This year’s Japan Winter Wildlife Tours provided us with a bumper crop of Red-Crowned Crane photos, so despite my sharing six of them already in the previous episode, today we’re going to look at ten more, with a bit of information about each image.
The first thing I noticed as I worked on my selection is that I have become quite partial to the square crop, probably due to the new-found love of medium format with my excursion into film from last autumn. That aesthetic has really grabbed me, and I love the freedom of not having to think about whether it’s portrait or landscape orientation. It just is!
So, three of these images are square format, and two are cropped to 4:5 aspect ratio because I thought that suited the images too. The remaining images are all original ratio, with four of them being landscape on one portrait. For my portrait-oriented images, I generally just slip the camera into portrait mode by rotating it in the tripod ring, or literally by turning the camera when shooting hand-held. Since I started working with the EOS R just over a year ago now, I made a decision not to buy the battery grip, so I have to crank my hand over to reach the shutter button, but with these cameras being so much smaller than their DSLR cousins, that has really not been a problem.
Anyway, here is the first shot, which is from the Akan Crane Center. The first nine images are all from February 21, from two different locations, and the final image is from the following morning. As I mentioned briefly last week, the cranes were relatively cooperative this year and performed for us in openings more than they have been in recent years.
For a while, the increasing number of cranes had made it difficult to get shots like this, without other cranes completely blocking the view, and that of course, is a very good thing. The increasing numbers, I mean. But photographically, it was getting pretty difficult to make uncluttered shots. The warmer weather though has meant more farmland poking through the snow, and that causes the cranes to disperse a little, with more feeding in the surrounding areas, and less of them concentrated in the crane centers.
Another part of this is that they stopped feeding the cranes live fish at this location a few years ago, mostly so as not to attract the sea eagles, which could have brought avian flu, and that would not be good for the cranes. As usual, when something changes, many of the other photographers that bring groups to Hokkaido were complaining, but also, as usual, I instantly saw the positive side to this. The Akan Crane center is now less crowded, on the whole, and the fewer cranes, conversely, brings more photography opportunities.
Let’s Make This Time Well-Spent
As the Corona Virus sweeps around the world, there are of course people losing loved ones, and I in no way want to make small of that, but if you and your loved ones can stay safe at this time, let’s also try to find a bright side. How often do you really get time to spend at home, with your families, with nothing special to do? Usually, we gather at Christmas and other special times of the year, but then the focus in on the event, and everyone rallies around to make that special. Right now, millions of people are being asked to simply stay at home, with no special meals, nothing more than each other, or just yourself, if you live alone.
This to me is a wonderful opportunity to catch up on those things that we always wanted to do, but couldn’t really find the time for. Even just reading those books that you bought but simply put aside, or going through the hordes of photos from trips that we went on, but didn’t get time to look through, because life got in the way. Well, guess what? It isn’t getting in the way anymore, so let’s use this time to do all of those things that we can do when staying at home is the order of the day. These are hard times for many, and really, if you lose a loved one, or lose yourself for that matter, my heart goes out to you, but if you stay safe, and make it through this, we’ll hopefully be looking back on this outbreak in a few years time and actually have some good memories of how we spent our time in self-isolation. Let’s make it count.
Back to the cranes though. I love the ruffled feathers on this crane as the wind he created catches up with him as he touches down on the snow. With them being so graceful we often forget how much energy it takes to get these birds into the air and keep them there, so it’s a great reminder when we see this disruption in the feathers as they land.
As you can see, the light was pretty harsh on this day, with lots of texture in the well-trodden snow, but the detail in the feathers kind of makes up for that. It’s also nice to have a bit of a catch light in the crane’s eye, as we don’t always get that from this angle. We can move around to the right a little more, which I sometimes do if it looks like something is going to happen, but I prefer this location as I believe it generally gives a higher number of opportunities. I’d have been shooting this crane from behind if I was not where I was.
Ito Crane Sanctuary
Later in the day, we moved over to the Ito Crane Sanctuary, where we continued to get some lovely shots of these awesome avians. Depending on where you stand, and the luck of the draw, we sometimes find ourselves with a pretty low angle, shooting up at the birds slightly, which can be nice. As you can see in this image, it gives us a darker background for the birds, which I like to see some of the time. These two were doing a courtship dance on the hill at the sanctuary, with one of them getting slightly more excited than the other.
