My 2015 winter photography tour to Japan – (Part 2 -My Adventure)
This Blog is a follow-up on “My 2015 winter photography tour to Japan 2015- (Part 1- The Planning) - To enjoy the full journey I would suggest that you read that blog first.
- AND THIS IS HOW IT STARTED:
No, I didn’t fall of the face of the earth in Japan as some of my followers might think… Sorry I haven’t written in so long, I was hoping to have more time to tell all my followers about my amazing adventure, but it was much more demanding then I initially thought and didn’t get much time to write about it. So anyway… now I’m playing catch-up.
After a lot of excitement and very little sleep due to load shedding and my brain that didn’t want to switch off…..I left for the airport on a mission to visit a country that was never on my wish list in the first place! When I arrived at the airport I had to slug my entire heavy luggage around. Due to the weight restrictions as well as the fragility of my equipment, most of my equipment had to be taken as hand luggage which meant I had to prance around with 16kg on my back and pretend that it was light – while at the same time try not to injure my back before we had even left.
As I sat down on the airplane, the nerves started to kick in as many thought were running through my head. I was leaving my entire family behind to enter into an unknown country all by myself. I came to the realization that I must really love photography to spend this amount of money and go through this amount of effort to get the shots that I am after.
The flight to Doha was pleasant, however arriving there and catching my connecting flight to Narita airport in Tokyo was a disaster! (thanks to Flight Centre) – I had 40 minutes to board the next flight and they made sure they put the boarding gate right on the other side of the airport! Please remember that my bag did not get any lighter and I was wearing my 3kg hiking boots. I heard them calling my name over the intercom yet I couldn’t get myself to move any faster with my bag now feeling close to 30kg and my tired feet held down by what felt like ankle weights.
When I arrived at the gate, the lady politely opened for me- I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have opened it had she understood that I was swearing at her when I arrived. To my surprise, and to put it nicely, disappointment, I still needed to take a bus to get to the now much smaller airplane. And yes, because I was the last person on the bus, there were no more seats available and obviously no-one (including the young fit men) would stand up to offer the exhausted and flustered lady a seat. It was early in this journey that I made the conscious decision to not expect anything from anyone- I am on my own. So I now needed to stand with all my heavy equipment and hold onto the stupid rope on the roof. By this time I was exhausted and really struggling to hold on- South Africans are not used to having to take the bus you know.
To add insult to injury, when arriving at the airplane I realized I needed to climb very steep steps to get onto the plane. Little did I know that each time I tried to climb a step, gravity pulled me back down because of by heavy bag. Eventually I needed to take the bag off my back and carry it up with my now almost numb arms after holding on for dear life in the bus. When I got to the top, I asked the air hostess to just take my bag and look after it. I really could not care less what she did with it!!!
Luckily, things started to look up when I was on the plane because I had three seats all to myself, I passed out from exhaustion and woke up when they started nagging us to put our safety belts on for landing.
On arrival at Narita airport and going through customs, I was asked to open all my bags as well as show them my itinerary as they could not understand what the purpose of my visit to their country was…after discovering all my camera equipment which was obviously tucked away in everything that looked like a bag!, - it took them forever and to say the least, I felt like a criminal. The official eventually believed my story after they had a look at my itinerary, which I finally managed to find.
Thank goodness I declared all my equipment at OR Tambo as that could also have been a problem for me. Nevertheless, I easily managed to find the hotel, yet I was still struggling with my hand luggage plus now my oversized suitcase. When arriving at the hotel it was late already, but I bumped into a lady and found out she was my roommate. Luckily the hotel had more than enough rooms so I had my own room for the night, which I was very grateful for. I had a wonderful night’s rest.
- Finally we are going to photograph the monkeys!!!
We stayed at Narita Tobu Hotel on arrival in Tokyo and the accommodation turned out to be very comfortable and was very westernised. I thought I would need to sleep on the floor but at least had a bed. That morning I woke up ridiculously early and went for breakfast. Luckily, breakfast was also very familiar and westernized.
I got the opportunity to meet my fellow teammates and discovered that everyone except myself and someone else were medical professionals. I was also excited to find out one of my team members was a photographer from my photography club and was a good doctor friend of mine from Alberton.
We also met our tour guide who was Japanese, which was fantastic because he could at least understand the language and translate. He was also the Japanese wildlife photographer of the year 2014, which was a bonus for all of us, because he had knowledge of all the good photography spots and tips on how to shoot them. Our two hosts from ODP, Wim and Ben, I had met previously when doing a tour with them to Botswana, and was therefore well aware of their capabilities as amazing Pro wildlife photographers. We then took a seven-hour bus journey which gave Ben & Wim the opportunity to update us on all the happenings.. And I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery and bit of relaxation it had to offer.
