Tag Archives: Photography

April was a good month

Spring came in a hurry. It always seems to and yet it still takes me by surprise. Each year I swear that April is my favourite month as I feel inspired to get up early and get out to photograph somewhere. During the winter, my early morning outings are limited to Sundays as I need to be home early on other days. Monday to Friday my kids need to go to school and I go to work early some days, and Saturdays I also have to leave for work early. But in April the sun rises early enough that I have time to get out and do some shooting.

My first trip was out to part of the Tsuki River just before the Ranzan Gorge, which I have visited a few times before. First, I stopped on some countryside road to shoot some misty fields when I stumbled upon a large old tree spreading out majestically.

tree

Then I moved on to the river and checked out the Toyama Pothole before exploring the gorge a little from the entrance end.

pothole

Soon it was time for the cherry blossoms, and I went to a favourite old location, the burial mounds at Sakitama in Gyoda.

blossomsmound

As I am working on completing a new book called, Waterside, I wanted to visit a few more waterside locations and decided to visit Onuma, a crater lake on Akagisan, a volcanic mountain less than two hour’s drive north of where I live. I went out early to get there before the sunrise but I didn’t anticipate the -5 degrees temperature or the blasting icy wind. I wasn’t dressed for it, so I stuffed my spring jacket with a cloth shopping bag from the car for extra insulation.

Akagi 08

Akagi 12

My last outing was another early morning start, this time to Ryogamisan, a mountain in Saitama and again less than two hours way by car. I hiked up the trail to photograph the stream where it flows over some exposed chert beds. I’ve climbed the mountain twice before and each time wanted more time to photograph the rocks and the stream.

Ryogami 14

Ryogami 15

I have one more location to hit for my book project. But there will likely be a second one to add. Early this month, I was asked to go to Daisetsusan in Hokkaido for another episode of Journeys in Japan. I am sure to get some waterside photos up there.

One final bit of good news, my book Little Inaka was reviewed briefly in Fuukei Shashin – 風景写真, a Japanese landscape photography magazine.

The Climber Within

When I was 12 years old, I went to a week-long summer camp event – five days and one weekend overnight. On the first day I caught sight of a beautiful blonde girl about my age or a year older. Throughout the week, any chance I got I tried to get near her to interact with her. On the last day she sat in front of me on the bus and I managed to spark up an animated conversation with her. Her stop was one stop before mine and mine was the last stop. As we neared her stop I tried to sum up the courage to ask for her phone number. But I did not. And she disembarked and summarily went out of my life.

Twenty-nine years later I doubt that getting her phone number would have made any big difference in my life now. But from that experience I learned (in retrospect years later) that when the time is now you have to act. Otherwise you watch the pretty blonde walk away and out of your life.

Grass and shadows at Yunoko

February 11, 2012. My 41st birthday. My wife has begrudgingly agreed to let me out of the house, even though I say that if it were not a national holiday I would be at work until late anyway. There’s no climbing mountains or photographing landscapes when out with the family, only shooting pictures of the kids. Last year I went out only twice and this year I’d like visit the mountains at least three times. My wife complains that I am free while she is stuck minding the children. But I don’t feel free knowing there is great pressure for me to make the most out of this single day. The question that has nagged me since I realized I would get a three-day weekend was whether this should be a photography outing with the possibility of a climb or a climbing outing with some photography. Last year’s trips to Tateshinayama and Ryogamisan produced few usable images because I was on the move most of the time. My submissions to Yama-to-Keikoku calendars have produced no published winners in the last three years and I have run out of “fresh” material to submit. And I gave my stock agency all my work from 2008 to 2011 that they had not yet received. In short, I have next to nothing in fresh material, and a hike to the summit means making fewer photographs, therefore, I should choose the spend time photographing over climbing in order to have photographs to submit. That’s the logic, anyway.

My target terrain is the area known as Oku Nikko. Beyond Chuzenjiko (Lake Chuzenji) and between the mountains of Nantaisan and Nikko Shiranesan lies the wetland of Senjogahara and the steaming hot spring-fed lake of Yunoko. This was where I have decided to spend my day, keeping the possibility of climbing Nantaisan seriously up front. I left home at 3:30 and arrived at Senjogahara well before sunrise. The weather report said temperatures would be between -9 and -5 degrees in Nikko, but I am quite a bit above the city, at over 1,300 metres. The air is pretty chill and even with a few layers of clothing on and a woollen hat covered by a hood I feel the cold. I set up my 4×5 camera on the viewing deck and use a bench as a Stairmaster to keep myself warm inside while waiting for sunrise. When the light does appear, it is to either side of my composition. It seems the sun is rising behind Nantaisan which looms behind me. I manage a few shots in 35mm and one composition in 4×5 before packing it in. Now what? Climb Nantaisan or head over to Yunoko?