This was shot at 490 mm, and the crop is just to bring it to a 4:5 ratio, not actually cropping the height at all, so you can tell that we were relatively close. By comparison, the first image that we looked at was shot at 756 mm, using both the internal and an external 1.4X Extender on my 200-400mm lens.
I am coincidentally thinking of selling this lens, now that Canon has announced their upcoming 100-500 mm RF mount lens. As much as I have enjoyed using the 200-400 mm lens, since the updated 100-400mm was released that’s generally all that I am taking with me overseas, so I’m now using the 200-400mm only on these trips, and only really for the cranes.
I imagine that the Extender that is also going to be released for the RF mount will also work well with the 100-500, for a total range of 140 to 700 mm, and that will make it a very versatile combination.
As an aside, I checked the focus distance used for this shot using Raw Digger and found the Focus Distance Upper to be 42.04 m and the Lower was 33.46 m. I checked because the back bird is quite soft, obviously out of the depth of field slightly. This is why I still shoot wildlife at around f/11, but it was still outside of that depth of field.
I went into Raw Digger for these distances, so that I could calculate the actual shooting distance, and see how much actual Depth of Field I have, using my Photographer’s Friend app. I found that I would have been focussed at 37 meters or 120 feet, but Canon’s depth of field is way off. I’d have needed to stop down my aperture to f/115 to get that amount of depth of field at 30 megapixels. Even if I turn off Pixel Peepers mode, and use the archaic 8 x 10 print at arm’s length calculation, I’d have needed f/56. I think I’ll contact a friend at Canon and see if I can get some light shed on how these calculations are being done, and why they are so far off.
I like the shot either way, and was happy to see catchlights again, but my mind wanders like this from time to time, which is probably a good thing, as it helps me to think of cool new features for my app. 🙂
One of the reasons I like the Ito Crane Sanctuary is because it has some very nice trees, in particular the tree that you can see in the background of this next image. Although the tree is not complete, I think it adds a nice additional element to this shot, as a crane flew into the sanctuary. I also like that we have a few flakes of snow in the air. We didn’t get very much snow falling on this trip, but to be able to see the air here is nice.
This is uncropped, and I like how the tree on the far right frames that edge of the image as well, so I’ve left the bird on the left third, which also makes us feel as though he’s leaving the frame. He may have been taking off, but from the pose, I think this one was gliding in because a take-off requires much more frantic flapping.
Here’s another image with the base of that tree, and the beautiful grasses around it, helping to give some context for this crane which has just landed and is arching its back, stretching his muscles to relieve the tension caused by flying. I do this sometimes when I stand up after sitting for a while, but I don’t look even a millionth as graceful as these guys.
I do like to see the animals in their environment like this as well. Again, it’s the warm winter that’s helping those grasses to show through as much as they are. Often times there is so much snow that they get mostly buried. That’s nice too of course, with just the tree sticking out of the deep snow.
The dancing continued, to the point that even whittling down my selects became quite a task, let alone deciding which shots to share here, but these next few are some of my favorites. Although you can’t see the head of the right crane, I really like the way these two birds are weaving around each other as they dance, and I especially like that you can see the pink on the bottom of the feet on that right crane. That’s not something we see often, so was nice to get a shot of here.
This next image is literally one of my favorites from the entire trip. These are the same two cranes, just two frames later, and actually still the same second as the previous image, so this is an extension of the previous pose, but now, to me, they look like two flamenco dancers striking the same pose but in reverse, again, weaving around each other in maybe a tango, rather than flamenco, but a passionate dance all the same.
The last shot from February 21 is this image, as a couple started to move in preparation for their dance. It’s obviously not the optimal dance moment, but I just like the poses, almost like a couple at a family wedding, getting up to dance having had too much to drink, knowing that they’ll regret it in the morning but they’re going to do it anyway. OK, so I may be reading too much into that, but I have a vivid imagination.
This final image for today is from the following morning before we moved on to photograph the Whooper Swans. I was hoping to catch the cranes with their breath highlighted by the in the morning light but unfortunately, it was cloudy. The cranes still have to breathe though, and the dark background at the top of this photograph helps us to see that breath in the chilly Hokkaido morning air.
Shortly after this shot we boarded our big bus and headed north for a couple of hours to Lake Kussharo, where we’d start to photograph the Whooper Swans for a few days. Next week we’ll cover that, and then move on to the Sea Eagles to complete the tour and conclude all three of this year’s Japan Winter Tours.
