24 Oct 2007 Autumn Colour at Shigakougen 2007 – Part #1 (Podcast 109)
The Autumn Colour has officially arrived! At least if we chase it a bit that is. Today we’re going to look through some of my shots from my recent trip to Shigakougen, a Highland Plateau in the Nagano Prefecture, north-west of Tokyo. I visited this location at this time last year too, which I spoke about in Episodes 58 and 59. This year was another adventure, with me again deciding to drive at night to get to a popular vantage point early enough to park my car. This time we actually booked the following two nights in a nice little hotel too, and made a bit of a break out of it, so let’s sit down talk about my experiences over the three days.
Well, it was a bit of a rushed plan again. The colour of the leaves on the trees was starting to change, a few weeks later than usual, because of the unseasonably warm September we had here in Japan. On Wednesday the 10th of October though, things were starting to turn around and the weather was looking up a bit too, so I called a small hotel in the Shigakougen area and booked a room for Thursday and Friday night, to give me some time to really work the area. The hotel was a really nice family run hotel called Green. I’ll put a link to their Web Site in the show notes, but it’s in Japanese, so maybe won’t be much use to many of you.
To be honest, the visit was a little early. The yellow coloured leaves were not really there yet, but the Urushi, which is the Japanese Lacquer trees that display a beautiful bright red colour were looking great. I would like to go back again right now actually, but it’s a four hour drive, and I don’t think I can get away from my other commitments at the moment. I’ll probably head back there next year again though, so I will keep that one in my calendar.
I hit the road at about 9:20PM on the Wednesday night, and I was heading for the Shibutouge, which is a mountain pass that I mentioned last year too. After a steady four hour drive, we pulled up into the small maybe 10 car lay-by on the side of the mountain at around 1:30AM. I was relieved to find that there were still a couple of parking spaces left. Last year I’d pulled up at around 4AM only to find that I had to park at the side of the road quite a way from the best vantage point, and had a hard time finding somewhere to set up my tripod there were so many people already there waiting. This year, to my surprise, I found there was a line of un-manned tripods just lined up along the guard rail at the side of the parking area. Not wanting to be left out, I took the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead off my Manfrotto tripod and placed it in front of my car, against the guard rail. My cars seats actually fold down to an all flat configuration, so me and my better half did the necessary messing around with the seats and tried to get some sleep. It was a pretty futile attempt though, as people were pulling up and scuffling around outside the whole time.
At just after 3AM I wiped the condensation off the window and looked out at the clearest most beautiful starry sky I’ve ever seen. This of course sparked the photographer in me, so I decided to get up after maybe around 30 minutes actual sleep and try my hand at astrophotography. I’d remembered some settings from conversations on the MBP Forum and set about the task, then about 10 minutes into a fifteen minute exposure the clouds rolled in, and pretty much stopped me in my tracks. After that, I decided to see what I could capture with the 600mm F4 and a 1.4X extender. This was pretty cool, as I managed to track down the Orion Nebula. It was just about possible to make out some colour, but then I tried to make some images, and the colour came out much stronger than I’d expected. The problem is that at 820mm the stars move so fast that it was not possible to get a sharp image, even at ISO 1600. It was nice to play around with this though. It really took me back to when I was about 11 years old and had a nice little telescope that I used to spend our looking through. Orion was my favourite place to explore then too, so I was pleased to catch up with this old friend.
By the time I’d done playing around looking at stars during the gaps between the mist rolling in and then clearing up again, it was just after 4AM. The sun was set to rise at around 5:40AM, but there were so many people wandering around now, even at 4AM, that I decided to just stake my place at the barrier and wait it out. I’d been got my second tripod, my Gitzo, and set that up with the 600mm, and wanted to shoot parts of the valley below with that too, so it was just going to be easier to stand with my gear until the sun came up. Not the most pleasant of tasks as it was only around 3 degrees Celsius, or 37 degrees Fahrenheit. As with last year, the clouds in the valley below stopped us from being able to see the sun rise at the horizon. My main objective was to shoot the valley below though, so not being able to shoot a horizon sun rise was not a problem.
