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2 Picturesque Winter Scenes in Biei, Hokkaido (with Composition Tips)

The hill town of Biei, located in the middle of Hokkaido, has many picturesque sightseeing spots. Here are two scenes that you might be able to catch in winter, if you are lucky. Our photographers share their advice and thought processes behind these shots. (Reported by Jiro Tateno, Toshiki Nakanishi, Digital Camera Magazine)

Blue Pond with snow-covered trees

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 70mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/11, 1/13 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: 4,800K
Photo by: Jiro Tateno

Known for its natural deep blue colour, the Blue Pond (“Aoiike”), which is located in Shirogane just outside Biei Town in Hokkaido, is beautiful at any time of the year. However, the contrast of the blue against white when it snows makes an exceptionally lovely scene.

 

1. The Shirogane Blue Pond in the snow

It’s difficult to find the perfect time to shoot the Blue Pond in the snow. You need to monitor the weather conditions carefully to catch a shot before the pond freezes over. The image above was a lucky shot, taken the day right after a night of snow that covered even the withered trees that stood in the pond.


Shooting spot: Somewhere that allowed the right balance between the colours of the water and the background

Illustration of shooting position

There is a pathway that allows you to walk around the Blue Pond, which means you can shoot from almost any angle that you want. I had two considerations when I chose my shooting position:

- The layout of the dried trees standing in the pond
- The background

I found the perfect spot somewhere near the middle of the walking trail, and set up my tripod so that the camera was at eye level.


Focal length: Why 70mm?

The scene looks lovely from any angle. However, shooting at a wide angle resulted in an image that lacked impact. I therefore decided to close in on just one part of the scene to express what I saw. 

It was a cloudy day, but the clouds were not particularly photogenic. Including them in the frame would cause the snow-covered Japanese trees in the background to blend into them due to the similar colours, so I left the sky out. 

I also made sure not to include too much of the pond. Doing so would capture the water reflection of the sky, which would make the blue of the pond look less impressive.

Considering above, the angle-of-view achieved at 70mm, the long end of my standard zoom lens, provided the best balance between the colours of the Blue Pond and the trees in the background.


Lens: A standard zoom or superzoom

At the Blue Pond, the possible shooting spots are all quite a short distance away from the subject. A zoom lens that can cover standard to telephoto focal lengths will work well. I used my go-to lens, the EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, which is sharp and renders colours beautifully.


Tip: The weather can affect your composition

In this situation, using a wider angle-of-view would have shown more of the snowy landscape, but viewers would not know where to focus their attention on because the trees would blend into the cloudy sky. However, if the weather had been better, or if the volume of snow had been different, a wider angle might have worked out well.

Blue Pond with trees and sky

At 40mm, the snow-covered trees blend with the background and the dried trees in the pond look less impactful.


Bonus technique: Adjust the white balance to enhance the blue

I set the white balance at 4,800K to bring out the blueness of the water.


How to get there:

- By car/taxi: About 20 minutes’ drive from JR Biei station.
- By bus: About 25 minutes from JR Biei station via Dohoku Bus (Click here for schedule)

 

2. Halo-ringed tree on a hill

Trees on snowy field with sun halo

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 20mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/16, 1/250 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 200/ WB: Daylight
When: Mid-January
Photo by: Toshiki Nakanishi

Biei is full of mountains and rolling hills. In winter, these are covered in a blanket of snow, turning into sprawling white fields where even one single tree becomes an accent. Incorporating the halo that formed around the trees, I composed this shot to consist of mostly sky.


When do halos appear?

The kind of circular halo around the sun that you see in the above image is created when sunlight interacts with ice crystals in thin cirrus clouds high in the sky. They are usually the sign of an oncoming storm, and will not appear on a cloudless day. Neither will they appear when it's too cloudy. Keep observing the sky.


Place the tree in the trajectory of the sunset

The key to this shot is to place the sun right in the middle of the trees so that there is symmetry. The slightest misalignment will cause the sunlight to look uneven. This is true even when taking a similar shot without a halo—such unevenness is more obvious when there are no clouds. For the shot above, I estimated the path that the sun would take as it set, and composed my shot accordingly, releasing the shutter when the sun was smack in the middle of the two taller trees.

Tip: Look through your viewfinder and shift your tripod accordingly to find the best position. It is also best to avoid using any lens filter.

Halo with sun above trees

The sun is too high in this shot and does not overlap with the trees.


Make good use of shadows; observe the sun and the weather

There are many trees standing alone or in small groups like this on the hills of Biei. One way to make your shots of them more impactful is to incorporate their shadows into your shot. In winter, the sun appears lower, at almost the same height as the trees. Observe the weather conditions and you can get all sorts of different compositions at different timings.

Halo with sun turned into starburst

If there are no halos, you could narrow your aperture even further to create a starburst (also known as a sunstar).


Find out about another photogenic winter phenomena in:
Magical Winterscapes: When Diamond Dust Becomes Sun Pillars

Learn more about winter shooting spots in Japan in:
2 Mesmerising Winter Photography Spots in Hokkaido (One of them is in Biei, too!)
Photographing Mount Fuji in Winter: Shooting Spots & Composition Tips

Get inspiration on how to bring out the best in monochromatic snowscapes in:
3 Ways to Capture Compelling Images of Monochromatic Winter Scenes


Where the spots are located:

 


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Toshiki Nakanishi

Toshiki Nakanishi

Born in 1971 in Osaka. After learning photography on his own, Nakanishi moved the base for his photography activities to the town of Biei located in Kamikawa-gun of Hokkaido. While capturing landscapes that focus on light, he also produces works that bring out the figurative beauty of nature. Head of PHOTO OFFICE atelier nipek.

http://www.nipek.net/

Jiro Tateno

Jiro Tateno

Born in Tokyo in 1975. From around 1990, he came into contact with nature through fly fishing, and took up photography. From 1999, he travelled around the country taking photos with the theme of "Natural Beauty". He currently supplies photos for magazines, books, posters, calendars, and so on. He held an "Okinawa" photo exhibition in 2010, and "Northern Lights - Journey of Light/ Iceland" photo exhibition in 2017.