This week we conclude our three-part series to walk you through our antics as I traveled with a wonderful group of photographers on my 2020 Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Tour.
As with previous days, we were lucky to get a flurry of snow to cover the ground sufficiently to provide the beautiful scenes that we were hoping for, and that I’d been concerned that we might not get, with us having the warmest winter for 60 years this year. Having just gotten back from the first of my Japan Wildlife trips in Hokkaido, I’m happy to say that we had a cold front come in for most of the time we were up there, and there’s another forecast for next week when I set out for my third and final Japan trip of the year.
We pick up the trail on day eight of my Landscape Tour today though, as we left Wakkanai and headed first for the fishing ports near Cape Souya, and the northern-most tip of Japan, so let’s look at a shot from there to start with. As you can see, the snow wasn’t deep, but it was enough, and quite clean at this spot too, without much grass showing through.
I’ve processed most of my images from this trip in black and white, as I feel that it suits the subject matter most of the time. I also like to see a little conformity in the sets of images that I come back from these trips with, although as we’ll see later, there were a few shots towards the end of the trip that, in my opinion, worked better in color.
The next photograph, on the other hand, was shot on medium format black and white film, so I don’t really have a choice, but I think these images suit the Hokkaido Landscape work really well. For this I used an ND400 which gives me 8.6 stops of darkness for a 60-second exposure at f/16, to enable me to smooth over the sea like this. I had an ND8 and ND400 filter custom made here in Japan, to fit on the bayonet filter holder on my Rolleiflex to make this possible.
There’s a little more grain in the sky than I’d like, but I was just about getting to grips with the Rodinal developer chemicals by this point, and the SilverFast scanning software that I have also been using on recommendation is producing grainier scans than I’d like, but I guess this is more natural grain in the film, and my Canon scanning software is cleaning that up more, rather than SilverFast introducing it. Still, the six rolls of film that I developed and scanned during my week at home between the two trips was probably the biggest learning experience since I started shooting and developing my own film again a few months ago.
Shortly after the previous shot, at the end of day eight, I shot this image on the same beach, this time with my EOS R and, if I recall correctly, by this time, it was dark enough to give me a 2-second exposure without any filters on. I used a Bluetooth remote for my camera to time my shots perfectly for the drawing out of the waves, as this gives better texture and patterns in the water than the waves coming in.
These shots don’t all work, but if you shoot a number of them, you can start to see how the waves and timing affect the shots, and then select the most pleasing one later. That’s certainly something that I want to be doing more with digital than with my film camera, although I will probably experiment more when I’m back out by myself, rather than with my wonderful group on a workshop.
The following morning, back in the port on day nine, the tide was further out, and there was a coating of frost on all of the rocks, so I got down low for this next shot, shortly after the sun had risen. With the sun’s disk in the frame, I allowed it to overexpose slightly, as did a little of the water with the sun reflecting on it, but at that exposure, the dynamic range of my camera was plenty to still capture lots of shadow detail, without any part of the scene completely plugging up and going full black.
I spend a lot of time on my tours talking about exposure, and this is one of the best landscape locations to illustrate the benefits of Exposing to the Right, both for image quality, but also to protect the shadows in a wide tonal range scene like this. I covered this in detail in Episode 503, in which I covered using the Zone System for digital photography.
As we drew closer to the time that we were planning to leave the beach, we noticed some pancake ice forming on the surface of the sea, so I grabbed a number of shots with the three tetrapod pyramid tops sticking out the water, as you can see here.
It’s a cool phenomenon, as the sea starts to freeze and form the little circles of ice. It didn’t feel cold enough for this to form, but I guess that’s because we are all wrapped up to protect ourselves from the elements. Plus, I warm up a great deal when I’m photographing things, as opposed to just standing around in the cold. Later in the day, we went for a drive around the area but the warm winter was not helping with the landscape, so we went back to the hotel and did a few hours of workshops, before heading back down into the port for another quick shoot before the sun went down.
The following morning though, the snow came to our rescue, so we initially photographed the port one last time for this trip, as it was presenting us with a slightly different opportunity with the snow-covered tetrapods that you see here. Ideally, I’d have moved to my right a little more here to get better separation between the two tetrapods near the middle of the frame, but one of my guests was in that spot, and the guests always take preference. It’s fine though, and I still really like this shot.