I started to shoot as the light from the sky illuminate the valley, and made a few shots of the trees on the edge of the clouds, some later ones of which we’ll look at later, but then at around 6AM the sun broke over the top of the clouds, which was pretty nice. Let’s look at image number 1568, which was shot at literally one second after 6AM, a few moments after the entire sun’s disk became visible. Here we can see the sun shot through my 600mm F4 lens, at ISO 100 for 1/8000th of a second at F8. This is the fastest shutter speed the 5D will give me, so I had started to stop down the aperture to keep the clouds from blowing out too much. Of course with this much light, it would look more unnatural to not have anything blown out than it would to get everything correctly exposed. Of course the sun’s disk is blown out too, but that’s par for the course. Having a lot of fun in these first few hours, I did continue to play around and got one or two images just of the sun’s disk, where the sun was not very blown out, which was pretty cool to look at, at 100%, but as a photograph it didn’t really warrant uploading to my online gallery. In this one though I was pretty pleased with the formation of the clouds etc. and just thought it was a fun shot to upload and share with you today.
In the next shot, image number 1571, we can see one of the images shot with the 600mm looking down into the valley. This is what I mentioned a short while ago, where the edge of the clouds meets the trees on the side of the mountain. I love this sort of shot where the mist forms distinct layers of contrast between the trees. I can count at least six layers in this shot, where the trees drop down into the mist, being distinctly less visible. We can see that the Autumn colour was coming in pretty well at this location, but it would have been better maybe 5 days or so later. The timing of this spot is incredibly difficult. The good thing here though is that because of the steep mountain sides, we can see multiple stages of the colour change due to the various levels of altitude visible from this location. Still with ISO 100 and an aperture of F8, to get a little bit of depth of field this time, I had to increase the shutter speed to 1/30th of a second now to get the right exposure. This is one of my favourite shots from the trip though, and by this time I was starting to feel happy about having driven over here at night and sleeping just thirty minutes before starting my day.
In the next image, number 1576, we have an image closer to the other end of the focal length range, with a 35mm shot of the valley I was looking down into. This one shot for 1/80th of a second at F8 really shows the grandeur of the location. I have metered for the greenery and again lost some detail in the sea of clouds, but again not too worried about that. I did shoot some five frame brackets of this scene too which I tried some HDR with, but as I viewed the results close up I noticed that the software had not done a good job of aligning the trees and leaves that look like grass covering the mountain side. The way it was I would not be able to sell this as a fine art print, so I went back to this single cut. We can see the edge of the clouds here that I’d singled out a tiny portion of for the last image, and as the line of the clouds moved up and down the mountain I was faced with a number of similar scenes, which I kept shooting for a while. I had the 600mm on one tripod and was switching between the 70-200mm and the 16-35mm on the other tripod. I was really wishing I had two bodies at this point, but I only own the 5D at the moment, so it wasn’t possible.
In image number 1581, we can see that I’ve headed back down the mountain by 8AM and was now shooting at the Ichinuma Pond, or the number one pond that we’d also look at last year. This is a beautiful spot at this time of year, and this is one of my favourite images from that first morning. The colours were great but the angle of the sun was still low enough and around the back and to the side of these trees so there are various levels of light hit different areas of the scene, which I find quite appealing. Of course the thing that makes the shot even better is the reflection of the trees in the surface of the pond. I’m also happy with the positioning of the brightly lit brush in the far left holding our eye in the frame and my favourite part about this location is the beautiful silver birch trees that add contrast and interest to the scene. I shot this at F11 for 1/20th of a second with ISO 100. I wanted to get as much of the trees through the foreground trees in focus so had stopped down the aperture a little bit. I try not to go much smaller than F11 though, and when possible stick with F8 because it is just so sharp, it often makes up for the slightly shallower depth of field, especially when shooting from a distance like this.
My better half was sleeping in the car while I shot this and the other shots that I uploaded from the same time, and not long after this I went back to the car and having moved to a larger car park, got an hours sleep myself. We spend much of the rest of the day driving around the mountain and shooting and there are a whole bunch of shots uploaded from this time. I’m going to put a link into the show notes that will show all of them if you are interested in looking at more. Having gone to a certain place later in the afternoon hoping to catch that in the last hours of so of daylight, the clouds rolled in again, pretty much engulfing the mountain, so it was not going to happen. We went back down to the hotel and I’d just started to relax and thinking about catching up on some sleep before dinner when my missus looked out of the window and saw some Japanese Macaques rummaging around in the long grass at the side of the hotel. Never wanting to waste a photo opportunity I put the 1.4x extender on the 70-200mm F2.8 lens and headed outside, where I shot image number 1584.