When leaving Tokyo the temperature was about -5° Celsius but the closer we got to our destination, North-west of Tokyo, the colder it got. Before I knew it we were surrounded by steep cliffs and bitterly cold and hostile forests. Everywhere I looked there was bright white snow.
We checked into a small Japanese style “Ryokan” lodge that was located on the trial head of the monkey park in a little village town called Jigokudani, meaning hell’s valley due to the steam and boiling water that boils out of small crevices in the frozen ground. The monkey park is part of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in the Nagano Prefecture, north west of Tokyo.The monkey’s come down during the winter to bath in the hot spring pools and they return back to the hills at sundown to roost.
The local guide told us a tale of how the locals believe these pools became so popular: “A local woman who lives on the top of the hill overlooking the main pool area was watching the behaviour of these monkey’s day in and day out. After a few weeks of observing them, she felt sorry for them, seeing that they weren’t able to get enough warmth. She decided to close in a part of the spring so that there was more warm water for them to bath in. Since then, more and more monkey’s came down to find warmth and relaxation in the hot springs.”
These springs were never a popular tourist and photographer attraction, until they were published on National Geographic not so long ago. Since then popularity has vastly increased. This lead to me wanting to come as soon as possible, before it got to overcrowded and impossible to photograph. I then also realised, that Tokoyo was the last place I would be receiving ‘normal’ westernized food. Most of the food from here on was not cooked and not recognisable.
From our room it was about a 2km hike with all our equipment in the heavy and slippery snow. Here it was also each person to themsleves, no one offered any assistance. Not only was the hike up to the monkeys a reality…but also the Onsens! something we as South Africans are not familiar with.
When reaching the top for the very first time , I was shocked to see the amount of people! There where photographers as well as tourists, all wanting to take photos of these Snow Monkeys. (Japanese Macaques) It was nearly impossible to find a spot from which I could get a full shot at the pool.
I spent an amazing three full days with the monkeys. It was great because we didn’t have golden hours, you can literally take photos all day long! The monkeys are so much like humans, they are naughty, funny and can be quite dangerous but luckily they are used to humans.We were told not to make eye contact with them, not sure why, as most photographers had their lenses practically in their faces, what’s the difference then…. I wondered?
After two days of fighting for space at the pools, I decided to venture out on my own, which may not be such a good idea as it could be very dangerous. It was however definitely worth the risk for me. I was almost all alone and spotted the monkey’s playing in the snow. I managed to get some beautiful jump shots as they run up the ice mounds and jumped back down again. Playing like little children!
It was also late afternoon on that particular day and the sun was behind which created beautiful backlightingMoor me. It also made the sky a beautiful dark blue with the white snow as my foreground. The sun came through the monkey’s golden brown fur as they played, giving me a show that I will not easily forget. I was trying to fit in as many shots as I could before sunset, when a Japanese man who also decided to take the risk and to capture this fell short- literally- he fell into a hole in the snow next to where I was standing. My conscience told me I should help him, but I really struggled to pull myself away from the excitement happening in front of me! To my surprise, I did rescue him.
Obviously as the sun dipped lower and with valuable time now waisted, it also became more and more difficult for me to maintain fast enough shutter speeds and I had to rely more and more on my ISO capability of my Nikon D4. Luckily my camera was superior enough and could handle high ISO without too much visible noise, (I hoped) also one of the reasons why my camera of choice was the Nikon D4 as well as the D750.
Something you should really consider when you decide on your final choice of equipment when booking for this particular trip. Water resistant Cameras with fast shutter speeds and high ISO capabilities is a real must. It is also very difficult to hike with to the top with a 600mm lens if you are a woman of small build like me, as the lens is heavy.
My choice of camera and lens for capturing the Monkeys jumping, was a Nikon D4 with a 70-200mm f2/8 lens and a x 1.7 converter which gave me 340mm. I was happy with that and manage to get some good shots. I could easily shoot handheld although after taking about 2000 images of the monkeys jumping, I could hardly hold my camera up any longer. Not the reason why I eventually stopped shooting though, the officials asked us to get going as the Park would close at 16:00 – we still had the same 1.6km hike ahead of us to get back to our Lodge. And believe me, not something you should ever try in the dark!
To get as many good shots as possible , I decided to utilise the 3 days in such a way so that I could capture emotions, action, interaction, expressions as well as funny moments – thus selecting my shots carefully, shooting with a purpose instead of just filling up memory cards.
