they kick up all sorts of mess. These guys didn’t have that on them, so that’s great. I shot this at f/10 for a 1/500 of a second shutter speed, at ISO 2500.

A larger group of swans flew in for this next image (below) which I called Nine Whooper Swans. You can probably only count seven in the photo, but there are two more swans in the distance, to the right, over the dark patch on the mountain. Sometimes I like to play with the title of my images, to lead the viewer to find something that they may not find otherwise.

Nine Whooper Swans

Nine Whooper Swans

If this was printed large on a wall, it would probably be easy enough to find these swans without help from the title, but if you click on the image on the blog and have a look at it at the larger size, you will probably be able to see them. So what? You might think, and you’d be right. It’s just a bit of fun. I like it when images have an “Easter Egg” for you to find if you look hard enough, that’s all. As the sun got higher in the sky behind the clouds I had now decreased my ISO to 1600, at a 1/500 of a second exposure at f/10.

Cloudy Morning Panning

We had arranged it with the owners of the restaurant that are charged with throwing out grain for the swans, so that we would feed them instead on this morning. That gave us one last opportunity to do some panning, because we can throw the grain to the birds at the other end of the beach, which means those that aren’t already there, will fly past us to get their share. Here is one of my single swan panning shots from that session (below).

Panned and Panned

Panned and Panned

The problem with panning with the birds at the end of the day, as we’d done the previous evening, is that depending on the wind direction, the light is sometimes coming from the left as the birds fly to the right, which means their backs are brighter than their heads and undersides. What I loved about this is that there is beautiful soft diffused light from the overcast sky, and the sun is coming from behind us in the morning, which gives us a beautiful look for the birds. I shot this at a 1/40 of a second at f/10, ISO 100.

As we waited for our tour conductor, come bird feeder, to walk around the back of the car park, to pop up at the other end of the beach to make the swans fly for a fourth and last time, another large group of swans flew in, as you can see in this photograph (below). We saw them a way out, so I could have changed my settings back to a fast shutter speed, but I decided to see what it would look like with the 1/40 of a second that I had set.

Whooper Swan Slow Fly In

Whooper Swan Slow Fly In

I actually quite like the results. A number of the swans have sharp heads, and the blur of the wings on most of them is a look that I enjoy working with, so this works for me. My settings were the same except that I’d now changed my aperture from f/10 to f/11.

This last shot of the swans is a bit crazy, but I like it, so I thought I’d include this too. We did one last feeding of the swans to get them to fly past the group again, for a final panning frenzy, and this is one of the shots I got (below).

Serious Panning

Serious Panning

I like to try and get multiple swans in the frame when possible, and I was doing that here, but managed to get the foreground swans almost filling the bottom of the frame, with a relatively sharp head. This is uncropped, and pretty much straight out of the camera. I might remove that third swan’s butt from the bottom right corner later, but for now I thought I’d share this as it is. This was a 1/30 of a second exposure at f/11, ISO 100.

After the swans, we paid our usual brief visit to Iouzan or Sulphur Mountain, partly because I like to do our group shot there, but also because it’s just a really whacky place to shoot, as you can see in this final photo for today (below). As one of the participants in this group said, although you see fumaroles in volcanic areas, I’ve really not seen any that are built up the way these are, so it makes for a cool subject.

Sulphur Mountain Fumaroles

Sulphur Mountain Fumaroles

If you recall my images of this place from previous years, and if you have a really good memory, you may recall that I used to process these images in Color Efex Pro. I actually stopped doing that, just like I’ve stopped using Silver Efex Pro, since I jumped ship to Capture One Pro. I was actually wondering how this would turn out, but I continue to really like the look I can get with Capture One.

Our Applications Drive Our Processing Decisions

This looks much more natural to me than my Color Efex Pro versions. I liked the old Color Efex images when I was doing them, although I was always aware that they were a bit heavy on the processing. What I’m now come to understand though is just how much the application really drives the decisions we make during the processing of our images. I can take my images just as far in Capture One if I want to, but now it feels totally over done when I do.

Having used Capture One for eight months now, I really feel as though it has improved my work in many ways, and although I was never really unhappy with Lightroom, I feel that my workflow is now much faster in Capture One Pro. One of the main reasons I can get through my images more quickly, is because I can copy the modifications and adjustment that I make on an image to the clipboard, and then just paste them back on to other images, one at a time, or in batch if I have a lot of similar images.

In Lightroom to do that I had to create a Develop preset then apply it to each image, and although that’s easy enough, it’s a few more steps, and requires the mouse rather than a keyboard shortcut, so this has turned out to be another of Capture One Pro’s many strengths.

OK, so we’ll leave it there for this week. I still have 99 images left in my collection of photos to talk about for this trip, so I’ll try to get them down to one last episode, so that we can move on to Tour #2 when I get back. We’ll see how that goes, but either way, by the time I get to that, I’ll be back from the second of these tours, which I’ll be half way through on the day that I release this episode.

Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Tours 2019

Because our 2018 tours have now filled, we’ve now started to take bookings for 2019, so if you might be interested, please check the details and book at https://mbp.ac/ww2019. If you’d like to be added to the wait list for 2018, please drop us a line.

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

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Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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

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

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

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

Cranes' Party

Cranes’ Party

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

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

Whooper Swans Fly Over

Whooper Swans Fly Over

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

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

Sky Full of Swans

Sky Full of Swans

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

Using Multi Function Lock

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

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

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

Ezo Deer Dignity

Ezo Deer Dignity

Weather Turns for the Worst

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

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

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

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

Our Driver Saves the Day!

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

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

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

Fumaroles

Fumaroles

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

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

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

Ural Owl Pair

Ural Owl Pair

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

Ural Owls in Tree

Ural Owls in Tree

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

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

Game On!

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

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

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

Steller's Sea Eagle at Work

Steller’s Sea Eagle at Work

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

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

Surveying the Waves

Surveying the Waves

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

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

White-Tailed Eagle at Work

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

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

Winter Birches

Winter Birches

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

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

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

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

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

White Oshinkoshin Falls

White Oshinkoshin Falls

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

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

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

2016 Japan Winter Wonderland Tours

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

 


Show Notes

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

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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