16 Jan 2007 Red-Crowned Cranes #1 – Hokkaido, Dec 2006 (Podcast 71)
In December 2006, I visited Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan, to photograph the Red-Crowned Cranes that I’ve shot a number of times in the past. From today for the next four weeks or so you’re going to join me on my photographic adventures and share my experiences. Today I’m going to talk about what I wanted to get from the trip, and what I did get from the trip, and we’ll it will become clear as to what I did get from the trip as the series evolves. I’m going to finish today by talking about the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II camera that I rented for use on the trip and compare it just a little to my 5D.
Before we go on to the main topic for today, note that we are currently being sponsored by top camera bag manufacture Lowepro. Last week I mentioned that Lowepro have been making camera bags for over 30 years, and actually, they’ve just turned 40, so congratulations to Lowepro on that. Over 40 years of firsts. If you didn’t yet hear my review of the bags I use and details of the Stealth Reporter D650 AW camera bag that you can win in the Photography Assignment, please listen to Episode 70 of this Podcast. There’s still plenty of time to scoop this amazing prize.
Also, before we move on, if you’ve been having trouble with lots of episodes being downloaded by iTunes for a second time, please accept my apologies. I had to change the feed for the show to allow me to include decimal points in the episode numbers. I released a promo for the camera bag prize as episode number 70.1. This triggered iTunes to think that some of the shows were different, and therefore should be downloaded again. You can stop iTunes from doing this, and in fact, I’d prefer you did so, because I’ve spend most of the weekend hand holding my server as it crumpled under the strain. If you want to change the iTunes settings to give you more control over what is downloaded and what is not, take a look at Edit > Preferences… then the Podcast tab. You can choose to download all episodes, which is the default, or you can choose to only download the latest, or to do nothing. I think downloading the latest is the best setting, personally. Once you’ve stopped iTunes from downloading everything, you can actually go through and delete all the new greyed out entries and just use the original files which should still work. Whatever you decide to do, once again, I apologise for the inconvenience caused in the changes to the feed. And with that, let’s move to the main topic.
On the morning of Wednesday December the 27th, I was up at the crack of dawn and heading to Haneda airport to fly to Hokkaido, probably my favourite place on the planet. If you’ve been following this podcast for a while you’ll know that I head out to Hokkaido a few times a year. In 2006 I was there in February, July and this recent trip in December. In the summer, it’s a nice escape from the heat of Tokyo, which can get quite oppressive, and in the Winter, Hokkaido is usually locked in snow, which we don’t see much of in Tokyo, so it’s always nice to get up there. It’s not just the weather that I like Hokkaido for though. Hokkaido is very mountainous, making for beautiful landscape photography, and the wildlife is just amazing. On this trip, I was going to concentrate on shooting the Red-Crowned Cranes, in a town called Tsurui. Tsurui actually means directly translated “Cranes are here”. Tsurui is just a 30 to 40 minute drive from the Kushiro airport, which is where I was heading.
I arrived and picked up my renta-car before lunch, and was a little disappointed to see that it was raining, not snowing. The ice on the roads was very slippery because it was wet, but the rain had not yet managed to melt it, making driving a little treacherous, so I took my time making my way over to Tsurui. When I got there, the first place I drove was the Itoh Crane Sanctuary. When I got there I was pleased to see a whole lot of cranes standing around on the grass, but to be honest, it was dark and wet, and not really the best of conditions. I decided to go to the hotel and drop off some stuff, and get a map of the area and scout out the other locations that I was hoping to shoot from over the next few days. I’d be here until 2PM on the 30th, so hopefully I was going to get better conditions to shoot in, so I wasn’t too worried about getting my gear out and seeing what I could make of the conditions right now.