It was interesting to learn that when the monkeys get into the pools – only the family that belongs to the dominant male would be allowed to enter – if anyone else tries to enter the pool there was a lot of fighting and action which made for perfect photo opportunities. The babies also make for beautiful photographs. You will mostly use shorter lenses to photograph the monkeys in the pool and you can also use flash on camera, as well as off camera – that is if you are lucky enough to find the space to set your flash up somewhere around the pool. We did not have the privilege as there were just too many people on the days that we were there.
There was also a day which was a public holiday in Japan which obviously made it even worse for us, as we had a lot of locals also joined us with their cellphones and iPads.
A tripod will also not work for you around the pool, a monopod could maybe work better choice. You need lots of patients as it could take you half a day to wait it out for the person to leave for you to get a better angle, especially if you are after low angle shots. What we did was we worked as a group, one person would find a good low angle and would then pass it on to another person in the group. We only figured this out on day three and it worked very well as we all managed to finally get some good angles towards our final day at the pool.
A difficulty in shooting the pools, is the steam. If you are prepared to be a bit more creative in your thinking, you can create some awesome and creative shots through the steam.
You could also take a walk towards the river down below. It was however extremely slippery and dangerous to get down to the river, but once there, you could also get amazing shots of groups of monkeys playing and interacting. Here you could make use of your 600mm and a tripod, that is if you are brave enough to hike with the extra weight.
- I have use the following equipment to photograph the Snow Monkeys (Japanese Macaques): For monkeys in the pool: I used a Nikon D750 camera body and a Nikon 14-24mm AF-S f/2.8 ED lens as well as a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and a 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR. I have also used a Nikon SB-910 Auto Speed-light.
- For the action shots I have used a Nikon D4 camera body and a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 -G ED VR 11 Lens with and without a x 1.7 extender - I would have preferred to use the 600mm lens but it was to heavy for me to carry. (2km hike) – waterproof rucksack to accommodate my equipment.
- I am blogging all the way from Jigokudani in Japan – 10/2/2015 (Paradise of the Monkeys) – not sure if I will have the opportunity to blog from Japan again as our program is hectic and internet availability a huge problem for us.
- Three days of brilliant photo opportunities with the Monkeys here at Jigokudani!
- The name Jigokudani means: Hell’s Valley
- Memory cards are getting full very quickly!!!
- Monkeys are awesome!!
- Not sure what I am eating most of the time – Culture very different
- Going further North tomorrow – expecting even colder temperatures from thereon – I am surviving!
- 1.8km (feels like 5km) hike to the top every day is hectic with heavy equipment and Ice extremely slippery.
- Internet not available - having tea at a little restaurant in the village with internet!
- Will not have Internet again till our third stop over.
- Missing my family very much – Love you Sweets!!!
- Happy birthday to Brandon for tomorrow – first time that I cannot wish him happy birthday in person.
- Talk again soon!
- On the way to Tsurui to photograph Cranes – (Waterfalls such as Goldeneye, Pintail Ducks & Swans – Sika Deer, Red Fox)
We went by tour bus to Haneda airport to catch a domestic flight to the islands of Hokkaido. Unfortunately, we were not as fortunate with our ‘hand luggage’ situation this time. All our hand luggage had to be weighed, as the overhead cabins were now much smaller because it was a domestic flight. We all wore huge snow jackets so we could hide our cameras under the jackets or lenses in our pockets. To make matters worse, the airport was so hot, so we were all dying of heat. Needless to say, we were surprised to all manage to get in the airplane with all our equipment.
On arrival at Hokkaido we had to struggle with all our equipment once again through the busy terminal and onto our tour bus. We made our way to a little town called Tsurui, which was located in the Akan district- a breeding ground for red crowned cranes. Here the temperatures drop to -15°C.
Our guide knew about Pintail ducks that were on a river nearby. These ducks are native to the area. Here we also managed to photograph various other waterfowl such as Goldeneye, diving ducks and many other different species of ducks. We also got shots of Swans coming in for landing or taking off for flight. We were there for about an hour before we hit the road once again.
As per the rest of the trip, we stopped to get lunch everyday at “One Stops” which is similar to the Ultra Cities you get here - we were on the road most of the time during lunch time. We would walk through the shop and select food – none of which really looked familiar to us - what looked like a chicken sandwich… could be something totally different.
I did however see the most beautiful Swiss Roll, I didn’t take it of course because I couldn’t eat a whole Swiss Roll alone – it just looked to perfect to eat anyway! We would put all our food into a basket and ODP would pay for the items, which we would then eat on the bus. At the beginning, our baskets were not that full because we were still polite and rather hesitant of the food, but the more the trip progressed, the fuller the baskets got. You could not be shy anymore, we were all hungry and we needed to eat to keep our strength up as the trip can be physically draining.