The snow running right down to the water’s edge shows how calm the sea was on this final visit, and that also allowed the snow to settle on the tetrapods and rocks rather than being washed away, which is what usually happens.
We were planning to move on to our final location for the last two days of the tour, but there was no way we’d have gotten out of town without spending more time shooting the beautiful scenes that the previous day had not delivered, and you can see what I mean in this next image. This is not hoar frost, although it looks like it. I’ve seen this happen before at this location a few years ago, so I’d had my fingers crossed.
It’s very fine snow that has stuck to the trees and coated the land and other foliage. The bamboo grasses in the foreground give you an idea of what I mean too. On the previous day the soil had been showing through on the fields, and the trees were black and pretty bleak. This Winter Wonderland-style scene, on the other hand, is the sort of thing that I love to encounter on this trip, and we were fortunate to get this on this visit, with it being so warm compared to most other years.
The snow started to melt off the trees relatively quickly, so this is one of the last shots I got from this morning, of a silo in a farmer’s field, albeit a little bit of a Christmas Card type of a scene, and I mean that in a somewhat negative sense. Still, it’s a pleasing shot and helps to illustrate the conditions, so I thought I’d include this before we move on.
Note that these two images are some of the few that I left in color, as I mentioned earlier because I really felt that their color added something to the images. I used to remove the color in images when it got in the way, but for a number of years now, especially with this trip, my default is to convert to black and white, and I only leave images in color when I feel that the color is adding something to the scene.
It was back to fishing boats for much of the last two days of the trip, as we visited a fishing port on the Saroma Lake. We had a smattering of snow again, helping to clean things up, and I loved the sky that we had on our first visit, as you can see here.
This once again shows how useful it is to Expose to the Right, to control the highlights and protect the shadows. Without using this technique, which you can read about more in Episode 381, the shadows fall too dark to give much definition. By using this technique, the boats come out of the shadows easily with the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro and Lightroom etc.
As has become tradition, at the end of each tour, I record a comment from each of the participants, which I will play you now, in the audio for this post. If you want to hear what people said about the tour, please listen with the audio player above. The comments start at 10:23.
We are going to conclude this travelogue series with what I believe is a fitting film shot, of the boats at the same fishing port. Again, I’m really happy that the film I’m using, which for this trip turned out to be exclusively Rollei RPX 100, is giving me such similar results to how I process my digital work in black and white. Apart from the square format and more apparent grain, these images feel very similar to me, and shooting film on this trip was a lot of fun.
I actually thought that I’d need to mollycoddle my now 55-year-old Rolleiflex, to protect it from the elements, but having gotten it wet on a number of occasions, although I did wipe it down, I’m happy to report that it did not rust, and is still as shiny as ever. a True tribute to German craftsmanship. Note that I have used my new script for assigning and updating the EXIF data on my scanned film, so if you click on these images you’ll see the shooting information, just like my digitally shot images. I have a few more tweaks to make, but I hope to be able to share that in March when the dust settles after my winter tours.
I’ve also spent the last few days working on an update to my Photographer’s Friend app for iOS. I was contacted with a request to add a couple of medium format sensor sizes between 35mm and the 645 format, which I’ve done. In the process though, I updated the app to the latest version of Swift, the programing language used to create it, and then decided to add a Light and Dark theme throughout the app, and a few other tweaks.
If I can overcome a few remaining issues that I’m working on, I hope to submit the update to Apple before leaving for my third trip of the season next weekend, so stay tuned for that if you have version three of the Photographer’s Friend, as it will be a free update. I will not be updating version two, and you can see which you have by tapping on the About Photographer’s Friend link at the bottom of the Help menu.
One other thing to keep your eyes out for is that although the night view has been replaced by the more comprehensive dark theme, you can still switch themes easily by simply shaking your device, and that’s useful if you are using the app at night and want to protect your night vision. I also think that the dark theme looks great anyway. By default, Photographer’s Friend will now simply follow your system preferences unless you shake it.
Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure Tour
We’ll wrap it up there for this week though. If you are interested in joining the Landscape tour in 2021 or future years, check out the tour page at https://mbp.ac/hlpa.