Winter beauty at Yunoko

It is not yet 8 A.M. and so I drive to Yunoko. In the background, a white mountaintop draws my attention. I feel the compulsion to get up there! Imagine the photographs to be captured with snowbound trees in the foreground and the rockier parts of the mountain coated in thick white. I approach the ski run with snowshoes in hand. Is there a way to go up the mountain from the ski run? A sign says that there is, but I imagine the slow climb in the snow and the time it will take and figure that I would be better off trying to shoot more photographs. Instead I decide to walk around Yunoko and shoot the sunlight in the steam coming off the lake. But the route around the lake is closed due to heavy snow.

I return to Senjogahara and seek out a good viewpoint of the mountains east and southeast. The snowshoes come on and I follow a cross country trail to a promising spot where I then leave the trail and began pushing deep holes into the soft snow.

Senjogahara with the trunk of Nantaisan on the right

I struggle with the scenery. It is beautiful but not coming together for me in the viewfinder. It’s hard work getting the right composition in 4×5. I tramp about in the snow, scouting for a better foreground, at last returning to the trail. Somewhere there is a great scene here but I can’t find it. By now it is nearing noon. I had said that if I were to attempt Nantaisan I would start at 10:00 o’clock at the latest. It is already too late and I am still not feeling that I have found that special place where I can easily lose myself and emerge with a heap of satisfactorily exposed film. At last I stomp down a depression in the snow just of the trail and shoot Nantaisan as seen from between two white birch trees.

Wind blowing through trees at Yunoko

Not sure what they were doing but they were carrying what looked like oxygen tanks and making holes in the ice

From Lake Chuzenji, Nantaisan looks like a neat conical heap of a mountain. It doesn’t look very high because the lake is at about half the elevation of the mountain. Simply, the mountain fails to inspire me to climb it. However, from this other view at Senjogahara, I can see how the volcanic crater had burst apart with a stream of lava on one side. From this view the mountain looks exciting. I am starting to feel a strong urge to get up on Nantaisan; the long arm of one side of the broken crater looks totally accessible. By now I have also learned to distinguish which peak is the summit of Oku Shiranesan. This mountain too, of which I knew nothing prior to coming, is looking very attractive in its mantle of white. But a winter mountain is not something one climbs as a quick jaunt up and down. It’s a project that takes hours. It takes three times longer to climb a route in winter than it does in summer. That much I know is sensible calculating. I am not going to get up very far on Shiranesan, and Nantaisan was said to be a short but gruelling climb. I have to remind myself that this is a photography outing by my own choosing and that climbing will have to wait for another day.

Ice at Ryuzu Falls

I go to visit Ryuzu Falls and shoot ice formations on the rocks. It is engaging photography and I experiment with multiple exposures while turning the focusing ring. Sunlight glittering off the ice formations becomes constellations of light in my viewfinder. But it is while running up the steps to the next terrace of the falls that it occurs to me that I am getting exercise for the first time today. As my heart pumps I feel the joy of physical exercise. I don’t like exercising for the purpose of exercising but getting a workout while climbing is a pleasure. Again I look back to Nantaisan.

Ice at Chuzenjiko

The last hour of my visit is spent around Lake Chuzenji just driving and exploring and looking back at the mountains. The wind here is viciously Hibernian. Water from the lake is freezing on the dock pilings. I look at the two mountains and consider how it would be to climb one on one day and the other the next day over a weekend. If I were a single man without a family I could come back the next week or later in the month. But these two mountains will have to wait longer for me.

Shiranesan from Chuzenjiko

Once down from the spaghetti noodle road of Irohazaka, I catch glimpses of Nantaisan in my mirror. Whenever I completed a hike in the past, I would always look back at the mountain whose summit I had just visited as much as possible while walking or driving away. But there is no sense of accomplishment when I looked at Nantaisan. I had not been to the summit and I was unable to content myself by thinking that I had chosen to make this a photo outing. I wonder what views I might have captured from the summit of Nantai. This was more than just photography. I needed to feel I had at least attempted to climb a mountain. But why was that so important? Twenty years ago it was all about getting the photographs. In the last few years, however, it has become more about reaching the top. The mountain is a challenge to climb. It does not care one way or another about who climbs it. But for someone like me, a mountain – a least one of these minor league proportions – offers me a chance to challenge myself, to climb over my own internal mountains. To reach the summit means that I have beaten any voices inside me that whined about physical strain, exerted muscles, a heavy pack, or cold wind. Life is not a beach. It is a mountain. And every time I reach a summit I feel satisfaction with myself. “I did it again!”

