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Wildlife photography in Taku

Wildlife photography in Taku

When I’ve examined past photography I’ve done, the pictures I enjoy the most are the ones I’ve taken of wildlife. When I lived in Taku, I spent many weekends exploring the town on my bike, stopping to take pictures of interesting vistas. Usually that meant taking pictures in rice fields. Once I was done taking pictures of the wide world around me, I enjoyed getting down low and exploring the world that we rarely take the time to visit. I’m a big fan of Nintendo’s Pikmin series. Getting down to the ground and really observing the world under our feet helps me understand what inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to create the series (he was inspired by his time working his garden).

Taku might not be a great place for finding work or shopping, but it is a great place for getting photos of all kinds of wildlife. The rice fields attract all kinds of animals and bugs. Bugs and frogs love the flooded fields and shade under the rice plants, and everything else loves the bugs and frogs. The variety of life in the countryside helps create very distinct seasons. Frogs announce the rainy season, cicadas sing the songs of summer, crickets play an autumn lullaby, etc.

All different kinds of flowers bloom at different times of the year, too. My favorite are easily the lotus flowers. Everybody thinks of cherry blossoms when they think of Japan, and the cherry blossoms are nice, but for me, lotus flowers are way more interesting. They last longer, they’re bigger, the plant itself and the environment it grows in is more interesting, and the kinds of wildlife attracted to them are more interesting than those attracted to cherry blossoms. They’re overall just a cool plant and flower.

(Two photos above taken two months ago.)

But, as I expected, when I went to a lotus field in Taku, the flowers were all gone and the plants were mostly dried up. The good news is that there were still plenty of occupants left to photograph.

There is one red flower that grows on the ground around rice fields that catches my eye, too. I don’t know its name, but my fiancé tells me that it is a poisonous flower. It always grows at the end of summer and highlights the edges of rice fields while they are around. They contrast nicely with the green rice plants they grow around.

While I was out in Taku, I visited several local attractions, including Seibyo. Seibyo is a Confucian temple, a rare sight in Japan. Last time I was there I spotted a snake at the edge of a small pond, so I kept my eyes out for snakes while I was there this time. I was lucky enough to spot one once again, this time roaming around, hunting for some grub.

It was a big guy, probably about a meter long. I was probably about 8-10 feet away from it when I saw it. I tried to get a little closer while it appeared busy hunting, but it spotted me and started moving away. I started trying to take some video of it from far away when I noticed some strange movement. I got closer and as I suspected, it had captured a young frog. I watched it swallow the little frog alive.

It was the first time I had ever seen a snake eat anything in real life. What really got me was the little squeaking noise it made as the snake slowly worked it into its mouth. I know that frogs often eat other frogs as they grow up, but I still couldn’t help but feel bad for it. On the other hand, the snake needs to eat, too, and there are a lot of frogs everywhere in Taku (I regularly find flattened frog skeletons on the road). Life eats life. Witnessing it first-hand was a bittersweet experience.

Taking photos in rural Japan continues to be a pleasant, surprising experiences.


Seeing the Sights in Washington State, Part 3

Seeing the Sights in Washington State, Part 3

After seeing what Seattle had to offer, after walking around some parks, big and small, and after I proposed to my girlfriend, I still had one last place I wanted to take her before it was time for us to go back to Japan: Mount Rainier. It’d been a while since I’d been there myself, so I was excited to strap on my hiking boots and take a long walk up from Paradise with my nice camera and lenses for the first time.

Before going, though, I wanted to make sure that the weather would be good. I didn’t want my fiancé to be cold while she tried to take pictures, but I also did want to turn into Micah-jerky, either. The day before we went, it would have been in the mid-60’s, but a day later and it would have been in the 80’s. I’d say we had nearly perfect timing with a hot-in-the-Sun-but-cool-in-the-shade mid-70’s day. We left early and got to the mountain before the rush hour traffic arrived, allowing us to get great parking up at Paradise. Our timing that day was on-point.