So I did just that, went to the hotel and checked in. The hotel was suggested to me by Yoshiaki Kobayashi, the Japanese photographer that I have visited Hokkaido with a few times already. It is the Hotel Taito, and I can fully recommend this hotel if you are ever in town. The owner of the hotel is also a professional photographer named Masahiro Wada. I’ll put a link to the hotel’s home page in the show notes, but there is only a Japanese version that I can find. Also, I’ll put a link to another page that is pretty cool to play with. There’s actually a Webcam at the Crane Sanctuary so you can see the birds in the field between 6AM and 5PM Japan time. Japan is 9 hours ahead of GMT so you’ll have to figure out when to look based on your own time zone, but once you hit a time when the camera is working, you can click the button square button on the bottom right of the Webcam window to take control of the camera for yourself if no one else has it. This allows you to zoom in or out and pan around the field looking at the Red-Crowned Cranes doing their thing.
So now equipped with a map of the best places to shoot the cranes from, I went back out, and had a drive around doing a bit of reconnaissance. There were three photographs that I was hoping to shoot while out here for these three days. One of them was from a bridge, looking down on the cranes in the river where they roost of cold nights. I was hoping to shoot the scene with the mist on the river enshrouding the birds as they started their day. I was starting to get a bad feeling about this shot though, as the river only gets misty when the temperature falls to minus around 15 degrees Celsius, which is 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course it’s much colder in the mornings, but usually, on days when it gets this cold in the morning, it still doesn’t make it above freezing during the day. Still, it was hopefully going to be colder in the days to come. Hopefully…
The place to shoot these shots is a bridge called Otowa-bashi which is about 10 kilometres from the hotel. Actually, Otowa, is the name of the bridge, and bashi is the concatenated form of hashi,which just means bridge. The characters for Otowa are are the characters for sound and wings, a beautiful name for a bridge I thought, especially given the fact that these red-crowned cranes roost here. The bridge is actually built with one bridge for cars, and one for people, so there’s no fear of being run over while photographing the cranes. You have a bridge just for the purpose. I found this place and quickly checked it out and then drove around to a few other places on the map, none of which had any cranes at this time, but at least now I knew where they all were. It turns out, that I pretty much spent the next three mornings visiting the Otowa Bridge at around 6AM before dawn, then driving straight to the Crane Sanctuary after either finding no cranes at the bridge, or after shooting a little while, but we’ll get to those shots in a later episode. The other two shots I was hoping to capture while here was cranes crying while doing that beautiful dance they do, with their freezing breath lit by the early morning light. I have a few shots with the breath showing already, but I wanted this in the golden early morning light. Again, it has to be cold for this, so I was not all that hopeful on this either. The last shot, I was pretty much going to be able to get no matter what, is a shot of the cranes flying as it gets dark, so that I had a slow shutter speed to capture movement in their wings. I could have shot this during the day with a neutral density filter and a small aperture, but this is not what I was visualizing. I wanted a dark background for the white birds to stand out on. Also, the birds fly to roost as it gets dark, so it would give me more opportunities for the shot.
I called in at a small store in Tsurui and bought some apples, plastic bottled drinks and bread, which is what I’d eat for lunch over the next three days while standing at the Sanctuary, and I went back over to the Sanctuary to see what I could make of this rainy afternoon. Well, it really was pretty uneventful. I shot for a while, but the conditions really weren’t going to allow for anything great to happen. One shot that I wanted to look at from this first afternoon is number 1200. Here you can see the sheer numbers of cranes that take off together to go to roost. I recall thinking on seeing this that it was going to be difficult to single out just one or two birds for my panning shot as it got dark, and this was the case to a certain extent. Still, I got some pretty interesting results, which we’ll look at next week. On this day, I really didn’t manage to produce anything notable. I’m really just showing you this first shot, which I kind of like, but don’t think is great, to show you the lay of the land at the Sanctuary. I find this location to be much more scenic than the Akan International Crane Centre a few miles away. The Akan Centre actually seems to be more popular, probably because they feed the cranes raw fish at 2PM every day, and get Steller and White-Tailed Eagles come in for a free lunch too. There is more space to stand and shot from there too, but because it is much more popular, it can sometimes be difficult to get somewhere to put your tripod up. At the Sanctuary, I pretty much was able to pick where I stood each day. You can see that there’s a nice tree in the foreground adding a little interest, and the surrounding look very natural. The Akan centre is also nice, but not quite as scenic as this.