Tsurui is also a very popular spot for photographers so fighting for spots was a norm. A unique feature of these cranes is the mating dance they do which is quite spectacular. It was also a lovely sight to see the white tailed eagles, black eared kites and various other eagles diving down to steal fish that the cranes had just caught. There are many other photography opportunities other than just the beautiful cranes and eagles.
These include Sika deer and Red Fox, which we were fortune enough to capture. Once again I was reminded just how much I loved photography as sleeping on the floor was the norm for all of us by now – we were rather hungry as the food was ‘unusual’ to say the least; and we all started getting sick with the flu due to the extreme temperatures.To find a drugstore was also not easy and thank goodness we had our guide who could translate for us.
These conditions also tested my talent and experience as a photographer. The entire vast landscape was covered in bright white slow. This made it rather challenging to capture white birds. It showed that a great knowledge of your equipment is necessary to capture great photos in these conditions.
One afternoon I decided to brave the extreme cold and stay for the sunset. As the sun started to set the forest transformed into an array of orange, magenta and red. The forest looked as if it was on fire, which took my breath away and definitely made braving the cold worthwhile! I also decided to experiment with some creative shots by slowing down shutter speed and capturing motion blur of these cranes in flight. We had two and a half full days of shooting these most beautiful cranes and I managed to capture thousands of stunning images.
The wind started to pick up towards our last day and the day of our departure it was practically a snow-storm. There were three other well-known wildlife photographers with their groups in the area. We were not staying at the same lodges but we met up at the same photographing spots. Some of the groups that were meant to come to our location were unable to come because all the roads were closed.
We were fortunate enough to leave just before the roads were closed to the public. The group that arrived when we left was stuck there for two days until the storm cleared up enough to travel. We made our way by bus to the town of Kushiro on the northern islands of Hokkaido and on to our lodge which was located on the shores of a picturesque lake of Lake Kussharo – here we were to photograph the Whooper Swans!!
- Equipment used to photograph the Cranes and Eagles: Nikon D4 Camera Body – Nikon 600mm f/4.0 VR Lens - LC Raincoats for Nikon D4 fitted with a 600mm lens – rain cover eyepiece for both cameras - spare batteries for both cameras – extra memory cards – lexar professional waterproof card holders – Black rapid strap for second camera and lens - moisture absorbing silicone sachets for condensation – Waterproof K-Way bag to organise equipment afterwards - a sturdy carbon fibre Benro tripod with a Benro GHS Gimbal Head suitable for long lenses - raincoat for Nikon D750 fitted with shorter lens - Waterproof rucksack to accommodate my equipment.
- Landscapes – Nikon D750 camera body with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED lens – extra batteries for both cameras and extra memory cards.
- Photographing the Whooper Swans at lake Kussharo (Ural Owl)
On route to photograph the Swans our guide was kind enough to stop along the roadside for us where he showed a Ural Owl that were breeding in a tree about 200 meters into the forest itself. We started tracking through the deep forest with the leaves crunching beneath our feet as we carried our heavy equipment.
When we got to the owl I managed to get a few shots but it was daytime and the owl was sleeping. The next minute I stood in the wrong place and disappeared into a hole into the snow. The others were obviously not excited to help me, as they wanted to photograph… luckily they liked me. When I got out I made my way back to the bus, as my equipment as well as myself were sopping wet.
Despite all this, I am so grateful for the two shots that I can use, with its eyes slightly open, as I don’t believe I will ever get a chance to photograph it again.
We arrived at the lodge late at night and had lots of Saki – to celebrate that we were able to get to our next destination. The Saki there is not nearly the same as the Saki here- it comes in various flavours and was delicious! It was also the first time we had a chance to bond as a group. It is important to bond as a group and build up camaraderie- because if you happen to disappear in the snow and nobody likes you- it could be the end of you. It was particularly important to have people ‘watch your back’ in weather like we were having.
Only the rooftops were sticking out of the snow by now and they had to come and wedge our doors open each morning else we would be ‘snowed in’. - this photo was taken from my bedroom window. It was 16:00 in the afternoon and practically dark outside already. The next morning the Landcruser was still parked at the same place but it was totally covered in snow. How do they find their cars again I wondered to myself?
We all woke up with headaches the next day to say the least. Luckily by now we were getting used to the Japanese food and sleeping arrangements, and most of us were recovering from the flu.
The onsens was a blessing in disguise as it healed our very tired muscles.