While my parents stayed at the visitor’s center, my fiancé and I went for a hike. We took our time, slowly climbing while getting lots of pictures. For me, the real highlight of the day was getting see wildlife up-close. Ground squirrels were everywhere and fearless, and we also got to see a mother grouse and her three babies. We even saw a marmot, but it was quite far away.

I wanted to get to a spot on the mountain called Panorama Point (I think), but after two and a half hours of climbing, we got hungry, so we descended back to the visitor’s center to have a late lunch with my parents. There are picnic tables at the visitor’s center, but instead we went just a short walk away and found a much better spot to sit down and relax.

My fiancé said that Mount Rainier was the highlight of our trip. I agree. We went to a lot of great places in Washington in our three weeks there, but Mount Rainier was definitely a place we plan to return to again in the future.

Seeing the Sights in Washington State, Part 2

Seeing the Sights in Washington State, Part 2

Recently, a friend asked me about places to go in Washington. The timing was perfect since I thought about places to go with my fiance while planning our trip this summer. Of course, Pike Place Market, the Pier, and the Space Needle are some good locations to hit, especially since they can be visited all in one day. But, when my fiance and I went to Seattle, we were worn out by the heat and crowds, so after a few days of resting and eating a lot of food, we were ready for more sightseeing. Knowing that we’d be sick of swimming in a sea of tourists, I planned on taking her and my parents out to a couple of the best places to visit in America. Yes, not just Washington, America. What are these places you might ask? They are the Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier.

Olympic National Park is a large forest about 3 hours west of Olympia. It is one of the premier national parks in the US. If you’re interested in light hiking, serious hiking, kayaking, swimming, picnicing, camping, or just interested in taking pictures and enjoying the view, you can do it there. Unfortunately, I’ve only gone a handful of times in my life, and I was a child when I went most of the time, so my memories of it are fuzzy. However, I knew that it was a great place to go, so I found some websites that give detailed information about all of the different trails and significant landmarks in the park. One place caught my eye: Lake Crescent.

My parents told me about the Hoh Rainforest and Ozette, but while they seemed interesting, I wanted my parents to be able to go (along with their dog), so my options were limited. Additionally, I had a secret mission to perform while at the park: propose to my girlfriend. After some looking, I found the place that I thought would be perfect for proposing. On Lake Crescent on the north side of the park, there is a trail called the Spruce Railroad trail which has a cool bridge about a mile and a half from the starting point. When I saw pictures of it, I decided that I wanted to propose there.

The water in Lake Crescent was a surprisingly clear, clean, deep blue. As I took more and more pictures of the water, I regretted not bringing some swim shorts. The walk along the trail was quiet and calming, but there was a problem: we couldn’t find the bridge. After about an hour and a half of some slow-paced walking, we finally came to a tunnel that I didn’t know about. Around that time, I expected to find the bridge, but even after passing through the tunnel, I couldn’t find the bridge. I had big plans for that bridge, so I was real bummed out when we decided to head back to the car. However, my fiance and I saw that there was a trail around the outside of the tunnel, and for fun we split away from my parents and took that trail. Much to our surprise, we found the bridge. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there were dozens of college students swimming and enjoying life on and around the bridge.

So, I aborted my mission and headed back to the car, wondering where I would propose.

After having our fun in the Olympic National Park, we wanted to go to Mount Rainier, but the weather on the day we wanted to go was no good, so we delayed it and decided to revisit some local places we had already gone before: Target, Olympia, etc. Then I decided it was time to take my lady to the South Center Mall, a large mall near the airport.