You can see from the shooting data if you’re viewing this shot on my Web site, that it was so dark that even having set my ISO to 400 and the aperture to F5.6, I still was only getting a shutter speed of 1/80th of a second. This would have been great for the panning shots, but it was going to be difficult to do this in the rain, while holding a brolly in one hand, so I pretty much gave up on the first day. If you’ve listened to this Podcast for a while, you’ll know that I quite like rainy days for shooting some things, but it wasn’t going to work for these cranes. I went back to the hotel and cleared up a few of the jobs we have to do, like backing up my photos to my Epson portable storage and charging my batteries, and then went for dinner. Great food too at the Hotel Taito, but I never really enjoy eating alone. After dinner I went up to the loft where the owner of the hotel sits most evenings, and introduced myself to him. I got some more tips on photographing in the area during this conversation. I find it so important to talk to the people that shoot in the area whenever possible. They know where to go at the various times of year, and if they are shooting all year round, they’ll know how the conditions have been over the last few days too. I told him what sort of shots I was hoping to capture, and he seemed somewhat hopeful that I’d get at least one morning with mist over the river, so I went to bed happy that night.
The next morning, I was up bright and early at 5:15AM and headed for the bridge. I’d been told that the cranes roosted way down the river from the bridge, and that even with my 600mm lens they’d seem far away. This of course meant that they could not be seen with the naked eye, and as it was still pretty dark, I couldn’t tell if there were any birds on the river at all. I was putting my gear down and starting to think about getting the 100-400mm lens on my 5D and take a look for the birds, when a guy with a pair of binoculars walked along the bridge and told me there were no birds there. It was pointless staying here for the possibility of a nice landscape shot too, and there was none of the mist that I was hoping for either, so I jumped back in the car and went straight around to the Itoh Crane Sanctuary and shot for an hour or so until I had to head back to the hotel for breakfast. One of the last shots that I captured during this time is number 1202. Shot at ISO 200 at F5.6 for 1/1250th of a second, I was really just trying to get capture the atmosphere of the morning as the sun climbed in the sky, and the golden light caught the clouds. The foreground is a tad on the dark side as I was exposing for the sky, but not to the extend where I would need to take two shots, with the second exposing for the foreground. I kind of like this with the birds just tinkering around there. I have bumped up the saturation a little on this, as I do with most of my shots these days, to give them a bit of a Velvia look, and this really brought out the warmth in the sky. It was actually just still too warm in general, so this marked the end of my hopes of getting a shot of the cranes with the freezing breath pluming out of their mouth for today.
After breakfast, I had a drive around to some of the other sites in the area to see if there were any cranes around, but as there weren’t I went back to the Sanctuary, and this time was here for the day. I had brought my lunch to the point I was going to stand, and was going to try as best I could to not go to the toilet until it got dark after 4PM. There are toilets there, but although Japan is a safe country, I didn’t fancy leaving my gear at the edge of the fence while I went to the toilet as many of the others do. I had started a conversation with the guy standing next to me, and was to spend quite a lot of time chatting with this guy over the next three days, so I could have asked him to keep his eye on my gear while I went too, but it turns out I didn’t need to on any of the days.
After I’d been here an hour or so at around 11AM when I shot the next photo, number 1203. I’d of course already shot lots of other photos, but this was the first one I want to look at. This crane was standing literally just a few meters away, so I picked up my 5D to which I’d fitted my 100-400mm lens and made a few exposures of this beautiful bird preening itself. Shot at ISO 100 with an aperture of F5.6 for 1/400th of a second, if you look at the EXIF data below the image in my gallery, you’ll see I was shooting in manual mode. I’ve been through this before, but just to recap, as these birds are white, and often against a white background, I usually take a reading from either them or from the snow, then set my camera to manual and 1 and 2/3s of a stop more than what the camera’s meter thinks the shot should be. This way, I get the whites exposed correctly, but more importantly, as these guys take off, and move from a white background to a dark or mid-tone background, the camera doesn’t get confused, because it’s in manual mode. If I don’t do this, the dark background would make the camera over expose to lighten it up, and the white birds would become totally blown out, losing all detail in the white feathers. So, once I know that I’ve gotten my whites white, I really don’t need to worry about anything else. Anyway, back to the shot, I really like this one just for the tenderness of the moment, and the diffused light reflected from all the white is lighting the cranes eye up enough to be able to see the pupil and detail in the eye, without there being a catch-light as such. As I say, this was shot with the 100-400mm on my 5D, but a few minutes later, the bird was still there, so I shot it again as an even closer close-up with the 600mm F4 on the 1Ds Mark II that I’d rented for the trip.