This isn’t a great image, with lots of grain from using ISO 1250 as we were well into twilight at this point, but I like the feel of the monkey sort of sitting in the long grass and the bokeh turned out quite nice too. The Macaque seemingly has fixed its eyes on something in the grass. The next frame was of the monkey stripping seeds off the grass with its teeth but I chose to go with this image. I was surprised to see a group of around 30 to 40 of the Macaques in the grass beside the hotel and down the road where the ski lifts started across the way. I was enjoying photographing them, but the locals have definitely had their fill. I saw one guy come out of his shop with a biiiiiiig stick waving it around and scaring the monkeys away. Another guy drove an old car at the group, obviously trying to hit them, which was a bit disturbing. They can be a bit of a pest, but I can never helping thinking about who was here first. We have encroached into the monkey’s environment, so I’d prefer to see a little more patience. But then again, I don’t live here, so I shouldn’t really comment.
One thing I will go on to say is that you have to be a little careful around these guys. They are powerful creatures, especially the large males. They have turned nasty quite often in recent years though, because people have stopped feeding them. You used to be able to buy food for them in touristy areas, and people used to just feed them anything on hand, a bit like feeding the pigeons I guess. The Macaque became pretty reliant on this though, and stopped going back into the mountains in many places. They’d hang around the towns and also get a little cheeky and snatch food from people and scare the kids etc. To really force them to go back to a more natural way of living though, the general tendency now is to not feed them at all. This has really confused the Macaque though. For years humans gave them all sorts of goodies and made a fuss of them, now they seem to have turned the other way, and this has frustrated the hell out of them. There are news stories about how vicious the Macaque are becoming in certain towns and at best semi-humorous footage of the monkeys going into stores and steeling the sweets that people fed them for so many years. I’ve seen this first hand a number of times in the Nikko area actually. I really can’t help thinking that these guys have been given a bum deal by us humans again though. Same old story I guess.
I’m quite pleased with the next shot, number 1587. I pulled up at this pond, which is Kidoike, shortly before noon, but it was overcast, so the light was being kind to me. There were patched of mist rolling across the surface of the pond from time to time, and I decide to work the scene a little to see what I could get. This first image appeals to me because the mist on the water is kind of patchy, just slightly disrupting the almost mirror like reflection of the trees in the surface of the water. With the altitude being maybe a couple of hundred meters higher than Ichinuma that we looked at earlier, the yellow leaves were also coming on a little more here. To break that up though, we have one solitary orangey-red Urushi bush, which along with its reflection really tops the shot off with a nice accent. I shot this with the 70-200mm F2.8 lens at 110mm, just isolating a small portion of the bank on the opposite side of the pond. It was shot at F8 for 1/30th of a second with ISO 100. At this distance F8 is enough to get everything I want sharp, and I find that with this lens, as with most, it’s really the sharpest aperture setting, though the others are also very sharp. I used a tripod for all of the shots we’re looking at by the way.
The next image, number 1590, was also shot with the 70-200mm at 73mm, but this is actually a stitch of around 7 images shot vertically. I rotated the lens in its tripod ring, as usual. Note that I rarely turn the camera on its side with lenses that have a tripod ring. It keeps everything so much better balanced to just rotate the lens in the ring. I made sure my tripod was level too. I used the Gitzo for this as it has a spirit level built-in. Then I made sure the camera was straight throughout the rotation, by checking the spirit level that I usually have in the flash shoe. This way I know that my shots will be straight, and I’m not going to drift up or down as I pan through the image. This makes stitching so much easier. I selected F11 for 1/20th of a second in Manual mode so that the camera didn’t change this as the light conditions changed. Well, I was in manual mode anyway, but I advice you do this too when shooting multiple images to stitch together for a panorama. I then focussed on the nearest trees to the right and switched my lens to manual focus too so that it didn’t change throughout the entire series. Then I just started at the right of the scene, a little further than I thought I’d need and shot a series of images while moving turning the camera by around half a frame at a time. Then when I got to my PC I simply ran the PhotoMerge utility in Photoshop CS3, and cropped away the jagged edges that are left, to get what we see here. The results are pretty impressive. A very large file at around 300MB, but I have enough pixels to make almost a two meter long print at 240dpi, which is really more resolution than we need for most uses, but fun to try.
In image number 1595, we can see a beautiful spot that has a number of challenges to capture. We can see the timing for this image is just about perfect with regards to the colour of the autumn leaves. It could almost have been painted with all of the colours present here. The first challenge though is the positioning of this slope. It’s in shadow during the warm light in the morning, and then by the time the sun gets high enough to light up this part of the mountain, it’s too harsh to make for a nice photograph . Not wanting to waste the opportunity I did photograph the location earlier in the day over my three days and with the help of a polarizer made something out of the situation, but not as nicely coloured as this one. The best time to shoot this spot is towards the end of the day when the mountain is lit for a while, but when the light is kinder.