There are two major difference between shopping in Japan and shopping in the US: the amount of people, and the store employees. In Saga, there is a mall that I go to regularly that will be packed full of people on busy days. It’s noisy, with store employees yelling out in the halls about the days sales, kids playing, etc. In the US, even on weekends, the malls are quiet and relaxing. Well, they would be relaxing if the employees in all the stores would shut the hell up! Good Lord, do any of them stop talking? In Japan, the employees don’t bother you and aren’t going to try to start any conversations with you unless you try starting something with them. In the US, every employee is ready to pounce as soon as they notice you enter the store. You can’t just quietly enter and leave without someone coming over and giving a long speech about all the deals and the in-store services they offer. It is easily one of the worst parts of American culture (besides the eating culture, but that’s for another blog).

In contrast, the only time I expect to get harassed by a store in employee in Japan is if it’s a small store and I spend a lot of time inside, or if it’s a small business in a small town. Even then, it’s mostly a quick and painless experience.

Anyway, rant over.

At the mall, I was surprised to find a Uniqlo! I bought a bunch of t-shirts for souvenirs at Uniqlo in Japan, so I was a bit disappointed to find that Uniqlo had expanded its business since the last time I bought their stuff online in the US. lol However, I actually found the prices to not really be any cheaper than in Japan. In general, clothing was about the same price in the US as it is in Japan.

There was one store in the mall that really caught my fiance’s eye: Daiso, another common store in Japan.

It was an interesting experience. We found some products that you definitely wouldn’t find in a Japanese Daiso, like fried rice (that’s Chinese), shampoo, and a ninja doll (for $10, although Daiso products are typically a dollar). It was fun to find American snacks inside a Daiso.

It was a long day at the mall, but we had fun and headed home. I still had a problem, though. I still didn’t know where to propose. We still hadn’t gone to Mount Rainier, but I knew there would be way too many people there to propose there. I wanted some place quiet. So, after considering my options, I decided to propose at some local park. There are many parks near where my parents live, so I had a lot of choices. In the end, I decided to go to a park I had visited a few times before on my bike.

I was a bit worried when we first got there. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot, so I was expecting a lot of people to be there. Thankfully, we found an interesting, quiet part where nobody came. It was almost like it was designed to be some sort of secret spot in a video game. The water was almost black, and there was a tree there that had yellow leaves in August. It felt like that one place was experiencing autumn. The place felt special, so I knew that we could share a special moment there.

After I gave her the ring, we spent another 20 minutes or so doing a little personal photo shoot.

We still have Mount Rainier to climb, but that’s for the next blog.

Seeing the Sights in Washington State, Part 1

Seeing the Sights in Washington State, Part 1

About a month ago, summer vacation began in Japan. Right at the beginning of summer vacation, my fiance and I travelled to the US to see my parents. During our three weeks there, I knew I wanted to show my fiance as much of the beauty of Washington state as I could. She’s never been out of Japan, so it was like taking a child to a toy store for the first time. Everything was new and interesting to her. Just showing her the produce section of the local supermarket was fun!

I had three main places that I wanted to take my fiance while we were in Washington: Pike Place Market in Seattle, The Olympic National Forest, and Mt. Rainier. Before we went there, though, I just wanted to show her some smaller locations like Olympia, some local parks, etc. I took her to places I had taken pictures at before, like the Capitol Building or Burfoot Park near Boston Bay. It was the first time I had taken pictures in some of the areas since I had gotten M43 cameras (before, I’d taken pictures with an Olympus XZ-1). It was fun going back to my old stomping grounds and taking pictures with new eyes and new equipment.

The Port of Olympia

The Capital Building

Olympia is the capital of Washington state, yet is a rather small city. When I tell Japanese people what kind of town it is, they’re often surprised to find out that it’s smaller than rural Japanese cities like Saga or Tosu (Saga city is the capital of Saga prefecture and Tosu is a relatively large residential area with a large outlet mall). Olympia is about 50 square kilometers with about 50,000 people, whereas Saga city is about 430,000 square kilometers with about 233,000 people. That suggests that the population in Olympia is denser, but the farms around Saga pad those numbers. In population centers, Saga is unquestionably denser.