We can see the results in image number 1204, shot at exactly the same settings as the 5D. I did notice that the 1Ds’s meter was pretty much always 1/3 of a stop lighter than the 5D when pointed at the same thing, which I kept in mind while shooting, but most of the time, once I had my reading for the lighting conditions, I just kept setting the two cameras to the same settings and tweaking as necessary based on looking at the histogram. These birds being white makes is very easy to just set exposure to get the histogram close to, but not touching the right shoulder of the histogram. Artistically not even close to the last image, but I just find the detail in the birds head and beak to be unbelievable. This is more down to the lens than the body, although I do have more pixels from the 1Ds at 16.6 mega-pixels, compared to 12.8 mega pixels from the 5D. Of course, both will enable me to make very large prints, so it’s debatable whether 16.6 mega-pixels is really necessary, but I personally like to have as many pixels as possible to play with. The reason is you never know how large you’re going to want to print an image in the future, and having larger images opens up more doors when selling images commercially. Also, if you have a large image to start with, it gives you more freedom to crop a little more than you can with smaller images. Of course, all of this is relative to what size you want to print to, and so is very subjective. Anyway, kind of easing into a mini-review of the 1Ds Mark II, the first thing I like about this camera is lots of pixels to play with. The reason I rented this camera for the trip buy the way is because I didn’t want to have to baby sit the camera too much when it started snowing heavily or raining. The 5D is OK in light snow, but as soon as the weather turns really bad, it’s better to keep the camera body covered. All of my L lenses are by default weather proof, and so don’t need to be handled with kid-gloves in this way. Of course you have to stop raindrops or snow melting on the front element or filter on your lens, but the barrel can get pretty much as wet as you like and it won’t do it any harm. Note that I’m talking about L lenses here, so please don’t go and get a standard lens all wet then complain to me when it breaks. The other reason that I rented the 1Ds for this trip was because I don’t imagine it’s going to be long now before we see a 1Ds Mark III, or a Mark II N or X or whatever the next generation gets called, and I wanted to gauge what Canon needs to fix in the next model to so that I’d be in a better position to decide if its worth buying. Comparing it to the 5D, I have to admit that the short review would simply be that I’m glad that I didn’t pay more than double the cost of the 5D for the 1Ds. If you can put up with baby sitting the 5D a little, it really doesn’t seem worth the additional cost as it stands.
That wouldn’t really be much good as a review though, even a mini-review, so let’s go into this in a little more detail. So, in addition to more pixels, and weather-proofing, the other things I liked about the 1Ds Mark II was, to start with, the neutrally coloured finder. I have never noticed with the 5D before, but when using the two cameras side-by-side, the 5D has a definite yellow tint. This doesn’t really make any difference in the handling of the camera, but it was very obvious and a little bit annoying the more I noticed it. Another thing I like about the 1Ds is the fact that the rubber eyepiece or eye cup on the back of the finder is attached with clips to stop it from falling off. I’ve lost the eyecup from my 20D once, and I’ve dropped them, only to go back and find them again a number of other times over the years. It seems that only the 1D series of professional bodies has an eyecup that is locked on like this, which is a shame, but that’s how it is. Also related to the finder, there’s a kind of shutter built into the finder on the 1Ds, with a tiny lever on the right side that when pulled down totally closes off the back of the finder. Why would you want such a thing I hear some of you ask? Well, when shooting on a tripod with a timer or for long exposures when you remove your eye from the finder, light can stray into the finder and make its way down to the sensor via the mirrors that enable us to see the scene through the lens when composing the shot. This little shutter stops that from happening and saves you from having to cover the finder during long exposures. Of course, the other thing about the 1Ds Mark II that I really like is just the overall quality of the camera. It’s feels great to hold, and is rock solid. You could literally do just about anything to this camera and I’m sure you’re not going to hurt it. You can really tell that apart from weather-proofing it just really is build to last.