There is a local Japanese man who has a long lasting tradition which I found very interesting: He has an onsen outside his house on the banks of the lake. Each morning he gets up before the sun rises and goes to bathe in his onsen. The Whooper Swans await his visit each morning as he feeds them. While they were eating and he was bathing in his outdoor onsen, he would play one of the local flutes. It was an amazing sight to see. The morning that we saw him feeding the swans as we were up very early, part of the lake was still open and not yet frozen. By afternoon the entire lake was frozen solid and all the Swans were just walking along ontop of the frozen lake.
I saw an amazing shot of the lake with many swans in the water and the frozen mountains in the background that particular morning. The clouds looked very angry and the water was crystal clear- I could see to the bottom of the lake. There was a stick lying inside the water and I decided that I would use the stick in my foreground. I knew that I was going to convert this image into black and white even before I pressed the shutter. Strange…. as I don’t often think of images being black & white conversions – Because of the lighting I also used a flash – which is also not what I usually do. This image needs to be enjoyed in full quality and full size – rather visit my gallery to view it properly when you get the time. Then, I also noticed that these swans would go and lie on the frozen lake motionless – while being covered by snow. I don’t know if they did this because it was so cold? I also managed to capture this amazing shot. I actually needed a 600mm lens to capture that shot of the swan lying in the snow properly, but it was absolutely impossible for me to walk from the Lodge to the Lake and back again with a 600mm lens – I would have simply just disappear into the snow. I had to make do with a 70-200mm lens with a 1.7 converter instead.
The trick to photographing these Swans at the lake is – mounting your second gimbal head onto a ‘Badger Gear’ Ground Pod – slip your camera body and flash with a wide angle lens onto that – climb into the water (hopefully your boots and clothing will be waterproof) – put your camera inside the water with the ground pot covered in the water and the camera sticking out at the top – Step back and then trigger your flash and your camera with your remote whilst freezing your bud off!!!!.
I was so devastated with the outdoor conditions and the struggle to get to the lake with all my gear in the thick snow – I forgot to take my battery pack with me which was a fatal mistake. My flash kept on freezing up when I tried to use flash at the swans! it flashed once or twice and then….nothing happened! Whether the battery pack (which I specially bought for this trip) would have make a difference, I am unsure of.
Thinking back about it now, I also did not see any of the other photographers in our group using their battery packs, maybe they also left theirs at the Lodge like me? – maybe it was just too cold on that particular day! I will never know. My boots were waterproof as my socks did not get wet, however the boots were still getting wet on the outside which also make your feet feel cold the next day again. Maybe just a mind over matter thing…but I still preferred to start the day with dry boots instead. So I would dry my boots with a hairdryer (not mine) or alternatively put them ontop of the heater in the room, if possible.
Before leaving in the morning, I would put on three pairs of socks with toe warmers and dry boots which helped. Always take extra toe warmers with you as you will need to replace them towards the afternoon again. Although I got some stunning shots at the lake of the swans, thinking back …. I would have been able to take better shots. This was by far the most chalanging shoot for me – I have also put my camera gear thru its paces during this shoot. I can honestly report back that I was extremely impressed with its performance. The only issue I had during this entire trip was with my flash – If I were to ever go back, it would just be for this scene.
We only had a day to spend with the Swans and you cannot believe how drastically the weather changed within this day. By that afternoon we were barely able to stay on our feet with the snow storm. By this time I could not tell the Nikon’s from the Canon’s and struggled to find my camera – I don’t know if this was due to lack of visibility or to brain freeze.
Our guide noticed this and took me back to the Lodge, I couldn’t take the cold anymore – it was near -30C. Here I gained extreme respect for Ben and Wim who only came back after dark – how they managed to stay out that late I don’t know. I realised then what extreme conditions wildlife photographers go through to capture their shots.
- Equipment used to photograph the Swans: Nikon D4 with a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens – x 1.7 converter – a Nikon D750 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (alternated with a 24-70mm f/2.8) – Nikon SB-910 Speed light – Propac PB 960 power-pack – Wizards & sensing transceivers / triggers and cables – Badger gear ground p0d with a second Gimbal head for camera/lens/flash- universal locking cold shoe – sturdy carbon fibre Benro tripod with GHS gimbal head – raincoats for both cameras & rain cover eyepieces for both camera - gura gear elastic shock cords to attach, secure and organise my gear – moisture absorbing silicon pocket sachets and two waterproof K-way bags for both cameras with various lenses to eliminate condensation – spare batteries and extra memory cards – Waterproof rucksack to accommodate my equipment.
- On our way to Photograph the Eagles at Rausu – (Blakiston’s Fish Owl)
Finally we are going to photograph the Steller’s as well as the White Tailed Eagles along with various other Sea birds, Gulls, Terns and many other species.