Downtown Olympia actually isn’t very interesting, save for the farmer’s market.

If you want to buy cheap fruits and vegetables, the farmer’s market is a bad place to go. But, if you want some good, cheap mexican food, then I recommend going. If you’re used to Japanese-sized meals, be careful not to order three dishes like we did. Everything will be jumbo-sized to a Japanese person!

After spending a few days just seeing stuff close to home, we finally made a trip to our first major location: Seattle. Taking the scenic route, we took a one hour ferry ride to Seattle and enjoyed the view.

While waiting for the ferry to arrive, we went inside the local convenience store to take a look around. I was surprised to find that they had some common Japanese snacks like Pocky and Chocorooms.

But, after about an hour of waiting, we finally got on board.

Once we landed, we found some parking close by and went to see Pike Place Market.

Pike Place Market used to be an Asian market. 90% of the merchants were Japanese at one point. During WWII, however, that changed.

You can also find the very first Starbucks at Pike Place Market, but I recommend going when there aren’t so many tourists. That place has a very long line to get in on busy days.

Of course, no journey to Seattle is complete without a trip to see the Space Needle.

I had never been up to the top before, so I decided to take Takae up and check out the view. I have to say, it definitely wasn’t worth the $30 for each of us. I would rather have spent that money on souvenirs at the base of the Space Needle, rather than a sunburn at the top.

In my next photo journal, I’ll continue talking about my trip to Washington State.

Taking Photos of Dragonflies

Taking Photos of Dragonflies

Summer is the season for many different kinds of bugs in Japan. One of those bugs are dragonflies.

I remember when I was a kid that I knew about dragonflies, but I have no memories of seeing one in real life as a child. I’ve always liked bugs. I remember learning about how fast dragonflies are, what they eat, etc. and looking at pictures of them. Their long bodies, big wings, and big, round, compound eyes were mesmerizing. The only bugs that I had regular exposure to when I was a kid were bees, butterflies, and mosquitoes. Of course, bees and butterflies are interesting, but as a bug lover, my heart yearned for more. After moving to Japan, I’ve been able to quench my bug thirst regulary, especially in the summer time.

There is a nice park near where I live that has some signs showing about 15 or so different dragonfly species that you can see there. Sounds nice to me! I went there with my girlfriend the other day and took some pictures.

There are some challenges with dragonfly photography. My girlfriend had a fisheye lens on her Pentax, and I had my telephoto lens on my Olympus. While it’s not actually that challenging to find dragonflies that will sit still on leaves, grass, rocks, etc., when dragonflies are in flight, they are fast little buggers. Getting close is critical with a fisheye. If your dragonfly is even arm’s length away, it will be far too small in the frame. You have to get within inches of them in order to get your shot. The good news is that fisheyes are ridiculously easy to focus. Put it at f16 and pretty much everything will be in focus all the time. lol

However, the same cannot be said of a telephoto. Although I don’t have to get super close to a dragonfly to get a good shot, when zoomed in, getting dragonflies in focus while they’re flying is nearly impossible.

Dragonflies fly in somewhat unpredictable ways and are very fast, so even if you manage to get one in your sights, and press the shutter button to focus and then take a picture, even if the dragonfly was in focus (which is a big if), between the moment of focus and the taking of the picture, the dragonfly will almost certainly fly out of your depth of focus. Your margin of error is literally razor thin.

I also thought that manual focus would be better for getting in-flight dragonflies in focus, but that didn’t work out at all. I thought that I could set focus and then grab a shot as the dragonflies flew by. However, that plan didn’t work out at all. Depth of focus was just too thin to be useful. Next time, I plan to try using automatic focus. My feeling is that back focus will be a problem using auto focus, but it can’t be worse than manual focus. lol

Although dragonfly movement seems unpredictable, there is some predictability to dragonflies that does assist somewhat in getting a good picture. I noticed that individual dragonflies will tend to fly around in a set area. I’m not sure if they are territorial or they’re simply displaying to get mates, but either way, if you find a dragonfly, it will probably be flying around the same area for a while. If you find one in a good spot, stick around and see if you can get a good shot. That’s what I did for the blurry photos above.