If I think of anything else that I liked about the 1Ds I’ll tell you as we move along, but for now, I should also tell you about the things I did not like about it. Well, two things that really got me are the auto-focus and the image buffer. Now, this camera is not really meant for speed and shooting lots of images in a row. If I really wanted fast frames per second and the ability to just keep shooting without worrying about filling the buffer, then I should have gone for the 1D Mark II N not the 1Ds Mark II. Compared to the 1D Mark II N at 20 RAW images, the 1Ds Mark II will only shoot 11 RAW images before the buffer fills up. Now, if the camera wrote these images to the card as they’re shot and while I was continuing to shoot, then even 11 would perhaps be enough most of the time, but I got the distinct feeling that clearing the buffer to the card was paused while I was half pressing the shutter button waiting for the next shot. I didn’t really test this, which I regret, but a number of times, I got down to the last shot, with a 1 or 0 in the finder indicating the number of shots left, and kept the shutter button half-pressed, tracking a crane across the sky, waiting for the number to go up again, and it didn’t go up. It stayed at the 1 or 0 until I took my finger off the shutter button. I haven’t checked if this is design, or a faulty camera that I had, but I suspect it’s the design of the camera, and it was very frustrating.
The other thing that I found even more frustrating was the autofocus. Despite the 1Ds Mark II having 45-point focusing, I found it to be far more prone to mistakes that the 5D under these circumstances. Now, it’s importance to stress that I was in a place where the white bird with splashes of black was probably less contrasty than the mottled snow with patches of grass poking through, and the twigs and branches of the trees in the background, but I found that the 1Ds almost always focusing on the wrong place, again, in under these conditions. I did become a little accustomed to this over the course of the four days, but it was really quite frustrating to the end. I lost quite a few shots from the camera moving out of focus as the surroundings changed. This was made easier if I selected the centre focusing point, or any other single point, but I really wanted to test the 45-point focusing, and it wasn’t up to the job. Under exactly the same conditions, the 5D got it right almost all of the time. This was obvious in both standard auto-focus mode and AI Servo, which I often use when tracking flying birds. I guess this is what you get when the camera is under development for another year or so. Canon has obviously made bounds in the accuracy and algorithms in their auto-focus in the time between the two cameras being released. Now, I have to say, that under normal circumstances focusing is almost definitely going to be better with the 1Ds because of the number of focusing points, but the surrounds that I was shooting in really seemed to have it stumped. Really, these are the only two things that really annoyed me about the 1Ds Mark II. The small LCD compared to the 5D was a little annoying, but I was used to this from my old cameras. Also the time taken to delete the photos from a card was really quite long, but these are not that annoying compared to the first two issues, which clearly outweigh the lots of little nice things that I did like. When the next generation of this camera is released, I’ll be paying close attention to how these areas have been improved before considering turning over a large chunk of my bank balance to my friends at Canon.
So let’s call it a day for today. Last week I mentioned that I might be able to meet up with listeners in the UK during a visit back there next week. I now know that this will be the 24th of January which is a Wednesday. Unfortunately my weekends are fully booked, so this is really all I can make. I will make my way somewhere between Nottingham and London for the afternoon and/or the evening if anyone is interested in meeting up for a chat and maybe dinner in the evening so that we can get to know each other a little better face to face. If you are interested, please mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org over the next week. Let me know somewhere that would be relatively easy for you to get to, and if we can figure out a good place to meet up it will be great to see you. For now though, have a great week, whatever you do.
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Posted on behalf of Martin by Michael Rammell, a Wedding Photographer based in Berkshire, England. Michael also has a long-standing passion for Nature & Landscape photography. To catch up with Michael, visit his Web site, and follow him on the following social networking services.