I’m not one to pigeon-hole, but all the same, I’m no wildlife photographer. Of course I said that about landscapes three years ago as well, so what do I know? I’ve spent almost 2 weeks in Japan, mostly in Hokkaido, with birds and monkeys, often flopping around gracelessly and hip deep in snow, and almost always freezing my arse off. It’s been amazing. I came to meet Martin Bailey, a friend I’ve never met in person until now, and to learn from a man I consider a peer and a colleague. 14 of us traveled around this northern island of Japan, with enough outdoor wear to open an outfitters and enough camera gear to keep B&H stakeholders very happy for a very long time. It’s been a wonderful trip and so much of that is to Martin’s credit.
Martin is an excellent teacher. Very patient, and with a wonderful sense of humour. He knows Japan, particularly Hokkaido, because he’s lived here for 20 years, and has chosen excellent locations, none of which disappointed – no small feat considering how reliant on weather we were. He’s well-organized and if anything didn’t go according to plan I certainly didn’t notice a glitch in the matrix. But for a guy who’s so easy-going he can really march his troops, and we were up at some lunatic hours, one morning my alarm went as early as 3:30am. Thank God you can get coffee in the vending machines. If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday, this isn’t it, though the food, sake, and abundant hot springs took the sting out of the early mornings and long hours.
I came not only to meet, and learn from, Martin, but to work, and to create something new in my portfolio. I’m returning home with over 300GB of image files from both my D3s and D800 bodies. Of those 8000+ images, I’ve got 200 selects that I’ll edit down to something closer to 30 or 40 printed photographs, some of which I’m showing here, and the best of which might also make it into SEVEN, the fine art book I’m releasing this year (details and pre-orders are coming soon, I promise!)
What I hope shows in this new body of work is my love for this place. If there’s a serenity in the images, it’s because this place has been, despite the long hours and hard work, deeply calming for me. There’s a blanket of snow here that simplifies things, quiets them, and makes it easier for me to work. It’s like that when I’m working outside and in touch with wild things; I feel it especially here for some reason. It feels wide open here, so I cropped many of my images to 16:9 which is unusual for me, but feels like the best choice for these photographs. Can’t wait to get home and print the work over the coming days.
If you click the image below, it’ll go large and from there you can scroll through them; a much nicer way to look at these.
What you might not see so readily in the images is the learning curve. I mentioned in my last post that I felt the learning curve was steep and one commenter said, based on a couple good images, it didn’t seem like it was that steep. Just because you make it to the top of the mountain doesn’t mean you didn’t have to work your ass off to get there. For me it was an endless battle with focus modes – I never use servo/continuous focus modes, and I fought with them the whole time. And it was a battle with the large files and slow buffer of the D800, learning to pace myself against the limited frames I had until the inevitable waiting for the buffer to clear, giving me more frames to shoot. It was learning the behavior of the animals and learning to anticipate their actions. But most of all it was a re-learning a lesson I’ve taught over and over again to my own students – you need to fall in love with your subject without getting seduced by it.
It’s easy, even after making photographs for 25 years, to forget that a photograph of a beautiful bird is not the same thing, necessarily, as a beautiful photograph of a beautiful bird. A beautiful bird, or person, or landscape, is it’s own beauty, but the moment it becomes a photograph it’s reduced to light, line, and moments, and it’s those that you have to be thinking about. Making a sharp photograph of an eagle is one (sometimes very difficult) thing, making one that’s alive, that people care about, is entirely another. Tom Kostes left a great quote in the comments of my first Hokkaido post, and I’ll finish with it, because it so perfectly sums up the goal of my struggle – as joyful and truly fun as it’s been – here in Hokkaido.
“Paint the flying spirit of the bird rather than its feathers.” ~ Robert Henri
The image at the top of this post is a downloadable desktop wallpaper. Enjoy!
If you want more information on Martin Bailey, he’s got a great podcast on his website HERE, and more information on his workshops HERE. I’d travel with, and learn from, Martin again in a heartbeat. He’s also a Craft & Vision author and writes a regular column in PHOTOGRAPH, the Digital Quarterly Magazine for Creative Photographers.