But I didn’t do it this time and more than ever I feel I have to get back to Nantaisan and Shiranesan. And so it has me thinking – though I have always maintained that I don’t need to climb all 100 Hyakumeizan, there’s nothing wrong with trying to climb more. Climbing them gives me an opportunity to visit mountains outside of the Alps upon which I focused nearly all my photographic efforts in the last few years. I have climbed 31 of the 100 by now. Could I reach 50 by the age of 50? That would mean 2 or 3 mountains a year over the next 9 years. Totally possible. I could make a list and begin planning. I could still expect to get lots of photographs. Hmm… The big question is what would the wife think? And is it fair for me to think of solely my own personal ambitions while she stays home minding the often difficult-to-handle children? At least with photography I can say I am working. But then again, the money earned from photography has until now gone towards paying for photography. Could I possibly get some good stories to write about as a climber? I sure think so.

It seems that somehow over the recent years, I have grown beyond just hiking and photographing. Now I really need to get up mountains. I can’t look at an attractive mountain without thinking how I would get to the summit. Somehow a climber has grown within. I don’t need to play in the big leagues. Even the little league summits can help me enjoy life more.

Nantaisan from Chuzenjiko

A Visit to the Stock Agency

Wednesday morning I went to Ginza to bring photographs to my stock agency. I hadn’t been there since January 2007. My visit was long overdue, I reckoned. How I came to work with that particular stock agency and the details about stock photography are worth a post of their own, however, today I want to write about the three topics I discussed with the staff and my observations and opinions about those topics.

The photographs I brought down were only a selection of my 35mm slides captured over the duration of 2008 and 2009. I have not yet organized my medium and large format transparencies. On the top of the stack of slide sheets, held in a very full binder, were my photographs from New Zealand. The foreign landscapes drew immediate interest from the two women staff members and they called over a male colleague whom I had never met before. There was much buzz about the images and comments were made such as, “The air is so clear, the atmosphere so alive,” and, “There are very positive feelings in these images.” To which I mentioned that my wife and I were married in New Zealand and the photos were captured during our honeymoon.

“That’s it! Your photographs exude happiness and love,” said one of the female staff, beaming at me. “Yes, look at this series here – there is a very positive outlook toward a bright new future,” the other woman chimed in.

“I guess it’s like the beginning of a new and happy life,” I ventured. A chorus of agreement came from all three staff. The man added that my photographs contrasted greatly with the photographs of a much older photographer whose work they received. His work was dark and moody, expressing finality and demise, the opposite of what they were seeing in my work.

“You shoot with the same film and maybe even the same camera, but as a foreigner there is a noticeable difference in the images you produce,” I was told.

I agreed that I had noticed a difference in styles between people of different nationalities (I have actually written a 1,600-word essay on the topic of how cultural differences show in landscape and nature photography, and it has been rejected by two western magazines so far), but what interested me more were the comments about the mood and emotion expressed in my photographs. As I mentioned to the staff, New Zealand has cleaner air being in the Southern Hemisphere due to there being less continental land mass to contribute dust, volcanic ash, and pollution from fires or human industry, and that New Zealand’s much smaller population means there is more space for natural and rural landscapes. They claimed, however, that even though New Zealand was naturally so well endowed, my photographs had a distinct stamp on them.

It is not the first time that Japanese people have commented on the emotional expression of my photography. One person I had never met once left a comment for me saying that from my photographs she could tell I was a sincere and caring person. All the years I spent interacting with the camera clubs of the Greater Vancouver Area back home in Canada, or during the five dozen or so slide presentations I gave to camera clubs, outdoor clubs, nature clubs, and at libraries in the same area, no one ever mentioned the emotional content of my photographs as a reflection of myself. I wasn’t even aware that there was any emotional content. People would ask about the technical aspects (what film, what filters, what time of day, what location, etc.) or comment on the quality of the light or any peculiar features in the subject, or say how a particular image made them feel. My own approach to photography is simply to seek out things I find interesting or beautiful and record them on film as well as I can, and when the occasion presents itself, capture beautiful moments in natural light as well. When I was first ever asked if I had made some conscious effort connect a spherical rock with the moon or the earth and if I had had cosmic visions while making the photograph, I felt it rather anticlimactic to respond with, “No, I just thought the rock looked very nice.”