Check out details of future Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventures here: https://mbp.ac/hlpa
Today we continue our travelogue series covering my recent Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure. I’d like to start by answering a question to last week’s post from Paulo Silva. Thanks for the great questions Paulo! Although I’ve answered in the comments for last week’s post, I’m going to include my answers here too as this is probably useful for others as well.
Why do you use apertures so small as F/16 with such wide focal length as 22mm? For the longer I understand if you want to keep everything in focus but as wider than 22mm or 35mm, wouldn’t you get the lens best performance (keeping everything in focus) and using a little bit wider aperture (say f/8 to f/11), having in mind that diffraction usually starts to show with f/11 and smaller? I know that it depends on the lens you’re using, and my experience is only with APS-C sensors in which diffraction happens sooner than with Full Frame sensors.
Another question, if I may, is where did you put your focal plane? At the trees or did you use some kind of hyperfocal distance?
Question from Paulo Silva
OK, so my settings are usually the result of thinking through what I want to do with the elements of the image, and also based on testing my gear to understand what it is capable of. There is also a hint in the text for last week’s post with regard to those particular scenes. Here too is a gallery of the images, to save you going back to the previous post:
The main reason for those particular images is because I wanted to get a shutter speed of between 1/20 and 1/40 of a second to cause the snow to streak slightly. It’s hard to see in the web versions, but it makes a beautiful pattern over the trees at these shutter speeds. If that requires me to stop down to f/16, I’m fine with that, because I test my lenses as described here https://mbp.ac/594 to see where diffraction starts to kick in. I built the functionality into my Photographer’s Friend app to also display diffraction warnings when calculating depth-of-field, which I also reference, but I’ve found that my gear does not start to visibly show the effect of diffraction until I stop down to f/22, but the depth-of-field does increase.
For example, the hut and tree shot with the dark sky was shot at 91mm, and at f/16 the close foreground snow is starting to come out of the depth-of-field. For the snow pillows shot, I was trying to get a slow shutter speed to record the water movement.
For the dawn mist in Biei shot, you’ll see that I opened it up to f/11, because, firstly, I was hand-holding, but also because the foreground snow was not going to be important, so I didn’t need to stop down so much. For the blue waterfall, I opened up to f/11 and adjusted my ISO to get a 1-second shutter speed, again, so make the water look the way it does. For the raven’s in the tree shot, I opened up to f/11 to get a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second, but I didn’t want to go any faster, because I wanted the flying birds to blur slightly when flying.
I have to admit, that these are perhaps better examples of my thought process because the low light causes me to decide where the trade-offs will be played out. With brighter scenes, I generally just shoot pretty much everything at f/14, but this is more out of habit. Before I really tested my lenses I used f/14 as my soft-ceiling, and f/16 was pretty much the highest I would go, but that is no longer the case.
I am aware that some people like to shoot at f/8, mostly because they’ve read somewhere that this is the sweet spot for the lens, but this in my experience is generally completely unnecessary, and often causes them to have to focus stack, etc. I rarely focus stack, and I mean like, almost never, and the thought of having to do that to overcome an obstacle that does not exist turns me completely cold. Before anyone makes a decision like that, they need to test their lenses and find out where diffraction starts to become visible for all of their lenses.
Also, as you said, crop factor cameras will start to see diffraction at wider apertures, so you do need to test, but my app also shows the warnings accordingly when crop factor sensor sizes are selected. In case you haven’t seen it, you can check out Photographer’s Friend here.
People also, in my experience, have a very poor understanding of depth-of-field, and very few people understand that depth-of-field is directly affected by the megapixels (resolution) of the sensor in the camera. You get shallower depth-of-field with higher resolution cameras, if, as I do, you check critical focus at 100%. This is what I enabled with the Pixel Peeper mode that I built into my Photographer’s Friend app. When enabled you can clearly see the difference in depth-of-field as the sensor resolution increases.
Regarding Paulo’s question about where I focus, most of the time I am focusing on the main subject, to give it the clearest pixels. I occasionally focus around a third into the screen when I need more depth-of-field, but I generally feel that the main subject is best. With the shadow of the tree shot, for example, I recall focusing on the middle of the shadow, as it was about one third into the scene, but also because the shadow was the main subject of this image, not the tree itself. This also helped me to get more focus on the foreground snow.