We left lake Kussaro and went for a 3 hour bus journey Shiretoko Peninsuka, located on the Eastern most portion of the island, and to port town of Rausu. It was decleared a UNESCO World Heritage Sight in 2005. It is the Southern most point as which sea ice usually forms in the Northern Hemisphere, where Oyashio current causes fog on the South Eastern coast and sea ice in the winter.
We were taking a chance in going to photograph the Eagles as they would only come to this port if there were ice packs for them to sit on. They would come into the port to steal the fish from the fishing boats and sit on the ice packs to eat them, however, if there were no pack-ice they would not come.
As we were driving there, we were informed by our guide that the pack-ice were still far out in sea. When we arrived, there was no pack-ice so we checked in to our Lodge and had dinner.
The next morning, on awaking we got to the port and saw the ice packs approaching port and I don’t have to explain the excitement in the bus – It was amazing!
We were to photograph the Eagles after all!!! The fishermen started to see an opportunity to make extra money as they noticed lot of photographers come in to take pictures of these Eagles. They would then hire out an entire boat to groups of photographers as well as tourists.
It was quiet a mission to get into this boat, as there were steep steps and the boat was iced over and slippery. There was limited space in the harbour and therefore the boats were moored from the shore in a line deeper into the ocean.
We therefore had to climb from the shore into the first boat and over to the next until you reached your boat further into the ocean. The boats were all rocking in different directions as they were constantly bump into pack-ice. And all this, while we were trying our best to get into the boat with two different cameras and two different lenses and also trying to stay on our feet and not fall into the frozen ocean with our expensive camera equipment!! The sadest part for me would be that I will not be able to photograph the Eagles!!!
We would then go out on this boat for most of the day. I don’t know how the skippers knew to dodge past all of the pack-ice when we were out in the sea, it was so overwhelming.
There were Steller Eagles fighting with Steller’s, Steller’s with White Tailed Eagles and you had Crows fighting with the Steller’s and White Tails and then there were many other species of sea birds also interacting in the action!!.
The first day, none of us really got winning shots as it was more a trial and error process I think. There were other boats at sea as well you needed to avoid in your shots as well as these friggen Black Crows, always blocking beautiful shots for you. There were birds flying from and in all angles around our boat.
I then decided that in the mornings, I would use my 600mm lens and concentrate on taking the far shots, and in the afternoons, the shorter lens to concentrate on the closer shots again. The reason why I wanted to do that, is because it is impossible to try and do them simultaneously because by the time you run to your one camera you have slipped around on the ice, missed your shot, and your lens on the other camera would be covered with snow!
Finding something to clean your lenses with while all of this is happening around you… is impossible as you also have these big gloves on which you need to take off first – and by doing that, you could have them lading up in the frozen ocean, which is a BAD idea!!!!
This was maybe the ideal plan…. but unfortunately, it didn’t work out. In the end I had to make peace with the fact that I had to slip and slide between two cameras….there were just to much happening all at the same time.
You get to know how the birds come in, it will come and attack a bird with prey and take off with the prey. The bird whose prey was just stolen would follow the bird that stole his prey and they would have an amazing fight in mid air.You need your 600mm or longer lens or you would not be able to capture this.
What I also saw when watching the skies is the White Tailed Eagles having a courting display where they lock talons and it looks like they are falling in a spiral motion through the air. It is just beautiful. If you do not know what this is all about, you would simply think it is more birds fighting over fish. I think this is any Avian Photographers dream place.
In all my years of photographing birds, I managed to capture all my dream shots here – I capture over 17000 shots during the three days. Our last morning, we decided it was time to brave a sunrise shoot. So this means, you get up when it is dark!.
The temperatures deteriorated through the three days that we were there, so by the third day, it was snowing heavily and constantly.
We were worried that they were not able to go out to sea. On the way to port, we got a message that our chartered boat was awaiting for us in the harbor. There were not that many other people in the harbour that morning because they were scared of the rough sea conditions with the ice. Because the ocean was so frozen up, there was not much water visible in the ocean.
We were planning to photograph as the sun rise over the ocean to get beautiful silhouette shots and a beautiful red glaze over the white ice. It did however take us forever to get into the ocean as we had to break through the ice, we thought we were going to miss the sunrise, but we had an awesome skipper. By the time we got deeper into the ocean we were all freezing, it was far below -30 degrees Celsius.
Many of our shots had to be hand held without a tripod but we were struggling to steady our cameras properly as our hands were frozen and we were shaking uncontrollably – our finger and hand warmers came in extremely handy for us here yet again! Here we were changing our warmers frequently.
The sky was red and orange, with the birds flying past the sky, you got the most awesome back lighting coming through their feathers. This was especially evident with the White Sea Gulls.
