Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to assist European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Marsel van Oosten with his Japan workshop. Marsel and his wife Daniella live my dream job of travelling around the world to remote and exotic locations and creating beautiful photo compositions. Not only are they wonderful people, but also they take a sincere interest in teaching their workshop participants about different aspects of photography and composition.
The first part of the workshop focussed on the once wild, but now tame Japanese snow monkeys (Japanese Macaque) who can be found in the Jigogudani National Park in Nagano. The monkeys are famous for their leisurely enjoyment in their own Onsen (hot spring bath) and can be photographed at very close range.
This trip was my first foray into wildlife photography and perhaps I could not help approaching it in a manner very similar to approaching my human subjects. This approach was almost on a sub conscious level since what I was seeing was almost human. I saw a young monkey stretch his palm out and look to the sky to see if it was still snowing, and I saw familiar scenes of families with mother and child, and couples, engaging with each other in the same manner as humans do.
The Jigokudani location poses a few challenges as a photographer and I found myself using flash a lot more than I have ever used but necessary to bring out the deeply recessed eyes. The challenge was in the balancing of the light in the mist brought about by the contact of the warm water and the cold air and to photograph in a manner where the monkeys would not be nervous of approaching you. The rule for the monkeys is not to make prolonged eye contact since that is how they challenge each other but I found myself constantly staring from behind my lens instead. While shy outside the pool, the monkeys are relaxed in the hot water and allow themselves to be photographed at leisure.
I learned from Marsel that just as with children, one approaches monkeys (and other animals) at eye level to avoid the “zoo” perspective. The different sections of the park allow different types of photography and I could see many photographers wading in the river trying to get photographs of monkeys jumping from stone to stone. Although we spent many hours in the park, I left with the feeling that there was so much more left to photograph so I look forward to returning there another day in the not too distant future.
The next blog will be an account of Part II of this workshop – photographing Hokkaido’s winter wonderland of Whooper Swans, Steller’s Sea Eagles, and Red Crested Cranes (in temperatures of -20C.)