OK, so let’s continue to discuss the next ten images from this trip. After leaving Biei we headed over to the coast, which is a relatively long drive, so after our morning shoots before we leave, the next opportunity is usually the Shinto Torii gate that you see in this image. I had been excited about the fact that it was going to be a high tide on both evenings that we’d be able to visit this Torii, but as you can see from the sky, it was relatively clear, and I’ve found over the years that a clear sky, which indicates high atmospheric pressure, has more effect on the sea that the tides at this particular location. If it was overcast, meaning low pressure, the sea would have been up over the concrete base and the sky much more interesting.
Some members of the group got some really nice shots with the sunset reflecting in the pools between the rocks in front of the gate, which was great! We’d come back here the following evening, but once again despite it being high-tide, there was a clear sky, so it didn’t really work again.
We also spend a lot of time at some other locations in this area while we are there though, and one of them you can see in this next image. I like this spot because there are tetrapods lined up along the shore, often covered in ice like this, and then there is a line of tetrapods out in the sea, which add an element of interest to break-up the otherwise somewhat monotonous sea.
One thing that came up as we shot here, is how do I focus to get both the foreground icy tetrapods and the distant tetrapods sharp, and this is also related to Paulo’s earlier questions, so I’ll explain. Now that I’m using the EOS R with the electronic viewfinder, I can do this directly in the viewfinder, but in the past, I would do this same thing in LiveView. Basically, I zoom in on one of the extremes in the focus, either the foreground or the distant objects. Then, having set my aperture to something hopefully small enough to get both subjects in focus, I hold down the depth-of-field preview button, which I have mapped to the exposure lock or asterisk button on the back of my EOS R.
Then, say if I’m looking at the near subject, I physically move the focus out with the focus ring, until I see the near subject start to go soft, then pull back a little again, so that it’s still in the near end of the depth-of-field. Then I zoom in on the distant subject and check that it’s also in focus. Sometimes I have to pull the focus back a little to check that it does out of focus when I do, as it’s easier to then see when it comes back into focus. There is also focus peaking indication in the EOS R which helps, as everything that is highlighted has a sharp, in focus, edge.
You can see how little snow we had this year in this next image. Normally this beach has around 50 cm of snow and is difficult to walk on, but this year we were able to walk around quite freely. Rather than fighting it, I used the sparse snow as part of the composition for this shot, using it as leading lines towards the outcrop of land and the tip of triangular tetrapods.
Just in case, we swung by the Torii Shinto Gate one last time on the way out of town for on the last day in this area, but with the lower tide and clear sky the water was so far back that I found out for the first time that there is a second concrete base under the one you see in the earlier photo, which was also visible, so I had the group stay on the bus, and we started our journey to the next location, shooting some of my favorite spots along the way, the first of which, you can see in this next image.
I shot this with my medium format film camera, the Rolleiflex, and I’m pleased that I did because my EOS R had mysteriously switched to 12-megapixel mode without any warning the frame after the previous image of the beach. I noticed it around fifty frames later, and have no idea why it switched. This happens when you put an EF-S or crop-factor lens on the EOS R, but looking at when it switched, I had not even taken the lens off the camera, and I don’t own an EF-S lens, so nothing should have caused this to happen. I tell you, in general, I’m very happy with my Canon gear, and I love the EOS R, but when I found out that this had happened I felt like throwing my camera into the sea. Luckily the Rollei came to the rescue, and I still have some high-resolution images from this part of the trip.
I really like how we have the three distinctly different types of tetrapods at this location. The practice golf-balls in the foreground, the angular tetrapods in the middle, and then the rounder-legged tetrapods out in the sea. The word Tetrapod actually means four-legged and is a trademark for the original company that made them, but I just call all of these wave-breakers tetrapods.
We swung by the boat graveyard that I also love to shoot on the way to the next location, but again the lack of snow didn’t make it look very pretty. Luckily we had some snow while we were there, so we were able to get some nice shots the following day. On the first day in this area, we continued on to the Noshappu Fishing Port and photographed the boats there, and as we got settled into our shooting, the snow started, giving us a nice clean white foreground in the most part.
This is another shot from my Rolleiflex that I was quite happy with. I actually had a few problems developing my film from this trip, as I tried different developing chemicals, based on a recommendation from a previous post about developing my own film. The original Ilford DD-X that I was using gave great results every time, but I found that I needed to tweak the Adox Rodinal development process quite a lot before I could get results I was happy with from the Lab-Box that I shared with you in Episode 682.