The same is true of dragonflies resting on leaves or rocks. If you accidently spook one while trying to photograph it, stick around for a bit. It’ll probably return in less than a minute.

In the blurry photos above, you’ll notice that some photos have two dragonflies in the frame, and it’s those photos that seem closest to being in focus. The reason is that, when the second dragonfly arrived, the two seemed to slow down, sometimes hovering in place for brief moments. I was hopeful to get a shot during one of those moments, but they came and went quickly, so I didn’t have any time to focus.

Of course, dragonflies will take a break and sit on rocks, leaves, grass, etc. Those are your best opportunities to get good photos. They also don’t spook all that easily. You can get very intimate with them. They aren’t bothered by the shutter noise either, so you can have extended sessions with them.

But, as you can imagine, there are still challenges to face even in ideal conditions. By now, you’ve noticed that focus is a big challenge in photography. Moving subjects, like jumping mudskippers or flying dragonflies, present the biggest challenge, but even getting good focus on stationary subjects can be tricky. Take this dragonfly for example.

This should have been a great picture, but unfortunately, I let my guard down. I thought I could get away with a lower shutter speed (1/80), but even at f8.0, because of a little wind, the shot is blurred. Bummer, dude.

Blur from movement is one problem, but another problem is not getting enough of a subject in focus. My girlfriend took some pictures of the same dragonfly above using a fisheye, so it’ll provide a good point of comparison.

She took this shot a 1/1250, so the shutter speed was plenty fast enough. However, surprisingly, even though she was using a fisheye lens (which will have a larger depth of focus compared to my telephoto lens) at f6.3, because she was so close to the dragonfly, only part of the body is in focus. The middle part and the front wings are mostly in focus, but it’s head and back half are out of focus. Damn.

There are a few ways to overcome this focus challenge.

  1. Increase your aperture. Instead of shooting at f2.8, shoot at f8 or higher.
  2. Change composition. Take the picture at a different angle to get more of the subject in your depth of focus.
  3. Focus stacking. More on that later.

If you increase your aperture, you will get a larger depth of field. For example, take a look at another shot my girlfriend took.

She took the photo at f29 with the fisheye. Even though she is quite close to the dragonfly, it and its environment are largely in focus.

…Or are they? There are limits to how much you can increase your aperture before you run into new problems. Here is a side-by-side of two photos taken at nearly the same angle. On the left is the one above (ISO 3200, 1/1250, f29), on the right is another picture (ISO 640, 1/4000, f4).

Something you probably notice is that details in the wing are more defined in the picture on the right. In fact, the dragonfly on the left seems to be in focus and out of focus at the same time. There are a couple of reason. One, the Pentax my girlfriend used doesn’t handle noise very well. At ISO 800 and above, noise becomes a serious issue. It will blur the details and reduce the color accuracy and definition. On top of that, at high apertures, light diffraction will reduce the sharpness of the details. F29 is near the upper limit of the Pentax’s maximum aperture, so it’s unsurprising that sharpness in the details has been lost to diffraction. High ISO noise and diffraction combined to drastically reduce the image quality of that photo. That’s why it’s important to know what your effective aperture range is for maximum sharpness.

The good news is that even if the image quality isn’t perfect, it’s still useable. If the photo isn’t too big, you won’t notice the lack of details anyway. For example, that image is perfectly usable for Instagram since most people will be viewing the photo with their phones.

Changing your aperture is one way to get more of a dragonfly in focus, but you can also change your composition. For example, compare these two images.

