Zenfolio | Bill Course Photography | Winter Photography: Japan

Winter Photography: Japan

March 21, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

After 9+ hours on the excellent All Nippon Airways, I was kneeling on the floor of Narita Airport sorting my gear and heard a woman's voice saying "Could we interview you?". I turned around and a camera and microphone were in my face and I was instantly chatting with the crew from the reality show "Why Did You?" Thus began a wonderful two-week photo and travel odyssey in Japan. I will confine most of my comments to photography suggestions gleaned from the experience, but suffice it to say, I loved every second. The people are wonderfully courteous, helpful, and honest. It was an absolute pleasure the entire time.

Tokyo & Kyoto: Here, you are traveling on public transportation, so tripods and big camera bags are impractical during most of the day. I had never carried 2 cameras around my neck before, ever, but this turned out to be a great system. Combined with a very small daypack for snacks, batteries, one spare lens and gloves, etc, I could react quickly to any opportunity and move easily. I had a D750 w/80-400mm and a D7200 w/16-80mm and I could shoot most anything quickly, correctly and with great resolution. This was especially useful at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market where one second you're shooting the turret drivers with wide-angle "shutter drag" technique and the next second getting a very personal telephoto portrait. I even did a couple of 2 second exposures at Shibuya, one by balancing the end of the telephoto on its upright lens hood while on the ground, and another by using the traffic control box as a mid traffic island tripod.  The system also gave me great flexibility at the temples, shrines and early morning wanderings on side streets. Japan doesn't wake up terribly early, so traveling and arriving early beats the crowds and affords greater photogenic moments. Pro tip of the day, and this will sound crazy, for excellent food and drink on the fly, 7- Eleven stores in Japan are incredible. Surgically clean, beautifully stocked, unfailingly polite and even some tables and chairs, they offer good food and anything else you suddenly realized you forgot. No slurpees in evidence!

The Snow Monkeys: Arrive at the Park by about 8:15am as the entrance to the hot springs area opens at 9:00 and there is a bit of trek in. In winter, ice trackers are nice to have if it is particularly frozen. You can take a tripod, but I don't recommend it as, again, you want flexibility. I used the same setup of 2 cameras. A 400mm reach is the maximum you'll need and you can get some nice interactions with a mid-range zoom. Most people congregate around the hot springs and that is where you get the steamy, dreamy iconic shots, but take the time to move around. The snow areas around the springs are great places to catch more dynamic moments and the area down below the springs along the creek are great for more natural settings. Don't be afraid to move around because even if you "lose your spot" you'll gain another advantage. Allow a couple of hours at least.

Hokkaido-Wildlife and Landscapes: This is a nature photographer's dream come true. There is too much here. You simply can't get it all, so relax and get all that you can.

The Japanese Cranes are magnificent and you'll want a 600mm reach if at all possible, not all of the time, but a lot of the time. I used an 80-400mm full frame on my D7200 crop frame and that worked perfectly. MAJOR TIP, when the cranes toss their heads back and begin trumpeting a call, it is a great shot, BUT, it also means it is highly likely that other cranes are flying in. So, look up for your iconic cranes-in-flight shot. You will want a steady tripod, and warm gear, as in really warm gear. The Heat System gloves, mittens and liners combo is the way to go. They were good enough that I didn't really need the heat packs that much. You will be standing in very cold weather, snow and probably wind, so be prepared.

The Whooper Swans are habituated, so are easy to photograph. You can get some great shots with a wide-angle down low as well as the usual telephoto shots.

The Steller's Sea Eagles are another matter. Generally, you will be fine with up to 400mm reach, but be sure you have shutter speeds of at least 1/1000 and memory card with super fast write speeds, or you will definitely lose shots to buffering. After you have shot for about 20 minutes or so, I suggest looking for specific shots by picking out individual eagles and follow them awhile. You can get some aerobatic shots and unique angles that way.

Hokkaido landscapes were my greatest joy and greatest frustration. I got some of my favorite shots ever, but there simply was not enough time to really work the area. This is a dream location, at least for me, and I would go back in a heartbeat. Tripod, absolutely, and every lens in your bag. And, most likely, ever layer of clothing you own. It can remind you of winter in Iceland, occasionally. So, if you love austere landscape photography, allow as much time as you possibly can.

Finally, this was my first photography trip to Japan, so I will be the first to say that I just got a fleeting glimpse of the possibilities. If you are even half interested in seeing this marvelous country, hesitate no longer! Do it. And, I highly recommend Jack Graham Photography for the trip.





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