The main problem was that I started out diluting it at 25:1 as that gives faster development times, and I was also agitating every thirty seconds based on advice from the Lab-Box folks, but it turns out that both of these things resulting in very grainy negatives when working with Rodinal. I started diluting at 50:1 for almost double the development time and also reduced the agitation to 10 seconds every minute, and also not turning the handle on the Lab-Box as fast, and I’ve found that this gives me much better results.
Here’s another shot from the Noshappu Port, this time shot with my EOS R. I’m really pleased that I’m able to get very similar looking images from both cameras in many cases, obviously when I’m converting my EOS R images to black and white, that is.
I found myself looking at my focal length quite regularly as we shot, and whenever I was around 50 millimeters focal length, I reached for the Rollei to get a film shot, as it’s a 75mm lens, which is about 50mm in 35mm sensor terms.
It snowed some overnight, so the next morning we revisited the boat graveyard for much better-looking scenes than the previous day. We also had a great sky at times, with the low sun illuminating the clouds from the side adding some nice texture, enhanced a little in Capture One Pro mind.
I feel somewhat privileged to watch these boats slowly decay over the years, and this year was no exception. More of the cabins seem to have collapsed and more bits are falling off as these boats succumb to the elements.
This next photo is a secondary Boat Graveyard further into the port than the first and was pretty nice this year because of the lack of snow. There’s a rugged feel to this shot that I find appealing, helped, once again, by the sky detail that I pulled out using Capture One Pro.
There’s a little more grass and dirt showing through than I’d like, but I think that just adds to the overall grungy feel, so I’m pretty happy with the results of our visits.
I’m generally a glass-half-full sort of person, so rather than concentrating on what we lost through the lack of snow, I really enjoyed getting into the stuff that we gained. The next image is usually out of bounds because the snow is too deep to get to this part of the port, but that wasn’t the case this year.
I believe these boats are still sea-worthy and in use, so this isn’t a graveyard, as such, but I still like the overall rugged feel and mood of these shots, and all in all, I was very happy with what we got this year.
In the afternoon, we swung by the fish drying frames, and once again I shot them with my Rolleiflex as well as my EOS R. I like both shots, but I think the square format suits this shot, so I’ll go with the Rollei version.
We were lucky again here, as we’d been told when we spoke with the people that own these frames a few days earlier that there was no snow on the ground. There were only a few centimeters of snow when we got there, but that is enough to clean up the scene like this, so once again we were very fortunate.
We’ll finish there for this episode, as we’ve reached our ten photos. I have not had time to create an extra episode for next week, and I am leaving for the first of this year’s two Japan Wildlife trips tonight, so we’ll be skipping next week, but I’ll be back in two weeks time to conclude this travelogue series and start to update you on the wildlife tours.
Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure Tour
If you are interested in joining the Landscape tour in 2021 or future years, check out the tour page at https://mbp.ac/hlpa.
Check out details of future Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventures here: https://mbp.ac/hlpa
Having just completed this year’s Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Tour, today I’m going to start a three or four-part travelogue series to walk you through our antics as we made our way around the beautiful northern-most island of Japan for twelve days.
I’m always a little nervous as we start this tour, because the success of at least the first location, Biei, depends on us getting some falling snow while we are there. I plan for three days in this area partly to give us a better chance of getting that, but also because there are lots of things to shoot. In the past, we’ve gotten to the last few hours of daylight on day three before it snowed, and that was nerve-racking.
On this visit, it started snowing as we arrived in the area on day one, which is a huge relief and takes the pressure off for these first few days, but of course, we had to get out and do our photography before that became a given. We started with the trees behind the Takushinkan gallery, as usual. You wouldn’t know it from this shot, but without the falling snow, there is a brow of the hill just above the top of the trees behind them, and I love it when that is erased by the snow.
Even as the snow stops and the sky lightens I get completely put-off by this scene, and others in this area. The snow minimalizes everything and helps to create the look that I think suits this area so well.
Here’s another example, where the falling snow renders the scene in a beautiful minimalist style. I love how you can barely see the top of the hill against the very slightly darker sky here. I also love to see the faint shadow below the tree, and then how the patches of grasses punctuate the hillside.