The way many Japanese people have responded to my exhibited or published work has sometimes left me feeling as though I am still standing in shallow water, unable to see the depths of my own soul that apparently comes out in my photography at times.

After everyone had calmed down about New Zealand, the man returned to his work and the two women continued to pour over my slides, the rest being all Japanese landscapes, mostly from the three ranges of the Japan Alps. I inquired about the number of people shooting digital and the demand for digital photography. I was told that some photographers they represented used digital exclusively, some used both film and digital, and many others continued to strictly adhere to film use. There is still an appreciably large demand for film images from photo editors in Japan, they said.

I expressed my concerns about purchasing a digital camera: the cost being very high for a top-notch model which would be rendered obsolete in a few years. One of the two women included the cost of a personal computer as part of the cost of digital photographer, and I brought up other associated costs as well, which I mention in the post preceding this one. I told them that I would hesitate to pay 400,000 yen for a top-of-the-line model when I could still make great photos with a less expensive model. But how would it look in a photo credit to see that my photograph was captured with an 80,000 yen camera? What would people think? “Oh, he’s only using a Canon Kiss (for example) so he must be just an amateur. A real pro uses a Canon 5D II,” or whatever is in the hands of the real pros these days.

I was told that the most important thing for art directors and photo editors was file size. They don’t care what camera was used. The question always asked is, “How big is the file?” Expensive cameras come with many bells and whistles, most of which I would never use. I was told that I didn’t need to splash out for the fully loaded model. As the most important thing is file size, a cheaper camera that can shoot around 12 mega pixels is fine. If I put the same care into capturing digital images as I do with film images then the work should speak for itself, I was told. Though I am not in a position to buy a digital SLR yet, it’s nice to feel that I don’t have to eyeball the cameras that cost as much as a five-year-old used car.

Having brought only 35mm photographs, I had to ask about another issue that has been on my mind a lot recently, so much so in fact that I am working on an article in Japanese for submission on the topic. I mentioned that in Japan there is a great preference for medium or large format photography over 35mm photography. One of the woman responded by saying that for photo editors in Japan, the final presentation of the published images is of paramount importance. The focused areas in an enlarged photo should appear tack sharp. For that purpose, medium format (typically 645, 6×7 format, or panorama formats) or large format (usually 4×5 inch) are preferred. Harkening back to the discussion about large digital file sizes, I could see how size mattered.

I mentioned how for many western photographers, what mattered was capturing the moment. Many pros, particularly those who had to travel on foot up mountains, made their careers using only 35mm in the days before digital. Galen Rowell is an excellent example of a guy who always believed it was better to travel as light as possible and even forwent a tripod at times, using other tricks to ensure sharp images. He felt it was better to travel lightly and swiftly and not miss the moment as opposed to weighing oneself down with a heavy pack of camera gear and missing out on shots.

I told them about my dilemma with carrying a pack full of cameras and gear. In the days when I traveled with only a 35mm body and two or three lenses, I shot so many images. The camera was quick and easy to use, and the zoom lenses gave me a broad range of focal lengths from which to choose. I rose an hour or less before sunrise and reached my sunrise photo shoot location, often scouted the day before, and as the light of daybreak progressed, I was busy swinging the camera round on the ball head capturing shot after shot. When the show was over I could pack up quickly and move on down the trail to the next location.

Now with three camera bodies – 35mm, 645, and 4×5 – and a selection of lenses, I struggle up the mountainsides and try to reach camp and set up before sunset so I can get over to a good viewpoint to shoot the evening light. In the morning I sometimes wake up two hours before sunrise and climb to a vantage point in the dark. I have to study the possibilities before the sun comes up and make a plan for equipment use, and arrange my gear on the ground accordingly so it is easy to grab. I find I am shooting fewer images and spending more time handling my gear. I also have missed some superb moments because I was either struggling up through the forest with a heavy pack, resting longer than I had budgeted for due to the fatigue of carrying such a heavy pack, or because the time it took to prepare the larger cameras for the shot was longer than the duration of the light I had hoped to capture.

With a mountain trip coming up this weekend, I have been deliberating which cameras to bring. The 35mm only would liberate me to shoot fast, easily, and plenty but would not bring me any larger images to slide under the noses of the Japanese photo editors. Adding the 645 would mean having a camera nearly as fast and with three fixed lenses, but also it would add weight. Or should I go with the 6×7 to get larger slides but with fewer options with only two lenses and a shallower depth of field? Or should I stop being a wimp and encumber myself with the 4×5? In my alpine weekly calendar there have recently been two very good examples of reasons to shoot with a 4×5 camera over smaller formats. But what if I bring it like always and end up exposing only a few sheets of film, like on my last few outings? Is it worth it to haul that much weight around?

