A strip of Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido Japan is geo-thermally heated wnough in winter to stay unfrozen, affording whooper swans a haven.
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The Traveling Photographer in Japan: Lessons from Hokkaido

Although we’ve been to Antarctica and the Arctic, northern Japan in February set a new benchmark for us in terms of shooting in COLD, frigid temperatures.  The impetus to travel to Hokkaido in winter is two-fold.  The first is the unique and photogenic wildlife.  The second is the transformation of the landscape by abundant snow into a minimalist winter wonderland.

Landscape doesn’t get much more minimal than this: A single bare tree on a snow-covered slope, in Hokkaido, Japan.

In this article, I’ll discuss the photographic gear I found most useful in different shooting situations, as well as useful non-photographic items for dealing with the cold, ice and snow.

Foul weather preparation

We covered in some depth the layered approach to dressing for shooting in the cold in a prior article on shooting in Arctic Svalbard, north of Norway in the Arctic Circle.  I found Japan even colder and was VERY happy I had included a few articles which I’ll highlight here:

Air-Activated hand and feet warmers

Our trip last year to the Arctic demonstrated the utility of hand warmers, which can be slipped into a pocket and glove.  For this trip, we also brought along the boot insole version of these warmers, which were wonderful, especially for shooting the cranes.  There were enough photographers aligned along a bridge and later a fence shooting the cranes that there wasn’t much room to maneuver and we were largely standing in one place on snow, without walking, long enough for feet to freeze in penetrating cold.  HotHands hand warmers and insole foot warmers are sold on Amazon in multiples.

Lightweight “Crampons”

I wish I had been smart enough to have been wearing my Kahtoola MICROspikes from the beginning, as soon as we encountered snow.  Parking lots can be icy and it only takes one twisting fall to put a serious damper on your mobility.  I fell and twisted my ankle after our first crane shoot, on our first full day in Hokkaido.  I was lucky I didn’t sustain a fracture, but the injury certainly slowed down my ability to clamber in and out of the vehicle at various shooting stops.  You can be certain I wore crampons religiously thereafter, until we left Hokkaido for the more temperate climes of Honshu.  These lightweight crampons can be slipped over shoes or boots and can be obtained through Amazon or at outdoor stores.

A good option for confidently traversing potentially icy terrain: Kahtooma MICROspikes or equivalent products.

Camera protection

It was actively snowing, HARD, during our morning shooting the cranes.  I always keep a hood on my lens and my camera, the Fujifilm X-T2, is water-resistant, up to a point.  I’ve kept inexpensive “baggie” type protectors in my camera bag for years, but never encountered heavy enough precipitation to make use of them.  This snow was heavy and melting fast enough I thought it might be an issue for the electronics, so I finally had occasion to use these.  They are flimsy and inconvenient, but better than nothing if it is coming down hard.  For our second shoot, I made use of another item I’ve had for years, but had never used before either, a more substantial AquaTech “raincoat” made for use with a camera with a long lens.

I finally put this to use, years after acquisition, in heavy snowfall in Hokkaido, only to realize… this is sized for the SLR with which I used to shoot.

To say this was awkward to use in the field is an understatement.  It took me five minutes of wrestling in my home to put it in position to shoot this illustration.  One problem is that mine dates from my SLR days and is probably too big for my current system.  Although the idea is good, with clear plastic windows to see various controls, it is difficult to maneuver into place and to keep in place.  Trying to put this on in the field was difficult to say the least.  A lower-tech, less expensive solution, like LensCoat, might be in my future.

Photographic gear

Snow monkeys

I paired my Fujifilm X-T2 with the Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens for the majority of my snow monkey shots, making full use of the focal length flexibility.  For a shorter focal length, I also used the Fujifilm XF 80mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro Lens.  The hike into the onsen is a mile in on a road which had fresh packed snow when we traversed it but could certainly be icy at other times, so be prepared with good snow or hiking boots, with crampons to be on the safe side.

I used the Fujifilm 80mm lens for this shot, to include more of the steaming pool.
I used nearly 400mm of focal length to zero in on this parent and child grooming session.

Cranes

Although the birds are large, the distances are considerable.  I used the Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens, fully racked out to 400mm, with the Fujifilm XF 1.4x TC WR Teleconverter, giving me 560mm of reach.  This was enough to isolate pairs or small groups of birds.  Some of my favorite images resulted from stitching together less-racked out views into a panorama.

The heavy snow made focusing more challenging.  Thick gloves and wrestling with a camera rain cover didn’t help either!
Red-crowned crane pair “greeting” each other in Hokkaido, Japan.
A snowy red-crowned crane panoramic scene in Hokkaido, Japan.

Sea Eagles

The birds are attracted into close shooting range by hunger, as they swoop in to scoop up fish hand tossed from a boat.  Less focal length was necessary than I would have guessed.  I used the same camera setup, but at times, the boat operators brought the birds in so close, 100mm of focal length was almost too much.

Magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagles compete in a race to scoop up fish tossed from a boat, an easy meal, near Rausa, Hokkaido, Japan.
White-tailed sea eagle extends its talons as it approaches a freshly tossed fish meal.
For a birds in flight shoot, this was relatively easy, as a fish landing in the water near the boat invariably drew a hungry sea eagle into close shooting range.
100mm focal length was at times almost too much, making it all to easy to clip a sea eagle wing.

Whooper Swans

This shoot was less frenetic, allowing me time to shoot with a mix of the Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens, the Fujifilm XF 80mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro Lens and for a wider angle scene, the Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR Lens.

Different lenses, different looks: Here, a single Whooper swan isolated with its reflection using an 80mm focal length lens.
For this swan lake panorama, I employed the 16-55mm lens (at a focal length of 25 mm) and obtained an overlapping series of vertical images to stitch together this panoramic scene.

We enjoyed our introduction to Japan’s winter wildlife and landscape so much, we’re already planning a return in 2020!  If this post has peaked your interest in a similar trip, check out my prior article for a comparison of competitive trips.

Almost 400mm of focal length came in handy to tightly frame this expressive Japanese macaque face and dripping beard.
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