This is really what this area is all about to me, and I love sharing these scenes with the guests on this tour. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I now have a piece of software on the Website that includes the EXIF shooting data with the image in the lightbox that is displayed when you click on the images, so if you want to check my settings for any of the shots, just click or tap on them to view the lightbox.
In stark contrast, as we walked along the hills in Biei, the late afternoon sun broken through the clouds to the right of this next scene, illuminating the foreground snow, outlining it’s texture while leaving the sky dark, which I enhanced a little in Capture One Pro to exaggerate the difference between the sky and the snow.
I do like this as well and think that I’ve kept a relatively minimalist feel to the image by not zooming in on the hut and the tree as much as I could have. Leaving them small in the scene helps to keep it simple, and also feels more effective when viewed as a large print, kind of as a reward for walking up close to the print.
The following image is another that you’ve seen before from previous years, but I can’t resist doing this. Again, it kind of requires you to look at a higher resolution version, but when you look closely at the line of trees in this image you can see that the falling snow has made the trees look like a pencil sketch, which once again, I find really appealing. I like to aim for a shutter speed of between a 1/40 and a 1/20 of a second to create this look.
Something that often comes up as I work with the group here is how I decide where to place the line of trees in the frame. My usual way of thinking about this is, if the subject is physically higher than I am, as in, I’m looking up at it, I tend, more often than not, to place that subject near to the top of the frame. If I place it anywhere else, you lose the feeling of it being higher, and I think that is important. Also, I ask what the better of the possibilities, a white field of snow, or a blank white sky. I personally prefer the snow, but that’s mostly in a symbolic sense. As far as the photo is concerned there really isn’t much difference.
The next photo from day two was a bit of a bonus. There wasn’t as much snow in Hokkaido, as usual, this year, and that has probably left more food in the hills for the crows, so this was the first time I’d seen what I conceitedly call Martin’s Tree with a murder of crows perched in it.
I left my shutter speed slow as some of the crows took flight, to add a little dynamism to the shot, and feel that the blurred crows add a slightly stronger Hitchcock feel to the scene. The texture in the sky for this shot also adds to that feeling, so I am pretty happy with this.
Another thing that I’ve not really seen at this spot in all of the years I’ve been traveling there, is the shadow of the tree on the snow, as we can see in this next image.
This was somewhat difficult to process, as I exposed for the highlights in the sky in the top right corner, leaving the foreground snow very dark. I did most of the work in three layers, one to bring out the detail and texture in the sky, a second to lighten that central bank of snow, as that was almost black, and then a third over the foreground snow. That third layer, covering most of the bottom of the frame has a tone-curve on it that snakes back and forth across the center line to create almost white snow while enhancing the shadow.
On our third day in the Biei area, we drove around to Mount Asahi to photograph the scenes either side of the ski slope there. On the way, we stopped to photograph the pillows of snow forming on top of the rocks in the river, that you can see here.
I usually shoot this with a much longer focal length, but I stayed pretty wide at 120 mm for this shot, as the individual pillows didn’t do much for me this year. They were small and not really well-formed, so I decided to portray the larger scene instead.
I took my new Rolleiflex TLR camera on this trip and shot a total of six rolls of 120 format film, and here is the first one I want to share with you, of the trees at the side of the ski slope.
I’d prefer to work a little more on this, as I’m still trying to get better results from the scanner software that people recommended in the comments on my recent post about scanning medium format film. The software is called SilverFast SE and although I can see the benefits of using it, the image quality that I’m currently getting isn’t as good as what I get with the native scanner drivers, so I’m trying to get some advice from their support team, and if that doesn’t help, I will probably rescan my film with the original Canon software.
The blue Shirahige waterfall behind our hotel was pretty much unchanged, but I thought I’d share a shot, to complete the documentation of the trip.
This is from the start of day four, as we walked around from the hotel before starting our drive to the next location.
I couldn’t resist stopping our bus as we drove out of town though when we were presented with this morning mist against the pastel dawn sky.
I originally converted this to black and white, which I liked, but these colors kept calling back out to me from the Apple Photos app, as I’d loaded both versions so that I could live with them for a while to help me make up my mind. I found myself preferring this, so I’ve now deleted the black and white version.
We’ll wrap it up there for today, as that takes us to our ten photo limit that I try to stick to. If you would like to join this tour, I have switched to running this twice a season from 2021 so we do have a few places left on each tour. Check out the tour page here: https://mbp.ac/hlpa
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.