Some of the birds had steam coming out their noses because of the cold which was so unique – also our mission to capture that as it is something different, also something I will never have the privilege to capture again. I was lucky enough to get two shots of that.
The rest of the day and sadly our final day with the Eagles, was challenge for all of us because of the snow; we had to consider how to look after our equipment without it getting damaged as well as getting it covered in snow.
Our raincoats for our equipment came in very handy here. If you forget to turn your lens to face down when you are not using it, you would get snow on the lens, thus robing you from valuable time to cleaning it first. This could rob you from your winning shot - you had constant action all around you to concentrate on!
On our final night around 17:00 that evening our hosts, Ben and Wim took us on an unexpected trip to a restaurant for dinner. They told us to bring all equipment. We sat down to have a wonderful dinner.It was only our group at the restaurant as only 12 people could fit inside the restaurant. After dinner, they flipped down the windows and suddenly we were in a hide to photograph the Blakiston’s fish owl- the biggest owl in the world!!!
They dug a hole in the snow next to a dead tree and put a florescent light in the distance. We all collected our equipment and set up our tripods inside the hide. They asked us not to use flash to give each other a fair chance to capture the shots. We had to rely on this florescent light to focus, which played havoc with our white balance obviously.
They then threw fish into the hole, but there was no guarantee that we would see the biggest owl in the world. While setting up my camera, I was considering which lens to use. I did not know how big the owl is so I was not sure what to anticipate. I thought he would most probably be a bit smaller than the hole itself as he will have to jump into the hole to get the fish.
I wanted to use my 600mm lens to capture him up close. But then I considered that if he flew away with the fish I would most probably clip his wings, so I opted to use my 7o-200mm lens instead. I was now however concerned that if he was smaller than I anticipated, he would just fall away in the frame.
When I looked around me, everyone else was using longer lenses, (between 200 and 400mm lenses) – I was using a shorter lens, so I was feeling a bit uncomfortable. However, my 70-200mm lens is a f/2.8 lens, which means it can handle low light very well, and my D4 camera’s ISO capabilities was quite remarkable. Inwill have a range of 340mm – so I should be ok and still get the shot.
I also had to consider the fact that, should I have to crop unnecessarily, noise would be an even bigger problem for me. I had to make my decision now, and my decision was; to add a 1.7 converter and shoot in RAW – which I normally do, as well as trust my equipment.
At 21:55 the owl finally arrived. Not one of us got more than 24 shots as it grabbed the fish, sat down for a second outside the hole to grab the fish properly and flew away with it.
I am proud to say that I managed to captured the owl whilst it jumped out of the hole with its fish as well as two shots as It flew away again with the fish, and without clipping its wings. Most of everyone else was also able to get beautiful shots of the owl, not sure if their lenses may have been a little tight. I know Callie also managed to get a good shot.
Equipment used for this location: Nikon D4 and a Nikon D750 – lenses: Nikon 600mm f/4.0 VR and a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 with a x 1.7 Extender – Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 for landscapes – Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 for landscapes – A very sturdy carbon fiber Benro tripod with a suitable Benro GHS Gimbal head for long lenses - LC Raincoats for both the Nikon D4 as well as the D750 with their lenses – Rain cover eyepieces for both setups – lots of memory cards and lots of spare batteries – waterproof memory card holders – Gura gear elastic shock cords to attach, secure or organize my gear whilst on the boat – Black Rapid strap to accommodate my second camera – waterproof Loweopro rucksack for my cameras and lenses – Moister absorbing silicone sachets for condensation – various K-Way waterproof bags to orginize my equipment as well as protecting them from the snow and wind – Los and lots of finger and toe warmers – waterproof clothing.
Before going on this trip we all thought that after each day we would have the time to download photos, look through them to have the opportunity to improve on them again the next day. This was the last thing that happened, by the time we got to our Lodges, all we had time for was to download on external hard drives to free some space on our memory cards and backup on a second hard drive which was kept in a different place for obvious reasons.
Occasionally we had time to glance through some of our images but most of the time we were absolutely buggered. We had an Onsen, had dinner and fell into bed after downloading, sort out equipment, charging batteries for the next days shoot and drying your boots.
By now the onsens became such a blessing to all of us to relax our muscles for shooting again the next day.
In the bigger hotels there is a gown and towel on your bed, you walk to the communal Onsen in the hotel, and have dinner in your gown and slippers afterwards. This was not something we felt comfy with as we normally dress appropriately for diner – to arrive in your gown would not be appropriate.