On the left, the wings of the dragonfly are largely out of focus, but on the right, they are all completely in focus. Of course, whether you like one or the other is up to you. Personally, I like the one on the left more because its wings and body aren’t very interesting, but its big, blue eyes are very interesting. However, sometimes the more interesting part of a dragonfly is its wings, like the photo near the top of the dragonfly with black and rainbow-colored wings. It’s actually the same species of dragonfly (they’re butterfly dragonflies), but depending on the angle you look at them from, the color of their wings changes. You can only see those colors from that angle, and you can only get the wings completely in focus from that angle, so the composition is perfectly appropriate for displaying those colors.

Well, they aren’t completely in focus. They are a little blurry along their edges. But, how do you fix that? With what’s called focus stacking or focus bracketing. Since this post is already too long as it is, I’ll cover focus stacking in my next post.

Meeting the Mudskippers

Meeting the Mudskippers

Now that the breeding season has begun for the mudskippers, I decided to go try taking pictures of them yesterday morning. Timing for taking pictures of mudskippers is a bit difficult because you can’t see them until low tide. The breeding season hadn’t started until about a week ago, and low-tide hasn’t been at a good time until yesterday morning, so I had been waiting patiently.

But, yesterday was the day. I woke up extra early, strapped in, and rode off to the Ariake Sea and visited the mudskippers just as they were coming out of their under-mud burrows.

This was my first time coming to this area of the Ariake Sea. Like I wrote before, I’ve been to the neighboring dock. I was excited to finally be able to go to that bridge and take pictures, but I was surprised by one thing: the bridge was covered in mud. Because of that, it’s quite slippery. You practically have to waddle like a penguin to avoid taking a dive in with the skippers.

Another thing I didn’t know about was what the mudskippers were going to be like early in the morning. At 5:30, when low-tide was at 4:54, there were only a few mudskippers outside their burrows, all of them the younger ones. I think they were probably feeling a bit stiff, because none of them were jumping around. However, I did find some that were digging their burrows out of the mud. You can tell where there is some fresh digging going on because there are holes with darker mud, in the shape of pills, scattered around the edge of the hole.

As the sun rose over the horizon, I realized that I needed some face protection, so I went back to my bike to get a towel. On the way back, I noticed the crabs in the area scurrying back into their burrows when I walked by. I decided to wait for them to come back out and watch what they did. All of the young crabs would raise and lower their claws, like they were powering up or in a Baptist church, lifting their appendages up to their crabby god. I haven’t done any research on them, so I’m not sure why they do that. I’ve been told it’s to show off how strong they are, but I can’t confirm.

After finishing my short visit with the crabs, I went back to find a few of the adult mudskippers starting to wake up, but they weren’t ready to perform just yet. So, I enjoyed hanging out with the young early-birds.

However, I did get a few glimpses of the adult males giving their performances. It was tought to catch them in the act because they would only just a couple of times and then stop, often going back into their burrows.

One challenge of taking pictures of mudskippers jumping around is making sure the shutter speed is fast enough. The picture above is a bit blurry, even though my shutter was at 1/800. I was expecting that to be high enough, but clearly it wasn’t. In this case, I have a few options to increase my shutter speed: open my aperture some more, or increase my ISO. Opening the aperture is okay, but then the mudskippers might skip out of the plane-of-focus before I take the shot, so usually I like to stop down a bit to give myself some breathing room. In this case, I should have bumped my ISO from 200 to 400 or 800, but I thought 1/800 would be enough so I didn’t really think about it. I’ll have to remember that early morning, to get high shutter speed shots, I need to increase my ISO.

However, I did get one good shot of a skipper doing some skipping. One of the benefits I got from waking up in the morning was getting to use Golden Hour’s light. Also no problems with shutter speed since I was shooting into a bright reflection.

Looks like a scene straight out of a shojo mudskipper manga. Keep skipping, big guy.

After my short photo-session, I rode my bike to work. Unfortunately, Mr. Google sent me up a mountain, so my legs are killing me today. I’m resting today so I can have a longer session tomorrow morning. I’ll need to bring some water to wash down my shoes.