The two women at the stock agency told me that the 645 should be just fine and I didn’t need to concern myself with how even bigger transparencies would possibly mean more sales for me.

When those discussions were over, it was time to finish up my visit and head to work, and on the train back to Saitama I was turning the days discussions over in my mind.

The Waiting is Over

Now the cycle begins again

Last Thursday I stopped in at a book store and found a camera magazine that I had been waiting for on the shelf, the February issue of Nihon Kamera (日本カメラ). In it were eight pages of my New Zealand landscape photographs. They looked great. I knew the photos would be in an upcoming issue but I didn’t know when exactly. I had submitted them back in June of 2009, and in November I had called the magazine to ask if anything was happening with my photos. They told me at the time that they liked the photos but hadn’t made any decision yet. They would contact me before the year was over.

It was just days before I left for my two-week winter holidays that I received a call and a PFD file by email explaining what photos they would use and what information they needed. I stayed up until 2 in the morning that night preparing all the captions and explanations in Japanese, and emailed the info to them the next day.

Then I heard nothing from them.

But at last, the magazine was published and I can see my photos in print again. I am especially pleased because six of the eight photographs were taken in 4×5 format. That is, I took the photos with one of those old style type cameras (though mine is new) with the bellows and the cloth you need to stand under in order to view the scene and focus it.

Now, before this recent excitement dies down, I find myself already thinking about the next submissions. I have two that are nearly ready and some that need time to be prepared. It takes many weeks to select the images to go with the idea, and to write out the idea and check it over a few times if it’s in English, or to study and prepare the text in Japanese and then ask someone to check it over for me. Photo and article submissions to magazines don’t get prepared quickly, and the time to wait for a response can be anywhere from a few days to over a year. The norm is several months. However, since I now support my family with my teaching job, I have to earn money from writing and photography in order to continue photographing. This has forced me to stop being lazy, to keep brainstorming new ideas and getting submissions in the pipeline, thus the increase in success I have had since my wife stopped working to be a full-time mother.

I also have my stock agency from which I can earn money through the publication of my photographs, but I don’t make much from them and I haven’t sent them any new material for two years now. So one of my big projects is to complete a selection of photographs from 2008/09 to bring down to them, as well as to start preparing this year’s articles and portfolios.

Hard Lessons Learned – Don’t Wimp Out!

Imagine being a mountain photographer and being up in the mountains during three days of optimal weather. Imagine having two mornings and two evenings of excellent lighting conditions and during those times having two spectacular evening light opportunities. Imagine it’s the best trip for light that you have been on all year.

Now imagine that during each spectacular moment you were in the wrong place to get the shots.

I chose Senjodake in the South Alps for my last hike of 2009. I had not yet photographed the South Alps in winter and as I had seen photos from Senjo I decided that I would go there. In summer the buses drive up to Kitazawa Pass and deposit hikers within a thousand metres of the 3,033 metre-high summit. In winter, however, one must start in the Todai Valley far below and hike some six hours up to the pass before beginning the climb to the summit.

I left Saitama early in the morning hoping to reach the parking lot at the trailhead by 10 o’clock. To save money I drove the local highways instead of taking the expressways. This turned out to be a bad decision. I arrived much later than expected and it wasn’t until 12:30 before I set out up the valley. With sunset at around 4:30 I knew I was going to arrive well after dark.

It had been snowing that night and morning and had stopped not long before I arrived. There was fresh snow on the cliffs and trees only a hundred metres up the mountainsides and clouds were only just clearing away from the peaks of Kai Komagatake and Nokogiridake. The Todai Valley is not a glacial valley but with the steep cliffs on either side, and a morass of rocks and boulders spread out very wide while the river braids itself past sand bars and driftwood. It looks a lot like the valley below the toe of the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

The path up the valley is not all that easy to follow. Pink ribbons mark the way which follows the left side of the valley up to the dam; however, I found pink ribbons in the trees on the right side and a path that had been used recently but not often. I followed this path a first but soon found myself trying to cross the river streams in various places in order to get over to the left side. Once on the correct path it became easier to see where to go. I stopped for one extended break when I couldn’t resist trying to photograph the clearing clouds over Kai Koma with the snow-covered boulders of the valley in the foreground.

In the Todai Valley

It took almost three hours of hiking time to reach the part of the trail that begins climbing up the mountainside. Though there are a few hard switchback parts, the trail was easier than almost any hike I had ever done in Japan. In spite of this, I began getting tired as the afternoon wore on. Maybe it was because I had slept only three hours before the eight-hour drive, or maybe because I was carrying a heavier-than-usual pack with the extra winter clothes inside, but I began losing my inspiration for reaching the top partway up.