After our final evening at our Ryokan (Lodge) we left for the airport the next morning and we said our goodbyes to our bus driver who we became very good friends with. On our way to Haneda Airport, Tokyo, I saw the tip of Mount Fiji coming through the clouds through the aircraft window. What I sight!
We booked into our final hotel in Tokyo for the evening which was the JAL City Hotel and we went to a local Japanese restaurant and we had the most fantastic dinner there. We also had Japanese cocktails which was something diffrent as well as more Saki. We exchanged contact details with the amazing friends we had made.
We also enjoyed out last night in the hotels Onsen, which I am going to miss….so by the way!!! and the next morning we all had breakfast together, said our final goodbyes and everyone went in their own directions.
Our flight to South Africa left late at night so we decided to go cemera shopping with Wim and our guide and we bought amazing stuff at half the price. Ben had another business meeting to attend to, so he could unfortunately not join us. We also experienced some of Tokyo’s tubes and buses and everything is so organised and affordable, something we are not used to coming from South Africa. Everything works and they have electricity – no load shedding!
Callie and I took a taxi to Narita airport as we were booked on the same flight back to South Africa. My luggage was luckily not overweight this time round as I was fed up with struggling with heavy luggage and left a lot of my clothing at the Hotel the morning of departure. We spent 26 hours in the air before getting to South Africa- obviously not a direct flight.
- In conclusion
WHY ALL THE WAY TO JAPAN?
A question I have been asked quite often ever since I have committed myself two years ago to go on this trip to Japan. My answer to that will be that I have come to realize that the location is just as important as knowing your camera and the techniques to produce unique images. Successful wildlife photography largely entails being in the right place at the right time.
Sure, luck plays a big role too, but knowing when and where to go to find wildlife subjects, increases your chances of a successful shoot and procuring out of the ordinary images. If there is no wildlife to be found, all the gear and technique in the world won’t conjure up a great image. Careful planning and preparation on your part will help you to find the best locations for the wildlife you seek and the best times of the year to go to capture it.. Even if it seems like a pipe dream to you right now, sit down, make a decision, and find out where to go to find your wildlife subjects and what time of the year is best to capture them successfully.
I decided to visit Japan not just to photograph just the famous Japanese Macaques (Snow Monkeys) which was however high on my priority list, but also the Cranes, Eagles, Swans, Sika Deer, Red Fox and lets not forget the Ural Owls, many of which are unique to Japan, such as the Blakinston’s Fish Owl which was a surprise to all of us! I am honored to report back that I have managed to photograph all of the above during my visit.
I can also highly recommend you booking this trip through ODP website page with ODP, and Ben and Wim as your hosts as they look after you and assist you where ever they can. A very big thank you to the two of them! You two rock!!!!
Before I go on a trip, I do research on what images have already been shot of my subject. This is important because it shows me what the possibilities are, and it shows me what has already been done – I don’t want to copy other photographers if possible. In my research, I noticed that most photographs of snow monkeys had been taken with on-camera flash, which I don’t like because it makes the subject look flat, in my personal opinion obviously. I also noticed that most snow monkey pictures looked the same because there are no additional compositional elements you can use, apart from the monkeys and the hot spring. Unfortunately there is a lot of truth in that and the Snow Monkeys therefore remained a challenge for me.
I try my best to travel two months of the year for personal projects, which are all planned way in advance. My plan to travel to Japan was by far the most organizing I have ever had to put into a trip. I came to realize it is not just to get the right shots, but where it can be exhausting both physically and mentally. As you struggle with heavy equipment, language barriers, cultural differences, extreme weather conditions, time zone changes, to name just a few challenges. You have a constant mental struggle that you will return home with nothing to show for this once in a lifetime opportunity – this is indeed the time where you realise just how important it is for you to know your camera gear, your subject as well as the ability and knowledge of your hosts and your local guide.
If it were not for them, we would not have captured most of the images we came back with. Their experience and knowledge of your subject and location is what gives you peace of mind that you will indeed have the opportunity as well as enough time to still get a good nights rest.
What I have learnt during this trip - is how to discipline myself, stay focused, have faith, to stay calm, to be organised, to think ahead, to see light, understand my equipment and its capabilities and where to find settings quickly, to select the best suitable equipment for every location, to respect fellow photographers and push myself beyond my physical limits.
I therefore have great respect for our master wildlife photographers and I will never look at their work in the same light again.
All images used in this blog have copyrights and belongs to – “Bruna Mentrup-Nortje’” – I would therefore appreciate if you do not use or copy any of my work as well as my images unless you have my written permission to do so. Contact me at: email@example.com
Thank you for taking this journey with me and I hope my blog has helped anyone that is considering taking this trip in the future. Feel free to leave me comments in the comment box. BRUNA
Trackback from your site.