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How I Nailed the Shot: Snow Monkeys Enjoying the Onsen

The Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, is well-known for its wild snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) who happen to love bathing in the hot spring pool (onsen) in the park especially in winter. The monkeys are also a favourite subject of wildlife photographer Yukihiro Fukuda. Here, he shares how he captured “warmth” in this evocative shot of them relaxing in the onsen. (Reported by Yukihiro Fukuda, Digital Camera Magazine)

Monkeys in onsen

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/1.6, 1/1,250 sec)/ ISO 200/ WB: Daylight

While my main subject of interest in this shot are the facial expressions of the mother and child monkeys, I also wanted to show that there were many other monkeys soaking in the hot spring, hence the angle-of-view. I underexposed this shot slightly to convey the cold harshness of winter. Viewers can imagine just how comfortable the hot spring must feel in contrast!

 

1. Make good use of the steam

If there’s one shot that just about every photographer in Jigokudani tries to get, it is of the monkeys soaking in the bath in the falling snow. But you don’t always get good snowfall, so how about shifting your attention to the heat of the hot spring waters instead? If you make good use of the steam, you will be able to achieve a shot that conveys the atmosphere in the onsen.


Tip: Shoot from downwind

How well you capture the steam depends on how well you read the wind. The steam looks the most impressive from downwind.

Caution!: The steam can be so overwhelming that you won’t be able to see anything. It will fog up your lens too. Take note of this. It’s good to have a micro-fibre cloth on hand so that you can wipe the lens when necessary.

No steam

Monkeys in onsen with no steam

With steam

Monkeys in onsen with steam

 

2. Shoot with a very wide aperture so that only the main monkeys are sharply in focus

As the Jigokudani Monkey Park offers quite a lot of freedom to move where you want, I like using a fast prime lens instead of a zoom lens. This allows you to blur everything else other than the monkeys that are your main subject into a nice, creamy bokeh, resulting in a shot with greater impact. I took the main shot at f/1.6 on the EF50mm f/1.4 USM, which is my go-to lens for photographing snow monkeys.


Tip: Disable lens aberration correction

Or more specifically, disable peripheral illumination correction. This function corrects optical vignetting, but for this shot, I wanted to leave the vignetting in to bring out the sense of cold.


f/11

Monkeys in onsen shot at f/11

This example was shot at eye level using a narrow aperture on a zoom lens. It looks quite different from the main image, doesn’t it? Most people who visit Jigokudani would shoot like this, too.

 

3. A low angle enhances both the bokeh and the steam

I shot lying flat on my stomach next to the hot spring bath such that my camera was practically in the steam itself. If there’s too much steam, you won’t be able to see much. Here, I kept my eyes on the movement of the vapour and released the shutter at the moment where it looked the best.

Note: If your camera has a Vari-angle monitor, you would be able to take low angle shots without having to lie on the ground.

Illustration of photographer’s shooting position

Know this: The exposure will keep changing because of the steam
You can never predict how much steam there will be, and it can change even as you shoot. When there is a lot of steam, your camera could be "fooled" into underexposing the shot if you are semi-automatic mode. Use the manual exposure mode for better control, and expose for the monkeys.

 

4. Wear appropriate attire and footwear

In winter (December to March), the region where the park is located experiences heavy snowfall. Not only do the paths to and inside the park get very slippery due to the thicksnow and ice, the water flowing or splashing onto the ground from the hot spring bath turns the snow into sludge, which can also make it hard to find proper footing. Wear appropriate footwear and watch your step.

You might find that getting your ideal shot requires getting close to or even onto the ground, so wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.


Tip: Don’t forget to protect your camera too!

Bring a rain cover or plastic sheet to shield your gear from snow, rain and water vapour. You might also want to put large silica gel packs in your camera bag to absorb any excess moisture. (Learn more in How to Protect Your Camera for Cold Weather Photography.)


Here are some AF and exposure setting tips for capturing monkeys in action:
Pro Techniques for Using the EOS 7D Mark II – Wildlife

You might also be interested in:
Wildlife Photography: 3 Techniques from Professional Photographers
Wildlife in Motion through Shutter Speed Control


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About the location

The Jigokudani Monkey Park (“Jigokudani Yaen-koen” in Japanese) is located in the Jigokudani valley in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture, Japan, and is part of a larger national park. It is a very popular tourist attraction and can be very crowded especially in winter.

Although the park attendants feed them, the snow monkeys are wild and free to roam around the park and its surrounding mountains. They will usually ignore humans.

Details

Admission fee: 800 yen for adults, 400 yen for children above 6 years old.

Opening hours: Generally, 8:30 – 17:00 (April to October), 9:00 – 16:00 (November to March). May vary depending on weather conditions and other factors.

Peak season: Winter (December to March), as the surrounding snow can make pictures of the bathing monkeys particularly beautiful. January and February are said to be the best times to visit.

How to get there: By car or express bus from Nagano Station (Details on official site). As parking space is limited, visitors are encouraged to use public transport.

Map: Click here for Google Map

Other things to note:
- The most common route from the carpark/ bus stop to the park entrance involves a 2km, 30-minute walk through a forest trail, which is also particularly scenic in winter.
- To avoid the crowds, go early in the morning.
- Do not feed or touch the monkeys!

 


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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

Yukihiro Fukuda

Yukihiro Fukuda

Born in 1965 in Tokyo. Fukuda's visit to Hokkaido in search of the Japanese cranes he loved led him to become an animal photographer. After spending 10 years on wildlife coverage in Hokkaido, Fukuda expanded his scope to other countries and underwater photography. Wildlife, underwater, and landscape photography now form the three pillars of his current activities.