As I climbed up through the trees, one of the most gorgeous displays of evening light began taking place. A small cloud stuck on the rocky summit of Nokogiri was catching the orange glow of sunset, as were the rocky crags and cliffs. Fresh snow clung to the rock ledges and reflected the light was well. Below the cloud was a purplish shadow. The colour and light were fantastic. I had only once ever seen such a gorgeous alpine glow display when I was in Chile a few years ago. Now it was happening again and I could not get a clear shot of the mountain. I considered a photograph with the tree silhouettes in the foreground and the alpine glow shining through, but no break in the trees that was sufficient enough came. At last I had to tell myself that I would have my chance the next day.

The moon began to illuminate the woods as the path climbed and climbed. I was getting hungry and tired, and my flashlight battery was getting weaker. I needed to stop and rest but I was wet with sweat under my jacket and I knew stopping now would get me a chill. I wanted to reach the lodge soon because from there it would be a short walk to the campsite. When I at last saw the roof of a building I was ready to throw down my pack and set up for the night. But it was not the lodge I was looking for. The time being already 6:30 I decided that I’d had enough and since there was room to set up a tent I would do so.

The tent put up a fight. It was not easy getting the poles though the fabric of the sheaths because there were less flexible in the cold air (it was around minus 8 degrees Celsius). At last I got set up and could climb inside for dinner, a change into dry clothes, and hopefully a good night’s rest. I set my alarm for five in the morning; however, come morning, I was still way too sleepy and burned out. I cancelled the wake-up call and continued trying to sleep even past sunrise.

When I finally got moving it was past 9:30! Very late indeed. I had checked the guidebook the night before and discovered that I was only 15 minutes away from the lodge and about 30 minutes or less from the campsite. I had made it that close and given up! Now, when I should already have been on my way up the mountain, I had to pack up and move camp, and then get started climbing.

It was not far to the lodge as the guidebook had promised and from there I went to find the campsite but stopped when I reached the sign for Sensui Pass. I went back up to the lodge and asked a guy working there about the campsite. Apparently I had found the path in by the sign. Then I asked about going up Senjodake. I was told that with the new snow there was no way I would get up there today as it would take over six hours likely. If I could leave very soon I might make it to Kosenjo, a shoulder on the mountainside that was just above the tree-line. I recalled it from a few years ago – there was a good view of Kai Koma from up there.

I realized that I was already possibly too late getting started and might have to give up my plans of photographing at sunset. But I had to try. I found my way to the tent site easily and took my time to get set up properly and pack my things for the climb. Knowing I would get back after dark I packed my stove and some food. I wasn’t going to come back to camp tired and starved like before. Once everything was ready and I had made a visit to the toilet at the lodge by the campsite, it was already noon. I put on my hat and felt something nudge my leg. My tent had moved with a strong gust of wind. There were a few other tents around and I saw that they were secured with sticks stuck in the snow. I went to the trees and looked around for some good sticks to jam into the snow and tie my tent to. At last, at half past noon, my tent looked safe and I was ready to hit the trail.

My tent, the blue one, at the campsite with Senjodake in the background

I knew it was almost crazy to leave at this time and as I went up I met several people coming down. After the third minor shoulder I met a younger guy coming down at high speed and he asked me where I was going. I told him I wanted to get above the tree-line and asked how long it might take. He said it should be another two hours. Two hours? It was already just past two o’clock by this time. If he was right I wouldn’t have much time to get ready for sunset. And then what about the hike back down? How late would I be back this time?

Kitadake from between the trees on the route up to Kosenjo and Senjodake

I decided to press on until 3 but I was losing enthusiasm again. I was not climbing up with purpose. I kept stopping and looking at each pink ribbon ahead of me. Each time the sun shone through the trees I hoped I was getting closer but each time I went up it was to just another minor shoulder. My snowshoes worked well where the path was wide enough or not so steep but in some places it was clear that crampons would have been ideal. I began to lament my laziness in the morning, my poor planning, and my lack of appropriate equipment.

At the fifth shoulder I could see Kosenjo above. There was no that much climbing left but still about 40 minutes to an hour. It was just approaching 3 PM and I had lost heart. The wind up there looked fierce and icy. I had extra clothes along. Should I put them on now? And what about the long walk back? Should I eat now? But then would I make it up there in time for sunset? If I ate before heading back then how late would I return to camp? I weighed all possibilities with a half-beaten heart and concluded that I should just head back down. I would stop at the fourth shoulder and eat something and then go back. This time was just a learning experience and next time I would know exactly what to expect and what to do.