The reason I was shooting even in less than the best light was because the other problem with this location is that it is susceptible to low cloud towards the end of the day, at least in my experience. I’ve been here in the last hour of the day many times, and pretty much always the cloud rolled in and robbed me of a chance to shoot this colour in good light. The other thing is that as the sun drops, long shadows form across parts of the mountain side that again don’t really make for great shots of the autumn colour. So the timing is crucial and there’s that ever important dollop of luck that we all need when working with Mother Nature. Here I did still need to use a polarizer to really bring out those colours from the haze between me and the subject. This patch of the vista is really quite far away, as you can tell by the fact that I shot it at 225mm. I was using the 70-200mm F2.8 with a 1.4X extender. The ISO was 100 and shutter speed 1/15th of a second with F11. There are endless opportunities for parts of the mountain to isolate for a shot like this, and I shot many of them, choosing to upload and talk about this one. Compositionally I was lining up the sets of diagonal lines that run across the scene to converge in the bottom right corner of the frame. I’ve also place the more heavily wooded part of the mountain along the bottom of the frame with dark patches across most of the bottom and the right side to give the bottom half of the image more weight to balance it out nicely.
The last three shots by the way were all shot on the second day. The 12th of October. To finish I want to look at a couple more shots from the 13th, the Saturday morning before we took a steady drive back to Tokyo. Let’s look at image 1596. Here we see again the Ichinuma Pond at shortly before 6:30AM. I was out shooting from before six, trying to catch this mist, which I think adds a great third dimension to the image. What you’ll notice here to is that in this particular image, and there are a number of others different to this, but this time I chose to make the normal green coloured tree one of the focal points, with the orangey-red Urushi, or Japanese Lacquer bushes kind of taking second place. Of course due to their colour they stand out much more. The birch trees also add contrast and additional interest to the shot, reaching up towards the top, pulling our eyes upwards towards the tree canopy which allows them to drop back down into the image again. I also put the lily pads across the bottom of the frame for balance too, but I didn’t want too much of this or it would disrupt the reflection of the coloured trees more than I wanted to. The shooting info for this image by the way is 1/5th of a second at F8 with ISO 200. I’d upped the ISO rather than going for a longer shutter speed as the mist was moving and attempts to blur this with longer shutter speeds didn’t really work out.
Shortly after this I had a walk through the woods behind the pond to the back right of me as I shot the last image. There are lots of great little subjects through there, which I made a number of studies of. Again, there are loads more shots online if you want to check them out, and I’ll put a link to them in the show notes. I wanted to finish on a light note, with a pretty but slightly different shot from around 90 minutes later, which is number 1603. I was setting up for this shot, in the last moments of this walk through the woods before breakfast, and this guy walked in and plonked his camera down for his own shot. While waiting patiently for him to finish I couldn’t resist snapping this, and as has happened a number of times before, I ended up liking this shot better than the one without the human figure in there, so this is the one I went with. I was shooting with ISO 100 again now with an aperture of F5.6 for 1/60th of a second as the day brightened up. Hopefully this last shot will give you a better feel of the atmosphere of the place. This is a very popular spot for photography at this time of year, and everyone is just kind of wandering around doing their own thing. Trying not to get too much in each other’s way at the same time as getting our own shots down in a way we want them.
So that’s it for today. This week was a little on the long side, because I didn’t really want to stretch this out into two episodes. Sorry I’m a few days late again this week. I’ve actually been working on a short essay for a Web magazine that approached me recently, and I wanted to mention before we finish that I am probably going to publish that as a PDF on this Podcast feed next week. If the little bit of customization to the feed and my publishing code and database has gone how I expect, it should appear as just another episode, but you’ll need the Adobe Reader to open and read the document. If I get time, I’ll record myself pretty much reading out the key points of the article and release that as well, so you’ll probably see an episode 110.1 and 110.2 or something like that. I know that most of you listen while you work or commute etc. and I wouldn’t like to force you to read if you don’t really want to. It’s a pretty nice document though, if I say so myself, with around 15 of my photos embedded into the body of the essay.
Remember the Hokkaido workshop. Take a look at www.mbpworkshops.com if you are interested in coming to Japan at the end of next January for the winter wildlife workshop of a lifetime. And that’s about it for today. So with that, all that remains to be said is thanks for listening, and you have a great week, whatever you’re doing — Bye-bye.
Here’s a link to the Japanese page for the hotel we stayed in called Green: http://www.shigakogen.jp/green/
The music in this episode is from the PodShow Podsafe Music Network at http://music.podshow.com/
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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.