At the fourth station I tried melting snow in my pot, which didn’t take too long, but it took much longer to get it to boil than I thought. I put on an extra shirt, wandered around, went up the trail and down a little twice, and still the water didn’t boil. It was a half hour later that finally I could poor hot water into my thermos and cup noodles. Once I had finished eating and packing it was already 4:10. I might as well have tried to climb up anyway! The frustration of having wasted so much time gave me a charge of energy. It was too late to turn and go back up again but I could go down quickly.

Around the third shoulder there was a decent view of Kitadake with alpine glow on it. I took out my cameras and managed to shoot the scene through the trees about 90% unobstructed. Now I was feeling fine. The distraction of photography had me in full form. Too bad I was heading back.

Down the trail I went as Kai Komagatake glowed orange and the moon rose into the sky. When twilight had turned the sky purple and the rocky peaks were still lit with the last of the fading light in the western sky, the moon hung over Kai Koma and Asayomine. It was another perfect scene which I could only appreciate through the trees. How I should have gone up anyway! I thought all the rest of the way down about how I could have managed to do this trip better so that I wouldn’t have missed the two best light shows I had seen this year in the mountains. Before I felt I had gone on long, I saw the lights of the lodge below.

I strolled into camp at 5:30. It had been one quick descent. I bought a Coke from the lodge, got water from the icy stream beside the tent site and prepared the second half of my dinner. While eating I attempted a 20-minute exposure of the tent site with Senjo in the background. At 7 three more hikers came in. The camp site was getting crowded now with about 20 tents. How many people were going to stay up here for the New Year’s Day sunrise?

My last card to play was a morning shot of Senjo from Sensui Pass. I set my alarm for 4:30 but during the night the battery in my cell phone died and left me without an alarm. I woke up when I heard other voices and slowly got myself out of the sleeping bag. I couldn’t dawdle too much, I knew. It was already 5:20. I heated water and ate, prepared my things, and dressed warmly with chemical pack heating pads in my shirt and socks. At 6:30 I was on the trail. By 7:00 the sun cast a weak orange light on Senjo, which I saw through the trees again. There was a thin veil of clouds in the sky.

At Sensui Pass the wind was howling. Grey clouds were over Senjo, but light was still on the peak. I chose a spot in some rocks and set up my 4×5. I had it all set up and was ready to shoot when I considered using an ND grad filter. I checked the exposure with the filter but decided that without would be better. At that moment the sunlight faded from the summit of Senjo. I had just missed the shot. Quickly, I rechecked the exposure and shot one sheet of film with sunlight on the trees in the valley below. Then that was the end of the sunlight for me. I had not only missed the morning light but by only seconds I had missed the second best shot. And I had been ready too. But I wanted to take my time to do everything right and as a result I missed my shot. Well, by now I could hardly be angry. This whole trip had been about missing photo opportunities because of bad timing or bad decisions.

Back at camp I took a few shots of the snow-covered rocks by the stream and then packed up to go down. Heading down the mountainside was fast but the long walk through the river valley took as much time going down as it had going up. I stopped once, inspired to shoot by the snow-coated boulders, the bare trees, and the moody grey sky building over Kai Koma, but after I had taken the time to dig out my 4×5 and had everything set up I noticed only then that there were five pink ribbons in my photo. I looked around for another photo op but by then I was rather fed up with wasting time, and so I just packed up and made every effort to reach the car without further delay.

I have to admit though that on my way back I found many interesting scenes with rocks, cliffs, and water and I came to recognize the charm of the Todai Valley. Perhaps I will go again someday just to photograph around the wide rocky riverbed. But I will also attempt Senjo in winter again, and this time I will be better equipped mentally to carry out my plan.

Looking at the snowy mountain scenes in the calendar my wife gave me, I feel I didn’t try hard enough this time. I should have continued the last 30 minutes to camp. I should have started up Senjo earlier and I shouldn’t have given up even though it was getting late. I missed out on the best shots because I didn’t set myself up right for getting them. Now I am looking to Shiomidake in March and I know I must not allow myself to slack off. I believe you get out of something what you put into it, and if I don’t try hard when it’s necessary I won’t bring back the goods.

The stream near the campsite

Inspirations

Last week I got a call from Nihon Kamera. Since June, they’d been holding a submission I sent of landscape photos from New Zealand’s South Island. At last the verdict was in and they are going to run eight photographs over eight pages in an upcoming issue. When I checked the PFD file they sent, showing me which photos had been selected so I would know what captions to provide, I saw that six of the eight photographs were shot in 4×5, and the other two were shot in 645 format and 35mm format. I was very pleased and excited that so many of my 4×5 photographs would see publication; however, it wondered about the two dozen 35mm slides I had included in the submission. Why was only one 35mm photograph selected? Were the 4x5s just that much more eye-catching, or was it a question of quality (sharper images)?

Looking at the 4×5 photographs that were selected I can say that they represent the best of my large format images from my last trip to New Zealand, but also that there were not so many successful images out of the batch. Furthermore, I noticed that my 4×5 landscape photos from New Zealand do not resemble the style of large format Kiwi photographer, Scott Freeman, whose book New Zealand Photographs is one of my favourite photo art books. Because Freeman shoots many scenes of rocks and geologically related subjects, I really enjoy his work and it inspires me to go out and shoot similar scenes in Japan. But my New Zealand large format landscape images are quite different in spite of our common interest.

Shooting in 4×5 is not easy, as I wrote about at length a few months back. However, I still find it really fun to shoot with the technical view camera and rewarding when the images turn out successfully. One of my favourite contemporary 4×5 photographers is not world famous though his work has been published in Hungary, as well as North America. Adam Gibbs is a British-born photographer who has been living in Canada for at least a couple of decades now. During my stay in Canada between December 2004 and March 2006, I had the opportunity twice to meet with Adam and swap favourite photo books. His web site is linked from this blog, and just the other day I took a casual stroll through some of his galleries, once again marvelling at how skilfully he captures mountains scenes, canyons, forest floor detail, sea shores, and so on, with his view camera. Between Adam’s web site and Scott Freeman’s book, I was well charged with inspiration, but to add to it was a book I found at the library called “日本列島の20億年” (“Nihon Rettou no 20 Okunen – The 2 Billion Years of the Japan Archipelago”). Large format colour photographs capture scenes from around Japan and text describes what is in each image from a geology perspective. There are volcanoes and uplifted mountain ranges, glacial valleys and sea cliffs, tuff strata and lava flows. The book has me all fired up to start shooting more geology-based subjects as I used to do long ago before I became obsessed with the Japan Alps.

Then on the train the other day, I was reading an interview with a Japanese photographer who has made his name and fortune shooting in Canada and Europe. He is only four years older than me but he already has ten books published, three or four in the last two or three years. This at a time when publishers are saying that the photo book market is suffering terribly! One comment that photographer made was that you should photograph what you love and he loves to show places where people live, especially where people live close to nature, and he cites Prince Edward Island as one of his favourite places for that kind of photography.

I sure wish it were me who had so many photo books published. But I do recognize that his favourite subjects are much more accessible to the public in general than mountains and rocks. Many more people can imagine traveling to a European town or to P.E.I than those who want to climb a mountain or study rocks in the bottom of a canyon. His words come to me, though, just at the time when I have decided to work not only on shooting mountain scenes but also to seek out and photograph interesting rock formations and land forms in Japan. It might be harder for me to find success like that but I will be shooting what I love and that is one very good reason to look forward to future outings.

The third and final source of inspiration came from a small book of photographs by Makoto Saito, a photography instructor in Tokyo and writer for Gakujin magazine and editor for the members’ magazine of the Society of Scientific Photography. His book, “山のふしぎ” (“Yama no Fushigi – Mysteries of the Mountains”), is a collection of various photos taken in mountain areas all around Japan. The subjects are extremely diverse: mountain peaks, clouds over ranges, small nature close-ups, people adventuring in the mountains, medium scale mountain nature scenes, waterfalls, and so on. His work is in some ways very similar to mine and yet in some ways a level above mine – almost attainable if I work on it a little harder.

I would love to capture some of the scenes in that book but I have to get to those places first. And then I would love to have a book of my best images published but I need to get recognized by publishers as a worthy investment first. I guess it will take some time and a lot more effort. Thanks to the sources of inspiration I mentioned above, I am very excited about what I might be able to do in the coming year.

And for starters, I can look forward to my next published work in Nihon Kamera magazine.

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve, Ahuriri Valley, South Island, New Zealand.

One Page in Outdoor Japan

The September/October issue of Outdoor Japan magazine has hits the stores and on page 38 you can see my photos from Beppu in Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu.

Also, if you have the YamatoKeikoku “Splendor of World Mountains” (山と渓谷社 「美しき世界野山」) 2009 calendar you can see my photo from the Canadian Rockies this month.